The Balkan Peninsula by Frank Fox - HTML preview

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The Fates were unkind to the Balkan Peninsula. Because of its

position, it was forced to stand in the path of the greatest racial movements of the world, and was thus the scene of savage racial

struggles, and the depositary of residual shreds of nations surviving from great defeats or Pyrrhic victories and cherishing irreconcilable mutual hatreds. As if that were not enough of ill fortune imposed by geographical position, the great Roman Empire elected to come from

its seat in the Italian Peninsula to die in the Balkan Peninsula, a long

drawn-out death of many agonies, of many bloody disasters and

desperate retrievals. For all the centuries of which history knows a blood-mist has hung over the Balkans; and for the


centuries before the dawn of written history one may surmise that

there was the same constant struggle of warring races.

It seems fairly certain that when the Northern peoples moved down

from their gloomy forests towards the Mediterranean littoral to mingle

their blood with the early peoples of the Minoan civilisation and to found the Grecian and the Roman nations, the chief stream of these

fierce hordes moved down by the valley of the Danube and

debouched on the Balkan Peninsula. Doubtless they fought many a

savage battle with the aborigines in Thessaly and Thrace. Of these battles we have no records, and no absolute certainty, indeed, that the Mediterranean shore was colonised by a race from the North,

though all the facts that we are learning now from the researches of

modern archaeologists point to that conclusion. But whatever the

prehistoric state of the Balkan Peninsula, the first sure records from written history show it as a vexed area peopled by widely different and mutually warring races, and subject always to waves of war and

invasion from the outside. The Slav historian Jireček concludes that the Balkan Peninsula was inhabited at the earliest times


known to history by many different tribes belonging to distinct races—

the Thraco-Illyrians, the Thraco-Macedonians, and the Thraco-

Dacians. At the beginning of the third century, the Slavs made their first appearance and, crossing the Danube, came to settle in the

great plains between the river and the Balkan Mountains. Later, they

proceeded southwards and formed colonies among the Thraco-

Illyrians, the Roumanians, and the Greeks. This Slav emigration went

on for several centuries. In the seventh century of the Christian era a

Finno-ugric tribe reached the banks of the Danube. This tribe came from the Volga, and, crossing Russia, proceeded towards ancient

Moesia, where it took possession of the north-east territory of the Balkans between the Danube and the Black Sea. These were the

Bulgars or Volgars, near cousins to the Turks who were to come

later. The Bulgars assumed the language of the Slavs, and some of their customs. The Serbs or Serbians, coming from the Don River

district had been near neighbours of the Volgars or Bulgars (in the Slav languages "B" and "V" have a way of interchanging), and were without much doubt closely allied to them in race originally. Later, they diverged, tending more to the


Slav type, whilst the Bulgars approached nearer to the Turk type.

There may be traced, then, in the racial history of the Balkans these

race types: a Mediterranean people inhabiting the sea-coast and

possessing a fairly high civilisation, the records of which are being explored now in the Cretan excavations; an aboriginal people

occupying the hinterland of the coast, not so highly cultivated as the

coast dwellers (who had probably been civilised by Egyptian

influences) but racially akin to them; a Northern people coming from

the shores of the Baltic and the North Sea before the period of written

history and combining ultimately with the people of the coast to found

the Grecian civilisation, leaving in the hinterland, as they passed towards the sea, detachments which formed other mixed tribes, partly

aboriginal, partly Nordic; various invading peoples of Semitic type

from the Levant; the Romans, the Goths and the Huns, the Slavs and

the Tartars, the Bulgars and the Serbs, the Normans, Saracens, and

Turks. Because the Balkan Peninsula was on the natural path to a

warm-water port from the north to the south of Europe; because it was on the track of invasion and counter-invasion between Asia


and Europe, all this mixture of races was forced upon it, and as a consequence of the mixture a constant clash of warfare. There was,

too, a current of more peaceful communication for purposes of trade

between the Levant and the Black Sea on the one side and the

peoples of the Baltic Sea on the other side, which flowed in part along

the Balkan Peninsula.

In Italy and her Invaders Mr. T. Hodgkin suggests:

During the interval from 540 to 480 b.c. there was a brisk commercial

intercourse between the flourishing Greek colonies on the Black Sea,

Odessos, Istros, Tyras, Olbia and Chersonesos—places now

approximately represented by Varna, Kustendjix, Odessa, Cherson,

and Sebastopol—between these cities and the tribes to the northward

(inhabiting the country which has been since known as Lithuania), all

of whom at the time of Herodotus passed under the vague generic

name of Scythians. By this intercourse which would naturally pass up

the valleys of the great rivers, especially the Dniester and the

Dnieper, and would probably again descend by the Vistula and the

Niemen, the settlements of the Goths were reached, and by its

means the Ionian letter-forms were communicated to the Goths, to

become in due time the magical and mysterious Runes.

