Join Amazon Prime - Watch Thousands of Movies & TV Shows Anytime - Start Free Trial Now

Try Amazon Fresh

The Balkan Slavs
Croatia and the Serbian Empire
by Steven Lowe
(From Varangian Voice No. 24, Oct 1992)

History    Christianity    Warfare    Saint Sava    Empire    Turkish Invasion    Social Structure    Costume     Arms and Armour    References

The Slavs were a confederation of tribes whose economy was based on farming and stockbreeding. They were characteristically round-faced with red hair. Though they were excellent fighters, their society was not organized on a war footing. Instead they elected war-leaders when the need arose, and dispensed with their services in times of peace.

Invasions in the 5th and 6th centuries AD by the Huns, Gepids and Avars broke down Byzantine control of Thrace and the Balkans, and when the Slavs invaded as part of a larger migration in the late 6th century they completely overwhelmed the area, getting as far south as Greece.

In the late 7th century the Turkic Bulgars conquered the Slavs of Thrace, but the Balkans remained in Slavic control. After thousands died in Constantinople in the plague of 746/7 AD, large numbers of people were transplanted into the capital from southern Greece, and the Slavs were able to move into the vacuum left behind.

Independent tribes gave way to a loose confederation of states in the 9th century, and in the 820s the Croats, with Bulgarian aid, staged a successful rebellion against their Frankish overlords. However, later in the same century they fell under the domination of Byzantium.

The brothers Cyril and Methodius were Byzantine missionaries to the Slavs in the 9th century. They conceived the Cyrillic and Glagolithic alphabets to translate Holy works into the Slavic languages, and converted large numbers of Moravian Slavs to Orthodox Christianity from their traditional god Perun. However, after Cyril and Methodius died, their followers were driven from Moravia by its Catholic Frankish overlords. They fled to Bulgaria where they were welcomed by Kijnaz (king) Boris-Michael. From there Orthodox missionaries converted most of the Balkans. Croatia, however, was converted by missionaries from Italy and has traditionally followed the Church of Rome. This religious division in the Balkans became more serious after the schism of 1054 when the Catholic and Orthodox churches went their separate ways, continuing to do so despite many attempts at reconciliation by Popes, Patriarchs and Emperors.

In 880 Croatia rebelled against Byzantium and put itself under the protection of the Roman Popes, and between 903 and 908 achieved independent statehood. The Serbs are first mentioned by name in the 9th century. Though nominally under Byzantine overlordship they were largely independent.

A heresy known as Bogomilism spread from Bulgaria in the 10th century. Its basis was the concept that though God had created the spiritual world, the physical had been created by Satan and should be avoided as much as possible. So widespread was this heresy that it became the state religion of Bosnia. The Albigensian or Cathar heresy which swept southern France owed its origins to Bogomilism.

In the 920s Bulgarian Kijnaz Symeon went to war with Serbia. Despite a disastrous first campaign he tried again and conquered the whole country. However, when he came up against Croatia he was defeated by its Prince Tomislav. The Pope, fearful that Byzantium would benefit from this conflict, patched together a peace.  Somewhat later the Serbs tried to found a nation of their own, but Byzantium quickly brought them to heel. They were not to regain their independence till the 12th century.

Another Bulgarian invasion in the 960s saw Kijnaz Boris II capture the whole Balkan peninsula. Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros Phokas regained the territory, only to lose almost all of it again to Kijnaz Samuel in the 990s. (For the full story of this campaign, and the part the Varangians of Russia played in it, see the article “The Bulgarians”). In 1014 Emperor Basil II thoroughly defeated Bulgaria and restored the Balkans to the Empire.

Hungary annexed Croatia and ran it as a satellite state from 1091. Croatian resistance was savagely crushed and the last Croatian king was executed in 1097. Croatia continued to be administered by a Ban (viceroy) for some time, but ended up, along with Dalmatia, becoming part of Hungary proper.

A Serbian nation, independent of Byzantium, re-emerged in the 1170s. Grand Zhupan Stefan Nemanja incorporated lands in Montenegro, Herzegovina and Dalmatia, as well as Serbia proper, and forged them into the Serbian state of Raska.

Saint Sava
Stefan Nemanja’s son Ratso chose a monastic life at the age of seventeen. He took the name Sava and became Serbia’s first archbishop and greatest Saint. He travelled widely, visiting Constantinople, Nicea and Jerusalem, as well as Cairo where he was the guest of the Sultan.

He gained autonomy for the Serbian Orthodox church and after his brother Stefan received a crown from the Pope, brought a crown back from the Greek Patriarch in exile in Nicea and returned Serbia to the Orthodox faith. He was also instrumental in heading off two invasions of Serbia. He persuaded the Hungarian warlord to give up his plans for conquest, and when the same tactics failed with the Macedonians, he spoke to their nobles who shortly afterwards assassinated their leader and called off the invasion.

During the Byzantine occupation in the 12th century savage purges were carried out against the Bogomil heresy, and large scale indiscriminate bookburnings took place, to the degree that no Serbian manuscripts survive from before this period. The Catholic Church also attacked the Bogomils, returning Bosnia to the fold, and Stefan Nemanja finally suppressed the heresy in the late 12th century.

Throughout the 13th century and early 14th, Serbia’s power and wealth increased. A major victory in 1330 by Stefan Uros III Decanski and his son Stefan Dusan over a combined Byzantine and Bulgarian army enabled Serbia to extend its borders from the Danube to the Bay of Corinth and from the Aegean to the Adriatic, controlling a greater region than the Byzantine Empire. Stefan Dusan succeeded to the throne the following year after his father’s murder (in which Dusan was implicated). He had himself crowned Emperor in 1346 and claimed to be the true heir to the Byzantine tradition and Empire.

