A HISTORY OF THE LATER ROMAN EMPIRE FROM ARCADIUS TO IRENE
BOOK IV - THE HOUSE OF JUSTIN
PART II - THE COLLAPSE OF JUSTINIAN’S SYSTEM
SLAVS AND AVARS IN ILLYRICUM AND THRACE
The great Slavonic movement of the sixth and seventh centuries was similar in its general course to the great German movement of the fourth and fifth. The barbarians who are at first hostile invaders become afterwards dependent, at least nominally dependent, and christianized settlers in the Empire; and as they always tend to become altogether independent, they introduce into it an element of dissolution. Slavs too are employed by the Romans for military service, though not to such an extent as were the Germans at an earlier date.
This resemblance is not accidental; it is due to the natural relations of things. But it is curiously enhanced by the circumstance that just as the course of the German movement had been interrupted or modified by the rise of the Hun empire of Attila in the plains which are now called Hungary, so the course of the Slavonic movement was modified by the establishment of the Avar empire, in the latter half of the sixth century, in the same regions. And as the power of the Huns, after a brief life, vanished completely, having received its death-blow mainly from Germans, so the power of the Avars, after a short and formidable existence, was overthrown early in the seventh century by the Slavs, for whom the field was then clear. The remnant of the Avars survived in obscure regions of Pannonia until the days of Charles the Great
The Avars probably belonged to the same Tartaric group as the Huns of Attila. In the last years of Justinian's reign, about the time of the invasion of the Cotrigurs, they first appeared on the political horizon of the West. They had once been tributaries of the Turk in Asia, and having thrown off his authority had travelled westward; but we are assured that they had no right to the name of Avars, and that they were really only Wars or Huns, who called themselves Avars, a name of repute and dread, in order to frighten the world. These pseudo-Avars persuaded Justinian to grant them subsidies, in return for which they performed the service of making war on the Utrigurs, the Zali, and the Sabiri. But while Justinian paid them, and they professed to keep off all enemies from Roman territory, their treacherous designs soon became apparent; they invaded Trhrace (562), and refused to accept the home which the Emperor offered them in Pannonia Secunda. In this year Bonus was stationed to protect the Danube against them, as Chilbudius in former times had protected it against the Slavs.
At first the Avars were not so formidable as they afterwards became. They harried the lands of the Slaves (Antae) who dwelled beyond the Danube, but they did not venture at first to harry the lands of the Romans. When Justin refused to continue to pay the subsidy granted by Justinian, they took no steps for redress, and, turning away from the Empire, directed their arms against the Franks and invaded Thuringia, a diversion which had no consequences.
But now a critical moment came, and a very curious transaction took place which had two important results. The Lombard king Alboin made a proposal to Baian, the chagan or king of the Avars, that the two nations should combine to overthrow the kingdom of the Gepids, over whom Cunimund then reigned. The conditions were that the Avars should receive half the spoil and all the territory of the Gepids, and also, in case the Lombards secured a footing in Italy, the land of Pannonia, which the Lombards then occupied. The last condition is curious, and, if it was more than a matter of form, remarkably naive; the Lombards must have known that, in the event of their returning, they would be obliged to recover their country by the sword. The character of the Gepids seems to have been faithless; but the diplomacy of Justinian had succeeded in rendering them comparatively innocuous to the Empire. Justin now gave them some half-hearted assistance; but they succumbed before the momentary combination of Avars and Lombards in the year 567.
The two results which followed this occurrence were of ecumenical importance: the movement of the Lombards into Italy (568), and the establishment of the Avars in the extensive countries of the Gepids and Lombards, where their power became really great and formidable, and the Roman Empire had for neighbours a Hunnic instead of a German people.
The chagan, Baian, was now in a position to face the Roman power and punish Justin for the contemptuous rejection of his demands. From this time forward until the fall of the Avar kingdom there is an alternation of hostilities, and treaties, for which the Romans have to pay. At the same time the Balkan lands are condemned to suffer from constant invasions of the Slavs, over whom the Avars acquire an ascendency, though the relation of dependence is a very loose one. At one time the Avars join the Romans in making war on the Slaves, at another time they instigate the Slavs to make war on the Romans; while some Slavonic tribes appear to have been occasionally Eoman allies. The Slavs inhabited the larger part of the broad tract of land which corresponds to modern Walachia; while the Avar kingdom probably embraced most of the regions which are now included in Hungary.
The great object of the Avars was to strengthen their new dominions by gaining possession of the stronghold of Sirmium, an invaluable post for operations against the Roman provinces. As, however, Bonus held it with a strong garrison, they could not think of attacking it, and were obliged to begin hostilities by ravaging Dalmatia. An embassy was then sent to Justin demanding the cession of Sirmium, and also the pay that Justinian used formerly to grant to the Cotrigur and Utrigur Huns, whom they had subdued. It is to be observed that they claimed to be looked upon as the successors of the Gepids. Their demands were refused; but when Tiberius, who afterwards became Emperor, was sent against them and suffered a defeat, the disaster led to the conclusion of a treaty, which seems to have been preserved for the next few years, and the Romans paid 80,000 pieces of gold.
We may notice that in these transactions a difference is manifest between the policy of Justin and the would-be policy of Tiberius. Justin is bellicose, and refuses to yield to the Avars, whereas his general is inclined to adopt the old system of Justinian and keep them quiet by paying them a fixed sum. We may also notice a circumstance, which we might have inferred without a record, that the Haemus provinces, over which a year seldom passed without invasions and devastations, were completely disorganised and infested by highwaymen. These highwaymen were called scamars, a name which attached to them for many centuries; and shortly after the peace of 570 they were bold enough to waylay a party of Avars.
For the next four years we hear nothing of Avar incursions, nor is anything recorded of the general Tiberius. We may suppose that he resided at Constantinople, ready to take the field in case of need; and in 574, when the enemy renewed their importunities for the cession of Sirmium, he went forth against them, and was a second time defeated. Before the end of the year he was created Caesar, and, as he determined to throw all the forces of the realm into the Persian war, he agreed to pay the Avars a yearly tribute of 80,000 pieces of gold.
