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Part I

The Weight of the Past

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Chapter 3

The Distribution of Peoples


The area known today as Eastern Europe was populated over a prolonged period of time, as a number of tribes migrated from the east to the Danubian plain and surrounding areas. Our knowledge of this subject is often imperfect, as until the beginning of the first millennium B.C., these regions were completely separated from the Mediterranean civilizations.

With the exception of the ancestors of present-day Finns and Estonians, who arrived in small groups and settled on the shores of the Baltic between the Memen and Neva valleys throughout the first millennium B.C., the first known populations in Eastern Europe were the Indo-Europeans. In the third millennium B.C., the Indo-European tribes still lived in the steppes extending from the Carpathian mountains to the south of the Urals. While two tribes--the Cimmerians and the Scythians--stayed until the first centuries A.D. , most of the Indo-European tribes had begun to disperse 3000 years before. Some groups, including the Hellenes, came into contact with the early Mediterranean cultures sometime during the second millennium B.C. Others, such as the Thraco-Illyrians, did not quite reach the warm seas. The Illyrians settled between the Sava and Danube rivers and the Adriatic Ocean; the Dacians were defined by the Tisza, the Danube, and the Black Sea; and the Thracians settled in the Balkans. Thus, they were all more or less in contact with Greek civilization. The great majority of Indo-Europeans, however, settled far away from the Mediterranean world.

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Several tribes migrated to Scandinavia, where they merged with the ancestors of the Germans. The Early Balts--about whom we know very little--settled between the Oder and Neman (Memel) rivers. To the south they were in contact with the early Slavs, who were living north of the Carpathian mountains from the Vistula to the Dniester rivers. Beginning about the middle of the second millennium B.C., the heart of Europe was home to several civilizations started by the early Celts--civilizations about which we are well informed because of the abundant archeological material uncovered. From the third millennium forward, the Celts slowly extended their zone of influence to the south and southwest by assimilating the local Thraco-Illyrians. This gave birth to the mixed ethnic group, the Celto-Scythians in the eastern part of Europe, and the Celto-Thracians in the Balkans. By the end of the first millennium B.C., only present-day Hungary possessed a homogenous Celtic population



From 1000 B.C. onward, the Greeks attempted to control the mountainous regions to the north of their country. In the 5th and 6th centuries B.C., they succeeded in doing so by establishing colonies in Epirus on the Adriatic coast, on the Thracian coast, and on the shores of the Black Sea as well. Through these colonies, Greek civilization slowly penetrated the Balkans. Rome replaced Greece in this region in the second century B.C., and with the creation of the province of Macedonia and the submission of Thrace, the destiny of the southern part of Eastern Europe became closely associated with that of Rome. Under the emperors Augustus and Tiberius, Rome subdued the territories located south of the Danube. The Danube became the northern frontier of the Empire. Also under the Romans, the provinces of Noricum (Austria), Pannonia (western Hungary) and Dalmatia (present-day Croatia) were created, and the protected state of Thrace became a province in 46 A.D. To the east, the countries south of the Danube became the provinces of Upper Messia (Serbia) and Lower Messia (Bulgaria). To the west, the Romans briefly occupied the banks of the Weser river, but in reality it was the Rhine and the Neckar that marked the limits of Roman penetration into the Germanic world. Along the Danube, the Romans came into violent contact with other Germanic peoples--the Quades of Moravia, the Marconans of Bohemia, and the Scythian peoples, the Lazyges and Sarmates. The latter two were living in the heart of the Hungarian plain between the Danube and the Tisza rivers along with the Dacians, who by the end of the first century A.D. had created an organized state under their king, Decebale. The Dacians made repeated forays into the Roman provinces of

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the Lower Danube, until the emperor, Trajan, overcame Dacia in two campaigns (101-102 and 106-107 A.D.), and made it a Roman province. A large portion of the Dacian population was massacred and the rest scattered around the Empire as slaves. Dacia was repopulated with colonists from all the provinces, particularly the Asian ones. Through its gold and silver mines, Dacia contributed to the prosperity of the Roman world.

