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Reply with quote  #1 
I thought it was time to do a series of posts on Balkan history, surveying its contemporary ethnic groups and the competing claims of nationalists, informed by the evolution of historical states from the Byzantine Empire (or more properly the Eastern Roman Empire) onwards. I thought it neat to coincide with events such as commemorating the Fall of Constantinople on May 29 1453, the 1000th anniversary of the fall of the Bulgarian Empire, and the naming controversy over Macedonia.

Under Justinian, the Byzantine Empire reached its greatest extent. He restored much if not all of the old Roman Empire (from 480 onwards there was only one Roman Emperor, after the death of Julius Nepos in Dalmatia, from which he ruled the rump Western Empire after 476). But Justinian's successors faced severe difficulties and could not hold onto those reconquered territories. Italy was an example, although the Byzantines maintained a presence on the peninsula until the 11th Century.

However, the Byzantine Empire faced new threats. They had fought wars with Persia, but would now face incursions into their territory by the Bulgars, Slavs and then the rise of Islam, all of which weakening the Byzantine Empire from 7th Century onward. The Bulgars would become an imperial power of their own, becoming Slavicised and Christianised, while the Sclaveni would be the ancestors of the South Slavic nations of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Macedonia.

Under the Macedonian Dynasty, the Byzantine Empire recovered a great deal of its power. It had brought the emerging Slavic nations to heel and brought down the First Bulgarian Empire. By now the ancestors of today's hodgepodge of ethnic groups in the Balkans - South Slavs, Albanians, Vlachs (Romanians) et al - were very much established, and had been thoroughly immersed in Byzantine influence through Christianisation. When they created states of their own, this influence was clearly evident in their aspirations.

[shepherd-c-066-067]  [shepherd-c-070-071] 

Byzantine power declined again with the transition from the Macedonian to the Doukas dynasty and the rise of the Seljuk Turks, only to revive under the Komnenos dynasty as hegemony over the Balkans and Asia Minor was reasserted coinciding with the Crusades. The Byzantines permanently lost control of parts of Italy to the Normans, who also invaded Byzantine "mainland" territory.

The fall of the Komnenos dynasty in 1185 led to the Angelos dynasty taking over. It was under them that the greatest calamity and one of the worst crimes in Christendom was to take place, the Fourth Crusade. Out of the looting and pillaging of Constantinople, a new political and religious reality was born. The Byzantine Empire was shattered into fragments, as Byzantine and Latin states in Greece emerged from the wreckage, the Latin Empire ruled from Constantinople, and the Byzantine Empire was exiled to Nicaea. Furthermore, there were now three claims to the Byzantine throne, based in Nicaea, Thessalonica and Trebizond respectively.


Eventually, Constantinople was restored to the Byzantine Empire, but the Palaiologos dynasty had to contend with new realities - revived Turkish power and the ambitious of Bulgarian and Serbian states. The Second Bulgarian Empire, having been formed from rebellion in the 12th Century, reached its peak in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade but retreated thereafter. However, Serbia was the latest to take advantage of Byzantine weakness, and its imperial ambitions could have gone even further. However, this was not to last in face of its internal weaknesses, followed by Turkish advancement into Europe.

[svg]  [shepherd-c-093] 

One by one, the dominoes began falling. Defeat for Serbian forces in Kosovo in 1389, the absorption of Bulgaria into the emerging Ottoman state, and the gradual atrophy of Byzantine territories preceded the capture of Constantinople in 1453. Following that, Athens, Morea, Serbia, Trebizond, Crimea, Epirus, and Albania would all fall by 1479, leaving only Montenegro to retain something of an independent existence in the region.

My next chapters will focus on the Byzantine, Latin, Bulgarian, Serbian and Albanian states, post-by-post for a more detailed overview of their development.

Posts: 4,685
Reply with quote  #2 
Byzantines and Latins: Echoes of Ancient Greece in the Middle Ages

The Greeks on one hand constitute a nation and civilisation they are very much conscious of being, Ancient Greece was a collection of mostly city-states and a few kingdoms which were well aware of sharing a common culture and civilisation. Yet at the same time, ancient Greece was divided into regions with distinctive characteristics and political systems, each conscious of a distinct identity. Attica was centred on Athens, Boeotia on Thebes, the Peloponnese was divided into regions including Achaia, Corinth, Elis, Arcadia, Messenia, and Laconia centred on Sparta. North of these, were regions like Aetolia, Acarnania, Thessaly, Epirus and Macedonia. Thessaly was ruled by a landowning, horse-breeding aristocracy, while Epirus and Macedonia along with Sparta were the major monarchies of ancient Greece.

