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Rise of the Slavic Peoples in the East

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Rise of the Slavic Peoples in the East

The first millennium AD saw massive westward and southern migration of the tribes of the Central Asian steppes. The Huns eventually settled the land that became the nation of Hungary, to which they gave their name. Around 450, however, the Huns gave way to the Magyars. By that time, the Germanic tribes had moved westward in search of land to call their own.

The Romans referred to these Eurasian invaders of Europe as barbarians, and their point was well taken, given the sharp contrast between the highly developed Roman civilization (a mercantile economy, cities, a sophisticated law code, and a host of literary and artistic achievements) and the early Europeans, who lived very much as their nomad warrior ancestors had done. Early Slavic and Germanic Europe would not achieve anything like the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, or Byzantine level of civilization for centuries to come.

By AD 550 to 600, a variety of Slavs had settled in the Balkans. These linguistically and ethnically related peoples came from the Russian steppes. Some stayed in their native area and are the ancestors of present-day Russians. Others migrated to Eastern Europe; they included Ukranians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Serbians. The Slavs became the most numerous group in the Balkans, but this region was also home to Turks, Mongolians, Germans, and Vikings. The Slavs remained the dominant culture, absorbing elements of all the others along the way.

Slavic prosperity was based on agriculture and the slave trade. Roman plows and the Roman system of crop rotation, both of which the Slavs acquired around 500, greatly improved the harvests. Lacking a manufacturing or artisan economy, the western Slavs made money by kidnapping eastern Slavs and selling them into slavery in the Muslim world.

Between about 750 and 1054, the Vikings carried out a series of swift and merciless raids into France, Britain, and Eastern Europe. One of these Viking tribes, the Rus, founded the city-states of Kiev (also known as Kievan Rus) and Novgorod; in the end, Muscovy would absorb these states into an ever- expanding Russian empire. After the Christian conversion of Vladimir I in 988, Kiev became culturally more Slavic/Byzantine. Viking influence was what gave the Slavs the push to leave their tribal habits behind and develop into a civilization. With a view to acquiring the necessary force to expel the unwelcome Viking invaders, the Slavs began reorganizing themselves along Viking-style political lines; this inevitably led to a more sophisticated degree of social organization and thence to civilization.

In the tenth century, kingdoms began to emerge from Slavic tribal settlements: Poland in 966, Bohemia in 973, and Hungary with the Christian conversion of the Magyars in 997. The Slavs were already linguistically and ethnically interconnected; with their conversion to Christianity, they were now religiously linked to one another and also to the Byzantine Empire. Bohemia was some- thing of an exception to this pattern; its population was Germanic as well as Slavic, and given its comparatively western geographic location, it would be absorbed into the Holy Roman Empire during the medieval era. However, the Slav strain in the culture would triumph in the long run.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at: 

Europe - From Byzantine Empire to AD 1000 Practice Test

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