Early Byzantine churches in Macedonia and southern Serbia

Ralph Hoddinott




IV. Roman Macedonia and the Mission of St Paul  49

V. The Centuries of Persecution and the First Gothic Invasions  66

VI. Political and Ecclesiastical Rivalries  73

VII. Renewed Gothic Invasions and the Appearance of the Slavs  77

VIII. The Slav Settlement in the Balkans  89







Chapter IV. Roman Macedonia and the Mission of St Paul



The Parthian revival of the Persian Empire occurred in the third century b.c. In the course of the next century Rome began its expansion into the lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean. Attempts by the Macedonian kingdom to resist Roman domination were finally liquidated following Roman victories in 168 and 148 b.c. The Romans neither regarded, nor treated, their Macedonian rival lightly and set out systematically to eradicate every trace of its power and independence. Perseus, the last Macedonian king, was seized in 168 while claiming political sanctuary on Samothrace and, after the failure of the final bid to regain independence in 148, the whole of the surviving aristocracy and the chief military and civil officials were deported to Italy. The most important industries were forbidden; the country was divided into four parts, and Macedonians forbidden to cross from one to another. Thus trade, as well as political control, fell largely into Roman hands. Quickly and brutally, the proud motherland of the empire which had reached to India was converted into a stagnant backwater of the Roman Empire.


Yet, rich in agriculture and forests, and straddling the strategic land-routes connecting the Adriatic and the central Danube plain with the Aegean, Macedonia could not be left indefinitely to decay. With all Illyricum falling under Roman domination in 27 b.c., and with the subjection by a.d. 46 of the fierce Thracian tribes in the eastern Balkans, it ceased to be a frontier province, and, in the security of the pax romana, began to recover from the severity of its conquest. Except for occasional, small-scale Thracian invasions or uprisings, and episodes in the civil wars of the first century b.c., little occurred to disturb its peace until the Gothic irruption midway through the third century a.d. The recovery of the ancient Macedonian capitals of Aegae and Pella was perhaps slow, but Thessalonica, the seat of the provincial governor, steadily developed into a city of considerable commercial importance and, in common with other leading provincial centres of the Roman Empire, received valuable civic privileges, including the right of minting its money. It played a minor, but, on the whole, profitable part in the civil wars of the first century b.c. Pompey, fleeing from Rome, chose it as his residence and headquarters until transferring to nearby Verria. The Thessalonians, however, managed to avoid retribution through having firmly maintained a policy of neutrality. A few years later, through luck or judgement, the city materially improved its standing in the Roman world by coming out in open support of Antony and Octavius prior to their victory at Philippi in 42 b.c.


For Philippi, lying at the easternmost limits of Macedonia on a narrow neck of firm land between the hills and the marshes which then extended over the greater part of the Philippi plain, the battle between the rival Roman armies was of great consequence. The victors were quick to realise its strategic situation, vital alike for the protection of eastern Macedonia against still unconquered Thrace, for the maintenance of communications with the Roman provinces of Asia Minor through the port of Neapolis (Kavalla), and as a base for any future expansion of the Roman Empire towards Macedonia between Rome and Constantinople the east.





Reliable veterans from the victorious Roman army were given their discharge and awarded land on which to settle. Twelve years later Octavius brought over a still larger group of colonists from Italy. These newcomers quickly became, on both a large and small scale, the principal landowners in the region. With the administrative officials, they tended to remain a distinct group, not mixing with the Greek element, by whom the commercial life of the community continued to be maintained. The indigenous Thracians also continued as an important element of the population in the city of Philippi and, probably to a greater degree, in the countryside. Previously open to the influences of Hellenism, they were now no less susceptible to those of Rome; but, as archaeological evidence clearly shows, the traffic in ideas by no means flowed one way only. [1]


The heavy Romanisation of Philippi was probably exceptional among the predominantly Greek areas of coastal Macedonia, although at the same time Octavius settled other groups of Italian colonists at Pella, Dion (Dium), Cassandreia and at Dyrrhachium (Durazzo) on the Adriatic coast, to which the Roman administrative province of Macedonia temporarily extended. In general, however, the urban centres of the south appear to have continued to retain their Greek character, and to have received only small numbers of Italian settlers and officials.


Farther inland, among the mountainous ranges of the north and west, a different situation developed. In these wilder regions, even in the towns, Hellénisation had never been complete. Greek influence, while paramount and a strong civilising force, had had to contend with constantly shifting tribal populations and with cultural allegiances from beyond the Macedonian frontiers. These were principally Illyrian on the west and north and Thracian on the east. The lack of Illyrian or Thracian literature makes any estimate of their cultural contributions extremely difficult, but it was certainly far from negative. Scymnus of Chios, writing about a century before the beginning of the Christian era, calls the Illyrians ‘ a religious people, just and kind to strangers, loving to be liberal, and desiring to live orderly and soberly’. Other contemporary Greek or Roman historians are less complimentary, or more biased. One point upon which there is no doubt is that women were accorded an exceptionally favourable status in Illyrian society ; a queen, Teuta, was one of the principal leaders of Illyrian resistance against the Romans. While the historians unfortunately leave us in ignorance of the nature of the religion of the Illyrians, other evidence, including traditional tattoo markings in the more primitive parts of Albania, suggests a strong cult of sun and moon worship. [2] Certainly later, during the first two or three centuries of the Christian era, Mithraism exerted an exceptionally powerful appeal in Illyrian areas.


The Thracians are classed together with the Illyrians by the Greek and Roman historians as peoples who tattooed their bodies and offered human sacrifices, who loved singing, playing the flute, dancing and fighting. In their social customs, however, the Thracians appear considerably more akin to the Scythians. Their religion, as we shall see when considering the impact of Christianity, included a strong concern with a future life. Unlike the Illyrian religion, it exerted a profound and direct effect upon the Roman conquerors, and Romanised forms of one of its principal aspects, the Heroic Hunter or Thracian Horseman, appear on funeral steles throughout central and eastern Macedonia and even as far north as Viminacium (Kostolac) on the Danube near Belgrade.


After the Roman conquest of Macedonia the flow of independent Illyrian and Thracian influences into the province must have sharply declined. Moreover, forceful and ruthless Roman administrators, Roman garrisons, the privileged activities of Roman merchants, all possessing the prestige of a conquering race and backed by the Roman genius for civil administration, aided Roman influences to supplant those of Hellenism in the non-Greek parts of Macedonia. Two other factors played an important part in this process. The first was the Roman policy of awarding grants of land in strategic areas to veteran soldiers. The second was the system of Roman roads, which was rapidly developed as soon as the conquest of the Balkans and Asia Minor was complete.



1. P. Collart, Philippes, ville de Macédoine depuis ses origines jusqu à la fin de Vépoque romaine (Paris, 1937).


2. M. E. Durham, Some Tribal Origins, Lam and Customs of the Balkans (London, 1928), p. 101 et seq.





Two main strategic highways crossed the Balkan peninsula from west to east. The northern, Unking the Balkans with the Roman cities of northern Italy and southern Germany, left the Pannonian Plain at Sirmium (Mitrovica) and Singidunum (Belgrade), followed the Danube to a point near Viminacium (Kostolac, Drmno), and the Morava until Naissus (Niš). It then passed through Sardica (Sofia), crossed the Succi Pass to Philippopolis (Plovdiv), Hadrianopolis (Edime), Arcadiopolis (Lule Burgas), to Byzantium, slightly more than a month’s journey from Singidunum. The southern road was the Via Egnatia. From the Adriatic ports ofDyrrhachium (Durazzo) and Apollonia two roads converged at Clodiana and then passed through Scampae (Elbasan), Lychnidus (Ohrid), Heraclea Lyncestis (near Bitola), Aegae (Edessa), Pella, Thessalonica, then, via Amphipolis, Philippi, Neapolis (Kavalla), Akontisma and Thracian Heraclea to Byzantium. A network of subsidiary roads connected the two highways and other outlying centres. North to south, the Singidunum route was joined at Naissus by a highway from Ratiara (Vidin) on the Danube which passed through Ulpiana (Lipljan, some ten miles south of Priština). Here it diverged, one branch going west along the present Peć-Andrijevica road to Scodra (Shkoder, Scutari) and reaching the sea at Dulcigno (Ulcinj); the other, and the more important, continuing to Scupi (Skopje), Stobi and Thessalonica. From Stobi roads also ran south-west to Heraclea and north-east to Pautalia (Kustendil) and Sardica. These were by no means the only routes of importance; others connected them with the cities based on the Black and north Adriatic Seas. Apart from their importance in linking Italy and Asia Minor, they were the main arteries of commerce and defence for the Balkan region and, consequently, for the diffusion and protection of its Roman civilisation.


The northern of the two great west-east highways was a pioneer Roman conception, for it lay off the paths of the early Mediterranean and Oriental civilisations. Parts of the Via Egnatia, on the other hand, retraced routes which had existed for centuries before the Roman conquest. They had been made use of by Xerxes in his attack on Greece and Alexander in his conquering expeditions to the east. Nevertheless, under the Roman occupation, the Via Egnatia attained a new efficiency and significance. The stretch linking


Dyrrhachium and Neapolis was newly laid and completed by the end of the third quarter of the second century b.c. Its extension to Byzantium had to wait for the conquest of Thrace in a.d. 46, but a terminus at Neapolis sufficed for the control of Macedonia and for access to Asia Minor by a conveniently short sea-passage.


The intensification of the struggle with Parthia following the accession of Trajan in a.d. 98 further increased the importance of the Via Egnatia, an importance which was maintained until the first half of the fourth century. Milestones, erected to commemorate substantial repairs, bear the names of the Emperors Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, Septimius Severus, Caracalla, Constantinus Chlorus and Galerius. Inns, or ‘Tabemae’, were from the beginning built at appropriate staging-points, and there occurred at least one instance where one of these, the ‘Tres Tabemas’ or ‘In Tabemas’, gave its name to the locality. An epitaph discovered near the site of ‘Ad Duodecimum’, a staging-centre twelve Roman miles west of Philippi, commemorates C. Lavus Faustus ‘institor tabernas’ — one likes to think of him as a discharged veteran of the eastern wars or, maybe, of misty Britain who had retired with his gratuity to keep his inn — and records for posterity that [sic] he gave good measure. Nero, in a.d. 61 ordered ‘tabemae’ to be erected along the newly built military roads of Thrace.


The Via Egnatia was a highway along which men, ideas, merchandise and loot travelled towards Rome from Asia, as well as expeditionary armies on their way from Italy to the eastern wars. In this it differed from die subsidiary roads leading into the interior. The countryside around Stobi, Scupi, Ulpiana and Naissus had lain too far north for the penetration of Hellenic influences ever to have been thorough. Nor did it carry a Greek population that was, except in the case of Stobi itself and, to lesser extents, Scupi and Ulpiana, much more than a trading-post. Now they were by-passed by the East-West traffic handled by the cities on the Via Egnatia. The retired Italian veterans and colonists tended to take a fuller share in the life of the community in these quieter, northern cities. Greek and Jewish inhabitants existed, who continued to use Greek as their language, but such centres grew up, or





were rebuilt, as essentially Roman cities, with the majority of their populations speaking Latin rather than Greek and worshipping a medley of Roman and indigenous gods.


Probably towards the end of the year a.d. 49, a small band of zealots, headed by St Paul, a Jew with Roman citizenship from Tarsus in Cilicia, took ship from Troas in Asia Minor, stopped for a night on Samothrace, and landed the next day at the port of Neapolis, the Kavalla of to-day. From here they immediately took the Via Egnatia, following it over the Symbolon Pass, and came to Philippi, ‘the chief city of that part of Macedonia’. [1] They carried the new gospel of Christianity.


Reasons of convenience probably dictated that St Paul, making for Macedonia, should travel by sea, via the great pagan island sanctuary of Samothrace, to Neapolis, and thence to Philippi. Thrace had been conquered only three years earlier and eastern Macedonia was still the terminus of the Via Egnatia and the easternmost point of Roman civilisation in Europe. Yet, in his choice of Macedonia, and particularly of Philippi as the starting-point for bringing the Christian gospel to Europe, Paul was accepting a challenge of no mean order.


It is not easy to sort out the confusing religious picture of Macedonia at the time of St Paul’s arrival. Nor would it be accurate to present one characterised by clarity. Each district differed from its neighbour, reflecting the individual peculiarities of its local cultural background and its accessibility to foreign influences.


A Thessalonian coin, dated to the late fourth century B.c., shows that Pallas Athene was worshipped there at the time of the city’s foundation. Another early cult was that of Hercules, to whom particular reverence was paid by the Macedonian kings. Pythian Apollo, on whose advice the Parians had colonised Thasos in the eighth century b.c., and whose worship was consequently particularly strong on that island, was also popularly venerated in Thessalonica, and was often associated on coins with one of the Cabiri.


The Cabiri were two deities of whom we have very little clear knowledge. They were associated with the Great Mother Goddess — Axieros, Cybele or Rhea — whose attendants or children they were. Pre-Greek in origin, they were identified by the Greeks with the Dioscuri. The cult of the Cabiri, with that of the Great Goddess, probably arrived from Asia Minor, whence it established itself upon Samothrace, Lemnos and Thasos, with the first-named as its leading sanctuary. Orpheus was said to have been its pupil there, and Philip II and perhaps Alexander the Great to have visited the island to become initiates of its mysteries. Certainly Alexander and his successors were munificent patrons of the Samothracian temples. On Lemnos the Cabiri were the smiths of the Underworld and it is in this quality that a Cabir sometimes appears on Thessalonian coins. They were also gods with special powers of rescue, particularly of seamen, and this aspect seems to have had a particular attraction for the Thessalonians, who adopted them, usually in a single personification, as the divine protectors of their city, regarding them in a somewhat analagous manner to the Tyches or Fortunes of Syrian cities.


On the evidence of coins of the period, other divinities popular among the Thessalonians included Zeus, Perseus, Artemis, Poseidon and Dionysus. Venus, Mars, Janus and Ceres were among those introduced by the Romans. Egyptian gods, too, had their adherents. An inscription refers to the ‘Great God Serapis ’. The cult of Isis has been revealed by the discovery of a statue of the goddess and the remains of a temple dedicated to her worship which, built during the third century B.c., still apparently warranted repairs in Christian times. The ‘Rosalia’, an annual floral ceremony or fête in commemoration of the death of Attis was celebrated in Thessalonica and Philippi, but opinions differ as to whether this was due to Roman influence or was an import from the shores of Asia Minor.


Throughout eastern Macedonia, as well as in Thrace itself, the religion of the native Thracians retained an undiminished vitality. Three iconographical aspects of this religion have survived in sufficient number and consistency of representation to leave us some indication of its essential features. These are the goddess Bendis,the Thracian Horseman, and, to a lesser extent, the Funerary Feast.


Bendis, whose worship was introduced to Attica from Thrace following a treaty between Athens and the Thracian king Sitalces in 430 b.c.,



1. Acts of the Apostles xvi, 12.





Fig. 29. BENDIS AS THE DIVINE HUNTRESS. Relief on the Acropolis, Philippi





and who also appears in Italy as an Etruscan goddess, [1] possessed four distinct personifications. As a huntress goddess, she was armed with a spear or bow and attended by a hound ; in effect, a Thracian equivalent of Artemis-Diana with qualities that indicate a common origin. As a goddess of the underworld and of death, she appeared holding a branch of ivy, introducing a Thracian link into the chain of legends of a ‘Golden Bough’. As a moon goddess, portrayed with a crescent moon, she pointed to a relationship with the Great Mother concept that had been introduced to Thrace from Samothrace and Asia Minor and which was also reflected in certain aspects of Artemis-Diana. Finally, as the feminine hypostasis of the Thracian Horseman, Bendis could be presented standing with the serpent and an altar surmounted by a pine or fir cone or a flame. [2]


Sometimes one aspect emphasised, sometimes another, Bendis was essentially a deeply rooted expression in pagan terms of Thracian belief in rebirth after death. This was perhaps most obvious in the manifestation of the goddess as a deity of the underworld, the most purely Thracian expression of the four. Here her rites were often associated with Dionysus, to whom she would appear as either wife or mother, and to whom the ivy plant, a symbol of immortal life, was sacred» It was also, however, implicit in her appearance as the immortal huntress or the Great Mother.


Similarly, the Thracian Horseman and the Funerary Feast were symbols of Thracian belief in an afterlife. The latter motif was common to other areas and combined a primitive pagan form of communion rite with the symbolic provision of food for the deceased.


Fig. 31. Thracian funerary feast. Fragment of a stele re-used in reconstruction of the ‘Extra Muros’ Basilica, Philippi



1. C. Picard, ‘Sur l’iconographic de Bendis’, Sbomik Gabriel Katzarov (Sofia, 1950), pp. 25-34.


2. L. Ognenova, ‘Some aspects of Bendis on the monuments of Thrace’, Bull. Inst. Arch. Bulgare XXII (Sofia, 1959), pp. 81-95 (Bulgarian).





Probably, as Evans has suggested in connection with Mycenaean steles, these sepulchral monuments were originally regarded as baetylic habitations of the departed spirits. [1] The Thracian Horseman, on the other hand, containing elements that are peculiar to Thrace, remains an enigma that still awaits a satisfactory explanation; but some account of it, however tentative, is essential if we are considering the possible legacies of paganism inherited by Christianity in Thrace and eastern Macedonia.


Although the concept of a mounted god or hero occurs elsewhere in the Ancient and indeed in the Modem World (Pls. 4, 6, 7, Figs. 33-37), the large numbers of such monuments discovered in Thrace, all bearing the sign of a clearly defined iconographical tradition, indicate that here it enjoyed a position of exceptional importance. Kazarow reports the existence of over a thousand in Bulgaria [2] and Collart some thirty between the Nestos and the Strymon in the neighbourhood of Philippi. [3] Yet outside territories once inhabited by Thracian tribes it immediately becomes rare and a short distance away is not to be found.


The Thracian Horseman monuments may be either funerary or votive. In the form that has survived to the present day, they are invariably relief carvings on marble or stone. They are small in size, seldom exceeding 0.40 metres in width or height (unless the great rock relief at Mađara (Pl. 7b) is considerably earlier than the ninth-century inscriptions beside it). Its two main iconographic types belong to two different periods. In the earlier, the Horseman is presented as a Heroic Hunter. Bareheaded, dressed in a short tunic and a chlamys which flies behind him in the wind, he gallops, almost always from left to right, towards a tree, around which a serpent is entwined. His right hand is raised and holds a spear or other weapon as if about to strike his quarry. A dog crouches beneath the horse, ready to attack a boar emerging from behind or from the roots of the tree. In the second and later iconographic type the dog and boar are omitted. Sometimes wearing a wreath on his head and sometimes clad in Roman military dress, the Horseman rides in a stately, ceremonial manner towards the serpent-entwined tree, before which now stands an altar surmounted by a pine or fir cone. No longer a Heroic Hunter, the Horseman has become a High Priest or a semi-divine personage participating in a solemn religious ceremony.


