Ethnogenesis for every occasion

I now want to turn back for a post to the text I was reading at about this time last year, the De Administrando Imperio of Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. I’ve already said something about the composite and confusing nature of this text, but I want here to look a little bit more closely at some of its internal contradictions, and that with particular regard to the variation it offers in national origin myths.1 This is clearest in the Balkans, and the interpretation of Constantine’s information there is a tricky matter, as is almost anything in the Balkans really. One can see why this is with no trouble: since 1918, and then again since 1992, there have been a number of different recognised nationalities there competing for space with each other and for either freedom or support from bigger powers to help them in that competition. Explaining all this has naturally enough resulted in work to establish the roots of the nationalities concerned in their desired home area, and Constantine seems to help with this as the stories he provides seem to testify, if not to actual events (though some would claim that they do), at least to long-established beliefs available to a tenth-century enquirer about what had happened when these various peoples arrived centuries before.2

Wikipedia map of early Serbian settlements in the Balkans

For example, this Wikipedian map claims that it is ‘mostly according to the De Administrando Imperio’, but I bet that you could construct another that would make Croatia the bigger territory, also ‘mostly’ on the basis of Constantine’s information…

In particular, our ailing emperor is the first source we have to use a word that is cognate to the modern ‘Croat’ for some of these people, and to distinguish the area inhabited by such Croats from other areas inhabited by Slavs. (He is also, I should say, fascinating about the innumerable separated ex-Roman peoples who were left along the coast by the Byzantine retreat, and their journey into ethnicity is one I would like someone to do more with–but of course, they became part of other people’s identities in the end, so don’t get their own history.3) It’s not just Balkan scholars who have leapt at this text, of course: scholars of the Russians and Hungarians, all working without the aid of home-grown historical writing this early, have also seen in Constantine’s apparent lack of editing some hope that the materials he preserved represent the authentic popular memory of authentic Slavic, Rus’ or Magyar informants, even if sometimes passed through Greek-literate intermediaries.4 Efforts to push back the date of the information he records may also have the same ultimate motives; thus Francis Dvornik developed a complex hypothesis about the Balkan material by which reports from officials dating from no later than 912 were compiled around 944 by Constantine and then combined with a newer but Slavic (and “truer”) story about the origin of the Croats around 952, all from clues within the text.5 I’m not going to say he was wrong, either, but really all we can say for sure is that Constantine had all the material he used by 952.

Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS grec. 2009, fo. 3r

The opening page of the earliest mansucript of the De Administrando Imperio, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS grec. 2009, fo. 3r. The thing on the left is some tables from the Letter of Pythagoras to Laïs, which was later bound into the same codex.

He was also presumably not working without some editorial purpose, but sometimes it is very hard to perceive. He gives three accounts of the arrival of the Croats in the Balkans, in fact, none of which fully agree and one of which is internally self-contradictory. In the first place, he tells us that all was peaceful south of the Danube till the Romans crossed it one day in a spirit of adventure and, finding “unarmed Slavonic nations, who were also called Avars”, there, raided them fairly thoroughly and then garrisoned the Danube so as to go on doing that, whereupon the Slavs (“who were also called Avars”) decided that this had to stop, apparently armed themselves, ambushed a Roman detachment and then got through the frontier pass at Klis under their captured standard, whereafter they sprang upon Salona and established themselves there, and all the Romans of the land fled to the coastal cities where they remain.6 Now, not only do we know that this is not true—Slavs served in the Avar military effort but the peoples are distinguished fairly consistently by Roman authors, Salona took years to fall, in the seventh century (whereas Constantine later says this happened 500 years before his date of writing in 952!), and so on—but Constantine had different information too, in the form of the Chronicle of Theophanes that he quotes extensively and, indeed, from whose author he even claims descent.7 But this is the story he tells this time, and although several morals can be seen in it it’s hard to know exactly which one Romanos II was supposed to take from it: that the Balkans were lost because of Roman greed? that the Slavs are fierce, cunning and capable of deceit? or that modern-day Kotor, Dubrovnik, Split, Trogir, Rab, Bekla and Osor were all places that could still be claimed as Byzantine possessions?8

The bit that follows immediately doesn’t make this much clearer:

“Since the reign of Heraclius, emperor of the Romans, as will be related in the narrative concerning the Croats and Serbs, the whole of Dalmatia and the nations about it, such as Croats, Serbs, Zachlumi, Terbouniotes, Kanalites, Diocletians and Arentani, who are also called Pagani… But when the Roman Empire, through the sloth and inexperience of those who governed it and especially in the time of Michael from Amorion, the Lisper, had declined to the verge of total extinction, the inhabitants of the cities of Dalmatia became independent, subject neither to the emperor of the Romans nor to anybody else, and, what is more, the nations of those parts, the Croats and Serbs and Zachlumites, Terbouniotes and Kanalites and Diocletians and the Pagani, shook off the reins of the Empire of the Romans and became self-governing and independent, subject to none. Princes, as they say, these nations had none, but only ‘zupans’, elders, as is the rule in the other Slavonic regions. Moreover, the majority of these Slavs were not even baptised, and remained unbaptized for long enough. But in the time of Basil, the Christ-loving emperor, they sent diplomatic agents, begging and praying him that those of them who were unbaptized might receive baptism and that they might be, as they had originally been, subject to the empire of the Romans.”

Of course Basil II obliged, and his rather messy wars of conquest in the area are overlooked, as indeed is the earlier mission to these areas under Saints Cyril and Methodius.9 At one level the immediate political point of this is obvious: all these peoples are ours, by their own decision, and they owe us both liberty and Salvation, the latter no doubt having implications about authority over the local churchmen. But the claims made on the way are really curious: the whole area was in Byzantine hands until the reign of Michael II (820-29)? and became that way under Heraclius (610-41)? Most modern histories would regard Heraclius’s as the reign in which these areas were lost!10 Furthermore, Constantine seems to know that at some other level, because after a long run through the topography and history of the ‘Roman’ coastal cities, which is to me what this chapter is really about, he finds another way in the next chapter. First he retells the story about the Avars (definitely them this time) hitting back at Roman raiders and getting into Roman territory under false colours then taking Salona with the same trick. Then he goes on:

“Only the townships on the coast held out against them and continued to be in the hands of the Romans, because they obtained their livelihood from the sea. The Avars, then, seeing this land to be most fair, settled down in it. But the Croats at that time were dwelling beyond Bavaria, where the Belocroats are now. From them split off a family of five brothers, Kloukas and Lobelos and Kosentzis and Mouchlo and Chrobatos, and two sisters, Touga and Bouga, who came with their folk to Dalmatia and found the Avars in possession of that land. After they had fought one another for some years, the Croats prevailed and killed some of the Avars and the remainder they compelled to be subject to them. And so from that time the land was possessed by the Croats, and there are still in Croatia some who are of Avar descent and are recognized as Avars. The rest of the Croats stayed over against Francia, and are now called Belocroats, that is, white Croats, and have their own prince; they are subject to Otto, the great king of Francia, of Saxony, and are unbaptized, and intermarry and are friendly with the Turks. From the Croats who came to Dalmatia a part split off and possessed themselves of Illyricum and Pannonia; they too had an independent prince, who used to maintain friendly contact, though through envoys only, with the prince of Croatia.

'Dolazak Hrvata na Jadran' ('The Coming of the Croats to the Adriatic Sea'), painted in 1905 by Oton Iveković (d. 1939)

‘Dolazak Hrvata na Jadran’ (‘The Coming of the Croats to the Adriatic Sea’), painted in 1905 by Oton Iveković (d. 1939) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. This, we might regard as a positivist reading of our source…

“For a number of years the Croats of Dalmatia also were subject to the Franks, as they had formerly been in their own country; but the Franks treated them with such brutality that they used to murder Croat infants at the breast and cast them to the dogs. The Croats, unable to endure such treatment from the Franks, revolted from them, and slew those of them whom they had for princes. On this, a large army from Francia marched against then, and after they had fought one another for seven years, at last the Croats managed to prevail and destroyed all the Franks with their leader, who was called Kotzilis. From that time they remained independent and autonomous, and they requested the holy baptism from the bishop of Rome, and bishops were sent who baptized them in the time of Porinos their prince.”11

So are you following? These people, who the previous chapter had been Byzantine subjects since at least 641, have now been independent ever since they threw off Frankish rule, in what is presumably a reference to the rebellions against Louis the Pious and his régime in Pannonia of the 820s.12 They were also baptised by Roman missionaries at about that time, but last chapter were still pagan in the reign of Basil II (886-912). Interestingly, they move as a family group with hangers-on: this really is something like a tribal migration as Constantine tells it, and that seems to be because whoever was telling it was aware of a family of princes with particular claims to the over-rule of connected peoples. In other words, where the previous chapter looked like a statement of a Byzantine political position, this looks much more like a Croat one, although it presumably still had a use for Constantine. My guess would be that this was the abrogation of any claim the Franks might make to the control of these people, voided by illegitimate brutality, just rebellion and right of combat. So again we can see a purpose, but then there is a third version…