After the glories of Athens, Sparta and Thebes, it was Macedonia under Philip II and Alexander the Great which spread Greek civilisation throughout the known world - though Greece had been successful exponents of colonisation in France (Marseille), North Africa, Italy and Crimea. Cyprus, Asia Minor and Crimea will remain relevant to this discussion as centres of Greek civilisation - which they were to remain through the Roman and Byzantine eras.

One of the consequences of the Fourth Crusade was the shattering of the unity of the Byzantine Empire, such that it would never recover its strength or unity. The Empire had suffered numerous blows in the post-Justinian period, with the rise of the Bulgars, Slavs and Arabs encroaching on its traditional territory, it appeared by the 11th Century under the Macedonian Dynasty to have recovered its glories, only to go into rapid decline after the dynasty's fall under the Doukas dynasty - a time also of a permanent schism in Christianity. Once again under the Komnenos dynasty, coinciding with the first two Crusades, the Empire appeared to recover its lost glory, only to fall again with a change of dynasty. Such was the state of the Byzantine Empire when confronted with the treacherous Fourth Crusade, the wounds of which never healed.

Furthermore, in this period we will also explore the complex ethnic patterns of the Balkans - Greeks, Slavs, Albanians and Vlachs - and explain the perspectives of present-day nationalists about historical issues.

In any case, I opened this post with a reference to ancient Greece because an interesting point can be made that for the first time since Greece and in general Greek civilisation was absorbed into the Roman Empire, a regionalised state system came into being as the Greek world was now a patchwork of Byzantine and Latin states. The Latin period is known in Greece as Frankokratia ("Franks", "Latins" and "Western Europeans" - primarily French, Italian and Spanish in any case - being interchangeable here). The Latins retained a permanent foothold in Greece until the Ottoman conquest, and even after Constantinople was reclaimed by the Byzantines, the Latin Emperors in exile continued to claim nominal suzerainty over Latin states. Three of whom actually ruled in Greece, later on, in Achaea.

In fairness, the Palaiologos dynasty did try early on to revitalise the empire and its cultural life. But early successes were reversed by internal strife, and large parts of the empire came under Serbian rule, and then Ottoman rule during the 14th Century.

Nicaea would be the centre of a Byzantine Empire in exile between 1204 and 1261, gradually recovering its strength and power at the expense of the Latin Empire which ruled from Constantinople.

Trebizond (Trabzon in today's Turkey) became the centre of a new Greek empire and remained so until 1461, falling eight years after Constantinople.

Thessalonica was made the capital of a Latin Kingdom of Thessalonica including parts of Greek Macedonia and Thessaly, ruled by Latins until 1224. The Byzantine reconquest took place under Theodore Komnenos Doukas, ruler of the newly minted splinter state of Epirus, who then claimed the title Emperor. There were thus three claimants to the inheritance of the Byzantine Empire, and at least five Christian emperors in Europe as a result if you count Bulgaria, which exercised hegemony over parts Greece in this period. While the Byzantine Empire reclaimed the area, it was not to be for long.

Thessaly would come under Latin rule, but the rulers of Epirus invaded and took over in 1212, and by 1224 Thessalonica, Thessaly and Epirus were all under the rule of Theodore Komnenos Doukas. Thessaly would have some autonomy after the restoration of Constantinople to the Byzantines, and Vlachs played a prominent role there. Thessaly came under Serbian rule during the 14th Century before becoming Ottoman territory.

Epirus would have one of the longest periods of being a separate state, known as the Despotate of Epirus, founded by the Komnenous Doukas line which, as explained above, also ruled Thessaly and Thessalonica. In the 14th Century it fell into the hands of Serbs, Albanians and finally Italians, who held it until 1479 - the last area of the Greek mainland to fall to the Ottomans.

The Peloponnese would be home to the Latin Principality of Achaea, which lasted until 1432 and was one of the main Latin states. The Byzantine reconquest of the peninsula would lead to the development of a semi-autonomous Despotate of Morea, which lasted until 1460. The last Palaiologos rulers of Morea would also claim the Byzantine throne until 1453.

The Duchy of Athens was ruled by a succession of French, Aragonese (via the Catalan Company) and Italian families and remained a Latin state until 1458.

In Crimea, the Principality of Theodoro was one of the last outposts of Byzantine civilisation to fall in 1475.

The islands were in the hands of various Latin forces, the Venetians retaining a presence in the region until 1797.

Posts: 4,685
Reply with quote  #3 
Bulgaria: Two Empires, Precursor of Two Nations?

