The Slavs: Their Early History and Civilization
3. The Franks, Byzantium and the First Slavic States
1. Samo’s Slavic empire
2. The Croats and Serbs liberate the Southern Slavs
3. Khazars, Bulgars and Byzantines
4. Advance of the Franks
5. First attempts at political union of the Southern Slavs
6. Charlemagne and the Western Slavs
7. Imperial ideas and Frankish missionary methods among the Slavs
At the end of the sixth century, the Avar Empire comprised practically the whole of Central Europe and a great part of the Balkans. Their political influence extended from the middle course of the Elbe and the Oder to the Alps of Styria and Carinthia, from the Carpathian Mountains to the Adriatic and southeastwards as far as the Sea of Azov.
The position of the Avars in the heart of Europe made them a terrible menace not only to the Byzantine Empire, but also to all the Slavic and Germanic tribes surrounding them, while they directly threatened the new Frankish Empire. In their attempt to penetrate further west, the Avars, with their Slavic allies, attacked the Franks in 562. Although King Siegebert, who met their second attack, was defeated and captured in A.D. 567, he was able to come to a friendly agreement with them. In spite of that, the Avars, perhaps called in by their Slavic allies for help against the Franks, invaded Thuringia in 595.
However, an important Avar reverse had an immediate effect upon the situation. We learn from the chronicle of Burgundian origin attributed to Fredegar  that, about the year 623, the Slavs
1. The problems concerning the origin and the authenticity of this chronicle are discussed by G. Labuda in his Polish work, Pierwsze Państwo Słowiańskie, Państwo Samona [The first Slavic State, the State of Samo] (Poznan, 1948), pp. 52-93, 296-320. The author comes to the conclusion that the work was composed about 660 at St. Jean-de-Losne (Latona) near Chalon-sur-Saône, the ancient capital of Burgundy. The whole compilation, together with the original chronicle describing the events from 585 to 643, should be regarded as the work of the same author. Labuda’s study, which also gives abundant bibliographical notes on the period, should be consulted by historians interested in the relations between the Avars, Franks, Slavs and Byzantines at this time. A long summary of his work in French, with critical remarks, may be found in V. Chaloupecký, “Considérations sur Samo, le premier roi des Slaves,” Byzantinoslavica XI (1952), pp. 223-239.
in the neighborhood of the Frankish empire revolted against the Avars and that the rebellion was led by a Frank named Samo. This revolt, which seems to have started in Moravia, apparently enjoyed the support of the Franks, and Samo, a Frankish nobleman, whose name appears to be Celtic rather than Germanic, was sent to the insurgent Slavs to negotiate with them and to assure them of Frankish support. He probably saw that the most important asset which the rebels lacked was good leadership. He therefore took over the direction of operations and after the final victory was recognized as ruler of the liberated territories.
A lively discussion is still going on among specialists about the extent of Samo’s empire. Probably it comprised Moravia, Bohemia, Lower Austria and, from 631 onwards, White Serbia also. It is most unlikely that Samo’s power extended as far as Carinthia, as is often supposed.
The Franks claimed supremacy over the liberated Slavs because their new-won freedom was achieved with Frankish support. Samo, although himself a Frank, refused to submit to King Dagobert and in the conflict which ensued with the Franks (in 631) he was able to uphold his claim to complete independence.
This second Slavic state — the first being that of the Antês — did not last. Samo died about the year 659 and his empire seems to have disintegrated, though remnants of a political organization among his Slavic subjects may have survived. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that the next attempt to build a solid
organization of the Slavs came once more from Moravia, in the ninth century.
It is quite possible that not only the Franks but also Byzantium had a part in supporting this Slavic revolt and we may assume that Byzantine diplomacy employed every means at its disposal to reduce the Avar danger. The revolt occurred at a time when Constantinople itself was menaced by the Avars, who were about to conclude an alliance with the Persians in the hope of capturing the city. We read in the chronicle of Fredegar that Dagobert, King of the Franks (628-638), and the Emperor Heraclius (610-641) exchanged embassies and concluded a treaty of friendship. These negotiations are dated by the chronicler in the years 626 and 629, but may have been started earlier. The treaty could have been directed only against the common enemy — the Avars.
