Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 42 Part 2

In previous posts we have heard a lot  about the Lombards and the Gepids, a couple of troublesome germanic tribes.

We also hear about the Sclavonians -or Slavs as we would call them – at this stage primitive warriors without much in the way of armaments. The Bulgars make their appearance as well. They were in origin Steppe nomads somewhat similar to the Huns. They spoke a Turkish language and were basically just another variety of horse based warrior tribes out to obtain money and/or territory by the judicious use of violence. Modern day Bulgarians – and the state of Bulgaria did not come into existence until long after Gibbon published his book – have only a small dash of Bulgar DNA. They are basically the Slavs who were conquered and formed into a state by a much smaller number of nomads who formed a ruling elite. This elite would be eliminated by the Ottomans. So for our purposes it is probably better not to think about modern Bulgarians at all when we talk about Bulgars. It would be a bit like mixing up modern Frenchmen with Frankish tribesmen.

So the Bulgars were Turkic tribesmen invading the Balkans with the aim of conquest or loot resembling other similar tribes and posing the same threat. They were hardy, warlike, expert bowmen and above all very mobile. This made them a tough opponent to beat outright because they could always retreat if they didn’t fancy their odds. But the Byzantines now had tactics that could deal with them in a way that they didn’t when facing a similar threat from Attila and the Huns. So the Bulgars were a big factor in the difficulties presenting themselves to the empire but not on their own strong enough to be overwhelming.

The agrarian Sclavonians were a different threat altogether. These were primitive but settled farmers who basically shared a space with the steppe nomads but a different way of life altogether. They weren’t referred to in history at any point before this one, but from now on they represent one of the biggest ethnic groups in Europe – which of course they still are. It is interesting to wonder how either they could have escaped notice prior to the sixth century on the one hand, or suddenly grown into such great numbers so quickly. I think the latter is more likely. Somewhere on the Eurasian plain somebody worked out a way of extracting a living from the soil more efficiently. This new food supply translated into an increase in population. That seems the most likely to me at any rate.

Whatever it was, it worked as the wide distribution of people speaking Slavic languages across eastern Europe today shows. The character of the early Slavs as their contemporaries described them was of a people who were not particularly warlike or well equipped for war but who were nonetheless determined and resourceful when they got into a fight. So their spread appears to be the result of attitude and numbers rather than military prowess.

The Slavs, however they got there, are now the most numerous ethnic group in Europe with over 300 million speakers of the various Slavic languages.

But the tribe that would come to have most impact on later history was the Turks.

For over 600 years Turkey has been one of the major countries of the world. It is perhaps a little underestimated because it isn’t as major as it used to be. Having a large population, a powerful military and a strong economy doesn’t seem to compensate for having recently lost a large empire. If you don’t match up to your past your current achievements are easily overlooked. But in Gibbon’s time there was no such distortion. The Turks were a superpower, pure and simple. It was therefore natural that he should devote a lot of words to describing their origin. It is instructive for us too. It is well worth remembering that the Turks have their origin in what is now Russia. The southern part of Russia and several of the states that have broken away from the Soviet Union are inhabited by many millions of people who speak languages closely related to Turkish. It is interesting to consider how an EU type grouping of these peoples – which would come to around 150 million – would impact on the world stage. Or to get even more fanciful, to wonder if the sultans of the Ottoman empire had concentrated their efforts on conquering these regions rather than the Arab countries and the Balkans. It might have been a much more stable and coherent entity than either the Ottoman or indeed the Russian Empire. World history would look very different if they had done so and created a Turkey that was twice the size of the current one.

They make their entrance at this stage as superbly brave steppe nomads who also had skill in the manufacture of weapons. They were to become one of the Eastern Roman Empire’s big allies. It is a bit ironic considering that later on wars with the Turks would consume so much of the empire’s energy and indeed would ultimately be the people who would finally finish off the empire altogether. But in the sixth century the diplomatic strategy was a sound one. At this point the Turks were a long way from the empire and so occupied a strategic position behind the more direct enemies of Constantinople. They were therefore the perfect allies.

The Turks in the beginning were pure nomads who had no cities at all. In fact they chose this consciously if the stories they tell about their origin are to be believed. One of their kings made the observation that the Turks were massively outnumbered by their enemies the Chinese. Had the Turks settled in towns it would be only too easy for the Chinese to wipe them out. By remaining mobile and unattached to a particular geographical region, they could always escape.

The Turks had one thing in common with the Romans. They claimed that the founders of their state were reared by a wolf. Modern Turkey still uses the wolf as its symbol. The region where they originated was the Altai mountains. These are located at the junction of Kazahkstan, Mongolia and Siberia. The story was that they had started out making weapons for other tribes, and then started using them themselves to establish themselves as the main power in the region.

The rise of the Turks was destabilising with their victims fleeing. One group came up with a cunning plan. They claimed to be the Avars, a group with a reputation that was well enough established to impress – even though the actual Avars had already been firmly thrashed by the Turks.

They turned up in Constantinople, demanded and received an audience with Justinian and pitched their proposal to him.

“You see before you, O mighty prince, the representatives of the strongest and most populous of nations, the invincible, the irresistible Avars. We are willing to devote ourselves to your service: we are able to vanquish and destroy all the enemies who now disturb your repose. But we expect, as the price of our alliance, as the reward of our valour, precious gifts, annual subsidies, and fruitful possessions.”

It was an offer that it was impossible to refuse. Justinian was in any case now 75 years old and not inclined to get into another war. The pseudo-Avars were sent off to the Balkans to do their thing. Their thing was behaving badly. The existing inhabitants were robbed, sometimes enslaved and frequently killed. It made some sense to deploy them to counterbalance the growing power of the Lombards. But trust rapidly broke down as the nomads realised that they were being played by the Byzantines, and the Byzantines got the measure of their behaviour and worked out what they were really like.

This was partly standard Byzantine operating procedures with barbarian allies, but there was also the fact that the Turks had worked out what was going on and sent their own embassy to give Justinian their version of events and to suggest that they were rather more useful partners. The Turks in fact were to belie the description of being barbarians. They understood the game they were playing. They showed a keen appreciation of their strategic interests and even sorted out a trade deal while they were there. They were now in charge of the Silk Road between China and Byzantium. The rival route via Ceylon was in the hands of the Byzantines’ enemies the Persians. So there was room for a deal.

The relationship between the sophisticated, cynical and arrogant Byzantines and the hard nosed but straight forward Turks was one that had to be worked at. But there were some clear mutual benefits to working together. In particular, they had a common enemy in the form of the Persians, who we’ll be looking at in a future post.

 

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