One fact which lends great probability to this theory is that

undoubtedly, from very early times, the amber deposits of the Baltic,

to which allusion has already been made, were known to the civilised

world; and thus


the presence of the trader from the South among the settlements of the Guttones or Goths is naturally accounted for. Probably also there

was for centuries before the Christian Era a trade in sables, ermines,

and other furs, which were a necessity in the wintry North and a luxury of kings and nobles in the wealthier South. In exchange for amber and fur, the traders brought probably not only golden staters and silver drachmas, but also bronze from Armenia with pearls,

spices, rich mantles suited to the barbaric taste of the Gothic

chieftains. As has been said, this commerce was most likely carried on for many centuries. Sabres of Assyrian type have been found in Sweden, and we may hence infer that there was a commercial

intercourse between the Euxine and the Baltic, perhaps 1300 years

before Christ.

A few leading facts with dates should give a fairly clear impression of

the story of the Balkan Peninsula. About 400 b.c. the Macedonian

Empire was being founded. It represented the uprise of a hinterland Greek people over the decayed greatness of the coast-dwelling

Greeks. At that time the northern part of the Balkan Peninsula was occupied by the Getae or Dacians. Phillip of Macedon made an

alliance with the Getae. Alexander the Great of Macedonia thrashed

them to subjection and carried a great wave of invasion into Asia from

the Balkan Peninsula.



Commemorates the victories which brought all the Balkan

Peninsula under the Roman sway

About the year 110 b.c. the Romans first came to the Balkan

Peninsula, finding it inhabited as regards the south by the Greek

peoples, as regards the north by the Getae or Dacians. The southern

people were quickly subdued: the northern people were never really

subdued by the Romans until the time of Trajan (the first century of the Christian era). He bridged the Danube with a great military bridge

at the spot now known as Turnu-Severin, and Trajan's Column in

Rome commemorated the victories which brought all the Balkan

Peninsula under the Roman sway. Trajan found that the manners and

customs of the Dacians were similar to those of the Germans. These

sturdy Dacians were conquered but not exterminated by the Romans.

Dacia across the Danube was made into a Roman colony, and the

present kingdom of Roumania is supposed to represent the survival

of that colony, which was a mixture of Roman and Dacian blood.

In the third century of the Christian era the Goths made their first appearance in the Balkan Peninsula. The Roman Empire had then

entered into its period of decline. The invasions of the Visigoths, the

Huns, the Vandals, the Ostrogoths,


and the Lombards were to come in turn to overwhelm the Roman

civilisation. The Gothic invasion of the Balkan Peninsula was begun in the reign of the Roman Emperor Phillip. Crossing the Danube, the

Goths ravaged Thrace and laid siege to Marcianople (now Schumla)

without success. In a later invasion the Goths attacked Philippopolis and captured it after a great defeat of the Roman general, Decius the

younger. Then the Roman Emperor (Decius the elder) himself took

the field and was defeated and killed in a great battle near the mouth

of the Danube (a.d. 251). That may be called the decisive date in the

history of the fall of the Roman Empire. It was destined to retrieve that defeat, and to shine with momentary glory again for brief

intervals, but the destruction of the Emperor and his army by the Goths in 251 was the sure presage of the doom of the Roman Power.

One direct result of the battle in which Decius was slain was to bring

the headquarters of the Roman Empire to the Balkan Peninsula. It

was found that a better stand could be made against the tide of

Gothic invasion from a new capital closer to the Scythian frontier.

Constantinople was planned and built, and became


the capital of the Roman Empire (a.d. 330), and thus brought to the Balkan stage the death throes of the mightiest world-power that

history has known. From that date it is wise for the sake of clearness

to speak of the Roman Empire as the Greek Empire, though it was

some time after its settlement in Constantinople before it became

rather Greek than Roman in character.

With the issue between the Goths and the Greek Empire, in which

peaceful agreements often interrupted for a while fierce campaigns, I

cannot deal here at any length. It soaked the Balkan Peninsula deep

in blood. But it was only the first of the horrors that were to mark the

death of the Empire. Late in the fourth century of the Christian Era there burst into the Balkans from the steppes of Astrakhan and the Caucasus—from very much the same district that was afterwards to

supply the Bulgars and the Serbs—the Tartar hordes of the Huns. Of

these Huns there is a vivid contemporary Gothic account.

