Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Slavic Settlement in Povardarje (FYROM) Reviewed: History, Ethnology and Politics

This article presents a brief outline of Slavic settlement on the territory of modern-day Povardarje - Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). The current state of knowledge about the transformation of the ethnic character of this region in Middle Ages shall be restated. While summary of known historical events-or set of events, as is the case here, taking place from 6th to 7th century CE-are useful as orientation points within the body of historiography, concise narrative of this event is particularly necessary due to the confusion created by the adherents of Pseudomacedonian propaganda, both in FYROM and abroad. An atmosphere of denouncement and rejection of the Slavic ethnic aspect engulfed the general “Macedonian” population of FYROM. Motivated by impressive propagandist efforts based on ignorance, low self-esteem and a desire to impose an exclusive, pure “Macedonian” ethnogenetic theory for political purposes bordering on fraud, the propagandist managed to add to the identity-crisis among Slavs of FYROM. Also, the indolence of the organized scholars in FYROM deserves criticism: while they are competent to uphold the factual, documents based state of knowledge regarding the problem of early Slavs in the Balkans, not much has been done with the much needed upgrade of the theoretical base.

The non-productivity of a rigid, too conservative methodology still broadly employed in FYROM is aggravated by either deficits or complete absence of anthropological, paleobotanical, paleoeconomical , demographic and technological studies. Not rarely, the form in which this issue is presented in school textbook and popular literature offers nothing more than oversaturation with crudely presented and well-known facts. The time is ripe for a new wave of research and publicist activity which may lead to a firmer, in-depth knowledge of what is a crucial point in region’s ethnodemographic history. The well founded historical fact about settlement of the Slavs in the Balkans today finds its opponents embodied in the pseudoscientist circles of FYROM lead by Aleksandar Donski, Tašo Belčev, Vasil Iljov, Vangel Božinovski, Aristotel Tentov, Tome Boševski and others. The most substantiated criticism of their collective body of work is its apriorism and obvious nationalistic bias in the process that appears to have outward form of a scientific inquiry but is unable to withstood serious criticism. In this article we shall summarize the main body of historical, archaeological and linguistic evidence about settlement of Slavs in the territory of modern day FYROM.

A note should be made about Early Slavs and their original habitat. This is one of the most puzzling issues in Europe’s ethnic history. Principal Slavic homeland was sought from Central Europe and the Baltic all the way to Danube and steppes of Central Asia. Today the most accepted theory supported by archeology and paleolinguistics (Slavic character of hydronymy, otherwise a remarkably conservative feature) is that the primitive area of formation and ethnic living of Slavs is to be sought between the Middle Dniepar and southern tributaries of the river Pripet. Another type of evidence is furnished by retention of the common Proto-Indo-European (PIE) words for birch, oak, ash, alder, aspen, elm, maple and hornbeam in modern Slavic languages. This fact conclusively establishes their homeland in the temperate zones north and northeast of the Carpathians. This would be the area of collapse of the Balto-Slavic linguistic commonwealth and crystallization of the Proto-Slavic, probably well before 1st millennium BCE.

The most plausible theory about the origin of the ethnonym Slav (Slowene) is that it is derived from “slovo” (word, speech) having the meaning of “(people) who speak a same language”, in contrast to the ethnic name given by Slavs to Germanic peoples “Nemci” (speechless, mute, dumb people).

Based on the archaeological and linguistic research, it may be deduced that Slavs retained a stability with regard to the occupation of their primordial space. Challenges related to the expansions and regrouping of the nearest ethnic groups, the Germanic people in particular by all likelihood caused a certain reorientation of the early Slavic society to a more stratified (but still without a centralized authority) form of organization which included a military aspects as evidenced by the Germanic loanwords signifying economic terms and weaponry. This early deficiency of basic military structuralism is evident from the fact that some of the terminology for certain types of arms in early Slavic is of Germanic origin: mečĭ “sword” from Gothic mēkeis, Helmŭ, Old Church Slavonic Šlěmŭ, “helmet” from Germanic helm, as well as military term vitȩdzĭ “knight” and *pǔlkǔ “military formation” from Common Germanic *fulkaz “armed troop”.

The Slavic word for king/duke knez is derived from Germanic kuningas. Družina-the Slavic council of noblemen is probably a Scythian influenced formation. According to Procopius, Slavs were not ruled by a single men, but the lived in a democracy. The rule of a tribal chief and council is an Indo-European vestige.

As a derivative of their mythology, the name of the god of horned animals “Veles” became a name of the town of Veles, south-east from Skopje. The cult of Veles-Volos was present in Russian folklore until recent times.

The name of the supreme Slavic god, Perun, the god of thunder, cognate to Lith. Perkǔnas was given to the mountain peaks Perun on the Kozjak mountain, and Perun over the village Vitolište in Mariovo, both localities being in FYROM

Scholars generally agree that the “Slavic problem” started with the Huns in the first half of the fifth century, although there is no firm historic or archaeological hypothesis. It is known that Slavs were in company of Attila’s Huns at whose funeral Jordanes mentions the feast as the Slavic word “strava”. Priscus, a Byzantine diplomat sent as envoy to the Huns, noticed that the people in Banat and Bačka drink “medos”, also a term with Slavic root.