A number of variations occur in both types. In the first, examples have been noted in which the boar is omitted and, instead of a spear, the Hunter’s right hand grasps what appears to be a deer or goat at which two dogs leap from below. In a small number of cases the dog and boar together with an altar may appear on a single relief. In the second type, a person, perhaps a servant, is sometimes shown walking behind the Horseman; a seated or standing woman may replace the tree and serpent, and a child even be shown standing upon the altar. Crowding of the scene, however, generally signifies a late and degenerate form. Such examples, which, it would seem, depict living relatives of the deceased, should not be confused with the simple presentation of the Horseman and a seated woman in a clear priest-goddess relationship.


Although these and other exceptions must not be left out of account, the iconography of the two main types is so consistent, despite very varying workmanship, that it may be considered as symbolising a fundamental Thracian religious tenet, which was even strong enough to survive the introduction of new ideas and religious concepts following the Roman conquest of a.d. 46. The presence of these foreign influences in the later type means that it is primarily to the earlier that we must look to provide the surest clues to a satisfactory interpretation. Our first step is, if possible, to identify the Horseman. From the votive nature of the inscriptions accompanying some of the monuments it is clear that it would be wrong to regard him as simply an idealised portrait of a deceased relative, although in a less direct form this concept need not necessarily be entirely absent.


Throughout the latter half of the first millennium b.c. Thrace’s principal neighbouring civilisations were Greek, Scythian and Celtic.



1. A. Evans, Mycenean Tree and Pillar Cult (London, 1901), p. 21.


2. G. I. Kazarow, Die Denkmäler des Thrakischen Reitergottes in Bulgarien (Budapest, 1938).


3. P. Collart, op. cit. p. 299, n. 1.





The last was in a process of eruption and partial disintegration and, as far as can be seen, was then contributing little to Thracian development. On the other hand, particularly during the third quarter of the millennium, Greece and Scythia, both powerful possessors of mature cultures, were in a state of expansion. It was a formative period in the history of the Thracian tribes, who were beginning to achieve a rudimentary form of national consciousness. Greek and Scythian cults that reflected indigenous religious aspirations were thus well situated to exert considerable influence.


One such cult from Greece was that of Asklepios (Aesculapius). Bom of Apollo and a mortal mother, he became renowned for his powers of healing and even of restoring the dead to life. Eventually Zeus, fearing that he might enable men to escape death altogether, struck him dead with a thunderbolt ; but afterwards, on the request of Apollo, granted him the attributes of divinity. Farnell writes :


His incarnation is the snake, at Epidauros, Kos and Rome, and the snake-rod becomes the symbol of the physician ; but this mysterious beast was equally the familiar of the buried hero and of the nether-god. The case is different with the other animal that we now know to have stood in a somewhat mystic relation to him — namely the dog. In many of his shrines we have evidence of the maintenance of sacred dogs, in Epidauros, Athens, Lebena in Crete, and finally in Rome; and at Epidauros at least the animal was possessed of the divine power of the god and was able to work miraculous cures by licking the patient. . . . It is probable that already in Thessaly, the original home of the cult, the animal was closely associated with Asklepios ; for on a bronze coin of the Magnetes of the second century b.c. we see him at the feet of the god. [1]


Asklepios was also one of the heroes who participated in the great boar hunt of Calydon (Pl. 6a).


At a spring renowned for its healing qualities at Glava Panega in Bulgaria, Asklepios was worshipped in association with, and was even to some extent identified with, the Thracian Horseman. Thracian Horseman reliefs have been found there with dedications to Asklepios, and other reliefs which portray Asklepios alone or with Hygeia. [2] There were probably many such shrines, for towards the end of the pre-Christian period, the cult of Asklepios came ‘to overshadow the whole Graeco-Roman world; and when at last vanquished by Christianity it left its impress on the vanquisher’. [3] Its strength in Rome may be an explanation of the easy evolution of the second iconographic type of the Thracian Horseman, in which a compromise was reached between the earlier Hunter cult and the more sophisticated religious practices of Rome.


Asklepios, although especially associated with the serpent, the dog and boar, shared some of his attributes with other gods and heroes, among them his father, Apollo. Another was Attis, with whom a boar figured in the myths concerning his symbolism of rebirth. Consequently, in acknowledging points of similarity between Asklepios and the Thracian Horseman we must not exclude the possibility of other Greek influences. The boar, it must be remembered, was also sacred to Artemis and, among the Indo-European peoples generally, was regarded as a chthonic or infernal beast.


The horse and the tree, iconographically as essential as the rider and persisting for longer than the dog and the boar, loom less strongly in Greek religion, although they are not entirely foreign to it. On the other hand, the nature of Thrace’s Scythian neighbours offers a plausible explanation for the horse. Horses not only bore Scythian warriors to battle and were an important feature of their nomad economy, they were, as we have seen on page 19, interred, often in large numbers, inside the burial mounds of dead chieftains. Thracian princes affected a similar form of burial and Rostovtzeff has drawn attention to the close similarities in the contents and ritualistic observances of Scythian and Thracian tombs.


We are astonished [he writes] to find that the horse trappings are almost the same in the Thracian tombs and in the tombs of South Russia. We find the same pieces ; frontlet, ear-guards, temple-pieces, nasal ; the same Oriental practice of covering nearly the whole bridle with metal plaques ; the same system of bits. Further, the two types of bridle ornament :



1. L. R. Farnell, Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality (Oxford, 1921), pp. 240-1.


2. N. Vulić, Spomenik xcviii, 1941-48 (Belgrade), pp. 281-6.


3. L. R. Farnell, op. cit. p. 234.





round plaques embossed in the Greek manner ; and plaques in the form of animals, cast and incised in the Oriental fashion. Lastly, and this is the most important of all : all the pieces in the animal style find striking parallels in the Scythian horse trappings from Scythian tombs of the fourth and third centuries . . . some of these are almost duplicates. [1]


If Scythian influence was as strong as this evidence of the Thracian mound burials implies, it would have been unnatural indeed to have portrayed otherwise than mounted a god, a hero or even a dead relative to whom respect was being accorded.


Nevertheless, the horse would not have become a fundamental item of Thracian funerary iconography simply through a tendency to copy Scythian customs. It had been generally regarded as an animal with divine attributes by the Indo-European peoples and, as we have already noted in Chapter I, the solar chariot was a symbol shared by Greece, Rome, Persia and India. Salin has summarised the symbolism of the horse in terms which, although intended to be general, are fully applicable to the reliefs of the Thracian Horseman :


Companion of the nomad, the horse, after the cervidae it succeeded, was taken by him as a totem at a time when zoomorphism preceded anthropomorphism. But he is also the companion of the dead man, whom he accompanies into the tomb for the supreme journey : the myth originates from the burial of the dead with the horse (or chariot) ; it will not be limited to one people, one religion or one age. ... In the first place, in fact, it (the horse) is the sacred animal of those religions which are essentially chthonian ; represented alone, it is the image of death. But it also evokes the presence of the dead man beside whom it was buried ; it protects him ; and finally becomes confused with him : as the mount of the heroised horseman, it bears him on a posthumous ride towards the empyrean, the sun or the moon.


Thus the horse becomes a symbol of immortality ; from being chthonian it becomes uranian, and with this conception are associated the allegorical designs linking or substituting for one another the horse and the bird, opposing the horse to the serpent according to a symbolism which evokes the eternal combat of two opposed powers : the sky and the earth.


In short, the horse, whose power is on the frontier of two worlds, appears as the protector both of the living and the dead. . . .


The horse is a mount for the hunter who fights against monsters — and this is the victory of Good over Evil ; but he also leads the infernal hunt ‘in which the Beyond is let loose’, which may make the horse a demon. Thus it is sometimes beneficent and sometimes maleficent. [2]


The tree poses a wide and a particularly confusing range of questions. Does it represent the Tree of Life ? Is the serpent entwined around its trunk linked with the Oriental myth that gave us the story of the Garden of Eden — here expressing a Thracian combination of Greek and Oriental ideas of rebirth ? Is it a relic of tree worship, a widespread form of primitive religion particularly among the Celtic peoples with whom Thrace had close contacts and whose period of cultural influence antedated that of the Scythians ? Does some connection exist between it and the ancient oak grove oracle of Zeus at Dodona ? Or has it Mycenean associations ? Mycenae and Mycenean Crete, where the serpent was also sacred, provide precedents of religious ceremonies in which a human figure approaches a sacred tree to pluck its fruit. Discussing a gold signet ring (Fig. 32) from a Mycenae chamber tomb, Evans comments :


The subject will be best understood if we regard it as divided into separate scenes. To the right, the Goddess is thrown into an ecstatic state by the fruit of her sacred tree, a branch of which is here again pulled down for her by the male attendant.





1. M. RostovtzefF, Iranians and Greeks in South Russia (Oxford, 1922), p. 89.


2. E. Salin, La Civilisation mérovingienne (Paris, 1959), vol. iv, pp. 148-9 (trans.).





The other side of the subject depicts a similar figure in a mourning attitude, leaning over a little enclosure within which stands a small baetylic pillar while from the upper part of the balustrade is suspended a diminutive Minoan shield, seen in profile, clearly belonging to the youthful personage. . . . We seem in these cases, indeed, to have actual illustrations of an aspect of the religion so prominent in the later cult of Adonis and Attis, the child or favourite of the Goddess, cut off before his prime by some untoward accident which in Crete, as in Syria, seems also to have been due to a wild boar. [1]


In the light of our present knowledge we can do little more than guess at the symbolism of the snake-entwined tree. That it implies Greek influence seems likely, for on reliefs from the remoter parts of Thraco-Moesia it is frequently omitted.


So far we have been considering the potential impact of foreign influences, but these must not obscure the most clearly evident fact of all — the essentially national character of the monument. Can we find a native Thracian figure — man, hero or god — capable of amalgamating Greek, Scythian and other ideas into a Thracian mould ?


Casson has pointed out that the Horseman cult ‘seems in origin to have some sort of connection with the legend of Rhesus ... a great Thracian hero whose very presence inspires awe and fills the air with splendour and the clash of arms’. [2] Rhesus was the semi-divine son of the River Strymon and one of the Muses. A mighty warrior, famous for the beauty and fleetness of his white horses, he arrives belatedly at Troy as an ally of the Trojans, after delays due to Scythian wars on his northern borders. According to Homer and as dramatised by Euripides, he was slain in his sleep by Odysseus and Diomedes, son of Tydeus, on the night of his arrival and was buried on the fields of Troy.


The most remarkable passage in Euripides’ play, suggests Porter, is the ‘allusive and obscure’ prophecy by Rhesus’ mother of a posthumous existence for the dead hero that was quite alien to Homeric tradition (w. 962-73). The passage is translated thus :


He shall not descend into the dark earth ; this much I beg of the Nether Bride, daughter of Demeter, the goddess who giveth the fruits of the earth, to send up his soul from the dead. And she is my debtor to show manifest honour to the kinsfolk of Orpheus. And although to me he shall be as dead henceforth and as one who sees not the light, for neither shall he meet me any more nor look upon his mother’s face, yet he shall he concealed in the caverns of the silver-bearing land, a Spirit-Man, beholding the light, even as the seer of Bacchus made his habitation in Pangaeum’s rock, a god revered by those who understand. [3]


From a Greek writer comes an interesting epilogue to the Trojan episode. We are told by Polyaenus that Hagnon, attempting to found an Athenian colony at Amphipolis in 437-436 B.C., sent an expedition to Troy to bring back the bones of the Thracian hero in order to bury them within the precincts of the colony, presumably as an act of propitiation to the local gods or to impress the fierce Thracian tribes of the neighbourhood. A coin of Seuthes I, King of Odrysian Thrace 424-405 B.C., which bears a Thracian Horseman on the obverse, shows that the symbol — and, in consequence, whatever myth it represented — had become a factor in the national consciousness before the end of the fifth century b.c. (Pl. 6d). Four centuries later, in a somewhat more sophisticated form, it was appearing on coins of the Hellenistic kingdom of Bactria (Fig. 33).


Among the Thracians a primitive legend seems to have existed that Rhesus was killed in Thrace fighting the savage Diomedes, son of Ares, perhaps a reflection of the wars between the Thracians and the first Greek settlers. [4] Philostratus, writing in the first half of the third century a.d., speaks of a shrine of Rhesus on Mount Rhodope. Although he accepts Homer’s version of the Thracian hero’s death, he implies a local ignorance of it :


Rhesus, whom Diomedes slew at Troy, is said to inhabit Rhodope, and they recount many wondrous deeds of his ; for they say that he breeds horses, and marches in armour, and hunts wild beasts ; and, in proof that the hero is a hunter, they tell how the wild boar



1. A. Evans, The Earlier Religion of Greece in the Light of Cretan Discoveries (London, 1931), p. 31.


2. S. Casson, Macedonia, Thrace and Illyria (Oxford, 1926), p. 248.


3. W. H. Porter (ed.), Euripides : Rhesus (Cambridge, 1916), p. xvii.


4. W. H. Porter, op. cit. p. xxv; Pauly-Wissowa, RealEncyclop., s.v. Diomedes.





and gazelles and all the beasts of the mountain come by twos and threes to the altar of Rhesus, and are offered in sacrifice, unbound and unfettered, and yield themselves to the knife ; and this hero is said to ward off plague from his borders. [1]


Fig. 33. BACTRIAN COINS SHOWING THE KING ON HORSEBACK a. Tetradrachm of Sotiros Hippostratos, circa 50-30 B.c. b. Tetradrachm of Azes I, circa 30 b.c. (Twice actual size)



The concept of a legendary king, a father figure of his race and so developed into a heroic or semidivine ancestor of the whole Thracian people, is in fundamental accord with the view expressed by Vulić that the Thracian Horseman is ‘an ancestor, a heroised ancestor, or, still more likely, heroised ancestors’. [2] To such could be attributed all the qualities which the Thracians considered appropriate to a god and with him every Thracian could identify himself in his anticipated after-life when, with the Hero’s aid, death could be vanquished. It was a natural corollary, to which the accretion of the Asklepian attributes could have made an important contribution, that such a hero might be expected to provide certain forms of protection during the mortal existence of his followers. That these mortal forms included defence as well as healing is shown by inscriptions in which the epithet προπυλαίος is used to invoke the Horseman’s aid, and by the incorporation of Horseman tablets in fortified city gateways. [3]


Thus, it is likely that the Thracian Horseman was a composite figure, essentially Thracian and centred on the legendary personality of King Rhesus, but to which Greek, Scythian and probably other myths made important contributions. On the basis of our present knowledge it would probably be unwise to attempt a much closer definition or, indeed, even to regard this suggested identity as more than tentative.


Three related iconographic forms, which, although present in Thrace, were rather symbols of similar concepts developed by neighbouring peoples, are worth noting briefly for the perspective in which they place the Thracian Horseman for us. The first presents a Horseman, his right hand raised, advancing towards a seated female goddess who holds a leafy branch. This scene is reproduced almost identically on a Thasian stele (Pl. 6b), considered by Collart to be the assimilation of two heroised dead into the Heroic Horseman-Dionysus and Bendis-Persephone, [4] and on a Scythian textile from the circa fifth century b.c. grave at Pazarik in the Altai (Pl. 6c). It appears again on a gold finger ring found in a Thracian mound tomb at Brezovo, near Plovdiv in Bulgaria. Here an intaglio design represents a mounted horseman facing a draped female figure who holds out a rhyton. Rostovtzeff explains this scene as a royal investiture or holy communion and comments that it is common on objects from fourth- or third-century Scythian tombs in South Russia. [5] Horseman reliefs bearing a female figure are relatively common in Bulgaria and, despite identifications with Asklepios and Hygeia, there



1. W. H. Porter, op. cit. p. xxv.


2. N. Vulić, op. cit. pp. 281-6.


3. S. Casson, op. cit. pp. 251-3 ; P. Collart, op. cit. p. 468 ; G. Seure, ‘Études sur quelques types curieux du Cavalier Thrace’, Revue des Études Anciennes, xiv, 1912, p. 382, et seq.


4. P Collart, op. cit. p. 437.


5. M. Rostovtzeff, op. cit. p. 89.





the symbol may indicate a closer relationship with Scythian than Hellenic origins. An analogous form appears in East Syria. In the Semitic example illustrated in Pl. ηα sun and moon symbols and a flaming altar are substituted for the goddess, and Arsu, the god of caravans, is the hero, here riding a camel. Parthian reliefs from the same region show the hero-god on horseback advancing towards an altar beside which stands a male god. In the relief from Khirbetel-Hamam the god holds out a wreath. [1]


The second iconographic form is that found in south-west Asia Minor of Artemis flanked by the mounted Dioscuri (Pl. 4c). Evidence of this cult has been found at Stobi (Fig. 34) and elsewhere in Macedonia. Here, as in the Louvre stele displaying opposing Horsemen with dogs separated by a serpent-entwined tree (Fig. 35), it achieved a degree of integration with that of the Thracian Horseman. However, reliefs of dual Horsemen are relatively rare in the areas where the population contained a strong Thracian element, a point which leads us to wonder if the Thracian symbol of a single Heroic Horseman may have played a significant part in Thessalonica’s insistence upon a single personification of the Cabiri.


Fig. 34. GODDESS AND MOUNTED DIOSCURI. Fragment of a relief found at Stobi

Fig. 35. SERPENT-ENTWINED TREE AND MOUNTED DIOSCURI. Funeral stele in the Louvre, Paris


Fig. 36. danubian horsemen reliefs a. Stele divided horizontally. b. Stele framed by arch ; including representation of the Sun god and quadriga, c. Engraved stone



The third related form is that usually known as the Danubian Horseman.



1. The Excavations at Dura Europos (Preliminary Report of Sixth Session) (New Haven, 1936), pp. 228-38 and Pl. xxx.





Here either two opposed Horsemen flank a Mother Goddess, as in the Pisidian Artemis (Pl. 4c), or a single one rides towards her ; but a customary feature is a recumbent man beneath the hooves of each horse. Usually the Danubian Horseman appears on steles accompanied by a hotchpotch of other expressions of beliefs in immortality (Figs. 36a-c). Like Ephesian and Pisidian Artemis, its origin is Asiatic rather than Hellenic and its iconography should not be confused with the well-known stele of Dexileos, where the figure of a rider striking down a barbarian figure beneath his horse’s hooves probably represents a triumphant episode from the deceased man’s life rather than a deeply rooted religious symbol. Such Greek sculptures as this stele and others of a like nature undoubtedly exerted a stylistic influence on the iconography of the Thracian Horseman — many of the finer examples of which may be attributed to Greek craftsmen — but style and concept must not be confused. More akin to the Horseman is the relief from Messene in the Louvre showing the Hunt (not the victory) of Alexander (Fig. 37). The victorious action of the Danubian Horsemen may be a reflection of that dualism inherent in the Iranian religion of which many of the inhabitants of the Danube valley were distant followers.