Most probably about the same time, a section of the Serbs migrated from White Serbia — according to Constantine Porphyrogennetus — and asked Heraclius for permission to settle on imperial soil. This report has been rejected by most historians as legendary; but Fredegar’s statements about the negotiations between the Franks and Heraclius can be invoked to support Constantine’s evidence. Like White Croatia, White Serbia escaped coming under the authority of the Avars; but after the Franks’ conquest of Thuringia, which bordered on White Serbia, the Serbs (Sorbs) could not free themselves from Frankish sovereignty. Frankish pressure, dissensions among their leaders, and the knowledge that Heraclius was looking for allies against the Avars would have been enough to justify the migration of part of the Serbs to Byzantium. But Heraclius seems also to have sent an embassy to the Croats, offering them a new home in Illyricum after they had expelled the Avars from that province. The Croats — accompanied by some other Slavic tribes — eager to settle their own account with the Avars, welcomed the Emperor’s
advances and sent a body of well-seasoned troops on to Byzantine soil.  There, together with the small army of the Serbs, and with the support of the Byzantine navy and of the refugees from the destroyed cities who had settled in the surviving cities on the littoral and on the islands, they commenced their operations against the Avars from the south. They liberated first Dalmatia, then the rest of Illyricum and finally the territory between the Drava and the Sava rivers. 
The Avars continued to control Hungary, but they do not seem to have regained Bohemia and Moravia after the death of Samo. The Croats and Serbs were settled by the grateful Emperor in the liberated lands, where they took over from the Avars the leadership of the Slavic tribes which had been in occupation of present-day Yugoslavia from the end of the sixth century. The
1. The Serbs and the Croats must have taken the old route beyond the Carpathian Mountains following the course of rivers they knew well. The Serbs were first settled by Heraclius in “the theme of Thessalonica.” There they seem to have founded a colony at Serbište in Greece, at the foot of Mount Olympus. It is difficult to imagine how they could have travelled through the center of Avar territory. Constantine’s account of the liberation of Illyricum from the Avars is, from the military standpoint, perfectly sound and logical.
It seems that the Croats who migrated to the south on the invitation of Heraclius were the tribes which were settled in western Galicia, round Cracow and the upper Vistula, although some Slavs, still bearing their name, may have stayed in their old home and seem to be mentioned in the foundation charter of the bishopric of Prague in the tenth century. The Croats of Bohemia and of eastern Galicia did not follow their confrères of the Vistula, because they are mentioned in documents of the tenth century — in the foundation charter mentioned above and in the Russian Primary Chronicle. Constantine Porphyrogennetus says that the ancestor of the prince of the Zachlumjans came to the south during the Croat migration, from the river Vistula. This seems to indicate that some other Slavic tribes had joined the Croats on their way towards the south. The imperial writer presents the events in a Byzantine way, stressing that the initiative for the migration came from the Croats, who had solicited the Emperor’s protection. This presentation of the facts seems tendentious, having the aim of strengthening Byzantine claims over the territory occupied by the Croats and the Serbs.
2. The revolt of Greek prisoners concentrated by the Avars in the strip of land between the Danube and the rivers Sava and Drava, mentioned in the Miracles of St. Demetrius, seems to have been connected with the victorious advance of the Croats towards the Sava river.
Emperor naturally still claimed to be the overlord of this territory and, according to Constantine Porphyrogennetus, asked the Pope Honorius to send missionaries to the Croats and Serbs, evidently recognizing Roman jurisdiction over ancient Illyricum.
The Slovenes of Carinthia were also set free by the Croats, and there are indications that the expulsion of the Avars from Carinthia was achieved by the followers of Kosentzes, one of the men who, according to the imperial writer, had led the Croats into Dalmatia.  In the Middle Ages the existence of free peasant families called Kasanz or Edelinge (aristocrats) can be traced in many parts of that country. They probably formed originally an aristocratic class deriving its origin from the liberators who settled among the Slovenes as their new masters.