After the death of Attila, Hunnic tribes roamed between the Dnieper and the Ural mountains. From these, the Bulgarian groups of Kutrigurs and Utigurs raided Thrace, Macedonia and Thessaly from 493 to 517, a period after which the Slavic raid escalated in intensity. Procopius, in his work “About the Gothic Wars” mentions an event regarding German, a military commander: “When Justin, uncle by German’s grandmother, held the Imperial throne, The Antes which lived quite close to Slavs passed through Danube and with a great army they went into the Roman land”. The ferocity as well as the magnitude of the attack is well presented by Procopius : “Illyricum and all of Thrace, i. e. the whole country from the Ionian Gulf [the Adriatic to the outskirts of Byzantium, including Greece and the Chersonese, was overrun almost every year by Huns, Slavs and Antae, from the time when Justinian became Roman emperor [527], and they wrought untold damage among the inhabitants of those parts. For I believe that in each invasion more than two hundred thousand Romans were killed or captured, so that a veritable ‘Scythian wilderness’ came to exist everywhere in this land. “

The Empire under Justinian started a mass program of establishing fortifications throughout the Balkan. According to Procopius, 11 cities had their fortifications significantly expanded. These measures were not sufficient not only to stop the Slavs, but the incoming raiders from Asia, the Avars. Organized around heavily militarized horsemen formations, the Avars were joined by Huns and Bulgars. Often aligned with Slavs, Avars managed to impose their own dynamics in the military relationships in the later half of the 6th century. Byzantine historian Menander Protectors states: “In the fourth year of Tiberius’s rule [578] , around 100. 000 Slavs ravaged Thrace and many other areas. . . . . Hellada was devastated”. The occupation of Sirmium by Avars in 582 and of Singidunum two years later marked the devastation of the Byzantine defense system. John of Ephesus states in his “History of the Church”[585] that Slavs attacked and devastated the Roman areas from Constantinople to Thrace, Thessaly and Hellada. With the murder of Emperor Maurice in 602, the possibility of concentrating the defense effort against Slavs, obtained after his victory over the Persian, was lost. A wholesale invasion and settlement of Slavs was to follow.

The source “Miracula Sancti Demetrii” mentions how Thessaloniki was sacked and how all of Greece and the Aegean islands were attacked between 610-626. The tribes mentioned are Draguvites, Sagudates (perhaps a tribe of Hunnish origin) Velegezites, Vaiunites, Berzites (Brsjaci of modern-day FYROM?) and others. This book uses the term Σκλαβιναι in order to designate every land populated by Slavs.

According to Bishop Isidore of Seville , the Slavs “took Greece from the Romans” (Sclavi Graeciam Romanis tulerunt”), which must be consider an exaggeration, since the highly fragmented and insular character of Greece in the narrower term of the word wasn’t convenient for mass settlement by Slavs , who used their primitive vessels, the monoxyles , to perform limited raids. The Slavic invasion ended before the middle of the seventh century. The scope of Slavic colonization is evident from the “Armenian geography” which mentions that Thrace and Macedonia, among other lands were populated by Slavs.

Analysis of Slavic hydronyms in Bulgaria by the linguist V. Georgiev demonstrated that the bulк of Slavic river names are to be found in North-Western Bulgaria and Eastern Serbia, thus demonstrating the route of Slavic colonization via Vardar and Struma rivers.

G. Pisida mentions the newly-introduced Balkan ethnic group as Σκλωοις. The source “Paschal Chronicle” from the first half of the VIIth century speaks about Σκλαβους. Theophanes the Confessor is the first author who mentions Sklavinias in relation to Macedonia (”Sklavinias throughout Macedonia”).

Archaeological surveys of FYROM discovered a number of Slavic finds belonging to the earliest era of Slavic settlement. These are however, rare, due to poor fundings and primitiveness of local archaeology

Some of them are:

Slavic pits for keeping grain with ceramic vases in Berovo, Prilep, Bašino Selo near Veles.

Belt application from St. Erazmo, Ohrid, Amphorae, Vases, Torc and fibulae from the same location, ceramic vases from Prilep.

The monk Hrabar in his tractat “O Pismeneh” (9th century) uses the following terms to designate ethnolingustic realities of his time :словѢане (Slavs), словѢньскы (Slavic), словѢньскаа писмена (Slavic letters), словѢньскоу рѢчь (Slavic word), родь словѢньскыи (Slavic breed), словѢньскы книгы (Slavic books), по словѢньскомоу іазыкоу (in Slavic language).

Teophilactus mentions that the brothers from Thessaloniki found “Slavic letters” (”Σθλοβενικα γραμματα”). The Pope John VIII issues a document in which he calls that language: lingua sclavinica, sclavina.

After the colonization of Slavs on the area of FYROM, much of the old geographic terminology was replaced with Slavic names: towns of Struga, Ohrid (Lihnid), Velbužd (Pautania), Kičevo, Debar, Raven, Kočani, Radoviš, Prosek, Delčevo, Stena, Sokolec, Črnče, Trnovo, Modrič, Belica, Železnec, Dobrun, Črešče, Lukovica, SlaviÅ¡te, rivers Sateska, Bistrica, Lepenec, Pčinja, Kriva Reka, Treska, mountains Korab, Bistra, Belasica, Vodno etc.

