Ancient History & Civilisation


The Final Reckoning of the Eastern Empire



Incursions of Bulgars, Slavs, and Kutrigur Huns into the Balkans


Belisarius leads Roman forces that repel the Kutrigur Huns from Constantinople


The Avars move westwards


Avar pact with the Lombards; the Lombards move into Italy


The Avars capture Sirmium


Reign of the emperor Maurice, marked by prolonged wars with the Sclaveni (Slavs) and Avars in the Balkans


Mutiny of Roman troops under Phocas leads to the overthrow of Maurice


The Sassanian king Khusro II declares war and takes Dara and much of the eastern frontier area


Heraclius stages a coup and overthrows Phocas


The Sassanians overrun Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt


The final war of Rome and Persia


Fall of Jerusalem to the Persians, who carry off the relic of the Cross


The emperor Heraclius barely escapes being ambushed by the Khagan of the Avars. Rhodes falls to the Persians


Heraclius stages counteroffensive into Azerbaijan


Siege of Constantinople by the Sassanians and the Avars


Heraclius resumes the offensive and reaches Ctesiphon; Khusro II is overthrown and the Cross restored to Jerusalem


Civil war in Persia


The first wave of Islamic conquests


Exile of Muhammad to Medina, the hijra


Death of Muhammad


The Arab followers of Muhammad defeat Roman forces at the Battle of the Yarmuk


Fall of Jerusalem


Capture of Alexandria, death of Heraclius


The Arabs defeat the Sassanians at the battle of Nihavand


Assassination of the last Sassanian ruler, Yazdgird III

The Northern Barbarians in the Sixth Century

Avars, Slavs, and Lombards

Since the collapse of the Hunnic Empire in the middle of the fifth century, the entire area of the Balkans had become a dangerous no-man's land. Most of the major fortress cities south of the Danube, which had been devastated by Attila's armies, remained ruined and depopulated. Roman authority was maintained with difficulty along the lower Danube as this could be reached and supplied from Constantinople by sea, but the land routes running west from Constantinople and from the regional capital Thessalonica, north to Serdica, and northwest to Sirmium, were barely secure even for armed forces. In effect the limits of Roman power were the rapids of the middle Danube, around the Iron Gates, which marked the western limit of Rome's naval reach.

After the fall of the Huns, the regional power vacuum was filled by the Ostrogothic tribes, but these dispersed after Theoderic the Amal took his followers to Italy in 489, and this opened the door to incursions of new peoples, moving through the Ukraine across the river Dnieper to the Danube. Among these were the Turkic-speaking Bulgars (who were usually called Huns by Procopius), and the Sclaveni (Slavs), who began to mount successful incursions into Thrace, but were defeated by Justinian's troops in notable campaigns of 528–9.1 Justinian consolidated Roman control of the eastern Balkans by rebuilding many of its fortresses, a major effort, which received detailed attention in Procopius, Buildings, book 4. The basic objective was to control crucial strategic positions (for instance the Danube crossing at Sirmium, or the passes into Greece at Thermopylae and the Isthmus) and to provide sufficient strongholds for the population to secure itself when danger threatened.2 From 531 to 534 the magister militum in Thrace, Chilbudius, fought successfully against the Bulgars, Sclaveni, and Antae, but was killed in a fierce skirmish north of the Danube. Procopius commented that thereafter the barbarians were able to cross the river and raid Roman territory at will (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.14.1–6). Justinian recovered Sirmium in 535 from the Ostrogoths, briefly arousing expectations that Roman authority might be reasserted across Illyricum as a whole, but within a year the city had fallen back into the hands of the Gepids, the German-speaking tribe that now occupied much of the Hungarian plain.

In 539 Procopius described a major incursion of Huns, by which he probably refers to a coalition of the new nomadic groups including the Bulgars and Kutrigurs, which extended from the Ionian Gulf to Constantinople. Greece was ravaged as far as the Isthmus of Corinth; thirty-two Illyrican fortresses and the city of Cassandria were overwhelmed; the invaders broke through the fortifications built to secure the Thracian Chersonese, and some even crossed the Hellespont into Asia. It is hard to dissociate these events from the famine conditions of the later 530s, which may have provoked this desperate onslaught (Procopius, Bell. Pers. 2.4.4–12; see pp. 413–5).3 Other attacks on Illyricum occurred in 544 and 549, which Roman forces were powerless to prevent (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.11.15–16 and 29.1–3). The pressure both from the Sclaveni and the Kutrigur Huns intensified during the 550s, and Procopius has graphic descriptions of the former advancing towards the Hebrus river and the Thracian coast, overwhelming fortified towns by sheer force of numbers, slaughtering the men by impalement and immolation, and leading women and children off to slavery. Only the presence of the Roman army, which Germanus was assembling for the renewed campaign against the Goths in Italy, prevented them from falling on their main target, Thessalonica (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.38, 40.1–8).

