For only a few hundred miles north of Constantinople were troubled oceans of men disdainful of letters and half in love with war. The Hun tide had hardly ebbed when a new people of kindred blood, the Avars, moved from Turkestan through southern Russia (558), enslaved masses of Slavs, raided Germany to the Elbe (562), drove the Lombards into Italy (568), and so ravaged the Balkans that the Latin-speaking population there was almost wiped out. For a time the power of the Avars reached from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In 626 they besieged and almost captured Constantinople; their failure began their decline; in 805 they were conquered by Charlemagne; and gradually they were absorbed by the Bulgars and the Slavs.
The Bulgars, originally a mixture of Hun, Ugrian, and Turkish blood, had formed part of the Hun empire in Russia. After Attila’s death one branch established a kingdom—“Old Bulgaria”—along the Volga around the modern Kazan; their capital, Bolgar, was enriched by the river trade, and prospered till it was destroyed by the Tatars in the thirteenth century. In the fifth century another branch migrated southwest to the valley of the Don; one tribe of these, the Utigurs, crossed the Danube (679), founded a second Bulgarian kingdom in the ancient Moesia, enslaved the Slavs there, adopted their language and institutions, and were ultimately absorbed into the Slavic stock. The new state reached its zenith under the Khagan or Khan (Chief) Krum (802), a man of barbarian courage and civilized cunning. He invaded Macedonia—a province of the Eastern Empire—captured 1100 pounds of gold, and burned the town of Sardica, now, as Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.
The Emperor Nicephorus bettered the instruction by burning Pliska, Krum’s capital (811), but Krum trapped and destroyed the Greek army in a mountain pass, slew Nicephorus, and made the imperial skull his drinking cup. In 813 he besieged Constantinople, fired its suburbs, and devastated Thrace, rehearsing the events of 1913. He was preparing another attack when he burst a blood vessel and died. His son Omurtag made peace with the Greeks, who yielded to him half of Thrace. Under Khan Boris (852-88) Bulgaria adopted Christianity. Boris himself, after a long reign, entered a monastery; emerged four years later to depose his elder son Vladimir and enthrone his younger son Simeon; lived till 907, and was canonized as the first of Bulgaria’s national saints. Simeon (893–927) became one of the great kings of his time; he extended his rule to Serbia and the Adriatic, called himself “Emperor and Autocrat of All the Bulgars and Greeks,” and repeatedly made war against Byzantium; but he tried to civilize his people with translated Greek literature, and to beautify his Danubian capital with Greek art. A contemporary describes Preslav as “a marvel to behold,” full of “high palaces and churches” richly adorned; in the thirteenth century it was the largest city in the Balkans; some scanty ruins remain. After Simeon’s death Bulgaria was weakened with civil strife. Bogomil heretics converted half the peasantry to pacifism and communism; Serbia recovered its independence in 931; the Emperor John Tzimisces reconquered eastern Bulgaria for the Greek Empire in 972; Basil II conquered western Bulgaria in 1014; and Bulgaria became again (1018–1186) a province of Byzantium.
Meanwhile that harassed Empire had received a visit (934-42) from a new barbarian horde. The Magyars, like the Bulgars, were probably derived from those tribes, loosely named Ugri or Igurs (whence ogre), who wandered on the western confines of China; they too had, through long association, a strong infusion of Hun and Turkish blood; they spoke a tongue closely related to those of the Finns and the Samoyeds. In the ninth century they migrated from the Ural-Caspian steppes to the lands adjoining the Don, the Dnieper, and the Black Sea. There they lived by tilling the soil in summer, fishing in winter, and at all seasons capturing and selling Slavs as slaves to the Greeks. After some sixty years in the Ukraine they again moved westward. Europe was then at nadir; no strong government existed west of Constantinople; no united army stood in the way. In 889 the Magyars overran Bessarabia and Moldavia; in 895, under their chieftain Arpad, they began their permanent conquest of Hungary; in 899 they poured over the Alps into Italy, burned Pavia and all its forty-three churches, massacred the inhabitants, and for an entire year ravaged the peninsula. They conquered Pannonia, raided Bavaria (900–7), devastated Carinthia (901), took Moravia (906), plundered Saxony, Thuringia, Swabia (913), southern Germany, and Alsace (917), and overwhelmed the Germans on the Lech, a tributary of the Danube (924). All Europe trembled and prayed, for these invaders were still pagan, and all Christendom seemed doomed. But in 933 the Magyars were defeated at Gotha, and their advance was stayed. In 943 they again invaded Italy; in 955 they pillaged Burgundy. At last in that year the united armies of Germany, under Otto I, won a decisive victory on the Lechfeld, or valley of the Lech, near Augsburg; and Lurope, having in one terrible century (841–955) fought the Normans in the north, the Moslems in the south, and the Magyars in the east, could breathe among its ruins.