Slavic personal names attested in medieval period are: Bratan, Bratislav, Boleslav (cf. Polish. Boleslaw), Boleslava, Vladimir, Verota, Vŭlkan, Grdju, Dobri, Dobresin, Dobroslav, Dragomad, Desislav, Dragan, Draža, Krasna, Kurica, Litovoj, Milju, Miroslava, Obrada, Prodan, Prevo, Rado, Radoslav, Stana, Stano, Slava, Slav, Tihomir, Černikosa etc.

From all of these matters combined we can conclude that the area of FYROM was indeed colonized by Slavic settlers who changed the ethnic make-up of the population, consisting mostly of Greek and Vulgar Latin speaking people. The Slavs were novelty to the Balkan peninsula which brought rudimentary material artifacts in their cultural inventory, but nevertheless managed to establish themselves demographically and later politically. The process of Slavic settlement from Eastern European core homeland to FYROM can be traced via historical, archaeological and linguistic evidence. The Slavic character of Pseudomacedonians is evident from their language, folklore and mythology. Slavs are not autochtonous population in Northern Geographic Macedonia, as some pseudo-scholars, motivated by aprioristic ideological fixations suggest.

Vasko Gligorijević

Further reading:

Adžievski, K. “Pelagonija vo sredniot vek”, Skopje 1994
Antoljak, S. “Srednovekovna Makedonija”, Vol. 1, Skopje 1985
Backman, C. R. , “The Worlds of Medieval Europe”, Oxford 2003
Belderovski Z. , “Slovenski srednovekovni jami od Berovo”, Macedoniae Acta Archaeologica No 9, 1983-1984, p. 230-232
Dabinovic, A. “Early Balkan Migration”, Slavonic and East European Review 16 (1937-1938), p. 363-411
Dimevski, S. “Makedonskite opštestveno-kulturni tekovi vo feudalizmot”, Skopje 1981
Đerić, V. “Nekoliko glavnih pitanja iz etnografije Stare Srbije i Maćedonije”, Sremski Karlovci 1922
Gimbutas, M. “The Slavs”, London 1971
Haldon, J. “Byzantium at War, AD 600-1453”, 2003
Ilievski P. Hr. , “Pojava i razvoj na pismoto”, Skopje 2001, p. 233
Ivanovski, O. “Makedonskite Sloveni od VI do IX vek”, Skopje 1962
“Knjiga o Balkanu”, Vol. 1, Beograd 1936
Lunt, Horace G. “The Beginning of Written Slavic. ” Slavic Review 23, no. 2 (1964): 212-19
Obolensky, D. “Byzantium and the Slavs", 1994
Ostrogorski, G. “Vizantija i Sloveni”, Beograd 1969
Pančovski, I. G. , Panteonyt na drevnite slavjani i mitologijata im, Sofija 1993
Pohl, W. “Conception of Ethnicity in Early Medieval Studies”, p. 13-24 in: “Debating the Middle Ages: Issues and Readings”, Ed. Little K. L. , Rosenwein, B. H. ”, 1998
Stefoska, I. “Slovenite na počvata na Makedonija”, Skopje 2002
“Vizantijski izvori za istoriju naroda Jugoslavije”, Vol. 1, Beograd 1955
Živković, T. “Sloveni i Romeji”, Beograd 2000
Zogović, S. “Etničkite zaednici vo Makedonija do krajot na raniot sreden vek”, Prilep 2001


  1. Anonymous1:15 PM

    what do you think then the slavs came down did trhey destroy all the macedonians??

  2. Brzak3:02 PM

    While a number of Macedonian Greeks withdrew in fortified towns within Macedonia and elsewhere,the proportion of the Slavic incursion was not nearly so great as to replace the original population. These were raids taken alongside main valleys. It is known, based on anthropological finds, that the generalized Romaic population did not mixed significantly even-two or three centuries after the first incursions in Balkans interior where the native element was less numerous. Later medieval sources testify about Greek character of Macedonia and indeed, Nemanjici practiced pro-Greek cultural policy after the conquest of Macedonia throughout the 14th century. Out of the last two historical aspect it may be assumed that the Greek element reemerged from the turbulence of early medieval times quite stabilized throughout Macedonia in terms of numbers and cultural cohesion. Several instances of planned depopulation of Slavs by the Empire contributed to restitution of more definite Greek demographic character, mostly kept by towns and immediate vicinities occupied by mostly pastoral Greek population. Since Slavs occupied agricultural resources, the land was redistributed to Greeks after these changes in population during the Middle ages. This process may be traced through historical documents and to various degrees via archaeology. The key factor of salvation of Greek preeminence in Macedonia was Justinian's fortress building program, which sheltered the population during Slavic and Avar raids. Judging by the toponymy its is likely that the plains around Thesaloniki were the most severely hit by the raids, but in no case we can speak that Slavs, Avars and others depopulated Greeks of Macedonia during these times.