The Persian war was exhausting, but successful: on the northern frontier, however, the Roman army had been faring far worse, and serious losses of territory were beginning to take place. The enemies in this quarter were two new tribes, who appeared on the Danube after the Lombards had departed from it to commence their invasion of Italy. There were now no Teutons left on the northern frontier of the empire: of the incoming tribes, one was Tartar arid the other Slavonic.
The Avars were a nomadic race from Asia, wild horsemen of the Steppes, much like their predecessors the Huns. They had fled west to escape the Turks, who were at this time building up an empire in Central Asia, and betook themselves to the South Russian plains, not far from the mouth of the Danube. To cross the river and ravage Moesia was too tempting a prospect to be neglected, and ere long the Avaric cavalry were seen only too frequently along the Balkans and on the coast of the Black Sea. Their first raid into Roman territory fell into the year 562, just before the death of Justinian, and from that time forward they were always causing trouble. They were ready enough to make peace when money was paid them, but as they invariably broke the agreement when the money was spent, it was never long before they reappeared south of the Danube.
But the Slavs were a far more serious danger to the empire than the Avars. The latter came only to plunder, the former—like the Germans two centuries before—came pressing into the provinces to win them selves a new home. The Romans knew at first of only two tribes of them, the Slovenes and Antae, but behind these there were others who were gradually to push their way to the south and make their presence known—Croats, Servians, and many more. The Slavs had always lain behind the Germans, and it was only when the German barrier was removed by the migration of the Goths and Lombards that they came into touch with the empire. They were rude races, far behind the Teutons in civilization; they had hardly learnt as yet the simplest arts, knew nothing of defensive armour, and could only use for boats tree-trunks hollowed out by fire. They had not learnt to live under kings or chiefs, but dwelt in village communities, governed by the patriarchs of the several families. Their abodes were mud huts, and they cultivated no grain but millet. When they went to war they could send out thousands of spearmen and bowmen, but their wild bands were not very formidable in the open field. They could resist neither cavalry nor disciplined infantry, and were only formidable in woods and defiles, where they formed ambuscades and endeavoured to take their enemy by surprise, and overwhelm him by a sudden rush. We are assured that one of their favourite devices was to conceal themselves in ponds or rivers by lying down in the water for hours together, breathing through reeds, whose points were the only things visible above the surface. Thus a thousand men might be concealed, and nothing appear except a bed of rushes. This strange stratagem would seem incredible, if we had not on record one or two occasions on which it was actually practised.
The Slavs had begun to make themselves felt early in the sixth century, but it was not till the death of Justinian that we hear of them as a pressing danger. But when the Lombards had passed away westward, they came down to the Danube and began to cross it in great numbers, in the endeavour to make permanent settlements on the Roman bank. The raids of the Slavs and the Avars were curiously complicated, for the king, or Chagan, of the Tartar tribe had made vassals of many of his Slavonic neighbours. They, on the other hand, sometimes acted in obedience to him, but more frequently tried to escape from his power by pushing forward into Roman territory. Hence it comes that we often find Slav and Avar leagued together, but at other times find them acting separately, or even in opposition to each other. A more chaotic series of campaigns it is hard to conceive.
Down to this time the inland of the Balkan peninsula had been inhabited by Thracian and Illyrian provincials, of whom the majority spoke the Latin tongue, though a few still preserved their ancient barbaric idiom. They formed the only large body of subjects of the empire outside Italy, who still spoke the old ruling language, and as they were about a quarter of its population, they did much to preserve its Roman character, and to prevent it from becoming Greek or Asiatic. Their pride in their Latin tongue was very marked: Justinian, born in the heart of the district, was fond of laying special stress on the fact that Latin was his native language.
On this Latinized Thraco-Illyrian population the invasion of the Slavs and Avars fell with unexampled severity. The Goths had afflicted them before, but they, at least, had been Christian and semi-civilized, while the new-comers were in the lowest grade of savagery. It is not too much to say that between 570 and 600 the old population was almost exterminated over the greater part of the country north of the Balkans – the modern Servia and Bulgaria—and very sadly cut down even in the more sheltered Macedonian and Thracian provinces.
The Latin-speaking provincials almost disappeared: the only remnants of them were the Dalmatian islanders and the “Vlachs” or Wallachians who are found in later times scattered in small bodies among the Slavs who had swept over the whole country-side. The effect of the invasion is well described by the contemporary chronicler, John of Ephesus:
“The year 581 was famous for the invasion of the accursed people called Slavonians, who overran Greece and the country by Thessalonica, and all Thrace, and captured the cities and took many forts, and devastated and burnt, and reduced the people to slavery, and made themselves masters of the whole country, and settled in it, by main force, and dwelt in it as though it had been their own. Four years have now elapsed, and still they live at their ease in the land, and spread themselves far and wide, as far as God permits them, and ravage and burn and take captive, and still they encamp and dwell there.”
The open country was swept bare by the Slavs: the towns resisted better, for neither Slav nor Avar was skilled in siege operations. Relying upon the fortified towns as his base the great general Priscus, whom Maurice placed in command, was able to keep his ground along the Danube, and to perform many gallant exploits. . He even crossed the river and attacked the Slavs and Avars in their own homes beyond it; but it was to no effect that he burnt their villages and slew off their warriors. He could not protect the unarmed population in the open country within the Roman boundary, and the girdle of fortresses along the Danube soon covered nothing but a wasted region, sparsely inhabited by Slavs.
The limit of Roman population had fallen back to the line of the Balkans, and even to the south of it, and the Slavs were ever slipping across the Danube in larger and larger numbers, despite the garrisons along the river which were still kept up from Singidunum [Belgrade] to Dorostolum [Silistria].
The misfortunes of the Avaric and Slavonic war were the cause of the fall of the Emperor Maurice. He had won some unpopularity by his manifest inability to stem the tide of the barbarian invasion, and more by an act of callousness, of which he was guilty in 599.
The Chagan of the Avars had captured 15,000 prisoners, and offered to release them for a large ransom. Maurice — whose treasury was empty — refused to comply, and the Chagan massacred the wretched captives. But the immediate cause of the emperor’s fall was his way of dealing with the army. He was unpopular with the soldiery, though an old soldier himself, and did not possess their respect or confidence. Yet he was an officer of some merit and had written a long military treatise called the “Strategicon”, which was the official handbook of the imperial armies for three hundred years.
Maurice scaled his fate when, in 602, he issued orders for the discontented army of the Danube to winter north of the river, in the waste marshes of the Slavs. The troops refused to obey the order, and chased away their generals. Then electing as their captain an obscure centurion, named Phocas, they marched on Constantinople.
Maurice armed the city factions, the “Blues” and “Greens”, and strove to defend himself. But when he saw that no one would fight for him, he fled across the Bosphorus with his wife and children, to seek refuge in the Asiatic provinces, where he was less unpopular than in Europe. Soon he was pursued by orders of Phocas, whom the army had now saluted as emperor, and caught at Chalcedon. The cruel usurper had him executed along with all his five sons, the youngest a child of only three years of age.
(Source: “The Byzantine Empire”, by C. W. C. Oman)
Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus