1. Location and Early History

According to Procopius, who may have relied on information obtained from interviews with warriors recruited in the Roman armies fighting against the Ostrogoths in Italy, before ca. 550, the Sclavenes lived not far from the Lower Danube frontier of Justinian's empire. They are often mentioned in relation with or as neighbors of the Antes, the Gepids, and the steppe nomads whom Procopius calls "Huns." The Sclavene raids into the Balkan provinces of the empire began in the mid-540s and continued into the early 550s. After a long interruption, they resumed on a considerably larger scale in 578 and continued until the 590s, when Emperor Maurice launched campaigns waged against the Sclavenes and the Avars north of the Danube River. New raids are mentioned during the early years of Emperor Heraclius. These three phases of the Sclavene raiding activity have been interpreted as reflecting dramatic changes taking place within the Sclavene society north of the Danube frontier of the empire. Early raids lacked both coordination and chieftains, for no names of Sclavene leaders exist in Procopius's work. By contrast, the second raiding phase is characterized by large numbers and by coordination, especially with the movements of the Avar armies in the Balkans. This is also the period during which a number of chiefs were militarily important enough to be mentioned by name in Byzantine sources. Some may have been just military commanders whose political prominence was based on their ability to organize raids (Ardagastus, Peiragastus). Others appear as "kings" with subjects and well-defined territories under their rule (Mousokios). Finally, during the third phase Sclavenes on canoes besieged Thessalonica and reached as far south as Crete. A Sclavene fleet of canoes also participated in the Avar siege of Constantinople in 626. The interruption of the Sclavene raiding activity and the existence of three distinct phases must be attributed to the military response of the empire to the problems of the Danube frontier, either through the gigantic program of fortification implemented by Justinian or the aggressive campaigning north of the Danube River during the reign of Maurice. In both cases, the Roman reaction to Sclavene raids triggered significant social and political changes within Sclavene society and may be responsible for the relatively late settlement of the Slavs in the Balkans. As a matter of fact, the earliest evidence of Sclavenes bringing their families with them and intending to establish themselves in the newly conquered territories can only be dated to the early years of Heraclius's reign.

Florin Curta

Source: International Encyclopaedia for the Middle Ages-Online. A Supplement to LexMA-Online. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2005

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Florin Curta, 'Sclavenes, people’, in International Encyclopaedia for the Middle Ages-Online. A Supplement to LexMA-Online. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2005, in Brepolis Medieval Encyclopaedias <http://www.brepolis.net/bme> [ 7 December 2006]