Fig. 37. HUNT OF ALEXANDER. Relief from Messene in the Louvre, Paris



Along the imperial frontiers garrisoned by legions which included troops from Thrace and Asia Minor and, occasionally, within Thracian territory, a Horseman, stylistically recognisable as of the Thracian type but trampling a defeated warrior beneath his horse’s hooves, appears on funerary steles. None of these examples, three of which occur at Philippi, possess the remaining iconographical features of the Thracian Horseman reliefs. Sometimes, as at Hexham in Northumberland, the triumphant Horseman is hardly recognisable as Thracian and perhaps has no connection. In an example preserved at Gloucester, however, the deceased is not only stylistically presented as a Thracian type, but is identified in the accompanying inscription as a Thracian cavalryman. In spite of this, the figure we see is that of a Roman soldier victorious over his barbarian adversary. It is in the tradition of Dexileos rather than the Thracian Horseman and, if any form of religious symbolism is present, it has little relationship with that of either Thrace or Greece.


Whatever else is open to doubt, the Thracian Horseman symbolised a powerful Thracian religious concept. Did it then leave an impression upon Christianity, either in association with cults such as that of Asklepios or in a more specifically Thracian form ?


The major Christian hero of Byzantine Thessalonica and its neighbourhood was St Demetrius, whose divine attributes, as we shall see when discussing the Slav invasions and the Basilica of St Demetrius, were healing and the protection of his followers. The cult centre of the saint was situated in the crypt of the basilica of St Demetrius in Thessalonica, the alleged scene of his martyrdom. He was claimed in similar terms by the Danubian city of Sirmium, although we lack details of his cult centre there. This plurality of cult centre and use of a crypt is paralleled in the cult of Asklepios, of which Farnell comments :


There was always great resemblance between the ritual at a buried hero’s tomb and that at the underground shrine of the earth deity or daimon ; therefore in certain cases it might be hard to determine whether the personage belonged to one or the other class ; and in the shifting popular tradition the one could easily be transformed into the other. . . . And here and there in the records of the ritual we may detect other chthonian features ; at Trikka, according to the hymn of Isullos, the shrine was a nether ‘aduton’, and the subterranean structure may have prevailed elsewhere, accounting for the rise of a legend that such and such communities possessed the tomb of Asklepios. [1]



1. L. R. Farnell, op. cit. p. 237.





At the outset of his spiritual existence as a Christian hero, St Demetrius was a divine hero in the pure Asklepian tradition and not a Christianised version of the Thracian Horseman. This was not surprising in such a predominantly Greek city as Thessalonica and in view of the pacific temper of Early Christianity. On the other hand, he was never accorded the serpent and dog as sacred animals. Were these discredited as being too obviously pagan symbols ? Nevertheless, we shall see when discussing the mosaics of the Basilica of St Demetrius that within a couple of centuries and probably earlier the saint had entered into mystic relationships with the Virgin and with a ‘lady Evtaxia’ comparable with those of Asklepios and Hygeia, the Thracian Horseman and Bendis, the Cabiri and the Great Mother Goddess, Dionysus and Persephone, Attis and Cybele, Apollo and the Earth Mother Goddess, the Scythian Horseman and the Great Goddess and their many variations. Perhaps this swing towards a relationship with a goddess was an indication of the influences from Asia Minor which were always strong in Macedonian religion, whether Christian or pagan, and which the Semitic fervour of St Paul only temporarily succeeded in replacing with a monotheism that was purely masculine. (In a discussion of Delphic cultural traditions, Dyggve suggests that the earlier Apollo-Earth Mother Goddess relationship at that centre was transformed into one between John the Baptist and the Virgin, and recalls that scented water was a feature of the pagan cult as well as of that of St Demetrius in Thessalonica. [1] Not until later, when the danger to Thessalonica from the Avars and Slavs became acute, did St Demetrius assume in a most splendid and effective manner all the apotropaic powers earlier attributed to the Cabiri and to the Thracian Horseman. Significantly, in Greek iconography he remained unmounted ; but the Slavs, with their ancient Scythian traditions, were quick to picture him on horseback.


Yet among the Slavs it was Cappadocian St George, rather than the Thessalonian hero St Demetrius, who inherited the iconographical form of the Thracian Horseman (Pl. 7d-f), as he did elsewhere those of Bellerophon, Perseus and other heroes. If Galerius’s Rotunda was dedicated to St George from its earliest period as a Christian church, this saint may originally have been a rival of St Demetrius for the role of Thessalonica’s Christian hero. The city’s fierce civic patriotism probably weighed the scales in favour of the local Greek martyr, but beyond the immediate environs a different situation prevailed. In the deeply rooted local traditions of a Heroic Horseman the Slavs found even centuries later the prototype for a hero in whom they could personify their own ideals. This Slav symbol took either the form of the mediaeval Serbian legendary hero Marko, whose character included barbaric aspects as well as idealism, but who was ready with his horse Sharatz to rise and ride to the assistance of his people in their time of need, [2] or that of St George, the champion of Christian virtue against the dragon, locally a synthesis of the boar and serpent as elsewhere it had succeeded such monsters as the Chimaera.


An important Serbian example of the influence of the Thracian Horseman in Christian iconography appears in the badly damaged wall painting of St George in the ruins of Djurdjevi Stupovi (the Towers of St George) (circa 1168), one of the first churches to be built by the Serbian king Stefan Nemanja (Pl. 7d). Sotiriou cites a mediaeval wooden icon of St George found at Thracian Heraclea as another example of local association of the two. He describes it as coarse local art and points out that with the horse’s movement, the saint’s cushioned hair and short trousers, it is more like the Thracian hero than St George fighting the dragon or any of the other saints portrayed in late Byzantine art. [3] Even in the figure of St George on the nineteenth-century iconostasis of the church of Sveti Spas in Skopje (Pl. 7f) the iconography has undergone remarkably little change.


Finally, we may note a non-iconographical point mentioned by Vulić in his study of the Thracian Horseman. At Glava Panega, the healing spring



1. E. Dyggve, ‘Les Traditions cultuelles de Delphes et l’Église chrétienne*, Cahiers Archéologiques, iii (Paris, 1948), pp. 15-16 and 28, n. I.


2. D. Srejović, Les Anciens Éléments balkaniques dans la figure de Marko Kraljević (Živa Antika, VIII, vol. i, Skopje, 1958), pp. 75-973.


3. G. A. Sotiriou, La Sculpture sur bois dans l'art byzantin, in Mélanges Charles Diehl (Paris, 1930), vol. 2, p. 177.





where the reliefs of Asklepios and the Thracian Horseman were discovered together, as late as 1907 peasants were still making pilgrimages to seek cures for their illnesses on St George’s Day. [1]


Thrace itself maintained a peculiar hold over Western imagination. Richard Johnson, in his sixteenth-century blend of ancient and mediaeval legend, The Seven Champions of Christendom, apportions major Thracian adventures to SS. Anthony, Andrew and Patrick. Moreover, after the more obviously fanciful details have been deducted, his descriptions of the country and its inhabitants are not without some relation to fact. It is of interest, too, to note parallels in Mummers’ plays that were still being performed in England in the first half of this century with similarly extant Macedonian versions of the St George legend. [2]


At the western edge of the plain of Philippi rises Mount Pangaeus, dominating the surrounding countryside. To its thickly wooded, mysteriously folded slopes and brooding peaks, legend attributed the birthplace of Dionysus. This part of eastern Macedonia had been one of the earliest centres of Dionysian worship, which perhaps spread from here to Greece. Developed locally as a Thraco-Hellenic cult, it profoundly influenced the religious thought of Greek and Thracian alike. The latter associated Dionysus with their belief in an after-life, not only in connection with Bendis, but, as can be seen on steles at Melnik and Thasos, sometimes actually identifying him with the Heroic Hunter. Inscriptions of the Roman period found in the neighbourhood of Philippi prove the existence of ‘thiasi’, Dionysian brotherhoods of a mystical character whose membership included Romans but were for the most part Thracian. Among these inscriptions is a child’s epitaph in late Latin which speaks of the bliss that awaited Dionysiacs in their future life.


In the shadow of Mount Pangaeus, itself an everpresent reminder of the ancient god, the worship of Dionysus presented a formidable adversary to Christianity. How strong must have been the atmosphere of paganism then can be glimpsed in the fact that even to-day one may climb the acropolis of the nearby island of Thasos and find in a grove of ancient olives a rock sanctuary dedicated to Pan, still (in 1958), after more than two millennia, undefiled by the carved initials of vandal sightseers. In the time of Paul, the older gods were not legends but a living, present force. Although the Roman colonists of Philippi had imported their own gods, it seems that not even Roman prestige and a population, the most powerful classes of which were Roman, influenced the religious beliefs of the indigenous inhabitants to any appreciable extent. Rather was it the reverse.


At a much earlier period, cults originating from Asia Minor and Egypt had attained an enduring place in the religious life of eastern Macedonia. Most prominent among them were the Great Mother Goddess (but not, as far as is known, the Cabiri) from Asia Minor and Samothrace, and Isis, Serapis, and Horus-Harpocrates from Egypt. But these had introduced no new religious principle in any way antagonistic to the indigenous beliefs. All shared, as a fundamental principle, a belief that the faithful would be rewarded by rebirth into Paradise. In some respects, these cults had prepared the way for Christianity, but they also presented grave dangers. Paul had probably sound reasons for adding to his epistle to the Philippians a warning note telling them to ‘beware of evil workers’. [3] And, with psychological genius he presented an ethical, Christian alternative to the thiasi :


Rejoice in the Lord alway ; and again I say, Rejoice.


Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.


Be careful for nothing ; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.


And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.


Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report ; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things . . . and the God of Peace shall be with you. [4]


The Acts of the Apostles give the following description of Paul’s first visit to Macedonia :



1. N. Vulić, op. cit. p. 284.


2. G. F. Abbott, Macedonian Folklore (London, 1903).


3. Philippians iii, 2.


4. Philippians iv, 4.9.





Therefore loosing from Troas, we came with a straight course to Samothracia, and the next day to Neapolis ;

And from thence to Philippi, which is the chief city of that part of Macedonia, and a colony : and we were in that city abiding certain days.

And on the sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made ; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither.

And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us ; whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.

And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, ‘If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there.’ And she constrained us.

And it came to pass, as we went to prayer, a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination met us, which brought her masters much gain by soothsaying : The same followed Paul and us, and cried, saying, ‘These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation.’

And this did she many days. But Paul, being grieved, turned and said to the spirit, ‘ I command thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her’. And he came out the same hour.

And when her masters saw that the hope of their gains was gone, they caught Paul and Silas, and drew them into the marketplace unto the rulers.

And brought them to the magistrates, saying, ‘These men, being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city.

‘And teach customs, which are not lawful for us to receive, neither to observe, being Romans.’

And the multitude rose up together against them : and the magistrates rent off their clothes, and commanded to beat them.

And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely :

Who having received such a charge, thrust them, into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks.

And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God : and the prisoners heard them.

And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken : and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed.

And the keeper of the prison awaking out of his sleep, and seeing the prison doors open, he drew out his sword, and would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had been fled.

But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘Do thyself no harm : for we are all here.’

Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas.

And brought them out, and said, ‘ Sirs, what must I do to be saved ?’

And they said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.’

And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house.

And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes ; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway.

And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house.

And when it was day, the magistrates sent the serjeants, saying, ‘Let those men go.’

And the keeper of the prison told this saying to Paul, ‘The magistrates have sent to let you go : now therefore depart, and go in peace.’

But Paul said unto them, ‘They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison ; and now do they thrust us out privily ? nay verily ; but let them come themselves and fetch us out.’

And the serjeants told these words unto the magistrates : and they feared, when they heard that they were Romans.

And they came and besought them, and brought them out, and desired them to depart out of the city.

And they went out of the prison, and entered into the house of Lydia : and when they had seen the brethren, they comforted them, and departed.


Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews :

And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures.

Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead : and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.

And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas ; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.





But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people.

And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, ‘These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also ; Whom Jason hath received : and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus.’

And they troubled the people and the rulers of the city, when they heard these things.

And when they had taken security of Jason, and of the other, they let them go.


And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea (Verria) : who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews.

These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.

Therefore many of them believed ; also of honourable women which were Greeks and of men, not a few.

But when the Jews of Thessalonica had knowledge that the word of God was preached of Paul at Berea, they came thither also, and stirred up the people.

And then immediately the brethren sent away Paul to go as it were to the sea : but Silas and Timotheus abode there still.


And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens ; and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed.


Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. [1]


The traveller of to-day who takes a car or bus from Neapolis to Philippi must retrace much of the Via Egnatia along which Paul and his companions walked. At Philippi, where at least one inscription has been found referring to dealers in purple dyes, Paul, as had been his custom in Asia Minor, waited for the Sabbath before making an attempt to preach his gospel. For the first time, however, he was adventuring into a city where the Jewish population was negligible. There was no synagogue in Philippi, and so Paul and his companions ‘went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made ; and (we) sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither’.


One feels that Paul must have attached a very considerable importance to Philippi to have acted thus. Was it because he had set as his lifework his mission to the Gentiles? Was it the influence of Timotheus, whose father was Greek? Was it because he found among certain of the Philippians an unusual sympathy towards his message? The last may or may not have been a reason for his stay in the city, but from the affection with which he afterwards always spoke of his followers there it would seem to be true. In his epistle to the community of Philippi, he almost goes out of his way to say : ‘ Now ye Philippians know also, that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving but ye only. For even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my necessity.’ [2] The Macedonian Jews were responsible for hounding him from Thessalonica and Verria, but he met with no such vindictive opposition in Philippi. Probably, as Lemerle has pointed out, most of the followers of Judaism were likely to have been Gentile converts to its principles rather than circumcised Jews. [3] Paul’s troubles in Philippi stemmed only from his having put an end to the lucrative profits which some men had been enjoying through their exploitation of a poor half-witted girl’s facility in telling fortunes. These accused him only of teaching (Jewish) ‘customs, which are not lawful for us to receive, being Romans’. In Philippi the chronicler of the Acts of the Apostles records no opposition to Paul’s preaching of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection.


In Thessalonica and Verria a particular welcome was given to Paul’s gospel by the Greek population, ‘devout Greeks’ as they are called on one occasion. The race of those who received him with such warmth in Philippi is not specified ; and nowhere are the indigenous Thracians or Illyrians mentioned. It seems a possibility that, particularly in Philippi, Paul made no distinction between the Greeks and the urban, Hellenised Thracians.



1. Acts of the Apostles xvi and xvii.


2. Philippians iv, 15 and 16.


3. P. Lemerle, Philippes et la Macédoine Orientale (Paris, 1945), p. 29.





Both were eligible for Roman citizenship. Both would speak Greek. Both, too, practised a synthesis of Thracian and Hellenic cults, which would have prepared them for Christian ideas. The status of women in Illyrian society may, too, have been the reason for the interest shown in Thessalonica and Verria by ‘ chief’ and ‘honourable women which were Greeks’. Educated, urban Illyrians, too, would have spoken Greek.


Macedonia continued to figure prominently in the missionary field after Paul’s departure. Within a year or so the province was revisited by Timotheus and Erastus. Meanwhile, Gaius and Aristarchus, the only two companions of Paul in Asia Minor who are identified in the Acts of the Apostles, were both Macedonians. The Acts contain no description of Paul’s second and third visits, made on his way to and from Greece;


but the names of those who accompanied him to Asia Minor on his way to Jerusalem include Sopater of Verria and Aristarchus and Secundus of Thessalonica, the other four being identified as coming from the Roman provinces of Asia.


A final point of special interest in the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles is that following his extensive travels in Roman Asia Minor and Macedonia, Paul reacted so strongly to finding Athens ‘wholly given to idolatry’. Until he reached Athens, his natural, traditional, Jewish aversion to graven images does not appear to have been seriously affronted. Here, however, Paul was moved to the first Christian expression of iconoclasm, later to develop into such a violent source of contention between the Greek and Oriental parts of the Byzantine Church.




Chapter V. The Centuries of Persecution and the First Gothic Invasions



With regard to Macedonia’s contribution to the evolution of Christian doctrine in its first centuries, it is significant, perhaps, that none of the early fathers whose writings were the basis of the formulation of this doctrine wrote from the province. Possibly there was no one with anything particularly constructive to add to that which was coming from other centres. Possibly there was no one with an exceptional gift of the pen. On the other hand it must be remembered that Macedonia and the Via Egnatia were of vital strategic importance to the Roman Empire during the second and third centuries. Roman control over the civil population would have been strict, and would have allowed little latitude to the activities of ‘subversive’ religions. Even so, Tertullian, writing his De Prescriptione Haereticomm at the beginning of the third century, rated Philippi as the leading Christian ecclesia of Macedonia and placed it on a level of orthodoxy and authority with those of Rome, Corinth and Ephesus :


Age jam, qui voles curiositatem melius exercere in negotio salutis suae, percurre ecclesias apostolicas, apud quas ipsae adhuc cathedrae apostolorum suis locis praesident ; apud quas ipsae authenticae litterae eorum recitantur, sonantes voces et repraesentantes faciem uniuscujusque. Proxima est tibi Achats : habes Corinthum ; si non longe es a Macedonia, habes Philippos ; si potes in Asiam tendere, habes Ephesum ; si autem Italiae adjaces, habes Romam.


If not in doctrine, certainly in other aspects an essentially Macedonian impact upon Christianity is evident. Thessalonica, as we have seen, was able to transfer the attributes of pagan heroes to its Christian patron saint, St Demetrius. The same city, with the enthusiastic support of the province as a whole, was also an early protagonist of the Virgin as the acknowledged Mother of the divine — as distinct from the human — Christ. Although partly inspired by political motives, the fervour induced by the Nestorian controversy points also to deeply rooted religious feelings. This is hardly surprising when the strength of the centuries’ long experience of variations on the Great Mother Goddess theme is recalled. We shall follow the translation of this emotion into Christian art when discussing the Thessalonian churches of St Demetrius and ‘Acheiropoietos’.


Clearly, the degree to which the pre-Christian religious beliefs of Macedonia affected Christianity during the formative first three centuries of its era must remain a question mark. It may have been considerable ; it is unlikely that it was negligible. Certainly, the dominant pagan influence came from the eastern or Thracian region of Macedonia rather than from the Illyrian west. There Mithraism, imported by Roman legionaries from the Orient, had succeeded easily and naturally the indigenous, primitive sun and moon cults and it continued to make progress until checked by Christianity’s official triumph in the fourth century. It would, however, be unwise to dismiss too lightly the possible influence of the native Illyro-Macedonian cults upon the local development of Christianity. Although Christianity’s victory over Mithraism also appeared complete, the persistence of sun symbols, not merely in the remoter parts of Albania, but prominently displayed in, for instance, the brickwork of the Kastoria churches of Aghios Stephanos (ninth century) and Anagyriou (tenth century)









and, together with the cross, on the mediaeval wooden door of the Verria church of Aghia Paraskevi, indicate that the indigenous beliefs did not succumb so easily or quickly (Figs. 38-40).