We have ascertained that the nation of the Huns, who surpassed all

others in atrocity, came thus into being. When Filimer, fifth king of the

Goths after their departure from Sweden, was entering Scythia, with his people, as we have before described, he found


among them certain sorcerer-women, whom they called in their native

tongue Haliorunnas (or Al-runas), whom he suspected and drove

forth from the midst of his army into the wilderness. The unclean spirits that wander up and down in desert places, seeing these

women, made concubines of them; and from this union sprang that

most fierce people [of the Huns], who were at first little, foul, emaciated creatures, dwelling among the swamps, and possessing

only the shadow of human speech by way of language.

Sébah & Joaillier



With the Alani especially, who were as good warriors as themselves,

but somewhat less brutal in appearance and manner of life, they had

many a struggle, but at length they wearied out and subdued them.

For, in truth, they derived an unfair advantage from the intense

hideousness of their countenances. Nations whom they would never

have vanquished in fair fight fled horrified from those frightful—faces I

can hardly call them, but rather—shapeless black collops of flesh,

with little points instead of eyes. No hair on their cheeks or chins gives grace to adolescence or dignity to age, but deep furrowed scars

instead, down the sides of their faces, show the impress of the iron which with characteristic ferocity they apply to every male child that is

born among them, drawing blood from its cheeks before it is allowed

its first taste of milk. They are little in stature, but lithe and active in their motions, and especially skilful in riding, broad-shouldered, good

at the use of the bow and arrows, with sinewy necks, and always

holding their heads high in their pride. To sum up, these beings under

the form of man hide the fierce nature of the beast!

Not a lovable people the Huns clearly:


and the modern peoples who have some slight ancestral kinship with

them hate to be reminded of the fact. I remember the fierce

indignation which a French war correspondent aroused in Bulgarian

breasts by his description—which had eluded the censor—of the

passage of a great Bulgarian train of ox wagons because he

compared it to the passage of the Huns.

The Huns were, with the exception of the Persians who had vainly

attacked the Greek States at an earlier period, the first successful Asiatic invaders of Europe. For a full century they ravaged the

Empire, and the Balkan Peninsula felt the chief force of their

barbarian rage. By the fifth century the waves of the Hun invasions had died away, leaving distinct traces of the Hunnish race in the Balkans. The Gepidae, the Lombards, and later the Hungarians and

the Tartars then took up the task of ravaging the unhappy land which

as the chief seat of power of the Greek Empire found itself the first objective of every invader because of that dignity and yet but poorly protected by that power. Constantinople was never taken by these

barbarians, but at some periods little else than its walls stood secure

against their ravages.


Meanwhile the first Saracens had appeared in the Peninsula,

curiously enough not as invaders nor as enemies, but as mercenary

soldiers in the army of the Greek Empire fighting against the Goths.

To a Gothic chronicler we are again indebted for a vivid picture of these Saracens, "riding almost naked into battle, their long black hair streaming in the wind, wont to spring with a melancholy howl upon their chosen victim in battle and to suck his life-blood, biting at his throat." Perhaps the Gothic war correspondent of the day studied picturesqueness more than accuracy, like some of his modern

successors. But, without a doubt, the first contact with Asiatics,

whether Huns or Saracens, gave to the European peoples a horror

and a terror which had never been inspired by their battles among themselves—battles by no means bloodless or merciful. As the

Asiatic waves of invasion later developed in strength the unhappy

Balkan Peninsula was doomed to feel their full force as they poured across the Bosphorus from Asia Minor, and across the Danube from

the north-eastern Asiatic steppes.

It would be vain to attempt to chronicle even in the barest outline all the horrors inflicted upon


the Balkans from the date of the first invasion of the Huns in the fourth century to the first invasion of the Turks in the fourteenth century. To say that those ten centuries were filled with bloodshed suffices. But they also saw the development of the Balkan

nationalities of to-day, and cannot therefore be passed over without some attention. Let us then glance at each Balkan nation during that


Roumania, inhabited by the people of the old Roman-Dacian colony,

stood full in the way of the Northern invasions of Goths, of Huns, of Hungarians, of Tartars. It was almost submerged. But in the thirteenth

century the country benefited by the coming of Teutonic and Norman

knights. The two kingdoms or principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia

(which, combined, make up modern Roumania) were founded in this


Bulgaria. —In the seventh century Slavs had begun to settle in Bulgaria. The Bulgars or Volgars followed. They were akin to the

