Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Slavs Invade The Roman Balkans

The Sclaveni (in Latin) were early Slavic tribes that raided, invaded the Eastern Roman Empire and settled the Balkans in the Early Middle Ages along with other South Slav tribes. The Sclaveni were mentioned by early Byzantine chroniclers as barbarians having appeared at the Byzantine borders along with the Antes, another Slavic group.

The Emperor Justinian appears to have changed his policy against Slavic barbarians from attack to defense, exemplified by his grand program of re-fortification of garrisons along the Danube. Procopius notes that in 539/40, the Sklavenes and Antes 'became hostile to one another and engaged in battle. probably encouraged by the Romans' traditional tactic of 'divide and conquer'. At the same time, the Romans recruited mounted mercenaries from both groups to aid their war against the Ostrogoths. 

Both Procopius and Jordanes report numerous raids by "Huns", Slavs, Bulgars and Antes in the years 539–40 AD; reporting that some 32 forts and 120,000 Roman prisoners were captured. Sometime between 533 and 545, the Antes invaded the Diocese of Thrace, enslaving many Romans and taking them north of the Danube to the Antean homelands. Indeed, there was numerous raids during this turbulent decade by numerous barbarians, including the Antes.

I have come to call this the de-Latinization of the Roman Empire.

Raid after raid of barbarians crossed the Danube. Latin and Greek speaking communities loyal to the Empire were "ethnically cleansed". . . . exterminated. . . . and replaced by foreign tribes that hated the Empire. Hostile Slavic tribes were permanently settling lands closer and closer to Constantinople.

Not only were Roman populations decimated, but we see a move to a ruralization of the Empire. Small, medium and even large cities were wiped out. 

These genocidal invasions had the impact of reducing the recruiting grounds for the Roman military machine as well as cutting off tax income to the Empire.

The account below by the historian Procopius gives us a good feel for the Slavic terrorism of the invading tribes.

By Procopius of Caesarea
500 - 554 AD

History of the Wars, Book VII

At about this time an army of Sclaveni amounting to not more than three thousand crossed the Ister River without encountering any opposition, advanced immediately to the Hebrus River (Maritsa), which they crossed with no difficulty, and then split into two parts.

Now the one section of them contained eighteen hundred men, while the other comprised the remainder. And although the two sections were thus separated from each other, the commanders of the Roman army, upon engaging with them, both in lllyricum and in Thrace, were defeated unexpectedly, and some of them were killed on the field of battle, while others Siived themselves by a disorderly flight.

Now after all the generals had fared thus at the hands of the two barbarian armies, though they were far inferior to the Roman forces in number, one section of the enemy engaged with Asbadus. This man was a guard of the Emperor Justinian, since he served among the candidati as they are called, and he was also commander of the cavalry cohorts which from ancient times have been stationed at TzuruUum, the fortress in Thrace, a numerous body of the best troops.

These too the Sclaveni routed with no trouble, and they slew the most of them in a most disgraceful Hight ; they also captured Asbadus and for the moment made him a prisoner, but afterwards they burned him by casting him into a fire, having first flayed strips from the man's back.

The Limitanei troops would have faced the Slavic invaders in this article.

The Limitanei were the static frontier guard troops that replaced the legions in the fourth century CE. The Romans were responding to the fact their long Danube and Rhine frontiers were subject to constant barbarian raids and that their cities were no longer secure.

In a short sighted cost saving move the Eastern Empire the Limitanei saw their pay cancelled by Justinian. 
After this, the eastern Limitanei were no longer professional soldiers, but continued to exist as militia through the Persian Wars and the Arab Conquest.

Having accomplished these things, they turned to plunder all the towns, both of Thrace and of Illyricum, in comparative security ; and both armies captured many fortresses by siege, though they neither had any previous experience in attacking city walls, nor had they dared to come down to the open plain, since these barbarians had never, in fact, even attempted to overrun the land of the Romans.

Indeed it appears that they have never in all time crossed the Ister River with an army before the occasion which I have mentioned above. Then those who had defeated Asbadus plundered everything in order as far as the sea and captured by storm a city on the coast named Topirus,- though it had a garrison of soldiers ; this is the first of the coast towns of Thrace and is twelve days' journey distant from Byzantium.

And they captured it in the following manner. The most of them concealed themselves in the rough ground which lay before the fortifications, while some few went near the gate which is toward the east and began to harass the Romans at the battlements.

Then the soldiers keeping guard there, supposing that they were no more than those who were seen, immediately seized their arms and one and all sallied forth against them. Whereupon the barbarians began to withdraw to the rear, making it appear to their assailants that they were moving off in retreat because they were thoroughly frightened by them ; and the Romans, being drawn into the pursuit, found themselves at a considerable distance from the fortifications.

Then the men in ambush rose from their hiding-places and, placing themselves behind the pursuers, made it no longer possible for them to enter the city. Furthermore, those who had seemed to be in flight turned about, and thus the Romans now came to be exposed to attack on two sides. Then the barbarians, after destroying these to the last man, assaulted the fortifications.

But the inhabitants of the city, deprived as they were of the support of the soldiers, found themselves in a very difficult situation, yet even so they warded off the assailants as well as the circumstances permitted. And at first they resisted successfully by heating oil and pitch till it was very hot and pouring it down on those who were attacking the wall, and the whole population joined in hurling stones upon them and thus came not very far from repelling the danger.

But finally the barbarians overwhelmed them by the multitude of their missiles and forced them to abandon the battlements, whereupon they placed ladders against the fortifications and so captured the city by storm.

Then they slew all the men immediately, to the number of fifteen thousand, took all the valuables as plunder, and reduced the children and women to slavery. Before this, however, they had spared no age. but both these and the other group, since the time when they fell upon the land of the Romans, had been killing all who fell in their way, young and old alike, so that the whole land inhabited by the Illyrians and Thracians came to be everywhere filled with unburied corpses.

Now they killed their victims, not with sword nor spear, nor in any other accustomed manner, but by planting very firmly in the earth stakes which they had made exceedingly sharp, and seating the poor wretches upon these with great violence, driving the point of the stake between the buttocks and forcing it up into the intestines ; thus did they see fit to destroy them.

These barbarians also had a way of planting four thick stakes very deep in the ground, and after binding the feet and hands of the captives to these they would then assiduously beat them over the head with clubs, killing them like dogs or snakes or any other animal. Others again they would imprison in their huts together with their cattle and sheep—those, of course, which they were utterly unable to take with them to their native haunts —and then they would set fire to the huts without mercy.

Thus did the Sclaveni consistently destroy those who fell in their way. But from this time onward both these and those of the other group, being as it were drunk with the great quantity of blood they had shed, saw fit to make prisoners of some who fell into their hands, and consequently they were taking with them countless thousands of prisoners when they all departed on the homeward way.

Slavic warrior fighting with Byzantine infantryman.

The Empire and the Ostrogoth Kingdom in 535AD
The Emperor Justinian bled the Empire white in efforts to re-conquer North Africa, Spain and Italy.
Starting in 535AD Roman armies invaded the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy. For ten years the Empire's troops were being pulled out of Anatolia and the Balkans and sent to Italy. The defensive strength of Roman Limes along the Danube got thinner and weaker by the year. Then came the barbarian Slavs crossing the Danube and roaming the Empire almost at will.

(History of the Wars, Book VII)      (Sclaveni)