Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

The Coming of the Slavs

The thirty years which followed the death of Justinian are covered by three reigns, those of Justinus II. [565-578], Tiberius Constantinus [578-582], and Maurice [582-602]. These three emperors were men of much the same character as the predecessors of Justinian; each of them was an experienced official of mature age, who was selected by the reigning emperor as his most worthy successor. Justinus was the favourite nephew of Justinian, and had served him for many years as Curopalates, or Master of the Palace. Tiberius Constantinus was "Count of the Excubiti," a high Court officer in the suite of Justinus: Maurice again served Tiberius as "Count of the Foederati," or chief of the Barbarian auxiliaries. They were all men of capacity, and strove to do their best for the empire: historians concur in praising the justice of Justinus, the liberality and humanity of Tiberius, the piety of Maurice. Yet under them the empire was steadily going downhill: the exhausting effects of the reign of Justinian were making themselves felt more and more, and at the end of the reign of Maurice a time of chaos and disaster was impending, which came to a head under his successor.

The internal causes of the disaster of this time were the weakening of the empire by the great plague of 544 and still more by the grinding exactions of Justinian's financial system. Its external phenomena were invasions by new hordes from the north, combined with long and exhausting wars with Persia. The virtues of the emperors seem to have helped them little: Justin's justice made him feared rather than loved; Tiberius's liberality rendered him popular, but drained the treasury; Maurice, on the other hand, who was economical and endeavoured to fill the coffers which his predecessors had emptied, was therefore universally condemned as avaricious.

The troubles on the frontier which vexed the last thirty years of the sixth century were due to three separate sets of enemies the Lombards in Italy, the Slavs and Avars in the Balkan Peninsula, and the Persians in the East.

The empire held undisputed possession of Italy for no more than fifteen years after the expulsion of the Ostrogoths in A.D. 553. Then a new enemy came in from the north, following the same path that had already served for the Visigoths of Alaric and the Ostrogoths of Theodoric. The newcomers were the race of the Lombards, who had hitherto dwelt in Hungary, on the Middle Danube, and had more frequently been found as friends than as foes of the Romans. But their warlike and ambitious King Alboin, having subdued all his nearer neighbours, began to covet the fertile plains of Italy, where he saw the emperors keeping a very inadequate garrison, now that the Ostrogoths were finally driven away. In A.D. 568 Alboin and his hordes crossed the Alps, bringing with them wife and child, and flocks and herds, while their old land on the Danube was abandoned to the Avars. The Lombards took possession of the flat country in the north of Italy, as far as the line of the Po, with very little difficulty. The region, we are told, was almost uninhabited owing to the combined effects of the great plague and the Ostrogothic war. In this once fertile and populous, but now deserted, lowland, the Lombards settled down in great numbers. There they have left their name as the permanent denomination of the plain of Lombardy. Only one city, the strong fortress of Pavia, held out against them for long; when it fell in 571, after a gallant defence of three years, Alboin made it his capital, instead of choosing one of the larger and more famous towns of Milan and Verona, the older centres of life in the land he had conquered. After subduing Lombardy the king pushed forward into Etruria, and overran the valley of the Arno. But in the midst of his wars he was cut off, if the legend tells us the truth, by the vengeance of his wife Queen Rosamund. She was the daughter of Cunimund, King of the Gepidae, whom Alboin had slain in battle. The fallen monarch's skull was, by the victor's orders, mounted in gold and fashioned into a cup. Long years after, amid the revelry of a drinking bout, Alboin had the ghastly cup filled with wine, and bade his wife bear it around to his chosen warriors. The queen obeyed, but vowed to revenge herself by her husband's death. By the sacrifice of her honour she bribed Alboin's armour-bearer to slay his master in his bed, and then fled with him to Constantinople [A.D. 573].

But the death of Alboin did not put an end to the Lombard conquests in Italy. The kingdom, indeed, broke up for a time into several independent duchies, but the Lombard chiefs continued to win territory from the empire. Two of them founded the considerable duchies of Spoleto and Benevento, the one in Central, and the other in Southern Italy. These states survived as independent powers, but , the rest of the Lombard territories were reunited by King Autharis, in 584, and he and his immediate successors completed the conquest of Northern Italy.