But now the Slavs, who for many years seem to have caused no trouble to the Romans, began to move again, and in 577 no less than a hundred thousand poured into Thrace and Illyricum. Cities were plundered by the invaders and left desolate. As there were no forces to oppose them, a considerable number took up their abode in the land and lived at their pleasure there for many years. It is from this time that we must date the first intrusion of a Slavonic element on a considerable scale into the Balkan peninsula.
It was a critical moment for the government, and the old policy of Justinian, which consisted in stirring up one barbarian people against another, was reverted to. An appeal for assistance was made by John the prefect of Illyricum to the chagan of the Avars, who had his owrf reasons for hostility towards the unruly Slaves, and he consented to invade their territory. The Romans provided ships to carry the Avar host across the Ister, and the chagan burned the villages and ravaged the lands of the Slaves, who skulked in the woods and did not venture to oppose him.
But Baian had not ceased to covet the city of Sirmium, and the absence of all the Roman forces in the East was too good an opportunity to lose. In 579 he encamped with a large army between Singidunum (Belgrade) and Sirmium, pretending that he was organizing an expedition against the Slaves, and swearing by the Bible as well as by his own gods that he entertained no hostile intention against Sirmium. But he succeeded in throwing a bridge over the Save and came upon Sirmium unexpectedly; and as there were no provisions in the place, and no relief could be sent, the city was reduced to such extremities that Tiberius was compelled to agree to its surrender (581). A peace was then made, on condition that the Avars should receive 80,000 aurei annually.
The loss of Sirmium is a turning-point in the history of the peninsula, as it was the most important defence possessed by the Romans against the barbarians in western Illyricum. The shamelessness of the Avaric demands now surpassed all bounds. When Maurice came to the throne he consented to increase the tribute hy 20,000 pieces of gold, but in a few months the chagan demanded a further increase of the same amount, and this was refused. Thereupon (in summer 583) the Avars seized Singidunum, Viminacium, and other places on the Danube, which were ill defended, and harried Thrace, where the inhabitants, under the impression that a secure peace had been established, were negligently gathering in their harvest. Elpidius, a former praetor of Sicily, and Comentiolus, one of the bodyguard, were then sent as ambassadors to the chagan, and it is recorded that Comentiolus spoke such "holy words" to the Lord Baian that he was put in chains and barely escaped with his life. In the following year (584) a treaty was concluded, Maurice consenting to pay the additional sum which he had before refused.
It was, however, now plain to the Emperor that the Avars had become so petulant that payments of gold would no longer suffice to repress their hostile propensities, and he therefore considered it necessary to keep a military contingent in Thrace and modify the arrangement of Tiberius, by which all the army, except garrison soldiers, were stationed in Asia. Accordingly, when the Slavs, instigated by the Avars, invaded Thrace soon after the treaty, and penetrated as far as the Long Wall, Comentiolus had forces at his disposal, and gained some victories over the invaders, first at the river Erginia, and afterwards close to the fortress of Ansinon in the neighbo rhood of Hadrianople. The barbarians were driven from Astica, as the region was called which extends between Hadrianople and Philippopolis, and the captives were rescued from their hands.
The general tenor of the historian's account of these Slavonic depredations in 584 or 585 implies that the depredators were not Slaves who lived beyond the Danube and returned thither after the invasion, but Slaves were already settled in Roman territory. Comentiolus' work consisted in clearing Astica of these lawless settlers. It is a vexed question whether the Slavs also settled in northern Greece and the Peloponnesus as early as the reign of Maurice. There is evidence to show that the city of Monembasia, so important in the Middle Ages, was founded at this time on the coast of Laconia, and it seems probable that its foundation was due to Greek fugitives from the Slavs, just as Venice is said to have been founded by fugitives from the Huns.
In autumn (apparently 585) the peace was violated. The chagan took advantage of the pretext that a Scythian magician,who had indulged in carnal intercourse with one of his wives and was fleeing from his wrath, had been received by Maurice in Constantinople. The Emperor replied to the Avar demonstrations by imprisoning the chagan's ambassador Targitios in Chalcis, an island in the Propontis, for a space of six months, because he presumed to ask for the payment of money while his master was behaving as an enemy.
The provinces beyond the Haemus, Lower Moesia, and Scythia, were harried by the Avars, indignant at the treatment of their ambassador (586). The towns of Ratiaria, Dorostolon, Zaldapa, Bononia,—there was a Bononia on the Danube as well as in Italy and on the English Channel,—Marcianopolis, and others were taken, but the enterprise cost the enemy much trouble and occupied a considerable time.
Comentiolus was then appointed general, perhaps magister militum per Illyricum, to conduct the war against the Avars.
Campaign of 587.—The nominal number of the forces under the command of Comentiolus was 10,000; but of these only 6000 were capable soldiers. Accordingly he left 4000 to guard the camp near Anchialus, and divided the fighting men into three bands, of which the first was consigned to Martin, the second to Castus, and the third he led himself.
Castus proceeded westward towards the Haemus mountains and the city of Zaldapa, and falling in with a division of the barbarian army, cut it to pieces. Martin directed his course northwards to Tomi, in the province of Scythia, where he found the chagan and the main body of the enemy encamped on the shore of a lake. The Romans surprised the chagan's camp, but he and most of the Avars escaped to the shelter of an island. Comentiolus himself accomplished nothing; he merely proceeded to Marcianopolis, which had been fixed on as the place of rendezvous for the three divisions. When the six thousand were reunited they returned to the camp, and taking with them the four thousand men who had been left there, proceeded to a place called Sabulente Canalin, whose natural charms are described by Theophylactus, in the high dells of Mount Haemus. Here they awaited for the approach of the chagan, who, as they knew, intended to come southwards and invade Thrace. It would appear that the spot in which the Romans encamped was close to the most easterly pass of Mount Haemus.
