Monday, June 8, 2015

Why Were The Slavs So Awesome?

A little more than a thousand years ago, not long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a group of people from the Balkans Eastern Europe expanded into more or less the entire European region in which Slavic languages are spoken in a migration that had a major demic impact although some pre-existing people were integrated into their society.

Unlike many other known major demic and linguistic expansions, however, the historical forces that allowed the Slavic migrants to utterly swamp the pre-existing residents and bring about language shift are largely unknown and are not even the subject of much speculation, despite the fact that this was happening at the dawn of the historic era and some of the people who witnessed it must have been literate, and despite the fact that the ancestors of these people still live in these places today.

Was there a technology or cultural trait that made this dominance possible?  Had famine or plague or raids by migration era raiding tribes so weakened the existing residents that the land was all but vacant?  If these weren't factors, what were? Investigation of the whys of Slavic migration is a task that should be on the "to do" list of anthropologists and historians as a major unsolved problem.

Wikipedia describes much of what we know about the early Slavs, but this information doesn't itself provide obvious answers to the big question of "why the Slavs were so awesome".

The leading narrative seems to focus on a power vacuum created by the fall of the Roman and Hun Empires, and by the disruption of society caused by raiding tribes (mostly Germanic) in the migration period who raided territory and then left when it was duly pillaged, rather acting like the Slavs and raiding and then ruling the land that they raided.  The Slav had recently rebelled from being overpopulated Iron Age farmers subjugated to barbarians, which presumably made them willing to fight for more land and made them familiar with the raiding lifestyle that they did not fully adopt.

(Factual error corrected later on the same day posted in response to a comment.)


Davidski said...

Slavs entered the Balkans from the north. This PDF explains it.,d.dGY

andrew said...

Fair enough. My recollection on that point was wrong. But, this still doesn't get to the meat of the matter, and in some ways makes it worse. If the Slavs entered the Balkans from the North, that means that they weren't getting an edge because they were receiving the legacy of the Western Roman empire's technological sophistication. Instead, they got their start in the boonies.

Weren't the people they left in the dust still Iron Age farmers? The Slavs were Iron Age farmers themselves who were dismounting from horses and carrying two spears and a wooden shield. They didn't use castles or wear armor. They aren't known for particular discipline on the field of battle the way that the Spartans or Roman Legions were, and were migrating with whole families. What major technology or advantage was missing from Eastern Europe in the 6th century and beyond that the Slavs had?

Didn't the plague hit long after the Slav's arrived in this region?

Davidski said...

The early Slavs could move quickly to exploit opportunities or hide from danger. They cultivated millet which really doesn't need much cultivating, and can feed a lot of people and livestock.

They were very flexible when it came to political unions, and often allied with other marauders, like the Avars, to achieve their goals. They also didn't keep captives very long; after a while they gave them a choice of either leaving their bands or joining for good as free men/women. This might have swelled their numbers in the areas that they moved into.

So I don't think there was a single specific reason why the early Slavs were so successful. It seems to have been a combination of factors, and I'd say it was a phenomenon reminiscent of the Proto-Indo-Euopean expansion from the steppe a few thousand years earlier.

If we really have to narrow it down, then the most likely explanation is that the early Slavs were highly mobile and versatile in many ways.

Maju said...

It's interesting what David says, particularly about alliances and assimilation of captives or other defeated peoples. I guess there's more debate in the Slavic linguistic space like Poland or Russia about that than in the West, more fascinated with other better documented ethnicities.

What is really curious is that the Slavs were not even perceived to exist at all by classical authors in spite of the fact that they must have been there in the Ukraine-Belarus-Poland area for a long time (with unclear overlap with other ethnicities like Eastern Germanics, Sarmato-Scythians and later also Turkic like the Huns, who were much more dominant and aggressive by all accounts). Only when they threaten the Roman (Byzantine) area they become worthy of mention apparently: it is only their Balcanic expansion (a rather late phenomenon) what brings them into history. Even then they arrive associated with other peoples of unclear affiliation but probably "somewhat Turkic", which are the Avars and the Bulgars, both of which ended speaking slavic, what suggests that the Slavic component was strong since the very beginning, regardless of the exact affiliation of these two peoples.

I'd say that my impression is that the Slavic expansion was symbiotic with that of early Turkics (Huns and relations), with whom they must have worked as allies, vassals or mercenaries in great numbers. A bit as later Turkic expansion/consolidation was associated with the Mongol Empire, I guess. It's not always the leading ethnicity which leaves the strongest mark after all: all those warrior steppe peoples were probably not numerous enough, however the proto-Slavs were surely available in great and growing numbers right at the gates of the Germanic and Roman areas.

On a side note: I don't think it can be said that the demographic impact was big or even apparent at all. It's very hard to find any clear Slavic genetic signature in most of the Slavic-speaking Balcans for example. R1a for instance is very low, totally unlike further North. My impression is that there was massive assimilation rather than massive migration.

Davidski said...

The I2-Dinaric in the Balkans is probably from the Polish/Belarus/Ukrainian border.

It looks like a Slavic marker that went through a massive founder effect around 1,000 years ago.

Anonymous said...

The Slavic expansion certainly left a considerable autosomal imprint on modern South Slavs despite evident assimilation of locals, Maju. Ralph & Coop's "The geography of recent genetic ancestry across Europe" shows this with disproportionate IBD sharing between Balkan Slavs and West Slavs, East Slavs and Balts. The Balts being included in this scheme probably means that there was a relatively homogenous Balto-Slavic genepool that remained intact after the languages split, despite differences in haplogroup frequencies.

ADMIXTURE can rather easily create a Balto-Slavic component which peaks in Lithuania or thereabouts, and is more apparent in South Slavs like the Croats than in, say, the Danes or Dutch.

There is a study related to the genetics of Slavic expansion coming out soon.

Maju said...

@David: And the I2 in Sardinia and the Pyrenees, a brother lineage under P37.2, too? Honestly I rather think that the I2 of the Western Balcans is directly related to the Neolithic I2 of Sardinia and the chronologies cited in Wikipedia (Rootsi 2004, Marjanovi 2005 and Pericic 2005) would seem to support this development (if you happen to believe in the "molecular clock"). In fact I'd dare say that I-P37.2 is the most characteristic lineage of "UHG", i.e. the Paleo-European element in EEF. It does seem to derive from the area of Ukraine and Romania but in times much much older than the Slavic expansion and pretty much coincident with that of the Neolithic one instead. Even Eupedia who usually favors weird recentist conjectures is against I2 in the Balcans being Slavic in any way.

@Grelsson: I quote from the abstract:

This dual genetic structure points to a largely in situ shaping of gene pools of different Slavic populations. In general, our data suggest that regional differences in the present-day gene pools of Slavic-speaking populations are best explained by substantial assimilation of autochthonous populations by bearers of migrating Slavic speakers across wide area of Europe.

Re. the image linked, I remember reading the relevant study back in the day and pretty much dismissing it as unreliable.

Anonymous said...

That does not contradict what I said. I mentioned assimilation of locals was evident, but regardless of that the shared Slavic ancestry is still very visible using IBD and ADMIXTURE. I see no reason to believe the upcoming study will paint a different picture from the Ralph & Coop study.

Tom Warner said...

I think "so awesome" is overstating it, just like it would be for the Germanic peoples or the British Empire. I would guess there are a variety of explanations for Slavs' expansion in different times and areas, not any particular "awesome" attributes. And it's worth remembering that there were also many times when things went the other way.

The conjecture that Slavs were Hun vassals who emerged in control in what is now southwest Ukraine and Moldova as Hun power collapsed seems plausible, though actual evidence is thin. That's the first Slav migration on record, apparently south from the woodlands of northwest Ukraine and Belarus.

So many peoples invaded south over the Danube into the Balkans that the Slavs' ability to do it really can't be construed as special. But what's interesting, and frustratingly poorly recorded, is that the Slavs overran Greece all the way down to the Peleponnese. And it's a good question why they could. We know Byzantine central authority was weak, but why locally Greeks failed to repel the invasion isn't really known.

One thing that's very clear is that the Church was hugely important to the formation and persistence of Slavic cultural identity. In Greece the Church remained Greek-speaking and the Slavic invaders were assimilated into Greek culture. In Thrace, Slavic churches were established and Slavic language and identity became dominant - and Turkic invaders who were assimilated into Slavic culture. Further north, if any Slavs remained in the area roughly between Bulgaria and central Ukraine, they were assimilated into Romanian and Turkic cultures.

Likewise we don't know a lot about the Slavic expansion south and west from Poland into Germany, Bohemia, Slovakia, Pannonia and the northwestern Balkans. We know that to some extent these Slavs were moving behind the Germanic migrations, but to what extent pushing and to what extent just following is anyone's guess. The Church again was hugely important to the persistence or not of Slavic culture. Germanic empires were using German liturgy to gradually assimilate Slavs up to the big Hussite blowup. The Pannonian Slavs had a mostly sad fate at the hands of the Magyars including large numbers sold into slavery, which is the source of our word for it.

Then you have the Rus and Russian expansions, which were recorded. These were pretty straightforward military conquests followed by establishment of Slavic Churches and in later eras education and mass literature. The territories involved are huge but at the time of the conquests were mostly very lightly populated, except central Russia, where large numbers of Finno-Ugrians seem to have been assimilated. Population genetics is I think a very young and uncertain science, but Slavs seem to be very far from a coherent group, and Slavs in the Balkans and Russia seem to be a lot like their not-Slavic neighbors.

andrew said...

Obviously, my use of the word "awesome" is colloquial and doesn't mean admirable or even superior in this sense. I am merely asking what made it possible for Slavic expansion to be so widespread and rapid in the face of already occupied territories of people who superficially had similar technological and cultural capabilities. It could very well be, for example, that "dastardly" might be more apt than "awesome." One very plausible narrative is that despair and a lack of alternatives made the Slavs ruthless in a way that their opponents were not.

This said, one of the factors that we can almost certainly rule out as a factor in Slavic expansion is the church. We do know that the Slavs were basically animists prior to their Christianization, and that they were Christianized only starting in the 9th century CE and running its course until the 12th century. Basically, Christianization happened only after Slavic expansion was a fait accompli, mostly around the same time as the Crusades. While we can't see what would have happened if, counterfactually, there had been no Christian conversion, there is no evidence that the Slavic culture was on the brink of collapse when they did convert.

Maju said...

Why would you say slavs were "ruthless"? I can't figure out why. Magyars were "ruthless", Byzantines were "ruthless" (look up "Bulgaroktonos", Venetians were "ruthless" (look up "Fourth Crusade")... but Slavs? Why?

I quote from Wikipedia: The Strategikon (XI.4.I-45) mentions that the Slavs were a hospitable people who did not keep prisoners indefinitely, "but lay down a certain period after which they can decide for themselves if they want to return to their former homelands after paying a ransom, or to stay amongst the Slavs as free men and friends".

That sounds pretty friendly and assimilationist. I can see in that kind of mechanics how they expanded so easily. I would (rather ironically) agree with David when he says that their assimilationist methods were "a phenomenon reminiscent of the Proto-Indo-Euopean expansion".

On the other hand, Slavs (and associated peoples like the Avars) also appear often as allies or vassals or even "slaves" of other ethnicities. There's been an endless debate about the origin of Kiev Russia for example: was it (in origin) a Slavic creation or a Swedish (Varangian) one? Or something hybrid. I'd say it was a hybrid in which the role of the Varangian elite was more important at first but decreased soon and fully vanished later. Similarly one can imagine a similar process for the formation of Bulgaria for instance and, why not?, for other cases in the process of Slavic ethnogenesis, beginning with the Sarmatians and Huns.

andrew said...

What I mean to say is simply that I don't know why the Slavs were able to expand so far and so fast. It could be that it was because they adhered to Rotarian ideals, rather than because they were ruthless, or for some other reason whatsoever, good, bad or indifferent.

I've seen lots of candidate theories and very skinny evidence to support any of them. I have no doubt that there are very good reasons why Slavs were able to expand far and rapidly, and that it wasn't just dumb luck or even an exceptional leader or two. But, I honestly don't really know.

The literature I have looked at seems to emphasize the weakness of everybody else whose empires were collapsing, rather than any strong point of the Slavs apart from the fact that they apparently weren't part of a collapsing empire. But, there is disagreement over why the empires around them were collapsing, what Slavic tactics were most important, and so on.

As I noted above, we can certainly rule out some possibilities, like the role of the church, as anachronistic. But, that leaves many possibilities open.

Tom Warner said...

What I said was that the Church was a huge factor in the persistence of Slavic culture after the early southward expansions. The Church was instrumental to the Rus and Russian expansions from the 11th century on.

Without persistence you don't have a lasting expansion. There were lots of flash-in-the-pan expansions and migrations - the Alans, the Huns, the Goths, the Avars, the Lombards, the Burgundians, the Bulgars etc etc. Who remembers the Kostoboki or the Yazugs. Without persistence, it's all forgotten soon.

Take your belief that Slavs didn't begin to be Christianized until the 9th century. That's actually the date of the earliest evidence of proselytization in Slavic. By then the Slavs of Greece seem to have already been completely Christianized, but since they learned the liturgy in Greek and their descendants speak Greek and identify as Greek, few people remember the Slavs of Greece. Hardly the only ones anybody knows are those who became Slavic-liturgy missionaries to more northern Slavs.

Anyway, I'm agreeing with you that the reasons for Slavs' successful early expansions are a mystery. I'm just pointing out there are many, many similar mysteries of early history, and giving my opinion that there were probably lots of different reasons at different times, just as there were say for the various Germanic expansions in different places and eras.

Tom Warner said...

PS If you want to read more on this topic I very strongly recommend Dmitri Obolensky: The Byzantine Commonwealth.

Tom Warner said...

I'll leave one more thought, since I know you're very interested in economics as I clicked to here from MR on a totally unrelated topic.

Nevermind fuzzy wuzzy conjecture comparing Slavic expansions to an imagined concept of what early Indo-European expansions were like however many thousand years ago. What wins international conflicts are economic advantages and especially the ability to wage war more economically than the other nation. Adopting that general view doesn't directly supply any answers re: the early Slavic expansions, as far too little information we'd need to know was written down or preserved in the archeological record. But as for the general question of how "barbarian" armies repeatedly bested more technologically advanced empires, I think it could only have been by waging war more economically.

Maju said...

Tom: you see "international conflict" as primarily military and, while no doubt, that's a part of it, much isn't. For example anyone observing the rise of China and the fall of the USA can appreciate that China basically doesn't wage any war at all but rather "seduces" victory. Politics have at least as much to do with love as with violence and international politics are not any different. If you can seduce the enemy or rather the disputed third-party ally (there's always one or many of those) your chances improve a lot. Naturally projected strength is part of the charms but there are many others, such as treating others with some respect. Bullies are not charming.

A brute can still manage to conquer and rule but won't last: anyone who gets rid of him has good chances to get his position of power and be perceived as a change for good, so...

Anyways, you also say: "how "barbarian" armies repeatedly bested more technologically advanced empires, I think it could only have been by waging war more economically".

The reason is that if you attack the barbarians you can't usually conquer much: sometimes they come from deep deserts or steppes, where there are nothing but camps or maybe a few towns separated by long distances from any other, in other cases it's cold forest equally lacking any relevant target (thinking ancient Germanics, would be also the case of Slavs). The critical positive they have is that they have nothing that can be easily conquered (or at all) by city-based armies. Instead civilizations, much richer and better organized (technology may not always be that different), have a lot of tax-providing territory to defend, mostly cities and towns, which can be captured, raided, maybe even razed, destroying the imperial structure altogether.

You may be thinking: what about the Celts?! The historical Celts (La Tène) are a prime example of civilization (early stages but clearly urban-centered already) who collapsed first of all not against Rome but against the Germanic advance, who captured and razed their towns (called oppidae by the Romans), destroying their whole socio-economical structure that way. They did so once and again until the more advanced Romans managed to conquer the rest of them and establish a consolidated and heavily defended border, which lasted for long but not forever.

But I'd say that almost invariably the key reason for collapse vs. barbarian invaders was that the civilization had been seriously weakened internally by the time the invasions managed to succeed. The Western Roman Empire, for example, once lost the Eastern half, could not finance itself properly anymore and was already pretty much becoming a feudal state when the Germanic tribes finally gave it the coup de grace. Instead the much reacher Eastern Empire lasted for much longer, although it also lost later many territories to the Arabs primarily (and Slavs secondarily) because of a mix of internal conflict and general erosion caused largely by the endless wars against Persia, which collapsed to the Arabs much more totally and dramatically in that same period. If all these states would have been strong at the time of barbarian invasion, these invasions would have failed, even if counter-campaigns to conquer Arabia or the Germanic or Slavic homelands were always out of their reach. Basically there was nothing to conquer: just barbarian lands without almost any worth and with way too many natives willing to resist.

andrew said...

Interesting observation on the something to lose v. nothing to lose dynamic of barbarian v. civilization conflicts.

I suppose if one were to put it in economic determinism terms, high civilizations of ancient times were adapted to favorable circumstances and when those fell apart as circumstances grew less favorable (e.g. due to climate), civilizations already adapted to less favorable circumstances because they lived in more marginal areas were better adapted to the new normal.

Tom Warner said...

I didn't mean to rule out seduction or any other means of gaining territory, but by and large, for nearly all cases of one ethnic group taking over territory from another where we have solid evidence of how it happened, the means included a military conquest or threat and surrender. The only exceptions I know of are in two groups 1) when conquerors were assimilated into the culture of the conquered, either because the latter were more numerous and/or had stronger cultural institutions and 2) when empires invited groups to resettle, though most of those could be considered threat and surrender. I suppose the return by treaty of Hong Kong could be considered a rare, anomalous exception, but I would say China has not taken anybody's inhabited territory and couldn't without a fight.

I also don't mean to put all history under a strict theory of economic determinism. And moreover there are an endless variety of ways to understand "wage war more economically," including something/nothing to lose. There's also the relative values put on human life, which are related to material costs on armor to medicine, and to strategy options. When there's nothing written there's always many potential explanations and I think it's best to leave it at that.

Maju said...

@Andrew: thanks for your applause, however I would not blame only climate conditions. These can of course be a factor but I'd dare say that entropy is usually more socio-economic: complex order is costly and, while it may come with associated benefits, the balance is somewhat unstable. If these benefits decrease while the costs do not, then collapse is almost certain to happen. The particular trigger may be a barbarian invasion, a series of bad harvests or an epidemic... or all at the same time, but the real reason is that the structure has been weakened and cannot anymore resist the challenges that it was able to master successfully in previous stages.

It's just like individual health: much of it is about healthy lifestyle, about being internally strong and resilient and hence much more able to overcome any illness or whatever other challenge. That's why the flu can kill elderly people while it may not even cause symptoms in healthy young adults at all, or these are easily overcome.

Anyone who studies the Roman Empire for example can't but realize that the late Empire lacked the vigor of the early one or even the late Republic. The very constitution of the Empire as such already marks the end of expansion but it was still strong enough to resist every challenge for centuries. However, after the loss of much of its fiscal income with the moving of the capital to New Rome (Constantinople) and later the partition between West and East, the Western Empire became a shadow of its former self and one can well argue that it was totally doomed, that it was just a matter of time before it collapsed. The whole formation of the Empire followed the logic of the needs of Rome and Italy, these needs were not really the same for a Greek-centered, neo-Hellenistic, late Empire, who could not care less about the Far West. Only Italy could strike that balance between the developed East and the underdeveloped West. But we're getting a bit off topic here, just trying to illustrate with the Roman example how internal factors are most important. A related factor we cannot ignore would be incipient feudalization and demonetization of Western Roman economy, as well as the related uprisings known as bagaudae, who often saw in the Germanic invaders, at least in some of them, a force not more oppressive than their now feudalizing (i.e. enslaving) Roman masters, while the Roman state was faced with a multiplication of disintegrative processes coming both from outside and inside the Empire, particularly its Western provinces.

An example can be seen in the post-Vandal scenario in Iberia, where the Basque bagauda allied with the "anti-Roman" Suebes (Swabians), established in Gallaecia, against the "pro-Roman" Goths and almost won (just almost). It's exceptional because, while other similar alliances are suspected (for example Vandals et al. went through the Basque Country unopposed in 409, while two years earlier they had been stopped at the Pyrenees) no other such bagauda-barbarian alliance is properly documented, but it's likely that at the very least many provincial "Romans" did not anymore perceive the barbarians as a menace, at least not as worse than Rome itself.

So the key factor of collapse is almost invariably internal rot. The barbarians, like revolutionaries in more modern scenarios or illnesses in my body health metaphor, just kick down a rotten door they would have never overcome in better times. The same situation can be surely found in every single case of civilizational collapse (versus foreign invaders or whatever).

There's this adagio: "to get asleep in one's laurels", to be so satisfied of past accomplishments that you begin to think you no longer need to keep it up. That's when you fall.