The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region, c. 500-700

By Florin Curta | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
“KINGS” AND “DEMOCRACY”: POWER IN
EARLY SLAVIC SOCIETY

One of the most persistent stereotypes about the early medieval history of Eastern Europe is that, at the time of their migration, the Slavs were organized in a “polyarchic tribal society with no elevated notion of sovereignty. ” No Clovis or Theoderic arose among the Slavs to gather their scattered communities into a state and attempt a symbiosis with the Greco-Roman civilization of Byzantium. Incapable of organizing themselves on the state level, the Slavs could not escape being conquered by Goths, Huns, or Avars, who thus eliminated any incipient aristocracy the Slavs may have developed. The idea of the political inferiority of the Slavs in the Middle Ages, in contrast with a Germanic stratified society, is not new. It may be traced back as far as Herder's notion of a “democratic, ” egalitarian Slavic society. Today, the notion of the politically “primitive” Slavs of the early Middle Ages is a commonplace. This idea is primarily based on Procopius'frequently cited description of the Sclavenes and the Antes in the mid-500s: “For these nations, the Sclavenoi and Antae, are not ruled by one man, but they have lived from of old under a democracy (ἐν δημοκρατίᾳ ἐκ παλαιο[w4] βιοτεύουσι), and consequently everything which involves their welfare, whether for good or for ill, is referred to the people (ἐς κοινὸν ἄγεται)”. Some have argued that “democracy” is derisively applied here to what, in Procopius'eyes, might have been the opposite of Byzantine monarchy. Others blame Procopius for being an unqualified witness, who could not distinguish between acephalous societies and “primitive democracies. ” Some others, particularly among Soviet historians, believe Procopius to have described what is now known under the Marxist concept of “military democracy. ”1

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1
Procopius, Wars VII 14.22. Procopius' democracy as “military democracy”: Braichesvkii 1953:22; Cankova-Petkova 1962:267; Benedicty 1965:61–2. See also Litavrin 1985:101; Havlík 1985:176. Procopius' democracy and Byzantine monarchy: Benedicty 1963:46–7 and 1965:53; Havlík 1985:174. Procopius and “primitive democracies”: Evans 1989:63. For the political inferiority of the early Slavs, see Obolensky 1971:57; Anderson 1977:216 and 285; Pohl 1988:94; Alexander 1994:205–6. See also Grafenauer 1960:94; Richards 1986:327.

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