However, probably an important result of St Paul’s influence on the early evolution of Christianity, the fundamental (though not exclusively) Thracian religious themes, Bendis the chthonic Great Mother Goddess and the Heroic Hunter, were not resurrected in Christian ideology and iconography for several centuries. Compromise played no part in this dynamic and fanatical apostle-martyr’s character, and his example and writings enforced a similar discipline upon Christianity. His reactions to the forces ranged against him in Philippi and other parts of Macedonia, the first impressions probably confirmed during his subsequent journeys, may have played no unimportant part in forming his fateful antipathies. They would have certainly been strengthened by the fact that, although a Roman citizen and the apostle of the Gentiles, he always retained in his heart the strict principles of an orthodox Jew, to whom the idea of a female goddess or a feminine influence in religion was foreign and sacrilegious.





During the second century a.d., Rome’s increasing activity on her eastern frontiers brought mounting prosperity for Macedonia. The theatres of Philippi and Stobi, both modelled on lines popular in Asia Minor rather than earlier European forms, date from this century. Stobi’s metamorphosis from a garrison town into a well-planned, prosperous, provincial Roman city probably occurred at this time. To an even greater degree the staging-points and cities of the Via Egnatia must have enjoyed a liveliness and wealth





that had never been theirs before — and which before long was to prove an all too great temptation and all too easy prey for invaders. Except for an occasional re-used slab, capital or pillar, and a few buildings excavated, nothing remains of this highway’s ancient prosperity — its destruction was so complete and the ensuing Dark Ages so long lasting. In many cases, Verria being an outstanding example, new cities have risen over the graves of the old and rendered archaeological excavation all the more difficult. In others, however, as financial grants slowly become available, the past is being gradually uncovered, revealing the mode of living of those who once earned rich profits from the commerce of the Via Egnatia.


In the second century and for much of the third the Macedonian economy was steadily expanding. Not until the second half of the third century did there appear even the slightest hint of the approaching disaster. There are no records of the progress of Christianity in the province at this time. Perhaps the conditions of prosperity were not particularly propitious. On the other hand, such tendencies as the increasing materialism and the custom of deifying the emperors may well have produced a concealed but strong reaction that would have favoured Christianity’s growth.


Whichever was the case, it was not until the fourth century that the Church in Macedonia emerged from its obscurity. In 325 the Council of Nicaea provides us with the first authentic record of the existence of a bishop of Thessalonica. The incumbent, Alexander, who was present at Nicaea, also attended the Council of Tyre in 335 where he was a staunch supporter of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in his struggle against the Court-favoured views of Arius.





Alexander attended, in the same year, the dedication of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. It was Alexander, too, who, we are told in a mediaeval account written by a monk named Ignatius, had earlier taken the courageous step of baptising the daughter of Galerius during the latter’s absence fighting the Sarmatian invaders. This incident is of interest not only in its presentation of a legend concerning the construction of one of Thessalonica’s churches (a legend not, in fact, supported by archaeological evidence) but in its story of Macedonian Christianity in the years immediately preceding the Peace of the Church. Ignatius tells us :


‘ It was during the years of the persecution. Impiety, having the Emperor as an ally against Christ, was flourishing and progressing, while piety was almost eliminated. Maximian (Galerius), the Christian-persecuting Emperor, was that notorious and faithful servant of the demons. He lived with his wife and children in the famous city of Thessalonica. At that time he was busy preparing war against the Stavromatai (Sarmatians). He had an only daughter, who became the fertile earth to receive the seed of divine instruction. She was called Theodora....’ Walking one day along the seashore beyond the city limits Theodora came to the quarter ‘where the persecuted Christians dwelt, because there the tyrants had sentenced them to live .... The young princess, with her whole retinue . . . arrived at the altar where the High Priest Alexander was carrying out his bloodless sacrifice. She stopped before the church and after listening outside for some time to the divine hymns, was carried away, and said to her retinue, “I wish to see and hear how the Christians praise their God and what are their chantings”.


‘She entered the temple with such discretion that the faithful there admired the shyness and the attention of the maid. When the time came for the reading from the Bible (it was the passage from the Final Judgement of the Lord in which He Himself will judge His creations and give each according to his works) and she heard the divine word, she received, like the noble earth, the seed deep within her heart so that it soon began to strike root in her soul. Already the divine fire was kindled within her, the fire which Christ came to bring on earth. She called one of her trusted servants and told him in secrecy, “Without anyone knowing, try to bring the bishop to me this evening”.’





That night, leaving her parents under some false pretext, Theodora met Alexander. He interpreted the Bible to her and gave her instruction in ‘the divine economy and the mystery of the divine human nature of Christ’. After he had explained the rite of baptism, Theodora exclaimed, “‘Here is the water, what prevents me from being baptised ?” The bishop, holding her head, christened her in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, in a big jar that was there for the collection of rain water.’ Because living with her parents prevented her from carrying out her Christian devotions, Theodora pretended illness and asked her father to build for her a house with a bath in the northern part of the city, near to some quarries, in order that she might forget her bodily sufferings. The house was quickly finished and there Theodora found greater opportunity to follow the instructions of her spiritual father.


Before leaving for his campaign the emperor visited his daughter to inspect her new dwelling and the bath which was still under construction. ‘But something made him wonder and he confided his thought to his daughter ; namely, how could water be found for the bath since the area was so arid and rocky. The quickwitted princess, however, replied, “He who has made all this will undertake to bring water even from very tar away .


‘When the emperor left for the campaign, Theodora was able to act with greater ease and to concentrate all her energies on the building of the so-called bath, which, as soon as it was ready, she called the Temple of Christ and the Sacred Refuge of the Holy Ghost. She requested the High Priest Alexander to inaugurate the newly built church by placing the cross with his own hands on the foundation of the altar. She commissioned a mosaicist to design an icon of the Holy Mother on the eastern apse.’ But the day the mosaicist came to put the finishing touches to his work, ‘in the place of the Holy Mother he saw another icon, completely different from the one he had created, Christ with a man’s features sitting on a shining cloud’.


Ignatius then describes the mosaic of the Vision of Ezekiel in the eastern apse of the church of Hosios David and the inscription at its foot with such accuracy that it has been of considerable assistance to present century restoration work. ‘When the mosaicist saw this spectacle’, Ignatius continues, ‘he became speechless and sent someone to tell Theodora. She hurried at once to the scene of the miracle and, after becoming ecstatic herself at the sight, ordered the mosaicist not to touch the divine imprint, which she then worshipped.’


‘The devil, nevertheless, who is the enemy of every Christian, cast his evil eye on the spiritual bliss of Theodora. One of her slaves betrayed her to her mother. At first the Empress refused to believe the allegation. She called Theodora and tried with sweet words, prayers and advice to convince her how hard and terrible is the life of a Christian and then asked if all was true that she had heard. Wishing to gain time the princess denied everything . . . she took calves’ leather, bricks and mortar and covered the icon of Christ in a way that it should remain undamaged, thus preventing its destruction and eliminating all cause of suspicion against her.’


‘ Some time later the Empress wished to offer magnificent sacrifices to Artemis for the health and salvation of the Emperor. She invited all the nobles of the city and the Council and all the people to participate in these celebrations. Theodora, however, refused, saying, “My mother, I should be out of my senses if I agreed to sacrifice to these dead dummies. These are not gods, they are sorcerers and deceivers and they send those who worship them to eternal damnation. As David says of them, Let the gods perish who did not create heaven and earth”.’ Theodora maintained her refusal, despite pleadings, threats and reminders by her mother of her father’s ferocity. Finally, the empress reported her daughter’s misconduct to the emperor, who ordered the maid to be strictly confined until his return and her house in the quarries and the ‘bath’ to be burned down. Although his instructions were carried out, the holy icon was nevertheless, ‘as was afterwards proved’, preserved intact. Ignatius relates of Theodora that she ‘was delivered to the guards and thus she terminated her life by giving her holy spirit to the Lord and her untouched body into the hands of the faithful’. [1]



The martyrdom of St Demetrius, Thessalonica’s patron saint, also belongs to the early years of the fourth century, probably around 303. Although opinions differ as to whether St Demetrius belongs to Thessalonica or the Danubian city of Sirmium, his legendary aspects outweigh the historical in importance, and, in this sense, the claims of Sirmium to St Demetrius vanished, with Sirmium itself, in the Dark Ages. The Thessalonian association, on the other hand,



1. A full Greek version of this extract from Ignatius is given in S. Pelekanides, ΠΑΛΑΙΟΧΡΙΣΤΙΑΝΙΚΑ ΜΝΗΜΕΙΑ ΘΕΣΣΑΛΟΝΙΚΗΣ (Thessalonica, 1949).





has developed through the centuries as an integral part of the city’s story.


St Demetrius, it is related, belonged to an old Thessalonian family. He entered the army, where his bravery and resourcefulness brought him rapid promotion and attracted the attention of Galerius, at that time Caesar of Illyricum and Thrace. Galerius appointed him Prefect but Demetrius became converted to Christianity and, with all the zeal that had won him distinction in the army, rapidly became one of its leading advocates. About 303, Galerius, returning to Thessalonica from one of his campaigns, inaugurated a violent persecution of the Christians. Demetrius was arrested on his orders while preaching the Gospel and brought to him. The Caesar tried to persuade him to renounce his religion. Demetrius refused, and Galerius, in a hurry to attend some games taking place in the stadium, ordered his confinement in the basement of some nearby baths.


In the stadium Galerius announced a prize of a large sum of money for anyone able to defeat the champion gladiator, Lyaios. The other gladiators held back, but a young Christian friend of Demetrius named Nestor rushed to him in his prison and asked for his blessing in order that he might challenge Lyaios and defeat him. Demetrius gave it, but warned his friend that martyrdom would follow his victory.


Galerius, out of pity for Nestor’s youth, tried to dissuade him from the challenge, and even offered to give him the amount of the prize money if he withdrew. Nestor refused and, to the astonishment of all, fought and killed Lyaios. Furious at the death of his favourite, Galerius ordered Nestor before him again. When he learned that he, too, was a Christian and attributed his victory to the blessing of Demetrius, he sentenced the young gladiator to immediate execution. Further reflection, supported by the hints of his entourage, however, soon convinced Galerius that the real instigator of Lyaios’ death was his ex-protégé, Demetrius, and he ordered soldiers forthwith to the baths to spear him to death with their lances. That night the martyr’s mutilated body was recovered by some of his Christian followers and buried in a basement of the baths.


Soon after attaining their liberty to worship, the Thessalonian Christians built a small church above Demetrius’s grave. This quickly developed into a shrine which possessed miraculous powers of healing, drawing sick people from many parts of the Empire. Among them was Leontius, Prefect of Illyricum in 412-13. Cured, it is said, of paralysis, in his gratitude Leontius demolished the small early church and the baths and built in their place a great, new basilica, dedicated to the saint.


As Christianity progressed, St Demetrius quickly developed into Thessalonica’s patron saint and defender. Rarely has a city placed such implicit and lasting faith in the ability of its patron saint to preserve it from disaster. More than once during the barbarian invasions, it was this faith alone that maintained the citizens’ morale, and, conversely, served in no small degree to undermine that of their enemies. Unfortunately, it must be admitted that there have, too, been rare occasions when even Thessalonian faith in St Demetrius could not inspire the required miracle. Twice the church has suffered severe damage from fire, once in the seventh century and again as recently as 1917. Yet, despite occasional misfortune, St Demetrius’s reputation throughout Christendom as an effective defender of his city, as a protector of children and as a healer of the sick redounded in no small degree to the renown of Thessalonica in the Byzantine age, and drew pilgrims and sick persons seeking to be healed even from Constantinople.


The first decade or so of the fourth century saw the building of the earliest monuments in Thessalonica that still exist to-day. The ruins of the first, Galerius’s Triumphal Arch (Pl. 8), erected to celebrate his victory over the Persians in 303, are now by-passed by the modern Odos Egnatia, but originally it marked the intersection of one of the city’s main streets and an avenue leading from the Rotunda of Galerius to his palace. Clearly exhibiting Greco-Syrian influences, the marble reliefs which decorate the central piers show incidents from the Persian war, the martial deeds of Galerius, and Roman emperors offering sacrifices to the gods.


The Rotunda, erected about 310, has survived the centuries in a remarkable manner. Galerius probably intended it as his mausoleum, and grandiosely may have styled it after the Roman Pantheon and purposely made it to dwarf Diocletian’s mausoleum at Split.





But the great persecutor of the Christians died on a distant expedition and, in the true vein of Greek dramatic irony, in the late fourth century his Rotunda became instead a church, dedicated either then or later, to St George, the Christian ‘Great Martyr’.


The growing imperial interest in Thessalonica, the additional ensuing prosperity and prestige, and even Galerius’s construction of a number of splendid monuments were, however, due to more ominous factors than the commercial importance of the Via Egnatia. The first two centuries of the Christian era had seen the Roman Empire extend to its farthest limits. Although by the end of the second century its frontiers had already begun to recede, they still included Britain, all of Europe west of the Rhine and south of the Danube, as well as the Dacian conquest of Trajan. In Asia, Asia Minor, Armenia, Northern Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine, and in Africa, Egypt and the north African coast were still Roman provinces. But to find sufficient manpower to defend the lengthy frontiers, the Emperors had for a long time enlisted native troops from the Imperial provinces. When these proved inadequate, barbarian or semi-barbarian tribes had been invited to settle in depopulated regions within the Imperial frontiers as foederati, on condition that they provided the defence for their particular sector.


This policy could be followed with safety only to a certain point. By the third century, if not before, that point had been passed, and throughout this century the populations of the Roman Empire, and particularly the ranks of its defenders, were being weakened by the continual introduction of undisciplined, barbarian elements. Thessalonica’s new role was no longer primarily commercial; it was the strategic rear headquarters — to Sirmium on the Danube — of the military command of Illyricum which had now to be reorganised to meet the barbarian threat to the great trans-Balkan routes.


This threat was, in the main, the southern section of a two-pronged Teutonic thrust. The Western Teutons — Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, Franks, Alemans, Bavarians, Swabians, Thuringians — had grouped themselves between the rivers Elbe, Danube, Rhine and the North Sea. The Eastern tribes — Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Burgundians, Lombards — inhabited an area bounded by the River Don in the east, the Danube in the south, and to the west and north by the regions occupied by the Western Teutons and Scandinavian tribes. From these positions the Western Teutons erupted westwards, their eastern brothers to the south.


The earliest Gothic raids across the Danube into Moesia, Thrace and Macedonia occurred shortly before A.D. 250, while the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths were still one tribe. The damage achieved on these first incursions was small, but the ease with which they had been made into a countryside holding out promises of loot beyond their most avaricious dreams, convinced the Goths that the situation was worthy of exploitation by a full-scale invasion. Small bands might attack the rural districts and rob them at will, but the real prizes were the well-fortified and properly garrisoned towns and cities. Accordingly, in 250, organised into a strong and numerous army, the Goths again appeared in Moesia. The Roman force sent to repel them was heavily defeated at Thracian Verria (Stara Zagora). After a fierce siege Philippopolis was treacherously surrendered and many of the foederati charged with its defence joined forces with the invaders. The other large, well-fortified cities held out, but the major part of Moesia, Thrace and Macedonia was now open to the barbarians, who looted, sacked, slaughtered and took captive without mercy or hindrance. Towards the end of 251, the Emperor Decius gathered a new Roman army to meet them in the Dobruja. It, too, was defeated and Decius himself numbered among the slain.


In 252, contemptuously disregarding the peace by which Decius’s successor had bought their withdrawal, the Goths again crossed the Danube and made south for Thessalonica, leaving everywhere a trail of devastation. Although fiercely besieged, the city’s defences stood firm and, after heavy losses on both sides, the Goths retired to their trans-Danubian homeland. The lull that the Balkans appear to have experienced for a few years after this was, however, no more than a time of preparation for a further Gothic attempt to sack Thessalonica. A huge Gothic army, backed by a fleet of comparable size, appeared on the Moesian coast early in 269. There it divided, the army advancing on Thessalonica by land, once more devastating





Thracia en route, and the navy passing through the Bosphorus into the Aegean. Before investing Thessalonica, this fleet coasted along the Asia Minor shore, Rhodes and Crete, leaving, as had another Gothic fleet ten years earlier, a train of destruction in its wake.


Again Thessalonica, with the nearby city of Cassandreia, heroically and successfully resisted the invaders until a relieving army under the Emperor Claudius II approaching from the north caused the Goths to lift the siege. The two armies met near Naissus (Niš) in the latter half of 269. The Goths suffered a complete defeat, leaving, it is said, 50,000 dead behind them. It was an important victory that restored the lands south of the Danube to Roman control for another century. But the frontier was no longer secure. Raiding bands continually crossed the Danube, destroyed and looted, and returned before the Roman forces could reach them. In addition to the necessity of maintaining expensive armies at the alert, two emperors, Galerius in 305 and Constantine in 331-2, were obliged to launch large-scale military operations in defence of their Balkan territories against invaders that included Sarmatians as well as Goths.


Although the barbarian invasions brought a swift and bloody ending to the commercial economy based on the Via Egnatia, its decline was inevitable after Constantine’s decision to transfer the capital to the shores of the Bosphorus. With the foundation of Constantinople, as Collart has written, ‘ Rome ceased to be a pole for the basin of the Aegean. The Via Egnatia lost its meaning.’ [1]


The strategic basis of such cities as Pella, Aegae (Edessa), Heraclea Lyncestis (near Bitola) and Lychnidus (Ohrid) immediately began to fade. Already the countryside had ceased to be safe, unbelievable as this seemed after four centuries of the pax romana. Now, as trade dwindled, dilapidation, depopulation and poverty followed. Thessalonica, by virtue of its situation, might be able to maintain a military and administrative raison d'être. With the triumph of Christianity, Philippi, the site of a Constantinian basilica and closely associated with St Paul, might enter a new phase as a centre of pilgrimage ; but by the time the barbarian attacks were renewed in the last quarter of the fourth century, many once-wealthy towns and villages of the Via Egnatia between Thessalonica and the Adriatic must already have assumed a ghost-like appearance. By then it had already come about that ‘ the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened’. Such was the twilight background of the Macedonian countryside in the century immediately following the Peace of the Church.



1. P. Collart, Philippes, ville de Macédoine depuis ses origines jusqu à la fin de l'époque romaine (Paris, 1937), p. 522.




Chapter VI. Political and Ecclesiastical Rivalries



The project of Constantine the Great, joint emperor from 306 and reigning alone from 323 until 337, to establish a new capital based on the eastern provinces of the Empire, cannot but have excited the ambitions of the Thessalonians. Under Galerius and, between 312 and 322, under Constantine himself, the Macedonian capital had several times served as the imperial residence and the headquarters for military operations against the northern invaders. Under the latter emperor’s direction, Gothic prisoners of war had constructed a proper harbour, which Thessalonica had hitherto lacked, and the city had been the assembly point of an army and a navy gathered to wage war against his rival emperor Licinius. It would certainly have been strange if Constantine had not seriously weighed the advantages of a city so strategically placed, so well situated on important trade routes and, moreover, with a Church possessing the moral prestige of a Pauline foundation. To the Thessalonians, understandably enough, their city must have been the obvious and only choice. Neither Alexandria nor Antioch was sufficiently central, Sirmium was too northerly and exposed, Athens too indelibly reactionary and pagan. There is even a tradition that Constantine had actually selected Thessalonica to be his capital, only to be later dissuaded by an epidemic, which forced him to evacuate the city.