The liberation of the rest of the Slavs from the Avars was achieved by the Bulgars and the Khazars. The Bulgars, who settled north of the lower Danube, were fortunate in escaping Avar domination when their chieftain Kovrat drove the Avars away in a northeasterly direction between the years 635 and 641. It seems that this enforced withdrawal of a race which had hitherto carried practically everything before it was in fact the beginning of the end of Avar domination over the south of modern Russia.  We have no evidence of Avar domination over these regions during the seventh and eighth centuries. Their dominant position was probably destroyed by a revolt of the Slavic tribes settled there, who were aided by the Khazars, a new
1. Constantine names five brothers — Klukas, Lobelos, Kosentzes, Muchlo, Chrobatos — and two sisters — Tuga and Buga — as the leaders of the Croats who had left White Croatia. The names may also designate different tribes. Many scholars think that Kosentzes is a Germanic name. If this is so, it would show that one Gothic tribe had joined the Croats when they fled before the Hunnish onslaught.
2. It is not surprising that the Emperor Heraclius, who was looking everywhere for allies against the Avars, maintained friendly relations with the Khagan Kovrat.
Turkic race, akin to the Bulgars, who followed in the footsteps of the Avars.
The Khazars, who thus emerge on the scene in southeastern Europe, had formed, with other Turkic hordes, an immense Turkic empire extending in the sixth century from the steppes of Central Asia to the boundaries of China. After the dismemberment of this empire, the Khazars followed the Avars along the historic way trodden by all the nomadic invaders of the West. They first established their center at Balandjar in the Caucasus region, to the north of the famous Pass of Derbent. From there, in the years 685 and 686, their khagans subjugated Georgia, Caucasian Albania and Armenia, and the collapse of the rest of the Avar power between the Carpathian Mountains and the Sea of Azov must probably be ascribed to their intervention.
The empire of the Khazars was in no way ephemeral, and after 720 they transferred their political center to Itil on the Caspian Sea, near the Volga delta. They had already extended their domination as far as the Crimea, where their lands bordered on the remnants of the Byzantine possessions, and for a considerable period even Kiev was under Khazar domination. The Slavic tribes which formed the nucleus of the Antês confederation had to await the arrival of the Scandinavian Russians before they were freed from the Khazars and were able to form the first extensive Russian State.
The Khazars were also partially responsible for the arrival of the Bulgars in modern Bulgaria; for, in order to evade their pressure, Asparuch (Isperikh), son of the Khagan Kovrat, moved westwards from the Caucasus region into Bessarabia and later turned towards the south and appeared on the Danube about the year 679. Frightened by the approach of yet another barbarian tribe which threatened vital provinces of the Byzantine Empire, the Emperor Constantine IV (668-685) sent an army against the Bulgars. But Asparuch’s forces evaded a decisive battle by taking to the marshes of the Danube delta. Thence, after negotiating the crossing of the river, he was able to march against Varna.
He was welcomed by some Slavic tribes which dwelt in these regions; Byzantine sources mention especially the Severjane. Other tribes were forced to submit and to pay tribute.  In any case, in time, a kind of understanding followed between the Bulgars and the Slavic tribes on the right bank of the Danube. The Bulgars under Asparuch were not numerous, but they formed a well-organized standing army and possessed a sense of discipline which the Slavs lacked. Thus with his boyars Asparuch was quickly able to form the embryo of a solid political organization among the Slavs and in this way the foundations of future Bulgaria were laid.
The only power which could oppose the formation of the first new empire in the Balkans was Byzantium. Unfortunately, at the time when Asparuch was disciplining and organizing the Slavs, Byzantium was going through a period of grave internal troubles. Thus it happened that Terbel (Tervel), Asparuch’s successor (701-718), was even given the opportunity of intervening in the internal affairs of the Byzantine Empire. The help which he gave to the Emperor Justinian II (685-695, 705-711) in his campaign to regain his throne was rewarded by the conferment on Terbel of the title of Caesar and by the cession to him of a province called by the Slavs Zagorje (Beyond the Mountains). This period of weakness in Byzantium enabled the Bulgars to strengthen their position and ultimately to survive the difficult years which followed.
After the extinction of the Asparuch dynasty, the boyars naturally worked to increase their influence in public affairs. Two parties were formed in Bulgaria; the one pro-Greek and anxious to remain on good terms with Byzantium by tolerating its growing influence in their own country; the other, national and advocating the necessity of opposing Byzantium in all matters. The nationalists won the day, towards the end of Khagan
1. It was generally believed that the Bulgars concluded a pact with the Slavs for common defense against the Byzantines. This does not seem sufficiently warranted. It appears that the Bulgars had to force some of the Slavic tribes to submit to their rule. Cf. I. Dujčev’s study, “Protobulgares et Slaves," Seminarium Kondakovianium X (1938), pp. 145-154.
