Imperial Byzantine Policy Towards The Slavs And Its Effects

Justinian the Great – Detail of a portrait in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna
This article presents some of the methods the Byzantine state used to Control the expansion of the Slavic population from their appearance in the Balkans in the 7th century until the fall of Constantinople to the Franks in 1204.

This is the most important period, since many claim that the Slavs mixed with the Greek population in that particular period. This is not true as one can easily see, since the Slavs throughout this period were contained (seggregated) by the Byzantines in self-governing areas called “sklaveniai.” The Slavs’ expansion and unrest were usually controlled by force, but a few times the Slavs were transferred to Asia Minor to make them assimilate with the Greek population there and to avoid the errosion of the Greek population in Europe. It is known that after Vassilios II (Basil II) the Bulgarian kingdom was never a serious threat to the Byzantine empire; the same applies to the period after 1204. Therefore, we can see that the Byzantines managed very carefully the invasions of the Slavs and their integration within the Empire. It is also very difficult to imagine how the Greek population, that was Christian and had a high level of civilization, would mix with the nomadic and heathen Slavs.


Byzantium adopted a definite policy towards the Slavs only after 681. After the appearance of the Bulgar threat, the Byzantine state attempted to assimilate foreign elements mainly through exchange of populations and grants of territory in exchange for military services. But force might also be employed when it seemed necessary. As has already been mentioned Constantine IV’s campaign against the Strymonitai and Rhynchinoi was a
response to the piratical activities of these tribes in the Hellespont region, an area of crucial commercial and strategic importance for the empire. The campaign was made possible by the termination of the seven years’ state of war against the Arabs, who had reached the very threshold of the capital. Additional campaigns were under taken against the Sklavenoi of Macedonia, and an attempt was made to weaken the Slavonic element in Macedonia,
and to strengthen the Greek populations in the area. The constant attention that Byzantium now gave to Macedonia was motivated not so much by the sporadic insurrections of the sklaveniai (in the past, as we have seen, the central government had not interfered even when the Slavs attacked Thessalonike), as by the new factor of Bulgarian pressure. In other words, the measures taken by Byzantium in Macedonia were just one aspect of a general policy aimed at checking the new enemy. Indeed it is clear from evidence to be discussed below that the Slavs of Macedonia faced the Bulgars as their enemies, and it was for this reason that certain among them collaborated with Byzantine missions concerned with ‘the defence of Macedonia against the new threat.

Having first repelled the Bulgars in Thrace, Justinian II undertook a campaign against the sklaveniai of Macedonia in 688, only a few years after Constantine IV’s campaign. Certain sklaveniai situated between the Hebros and the Strymon resisted, but others surrendered peacefully. During his stay in Thessalonike, Justinian offered the church of Saint Demetrios a salt-pan. The prisoners taken during the campaign, and certain of the Slavs who had signed a treaty with the emperor, were transferred to the theme of Opsikion in Bithynia (688) and from them there was formed a purely Slavic military corps whose leader was also a Slav. The relevant source puts the number of men who served in this corps at thirty thousand. Yet this figure is extravagant when seen in the context of the whole Byzantine army, and especially of the army of the theme of Opsikion, which numbered only six thousand men in the ninth century. It would appear therefore that the figure of thirty thousand refers to the total number of Slavs who were transferred from Macedonia to Bithynia. Justinian II was very favourably disposed towards the Slavs, even to the point of calling the military detachment that he formed from them ‘the chosen people’ 44 Yet during the first important battle in which they took part, at Sebastopolis, they deserted to the Arabs, thus bringing about the defeat of the Byzantine army.

 The transfer of Slavonic populations to Asia Minor aimed on the one hand at the weakening of the Slavonic element in Macedonia, Thrace and the neighbouring areas, and on the other hand at the strengthening of the Anatolian peasantry. The method of colonization was innovatory, in that the settlers were allowed to preserve their ethnic homogeneity, so that they did not feel strangers in the midst of their new social and religious milieu, while at the same time their settlements were scattered over a wide area in order to pre-empt the possibility of any organized conspiracy.

  As part of his more general policy of integrating the Slavs into the political framework of Byzantium, Justinian II entrusted them with the defence of the Strymon defiles against the Bulgars. The particular Slavonic tribes involved
were the Smolenoi or Smoleanoi, who until then had dwelt to the east of the river Nestos. About a century and a half later, in 837, when they were no longer able to resist Bulgarian pressure, they withdrew to Christoupolis (pre-
sent day Kavala). In 864 the bishopric of the Smolenoi was created as part of a more general attempt to Christianize them; after the great war between tsar Samuel and Basil II they were transferred by the Byzantine government to Rhodope, to form the new theme of Smolenoi. Smolenoi are thus a good example of Slavs who remained consistently faithful ‘allies’ of the Byzantine empire. During the ensuing centuries Byzantium proved highly intolerant of insurrectionary movements among the Slavs, which were usually suppressed by force. When some seventy years after their subjection by Justillian II, certain of the sklaveniai of Macedonia attempted an uprising their revolution was crushed by the emperor Constantine V (759).” In 782-83, on the order of the empress Irene, her prime minister Staurakios marched against the Slavs of Macedonia and the Peloponnese and defeated them, compelling them to pay an annual tribute.

 In the ninth century the emperor Nikephoros I initiated a new phase of colonization, which must be linked with the renewed Bulgarian attacks. The sources record that the emperor ordered that Byzantine subjects from all the themes should be transferred to the sklaveniai. This order (that the historian Theophanes includes among the so called kakoseis (molestations) of Nikephoros I, that is various drastic and highly unpopular population transplants and financial measures which were intended to improve the state of the economy) required that between September 809 and Easter 810 those due to emigrate should sell all their immovable property and leave for their new home. Those affected by the order protested violently, but eventually were obliged to submit. Once settled in the sklaveniai, they received land in exchange for military services. We have strong indications that this measure mainly concerned Macedonia and Thrace, and aimed at strengthening the Christian population in the area, and hence the possibilities of resisting the Bulgars. A little later, about the third decade ofthe ninth century, and certainly before 836, we hear of a theme of Thessalonike.” This attests the steady assimilation of the Slavs of Macedonia, since the creation of a theme presupposes the internal calm and peace that allows its army to concentrate exclusively on external enemies. Clearly the soldiers who formed the army and who received from the emperor a fief in exchange for their services, were identical with the colonists whom Nikephoros I sent to sklaveniai in Macedonia; but Byzantine practice elsewhere suggests that loyal Slavs must also have been used.

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