Security in Illyricum was less dependent on fortifications along the Danube than on Roman ability to orchestrate an elaborate diplomatic dance among the barbarian peoples north of the frontier. In 551 the Gepids made a precarious peace with their Lombard neighbors (settled in former Roman Pannonia), but also called in the help of the Kutrigurs, not believing that the pact would hold. However, when their warlike new allies arrived, rather than set them against the Lombards, they escorted them across the river crossing at Sirmium, which they controlled, to plunder richer pickings from Roman territory. Justinian's response was to enlist the help of another steppic group, the Utrigurs, currently established east of the Sea of Azov, to attack the remaining Kutrigurs in the Ukraine (who were in any case receiving regular payments from Constantinople). The Utrigur intervention was doubly successful in that it enabled many thousands of Roman prisoners of the Kutrigurs to escape back to their homes, and also caused the Kutrigur warriors who had crossed the Danube at Sirmium to abandon their raids on Illyricum. However, one band of 2,000 Kutrigurs, led by a chieftain who had previously been part of Belisarius' expedition against the Vandals, successfully claimed asylum from Justinian, who settled them in Thrace on condition that they made themselves available for military service. Sandil, the king of the Utrigurs, was incensed. Why should his people, friends of the Romans, put themselves at risk on Justinian's behalf when their accursed enemies were thus allowed to enjoy the comfort and luxury of settling in the empire?

We eke out our existence in a deserted and thoroughly unproductive land, while the Kutrigurs are at liberty to consume grain at state expense, to nurse hang-overs in city wine-bars, and to toy with all manner of luxurious titbits from the table. Presumably they get free access to bath houses and can swan around in gold ornaments, with no lack of fine clothing dyed in many colours and embroidered with gold. (Procopius, Bell. 8.19.16–17)

Envy and greed, as well as dire necessity, impelled the barbarian raids. Beyond the huts and tents that housed the Slavic and Turkic-speaking tribes around the northern confines of the Black Sea, loomed an image of the Roman Empire, wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice.

The last great Kutrigur attack on the empire came in 559 when Zabergan led a force of Kutrigurs and Sclaveni into Macedonia and Greece up to the gates of Thermopylae and across the plains of Thrace to overrun the long walls of Constantinople. In the crisis, Belisarius was called out from retirement to lead the defense (Agathias 5.11–25).

The next challenge along Rome's northeast frontier arrived two years after Justinian's death. The Avars, a warrior nomadic people which originated from Mongolia, had been moving inexorably westwards through the 540s and 550s, driven in the rear by the Turks, but lured on by tales of Roman wealth.4 The Romans, as might be expected, initially used them as a foil to the Kutrigurs and Utrigurs. In 567 they made a pact with the Lombards against the Gepids, whose terms are recorded by Menander (fr. 9). As the Avar newcomers annihilated the Gepids, the Romans took advantage of the moment to re-occupy Sirmium, which had been in Gepid hands since 536, while the Lombards under King Audoin made the fateful decision to abandon their settlements in Pannonia and move south into Italy.

The Avars were now the strongest and most aggressive barbarian power along Rome's northern frontier and they dictated the shape of Roman policy in the Balkans for a generation. The tribal structure of the Avars broadly resembled that of the Huns,5 and their leader, the Khagan, assumed the role that Attila had played in the 440s. From 572, probably after three years of plundering, the Avars began to receive an annual payment of 80,000 gold solidi from Rome as the price for leaving the Balkans unmolested. In 578 they renewed the offensive against Sirmium when the new Roman emperor Tiberius II refused payment and captured the city in 581, after a siege that had lasted for more than two years. The Romans were compelled to make good the deficient payments (Menander fr. 63–6; John of Ephesus 6.30–32). During this period the Sclaveni, evidently acting in concert with the Avars, had devastated Greece, Thessaly, and Thrace. In May 583 the Avar Khagan raised his demands from the new emperor Maurice, who succeeded Tiberius II in 582, to 100,000 solidi a year. When payment was not forthcoming he moved swiftly eastwards, capturing Singidunum, Augustae, Viminacium, and Anchialus on the Black Sea coast, where his harem enjoyed the luxury of hot baths. A high-level Roman embassy sent to discuss terms was humiliated, but returned the following year, when the Romans agreed to pay the full sum demanded by the Khagan (Theophylact 1.3.1–6.3). The agreement bought no respite from the Sclaveni, who in 585 attacked the long walls of Constantinople before they were driven from Thrace by a Roman victory at Adrianople (Theophylact 1.7.3–6; John of Ephesus 6.25). Athens and Corinth were sacked, perhaps in the same year, and in September 586 the Slavs briefly laid siege to Thessalonica. The city was saved, it was believed, by the miraculous intervention of its patron saint Demetrius.6 The first permanent Slavic settlements in Greece are to be dated from this period. Moreover, the Khagan alleged that the Romans had provided refuge for a man who had slept with one of his harem, and used this as a pretext for attacking Roman cities in the lower Danubian provinces of Scythia and Moesia (Theophylact 1.8).