In the neighbourhood of Sabulente there was a river which could be crossed in two ways, by a wooden bridge, or, apparently higher up the stream, by a stone bridge. Martin was sent to the vicinity of the bridge to discover whether the Avars had already crossed, while Castus was stationed at the other passage to reconnoitre, and, in case the enemy had crossed, to observe their movements. Martin soon ascertained that the barbarian host was on the point of crossing, and immediately returned to Comentiolus with the news. Castus, having crossed to the ulterior bank, met some outrunners of the Avars, and cut them to pieces; but instead of returning to the camp by the way he had come, he pressed on in the direction of the bridge, where he expected to fall in with Martin. He was not aware that the foe were already there. But the distance was too long to permit of his reaching the bridge before nightfall, and at sunset he was obliged to halt. Next morning he rode forward and suddenly came upon the Avar army, which was defiling across the bridge. To escape or avoid observation seemed wellnigh impossible, but the members of the little band instinctively separated and sought shelter in the surrounding thickets. Some of the Roman soldiers were detected and were cruelly tortured by their captors until they pointed out where the captain himself was concealed in the midst of a grove. Thus Castus was taken prisoner by the enemy.
The want of precision in the narrative of the historian and the difficulty of the topography of the Thracian highlands make it impossible to follow with anything like certainty the details of these Avaric and Slavonic invasions. The chagan, after he had crossed the river, divided his army into two parts, one of which he sent forward to enter eastern Thrace by a pass near Mesembria. This pass was guarded by 500 Romans, who resisted bravely, but were overcome. Thrace was defended only by some infantry forces under the command of Ansimuth, who, instead of opposing the invaders, retreated to the Long Wall, closely followed by the foe; the captain himself, who brought up the rear, was captured by the pursuers.
The other division of the Avars, which was led by the chagan himself, probably advanced westward along that intermediate region which lies between the Haemus range and the Sredna Gora, and crossed one of the passes leading into western Thrace.
Comentiolus, who had perhaps also moved westward after the chagan along Mount Haemus, descended by Calvomonte and Libidourgon to the region of Astica. It was on this occasion, perhaps as they were defiling along mountain passes, that the baggage fell from one of the beasts of burden, and the words, "torna torna fratre" (turn back, brother), addressed by those in the rear to the owner of the beast, who was walking in front, were taken up along the line of march and interpreted in the sense of an exhortation to flee from an approaching enemy. But for this false alarm the chagan might have been surprised and captured, for he had retained with himself only a few guards, all the rest of his forces being dispersed throughout Thrace. Even as it was, the Avars who were with him fell in unexpectedly with the Roman army, and most of them were slain.
After this the forces of the Avars were recalled and collected by their monarch, who for the second time had barely escaped an imminent danger. They now set themselves to besiege the most important Thracian cities. They took Moesian Appiaria, but Diocletianopolis, Philippopolis, and Hadrianopolis withstood their assaults.
An incident characteristic of those days determined the capture of Appiaria. A soldier named Busas, who happened to be staying in the fortress, had gone out to hunt, and "the huntsman became himself a prey". The Avars were on the point of putting him to death, but his arguments induced them to prefer the receipt of a rich ransom. Standing in front of the walls, the captive exhausted the resources of persuasion and entreaty, enumerating his services in warfare, and appealing to the compassion of his fellow-countrymen to redeem him from death; but the garrison of the town, under the influence of a man whose wife was reputed to have been unduly intimate with Busas, were deaf to his prayers. Indignant at their callousness, the captive did not hesitate to rescue his own life by enabling the Avars to capture the town, and at the same time he had the gratification of avenging himself on the unfeeling defenders of Appiaria. He instructed the ignorant barbarians how to construct a siege-engine, and by this means the fortress was taken.
While the enemy were besieging Hadrianople, Maurice appointed to the post of general in Thrace John Mystacon, who had formerly commanded in the Persian war; and Mystacon was assisted by the ability and valor of a captain named Drocton, of Lombard origin. In a battle at Hadrianople the Avars were routed, and compelled to retreat to their own country. Shortly before this event Castus had been ransomed.
The misfortunes of the army of Comentiolus and the capture of Castus seem to have produced a spirit of insubordination in the capital, and increased the unpopularity of Maurice. Abusive songs were circulated, and though the writer of the panegyrical history of this reign makes light of the persons who murmured, and takes the opportunity of praising the Emperor's mildness in feeling, or at least showing, no resentment, yet the mere fact that Theophylactus mentions the murmurs proves that they were a notable signification of the Emperor's unpopularity, especially as the events which caused the discontent were not directly his fault.
During 588 the provinces of Europe seem to have enjoyed rest from the invaders, but in 589 Thrace was harried by Slaves, and apparently Slavs who lived permanently on Roman soil.
The position of affairs was considerably changed when in the year 591 peace was made with Persia, and Maurice was able to employ the greater part of the forces of the Empire in defending the European provinces. He astonished the court by preparing to take the field himself, for an Emperor militant had not been seen since the days of Theodosius the Great. The nobles, the Patriarch, his own wife and children, assiduously supplicated him to give up his rash resolve; but Maurice was firm in his determination. His progress as far as Anchialus is described by the historian of his reign; but when he arrived there the tidings that a Persian embassy was awaiting him recalled him to the capital, and his speedy return seems to have been also caused by signs and portents.
This ineffectual performance of Maurice, who had never been popular with the army, discredited him still more in the eyes of the troops; they had now a plausible pretext for regarding him with contempt. He was skilled in military science, and wrote a treatise on tactics; but henceforward the soldiers doubtless thought that he might be indeed a grand militarist "who had the whole theoric of war in the knot of his scarf", but Ithat certainly his "mystery in stratagem" was limited to theory.