Stefan Dusan

In 1347 Stefan Dusan sent 4000 knights to support 9 year old Emperor John V of Byzantium against the usurper John VI Katakuzenos. John VI called in 10,000 Turkish mercenaries, who defeated the Serbs and occupied Gelibolou (Gallipoli) on the European side of the Hellespont and refused to leave. John VI abdicated and left John V as ruler of a sadly reduced Empire, under threat of Turkish attack. The Serbian Empire collapsed shortly after Stefan Dusan’s death in 1355.

Turkish Invasion

The Turks continued their expansion into Europe, forcing the Bulgarian Czar to become the Sultan’s vassal in 1369, and decisively defeating the Serbs at the savage battle of Kossovo on 28 June 1389, in which the flower of Serbian chivalry was wiped out. Both Czar Lazar and Sultan Murad were killed in the battle, which opened the Balkans up to Turkish domination.

A Franco-German crusade in the 1390’s was destroyed, as was another from Poland and Hungary in 1446. Most of the Balkan states passed under Turkish control, except for Croatia which had been absorbed by Hungary and Montenegro. They did not regain their independence until the early 19th century.

Social Structure

During their migrations the Slavs were organized on a tribal basis, and it was not until the ninth century that the tribes were combined into a loose confederation of states, each led by an elected Zhupan, who in turn gave his nominal allegiance to a Grand Zhupan. Stefan Nemanja was Grand Zhupan, and his son Stefan became Serbia’s first king.

Though documentation from the time is sparse, the organization of the Vinodol valley near the north Croatian coast may have been typical of the Balkan Slavs. The villages of the valley combined in the 6th-7th centuries to become a centre of Slavic settlement with a surprisingly modern social structure. They were ruled by a Common Council, comprising all voters in the valley. Officials included a local judge, chief clerk or mayor of a town, plus town clerk or crier.

In the late 13th century the King of Hungary gave the Vinodol valley to the Count of Krk, and their relatively democratic system was replaced with an autocratic fiefdom. The new law code is well summarised by the final clause:

The Lord Count has the right and full power, with respect to punishment, penalties and arbitrary decisions, both over noblemen, churchmen and common people, and over all other people, as stated above”.

Under Stefan Dusan the laws of Serbia were entirely revised on the Byzantine model. But this revision barely got off the ground before the Serbian Empire collapsed on Dusan’s death.  It is interesting to note that Dusan’s new laws make mention of some of the same local officials as those of the Vinodol valley.

It has been difficult to locate examples of mediaeval Balkan costume.

Figs 4 and 5, strap-ends of Slavic manufacture, presumably show people in 9th century dress, one of whom bears a cross and may represent a priest.

Fig. 6, a ninth century carving from a Croatian church, shows considerable Frankish influence. The costume, including the crown, is almost identical with that used by the Franks in the same period. Serbia, on the other hand, seems to have followed Byzantine models. However, there is too little information available to make definitive statements about Slavic costume in the Balkans during this period.


Figs. 7a and 7b show figures from the middle of the 14th century, probably dignitaries. Their clothing includes floor length tunics, cloaks, and very distinctive headgear.

Arms and Armour
Again, there is very little information available on Balkan arms and armour. Figs 8, 9 and 10 are from the Serbian/Slavonic text of the Tale of Troy, probably from the 14th or 15th century.

In Figure 8 the right hand figure appears to be armed with a couched lance and wearing a hemispherical helmet and a mail shirt scalloped at the bottom in Byzantine fashion, as is his opponent’s garment (presumably some sort of armour). The warrior on the left also wears a hemispherical helmet but with a spike and a form reminiscent of those shown worn by Czars in Bulgarian manuscripts. He also carries a spear with a two-tailed(?) banner and appears to have some kind of extra protection at the neck. There is some suggestion of a flat-topped shield slung over the left-hand character’s back.

The warrior in Fig. 9 has a similarly scalloped upper garment and another couched lance, but appears to be wearing a short sword (or dagger?) in his belt, and a soft hat or beret on his head.

In Fig. 10, as befits a fable, the helmets appear quite fanciful and may be purely based upon imagination. However, they do seem to have coifs or aventails and the figures appear otherwise to be wearing conventional equipment. One can spot cuirasses with pteruges at the arms and possibly at the waist (though they may be the usual Byzantine-style scallops). Also calf-length boots turned over at the top, with rowel spurs. It is possible to make out a couched spear with a two-tailed banner and a straight, two-edged tapered sword. An indeterminately shaped convex shield bearing a human face complete the picture.

Fig. 11, from a 14th century mural in Gracanica, Serbia, could be of a Byzantine, rather than a Serbian soldier, except for the weird helmet. The armour and the enormous heater-shaped shield have parallels in later Byzantine art, particularly the 14th century mosaics in the Church of St Saviour in Chora in Constantinople.


Boucher, F., 20,000 Years of Fashion, Abrams, N.Y. 1965, 1983.
Butler, T., Monumenta SerboCroatica, Michigan Slavic Publications, Ann Arbor, 1980.
Henrikson, A., Through the Ages, Orbis, London, 1978, 1983.
Pavichevich, H., A Short History of Serbia and Memorandums, Serbia People’s University, Adelaide, 1981.

This page was last updated on the 30th May 2001

Return to the top of the pageIndex

Copyright © Steven Lowe 2001 - 2002