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Balkan : the resource of Balkanism : early days

Balkan : the peninsula

During the late third and fourth centuries the Eastern Roman Empire managed to weather the storm of successive incursions by the peoples from the north. [...] Emperor Constantine (306-337) may have laid the groundwork for the emergence of a new Orthodox European civilization within a transformed East Roman (Byzantine) Empire governed from Constantinople, but Emperor Justinian (527-565) assured its success.

As early as the first decade of the sixth century, Slav tribes migrating south from their Pripet homeland arrived on the empireís Balkan borders. They may have been loosely divided into two different but related groups, Antes and Slaveni, but those groupings lacked any sort of sophisti- cated political organization. While they often conducted destructive local raids into the empire, those Slav tribes essentially were disunited, posing more of a nuisance than a major threat to the imperial Balkan provinces. That situation changed with the arrival of Avars in the 550s.

The Avars were a highly organized and powerful Turkic tribal confederation governed by a central ruler (kaghan). [...] Rather than facing fragmented and feuding tribal groups amenable to manipulation, the empire was presented with a powerfully unified state controlling the entire frontier beyond its Balkan borders. [...] Initially the imperial authorities did not view the Avar menace as fatal so long as Constantino- ple and the primary cities held out.

In terms of imperial prestige, however, the Avar depreda- tions were an embarrassment for a state considering itself the divinely ordained world order. Particularly galling was the fact that large numbers of the formerly disorganized and primitive Slavs pushed south into the peninsula, either in flight from the Avars or as their infantry allies. The Slavsí disunity and lack of state structure made them difficult for the empire to deal with in the traditional manner. They had no important or sufficiently powerful tribal leaders who could be bribed or subsidized with any assurance of effectiveness. Nor could any binding treaties be signed with them for the same reason. Their primitiveness actually permitted them to exist in harsh environments that more sophisticated population avoided, and it became apparent that the Slavs were seeking new territories to settle as much as simple plunder. The Slavs were not viewed by the imperial authorities as particularly dangerous militarily, but the lack of military forces to root them out of their Balkan footholds was distressing.

Dennis P. Hupchick: The Balkans, From Constantinople to Communism, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2002.

 
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