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(EUROPE: 501 to 1000 CE – continued)

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The Slavs

The Slavs had been settled in what today are Belarus, northern Ukraine and eastern Poland. The historian Will Durant writes that "Periodically overrun by nomad hordes, often enslaved, always oppressed and poor, they grew patient and strong through endless hardships, and the fertility of their women overcame the high mortality of famine, disease, and chronic war." note13

The Slavs spoke an Indo-European language, suggesting they were Aryan. The Byzantine writer, Procopius (500-65), described them as tall, strong, tanned with reddish-blonde hair, dwelling in huts and mobile. He described them as going into battle on foot, charging straight at their enemy, armed with spears and small shields, but without armor. With speed and surprise they took advantage of their more armored opponents.

Some of them had migrated northeastward toward what today is Moscow. And when Germanic people began leaving for the Roman Empire and beyond, Slavs moved westward into the lands they had vacated. Also, they followed rivers, passed through forests and mixed with Finns and Baltic peoples. With the Roman Empire having disintegrated, from the 540s to the 580s they moved south into the partially depopulated Balkans and as far south as central Greece.

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An emperor in Constantinople, Maurice (r 582-602), who had spent years warring against them, described their tribal existence:

They have abundance of cattle and grain, chiefly millet and rye, but rulers they cannot bear and they live side by side in disunion. note14

Maurice, described them as living in villages, herding, farming. They fished, kept bees, made pottery and weaved baskets.

Perun idol

A wooden idol of Perun, god of thunder and lightning. Wikipedia describes the icon as made in Russia. Using the hammer handle as a measure, the icon appears to be a couple of meters tall. In Kiev in 2012 another icon of Perun was destroyed by vandals. In the year 988 in Kiev, Perun and other Slavic idols were destroyed.

The Christian peoples of Constantinople's empire considered the Slavs to be unsophisticated and backward. The Slavs were polytheists. But like other polytheists they had a supreme god, an obvious god of power, the god of thunder and lightening, Perun. To him the Slavs sacrificed oxen and other animals, and perhaps occasionally a human.

Emperor Heraclius (r 610-41), did what he could to regain control over the Balkans. He did recover control over Greece, but he felt compelled to grant Slavs settlement rights in the Balkans and hoped they would prevent incursions by others.

The Slavs, in addition to spreading out across Europe, had been assimilating with peoples they came upon. The Slavs have been described as warriors, but they were often interested in settling into farming, giving them a reputation as peaceful, although there were the usual conflicts and hostilities within any tribal grouping.

Despite Byzantine accounts of Slav pillaging and looting, many indigenous peoples voluntarily assimilated with the Slavs. Lack of an organized, central authority made it easier for non-Slavs to assimilate and to become a part of a tribalism based on both descent and invented belonging.

With the passing of centuries since the beginning of their spread across Europe, Slavs were dividing linguistically and ethnically toward those such as Russians, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks and Slovenes. The usual cultural diffusions gave rise to Slavs becoming Christians. Merchants from Constantinople and Thessalonica sold them jewelry, silks and spices and gave them contacts with Byzantine culture, including Christianity. From the 700s to the 900s Roman Catholic missionaries converted the Western Slavs. And Eastern Slavs were becoming heavily influenced by Byzantium and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The Latin and Greek alphabet and literacy spread with Christianization.

The sociologist Francis Fukuyama describes Slavic tribes as seeing "their kinship structures dissolve within two or three generations of their conversion to Christianity." note15

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