The Beginning of the Middle Ages in the Balkans
By Florin Curta
Millennium, Vol. 10 (2013)
Abstract: The recent understanding of the transition from Antiquity to the early Middle Ages is based on the model of the “transformation of the Roman world,” established in the 1990s through a five-year research program funded by the European Science Foundation. The model, however, has never been tested on the Balkans, despite the importance of that region for the beginning of the Middle Ages in Europe.
The article deals with the “short seventh century” between 620 (the date of Emperor Heraclius’ withdrawal of the Roman armies) and 680 (the date of the Bulgar migration into the northeastern Balkans). On the basis of recent progress in numismatic research, as well as in the study of so-called “Byzantine” belt buckles, the article explores the evidence of building and rebuilding in ancient cities, coins and hoards, rural settlements, and burials (either isolated or in cemeteries) discovered in the Balkan region, which could be dated between 620 and 680. The archaeological evidence is incontrovertible: during the seventh century, the Balkans, especially the central and northern areas seem to have experienced something of a demographic collapse, with large tracts of land left without any inhabitants. The first open, rural settlements in the Balkans in more than 150 years appeared in the north, along the valley of the river Danube, and were most likely in the borderlands of the Avar qaganate and its sphere of influence.
The evidence of cemeteries indicate significant clusters of population in the western Balkans—Greece, northern and central Albania, and Istria. Although next to nothing is known about the associated settlements, many isolated burials and cemeteries were associated with ruins of old basilicas, which suggest that those were Christian communities.
Top Image: 1720 map of the Balkans by Peter Schenk