“The Croats who now live in the region of Dalmatia are descended from the unbaptized Croats, also called ‘white’, who live beyond Turkey and next to Francia, and have for Slav neighbours the unbaptized Serbs. ‘Croats’ in the Slav tongue means ‘those who occupy much territory’. These same Croats arrived to claim the protection of the emperor of the Romans Heraclius before the Serbs claimed the protection of the same emperor Heraclius, at that time when the Avars had fought and expelled from those parts the Romani whom the emperor Diocletian had brought from Rome and settled there, and who were therefore called ‘Romani’ from their having been translated from Rome to those countries, I mean, to those now called Croatia and Serbia. These same Romani having been expelled by the Avars in the days of this same emperor of the Romans Heraclius, their countries were made desolate. And so, by command of the emperor Heraclius these same Croats defeated and expelled the Avars from those parts, and by mandate of Heraclius the emperor they settled down in that same country of the Avars, where they now dwell. These same Croats had at that time for prince the father of Porgas. The emperor Heraclius sent and brought priests from Rome, and made of them an archbishop and bishop and elders and deacons, and baptized the Croats; and at that time these Croats had Porgas for their prince.”13

So, in this version it’s not at all clear who controls the territory into which our migrants, again with a named prince, move. It’s waste, because the Romani have moved out; it’s Roman, because the Slavs come to Heraclius to get their permission to settle; it’s Avar, because the Avars have to be chucked out of it… But the important thing is that it’s Heraclius who decides, both on the settlement and on the Christianization; the pope’s rôle is reduced to ancillary of the emperor, and the mission of Cyril and Methodius is again apparently just too embarrassing or compromised to mention. This, alone of the three, looks like a fudge to match the previous stories and Byzantium’s claims to the contrary with the chronology of what actually happened, as far as we can tell, that the area fell under local control after Heraclius pulled out the troops to fight against Persia and that the papacy sent a mission into Dalmatia in the year of Heraclius’s death, although to recover relics and ransom captives rather than to convert Slavs.14 These may indeed have been things that were remembered at Split, which later claimed to have been made an archbishopric at about this time.15 The point, again, would seem to be that whoever was in control here it certainly wasn’t the Franks, but the papacy’s relegation to imperial auxiliary, actually truer than you might think given that Pope Martin I was imprisoned for some time in Constantinople for non-cooperation with the emperors, might also have had a special bite by the point where control of the Balkans and its bishoprics was once more on the Byzantine agenda.16

The cathedral of St Domnius, Split

The cathedral of St Domnius, Split, potentially source of a lot of Constantine’s confusion but itself also a testimony to the complexities it was trying to reconcile: the octagonal nave began as the mausoleum of Emperor Diocletian (284-307), who was of course a persecutor of Christians…

So what is to make of all this contradiction? Obviously there were different stories in circulation by the tenth century about what had happened in the seventh, which is not surprising. As we have them here, however, all of them can be read as serving a Byzantine political agenda: in the first case, the uninterrupted claim to the coastal cities of the Romani is the key, no matter what else it means admitting, but it is also worth asserting religious sponsorship of the Slavic peoples in those cities’ ecclesiastical orbits; in the second place, the key point is probably that any claim that the ‘Franks’ (which by Constantine’s time was the Ottonians for all functional purposes) could raise over the northern Balkans had been voided by their ancient conduct and the Croats’ brave resistance; in the third place, the point is that the peoples of this area hold their lands by imperial concession and that their Christianity ultimately also has such an origin. This probably makes it dangerous to assume that any of this stuff is reaching us unspun; Constantine may indeed have had local informants informing his sources, but what we have here is a selection of material to a purpose; you have to assume that if it had not served that purpose it could have been adjusted to do so.

But, you may say, it’s still a contradictory mess. How could Constantine put this stuff together and expect it all to work? Well, it works to its purpose, doesn’t it? If we think he was actually interested in recording the history of these peoples, we’re probably right, but this selection of the material he had was not being made for that purpose, but to underpin Byzantine diplomacy. This is a lot clearer in a much earlier part of the book that deals with how to handle excessive demands for treasure from barbarian ambassadors (apparently a common problem). Compare the above and the claims I have argued they probably support to this:

“Should they ever require and demand, whether they be Chazars, or Turks, or again Russians, or any other nation of the northerners and Scythians, as frequently happens, that some of the imperial vesture or diadems or state robes should be sent to them in return for some service or office performed by them, then thus you shall excuse yourself: «These robes of state and the diadems, which you call ‘kamelaukia’, were not fashioned by men, nor by human arts devised or elaborated, but, as we read in secret stories of old history, when God made emperor Constantine the great, who was the first Christian emperor, He sent him these robes of state by the hand of His angel, and the diadems which you call ‘kamelaukia’, and charged him to lay them in the great and holy Church of God, which… is called St. Sophia; and not to clothe himself in them every day, but only when it is a great public festival of the Lord… Moreover, there is a curse of the holy and great emperor Constantine engraved upon this holy table of the church if God, according as he was charged by God through the angel, that if an emperor for any use or occasion or unreasonable desire be minded to take of them and either himself misuse them or give them to others, he shall be anathematized as the foe and enemy of the commands of God, and shall be excommunicated from the church… And mighty dread hangs over them who are minded to transgress any of these divine ordinances. For one of the emperors, Leo by name, who also married a wife from Chazaria, out of his folly and rashness took up one of those diadems when no festival of the Lord was toward, and without the approval of the patriarch put it about his head. And straightway a carbuncle came forth upon his forehead so that in torment at the pains of it he evilly departed his evil life, and ran upon death untimely….»”17

That, judging by the wife, would be Leo IV (775-780), whose wife Eirini (797-802) was famously from Khazaria and apparently counted as one of his bad decisions, but obviously real history is not the concern here; what is concerned here is what sounds both impressive enough and ancient enough to shut up your peremptory barbarian visitors. There are I think, after putting this post together (it was originally supposed to be about migration, would you believe?), that we have to see the various Croat origin myths in the same way. Yes, so they contradict each other; who cares? You’ll only be using one of them when you need historical backing for the claim of the moment, choose the one that fits! This text is not a set of historical accounts, for all that it is often used as one; it is a grab-bag of historical justifications for claims the emperor might need to make in negotiations. “Oh no: we appoint the archbishops of Salona, no matter what this new pope may say. It’s been that way for hundreds of years.” “The Croats? Yes: valuable subjects! Did you know that the Bulgars have never ever defeated them? The Christ-loving Heraclius was right to let them settle in the Empire after the Franks betrayed God’s trust over them.” And so on. None of it has to be true; it had to be useful, and could have been crafted to be so. This goes some way to redeeming Constantine from some of the charges of boozy slapdash editing I was vaguely raising last time, perhaps, and makes us think harder about what his use for history really was. The pity for us is that as I have been saying for many many years, to use history is pretty much the same as to misuse it…

1. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, new edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967, repr. 1993).

2. Critical appraisals in Florin Curta, The Making of the Slavs: history and archaeology of the Lower Danube Region, c. 500-700 (Cambridge 2001), pp. 64-66, and John V. A. Fine Jr, When Ethnicity Did Not Matter in the Balkans: a study of identity in pre-nationalist Croatia, Dalmatia, and Slavonia in the medieval and early-modern periods (Kalamazoo 2006), pp. 23-26. For a more traditional reading see Francis Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1-53, 217-295; 30-36” in Romilly J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio: a commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 93-142 at pp. 93-101. Curta provides references to more modern pro-national readings of the text. As with some of the Catalan issues with which I work it’s rather uncomfortable here that all the voices denying these modern nations their ancient roots write in English (although not always only in English) and the pro-national opposition stays in the local languages, but some indication of the market for the old-fashioned reading might be found in the existence of K. Y. Grot (transl.), Izvestiya Konstantina Bagryanorodnogo O Serbah I Horvatah I Ih Rasselenii Na Balkanskom Poluostrove (n. p. 2013).

3. I’ve no idea what’s good to read on these coastal cities, but a quick search brings information to me on these: Ivo Goldstein, “Byzantine rule on the Adriatic (in Dalmatia, Istria and on the Western Adriatic): possibilities for a comparative study” in Acta Histriae Vol. 7 (Koper 1999), pp. 59-76; Ivan D. Stevovic, “Byzantium, Byzantine Italy and cities on the eastern coast of the Adriatic: the case of Kotor and Dubrovnik” in Zbornik radova Vizantoloskog Instituta Vol. 39 (Beograd 2001), pp. 165-182, DOI: 10.2298/ZRVI0239165S (no longer maintained); and Nenad Fejic, Dubrovnik (Raguse) au Moyen-Age : espace de convergence, espace menacé (Paris 2010).

4. Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1-53, 217-295; 30-36“, pp. 96-101, 112-114 & 118, esp. 114; Gyula Moravcsik, “Cc. 37-42” in Jenkins, Commentary, pp. 142-156 at pp. 143 & 145-146, esp. 146, does the same thing for Hungary and Dimitri Obolensky, “C. 9“, ibid. pp. 16-61 at pp. 19, 25-26 & 40-42, esp. 42, does it for the Rus’.

5. Dvornik as in n. 4 above, “truer” at p. 101.

6. Constantine, De Administrando Imperio, c.  29, ll. 13-49.

7. See Curta, Making of the Slavs, pp. 139-140; Fine, When Ethnicity Did Not Matter, pp. 22-23. Constantine’s claim to be descended from Theophanes is at De Administrando Imperii, c. 22, ll. 77-82.

8. These cities are all named in Greek ibid., c. 29, ll. 50-53; I take the Croatian names from Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1-53, 217-295; 30-36“, pp. 106-110.

9. On Basil II see Catherine Holmes, Basil II and the governance of Empire (976-1025) (Oxford 2005); for Cyril and Methodius I’m kind of still going on Alexis P. Vlasto, The entry of the Slavs into Christendom: an introduction to the medieval history of the Slavs (Cambridge 1970), and there must by now be something better, but I don’t know what it is. Any suggestions?

10. Summary of recent debates is available in Mitko B. Panov, “Reconstructing 7th century Macedonia: some neglected aspects of the miracles of St Demetrius” in Istorija: Journal of History Vol. 47 (Skopje 2012), pp. 93-115.

11. Constantine, De Administrando Imperio, c.  30, ll. 60-90.

12. My understanding here comes largely from the Royal Frankish Annals as presented in Bernard Scholz & Barbara Rogers (transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Michigan 1972), pp. 35-125 with commentary pp. 2-21, s. aa. 818-823, topped up with Miljenko Jurkovic and Ante Milosevic, “Split. Croatas y Carolingias: arte y arquitectura en Croacia en la alta edad media” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña Carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 165-170, transl. as “Split. Croats and Carolingians: art and architecture in the early Middle Ages”, ibid. pp. 501-504.

13. Constantine, De Administrando Imperio, c.  31, ll. 3-25.

14. On the dating of the withdrawal, see Curta, Making of the Slavs, pp. 169-189. The papal mission is mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis, but I learn that from Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1-53, 217-295; 30-36“, pp. 125-126, and haven’t been to look.

15. Ibid.; this time the source is held to be reflected in the thirteenth-century History of Split by Thomas the Archdeacon, apparently published as Thomas Archidiaconus, Historia Salonitana, ed. Franjo Racki, Monumenta spectantia historiam Slavorum meridionalium (Scriptores) 26.3 (Zagreb 1894), but again I’ve not been to look and Thomas surely had his own agenda.

16. The easiest study on Pope Martin I’s troubles is probably Bronwen Neil, “Commemorating Pope Martin I: His Trial in Constantinople” in Studia Patristica Vol. 39 (Leuven 2006), pp. 77-82. On the situation in the Balkans in Constantine’s era see now Jonathan Shepard, “Equilibrium to Expansion (886–1025)” in idem (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge 2008), pp. 493-536, doi: 10.1017/CHOL9780521832311.020 at pp. 503-518.

17. Constantine, De Administrando Imperio, c.  13, ll. 24-66.

3 responses to “Ethnogenesis for every occasion

  1. Tomislav Bali

    Nice post. Some suggestions for the literature…

    For christianization of the Slavs, I suggest Maddalena Betti, The Making of Christian Moravia (858-882): Papal Power and Political Reality (Leiden: Brill, 2014). It’s focus is on Moravia, but also deals with Croatia and other Slavic entities.

    Useful books is also Danijel Dzino, Becoming Slav, Becoming Croat. Identity Transformations in Post-Roman and Early Medieval Dalmatia (Leiden: Brill, 2010). Heavily influenced by Curta’s Making of the Slavs.

    For possible origin of “The Balkan Dossier” in DAI, see Tibor Živković, De conversione Croatorum et Serborum: a lost source. Whole book in English:

    Papers from the conference abaout DAI. This is in Croatian and Serbian, but there are summaries in English,

    Thomas Archidiaconus, Historia Salonitana indeed had own agenda. There’s English translation,

    • Thankyou! Betti’s book has been recommended to me several times now, and I shall have to get my university library to buy it, since I certainly don’t want to pay for it… The other material is all new to me, however, and I will follow it up when I have time. My thanks again.

  2. Pingback: From the Sources XIII: a Who’s Who of the tenth-century Caucasus | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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