By the beginning of the second century A.D., the part of eastern Europe conquered by the Roman Empire consisted of well-administered territories with prosperous cities where Roman of officials and the more or less Romanized indigenous elite lived. It was from the cities that Roman culture reached out to the non-Roman peoples of the countryside where Romanization remained fairly superficial, although this varied by region. Even the indigenous peoples serving in the auxiliary Roman army remained proudly loyal to their ethnic origins, be they Dalmatians or Pannonians. The most lasting of the Roman presence, however, was the introduction of Christianity beginning in the 3rd century A.D. Christianity spread widely during the 4th and 5th centuries, principally in regions neighboring Greece along the Dalmatian coast, and in Pannonia.



From the 3rd century on, the Roman Empire periodically suffered barbarian raids that devastated the provinces of the Rhine and the Danube. This marked the beginning of what historians have termed the "Great Invasions," but which are better described as migrations--the Volkerwan- derung of German historians.

The first attacks began with the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 A.D. The situation was temporarily contained by the first soldier-emperor, Septimius Severus, and his sons, but only with constant battles fought along the Rhine and Danube rivers. With the death of Alexander Severus in 235, the situation became critical again. The barbarians of central and eastern Europe were beginning a lengthy series of transformations. It was at this time that the long-isolated Germanic tribes began to form groups which eventually led to genuine federations of peoples: the Alamains, Burgones, and Francs in the West, the Angles and Jutes in present - day Denmark, and the Saxons and the Lombards between the mouths of the Weser and the Elbe. The Vandals were also coalescing in Galicia and in the northern Carpathian mountains, where they bordered the proto - Slavs, the Goths, and the Gepides between the Dniester and the Don. Taking advantage of difficulties in the Roman world, the Germans intensified their attacks between 235 and 270. The Goths were particularly aggressive in the Balkans

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and in Dacia. It was under these conditions that the emperor, Aurelian (270-275), decided to evacuate the province of Dacia. According to the Roman historian, Eutrope, the evacuation of Dacia was total: He made a desert of Dacia that Trajan had established beyond the Danube, because the devastation of all of Illyria and Messia robbed him of any hope he had of being able to keep it; having called back the Romans from the cities and country of Dacia, he settled them in central Messia (Eutrope, IX).

This text has been challenged by Rumanian historians seeking to demonstrate that the Rumanians of today are the descendants of the Dacians and the Romans who remained in Dacia after 270. Largely inspired by political motives, however, this theory lacks substance. In fact, after 270, Roman names for the cities, mountains, and rivers disappeared altogether, contrary to the case in other Romanized provinces conquered by the barbarians. At the end of the 3rd century, the re-deployment of troops by Aurelian following the abandonment of Dacia succeeded in containing the barbarian advance. With Diocletian (285-305) and Constantine (306-337), a Roman Empire seemingly at peace drew up treaties with the barbarian chiefs, making them confederates with the duty of policing the Empire's borders. Beginning in 370, however, the arrival of the Huns from Asia put an end to peace and cooperation. The first to suffer the Hun's assault were the Alains--an Indo-European people living north of the Caspian Sea. Then in 374-375, it was the Goth's turn--both the Ostrogoths living between the Volga and the Don, and the Visigoths living between the Don and the Dniester. Many Alains and Ostrogoths were massacred in the clash of 375, but a number did manage to escape toward the West. The remaining Ostrogoths joined the retreating Visigoths in seeking refuge in the Roman Empire. In the autumn of 376, most of them were settled in Thrace by the emperor, Valens II. After Valens, death, his successor, Theodosius I, encouraged the Goths to move westward. The Visigoths under Alaric moved into Italy, where they briefly occupied Rome before moving on to Gaul, and from there into Spain. After 378, the Ostrogoths settled in Pannonia.