Whatever the reasons, in 330 it was not Thessalonica, but Byzantium, on the European shore of the Bosphorus, that gained the title of the ‘city of Constantine’. The decision must have come as a bitter blow to Thessalonian pride, for Byzantium, though


older, was a city of considerably less contemporary importance, size and prosperity. The powerful influence of Christian traditionalism, nurtured in the years of adversity and repression, and now spurred by the invigorating effect of the Edict of Milan, must also have weighed strongly in determining Thessalonica’s attitude. As the Church of Rome was able to claim special reverence on the grounds that there SS. Peter and Paul had attained the culmination of their missionary work and martyrdom, so the Christians of the Macedonian capital treasured the fact that their city had been one of the first to have received Paul and Silas on their mission to the European provinces of the Empire. In the vision that had appeared to Paul in Asia Minor there had * stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying “Come over into Macedonia and help us” ’. Byzantium, with its strongly pagan background, had no such honoured place, in fact no place at all in the early records of Christianity. The priorities of the Church of Rome, founded by St Peter, that of Alexandria, founded by St Mark and that of Antioch, founded by St Peter, were recognised. They were Churches and, for that matter, cities whose leadership Thessalonica could in no way pretend to dispute. But upstart Byzantium, henceforth Constantinople and officially recognised as New Rome, possessed no such pedigree. The Thessalonians, in the same way as the Alexandrians, would not have been human, and certainly not Greek, if they had accepted Constantine’s fateful decision without bitterness. Rome could be consoled with the record of a glorious past and was still, in 330, the capital of half the Roman





world; but Thessalonica, the ‘might have been.’, watched the embellishment of Constantinople with magnificent churches, palaces and monuments, and the growth of its influence and wealth, with an envy and resentment that was to colour its religious, political and artistic outlook for several centuries. When, in 381, the inevitable occurred and the Council of Constantinople declared the capital to be the seat of a new Bishopric, having equality with Rome, and the Bishop of Constantinople next in rank to the Bishop of Rome, ‘because Constantinople is New Rome’, it can only have added to the rancour already felt by Thessalonica towards its successful rival.


We have few facts upon which to judge the progress of Macedonian Christianity between the Edicts of Toleration and the accession of Theodosius in 379. The little we know gives an impression of vigour, even turbulence, in the early part of this period ; but after the middle of the century a revival of paganism, associated with economic decline and failing security, appears to have forced Christianity back once more to the defensive. Bishop Alexander of Thessalonica died after taking part in the Council of Tyre in 335. Aetius, who held the see from 342 until probably 355, had had to contend with two rivals, Eutychianus and Museus, whose practice of increasing their following by means of indiscriminate ordinations could have been of no help to the sound organisation of the Church. About this time Thessalonica must, indeed, have presented a lively ecclesiastical spectacle, for at the Council of Sardica, in 343, Aetius is quoted as boasting ‘You all know how great and beautiful is the metropolis of Thessalonica. Priests and deacons from other provinces, in fact, often come there. And a short stay in no way suffices them; on the contrary, they remain there for ever, and if they are obliged to return to their own churches they do so after a long time (and as if unwillingly).’ [1] Archbishop Herenius, who succeeded in 3 55, signified a short-lived change in policy by abandoning the cause of Athanasius of Alexandria at the Council of Milan held that year. This first recorded instance of an ecclesiastical alignment of Thessalonica with Constantinople was soon reversed by Acholius, his successor, who held the see circa 374 to 383-4.


The foundation of Constantinople had moved the centre of gravity of the Roman Empire away from Roman soil to a point which Rome had succeeded in occupying and ruling, but had never absorbed. Byzantium had been and had remained a Greek city, dependent in the main on trade links that stretched eastwards beyond the farthermost limits of Alexander’s conquests, and beyond the Black Sea into territories that to-day comprise central and southern Russia. Its hinterland was the virile and wealthy region of Asia Minor as much as if not more than the less secure east Balkan lands, a fact that was to assume an increasing importance in the coming centuries.


The political power of the ‘Old Rome’ did not end automatically with Constantine’s foundation of Constantinople, but as its western provinces crumpled before the barbarian attacks, its doom was inexorable. Until 476 Italy remained the seat of a western emperor, and however unsuitable for office the incumbent might be, the traditions of a glorious past still to some degree persisted. But, after the western emperors had transferred first to Milan and then to the lagoon-protected haven of Ravenna, Rome’s fall was swift. Alaric and his Goths sacked it in 410, Gaiseric and his Vandals in 455. In 546 the Gothic king, Totila, completed its ignominy when, leaving its buildings standing, he contemptuously ejected the whole population, letting the city lie desolate and uninhabited for forty days.


This demoralisation of Rome and the Italian countryside in the fifth century provided an opportunity for which only its Church was ready. In 452, when Attila and his army of Huns crossed into Italy, Pope Leo the Great led a Roman embassy to the barbarian leader to ask him to spare the city. Whether, in fact, to Leo is due the major share of the credit for turning back Attila, or whether the latter had other, more urgent reasons, is a minor point compared with the moral effect throughout the Christian West of Leo’s initiative and leadership. Three years later, when the Vandals entered and plundered Rome, it was again Leo who persuaded them to spare the city and population from destruction, and who was able to save, in considerable measure, the churches and their furnishings.


The courageous acceptance of moral leadership by the Church of Rome had a particularly important effect in Macedonia. Eastern Illyricum, of which Macedonia was part,



1. J. D. Mansi, Sacrorium Conciliorum Collectio (Florence, 1769-98), vol. iii, p. 17.





was from the first a region of contention between the old and new Romes. On the accession of Theodosius the Great in 379, its political jurisdiction was ceded to Constantinople by Gratian, the western Emperor. Ecclesiastical authority remained with the Pope, but the many difficulties of maintaining control in these circumstances were enhanced by the expansionist ambitions of the Patriarchs of Constantinople. Pope Damasus (366-84) attempted to meet the situation by appointing Acholius of Thessalonica as his Vicar Apostolic, delegating to him authority to preside over local Church Councils, confirm elections of ordinary bishops, authorise ordinations and deliver judgement on all but the most important matters.


Acholius (or Ascholius) was an outstanding personality and the friend of such contemporary figures as St Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia and St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. His problems were not only political. The general social and economic malaise arising from the Gothic invasions during the reign of Valens had given a new stimulus to paganism, still by no means vanquished. The pagan sects had regained their old rights of free worship, including access to their sanctuaries. A lucky chance enabled Acholius to reverse this trend. Towards the end of 379 Theodosius was taken severely ill at Thessalonica. While believing himself about to die, he was converted to Christianity by Acholius and baptised, following which act he recovered rapidly. Not unnaturally ready to accept the advice of Acholius in religious matters, on 28th February 380, Theodosius issued the celebrated Edict of Thessalonica :


It is our pleasure that all the nations which are governed by our clemency and moderation should steadfastly adhere to the religion which was taught by St Peter to the Romans ; which faithful tradition has preserved ; and which is now professed by the pontiff Damasus, and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the discipline of the apostles and the doctrine of the gospel, let us believe the sole deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost ; under an equal majesty and a pious Trinity. We authorise the followers of this doctrine to assume the title of Catholic Christians ; and, as we judge that all others are extravagant madmen, we brand them with the infamous name of Heretics ; and declare that their conventicles shall no longer usurp the respectable appellation of churches. Besides the condemnation of Divine justice, they must expect to suffer the severe penalties which our authorities, guided by heavenly wisdom, shall think proper to inflict upon them.


Such an affirmation of the Nicaean attitude was more than a great personal triumph for Acholius ; it was a powerful blow aimed by Thessalonica at Constantinople, for some forty years, that is to say since the death of Constantine, the chief centre of the Arian heresy. The Arians, motivated by principles of strict monotheism, repudiated the doctrine of the Son being co-eternal with the Father, denying as a consequence, the fundamental Nicaean conception of the Trinity. In terms of fourth-century ecclesiastical politics, therefore, Theodosius’s Edict was a resounding declaration of Thessalonica’s alignment with Rome and Alexandria in their opposition to the capital. With its adversaries no less than among its friends the Edict increased the prestige of the city and its bishops abroad. We can hardly doubt, too, that the self-esteem of its citizens at home was similarly raised. On the other hand, more than ever before, it must have strengthened the determination of the Patriarchs of Constantinople to exert their authority over this stubborn but key city.


Another, less savoury incident links the name of Theodosius with Thessalonica, and one that was also an important factor in deciding the city’s attitude between Rome and Constantinople. In 391 Theodosius passed through Thessalonica on his way to suppress a rebellion in his western territories. Heavy requisitions were levied ruthlessly upon the citizens who were doubly infuriated at having to surrender their wealth to an army largely composed of detested Gothic mercenaries. Thus it was particularly unfortunate that when the emperor and his army departed, he should leave behind in the city a garrison of Gothic troops under Botheric, a Gothic general honoured with the title of military commander of Illyricum. It was a situation in which the faintest spark was capable of setting off a full-scale conflagration.


The inevitable tragedy was as ridiculous in its cause as shocking in its consequences. Botheric arrested and imprisoned one of his chariot drivers, an act for which he appears to have had justification enough. The incident would have had no importance had not the





curiosity of the spectators attending the public games held soon after been aroused by the absence of this man, one of their favourite competitors. Discovering his situation, they demanded his release and, when this was refused, began to riot. The spark had been struck. The whole city rose and Botheric and his detachment of Gothic troops were massacred.


In Italy Theodosius received the news with deep anger. St Ambrose, then presiding over an episcopal council in Milan, urged him, with apparent success, to adopt a policy of clemency. But, fearful that the incident might result in a general rising of his Gothic troops, Theodosius allowed crueller counsels to prevail. In 392 a new Gothic garrison was ordered to the city. It seemed that Thessalonica’s crime had been either forgotten or forgiven and the citizens were soon invited to games in the hippodrome. Then, even more suddenly than the previous occurrence, a new massacre took place. This time, with the consent of the emperor, the Goths took their revenge. Seven thousand persons, young and old, men and women, Thessalonians and foreigners, were indiscriminately slaughtered.


St Ambrose’s reaction was characteristically courageous. He withdrew from his church, in order not to associate his spiritual authority with the giving of the Holy Sacrament to the Emperor. Then, from his retreat he sent to Theodosius a letter of dignified reproof. As a result Theodosius humbled himself in abject and public penance in acknowledgement of his responsibility for the crime. There can be little doubt that this spontaneous act of greatness by St Ambrose was a powerful factor in the long tradition of loyalty which Thessalonica and the province of Macedonia were to demonstrate to the Church of Rome for several centuries to come.


The strength of this tradition was shown in the following century when a decree of Theodosius II dated 421, later incorporated into his Code of 439, which attached all the bishops of eastern Illyricum to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, was to a large extent ignored. Even during this nadir of Roman fortunes many of the Macedonian bishops continued to regard the Pope as their spiritual superior with a no less stubborn loyalty than their fourth-century predecessors had shown to Pope Damasus. Under the Emperor Anastasius (491-518) the Pope succeeded in officially reasserting his authority throughout Illyricum; but in 535, when Justinian reorganised eastern Illyricum into two ecclesiastical dioceses, the southern under Thessalonica and the northern under his new foundation of Justiniana Prima, the ascendancy reverted to Constantinople. Nevertheless, it appears from the letters of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) that by the end of the century the Church of Illyricum was again within the Roman fold. In so far as organised Christianity persisted, which was little farther than the environs of Thessalonica, Papal authority seems to have continued in theory, if less and less in fact, into the eighth century and was not completely displaced until the end of the period of iconoclasm midway through the ninth. Even so, a remarkable echo of this Early Byzantine, pro-Roman period appears in a report by Grujić that among peasants in the neighbourhood of the river Bregalnica (north of Stobi) the word in use for ‘communion’ has remained komka, which is derived from the Latin communio, not from the Greek κοινωνία. He suggests that this survival is probably due to the local copying of ancient codices. [1]



1. R. M. Grujić, ‘Archaeological and Historical Notes on Macedonia’, Starinar, 1952-53, (Belgrade), p. 215 (Serbian).




Chapter VII. Renewed Gothic Invasions and the Appearance of the Slavs



The conversion to Christianity of many of the Goths living north of the Danube midway through the fourth century must have seemed a hopeful omen for a perpetuation of the peace established by Claudius’s victory at Naissus in 269 and consolidated by the expeditions of Galerius and Constantine. From the ecclesiastical viewpoint of Macedonia it was certainly unfortunate that the Goths had adhered to the Arian Christianity of Constantinople, and not to the orthodox form of Rome, Alexandria and Thessalonica ; but whatever theological qualms may have arisen, no one could doubt that the conversion of the Goths would materially improve the security of the province.


These hopes were unfounded. An internal revolt which broke out in 365 against the Emperor Valens was supported by the Goths. After temporarily losing control of the Balkans, Valens defeated the rebels. Then, crossing the Danube, he took so stem a revenge among their Gothic allies that a decade later, when the Huns entered eastern Europe, they were still in no condition to resist the savage new foe in their rear. The Christian element, mainly Visigoths, appealed to Valens for refuge within the Empire. Their settlement in depopulated Moesia was agreed, but, unhappily, the arrangements were mishandled and the frightened refugees, suspecting treachery, decided to strike first. With Ostrogothic help they devastated the Moesian and Thracian countryside and, although unsuccessful in reducing the larger fortified cities, inflicted a disastrous defeat on the imperial army, slaying Valens himself in the battle of Adrianople in 378. Realising their inability to capture Constantinople, the Goths


then turned west, laying siege to Thessalonica and ranging at will through Macedonia, Thessaly, Epirus and Achaia, looting, burning and killing wherever they passed. The desperate situation was saved by the experienced generalship of Theodosius, called from his retirement in Spain and made emperor in 379. Theodosius reformed the imperial army, relieved Thessalonica, and then, or soon after, rebuilt its walls. Another Ostrogothic invasion was routed and the Visigoths were confined to their agreed territories in Moesia.


The firm hand of Theodosius kept the Balkan provinces free from risings and invasions until his death in 395. When this occurred, however, the Visigoths of Moesia elected Alaric, a natural military leader, as their king. Alaric quickly spread destruction and terror throughout the Macedonian countryside and deep into Greece. The Emperor Arcadius, who had succeeded to the eastern half of the Empire, was a weak youth. The Byzantine court was divided by intrigues. The resultant anarchy was such that the local populations probably found little to choose between a visitation from the imperial armies, largely composed of Gothic foederati, and one from the dreaded bands of Alaric. The devastation inflicted in Thrace, Epirus, Macedonia, central Greece, and the northern parts of Illyricum appears to have been tremendous. The Via Egnatia, at the opening of the century at the zenith of its prosperity, was, by the end, a desolate ruin. Then, with the close of the century, Alaric and his Visigoths turned their attention to Italy. With their own recent experiences still clearly in mind, the Balkan peoples





must have learnt the news of the capture and sack of Rome in 410 with an especial thrill of horror ; but one that was none the less mixed with relief that, at least, their own greatest cities had been spared this fate.


The thirty to forty years of peace for the Empire’s Balkan provinces that followed the departure of Alaric was a much-needed period of recuperation. Under the Emperor Theodosius II (408-50), fortifications were rebuilt and the economy of the peninsula given a chance to recover. As part of the marriage settlement of the western Emperor Valentinian III to the daughter of Theodosius, Dalmatia and west Illyricum were joined to the Eastern Empire, an act which brought the whole of the northern defences of the peninsula under a unified command. The urgent need for strong defensive measures was proved by the activities of the Huns, who, now established in the Central European plain, were rapidly developing into a major threat to neighbouring parts of the Empire. A destructive raid in 434 was checked only by the signing of a humiliating and short-lived treaty, which was followed almost immediately by a terrible invasion led by Attila himself which spread fire, slaughter and devastation right to the Aegean coast. Again an ignominious treaty secured a breathing space, promising a crippling tribute in return for freedom from molestation. Again, it was disregarded when Attila chose, for, in 447, his destructive hordes rampaged as far south as Thermopylae.


The Hun threat to the Balkans ceased as suddenly as it had come. Attila’s ambitions took his armies to western Europe, where, until his death in 453, they were perhaps an even greater menace to the feeble embers of Latin civilisation than they had been to the Eastern Empire. In the Balkans, however, their disruptive role, together with their Pannonian base, was rapidly filled by the Ostrogoths, who, around 457, invaded Illyricum and captured Dyrrhachium (Durazzo). Ten years later they appeared once more in another heavy raid, this time reinforced by Hun bands from Attila’s disintegrating hordes.


The last three decades of the fifth century saw the simultaneous ending of one troubled chapter in Balkan history and the opening of another. By 500 the Teutonic, in particular the Gothic, danger had become a nightmare of the past, but, among the barbarian raiders taking their place on the northern frontiers, were the advance parties of two new groups, the Bulgars and the Slavs who were together destined to bring about a permanent change in the ethnic character of the peninsula.


The year 474 had brought the last large-scale Vandal raid, one that had resulted in the sack of Nicopolis in southern Epirus. In the same year there opened a new and the final series of Gothic deprecations, including the destruction consequent upon civil warfare among the Ostrogothic foederati. In the course of this Theodoric the Amal sacked Stobi and created a panic in Thessalonica ; but, instead of investing the city, he turned west along the Via Egnatia and occupied Heraclea Lyncestis (near Bitola) ; destroying part of the city. Theodoric then led his army on to Lychnidus (Ochrida, Ohrid), failed to capture it, but marched on to seize Scampae (Elbasan) and Dyrrhachium (Durazzo). For fourteen years, during a period of weak and divided central government in Constantinople, Macedonia was the helpless scene of alternating periods of uneasy peace and Gothic wars. At last, however, in 488, Theodoric, too, was persuaded to lead his followers out of the Balkans to seize for himself a new kingdom in Italy, and the Gothic menace finally ended. 474, too, was the year in which the Bulgars, hitherto a useful source of recruitment for the imperial armies, were first recorded as developing into a serious menace to the lands south of the Danube. Two years before the century ended the confused ethnic situation in the Balkans was further confounded by the transportation of numerous Isaurian rebels from south-east Asia Minor to depopulated Thrace.


Pioneer groups of Slavs had first begun to infiltrate through the Carpathian, Tatra and Moravian passes into the present-day territory of Hungary in the early years of the Christian era. Here, steadily increasing in numbers, they settled under the rule of the Sarmatian tribe of Iazyges. Unlike the great barbarian invasions, it was a peaceful migration, and one that occurred so quietly as apparently to pass unnoticed by the statesmen and provincial administrators of the Roman Empire.