Kormisoh’s reign (739-756). Their victory meant war with Byzantium. Thus in 755, the great and glorious Emperor Constantine V (741-775) began a series of successful campaigns in Bulgaria. A rapid succession of khagans followed, some installed by the victorious Byzantines, the others being replacements brought about by the constant revolts of the nationalists.
At last the Khagan Telerig (769/70-777) was able to arrest the Byzantine push just as it threatened to annihilate the first new empire in the Balkans. Constantine V died during his ninth campaign (775), and his death ended Byzantine intervention in Bulgarian affairs for some time. The Khagan Kardam (777?-803) at first concluded an armistice with the Empire and then in 792 inflicted a terrible defeat on the Byzantines.
The Bulgars were thus firmly established in the land which still bears their name and no other power could wipe them out. The most terrible of the pagan Bulgarian khagans, Krum (803814), consolidated the gains of his predecessor. To put an end to the interference of the boyars, he re-established the hereditary succession to the Bulgarian throne and instituted new legislation with the most drastic sanctions and penalties. Not only was he able to take advantage of the disappearance of the Avar empire and threaten the very existence of Byzantium, but he was also able to stop the advance into the Balkans of a new and important factor in European affairs — the Franks.
The Frankish Kingdom made immense progress after the accession of Clovis to the throne, and his conversion to Christianity in 496 greatly facilitated the consolidation of his rule and the fusion of the conquerors with the ancient Gallo-Roman population. Clovis not only erased the remnants of the Roman Empire in Gaul but also destroyed the power of the Visigoths and dissipated forever their dream of a Visigothic empire extending from Belgium to Gibraltar. His sons Clothar and Childebert, after conquering Burgundy in 532-534, attacked Germany proper,
which in the sixth century was seriously embarrassed by the advancing Slavs who had pushed far to the west beyond the Elbe and the Böhmerwald.
In addition to the Alamanni, who had been subjected to the Franks since 496, the Thuringians, Angles, Saxons, Frisians and Bavarians had to acknowledge Frankish supremacy. It seems that even the Lombards, when in Pannonia, had to accept Frankish overlordship until 568. Encouraged by all these successes, the Franks began to cherish ideas of pushing beyond the Alps into Italy, but the realization of this dream was frustrated first by the Byzantines under Justinian I and then by the Lombards, who moved southwards and founded their own kingdom on the banks of the River Po.
The decline of the Merovingian power which followed the great successes of the dynasty checked any further Frankish adventures for a considerable time, Dagobert being the last great ruler of this dynasty. The Avars were now able to consolidate their power in Central Europe. The wars of the Franks with the Lombards and a variety of difficulties ensuing on the overthrow of the Merovingian dynasty by Pepin (752), founder of the Carolingian house, gave the Avars a further breathing space, but their fate was already sealed.
Charlemagne (771-814) and his son Pepin disposed of the Avars forever. After several expeditions the last and decisive blow was delivered against them by Pepin in 796. Their chief fortification, situated somewhere in the interior of Hungary, was stormed and razed to the ground, and all the Avar treasure, the loot of countless pillaging expeditions which had been amassed there, was captured by the victorious Franks. It was complete disaster for the Avars. Their broken armies fled in all directions, while remnants of them professed their willingness to embrace Christianity and settle where the victor would permit them. They were allotted territories in southern Pannonia, but their defeat was so decisive that they never rose again. They have disappeared completely from history and we do not even know how the remnants of them were absorbed by other populations.
The destruction of the Avars must have made a profound impression on the Slavs. We find a reference to it in the Russian Primary Chronicle, which was written in its final form about 1111. Commenting on the end of Avar power, the chronicler exclaims:
“God destroyed them. They all perished and not one Avar survived. There is to this day a proverb in Rus which runs, ’they perished like the Avars.’ Neither race nor heir of them remains.”