After forcing the Visigoths and Ostrogoths west, the Huns became masters of the steppes and plains from Turkistan to the Carpathians. In order to keep them away from Constantinople, Theodosius encouraged them to settle in Pannonia, where they appeared around 390. The territory that is now Hungary slowly became the center of the Hunnish empire--the capital of Buda was named for Attila's son, while on the opposing bank of the Danube, Pest was named for the plague. In 434, Attila became master of the empire, which he governed jointly with his brother, Bleda, until 445, then

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alone until his death in 453. For nearly 30 years, the Huns carried out devastating raids from the plains of the Danube against the East Roman Empire. They pushed as far as Salonica in 447, and then from 449 on, turned toward the barbarian kingdoms of the West. There, the joint forces of the Roman and barbarian armies hurt them badly at the battle of Catalonie in 451, erroneously called the battle of Chalons by several historians. The defeat, however, did not prevent Attila from assaulting Rome the following year. The death of Attila in 453 soon led to the breakup of his empire. The peoples conquered by the Huns--notably the Goths of Pannonia and the Romanized Pannonians--seized the opportunity to revolt. While most of the Huns withdrew toward Central Asia, some undoubtedly remained. A Hungarian legend documented by the l5th century humanist, Bonfini, asserts that the Sicules (Szekelys) of the eastern Carpathians are the descendants of Huns who remained in Europe. More likely, they are the descendants of Hungarians who accompanied the Huns on their initial migration toward the West.

With the crumbling of Attila's empire the first period of migrations into east-central Europe ended. Its end was accompanied by the fading of the Western Roman Empire, which officially disappeared in 476. The Eastern Empire was more successful in withstanding the barbarians. Its authority stopped at the Sava and Danube rivers to the north, while to the west its boundaries were more flexible, although theoretically the Illyric territories defined its western border. The former provinces of Pannonia and Dacia had been emptied of a large portion of their populations by successive waves of invasions. Beyond the Carpathians and the Bohemian mountains existed the still unstructured domain of the Slavs.


At the end of the 5th century, the Lombards--a Germanic people of Scandinavian origin living in the low valley of the Elbe during the 3rd century--appeared first in Lower Austria and then in Pannonia. Under their king, Wacho (510-540), and his successor, Audoin, the Lombards created a state linked by treaty to the Roman Empire, reconstituted by Justinian. They participated in the Justinian reconquest of Ostrogothic Italy in 522 under this treaty. At the same time, new invaders appeared from the western steppes of Asia--the Avars. The Khan, Bayan, first collaborated with the Lombards to conquer the Gepides, who then controlled the region between the Tisza and the Black Sea. In 567, the defeated Gepides were integrated into the emerging Avar empire. Considering such close proximity to the Avars to be a risk to his people, the Lombard king, Alboin (561-572), left

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Pannonia in April of 568 to the conquest of Italy. From then on, the Avars dominated the middle valley of the Danube. In many ways the Avars resembled the Huns. They were both nomadic horsemen who spoke an early Turkish language, and both were accompanied by a horde of peoples from the steppes. The Avar empire extended to the entire Carpathian zone and also to the lands of the Elbe and the Oder, while their border was delineated by the Sava and Danube. The capture of Sirmium in 582 marked their southernmost advance; the defeat of the Avars at Constantinople in 626 signaled the end of their conquering power.

The momentary lessening of Avar power gave the Slavs an opportunity to emerge. Until the 6th century, the Slavs had occupied an area between the Vistula and the middle course of the Don. By the time the Lombards and the Slavs came into conflict, the Slavs had already occupied present-day Bohemia and Moravia. In addition, several tribes had penetrated into Pannonia. From there, they broke apart, and one segment descended toward the Adriatic, where in 614 they destroyed the city of Salona, the administrative center of Byzantium in Dalmatia. At the beginning of the 7th century, Illyria and most of the Balkans were in the hands of the Slavs--the ancestors of the present Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs. The occupied areas began to adopt the Slavic ways.

The defeat of the Avars in 626 by Constantinople emancipated the Slavs of Bohemia and Moravia. The northern Slavs (from whom the Czechs and Moravians are descended) remained more or less autonomous, alternately subject to Germans or Avars, while the southern Slavs became increasingly established in the former Byzantine territories of Illyria and Messia, with the reluctant consent of the Eastern Empire.

The Avars who remained on the plains of the middle Danube were reinforced by new arrivals from Central Asia after 670. Among them were undoubtedly some proto-Hungarian tribes, as demonstrated by the Hungarian historian, G. Laszlo, in a comparative study of Hungarian and Avar grave sites. From the 7th century onwards, however, the Avars played only a minor role due in part to a series of successful campaigns led against them by the Carolingians from 791 to 796. After 822, no more was heard of them.