Very little definite information exists regarding either the origins or the early history of the Slavs, whose first vague and fitful appearances in recorded history occur during the latter half of the first millennium b.c. Around 500 b.c., and probably during the





immediately preceding centuries, their homeland stretched from somewhere north or east of the Carpathians to the Pripet Marshes. Whether it was roughly centred on this broad band of territory, or extended more to the north-west towards the Baltic, or eastwards towards the middle Don, is subject to dispute. Certainly it was continually changing and lacked the fixed boundaries of a settled state. As their neighbours the Slavs had Teutonic tribes to the northwest, Celts to the west, Illyrians to the south-west, Thracians to the south, and Iranians to the south-east. Thus, not only were they beyond the reach of the legions of imperial Rome, but, except for a small number of prisoners and slaves of the Scythians in the region of the Black Sea, their habitat and complete existence lay outside the horizons of the ancient Greek world.


About 500 B.c., the Scythians, an Iranian tribe whose territory covered the Ukrainian steppelands, swept suddenly westwards and destroyed the so-called Lusatian culture, which extended approximately over the area of modem Poland. Archaeology has only recently begun to reveal anything of this civilisation. Who the ‘Lusatians’ were is still an enigma and, although the Slavs rank as prominent candidates, claims can also be made out for the Thracians and the Illyrians, or even for a people whose identity is as yet unknown. The fateful consequences of the Scythian invasion are, however, starkly clear.


It must [writes Dvornik] have considerably weakened the native population, thus permitting envious neighbours to raid and pillage. This weakening enabled the Germans to press towards the Oder, and the Celts, who until then were settled in modem France and western and southern Germany, to move towards the east and occupy Bohemia, Moravia, parts of Silesia and the lands of the upper Vistula. This was the beginning of the great migration and expansion of the Celts ; it caused a violent upheaval in Italy, where, in 390 b.c., they sacked Rome and threatened to conquer the whole country. It also shook Asia Minor where some of the Celtic tribes found a definite home and became the Galatians to whom St Paul addressed one of his epistles. [1]


The Scythians withdrew, but the Lusatian civilisation was shattered; and those responsible for it, whether Slavs or others, perished at the barbarous hands of the Scythians or of other tribes raiding in their wake. The gap thus left was filled by Slavs from the east. Known as the Venidi, or Wends, these settled on the land and gradually built up a distinctive culture of their own which reached its zenith during the first century a.d.


To some extent, perhaps considerable, the Scythians exerted an overlordship over the early Slavs. About 200 b.c., however, the Scythians were defeated and replaced in Ukrainian Russia by a kindred tribe, the Sarmatians. The new invaders, nomadic like the Scythians and employing a well-armed cavalry, quickly extended their empire from the Don to the eastern slopes of the Carpathians, and even beyond this barrier into modem Hungary. The majority of the Slav tribes became their subjects. It seems likely that the Sarmatian suzerainty was closer and more effective than the Scythian had been, for, under their new masters, the Slavs developed an aptitude for disciplined warfare and a greatly increased political consciousness. It is at this time that the tribe or group known as the Antes appears for the first time in history. As usual, historical mention of them is exasperatingly vague, but it is probable that they consisted of Slavs under Sarmatian leadership. In any case they grew to form an important Slav unit of the Sarmatian Empire.


By the beginning of the Christian era the territory occupied by Slav tribes already stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Tatra and Carpathian mountains, and from the River Elbe to the Black Sea. Corresponding to the Sarmatian domination in the south and east, the north-west Slavs of the Baltic region were obliged to acknowledge the overlordship of the Goths. About this time a general migratory movement in the direction of the Black Sea seems to have been taking place over the whole of this area. Reasons are not difficult to find; they include the attractions of a drier and warmer climate, the trade and culture of Greek Black Sea cities, the powerful, glittering civilisations of Persia and the Roman East. The Slavs, involved in pastoral and agricultural pursuits, moved slowly, almost imperceptibly, in an unorganised and haphazard manner. Quite suddenly, towards the end of the second century a.d., the Goths also decided to migrate.



1. F. Dvornik, The Slavs, Their Early History and Civilisation (Boston, 1956), p. 12.





Their progress was a very different matter. Moving quickly and in a comparatively disciplined mass, they swept down the course of the Dnieper — the Slavs who found themselves in their path probably retreating into the forests — and, about a.d. 200, replaced the Sarmatians as masters of all southern Russia between the Don and the Dniester. Not until they had accomplished this do they appear to have split into their two main divisions ; the Ostrogoths occupying the eastern part of their new dominions, the Visigoths taking the western. From this base the latter gradually expanded farther into Europe until half-way through the third century they expelled the Romans from Dacia and reached the northern banks of the Danube.


That Sarmatian rule had been of positive benefit to the Slavs was now clearly demonstrated. Instead of following earlier precedents and accepting Gothic supremacy as a matter of course, the Antes formed their own state in the region of the Don, Donetz and middle Dnieper where they became a focus of Slav opposition to the newcomers. This Antic state quickly developed sufficient strength for Ermanarich to feel obliged to reduce it to submission at the outset of his short-lived, mid-fourth-century attempt to establish a Gothic empire across eastern Europe. In 370, following the rout of the Gothic army at the hands of the invading Huns, the Antes rose again to deny passage to their fleeing enemies. After liquidating the remnants of the Gothic empire in south Russia, the Huns swept on into central Europe. In the lull that followed their tempestuous passage, the Antes re-established themselves in their original territory ; then, with the final disappearance of the Huns, extended it west of the Dniester in the direction of the lower Danube.


Two other tribes of probable Sarmatian origin achieved prominence in the confusion caused by the Him irruption. These were the Croats and Serbs whose homes in the first century or so of our era appears to have been in the region immediately north of the Caucasus between the Caspian and Azov Seas. Unlike the Antes, at this time these possessed no Slav elements.


Trying to escape from the onslaught of the Huns [Dvornik writes], the Croats and the Serbs fled towards the north east, beyond the middle Dnieper, where the Antes were settled. Here the Croats may have been joined by a Gothic tribe, and together they established themselves beyond the Carpathian Mountains and gathered the Slav tribes of Galacia, Silesia, and the eastern part of Bohemia — already abandoned by the Quadi and occupied by Slavs — into a kind of state. We have sufficient evidence from the Byzantine imperial writer Constantine Porphyrogennetus, from Arabic sources and also from the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred of the existence of a Croatian state beyond the Carpathians called White Croatia. The Serbs were in some regions mixed with the Croats, especially on the upper Vistula. The bulk of them, however, pushing more towards the north west and following in the footsteps of the Scythian invaders of about 500 b.c., imposed their rule on the Slavic tribes between the Elbe and the Saale rivers, their state being called White Serbia. [1]


About 334, a little earlier than this Croat and Serb migration, the Slavs who had penetrated south of the Carpathian and Tatra mountains successfully revolted against the rule of the Sarmatian tribe of Iazyges. The arrival of the Huns in the fifth century introduced a new but brief period of subservience. Possibly it also brought them their first contacts with the Byzantine Empire, for the mission of the Byzantine general Priscus passed through Slav inhabited territory on its way to treat with Attila at his Pannonian headquarters, which may have been of Slav construction. [2] Also of short duration was a Gothic occupation after the death of Attila in 45 3. Gothic civil wars and the lure of the wealthy and near defenceless Mediterranean lands of the disintegrating West Roman Empire soon ensured the disappearance of the Goths from central Europe. Land-hungry Slavs, seeking freedom from foreign servitude, poured into the resulting vacuum, and spread across Bohemia, Moravia and the Pannonian Plain as far as the middle reaches of the Danube. Their first recorded large-scale crossing of this great barrier occurred in 517, and, seemingly almost before the Byzantines had realised the fact of their existence, the Slavs were appearing and causing havoc in every part of the Balkans.


In the eyes of contemporary Byzantines, ‘this accursed people’ — to quote the sixth-century historian, Bishop John of Ephesus — were savage barbarians.



1. F. Dvornik, op. cit. p. 27.


2. J. Strzygowski, Die altslavische Kunst (Augsburg, 1929), p. 139 et seq.





Certainly the harsh circumstances of the previous five centuries, as linguistic evidence clearly attests, had resulted in a considerable decline in Slav culture to ‘ only a humble level of civilisation’. [1] Even so, such an extraordinary propensity for survival and even increase, and the maintenance of such an indelible ethnic consciousness and linguistic unity despite the lack of an alphabet, is not altogether in accord with this — understandably — biased view. Unfortunately, even to-day, we are far from being in the possession of the full picture of the early Slavs ; but recent research, coupled with historical perspective, has placed us in probably a very much better position to view this than were the Slavs’ sixth- and seventh-century Byzantine contemporaries.


An Indo-European people, the Slavs enter the historical scene as inhabitants of the vast plains, the rolling steppelands and low foothills of eastern Europe. These, with their prairie-like pastures, forests, swamps and marshy river valleys, were their accustomed habitat. Their basic unit was the family, and groups of families combined to form a village community, the affairs of which were controlled by a Council of Elders. Beyond the village came the tribe, but its organisation and general powers of cohesion appear to have been weak unless enforced by the more military and authoritarian character of a foreign suzerain.


At the opening of history [write Entwistle and Morison] . . . there are no Slavonic words implying political, military or religious organisations more elaborate than the village unit. The words for ‘prince’, ‘king’, ‘emperor’ ... are all loan words of comparatively recent date and only the South Slavs appear to have known a loose confederacy of village-communities. . . . There was no word for ‘priest’, but a considerable number for ‘wizard’, including one of the terms for ‘doctor’. [2]


The word for ‘prince’ was adopted later, probably from Teutonic sources, and the similarity of the terms for ‘prince’ and ‘priest’ in Polish and Czech may perhaps be an indication of the gradual assimilation of religious and political functions by the tribal leaders.


The houses of these Slav villages varied considerably according to the local environment, the available building materials and the prosperity of the inhabitants ; but, very broadly, they fell into two main types. In the densely forested northern regions, log huts prevailed. Spaciously planned, and constructed of squared tree trunks, they were intended with the help of a massive stove or oven to withstand the cold and wet of the long northern winter. South and east of the main forest belt other methods were needed. The framework was again wood, usually stakes thrust into the ground ; but in place of squared logs were the meagre, bent and twisted dwarf trees of the steppes which required reinforcement by clay or mud. The difference in the two methods is even reflected etymologically in the northern Slav word ‘stroit’ (‘built’), and the southern ‘sosidat’ (‘erected’). In both cases the ground plans were usually rectangular with roofs that were either sloping or of the ‘saddle’ type, but circular houses were also an ancient form. The villages showed a similar adaptability to circumstances. They might straggle along a river bank in a peaceful region, form a circle with all the doors opening on to an inner central space, or, for purposes of defence, occupy a promontory at the confluence of two rivers.


Everywhere, however, the early Slav village unit appears to have been small — easy to evacuate with their flocks and herds at the approach of an enemy and easy to rebuild on the same site or elsewhere when the destruction and danger were over. Primarily agricultural and pastoral, the Slavs also hunted and had, apparently, a particular predilection for honey, from which they made mead. Their lack of political and military organisation left them without the means of aggrandisement and the building of empires ; but it also implied a resilience and a quality of diffusion that were important factors in ensuring their survival. The Slavs could be dominated by the simple means of a military occupation of their territory, but the extermination of a people wedded to an existence based on food production and who lacked the possibility of military resistance was not in the interest of any conqueror. Rather the reverse, they were encouraged to maintain their way of life undisturbed. It is in the light of these facts that we can understand the Slav paradoxes of the demi-millennia before and after the



1. W. J. Entwistle and W. A. Morison, Russian and the Slavonic Languages (London, 1949), pp. 26-7.


2. W. J. Entwistle and W. A. Morison, op. cit. pp. 18-19.





beginning of the Christian era — the paradox of survival in a savage epoch through a peaceful concentration on agricultural pursuits, and that of maintaining an undiminished ethnic consciousness and unity while subject to and deeply affected by the influences of neighbouring and ruling peoples.


We know so little that is clear and definite that it is important to try to avoid any tendency to be dogmatic, but there are good reasons to assume that the primitive religion of the Slavs was fundamentally a religion based upon nature. Rybakov, writing on the art of the Ancient Slavs, emphasises the prominence of seasonal festivals in Slav paganism. [1] In winter was celebrated the festival of the Winter god, Koljada. [2] Spring witnessed a varied cycle of Sun festivals demonstrating the joy and relief felt at the end of the long winter and the approach of the warmth and plenty of summer. A straw doll representing the Winter god was drawn through the village and then ceremonially burnt. Round pancakes or buns, symbols of the sun, were baked. Sometimes another sun symbol, the fiery wheel, a tarred wheel set alight upon a pole, formed part of the ceremonies. The Spring god, Radunitsa, or goddess, Vesna, was honoured in ceremonies held to mark the beginning of ploughing and the dousing of fires. In late spring or early summer revels of a Dionysian type celebrated the rites of love.


At the beginning of summer came the festival of the Nymphs, and the honouring of Ladas and Ljols, the Patrons of Love. Summer was also the period of rites and sacrifices to Perun, the terrible god of thunder and lightning whose later aspects included the deification of War and who was afterwards transposed into Orthodox Christianity in the person of St Elias. As summer drew on and changed into autumn, social and religious activity centred around the harvest celebrations. These included sacrificial rites of thanksgiving, the wearing of festive clothes, and the hanging of wreaths in honour of the family’s ancestors. A special corner of the hut was dedicated to the spirits of the ancestors and, at this time, was decked with wreaths and fresh, embroidered linen cloths, a custom reflected in the decorations of an icon or a corner of a room devoted to the family saint that is still a characteristic of many Slav homes to-day.


Such a calendar of religious feasts was a natural feature of the lives of a wholly agricultural people existing in the geographical conditions of their early east European homeland. This fact, and the long persistence of related traditions into the Christian era and even into Christianity itself over all the widely spread Slav territories, gives us some grounds for assuming that it was a form of religious expression native to the Slavs rather than adopted by them from a neighbouring or ruling race. The issue is by no means so clear when we consider the various Slav gods without direct connections with the seasons or the agricultural calendar. A number of them have close affinities with Iranian deities, reflecting both the Indo-European origin of the Slavs and their long period of Scythian and Sarmatian domination. Dvornik points out that Perun corresponded to the Vedic Parjanya and the Hittite Teshub. Deification of the Sun, another Iranian characteristic, was also, to a certain extent, practised by the Slavs, who regarded the Sun and Fire as the children of the god Svarogŭ. ‘Like the Iranian Verethragna,’ Dvornik writes, ‘the Slavic Svarogŭ is represented as generating the heat and light of the sun, called Xŭrsŭ Dažĭbogŭ by the Slavs. These words have survived in some old Polish and Serbian proper names. Xŭrsŭ (Chors) is obviously borrowed from the Iranian expression Xuršid, designating the personified sun.’ [3] It also corresponds to the Persian royal name Chosroes or Khusrau. The Iranian connection is made even more obvious by the meaning of the Slav term Dažibogd or Dashbog — He who brings salvation.


Other Slav deities related to the Iranian pantheon included Stribog, the Wind god, whose children were the winds ; Simargl, a winged monster, who in Sarmatian mythology guarded the tree producing the seed for every plant and who is seemingly related to the Iranian Senmurv, a dragon with a peacock’s tail ; Mokoš, who corresponded to the Persian Anahita, and, as was indicated by her name, meaning ‘moist’, the goddess of water and possibly rain, as well as being the enigmatic goddess of weaving and a fertility deity.



1. B. A. Rybakov, ‘The Art of the Ancient Slavs’, chap. 2 of the History of Russian Art, ed. by I. E. Grabar, W. N. Lazarew and W. S. Kemenov (Moscow, 1953) (Russian) ; (Dresden, 1957) (German).


2. The names and, to some extent, the functions of the Slav gods vary from region to region and epoch to epoch.


3. F. Dvornik, op. cit. p. 49.





Among the western Slavs gods of slightly different natures have been identified. They include Svjatovit, a warrior god armed with a sword and holding a cornucopia ; Šiva, the goddess of life and fruitfulness ; Radogost, who corresponded to Mercury in his aspect as the god of commerce. A latter-day West Slav god was Trojan, but this divinity was, in fact, none other than the mighty Roman Emperor Trajan, deified after his death by his opponents as well as by his fellow Romans.


Svjatovit, however, was no more than another aspect or interpretation of Svarogŭ. Dvornik points out that ‘Svarogû, like Verethragna, was a warrior god, a giver of virility and strength. This virility — Slavic Jendru, which is reminiscent of the Indian Indra — had various manifestations, a fact which the Polabian Slavs symbolised by providing their idols with several heads. The names Sventovitŭ, Jarevitŭ, Porovitŭ and Ruevitŭ, given to the deity by the Polabian Slavs, are possibly best explained by this.’ [1] Triglav, the Slav three-headed god, worshipped by the Slovenian Slavs when they settled among the julian Alps in the sixth century, is still remembered to-day by the towering triple-peaked mountain, the highest in Yugoslavia, which has borne his name for the ensuing fourteen centuries.


Veles, or Volos, the god of flocks, of cattle and, by projection, the god of wealth, was essentially a divinity reflecting the pastoral aspects of Slav existence. Known also to the Czechs, his worship may have originated among the eastern, steppeland Slavs. On the evidence of place-names, however, it is clear that he was also known to the Slavs who settled in the southern Balkans.


We still have to consider the deity who was perhaps the most profound of all the influences affecting the religious attitudes of the primitive Slavs — the Great Earth Mother Goddess, called variously Bereginja, Shitnaja Baba, Roshanitsa Djeva and other names. Mokoš and Šiva were aspects of her divinity, and possibly in certain places and times were interpretations of her. But in view of the agricultural proclivities of the Slavs it is not surprising that it is the Great Mother rather than any of the other gods whom we find generally represented, not only in discoveries of ornamental carving and metalwork, but still to-day in certain traditional peasant designs, particularly those found in Belorussia, surrounded by various ancient symbols of life and fruitfulness (Pl. 7c). The Great Goddess had been, as we have seen, the chief figure of the religion of the Scythians, in whose art, too, she, alone among their gods, is represented. Nevertheless, it needs to be borne in mind that she was worshipped in southern Russia before the coming of the Scythians. [2]


The examples of Great Goddess images illustrated in Plate 4, whether fibulae of the seventh to tenth centuries or embroidery of the nineteenth, demonstrate that the Goddess associated with two supporters was a deeply rooted Slav concept. It was not, however, all-prevalent ; the Goddess could be represented with a single attendant (Pl. 7c, cf. 6c). She also appeared in a completely stylised form, with only her outline recognisable and her supporters as simple geometric shapes.


Among certain of the Slavs’ western neighbours, however — the Thracians, the Celts and the Mediterranean peoples — the cult of the Great Goddess possessed a chthonian element, bringing in the underworld as a third religious dimension far more prominently than it appeared in the religious beliefs of the east. This feature was accepted by the pagan Slavs, although whether it occurred at an early or at a late stage in their development is still a question mark. The clearest evidence of its acceptance lies in the four-sided Zbrucz idol, a circa tenth-century wooden figure discovered in Galicia. This consists of a tall pillar, each side of which carries relief carvings divided into three distinct zones. Rybakov has convincingly interpreted these as Heaven, the world of the gods ; Earth, the dwelling-place of men; and the Underworld whose deity must bear upon his back the whole weight of Earth and Heaven. [3] The four topmost figures all wear a single, conical-shaped hat, similar to those worn by princes and aristocratic saints portrayed on mediaeval Russian icons. Two are male and two female, and it seems likely that they may represent the presiding deity of the particular season.