I may mention an incident which occurred in the progress of Maurice, and which transports us for a moment to the habitations of a curious, if not fabulous, people on the Baltic Sea. The attendants of the Emperor captured three men who bore no weapons, but carried in their hands musical instruments. Being questioned by their captors, they stated that they were Slavs who dwelled by the "western ocean". The chagan of the Avars had requested their people to help him in his wars, and these three men had been sent as envoys by the ethnarchs or chiefs of their tribes, bearing a message of refusal. Their journey had occupied the almost incredible period of fifteen months. The chagan had prevented them from returning home, and they had resolved to seek refuge with the Roman Emperor. They had no arms, because the territory in which they lived did not produce iron; hence their occupation was music, which, they said, was much more agreeable, and they lived in a state of continual peace. We are not told what subsequently became of these extraordinary Slaves, except that Maurice, struck with admiration at their splendid stature, caused them to be conveyed to Heraclea.
When Maurice returned to Byzantium he was waited on not only by a Persian embassy but by two envoys, Bosos and Bettos, of a king of the Franks, who proposed that the Emperor should purchase his assistance against the Avars by paying subsidies. Maurice consented to an alliance, but refused to pay for it.
During the last ten years of Maurice's reign hostilities were carried on both with the Avars and with the Slaves. As the narrative of our original authority, Theophylactus, is in some points chronologically obscure, it will be most convenient to treat it in annual divisions.
(1) 591 ad—The operations of the Avars began at Singidon, as the Greeks called Singidunum, on the Danube. Having crossed the river in boats constructed by the labor of subject Slavs, the host of the barbarians laid siege to the city, but when a week had passed and Singidon still held out, the chagan consented to retire on the receipt of two thousand aurei, a gilt table, and rich apparel. It will be remembered that the capital of Upper Moesia had been captured by the Avars in 583; we must presume that they did not occupy it, for in that case its recapture by the Romans would certainly have been mentioned by the historian.
The chagan then directed his course to the region of Sirmium, where, with the help of his Slavonic boatbuilders, he crossed the Save; thence marching eastwards he approached Bononia on the fifth day. The chief passage of the Timavus (Timok) was at a place called Procliana, and here the advance guard of the Avars was met by the Roman captain Salvian with a thousand cavalry. Maurice had appointed Priscus "General of Europe", and Priscus had selected Salvian as his captain or "under-general." A severe engagement took place, in which the Romans were victorious; and when on the following morning eight thousand of the enemy advanced under Samur to crush the small body of Salvian, the Avars were again defeated. The chagan then moved forward with his whole army, and Salvian prudently retreated to the camp of Priscus, of whose movements we are not informed.
Having remained some time at Procliana, the Avars came to Sabulente Canalin, and thence, having burnt down a church in the vicinity of Anchialus, entered Thrace, about a month after they had crossed the Danube. Drizipera, the first town they besieged in Thrace, is said to have been saved by a miracle, and, having failed here, the enemy marched to Heraclea, where the general of Europe was stationed. Priscus seems to have gradually fallen back before the advancing enemy, and now, when an engagement at length took place, he was routed. Retreating with the infantry to Didymoteichon, he soon shut himself up in the securer refuge of Tzurulon, where he was besieged by the chagan. In order to drive away the barbarians, the Emperor adopted an ingenious and successful stratagem. A letter was written, purporting to come from the Emperor and addressed to Priscus, in which the general was informed that a large force had been embarked and sent round by the Black Sea to carry captive the families of the Avars left unprotected in their habitations beyond the Danube. This letter was consigned to a messenger, who was instructed to allow himself to be captured by the enemy. When the alarming contents of the letter, whose genuineness he did not suspect, became known to the chagan, he raised the siege and returned as speedily as possible to defend his country, having made a treaty with Priscus, and received, for the sake of appearance, a small sum of money. In autumn Priscus retired to Byzantium, and the troops took up their winter quarters in Thracian villages.
(2) 592 AD—This year was remarkable for a successful expedition against the Slavs beyond the Ister, who, under the leadership of Ardagast, had been harrying Thrace. The Emperor had at length come to the conclusion that the invaders should be opposed at the Danube, and not, as the practice had been for the last few years, at the Haemus. Priscus, who continued to hold the position of commander-in-chief, and Gentzon, who had the special command of the infantry, collected the army at Heraclea and marched to Dorostolon, or Durostorum, which is now Silistria, with the intention of crossing the river and punishing the Slavs in their own country. At Dorostolon, Koch, an ambassador of the Avars, arrived in the Roman camp, and remonstrated with Priscus on the appearance of an army on the Danube after the treaty which had been made at Tzurulon. It was explained that the expedition was against the Slavs, not against the Avars, and that the Slavs had not been included in the treaty. Having crossed the Ister, Priscus surprised the camp of Ardagast at midnight, and the barbarians fled in confusion. Ardagast himself was almost captured, for in his flight he was tripped up by the stump of a tree; but, fortunately for him, the accident occurred not far from the bank of a river. Plunging in its waves, perhaps remaining under water and breathing through a reed as the amphibious Slavs were wont to do, he eluded pursuit.
This victory was somewhat clouded by a mutiny in the army. When Priscus declared his intention of reserving the best of the spoils for the Emperor, his eldest son, and the rest of the imperial family, the soldiers openly showed their displeasure and disappointment at being put off with the refuse of the booty, or perhaps receiving none at all. Priscus, however, succeeded in soothing them, and three hundred soldiers, under the command of Tatimer, were sent with the spoils to Byzantium. On their way, probably in Thrace, they were assailed by a band of Slavs as they were enjoying the relaxation of a noonday rest. The plunderers were with some difficulty repulsed, and fifty were taken alive. It is plain that these marauders belonged to the Slaves who had permanently settled in Roman territory.