The 8th century witnessed the arrival of the Bulgars in Europe. In the 6th century, the Bulgars had possessed a vast empire in the northwest Caucasus mountains. Locked in a struggle with the Khazars, a segment of the Bulgars moved to the west, crossing the lower Danube in 679 and finally settling in Messia under the leadership of Khan Asparuk. Of Turkish origin, the Bulgars slowly adopted Slavic ways through contact with the populations of the Balkans; eventually, a Slavo-Bulgarian state emerged at the expense of Byzantium.

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The first Slavic principalities formed early in the 9th century, as the migratory peoples stabilized. Their organization varied by degree from one people to another. The least organized were the early Poles, who had remained close to their original Slavic habitat, occupying the Oder valley and the plains on both sides of the Vistula. On the other end of the scale, the Czechs and the Moravians were establishing the principality of Greater Moravia by the 9th century, which reached its apex under Swatopluk (874-884). The Slovenes were integrated into the Carolingian Empire by 788; the Croats, caught between the Carolingian world and Byzantium, managed to pry themselves free and set up a state under Tomislav. The Serbs were meanwhile split into two groups of tribes, one in Rascia and the other in Zeta. During their migrations the Serbs remained pagan, as did the Bulgars. Byzantium and Rome zealously rivaled each other in Christianizing them. Through its intermediaries the Archbishop of Salzburg and the Patriarch of Aquilius, the Roman Church took in the Slovenes and the Croats during the 9th century. The Croatian prince, Tomislav, was even crowned by the Pope in 925. Byzantium, however, was more successful in the Balkans due to the actions of two monks, the Salonican brothers Cyril and Methodius. The brothers spoke Slavic and refined the Glagolithic alphabet for the purposes of converting the Slavic peoples they were journeying to visit. Cyril and Methodius went first to Moravia in 863, where they found several Christian communities created by missionaries from Salzburg: there was even a bishopric at Nitra. The hostility of the Germanic clergy soon closed the doors of Moravia and Pannonia to them. After 885, the disciples of Methodius were driven out of Moravia and took on the evangelization of the Balkans. The Greek missionaries were clearly successful with the Serbs and the Bulgars, whose prince, Boris, had been converted in 864. The Glagolithic alphabet was simplified, and in memory of Cyril was named the Cyrillic alphabet. Although Byzantium had lost most of its political influence in the east of Europe, the evangelizing actions of its missionaries succeeded in reestablishing a degree of influence. The bishopric of Ochrid, founded by Cyril and Methodius, became an important religious center, and is considered by some the home of Greco-Slavic culture.

At the very end of the 9th century, a new people, the Magyar, settled in east-central Europe. Known as the Hungarians, the Magyars were originally from the Urals, but had resided for centuries in Central Asia, where they had been part of both Attila's empire and that of the Avars. In the 9th century, they lived on the steppes of the southern Ukraine. Hard pressed by nomads from Central Asia, Hungarian tribes led by their chief, Arpad, crossed the Carpathians between 895 and 896. They settled on the vast plains of the

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middle Danube and in the valleys of Transylvania--sheltered by the Carpathian Arch that became the natural northern border of the Hungarian state for over 1,00O years. Due to their numbers (between 200,000 and 300,000 people), the Magyars overwhelmed the local populations, themselves

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remnants of the different peoples who had either passed through or settled there. Those existing in greatest number prior to the arrival of the Magyars were the Romanized Celts, although the degree of their Romanization is subject to debate. The main force of the Magyars had been preceded by other Hungarians who had probably arrived with the Huns and certainly with the Avars. Examples of these early Hungarians are the Szekelys of Transylvania and Magyar Croats existing in scattered islands throughout Pannonia. The Hungarians shared valleys of the western Carpathians with relatively numerous, albeit unorganized, Slavs, who were distant ancestors of the present-day Slovaks.

Thus, at the beginning of the 10th century, the peoples whose descendants now populate Central and Eastern Europe were already in place, with the exception of the Rumanians. Under the name of the Vlachs, the Rumanians were still wandering with their herds in the Albano-Macedonian area, from which they were to descend onto the plains of the lower Danube.

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