1. F. Dvornik, op. cit. p. 49.


2. T. Talbot Rice, The Scythians (London, 1927), p. 85; M. Rostovtzeff, ‘La Culte de la Grande Déesse dans la Russie Méridionale’, Revue des Études Grecques, vol. 32.


3. B. A. Rybakov, op. cit. chap. 2, ‘The Art of the Ancient Slavs’.





Fig. 42. IDOL OF ZBRUCZ. Slav idol found in Galicia, Southern Poland. The four sides representing seasonal deities





The terrestrial figure below is of the same sex as the deity. The presentation of each side and, according to Rybakov’s interpretation, each season, is as follows :



Whence came the Slav conception of a god of the underworld supporting the earth with his upraised arms? Baltrusaitis illustrates a fragment of a fifth- or sixth-century tombstone standing in Adiaman in Armenia with a figure in this position. [1] Corbels in the cathedrals of Koutais (1003) and Mzhet (1020) display figures similarly posed, that is to say, with the upraised arms bearing a weight and not simply in the attitude of prayer. South-west from the Caucasus we have the strange great Hittite monument at Iflatun in Asia Minor where winged solar discs are borne aloft by rows of priestly (?) attendants. South-east we find a similar conception in ancient Persia. ‘Not only the gods and their thrones’, writes L’Orange, ‘but also their habitation — the temple and palace — soared in the conception of the remoter East, in the spheres, borne up aloft by animals and demons. Also the Persian-Arabian tradition and Byzantine legends derived therefrom know of such heavenly palaces. We only recall the Persian king, Kaikaus, who had an entire city built and carried by demons in space.’ [2] As this conception of the throne as a divine symbol being borne aloft had originated from Persia it seems likely that it was ultimately from here, as was the case with many of their ideas, that the Slavs drew their inspiration for the physical details of the underworld figure. But the conception of the underworld itself was probably adopted from their neighbours in the west.


Idols, in fact, loomed prominently in pagan Slav religion. Although the relatively few finds to date hardly permit us to generalise from them, it is at least clear that the Slavs were accustomed freely to portray their gods ‘in the round’ in the fashion generally favoured by the European peoples, instead of confining themselves to carving in relief as was the common practice in western Asia.


This impression that the Slavs were accustomed so to view their gods is confirmed by the results of excavations of their ancient temples. A religious site typical of the vast swampy and forested lowlands of eastern Europe consisted of two associated but separate parts. One was a timber or perhaps reed and wattle hall, used for meetings and banquets of a religious nature. The other was a circular, flat-topped, artificial mound. Its sides were strengthened with fired clay as a protection against the waters and the whole encompassed by a circular palisade, some fifty to sixty metres in diameter, which, perhaps, stood upon a clay and earthen wall. Within was a second concentric circle about twenty metres in diameter, either in the form of a second palisade or a ring of tall stakes of greater height than the outer fence. On top of these stakes might stand skulls of horses, rams, oxen, or since extinct aurochs. In other cases the stakes might be roughly shaped after human forms, or carry carved representations of gods or sacred symbols. Exactly in the centre of the two circles, and beneath a saddle roof borne on high poles that towered above them, stood the image of the god to whom the temple was dedicated. In front of this idol was a sacrificial table of stone or fired clay that, with an exactitude paralleling the tracing of the circles, was oriented according to the cardinal points, the long axis pointing towards the east.


The earliest temples to have been discovered, such as that of Staroje Kaschirskoje (considered to be of the fifth to fourth century b.c.) , were situated in the middle of a settlement. In the course of time, however, they tended to be built outside the confines of the village in a remote and secluded position among the neighbouring swamps or lakes. There, undisturbed by the noise and bustle of a settlement, hidden among their monotonous and inhospitable environment, and protected



1. J. Baltrusaitis, Études sur l’art médiéval en Géorgie et en Arménie (Paris, 1929), Pl. lxx, 116.


2. H. P. L’Orange, Studies on the Iconography of Cosmic Kingship in the Ancient World (Oslo, 1953), p. 62.





by their difficult access, which was only obtained by little known paths, these sanctuaries remained powerfid and stubborn strongholds of paganism even into the twelfth and thirteenth centuries of the Christian era. Not only did they survive bitter crusades, persecutions, and forced conversions, but they continued to dominate rural life long after Christianity had been fiilly and officially adopted by the princes and townsmen of the new feudal states of which the peasantry remained a reactionary part.


In the non-swampy, mountainous lands of central and south-eastern Europe into which the Slavs were steadily infiltrating, the temple pattern had, of necessity, to be adapted. A favoured site seems to have been a river confluence, which afforded natural protection on two sides of a triangle. Nevertheless, in its essentials and in its rites, the Slav temple stayed unaffected by its change of environment. A noteworthy passage in the history written by Michael the Syrian (quoted on pages 91-2) emphasises that during their invasions of the Balkans towards the end of the sixth century the Slavs looted ciboria from the churches. Their chief sat enthroned beneath the ciborium from Corinth. It seems clear from this that they associated the Christian ciboria with their own roofed temple centre-pieces.


Even more remarkable is the small degree of change or development that occurred with the passage of centuries. We can compare the archaeological evidence of the early temples with the description by Saxo Grammaticus (circa 1150-1206) of the temple of Svjatovit at Arkona, on the island of Rügen in the south-west Baltic. This, we are told, was magnificently built of wood. It had a red painted roof and was surrounded by a carefully fashioned fence, ornamented with painted figures. Inside stood four curtained pillars. Here were the divine attributes of the god, a saddle, a bridle and a sword, and the venerated image of the god himself. Homs and other ornaments decorated the temple. The writings of Adam of Bremen (circa 1075) and Presbyter Helmold (circa 1170) confirm the general prevalence of this temple form among their northern Slav contemporaries as well as testifying to the great and widespread prestige of certain of the Slav oracles. Until the combined impact of Christianity, of foreign powers, of urbanisation and of the feudal state began to affect the fundamental conditions of social fife in the ninth or tenth and subsequent centuries, the Slav religion, and the Slav language, remained astonishingly stable. The fifteen hundred years or so that had elapsed since the Slavs had first made their appearance in history had brought an increased technical accomplishment and the trappings of a more prosperous standard of living, but little else. Extraordinary as this is, it must be recalled that right down to our own day Slav history reads as a remarkable story of tenaciously held conservatism.


An integral part of the basic religious themes of the pagan Slavs were the superstitions which governed the conduct and events of daily fife. Not only was each house inhabited by its individual spirit; every tree, stream and spring was similarly possessed. In every river there existed a nymph or waterman, in every swamp a dreaded ‘bagnik’, or will-o’-the-wisp. The gloomy, impenetrable depths of every forest sheltered its wood spirit with green hair and gnarled branches for arms. In order to achieve a good harvest or a successful hunt, time unending had to be spent sacrificing to and otherwise enlisting the help of the favourable spirits, and in propitiating and defeating the wicked ends of the malevolent ones. The latter were chiefly symbolised by the animals of the forest. The bear was the dreaded Lord of the Woods. Such terror did he inspire that the superstitious Slavs forbore to name him, and describing him instead as ‘Med-wed’ — the Honey-Eater or He who Loves Honey. Sometimesthe bear was represented on weapons as a means of striking fear in the hearts of the enemy. Not unnaturally the wolf was similarly a symbol of dread, and werewolf legends figured strongly in ancient Slav mythology. On a more minor scale was the hare ; for one to run across one’s path was an omen of ill health or bad luck.


Creatures of the fields and the air, on the other hand, were generally bringers of good fortune. Prominent among them were the cock, the prophet among birds ; the aurochs or the ox, the embodiment of fruitfulness — an ox horn customarily represented the horn of abundance ; ducks and geese, symbols of water and of Mokoš and the Earth Mother. The horse and the swan had a particular significance in the ancient Slav religion. A golden horse-drawn chariot with fiery wheels bore the sun across the sky by day and then, at nightfall, when the sun had reached the western





horizon, the two horses changed into swans to take the sun across the waters of the night to regain the east in time for the following dawn.


The primitive Slavs would have known the horse from their nomadic Scythian overlords, but it is unlikely that they themselves were normally a mounted people. Besides their fierce warrior masters, probably few other than their princes would have been accustomed to ride on horseback. The probable association of the offices of prince and priest may well be a simple explanation of the traditional embroidery motive of a female figure, the Great Goddess, with one or two horsemen (Pls. 4d, 7c). It would, however, be too facile to seek such a straightforward origin of a principal motive of folk art, for the horse had other symbolic aspects. Moreover, the Thracians, the Slavs’ south-western neighbours, it will be recalled, not only practised the chthonian cult of the Great Goddess through their worship of Bendis, but used the symbol of the hero horseman on funeral steles to signify immortality. Men, the ancient Moon god of Asia Minor, was similarly represented as a figure on horseback.


Very few examples of Slav art of the early centuries of the Christian era and the period immediately preceding it have survived. The early Slavs used wood, not stone or marble, as their main means of construction. They had no landed aristocracy or wealthy trading community with the opportunities and leisure for patronising art for art’s sake. In the Slav settlements existence was communal and at peasant level ; consequently, art developed within a severely practical context. Such work included carving the beams, doors and other parts of the houses ; but the object was not to beautify them, that it did so was only coincidental and due to the natural skill and artistic inclinations of the workman. Each single piece of carving had for its purpose the exclusion of evil powers, usually by placing representations of good spirits at strategic points, such as doors and windows, keyholes, the stove or the gable. Thus horses, with and without riders, birds, deer, snakes, dogs were some of the leading animal symbols appearing and, with them such symbols of the sun as rosettes, crosses and crosses within a circle representing the sun chariot’s wheels (Pls. 4, 7c).


These same figures appeared on important articles of furniture and, in fact, were still appearing at the


beginning of this century on, for instance, spinning wheels and chairs in many parts of eastern Europe. For similar reasons they were also embroidered on articles of clothing, on towels and on cloths intended for ceremonies of a family nature. Fortunately they were also used on such metal objects as belt buckles, brooches, spurs, harness and weapons, some specimens of which have been recovered in the course of excavations. It is from such items, and from traditional peasant embroidery designs, and from legends, popular fairy tales and folk customs, that we are able to reconstruct some picture of the ancient Slav art that for the most part perished with the decay or destruction of the materials upon which it was wrought.


Material decay was not the only enemy of early Slav art. Christianity converted certain pagan Slav symbols to its own purposes. The Great Mother Earth Goddess with her upraised arms was assimilated into the Virgin ‘Orante’, her mounted attendants into the warrior saints, St George, St Demetrius and others. Svjatovit became the Serbian hero, Marko, Perun developed into St Elias, and Veles or Volos into St Vlaho or Blasius. But there were certain material evidences of paganism with which Christianity found compromise impossible, and these it set out to eradicate mercilessly. In particular, this applied to the idols and sacred temples, to which, in the region of present-day northern Germany and Poland, the Slavs clung with passionate obstinacy until their final conversion, accompanied by a savage destruction of their pagan symbols, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.


Presbyter Helmold gives a contemporary account of how he helped to destroy one such ‘place of profanation ’ near Oldenburg in 1156. Led by the bishop, he writes, ‘we entered the atrium, heaped the fence around the sacred trees, and, having set fire to a heap of wood, made a funeral pyre, not without dread lest we be overwhelmed by a tumult of the inhabitants’. Twelve years later King Waldemaar of Denmark led a crusade against the pagan Slavs of Rügen. Hopelessly outnumbered, the Rügiani were obliged to surrender their sacred idol of Svjatovit. The triumphant Christians dragged the idol through their ranks, beat it with sticks and then burnt it in the sight of its defeated worshippers. A resettlement of the conquered lands by Christian immigrants completed the process





and, at least in outward form and symbol, Christianity finally supplanted paganism. In such circumstances of violence it is little wonder that the monumental religious art of the pagan Slavs, together with idols constructed of precious metals, suffered almost entire destruction during the Middle Ages. The Zbrucz idol is — to-day — unique of its type, but even as late as Helmold’s time it was apparently by no means so. One cannot help wondering what an untold tale of heroism and religious fervour may not be behind its preservation.


Yet did Christianity succeed in its policy of ruthless eradication of the Slav idols ? Or did a legacy linger on, in the same way that a legacy of sun worship persisted, and continued for centuries to be featured in western Macedonian church buildings ? In 1955 Kozarac, acting on behalf of the Museum of Kosovo and Metohije at Priština, discovered an unusual form of wooden pole in the village of Lauš in the agricultural district of Drenica. Carved in 1950 of oak, the pole was the work of a partially crippled, thirty-year-old Albanian peasant, who combined the occupations of carpentry and farming. It followed the rough shape of a human figure, a shape which was additionally substantiated by the specific nomenclature of its various divisions. At the time of threshing, writes Kozarac, this pole, with others of a non-anthropomorphous character, was decorated with fifteen ears and stalks of wheat as though it were being offered a sacrifice. The popular explanation of the custom in the locality was that it was done për bereqet, that is to say, in order to obtain abundance (or fertility). [1]


This form of harvest pole is, it seems, unique in the district, and the idea of its carving was the peasant’s own. Nevertheless, the names of the pole’s upper divisions—krye, head ; qafa, neck ; and bark, belly or womb — indicate the likelihood of a tradition that had apparently been lost. This tradition may, of course, have its origins in something other than pagan Slav customs; but the possibility, even probability, of a direct though attentuated link cannot be dismissed lightly.


We have seen that in religious art, as in religious ideology, the Slavs reflected neighbouring influences as well as maintaining a conservative core that was purely Slav. In the Middle Ages the splitting up of the previously more or less homogeneous Slav peoples into feudal states and principalities tended to promote the ascendancy of foreign influences or individual local backgrounds. The linear reliefs and interlacings of early Croatian Christian art, for instance, are as strikingly indicative of the impact of Celtic and Lombard art as the reliefs of Vladimir-Suzdal architecture are of their Scythian ancestry. However, the Slavs also performed the function — the importance of which we are not yet in a position to estimate but which was certainly analogous to the part played by the Semitic peoples — of being a bridge between East and West. In fact the historic roles of the Slavs and Semites parallel each other to a considerable degree, even to their simultaneous, although unrelated expansion — south and north respectively — in the seventh century which, by temporarily severing the routes connecting Europe and Asia, were a major factor in the schism between Constantinople and Rome.


Whatever the constructive potentialities of the Slavs, it is understandable that the Byzantines did not view the newcomers, who, in 517, raided Dardania, Macedonia, Epirus and as far south as Thessaly, as anything but yet another barbarian threat to their existence. Byzantine administrators had previously had little cause to pay attention to this seemingly unorganised, peasant people, whose lot appeared to be service and subjection to more warlike or more efficient masters. Although we have no definite documentary evidence, it is likely that for a long time small groups of Slavs had been infiltrating the Byzantine provinces and had found there a peaceful, if lowly livelihood. But, from the second decade of the sixth century, it was as if a sluggish but navigable river had suddenly burst its banks and become a raging, destructive flood.



1. V. Kozarac, ‘The Drenica Pillar’, Glasnik Muzeja Kossova i Metohije, I (Priština, 1956), pp. 317-18 (Croatian).




Chapter VIII. The Slav Settlement in the Balkans



Throughout the reign of Justinian I (527-65), and particularly during the long period of Gothic wars in Italy, Avar and Slav raids intensified and added to the confusion and devastation already being caused by marauding bands of Bulgars and Teutons. Justinian was obliged to embark upon an extensive and costly rebuilding of cities and fortifications throughout the peninsula. According to Procopius some six hundred fortified positions were either built or strengthened between the Danube and the Isthmus of Corinth at this time. Macedonia, he informs us, was defended by forty-six fortified towns and forts, Epirus by fortyfive. In Dardania eight new forts were built and sixty-one restored. This was no mere instance of Justinian’s enthusiasm for building, but essentially a defence in depth, and a tacit acknowledgement that the imperial armies had forsaken all pretence of being able to defend their Danubian frontier. In fact, in 535, Justinian was obliged to remove the seat of the Governor of Illyricum from Sirmium on the Danube to the comparative safety of Thessalonica. Comparative, for in the same year, when Aristides, Archbishop of Thessalonica, was asked by the imperial governor to go on a mission to Constantinople, the leading citizens protested against the city being left without its spiritual and generally accepted temporal leader at a time of critical danger. The protest was effective and someone else was sent in his place. Security in the Balkans during this time had reached a low ebb. In 536 Slav tribes penetrated to the Adriatic and the outskirts of Salona. In 540 Hun bands raided as far as the Isthmus of Corinth. In 547 Slavs reached the walls of Dyrrhachium and, in 551, threatened Thessalonica. In 558 bands of Kotrigurs, a Hun group allied to the Bulgars, even succeeded in plundering the outskirts of Constantinople.


A crucial period in history had arrived. Justinian enlisted the Antes, now settled in the north-east of the Balkan peninsula, as foederati. There was seemingly no reason why the other less organised Slav tribes massing north of Illyricum west of the Iron Gates and, besides raiding, wishing to settle with their families, as probably some had already succeeded in doing, should not gradually have been brought under the influence of Christianity and Byzantine civilisation. If successive relatively barbarian nations had been able, without difficulty, to establish their authority over the Slavs, it surely would have been easy for the Byzantines. Perhaps this was the intention. Perhaps there were far-sighted Byzantine statesmen and provincial officials who envisaged the fortified Balkan cities as centres from which Byzantine influence would radiate among the surrounding Slavs, with the short-term weapons of war gradually giving way to the longerterm means of peace.


In the case of two monuments, the South Church at Caričin Grad and the Domed Church at Konjuh, there is evidence that the Byzantines had begun to develop some such constructive policy with regard to the Slavs. However, a revolt of Turkic tribes in far-off northern Mongolia occurred at the same time as the Balkan defences were being reinforced, and doomed to failure anything but the most speedy and vigorous action.





The catastrophic Hun irruption of the fourth century had been the result of an Avar uprising against Hun rule in north China. As the only alternative to total extermination the defeated Huns had fled west to wrest a new empire from the relatively civilised and settled peoples of Europe. Now, midway through the sixth century, the Avar conquerors of the Huns were similarly overthrown by subject Turkic tribes. In consequence, another wave of savage, barbarian horsemen swept across the Asian steppes, this time an alliance of Avar and Turkic groups. In the region of the Volga they met and defeated another Turkic tribe, the Bulgars. Most of the Bulgars accepted Avar rule, but a minority fled ahead of their conquerors and found their way into Lombard Pannonia. The Avars and their allies followed them westwards and, breaking through the Carpathian barrier, combined with the Lombards to wipe out the Pannonian Gepids. They then occupied the whole of the Pannonian Plain, reducing to subservience the earlier settled Slavs, while the Lombards, probably aghast at the savagery of their prospective neighbours and recent allies, crossed the eastern ranges of the Alps to establish themselves in northern Italy.