The Magyars, subdued, made Europe more secure by accepting Christianity (975). Prince Geza feared the absorption of Hungary into the reexpanding Byzantine Empire; he chose Latin Christianity to win peace in the West, and married his son Stephen to Gisela, daughter of Henry II, Duke of Bavaria. Stephen I (997-1038) became Hungary’s patron saint and greatest king; he organized the Magyars on the lines of German feudalism, and accentuated the religious basis of the new society by accepting the kingdom and crown of Hungary from Pope Sylvester II (1000). Benedictine monks flocked in, built monasteries and villages, and introduced Western techniques of agriculture and industry. So, after a century of war, Hungary passed from barbarism to civilization; and when Queen Gisela presented a cross to a German friend it was already a masterpiece of the goldsmith’s art.
The earliest known home of the Slavs was a marshy region of Russia enclosed by Kiev, Mohilev, and Brest-Litovsk. They were of Indo-European stock, and spoke languages related to German and Persian. Periodically overrun by nomad hordes, often enslaved, always oppressed and poor, they grew patient and strong through endless hardships; and the fertility of their women overcame the high mortality born of famine, disease, and chronic war. They lived in caves or mud huts; hunted, herded, fished, and tended bees; sold honey, wax, and skins; and slowly resigned themselves to settled tillage. Themselves hunted even into hardly accessible marshes and forests, brutally captured and callously sold, they adopted the morals of their time, and bartered men for goods. Inhabiting a cold and damp terrain, they warmed themselves with strong liquor; they found Christianity preferable to Mohammedanism, which forbade alcoholic drinks.34 Drunkenness, uncleanliness, cruelty, and a passion for pillage were their outstanding faults; thrift, caution, and imagination hovered in them between virtue and vice; but also they were good-natured, hospitable, sociable, and loved games, dances, music, and song. The chieftains were polygamous, the poor monogamous, the women—bought or captured for marriage—were anomalously faithful and obedient.35 The patriarchal families were loosely organized in clans, and these in tribes. The clans may have owned property in common in their early pastoral stage;36 but the growth of agriculture—in which different degrees of energy and ability, on diverse soils, produced unequal results—generated private or family property. Frequently divided by migration and fraternal war, the Slavs developed a variety of Slavonic languages: Polish, Wendish, Czech, and Slovak in the west; Slovene, Serbo-Croat, and Bulgarian in the south; Great Russian, White Russian, and Little Russian (Ruthenian and Ukrainian) in the east; nearly all of these, however, have remained intelligible to the speakers of any one of them. Pan-Slavism of speech and customs, along with space, resources, and a vitality born of hard conditions, rigorous selection, and simple food, made the spreading power of the Slavs.
As the German tribes moved south and west in their migrations into Italy and Gaul, an area of low population pressure was left behind them in north and central Germany; drawn into this vacuum, and prodded by the invading Huns, the Slavs expanded westward across the Vistula even to the Elbe; in these lands they became the Wends, Poles, Czechs, Vlachs, and Slovaks of later history. Towards the end of the sixth century a torrent of Slav immigration flooded rural Greece. The cities closed their gates against it, but a strong Slavonic infusion entered the Hellenic blood. About 640 two kindred Slav tribes, the Srbi and the Chrobati, repeopled Pannonia and Illyricum. The Serbs accepted Greek, the Croats Roman, Christianity; this religious division, crossing ethnic and linguistic unity, weakened the nation against its neighbors, and Serbia fluctuated between independence and subjection to Byzantium or Bulgaria. In 989 the Bulgarian Tsar Samuel, having defeated and captured the Serbian John Vladimir, gave him his daughter Kossara in marriage, and allowed him to return to Zita, his capital, as a vassal prince; this is the theme of the oldest Serb novel, Vladimir and Kossara, written in the thirteenth century. The coastal cities of the ancient Dalmatia—Zara, Spalato, Ragusa—retained their Latin language and culture; the remainder of Serbia became Slav. Prince Voislav freed Serbia in 1042; but in the twelfth century it again acknowledged the suzerainty of Byzantium.
When, at the end of the eighth century, this amazing migration of the Slavs was complete, all central Europe, the Balkans, and Russia were a Slavic sea beating upon the borders of Constantinople, Greece, and Germany.