Priscus meanwhile sent his lieutenant Alexander across the river Helibakias to discover where the Slavs were hiding. At his approach the barbarians fled to a safe retreat in a difficult morass, where they could defy the Roman troops, who were almost lost in attempting to penetrate the marsh. The device of setting fire to the woody covert in which the fugitives were concealed failed on account of the dampness of the wood. But a Gepid Christian, who had associated himself with the Slavs, opportunely deserted and came to the aid of the foiled Alexander. He pointed out the secret passage which led into the hiding-place of the barbarians, who were then easily captured by the Romans. The obliging Gepid informed his new friends that these Slavs were a party of spies sent out by the King Musokios, who had just learned the news of the defeat of Ardagast; and when Alexander returned triumphantly with his captives to Priscus, the crafty deserter, who was honored with handsome presents, arranged a stratagem for delivering Musokios and his army into the hands of the Romans. The Gepid proceeded to the presence of the unsuspecting Musokios and asked him for a supply of boats to transport the remnant of the Slavonic army of Ardagast across the river Paspirion. Musokios readily placed at his disposal 150 monoxyles and thirty oarsmen, and he crossed the river. Meanwhile Priscus, according to the preconcerted arrangement, was approaching the banks, and at midnight the Gepid stole away from the boatmen to meet the Roman army, and returned to the river with Alexander and two hundred soldiers. At a little distance from the bank he placed them in an ambush, and on the following night, when the time was ripe, and the barbarians, heavy with wine, were sunk in slumber, the Romans issued from their hiding-place, under the conduct of the Gepid. The signal agreed on was an Avaric song, and the soldiers halted at a little distance till their guide had made sure that all was safe. The signal was given, the boatmen were slaughtered as they slept, and the boats were in the possession of the Romans. Priscus transported three thousand men across the river, and at midnight Musokios, who, like his hoatmen, was heavy with the fumes of wine—he had the excuse of celebrating the obsequies of a brother—was surprised and taken alive. The massacre of the Slaves lasted till the morning. But for the energy of the second officer, Gentzon, this success might have been followed by a reverse; the sentinels were careless, and some of the Slaves who escaped rallied and attacked the victors. Priscus gibbeted the negligent guards.
At this juncture Tatimer arrived with an imperative message from the Emperor, that the army should remain during the winter in the Slavonic territory. The unwelcome mandate would certainly have been followed by a mutiny on this occasion, and perhaps the events of 602 would have been anticipated by ten years, if the commander had been another than Priscus, who had always shown dexterity in managing intractable soldiers. Priscus did not comply with the wishes of Maurice; he broke up his camp and crossed the Ister. Hearing that the chagan of the Avars, indignant at the successes of the Romans, was meditating hostilities, he sent Theodore, a physician, as an envoy to the court of the barbarian. Theodore is said to have reduced to a lower key the arrogant tone of the chagan by relating to him an anecdote about Sesostris, and the barbarian said that all he asked was a share in the spoil which had been won from the Slavs. Priscus, in spite of the protests of the army, complied with the demand and sent him five thousand captives. For this "folly" he incurred the resentment of the Emperor, who some time previously had determined to depose Priscus and appoint his own brother Peter to the command in Europe.
(3) 593 AD—The new general, Peter, proceeded by Heraclea and Drizipera (Drusipara) to Odessus, where the army accorded him a kind reception. But unfortunately he was the bearer of an imperial mandate, containing new dispensations, highly unwelcome to the soldiers, concerning the mode in which they were to be paid. The whole amount of the stipend was to be divided into three portions, of which one was to be delivered in clothes, another in arms, and the third in money. When the general read aloud the new ordinance all the soldiers with one accord marched out of the camp, leaving the general alone with the paper in his hands, and took up their quarters at a distance of about half a mile. But Peter was the bearer of other imperial commands also, which were of a more acceptable character, and he decided, by communicating these immediately, to calm the wrath of the soldiers at this attempt to cheat them of their pay. The angry troops were holding a seditious assembly, and loading the name of Maurice with objurgations, when Peter appeared and, procuring silence, informed them from an elevated platform, that the Emperor whom they reviled had resolved to release from service and to support at the public expense those soldiers who had exhibited special bravery and conspicuously endangered life and limb in the recent campaigns; and that he had also decreed that the sons of those who had fallen in battle were to be enrolled in the army list instead of their parents. At these tidings resentment was turned into gratitude, and the Emperor was extolled to the heavens. It is not stated, but it seems highly probable, that the new arrangement in regard to the mode of payment was not pressed; we are only told that Peter sent an official account of these occurrences to the Emperor.
Three days later the army moved westward to Marcianopolis, and on reaching that city Peter sent forward a reconnoitring body of one thousand cavalry under Alexander. These soon fell in with a company of six hundred Slavs, driving waggons piled up with the booty which they had won in depredations at the Moesian towns of Akys, Zaldapa, and Scopis. As soon as they saw the Romans, their first care was to put to death the male prisoners of military age; then, making a barricade of the waggons, they set the women and children in the enclosed space, and themselves stood on the carts brandishing their javelins. The Roman cavalry feared to approach, lest the darts of the enemy should kill the horses under them; but their captain Alexander gave the command to dismount. The engagement which ensued was decided by the valor of a Roman soldier who, leaping up on one of the waggons, felled with his sword the Slavs who were nearest him. The barricade was then dissolved, but the barbarians were not destroyed themselves until they had slain the rest of their captives.
About a week later Peter, who lingered in this region perhaps for the pleasures of the chase, met with an accident in a boar hunt. The furious animal suddenly rushed upon him from a thicket, and in turning his horse he sprained his left foot, which collided with the trunk of a tree. The severe sprain compelled him to remain for a considerable time longer in the same place, to the disgust and indignation of Maurice, who seems to have regarded the cause as a pretext, and wrote chiding letters to his brother. Stung by the imperial taunts, Peter ordered the army to move forward, intending to cross the Danube and invade the territory of the Slavs, even as Priscus had invaded it in the preceding year. But two weeks later a letter from Maurice enjoined on him not to leave Thrace—Thrace is here used in the sense of the Thracian diocese, including Lower Moesia and Scythia—because it was reported that the Slaves were contemplating an expedition against Byzantium itself. Peter accordingly proceeded to Novae, passing on his way the cities of Zaldapa and latrus and the fortress of Latarkion. The inhabitants of Novae gave the general a cordial reception, and induced him to take part in the feast of the Martyr Lupus, which was celebrated on the day after his arrival.