A common thread in conquering civilisations can be shown in the conquests of Alexander the Great, the kingdoms established by his successors, and their subsequent absorption into the Roman Empire. In Egypt, for instance, the Ptolemaic Dynasty fused native Egyptian and Greek cultures, which would become enormously influential. And there was Persian influence in the Middle East, as well, with implications for Judaism and consequently Christianity and Islam. The Roman Empire absorbed much of Ancient Greek civilisation without obliterating the Greek language, culture and identity, which was to manifest itself in the Eastern Roman Empire.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire was followed by Germanic kingdoms which formed the basis for much of Western Europe, marrying some native elements to the Roman legacy. The Eastern Roman Empire faced threats to its integrity from the 6th Century onwards with the Avars, Bulgars, Slavs and Arabs encroaching on it. The Bulgars, Slavs and Arabs would all establish states on what was Byzantine territory, yet absorbed the Greco-Roman influence especially in terms of statecraft.

The Bulgarian story presents a case both of ethnic and religious transformation and the absorption of the Greco-Roman legacy. The Bulgars under their Khan, Asparukh, established what would become known as the first Bulgarian Empire. By the 9th Century, the Bulgars became Slavicised and Christianised. Christianity was adopted under Boris I, and by Simeon I the ruler was known as Tsar - a title derived from Caesar.

Under Simeon I, the first Bulgarian Empire ruled over much of the Balkans, including modern-day Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania and Greece. A change of dynasty saw Tsar Samuil (Samuel) rule, hailed as a national hero in Bulgaria and Macedonia today as he extended the empire to its peak. But it was not to last as the very much revived Byzantine Empire successfully pushed back and regained hegemony over the Balkans.

Four years under Samuel's death, the first Bulgarian Empire ceased to exist in 1018. Bulgarians, now a Slavic and Christian people, took advantage of the later decline of the Byzantine Empire to stage revolts, one of which finally succeeded in the 12th Century.

[Bulgaria-Ivan_Asen_2]  [svg]

The uprisings of the 11th Century were only quelled with difficulty by the Byzantines, reflecting the decline of Byzantine power around the middle of the century. However, the Komnenos dynasty restored Byzantine fortunes spectacularly during the 12th Century, right up to the reign of Manuel I Komnenos. His death in 1180 would see the rapid decline of the empire once more, from which it could not quite recover.

The Bulgarian uprising that began in 1185, the year the Komnenos fell from power in Constantinople, would result in the restoration of the Bulgarian Empire under the Asen Dynasty. Peter II would be followed as Tsar by Ivan Asen I. The third Tsar, Kaloyan, would attain fame by capturing the first Latin Emperor Baldwin I but would be killed a few years later while laying siege to Thessalonica.

But this did not slow the expansion of renewed Bulgarian power in the Balkans, and they did not only fight the Latins. Boril had to deal with rebellious members of the royal family, Strez and Alexius Slav, who carved out their own fiefdoms (the former in today's Macedonia) before being brought to heel.

Ivan Asen II would bring the second Bulgarian Empire its greatest glories. The push back against the Latins and conflict with Epirus would yield results as Bulgaria gained control over a great part of Greece in addition to its core territories in today's Bulgaria and Macedonia. Those gains were lost after Ivan Asen II, who also had to deal with the consequences of Mongol incursions into Europe, died in 1241. His successors saw territory lost to both the Byzantine restoration and the rise of Serbia as a regional power. During this time, the imperial capital Tarnovo was viewed by Bulgarians as a "Third Rome".

The last Tsar of the Asen dynasty, Constantine Tikh, was overthrown in a peasant uprising led by Ivaylo, who didn't last long on the throne. The Terter dynasty led Bulgaria into the 14th Century, stabilising under Theodore Sviatoslav.


The last medieval Bulgarian dynasty, the Shishman, would take power in 1322 with Michael III as Tsar. He attempted to restore the power of the Bulgarian state, bringing it into conflict with his Byzantine and Serbian neighbours. He would be killed in 1330 in the Battle of Velbazhd (today's Kyustendil), a battle which confirmed Serbian regional hegemony.

Ivan Alexander then ruled for 40 years during which Bulgaria flourished culturally and economically, but the Bulgarian Empire would be divided between Tarnovo, Vidin and Dobruja. With Ivan Shishman ruling from Tarnovo after 1371, and Ivan Sratsimir ruling in Vidin, Bulgaria had two tsars while Dobruja was also a separate state. By 1396, both Tarnovo and Vidin were conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Fruzhin and Constantine II, representing the two lines, attempted an uprising against the Ottomans.

There were further uprisings in Bulgaria and Macedonia against Ottoman rule, attempting to restore the empire. One of the most notable was that of Karposh in Kumanovo, Macedonia, in 1689.
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