The Slavic tribes between the Danube and the Sava rivers were delighted to escape the Avar danger forever. They had already developed a kind of political organization and were ruled by a prince named Vojnomir, who joined the Franks with an army, but was obliged to recognize Frankish sovereignty, and his territory was called Pannonian Croatia. The Franks also extended their sway over the Slavs of ancient Noricum — modern Carinthia and Styria in the Alps.
Thus Charlemagne, who in 788 had restored Frankish supremacy even over the Bavarian duke, was complete master of an immense territory comprising the Alps and the whole of ancient Pannonia to the rivers Danube and Sava. The consequence of his conquests was disastrous for the rest of the Byzantine possessions in Istria. Even this territory became Frankish, and Byzantium could preserve only Venice, which acquired a very particular quasi-independent position. In this way the foundations were laid for the later glorious and astonishing rise of Venice in the Middle Ages.
All these newly acquired territories were allotted to the Friulian March. It was the traditional policy of Charlemagne to erect “marches” or “marks” in the conquered countries and to transform them into springboards for fresh conquests. The Friulian March was designed to be a spearhead for the conquest of the Balkans, but the first attempt to subjugate the Croats of Dalmatia failed and the Margrave Erich was killed while besieging Tarsatika, the modern Rijeka (Fiume).
The Frankish push towards the Balkans and the Adriatic was a direct threat to the interests of Byzantium. The sword had to
decide which of the two rival powers was to dominate these countries. Attacks were renewed upon the Croats of Dalmatia until the Peace of Koenigshofen settled the dispute. By its terms the Franks definitively received Istria and the whole of Dalmatia with the exception of Venice and the coastal cities and islands. A show of force by the Byzantine navy in the Adriatic in 812 frustrated the attempt of the Franks to claim the cities of the coast.
Thus the Franks became masters of all the territories occupied by the Slovenes and the Croats and were looking forward to conquering even the lands where the Serbs and other Slavic tribes had settled. But then their plans were upset by the first attempt to form a Yugoslav empire. This attempt was made by Ljudovit, prince of the Pannonian Croats, who in 819 revolted against the Franks. At first he met with great success and was able to rally to his side the Slovenes from Carinthia and Styria and Isonzo, and even the Slavic tribe on the river Timok in the ancient Roman province of Moesia joined him. In addition, Ljudovit forced the Croats of Dalmatia to throw in their lot with him after he had defeated their prince, Borna. Moreover, the Byzantines encouraged his revolt to the utmost of their power. Finally, Ljudovit established his capital at Sisak, near the modern Zagreb. The emperor, Louis the Pious, himself had to intervene in order to cope with this dangerous development. After several expeditions had been led against him, Ljudovit in 822 found himself in a desperate situation. He took refuge among the Serbian Slavs and then in Dalmatian Croatia; but he was murdered at the instigation of his enemies. Thus the first attempt to unite the Yugoslavs into one empire was thwarted. The Croats saw their Frankish overlord restored; but the Croats of Dalmatia were at least permitted to elect their own prince.
Then another new and unexpected factor emerged — the Bulgarians. They made an attempt not only to arrest the Frankish
push into the Balkans, but also to group as many of the Slavic tribes as possible around their new empire. Their khagan, Krum (803-814), had already extended his authority over the Slavic tribes in Thrace and Macedonia, and after the Avars had been disposed of by Charlemagne, he incorporated in his territories a large part of modern Hungary, from the Carpathians to the river Tisza. Krum pushed even as far as modern Serbia, forcing the tribes of ancient Moesia to recognize his suzerainty. He secured his empire against any threat from Byzantium and had the grim satisfaction of drinking the health of his boyars on special occasions from the skull of the unfortunate Emperor Nicephorus — mounted on silver to form a cup — who had fallen in battle against him in 811.
His successor Omortag (814-831) was able not only to maintain what Krum had gained, but also to intervene with authority in the attempt of the Franks to exploit their success over Ljudovit. He first of all restored Bulgarian authority over the Slavic tribe on the Timok and asked the Emperor to give him back some other territory occupied by another tribe which had originally been under Bulgarian domination but had subsequently joined the rebels. Not receiving full satisfaction, he simply occupied the contested territory and then invaded Pannonian Croatia.