Tartars and the Turks. Together Slavs and Bulgars formed the

Bulgarian national type and founded a very robust nation which was

almost constantly at war with the Greek Empire (with its capital


at Constantinople). At times Bulgaria seriously threatened

Constantinople and the Greek Empire. A boastful inscription in the

Church of the Forty Martyrs at Tirnovo, the ancient capital of Bulgaria,


In the year 1230, I, John Asên, Czar and Autocrat of the Bulgarians,

obedient to God in Christ, son of the old Asên, have built this most worthy church from its foundations, and completely decked it with

paintings in honour of the Forty holy Martyrs, by whose help, in the 12th year of my reign, when the Church had just been painted, I set

out to Roumania to the war and smote the Greek army and took

captive the Czar Theodore Komnenus with all his nobles. And all

lands have I conquered from Adrianople to Durazzo, the Greek, the

Albanian, and the Serbian land. Only the towns round Constantinople

and that city itself did the Franks hold; but these too bowed

themselves beneath the hand of my sovereignty, for they had no

other Czar but me, and prolonged their days according to my will, as

God had so ordained. For without him no word or work is

accomplished. To him be honour for ever. Amen.

The wars were carried on under conditions of mutual ferocity which still rule in Bulgarian-Grecian conflicts. An incident of one campaign was that the Greek Emperor, Basil, the Bulgar-slayer, having

captured a Bulgarian army, had the eyes torn out of all the men and

sent them


home blinded, leaving, however, one eye to every centurion, so that

the poor mutilated wretches might have guides. In the early part of the fourteenth century a Bulgarian Czar, Michael, almost captured

Constantinople. He formed a league with the Roumanians and the

Greeks against the Serbs, who were at the time promising to become

the paramount power of the peninsula. But Czar Michael was

defeated by the Serbs and Bulgaria became dependent upon Serbia,

which was the position of affairs at the time of the first serious Turkish

invasion of the Balkan Peninsula.

Serbia. —Invading tribes of Don Cossacks began to come in great numbers to the Balkan Peninsula in the sixth century. In the seventh

century they were encouraged by the Greek Empire to settle in

Serbia, on condition of paying tribute to Constantinople. They set up

a kind of aristocratic republic of a Slav type. In the ninth century they

began to fight with the neighbouring and kindred Bulgarians. Early in

the tenth century (a.d. 917) the Bulgarians almost effaced Serbia

from the map; but the Serbs recovered after half a century, only to come shortly afterwards under the sway of the Greeks. In the



century the Serbians held a very strong position and were able to harass the Greek Empire at Constantinople. They entered into

friendly relations with the Pope of Rome, and for some time

contemplated following the Roman rather than the Eastern Church. In

the twelfth century King Stephen of Serbia was a valued ally of the Greek Empire against the Venetians. He established Serbia as a

European "Power," and the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa visited his court at Belgrade. This king was the first of a succession of able and

brave monarchs, and Serbia enjoyed a period of stable prosperity

and power unusually lengthy for the Balkans. Except for the strife between the Eastern and Roman Catholic Churches for supremacy in

Serbia, the nation was at peace within her own borders, and enjoyed

not only a military but an economic predominance in the Balkans.

Mining and handicrafts were developed, education encouraged, and

the national organisation reached fully to the average standard of

European civilisation at the time. By 1275 the Serbs were the chief power in the Balkans. They defeated the Greeks, marched right down

to the Aegean and reached the famous monastery of Mount Athos, to



the first King Stephen (Nemanya) had retired in 1195 when he


In 1303 the Serbians forgot their quarrel with the Greeks and helped

them against the Turks, undertaking an invasion of Asia Minor. In

1315 they again saved the Greek Empire from the Turks. When in

1336 Stephen Dushan, the greatest of Serbian kings, who has been

compared to Napoleon because of his military genius and capacity for

statesmanship, came to the throne, Bulgaria was under the

suzerainty of Serbia, and the Serb monarch ruled over all that area comprised within the boundaries of Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania,

Montenegro, and Greece by the recent treaty of Bucharest (1913).

King Stephen Dushan was not only a great military leader, he was

also a law-maker and a patron of learning. His death on December

13, 1356, at the Gates of Constantinople—he is said to have been

poisoned—opened the way for the Turkish occupation of the Balkan

Peninsula. That occupation was made possible in the first instance by

the mutual jealousies of the Christian peoples of the Balkans. It was

kept in existence for centuries by the same weaknesses arising from

jealousy. In 1912 it was swept away in a month because in a spasm


of common sense the Balkan Christian peoples had united. In 1913 it

was in part restored because internecine strife had broken out again

among the Balkan natives recently allied. It will probably continue until the lesson of unity is learned again.