On quitting Novae, Peter advanced along the Danube by Theodoropolis and Securisca—or, as it was generally called, Curisca—to Asemus, a city which had been always especially exposed to the incursions of the barbarians from beyond the river, and had therefore been provided with a strong garrison. A circumstance occurred here, which illustrates the quarrels that probably often arose between cities and generals, and which also shows that the firm temper of the men of Asemus had not changed since the days when they defended their city with triumphant valor against the Scythian host of Attila. Observing the splendid men who composed the garrison of Asemus, Peter determined to draft them off for his own army. The citizens protested, and showed Peter a copy of the privilege which had been granted to them by the Emperor Justin. Peter, bent on carrying his point, cared little for the imperial document, and the soldiers of the garrison prudently took refuge in a church. Peter commanded the bishop to conduct them from the altar, and when the bishop declined to execute the invidious task, Gentzon, the captain of the infantry, was sent with soldiers to force the suppliants from the holy place. But the solemnity of the church presented so forcibly the deformity of the act which he was commanded to commit, that the captain made no attempt to obey the order, and Peter deposed him from his office. On the morrow a guardsman was sent to hale the disobedient bishop to the camp, but the indignant citizens assembled and drove the officer out. Then, shutting the gates, they extolled Maurice and reviled Peter, who deemed it best to leave the scene of his discomfiture without delay.
It is to be presumed that the army advanced westward; but we are merely told that a few days later a thousand horsemen were sent forward to reconnoiter. They fell in with a party of Bulgarians equal in number to themselves. These Bulgarians, subjects of the Avars, were advancing carelessly, confiding in the peace which existed between the chagan and the Emperor. But the Romans assumed a hostile attitude, and when the Bulgarians sent heralds to deprecate a violation of the peace, the commander sent them to appeal to Peter, who was still about a mile behind the reconnoitering party.
Peter brooked as little the protest of the Bulgarians as he had brooked the protest of the men of Asemus, and sent word that they should be cut to pieces. But, though the barbarians had been unwilling to fight, they defended themselves successfully and forced the aggressors to flee; in consequence of which defeat the Roman captain was stripped and scourged like a slave. When the chagan heard of this occurrence he sent ambassadors to remonstrate with Peter, but the Roman general feigned complete ignorance of the matter and cajoled the Avars by plausible words.
At this point the narrative of the historian who has preserved the memory of these events suddenly transports us, without a word of notice, into a totally different region,—into the country beyond the Danube, where Priscus had operated successfully in 592. And he transports us not only to a different place, but to a different time; for, having recorded the ill success of Peter and his deposition from the command, he makes it appear, by a chronological remark, that these events took place at the end, not of 593, but of 597.
We are thus left in the dark concerning the events of 594, 595, and 596; while as to 597, we know that Peter was commander of the army, we know some of the details of an expedition against the Slavs beyond the Danube, and it appears probable that in this year the Avars invaded the Empire and besieged Thessalonica. From a Latin source we know that in 596 the Avars made an expedition against Thuringia.
(4) 597 AD.—At the point where we are first permitted to catch sight of the operations of Peter in Slavinia, as we may call the territory of the Slavs, he is sending twenty men across an unnamed river to spy the movements of the enemy. A long march on the preceding day had wearied the soldiers, and towards morning the twenty reconnoiterers lay down to rest in the concealment of a thicket and fell asleep. Unluckily Peiragast, the chief of a Slavonic tribe, came up with a party of riders and dismounted hard by the grove. The Romans were discovered and taken, and compelled to reveal the intentions of their general as far as they knew them. Peiragast then advanced to the ford of the river and concealed his men in the woods which overhung the banks. Peter, ignorant of their proximity, prepared to cross, and a thousand soldiers, who had reached the other side, were surprised and hewn in pieces by the enemy, who rushed forth from their lurking places. The general then determined that the rest of the army should cross, not in detachments, but in a united body, in the face of the barbarians who lined the opposite bank. Standing on their rafts in midstream, the Roman soldiers received and returned a brisk discharge of missiles, and their superior numbers enabled them to clear the bank of the Slaves, whose chief, Peiragast, was mortally wounded. As soon as they landed they completely routed the retreating adversaries, but want of cavalry rendered them unable to continue the pursuit. To explain this circumstance, we may conjecture that the thousand men who had crossed first and were slain by the Slavs were a body of horse.
On the next day the guides lost their way, and the army wandered about unable to obtain water. They were obliged to appease their thirst with wine, and on the third day the evil was aggravated. The army would have been reduced to extreme straits if they had not captured a barbarian, who conducted them to the river Helibakias, which was not far off. The soldiers reached the bank in the morning and stooping down drank the welcome element. The opposite bank was covered with an impenetrable wood, and suddenly, as the soldiers were sprawling on the river margin, a cloud of darts sped from its fallacious recesses and dealt death among the helpless drinkers. Retreating from the immediate danger, the Romans manufactured rafts and crossed the river to detect the enemy, but in the battle which took place on the other side they were defeated. In consequence of this defeat Peter was deposed and Priscus appointed commander in his stead.
Of the circumstances which led to the attack of the Avars on Thessalonica in this year we are left in ignorance. For the fact itself our only authority is a life of St. Demetrius, the patron saint of Thessalonica, who on this occasion is said to have protected his city with a strong arm. As this work is, like most lives of saints, written rather for edification than as a record of historical fact, we are not justified in using it further than to establish that the Avars besieged the city and were not successful, and that the ordinary evils of a siege were aggravated by the fact that the inhabitants had recently been afflicted by a plague.