The division of the Friulian March into four separate marches and the trouble which arose out of the partition of the Carolingian Empire enabled the Bulgarians to obtain a firm foothold in the plains of Slavonia proper and in the region of ancient Sirmium (now Srěm). For some years even the whole of Pannonian Croatia had to acknowledge the supremacy of the Bulgarians. The Pact of Paderborn (845) gave back to the Franks the greater part of this territory, but Omortag’s successor, Malamir (831 or 836?-852), retained his rule over the remainder, including Sirmium. The Bulgarians thus frustrated the Frankish hopes of bringing the major portion of the Balkans under their control.
In the middle of the ninth century, therefore, three powers were
jealously watching each others moves in the Balkans: Byzantium, Bulgaria and the Frankish empire. The Slovenes and the majority of the Croats were under Frankish authority, while the majority of the Slav tribes which were to be called Serbians were under that of Byzantium. Their position became almost completely independent as the Byzantines, having lost Crete and Sicily to the Arabs, were unable to enforce their authority in those regions.
The collapse of the Avar domination and the reorganization of the Frankish Kingdom led to changes in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe also. The Slavic tribes, which were settled under Avar domination in ancient upper Pannonia around Lake Balaton (Blatno), and extending to the Danube, had to accept the Franks as overlords. Here the Franks seem to have ruled in rougher fashion than they did in Pannonian Croatia, but still through the medium of native princes.
The Slavs in Bohemia, Moravia and modern Slovakia, after the death of Samo, avoided the danger of renewed subjection to the Avars thanks to the victories of Charlemagne, whom they aided against their former masters, but Frankish suzerainty over those territories seems to have been less effective than it was between the Danube and Sava rivers. What was known as the Ostmark, created by Charlemagne in 803 and destined many years later to grow into the Duchy of Austria, faced the Moravian Slavs.
Further to the northeast, the Franks, having reasserted their supremacy over the Bavarians (788) and crushed the Saxons in a series of fierce and bloody battles (772-804), came up against the Polabian Slavs. Towards these people, commonly called Wends by the Germans, Charlemagne had a policy of his own. He was anxious to preserve from further Slav incursions the territories which the Franks had consolidated or had newly conquered. He therefore founded several marches on the borders of his Empire in order to protect it. Against the Sorabians,
settled between the Saale and the Elbe in modern Saxony, he created the Thuringian March, called also the Limes Sorabicus. Further towards the north the small Marches of Magdeburg, Fells, and Bardewyk had to keep watch on the notoriously wild Vilci, and the Limes Saxonicus, or the March of Saxony, faced the Obodrites.
But Charlemagne was content to respect the natural frontiers in those parts. Generally he did not intend to extend his domination beyond the Elbe or to incorporate the Slavs of those lands into his Empire. He treated as his subjects all the Slavs scattered on the left bank of the Elbe but did not even attempt to Christianize their fellow-tribesmen on the other bank of the river. Naturally some exceptions were necessary because of the frequent incursions of the Slavs into Frankish territory, but that was the chief tenet of Charlemagne’s policy and it was followed, generally speaking, by all members of the Carolingian dynasty. It was only in the tenth century, with the arrival to power of the Saxon dynasty, that a drastic change occurred in those lands.
Nevertheless, the consolidation of the Frankish power on the left bank of the Elbe by the Carolingian dynasty had considerable importance for future developments. Ever since the fifth century, the Franks had arrested the westward push of the other Germanic tribes. By conquering these marches on the Elbe they had also consolidated the Germanic forces and stopped any further Slavic advance to the west of that river. The initiative of the Franks forced the Germans not only to halt their own westward expansion but to turn round and seek room for expansion in the east.
The Franks also paved the way for the success of this expansion by Christianizing and ecclesiastically reorganizing the German territories and their ecclesiastical administration. The Christianity of Saxony, for example, was rude and primitive and recovered only very slowly from the wounds inflicted upon ’it during the bloody struggle which raged between the Franks and the Saxons in the last decades of the eighth century; but its solid foundation remained and was strengthened during the
ninth century. The episcopal sees of Osnabrück, Verden, Bremen, Paderborn, Minden, Halberstadt, Hildesheim and Münster in Saxony and of Ratisbon (Regensburg), Passau, Freising and Salzburg in Bavaria were to become important bulwarks against the pagan Slavs as well as springboards for German political and cultural influence over the Slavs beyond the Elbe, and beyond the Böhmerwald and the Danube.