Justinian reacted characteristically to the first signs of the Avars’ presence on the Byzantine frontiers, subsidising them to attack those whose earlier presence had created a more immediate danger. To support the devil of whom one was ignorant against the devil one knew was typical of Byzantine diplomacy, but it was based on the assumption that the latter was in a stronger position, and that, therefore, Byzantine aid to the former would result in a mutually enfeebling war. In this case the basic assumption was a fallacy. The Avar demands merely became more and more extortionate, more and more insolent, their menaces more and more dangerous; and, in the exhausted state of the Empire, the wherewithal to pay became more and more difficult to find. Justinian’s successor, Justin II (565-78), defiantly refused to continue the tribute. The Avar reaction was not immediate, for they were still consolidating their new position. But, in 568, having disposed of first the Gepids and then the Lombards, they were ready. By a quick advance, Justin was able to save Sirmium, but the Avars’ destructive raids speedily obliged him to renew the Byzantine Empire’s traditional tributary payments.


Fate, as well as time, was against the Empire. Persian wars obliged Tiberius II (578-82) to concentrate on the preservation of his Asiatic dominions, clearly now, after the loss of Italy and the devastation of the Balkans, the core of the Empire. To the Slavs, massed on the lower Danube frontier, this concentration of the main Byzantine forces in the east offered a temptation against which no subsidy was of avail. Even had the frontier been heavily defended, the heavy hand of the Avars, the impetus of their own ‘Völkerwanderung’ and the pressure of population from behind must have produced a serious crisis. Inevitably and irresistibly the Slavs swarmed across the Danube.


John of Ephesus describes the invasions :


The accursed people, the Slavs, advanced and invaded the whole of Greece, the environs of Thessalonica and the whole of Thrace. They conquered many towns and fortresses, they ravaged, burned, pillaged and dominated the country, which they inhabited as if it were their own land. This lasted four years, as long as the Basileus was making war against the Persians ; in this way they had a free run of the country until God drove them out. Their devastations reached as far as the outer walls (of Constantinople). They took away all the imperial flocks and herds. Now (a.d. 584) they are still quietly settled in the Roman provinces without anxiety or fear, laying waste, murdering and burning. They grow rich, they possess gold and silver, they possess flocks and horses, and many arms. They have learned to wage war better than the Byzantines.


This Slav invasion had begun about 578. In 580 Tiberius threw away his final chance of preserving the Balkan provinces by winning over the Slavs to the Byzantine side. In desperation he risked an appeal to Baian and his Avars, now indisputably established in Pannonia, to attack the Slavs in their rear. Baian came, but with no intention of wasting his strength on anything so unprofitable as policing marauding bands of Slavs. Instead he laid siege to the great imperial outpost of Sirmium. Tiberius had no possibility of relieving it and, in 582, after holding out for two years, the city was surrendered. Far from creating a diversion, the Avar intervention had resulted in the loss of the Empire’s principal frontier fortress and the devastation of most of northern Illyricum. Of perhaps even greater import, it had definitely delivered the Slavs





into the Avar, rather than the Byzantine sphere of influence.


We have no more than a vague knowledge of the history of Thessalonica during this period and almost none at all regarding the rest of Macedonia. Apart from John of Ephesus, who lived at Constantinople between 558 and 585, the only extant contemporary account comes from the Miracula S. Demetrii. This is the work of various authors, the earliest of whom was John, Bishop of Thessalonica from about 617 to 626 or later. Unfortunately the Miracula appear to have been subject to a great deal of rewriting and re-editing in later centuries, mainly from the viewpoint of religious propaganda. The picture supplied by these not entirely reliable authorities is further filled in by a twelfth-century historian, Michael the Syrian, who appears in general to be well informed. As much as the principal facts of history related by these chroniclers, who by no means always agree among themselves, with other writers, or with probability, the minor and incidental details they relate help us to some idea of what life was like in Thessalonica and its environs during the dangerous years of the Avar and Slav invasions. [1]


Thus, the Miracula tell of the first Avar and Slav siege of Thessalonica, occurring probably around 581, that it surprised the inhabitants while they were celebrating a night mass in the church of St Demetrius. Suddenly it happened that the ciborium in the church caught fire. The prefect of Dacia, who was fortunately present, saw the danger to the large congregation and tried to persuade them to leave. Meeting with no success, he shouted, ‘Citizens, the enemy stands outside our walls’. The apparently familiar call was immediately effective and the congregation, who were completely deceived, ran out to arm themselves and man the ramparts —just in time, it is recorded, to save the city from the unsuspected attackers. The citizens, seeing that their opponents were comparatively small in numbers, sortied and routed them. We learn, however, from an account of the invasion by Michael the Syrian, that other parts of Macedonia and its neighbouring provinces were less fortunate. Michael writes :


In the third year of Tiberius the accursed people of the Slavs came out and overran Hellade, the region of the Thessalonians, and Thrace, which they ravaged and burned. They invaded the region and spread out there. They took the Emperor’s herds of horses ; these barbarous men, who (until now) could not show themselves outside forests and covered places and did not know what a weapon was except for two or three little lances or darts, learned the art of warfare. For a long time they dominated the country of the Romans.


The next siege of Thessalonica appears likely to have occurred in 586, when the city was suffering from the plague. Incensed by the refusal of Maurice to increase their tribute, the Avars invaded southern Illyricum, making Thessalonica, its chief city, their main objective. The inhabitants only learned of their danger when the Avars were no more than a day’s march away. Nevertheless, four or five days seem to have elapsed before the first assault took place. Again this came at night, but, according to the Miracula S. Demetrii, the invaders’ intelligence was amiss. When dawn came they found themselves in possession not of Thessalonica but a nearby monastery. They immediately attacked the city, but, although many of the garrison’s best troops had accompanied the governor on a visit south to parts of Greece, and a number of the leading citizens had gone to Constantinople to lay complaints against the governor, and, moreover, despite the ravages of the plague, the city’s defences stood firm. The plague, in fact, may have been the city’s salvation for, after a short time, it spread among the Avars and obliged them to retire. The city’s leadership at this time seems to have been assumed by its archbishop, Eusebius. His successor, John, writes a little maliciously in the Miracula S. Demetrii that it was his constant habit to relate the events, not omitting his own active and glorious part, to all around him.


From Michael the Syrian we learn a little of what was happening elsewhere in the Balkans :


The Romans were attacked again (under Maurice) by the peoples of the accursed barbarians with unkempt hair who are called Avars, who burst from the extremities of the Orient, and also by the western people of the Slavs and by others who are called Longobards.



1. O. Tafrali, Thessalonique, des origines au XIVe siècle (Paris, 1919), pp. 5.142. (The account of Thessalonica’s struggle with the Avars and Slavs is to a large extent based upon Tafrali’s history.) The Miracula S. Demetrii appear in : Migne, Patr. Grec. cxvi ; Abbé Tougard, De l'histoire profane dans les actes des Bollandistes (Paris, 1874).





The latter were also under the domination of Chagan, king of the Avars. They went to besiege two towns of the Romans and other fortresses. They said to the inhabitants, ‘Go out, sow and reap ; we shall only take from you half of the tax. . . . The people of the Slavs made prisoners everywhere ; (they took away the objects) of worship from the churches and great ciboria in solid chariots, for instance, the ciborium from the church at Corinth, which (their king) had set up instead of a tent and beneath which he sat. Then the Romans took into their employ the people of the Antae who threw themselves upon the country of the Slavs, which they occupied and pillaged. They took away its riches and they burned it. This country was to the west of the river called the Danube. When the Slavs learned that their country was laid waste, they roared like the lion with its prey ; they gathered in thousands and set themselves to ceaseless pillage. They were not able to advance far enough to besiege the imperial city. They turned towards the city of Anchialos, near Thebes, and towards the thermal springs of that place. Many of them were massacred by the army which was found there. Finally, they overthrew the walls ; they found the purple vestments which Anastasia, the wife of Tiberius, had given as a votive offering to the church while she was on her way to the springs. Chagan put them on, saying : ‘Whether the Emperor of the Romans wishes it or not her royalty has been given me.’ Soon afterwards he was frightened by the news that the people of the Turks were pursuing him. They retreated to Sirmium, fearing that (the Turks) would loot the inhabitants and all their riches. (Maurice) having sent gold to Chagan, they retreated.


But for Thessalonica, and doubtless for most of Macedonia, the Avar withdrawal was not the end of their misfortunes. Famine followed the plague, for what the Avars and their allies had not been able to carry off, they had destroyed. Normal trade and communications had been completely disrupted and ships were afraid to call at the ports lest they should find there either the plague or the savage barbarians. This desperate situation was finally ended, we are told in the Miracula, by St Demetrius bringing ships of wheat to his city. During the reign of Phocas (602-10), Thessalonica again suffered from a famine, which extended throughout the Empire, and once more the patron saint intervened to bring in the sorely needed supplies.


Thessalonica’s third Avar-Slav siege occurred between 617 and 619. Heraclius (610-41) was emperor and John, one of the authors of the first book of the Miracula S. Demetrii, was archbishop of the city. Great hordes of Slav warriors, with their families in their train, advanced on Macedonia, Epirus, Achaia, the Aegean islands and even attacked the shores of Asia Minor. Thessalonica, the Miracula tell us, was besieged by land and sea. The population resisted bravely, but the situation was desperate, and their trust was more in St Demetrius than in their own strength. Again the saint did not fail them. A sudden storm wrecked a large number of the enemy’s boats and, in the subsequent confusion, a sortie by the garrison earned a resounding victory. The Slav leader, Prince Chatzon, sued for peace and requested permission to enter the city as a friend. The authorities of the city agreed, but the sight of the Slav chief, whose followers had been responsible for the deaths of so many of the city’s defenders, provoked a riot led by women whose relatives were among the killed. In spite of all the authorities could do to honour the safe conduct they had given, Chatzon was stoned to death.


This treachery cost the Greek population of Macedonia and the Thessalonians dearly. The Slavs, already deeply impressed by the civilisation and wealth of the Greeks, were once more susceptible to being settled as friendly allies in the depopulated countryside and there to have been gradually brought under Christian Byzantine influence. Instead, they were now filled with contempt and hatred for the perpetrators of the savage act. The siege of Thessalonica was immediately resumed with redoubled ferocity. Although unsuccessful in their effort to reduce the city, the Slavs did not retire. Throughout the immediately accessible rural areas of Macedonia a heavy toll of revenge was exacted upon the Greek population, and in the vacant places thus created the Slavs settled with their families.


Better to accomplish the destruction of the Greeks the Slavs called on the aid of their Avar overlords. Well pleased with such an excuse to break their treaty with Heraclius and, receiving at the same time a similar appeal from the Persians, whom the Byzantines had severely defeated in 626, the Avars invaded the imperial territories with a huge army. This split into two parts, the greater advancing on Constantinople, which





it besieged, the rest on Thessalonica. Although the Thessalonians seem for once to have had adequate warning of the barbarian intentions, and even have had time to send siege experts to the Byzantine strongholds of Sardica (Sofia) and Naissus (Niš), the speed of the Avar advance caught them by surprise. Many were working in the fields outside the city when the attack came, and those inside the walls were only rallied, we are told, by the heroic example of John the archbishop, who, in the absence of the civil governor, assumed the leadership of the besieged. Nor did St Demetrius fail to aid his city during this time of desperate need. An earthquake shook the city, but ‘miraculously’ the walls sustained no major damage. The siege lasted thirty-three days. Constantinople, also under Avar attack, was unaware of its plight, and the new governor arriving from the capital only learned the critical situation of his post when his ship entered the harbour. The Miracula tell that the Avar chief, enraged at failing to reduce the city, determined to bum to the ground all the churches and suburbs outside the walls. However, the city authorities, to whom he conveyed his intention, were able to dissuade him, presumably by means of advantageous counterpropositions or bribes.


The short period of peace which followed the Avar retreat was broken, we are told in the Miracula, by a further Greek provocation. The governor, for whom the local ecclesiastical writers of the time appear to have had little liking, perhaps a reflection of the feelings of the Thessalonians towards Constantinople generally, arrested the chief of one of the neighbouring Slav tribes on the suspicion, possibly incorrect, that he was planning an attack on Thessalonica. The local Slav tribes protested vigorously and sent emissaries to Thessalonica demanding an explanation and redress. They were welcomed by the citizens, who agreed to join in a deputation to Constantinople to ask for the Slav chief’s release. It arrived at an unfortunate time. Heraclius was too busy with preparations for his expedition against the Arabs (of 634) to attend to such trivial matters as a miscarriage of justice affecting a petty barbarian chieftain. He replied that he would only release his prisoner when the Arab war was over. The Slav chief was disinclined to wait and made his escape. Full of anger against the Greeks, he returned to his people and led them and allied Slav tribes from the neighbourhood of the Strymon (Struma) against Thessalonica.


A notable feature of this — the last of the Avar-Slav sieges — was the greatly improved organisation and discipline of the Slavs. After a methodical blockade, which might well have brought about the city’s capitulation had not the Thessalonians obtained supplies by sea from a friendly Slav tribe in Thessaly, they attacked fiercely and managed to breach the walls, only, the Miracula tell, to be foiled again by the indefatigable St Demetrius. One story of the siege is worth recounting for the many-sided insight it gives of these times. A Slav military engineer, who had learned his art from the Byzantines, was supervising the construction of a high wooden tower intended to be used in scaling the walls of Thessalonica. Suddenly, he was seized with madness. The tower remained unfinished but, as soon as the siege was raised, he recovered his sanity. The Slav engineer then entered the city to give thanks to St Demetrius in the church dedicated to the saint and was there baptised. It is certainly not surprising that St Demetrius’s military prestige should have become a legend among those he defeated, as well as among those he sustained with miracles that never seemed to fail at the most critical hour of need.


The next of Macedonia’s misfortunes appears to have been of Vlach origin. According to the Miracula a large number of Vlachs had escaped the domination of the Avars and, with the permission of the Emperor, had settled in a region not far from Thessalonica. However, their leader, Kouber, was a megalomaniac, whose dream was the imperial throne in Constantinople. His first objective was obviously Thessalonica, but to gain the city he preferred to use treachery rather than make a frontal attack. Cunning and unscrupulous as he was, his attempts, though they shook the city, ended in failure. Following this escape which, citing the authority of the Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople, Tafrali points out must have occurred during the final years of the reign of Heraclius, Thessalonica entered a period of comparative security. The Slav menace gradually lessened, though it did not immediately subside. The Strymon tribes again took advantage of the Empire’s preoccupation with Arab wars to indulge in raids and piracy, and this state of





affairs was only ended by a bloody Byzantine victory in 657. In 668 another Byzantine army had to take the field against an uprising of the Macedonian Slavs. A crushing victory by this army was followed by the displacement of large numbers of the rebels to Asia Minor. These moves were decisive. Moreover, Thessalonica’s superior civilisation, not to mention the feats of its patron saint, was establishing a growing ascendancy over the Slavs of southern Macedonia. More and more these were becoming alive to the advantages of a peaceful and settled existence.


Thessalonica had, indeed, been saved, but the Balkan lands to its north and west had been lost. Probably during the latter part of the reign of Heraclius such once powerful Balkan strongholds as Naissus, Ulpiana, Sardica, Stobi andjustiniana Prima, had gradually been evacuated. The contemporary historians gloss over the sorry and ignominious story of these losses, preferring to accent the Persian and Arab wars. Archaeology alone, through excavations which have been carried out in recent years at Caričin Grad, has revealed for us something of the last, bitter days of this Byzantine city, perhaps to be identified with Justiniana Prima.


At the end of the sixth or early in the seventh century changes appear in Caričin Grad’s original spacious, well-laid plan. Houses are divided up, partitions either of brick or broken stone — in contrast to the alternate layers of the earlier walls — are thrown across rooms, indicating a later influx of inhabitants into the city. At the same time the arcades designed to line the principal streets of the city are turned into shops and workshops. Evidence of sieges appear, among them parts of catapults and the heavy stone balls that formed their ammunition. There are indications of the cutting-off of water supplies coming from outside the city. Finally, there is the material destruction, particularly as a result of conflagrations, some of which occurred during a period of Slav occupation.


Few Byzantine weapons have been discovered, possibly, although not certainly, indicating that the city was finally evacuated rather than taken by storm. Slav occupation followed on the Byzantine retreat, and Mano-Zisi, describing the results of the excavations carried out between 1949 and 1952, reports two distinct Slav building phases, one belonging to the seventh and the other to the eighth century. [1] In the first mud and wattle was the usual building material, in the second timber. Of particular interest, the more so in view of the contrast between Byzantine and Slav forms of housing, is the close similarity between Byzantine and Slav tools found in the ruins. Was this due to the long-standing influence of Roman culture, which had radiated far beyond the reach of its legions ? Or was it because the Slavs had already taken to many of the more utilitarian technical accomplishments of Byzantine civilisation ? The latter seems the more likely. That the Slavs were quick to learn we have the authority of contemporary Byzantine historians.


Slav occupation of Caričin Grad was short-lived and probably ended in the eighth century. The final destruction and desolation appears to have been caused by fire, aided by the Slav timber houses and disruption of the water supplies. Later on, stones were taken for building elsewhere ; other destruction occurred in the course of search for loot. Gradually a wood grew over the blackened ruins and Justinian’s proud foundation was forgotten. Even its situation became completely lost during the Middle Ages, though it is possible that sufficient of the ruins of its once splendid churches and those of others in the neighbourhood remained in the twelfth century to provide inspiration for the first Raška style of Serbian architecture.


Leaving desolate the crumbling remains of the ruined cities, the Slavs gradually filled the remaining depopulated expanses of the Balkans. With the lessening opportunity for plunder, the Avar interest moved elsewhere, and the Slavs, except along the Adriatic coast, where piracy proved a more profitable occupation, turned for the most part to their traditional pursuits.


As the Slav urge for plunder was replaced by the desire to settle, again the opportunity of winning over the Slavs by a policy of generosity had beckoned briefly to the Byzantines, and again it was lost. The acts of bad faith committed against the Slavs in the seventh century which the Byzantine historians have themselves recorded, and we do not know what others occurred, may have been as fatal in their consequences as Justinian’s error in enlisting the Avars against the Slavs rather than the Slavs against the Avars.



1. G. Mano-Zisi, ‘The Excavations of Caričin Grad, 1949-52’; Starinar, 1952-53 (Belgrade); pp. 127-68 (Serbian).





For again, time was not on the Byzantine side. In the second half of the seventh century the militant Bulgars migrated south of the Danube and, with their settlement between the lower reaches of the river and the Balkan range, and their establishment of suzerainty over the neighbouring Slav tribes, any Byzantine dream of an easy and peaceful reconquest of the lost provinces was doomed. Neither the genius of SS. Cyril and Methodius, nor the diplomatic intrigues of the patriarchs of Constantinople were to be able to accomplish what energetic action based upon a true appreciation of Slav potentialities could have achieved during those two brief periods of opportunity in the sixth and seventh centuries. 


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