In the period of history with which we are dealing we are not often brought into contact with the rich and flourishing city of Thessalonica, the residence of the praetorian prefect of Illyricum. It is not that Thessalonica has been always exempt from sieges and disasters, but it so happens that during the period from the death of Theodosius to the end of the eighth century it enjoyed a remarkably untroubled existence. Just before the beginning of this period its streets were the scenes of the great massacre for which Ambrose constrained Theodosius the Great to do penance at Milan,—an event of which a memorial remained till recently in Salonica, a white marble portico supported by caryatids, called by the Jews of the place "Las incantadas", the enchanted women. And a century after the close of this period, in the year 904, the city endured a celebrated siege by the Saracens; while in later times it was destined to suffer sorely from the hostilities of Normans (1185) and of Turks (1430), under whose rule it passed. In the seventh and eighth centuries the surrounding districts were frequently harried by the Slavs who had settled in Macedonia, but with the exception of the siege in 597 and three successive sieges in the seventh century (675-680 AD), the city of Demetrius was exempted from the evils of warfare. Its prosperity is indicated by the fact that it was always a headquarters for Jews, and at the present day Jews are said to form two-thirds of the population.
(5) 598 AD—The two chief events of this year were the relief of Singidunum, which was once more besieged by the Avars, and their invasion of Dalmatia.
Priscus collected his army in the region of Astica in Thrace, and discovered that the soldiers had become demoralised under the ungenial command of Peter; but his friends dissuaded him from reporting the matter to the Emperor. Having crossed the Danube, he proceeded to a town known as Upper Novae, and was met by ambassadors from the chagan, to whom he explained his presence in those regions by the circumstance that they were good for hunting. Ten days later news arrived that the Avars were besieging Singidunum, with the intention of transporting the inhabitants beyond the Ister, and Priscus hastened to its relief. Encamping provisionally in the river-island of Singa, from which the adjacent town derives its name, the general sailed in a fast dromon to Constantiola, where he had an unsatisfactory interview with the chagan. Returning to Singa, Priscus ordered his forces to advance against the besiegers of Singidunum, who speedily retired. The walls of the city, which were unfit to stand a serious siege, were strengthened.
About ten days after this the chagan proceeded to invade the country of Dalmatia. He reduced the town of Bonkeis, and captured no less than forty forts. Priscus despatched a captain named Gudwin, whose German nationality is indicated by his name, with two thousand infantry, to follow the Avaric army. Gudwin chose bypaths and unknown difficult routes, that he might avoid inconvenient collisions with the vast numbers of the invaders. A company of thirty men, whom he sent forward to observe the movements of the enemy, were fortunate enough, as they lay hidden in ambush at night, to capture three drunken barbarians, from whom they learned something of the dispositions of the hostile army, and especially the fact that two thousand men had been placed in charge of the booty. Gudwin, delighted at obtaining this information, concealed his men in a ravine, and as the day dawned suddenly fell upon the guardians of the spoils from the rear. The Avars were cut to pieces, and Gudwin returned triumphantly with the recovered booty to Priscus.
We are told that after these events the chagan desponded, and that for more than eighteen months, from about the early summer 598 to the late autumn of 599, no hostilities were carried on in the Illyrian and Thracian lands.
(6) 599 AD—The chagan invaded Lower (or Thracian) Moesia and Scythia, and Priscus, learning that he intended to besiege the maritime town of Tomi, hastened to occupy it. The siege began at the end of autumn and lasted throughout the win
(7) 600 AD—In spring the Roman garrison began to feel the hardships of famine. When Easter approached, Priscus was surprised at receiving a kind message from the chagan, who offered to grant a truce of five days and to supply them with provisions. This unexampled humanity on the part of an Avar was long remembered as a curiosity. On the fourth day of the truce a messenger from the chagan requested Priscus to send his master some Indian spices and perfumes. Priscus willingly sent him pepper, which was still as great a delicacy to the barbarians as it had been in the days of Alaric and Attila, Indian leaf, cassia, and spikenard; "and the barbarian, when he received the Roman gifts, perfumed himself, and was highly delighted." The cessation of hostilities was protracted until the Easter festivities were over, and then the chagan raised the siege.
Meanwhile, as Priscus was shut up in the chief town of Scythia, the Emperor had commissioned Comentiolus to take the field in Moesia. The chagan advanced against him and approached the city Iatrus, on the river of the same name, where the general had taken up his quarters. In the depth of night Comentiolus sent a message to his adversary, challenging him to battle on the following day, and at the same time commanded his own army to assemble in fighting array early in the morning. But the soldiers did not comprehend that this order signified a real battle, and, under the false impression that their commander's purpose was merely to hold a review, they appeared in disorder and defectively equipped. Their surprise and indignation were great when, as the rising sun illumined the scene, they beheld the army of the Avars drawn up in martial order. The enemy, however, did not advance, and they had time to curse their general and form in orderly array. But Comentiolus created further confusion by a series of apparently unnecessary permutations; changing one corps from the left wing to the right, and removing some other battalion from the right wing to the left. The right wing fled, and there was a general flight, but the Avars did not pursue. During the following night Comentiolus made provision for his own escape, and next morning left the camp on the pretext of hunting. At noon the army discovered that their general had deserted them, and hastened to follow him. But they were pursued by the Avars, who occupied a mountain pass or cleisura,— perhaps the Sipka pass,—and the Romans, now leaderless, were not able to force a passage until many were slain. When Comentiolus appeared before the walls of Drizipera he was driven away with stones and taunts, and was obliged to pass on to Byzantium. The fugitive troops, with the barbarians close at their heels, arrived soon afterwards at Drizipera, and the Avars sacked the city.