The influence which the Carolingian Empire was to exercise over the future evolution of the nations and tribes with which it came into contact was enhanced by two important factors. During Charlemagne’s reign, the Empire was not only consolidated and reorganized; it also became a universal empire, the heir to the Roman Empire in the West. This idea of a universal empire necessarily entailed ideas of conquest and of the subjugation of all nations to its sway. Conquest had to be directed against those nations and states which could offer the least resistance and these were, principally, the Slavs in northeastern, central and southeastern Europe.
This new empire claimed the heritage of ancient Rome, but it was not pagan. Christianity gave it not only great strength and union but also a special right to conquest. The emperors, extending their power towards the East, proclaimed that they were acting as the special protectors of the Christian faith and in the eves of other Christian peoples they were offering those nations the greatest gift of all, the Christian faith and Christian civilization. The Church could not oppose but only bless their push towards the East.
Unfortunately, the Church in this Frankish Empire could not escape the entanglement of secular with ecclesiastical affairs. The feudal system, a specially Germanic institution, was applied even to religious establishments, and during the rule of the Merovingian dynasty and that of Pepin and Charlemagne, it became very deeply rooted in the ecclesiastical life of the West.
Abbots and bishops became powerful landlords, dependent upon the will of the king. They became the strongest supporters of the royal and imperial idea, but were at the same time completely entangled in the secular affairs of the Empire. At first controlled by the State, the Frankish Church rapidly gained an immense influence, until, by the end of the ninth century, it was itself controlling state affairs.
This situation could not fail to be reflected in the missionary activities of the Frankish Church. So at the beginning of the Carolingian period the conversion of pagans and foundation of churches had become a highly lucrative investment for the German landowning aristocracy, which thus acquired an economic stranglehold over the newly conquered lands. According to the primitive Christian usage, churches built by both rulers and faithful came under the jurisdiction of the bishops who appointed the ministering clergy, while the revenues of the churches and monasteries remained the property of the clergy or the monks. This was consonant with Greek and Roman notions of private property. But Roman missionaries never succeeded in making this idea acceptable to the Germanic nations whom they evangelized. The Germans had a notion of private property which was different from that of the Romans and much more individualistic. This made the churches the private property of their founders, whose business it was to provide the priest and to pay him, in consideration of which they claimed possession of all contributions made by the faithful.
In the later period when the Church became more powerful and began to take the business of gaining converts into its own hands, the German clergy, who were often as hungry for land as the lay feudal lords, could not overlook the lucrative aspect of evangelizing the pagan nations which could pay good tithes and provide good workers to till the Church lands. Thus it can be explained why the missionary activity of the Frankish, and later of the German, Churches so often had an excessively worldly aspect and why missionaries so often called armed forces and colonists to their assistance to hold the territory which they were
“evangelizing.” The example of Charlemagne, who completed the conversion of the Saxons by force and terror, was a fatal precedent.
The Wends on the Baltic and on the Elbe were to experience those same methods of evangelization in a later period, between the tenth century and the thirteenth. The Slavs of Moravia, Bohemia, the Alps and Pannonia were evangelized by Frankish missionaries during the first period, from the end of the eighth century to the middle of the ninth. Charlemagne devoted himself especially to encouraging the Christianization of the Slovenes in ancient Noricum (Styria and Carinthia) and in upper Pannonia as far as the Danube and to promoting Christianity among the Croats in Pannonia and Dalmatia. The gentle Alcuin, Charlemagne’s “Minister of Culture,” who had a nobler conception of evangelization than many of his contemporaries, was particularly interested in this work. Charlemagne, acting as always on his own initiative, elevated the See of Salzburg to an archbishopric intended to replace all the episcopal sees of Pannonia and Noricum, which had disappeared during the barbaric invasions. Regensburg, Freising and Passau had to work further to the northeast.