Thus, during the reigns of Justin, Tiberius II., and Maurice, the greater part of Justinian's Italian conquests were lost, and formed once more into Teutonic states. The emperor retained only two large stretches of territory, the one in Central Italy, where he held a broad belt of land, extending right across the peninsula, from Ravenna and Ancona on the Adriatic, to Rome on the Tyrrhenian Sea; the other comprehending the extreme south of the land the "toe" and "heel" of the Italian boot and comprising the territory of Bruttium and the Calabrian towns of Taranto, Brindisi, and Otranto. Sardinia and Sicily were also left untouched by the Lombards, who never succeeded in building a fleet. The Roman territory which stretched across Central Italy cut the Lombards in two, the king ruling the main body of them in Tuscany and the valley of the Po; while the dukes of Spoleto and Benevento maintained an isolated existence in the south.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


This partition of Italy between the Lombards and the empire is worth remembering, from the fact that never again, till our own day, was the whole peninsula gathered into a single state. Not till 1870, when the kingdom of United Italy was completed by the conquest of Rome, did a time come when all the lands between the Alps and the Straits of Messina were governed by one ruler. Justinian had no successor till Victor Emmanuel.

After the Lombard conquest the imperial dominion in Italy were administered by a governor, called the Exarch, who dwelt at Ravenna, the northernmost and strongest of the imperial fortresses. All the Italian provinces were nominally beneath his control, but, as a matter of fact, he was only treated with implicit obedience by those of his subordinates who dwelt in his own neighbourhood. He found it harder to enforce his orders at Naples and Reggio, or in the distant islands of Sicily and Sardinia. But it was the bishops of Rome who profited most by his absence: although a "duke," 4 military officer of some importance, dwelt at Rome, he was from the first over-shadowed by his spiritual neighbour. Even during the days of the. Ostrogoths the Roman bishops had acquired considerable importance, as being the chief official representatives of the Italians in dealings with their Teutonic masters. But they spoke with much more freedom and weight when they had to do, not with a King of Italy dwelling quite near them, but with a mere governor fettered by orders from distant Constantinople. Gregory the Great [590-604] was the first of the popes who began to assume an independent attitude and to treat the Exarch at Ravenna with scant ceremony. He was an able and energetic man, who could not bear to see Rome suffering for want of a ruler on the spot, and readily took upon himself civil functions, in spite of the protests of his nominal superior the Exarch. In 592, for example, he made a private truce for Rome with the Lombard Duke of Spoleto, though the latter was at war with the empire. The Emperor Maurice stormed at him as foolish and disobedient, but did not venture to depose him, being too much troubled with Persian and Avaric wars to send troops against Rome. On another occasion Gregory nominated a governor for Naples, instead of leaving the appointment to the Exarch. In 599 he acted as mediator between the Lombard king and the government at Ravenna, as if he had been a neutral and independent sovereign. Although he showed no wish to sever his connection with the Roman Empire, Gregory behaved as if he considered the emperor his suzerain rather than his immediate ruler. He would never give in on disputed points, issued orders which contradicted imperial rescripts, and maintained a bitter quarrel with successive patriarchs of Constantinople, who possessed the favour of Maurice. When the patriarch John the Faster took the title of "oecumenical bishop," Gregory wrote to Maurice to tell him that the presumption of John was a sure sign that the days of Antichrist were at hand, and to urge him to repress such pretensions by the force of the civil arm. This is one of the first signs of the approach of that mediaeval view of the papacy which imagined that it was the pontiff's duty to censure and advise kings and emperors on all possible topics and occasions. Gregory's immediate successors were not men of mark, or a breach with the empire might have been precipitated. The final disavowal of the supremacy of the Constantinopolitan monarch was to be still delayed for nearly two hundred years.

The wars between the Exarchs of Ravenna and the Lombard kings were little influenced by interference from the East. The emperors during the last thirty years of the sixth century were far more engrossed with, their Persian and Slavonic wars. Contests with the Great king of the East occupied no less than twenty years in the reigns of Justin II., Tiberius, and Maurice. War was declared in 572, and did not cease till 592. Like the struggle between Justinian and Chosroes I., thirty years before, it was wholly indecisive. There were more plundering raids than battles, and the frontier provinces of each empire were reduced to a dreadful state of desolation and depopulation: if the Persians pushed their ravages as far as the gates of Antioch, Roman generals penetrated deep into Media and Corduene, where the imperial banner had not been seen for two hundred years. The net result of the whole twenty years of strife was that each combatant had seriously weakened and distressed his rival, without obtaining any definite superiority over him. Forced to make peace by the pressure of a civil war, Chosroes II. gave back to

Maurice the two frontier cities of Dara and Martyropolis, the sole trophies of twenty campaigns, and ceded him a slice of Armenian territory: But these trivial gains were far from compensating the empire for the fearful losses caused by dozens of Persian invasions.

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 and 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 themselves 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 were the easternmost of the Aryan peoples of Europe, and by far the most backward. They 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 like the Australian savages of to-day. 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 newcomers 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 countryside. 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 sealed 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. Maurice died with a courage and piety that moved even his enemies, exclaiming with his last breath, "Thou art just, O Lord, and just are thy judgments!"