A history of the First Bulgarian Empire
Christianity among the Slavs before the ninth century
Byzantium has often been blamed by ecclesiastical writers for waiting till the ninth century to introduce the blessings of Christianity to the Balkan Slavs. The attack is unjustified. During the late sixth and seventh centuries the waves of Avar, Slavonic, and Bulgar invasion prevented more than fitful missionary enterprise, while during the eighth and early ninth centuries the great Iconoclastic controversy at home ruled out the possibility of a vigorous ecclesiastical policy abroad. Consequently, with one great exception, Christianity was only
spread among the Balkan Slavs by the local influence of sees that survived the storms.
The names of these sees can be found in the semiofficial notitiae, the lists drawn up by Epiphanius (in the seventh century), Basil (in the early ninth century), the notitia published by de Boor (ninth century), and that of Leo the Wise (early tenth century), and in the lists of bishops present at the various Councils. These lists have been ably tabulated by Dvornik.  We must remember, however, that while the notitiae are fairly reliable—after making due allowances for carelessness and copyists’ errors—the failure of a see to be represented at a Council does not necessarily mean that the see no longer existed. An investigation of this evidence shows roughly that round the coasts of the Balkan peninsula the Christian cities lived an uninterrupted life, but, except on the Aegean coast, there was hardly any Christian hinterland. On the Black Sea coast the cities south of Mesembria appear on every list; to the north, Odessus (Varna) apparently lasted till the early ninth century, when no doubt it was finally occupied by the Bulgars; farther inland, the last see of the old Moesian provinces, Marcianopolis, lasted only into the seventh century, and then was presumably destroyed by the Bulgars. Farther south, Adrianople remained a constant centre of Christianity, and Philippopolis also, until its annexation by the Bulgars in the ninth century. Sardica, however, though certainly occupied by the Empire till the ninth century, is not mentioned; probably it was merely a garrison city without much religious life. Between Rhodope and the sea, Christianity lived on; in Macedonia, which was more exposed to invasions, only the bigger towns near to Thessalonica survived. In the Greek hinterland the Slav tribes remained pagan until they were brought under definite political control by the Empire in the ninth century. On the whole, all that we can say is that, where the Slavs were under Imperial rule, the local bishoprics
1. Dvornik, Les Slaves, Byzance et Rome, pp. 60–99.
spread Christianity among them; but over the frontiers the bishoprics were extinguished, and there was no missionary enterprise save by a few isolated Christian captives at heathen Courts, such as Omortag’s slave, Cinamon.
There is, however, one exception. In the De Administrando Imperio (pp. 148–9, 153) Constantine Porphyrogennetus tells us that the Emperor Heraclius (610–41) sent for clergy from Rome to baptize the Croatians and Serbs: which was successfully achieved. The story has been doubted ; but it is perfectly plausible. Heraclius was for much of his reign on excellent terms with the Papacy, and Illyricum was still then a Roman ecclesiastical province. Moreover, he was a vigorous ruler, who clearly would wish to deal with the Slavonic problem. Constantine connects the Conversion with Heraclius’s political dealings with the Slavs—his recognition of their occupation of the country on condition of their recognition of his suzerainty. Constantine is almost certainly telling the truth; but he omitted to say that Heraclius’s success was extremely ephemeral. In his previous chapter (written later) he shows (p. 145) the Croatians asking for priests from Rome in the ninth century: while the Serbs were certainly not a fully Christian nation till the days of Cyril and Methodius. It is most reasonable to assume that Heraclius’s great missionary enterprise did, in fact, exist, but achieved nothing lasting; and certainly it cannot have had any effect at all in the Balkan peninsula to the east of Serbia.
Thus Christianity among the Balkan Slavs before the ninth century was almost certainly limited to those Slavs that were definitely under Imperial control, save round the frontiers, where the Greek (and, in the north-west, the Latin Dalmatian) cities spread their influence, and save the individual efforts of a few captive Christian slaves. Since Heraclius’s day the state of the Empire, and indeed of all Christendom, had not been such as to permit of any more comprehensive evangelization of the Balkans.
1. Jireček, Geschichte der Serben, i., p. 104.
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