But the triumph of the chagan was soon turned into mourning. A plague broke out in his army, the plague of the bubo, and seven of his sons who had accompanied the expedition died on the same day. Meanwhile the citizens of Byzantium were so much alarmed at the menacing proximity of the Avar army, before which Comentiolus had fled, that they entertained serious thoughts of migrating in a body to Chalcedon. Maurice first manned the Long Wall with infantry and with companies formed of members of the blue and green factions, and then, by the advice of the senate, sent an ambassador to the chagan. When Harmaton arrived at Drizipera he found the great barbarian in the throes of parental grief, and was obliged to wait ten days ere he could obtain an audience in the tent of mourning. Soothing words with difficulty induced the Avar to accept the gifts of an enemy, but on the following day he consented to make peace, as his family affliction had rendered him indisposed for further operations. He bitterly accused Maurice of being the peacebreaker, and the Roman historian admits the charge.
The terms of the peace were these: the Ister was acknowledged by both parties as the frontier between their dominions, but the Romans had the privilege of crossing it for the purpose of operating against the Slavs; twenty thousand aurei were to be paid by the Romans to the Avars.
It was on this occasion that Maurice refused to ransom twelve thousand captives from the chagan, who consequently executed them all. The author of the panegyrical history of Maurice makes no reference to the matter, and his silence is remarkable. He would certainly have mentioned it if he could have made any apology for this unpopular act of Maurice.
The Emperor had no intention of preserving the peace, and unhlushingly commanded his generals, Priscus and Comentiolus, to violate it. Comentiolus had been reappointed commander, notwithstanding the complaints of the soldiers concerning his recent behavior. The generals joined their forces at Singidunum, whither Priscus seems to have proceeded after the siege of Tomi, and advanced together down the river to Viminacium (Kastolatz). The chagan, meanwhile, learning that the Romans had determined to violate the peace, crossed the Ister at Viminacium and invaded Upper Moesia, while he entrusted a large force to four of his sons, who were directed to guard the river and prevent the Romans from crossing over to the left bank. In spite of the barbarians, however, the Roman army crossed on rafts and pitched a camp on the left side, while the two commanders sojourned in the town of Viminacium, which stood on an island in the river. Here Comentiolus is said to have acted the part of a poltroon, according to a now exploded derivation of the word (pollice truncus). He employed a surgeon's lancet to mutilate his hand, and thereby incapacitated himself for action. His poltroonery was probably conducive to the success of Roman arms, for Priscus, untrammelled by an incompetent colleague, was able to win a series of signal triumphs.
Unwilling at first to leave the city without Comentiolus, Priscus was soon forced to appear in the camp, as the Avars were harassing it in the absence of the generals. A battle was fought which cost the Romans only three hundred men, while the ground was strewn with the corpses of four thousand Avars. This engagement was followed by two other great battles, in which the strategy of Priscus and the tactics of the Roman army were brilliantly successful. In the first, nine thousand of the enemy fell, while the second was fatal ten fifteen thousand, of whom the greater part, and among them the four sons of the chagan, perished in the waters of a lake, into which they were driven by the Roman swords and spears.
Such were the three battles of Viminacium, fought on the left bank of the Danube. But Priscus was destined to win yet greater victories and to vanquish the chagan himself, who, unable to recross the river at Viminacium, had returned to his country by the region of the Theiss (Tissos). Thither Priscus proceeded, and, a month after his latest victory at Viminacium, he defeated the forces of the barbarians on the banks of the Theiss. He then sent four thousand men to the right bank of that river to reconnoiter the movements of the enemy. This was the territory in which the kingdom of the Gepids had once flourished, and certain regions of it were still inhabited by people of that nation, living in a state of vassalage under the Avars. The reconnoitering party came upon three of their towns, and found the inhabitants engaged in celebrating a feast. Before the dawn of day, when the barbarians were overcome by their debauch, the Romans fell upon and slew thirty thousand; it seems, however, doubtful whether all these were Gepids. A few days later the energy of the chagan had assembled another army, and another battle was fought on the banks of the Theiss. Three thousand Avars, a large number of Slavs, and other barbarians were taken alive; an immense number were slain by the sword; many were drowned in the river. The captives were sent to Tomi, but Maurice was weak enough to restore them to the chagan without a ransom.
When winter approached, Comentiolus proceeded to Novae, and thence, having with considerable difficulty procured a guide, followed the road, or rather the path, of Trajan to Philippopolis.
(8) 601 AD—Comentiolus, who had wintered at Philippopolis and proceeded to Byzantium in spring, was again appointed commander, but the summer was marked by no hostilities. In August, Peter the Emperor's brother was created "General of Europe", Having remained for some time at Palastolon on the Danube, he proceeded to Dardania, for he heard that an army of Avars, under a captain named Apsich, was encamped at a place in that province called the Cataracts. After an ineffectual interview between the Avar commander and the Roman general, the former retreated to Constantiola and the latter withdrew to Thrace for the winter.
(9) 602 AD—No martial operations took place during spring, but in summer Gudwin, the officer second in command to Peter, invaded the land of the Slavs beyond the Ister and inflicted terrible slaughter upon them. One Slavonic tribe, the Antae (or Wends), were allies of the Romans, and the chagan accordingly sent Apsich against them by way of a reply to the invasion of Gudwin. We are not informed whether Apsich was successful, but it is recorded that about the same time a large number of Avars revolted from their lord and sought the protection of Maurice.
The last scene in the reign of Maurice has been related in a previous chapter; and at this point our historian, Theophylactus, concludes his work. As no other writer continued where he left off, we hear no more of the Avars and Slavs for sixteen years. Of their doings during the reign of Phocas and the first eight years of the reign of Heraclius our scanty authorities are silent, with the exception of the single notice that in the second year of Phocas the tribute to the Avars was raised. We can, however, entertain no doubt that the Balkan provinces were subjected to sad ravages during the disorganisation which prevailed in the reign of Phocas and the consequent paralysis from which the Empire suffered in the first years of Heraclius. The hostilities of Asiatic enemies were generally wont to have an effect on events in the vicinity of the Danube, and the barbarians can hardly have been disposed to miss such an unrivalled opportunity as was offered to them when Asia Minor was overrun by the Persians.