Very little information is available on the progress of Christianity among the Croats. According to Constantine Porphyrogennetus, “the Emperor Heraclius sent to Rome to find priests (for them). From them he chose an archbishop, bishops, priests and deacons through whom he baptized the Croats. And the Croats had at that time Porga as their prince.” Constantine’s words cannot be interpreted as if the Croats had their own hierarchy in the seventh century, although there must be some truth in his statement. Most probably Constantine had in mind the ecclesiastical reorganization of the coastal region, which had escaped the Avar and Slav upheaval and had remained in Byzantine possession. This had to be done in accord with the Pope because the whole of Illyricum was still under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Rome.
If we could take the Emperor’s statement literally, we should
conclude that Heraclius had promoted Spalato, heir of the ancient Salona, to an archbishopric and had created bishoprics in some other coastal cities, namely in Zara and Cattaro. Local tradition attributes the elevation of Spalato to a metropolitan status to this period. Traditionally the first archbishop was John of Ravenna. But many scholars think that there is some doubt about this, and that John of Ravenna is actually the Pope John IV, a native of Dalmatia, or Pope John X, who reorganized the hierarchy of Dalmatia and Croatia and subjected the whole country to Spalato (about 925).
In any case the Christianization of the Croats must have started from the coastal cities and Spalato must have played a certain role in it. This first evangelization must have shown some success. In 641-642 Pope John IV sent the Abbot Martin to Dalmatia to recover the relics of saints from the destroyed churches. The Abbot travelled freely in the country and fulfilled his mission successfully. In 680 Pope Agathon mentioned in his letter to the Emperor Constantine Pogonat that there were Roman missionaries working among Slavs, which can only mean among the Croats. It seems that, thanks to his Christianizing activity, peaceful relations between the new masters of Dalmatia and the coastal cities were established. It is difficult to say how successful this missionary activity was. We can, however, suppose that already during the eighth century churches were built in Croatia for the new converts. Christianization must have progressed quickly during the period when Dalmatian Croatia was under Frankish supremacy. Vyšeslav, Prince of Dalmatia (mentioned about 800), was probably Christian before he recognized Frankish supremacy. Rome seems, however, to have continued to show a particular interest in Croatia and the influence of the coastal cities on the Croats did not diminish. All this explains why Frankish methods of evangelization did not take root in Dalmatian Croatia.
The consequences of this rivalry between the Franks, Rome and the Latin coastal cities subject to Byzantium were most fortunate for the Croats of Dalmatia. They obtained an independent
bishopric at Nin, the residence of their ruling princes. The foundation was perhaps accelerated by Rome when the Franks got control of Dalmatian Croatia. The bishopric is mentioned already in 852, but must have existed for some time before that date because Rome was not willing to lose the results of its work in Croatia and therefore the bishopric was made directly dependent upon the Roman See. The Franks had to accept this, although they would have liked to attach the Croats more closely to their own ecclesiastical provinces of Aquileja or Salzburg. It is not known whether these first attempts at Christianization reached Pannonian Croatia, where the activities of Frankish missionaries must have been more systematic. Their first success was the conversion of Vojnomir, Prince of the Pannonian Croats.
Frankish methods of evangelization were also applied in full force in ancient Noricum and in upper Pannonia, round Lake Balaton (Blatno), countries in which Frankish colonization started very early. Allotments of land were made to bishops, abbots and great lay nobles, who imported settlers from Bavaria, the lower Main and the middle Rhine, though many of these immigrants were of servile status. The feudal and ecclesiastical aristocracy which directed the colonization soon had complete control over the whole territory. Even the Slavic nobility in these lands quite readily accepted the language and customs of the new masters and adapted itself to the feudal system, which was in many ways favorable to their material interests.
Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Salzburg was extending his influence even to the left bank of the Danube. We know that about 833 he consecrated a church at Nitra in modern Slovakia, which was very probably built for a Frankish colony there, as the local prince, Pribina, was still a pagan at the time. Here, in the shadow of the Carpathian peaks, Frankish expansion reached its northeasterly limit.
Frankish missionaries also achieved some success in Bohemia and Moravia, and about 845, fourteen Czech nobles accepted baptism at Regensburg. The Prince of the Moravians, Mojmir, who succeeded in uniting all the Slavic tribes in Moravia under
his rule, did not oppose the activities of these missionaries among his people, for he was nominally under Frankish authority. It is also known that Rastislav, who succeeded him, was certainly a Christian.
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