Through the later 580s the Avars held the initiative, as Roman troops were heavily committed in the war against the Sassanians on the eastern front, and they repeated their attack on Anchialus and the Long Walls in 588, abetted by the Slavs.7 The tide turned in the Roman favor only after Maurice agreed the peace treaty with Persia in 591 and thus released manpower reserves that could be deployed in the Balkans. For most of the final decade of the sixth century, under the generalship of Priscus and Comentiolus, Roman forces applied effective tactics expounded in the Strategikon, the military manual which the emperor had written himself before coming to power. It was not until 598 that the Khagan achieved another major success, advancing through Moesia to Tomi, outmaneuvering the Roman generals, and forcing the emperor to lead troops in person to man the long walls. Negotiations led to a new agreement whereby the Avars withdrew to the north of the Danube, but the level of protection money demanded of the Romans was raised by a further 20,000 solidi (Theophylact 7.13.1–15.9). In the following years, however, Roman troops continued on the offensive, inflicting heavy losses on the Avars in a battle near Viminacium and campaigning across the Danube against Slav settlements.

As the desperate and dispiriting struggles of the later years of the sixth century unfolded, the Balkans were undergoing a decisive demographic transformation. The key people in this change were not the dominant Avars, who, like Attila's Huns in the fifth century, were to fade from prominence within two generations, but the Slavs. The Sclaveni are the least documented of Rome's barbarian neighbors in late antiquity. Their name, cognate with the word “slave,” denotes that they were regarded as an underclass. The classical sources record virtually no named leaders. The Slavs were not, it seems, organized as large purposeful tribal groups, operating under warrior leadership, but comprised the inhabitants of lowland villages from across the river basins of the Dnieper and Dniester rivers, the former homelands of the precursors of the Goths. Their settlements were small clusters of pit dwellings, rounded huts with thatched roofs, earthed up around their low stone or timber walls, hardly visible above the level of the plain. Their economy was based on cattle raising and the cultivation of low-grade cereals, especially millet. Contact with the more developed economies of the Roman Empire led them to adapt and upgrade this lifestyle to wheat cultivation and horse-rearing.8

The infiltration of Slavic peoples into the Balkan provinces was at such a humble level of material culture that it is difficult to trace archaeologically. The most likely hypothesis is that they colonized the low-lying country, including marshlands, which were little favored by the settled populations of the Roman provinces, not least as this land had been so exposed to devastation by earlier barbarian movements. It is evident that the Slavs adapted readily to their new surroundings. The lowlands between the Haemus and Rhodope mountains of Moesia and Thrace provided an excellent environment for their settlements, which were inserted between the small towns and precariously held forts created by the Roman occupation. The first Slav incursions of the 520s heralded an undramatic but relentless demographic transformation, as these new peoples, introducing a new language, gradually extended into areas abandoned by earlier occupants. Growing acquaintance with their barbarian neighbors, including the Avars, and awareness of the wealth of the Roman Empire, helped to transform their society, especially in terms of military organization, and by the late sixth and early seventh centuries they were able to mount long-distance incursions against Roman cities. This paved the way for Slavic families and small communities to extend their colonization into Greece, as well as westwards across central Europe.9 The movement of the Slavs into southeast Europe is comparable in many respects to the gradual spread of the Arabs across Syria throughout late antiquity, which was to prepare the way for the Islamic conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries.

The other major consequence of the Avar incursion of the 560s was the displacement of the Lombards (Longobardi, “Long-Beards”) from Pannonia into Italy. King Audoin led his people back to the areas where they had campaigned with Narses against the Goths in 553. Supported by other German-speaking groups, they controlled most of Italy north of the Po, including the stronghold of Ticinum by 572. Lombards also occupied the fortress and region of Spoleto, thus cutting off Roman communications between Ravenna and Rome along the via Flaminia, and the area of Beneventum. These large enclaves were to evolve as independent duchies.10 Roman control of Italy was thus badly fragmented. The Romans retained authority over the Ligurian coast around Genoa, a corridor of land across the Apennines through Perugia, which linked Ravenna and Rome, the important enclave of Naples and Salerno, the southern regions of Bruttium and Calabria, and the rich island of Sicily. The geographical division of Italy at the end of the sixth century between Romans and Lombards draws attention to the significance of Roman sea-power. All Roman territory focused on major ports and was thereby integrated into the empire as a whole. Even so, the bonds were loosening, and in 578 the emperor Tiberius II declined the offering of 3,000 gold solidi made by the Roman authorities of Italy at his accession, requesting instead that the money be used to pay for Lombard soldiers to join his Persian expedition. The decision in effect indicated that the Romans in Italy would henceforth be left to their own devices in dealing with local challenges. The regional government, which was reorganized as the Roman Exarchate of Italy under the emperor Maurice, did not have the resources or land-based military strength to dominate the whole of the peninsula. Thus in geopolitical terms Italy began to take the shape that it was to retain until the later Middle Ages, a patchwork of Roman territory interspersed by the Lombardic duchies.11 For Constantinople, henceforth, ecclesiastical relations with the papacy were of greater consequence than those with the secular government of its western province.12

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!