Slovenia: Alpine Slavs of the Migration Period

For my next contribution to the ABC of world history I’ve drawn S for Slovenia! For which I decided to take the chance to look into my favourite era of Slavic history: the migration period.

When compared with its other south Slavic neighbours, Slovenia definitely has some differences, most of which can perhaps be attributed to its geographical location and features. Being situated on the very eastern edge of the Alps is certainly a significant feature in Slovenian history, as is being on the very western edge of the Balkan region. Unlike the rest of their south Slavic cousins, who spent much of their history under the rule of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the Slovenes instead found themselves within the Carolingian, and then the Holy Roman Empire. Despite the differences in history, Slovenia is certainly a south Slavic country, with a language very closely related to that of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia, and there are distinctly Slavic indigenous Slovenes in neighbouring regions of Italy and Austria.

So what is the story of the first Slavs that settled in the region that was to become Slovenia? To begin with let’s go back to the first Slavs in general. The original term used for Slavs in the region “Sclavenes” was used in sixth century Byzantine sources as an umbrella term for a multitude of groups living north of the Danube frontier which could not otherwise be classified as either Huns or Gepids. They were also mentioned as having appeared at the Byzantine borders along with the “Antes”, another Slavic group which would become known as East Slavs. To these Byantine, largely military authors the Sclavenes were essentially seen as a new kind of enemy to be aware of to the extent that their forms of warfare were different from other barbarians. This likely means that a general Sclavene or Slavic ethnicity was initially an invention of the early Byzantines. But invention does not mean pure fiction, as Byzantine authors seem to have used “Sclavene” to make sense of a process of group identification which was taking place under before their eyes on the frontier of the Empire. An identity did certainly seem to take form during this time, with evidence in distinct styles of material culture spreading amongst these communities north of the Danube. This was perhaps as a direct result of the isolation lack of movement that the fortified frontier caused, as political and military mobilization was the response to the conditions that various groups of proto-slavs took, and increased social competition led to the rise of leaders among them.

The three main Slavic groups became distinct during the migration period.

Looking more closely at the Slavs that settled in the eastern alpine region, starting in around 550, they were part of the early southward movements of slavs into the highly contested old Roman territory. Slavic peoples moved southward into the former Roman province of Noricum. Subsequently, they progressed along the valleys of Alpine rivers towards the Karavanke range and towards the settlement of Poetovio (modern-day Ptuj), where the decline of the local diocese is recorded before 577.

It wasn’t the Slavs alone who migrated into this region however. For much of the first centuries of Slavic settlement, they were closely tied with the nomadic Eurasian Avars. The Avars first arrived at the lower Danube in the 560s and subdued the local Slavs there. So after the first, southward phase of Slavic settlement in the Eastern Alps, from there a second phase took place in a northern direction after the retreat of Lombards into Northern Italy in 568. The Lombards decided to leave the relinquished territory to their new allies, the Avars, who at that time were the overlords of Slavs.

From 568 onwards the Avars became the nominal rulers of the Pannonian basin and the adjacent Eastern Alps region. The Slavic-Avar progress towards the Eastern Alps can be traced through the records of the Aquileian metropolitan church which speak of the decline of various ancient dioceses in the area. In 588 the Slavs reached the area of the Upper Sava River and in 591 they reached the Upper Drava region where they encountered and fought with the Germanic Bavarians. In 592 the Bavarians won, but in 595 the Slavic-Avar army achieved victory and thus consolidated a boundary between the Frankish and Avar territories. By 600 the Slavs had pushed through Istria and the Karst region towards Italy.

So by the beginning of the seventh century Slavic people had now settled in and around the area of modern day Slovenia. Much of their movement into this area surely has to do with the expansion of Avar territory, but the Slavs did not find their place under their rule to be an agreeable one. There seems to have been some evidence of resistance to the Avars earlier on, such as in 578 when a Slavic chief named Dauritas resisted demands of tribute to the Avar Qagan, boldly stating that “others do not conquer our land, we conquer theirs; so it shall always be for us, as long as there are wars and weapons”. But there was nothing more than minor success in rebellion until 623 when the first recorded union of Slavic tribes took place under a leader named Samo. The main source for this is the seventh century Frankish chronicle Fredegarii Chronicon, which states:

“Each year, the Huns [Avars] came to the Slavs, to spend the winter with them; then they took the wives and daughters of the Slavs and slept with them, and among the other mistreatments the Slavs were also forced to pay levies to the Huns. But the sons of the Huns, who were raised with the wives and daughters of these Wends [Slavs] could not finally endure this oppression anymore and refused obedience to the Huns and began, as already mentioned, a rebellion. When now the Wendish army went against the Huns, the merchant Samo accompanied the same. And so Samo’s bravery proved itself in wonderful ways and a huge mass of Huns fell to the sword of the Wends.

Fredegarii Chronicon, Book IV, Section 48, written circa 642

As the chronicle says, it seems that Samo was a merchant, probably from Frankish lands, and may have been someone who supplied arms to the Slavs in Avar territory for their frequent revolts. He is referred to as being elected the King of the Slavs, or “Rex Sclavorum” in Latin, due to his bravery and efforts in unifying several Slavic tribes. It’s very likely that this revolt was far more successful than previous attempts thanks to the defeat of the Avar Qagan at the First Siege of Constantinople in 626, when the Byzantine Empire successfully defended itself from an allied force of Sassanids and Avars. Samo seemingly took advantage of the weakened Avars to solidify his position with a string of victories over them. He went on to secure his throne by marriage into major Slavic families, apparently wedding at least twelve women and fathering twenty-two sons and fifteen daughters.

Alleged mural of Samo in a Moravian rotunda

The most well documented event of Samo’s life was his victory over the Frankish royal army under Dagobert I in 631. Provoked to action by a “violent quarrel in the Pannonian kingdom of the Avars” during his ninth year (631–32), Dagobert led three armies against the Slavs. The Franks were said to have been defeated in the three-day Battle of Wogastisburg, an unidentified location meaning “fortress of Vogast.” The chronicle reports that the majority of the Frankish army was slaughtered, while the rest of the troops fled, leaving weapons and other equipment lying on the ground. In the aftermath of the Slavic victory, Samo invaded Frankish Thuringia several times and undertook looting raids there.

Possible extent of Samo’s territory

Samo’s successes seemed to last until his death in 658, but his title was not inherited by his sons, and his kingdom broke apart. Ultimately the gains that were made by the Slavs under Samo were lost, as the Avars regained control over some of the Slavs his old domain. However Samo can be credited with helping to forge a Slavic identity in the region that is now Slovenia, one that would remain through time to today, even with the area coming under Frankish control as part of the Carolingian Empire in 745, and remaining under Germanic rule through to the modern period.

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