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Тhe medieval history of Serbia begins in the 5th century AD with the arrival of the Slavs in the Balkans, and ends with the occupation of Serbia by the Ottoman Empire in 1540 with the fall of the Serbian despotate.


Origins and Migration

According to Constantine Porphyrogenitus, a Byzantine Emperor who ruled during the 10th century, the Serbs migrated from White Serbia and initially settled around the region of Thessaloniki, Greece. Not to their liking, they instead settled a region farther north[1]- a large proportion of what had been the Roman province of Illyricum. On the Adriatic coast, these Serbs formed four coastal principalities known as Neretva, Zahumlje, Konavli and Trebinje and Duklja. Inland (to the east of the Dinaric Alps) lay a large territory stretching north as far as the Sava River, and included the region of Bosnia. It retained the old name of Serbia, often called Baptised Serbia by the Byzantines, because it was Christianized (unlike the still pagan White Serbs in northern Europe)[2].

Constantine's work, De Administrando Imperio, has attracted intense academic debate. On the one hand, some scholars hold it to be a true account of the situation, thus concluding that Neretvians, Zachlumians, Dukljians, Travunians and southeastern Bosnians are descendants of Serbs that took on new tribal names, and due to geographical and political factors developed an often independent history from Raska, the region of Serbia proper that became synonymous with the name Serbia from the 12th century onwards [3]. Others argue that Constantine's account may have merely been a reflection of the political situation during his time (ie the 10th century[4] - whereby his liege Caslav Klonimirovic wielded command over the various Slavic lands south of the Cetina and Vrbas rivers. Moreover, although possible, there is little archaeological evidence supporting a long-distance Serb migration from White Serbia[5], and indeed little evidence that a political entity known as White Serbia actually existed[6]. There were a few South Slavic tribes in the Middle Ages that had contemporary name-sakes amongst Western and Eastern Slavic tribes, such as the Croats, Severians and Abodrites. We do not know whether it actually represented a shared identity[7]. Florin Curta suggests that the Serbs might have been a clan of Slavic-speaking warriors, who formed within the Balkans, and slowly extended their power, and hence their name, over a greater territory[8].

The early history of Serbia is characterised by one of fluctuating borders and shifting centres of rule. For much of this period, there were several Serb states existing at any one time. Daniel Farlati used the term Serbia Primorje (Serbia by the sea) when referring to the coastal provinces, whilst he called the interior part Serbia Zagorje[9]. The two most prominent Serb states were Duklja (or Zeta) and Raška; they provided the territorial nucleus for a succession of Serb kingdoms that in the 13th century were consolidated under the Nemanjić dynasty [10]. Centred in Raška, the Nemanjićs ushered a golden period in Serbian history, whereby it became a dominant Balkan power. [11]. Henceforth the name Serbia became synonymous with the state of Raška.

Early states

Upon their initial arrival, the Slavs formed no uniform political organization, but rather remained divided into many tribes of various sizes, referred to as Sklaviniai by the Byzantines.[12] These groups were led by native chiefs[13]. Perhaps the tribes were organized into župa, a form of territorial organization learned from the native Illyrians, being roughly equivalent to a county.[14] Each župa consisted of several villages, linked by clan (i.e. extended family) relationships.[15]

An embryonic Serbian state formed in the 9th century. At this time, the Bulgarian Khanate was expanding westward, and had already installed Bulgar despots over the Slavic tribes which inhabited what is present-day northern Serbia - the Srem region and eastern Slavonia[16]. At the same time, it pushed into Macedonia from the south, effectively encircling the Serbs. As a response to this, with Byzantine support, a few Serbian zhupa united defensively under the lead of Knez (‘Prince’) Vlastimir- the founder of the Vlastimirovic dynasty[17]. The extent and location of this early Serb principality is not known with certainty, but it probably lay in present day southern Serbia and southeastern Bosnia "in the difficult country between the Rivers Drina and Ibar"[18][19][20][21]. In between the Serb principality and the Adriatic coastline existed three minor 'principalities', Travunia, Zachlumia and Pagania. At this time Duklja did not exist as a political entity, as its eastern parts were part of Vlastimir's realm whilst the coastal cities were ruled by Byzantine governors [22]. To the north, the Croats were beginning to consolidate into a Principality, whilst to the east loomed the Bulgarian Empire. Archaeological evidence shows that the fort of Ras, marked the early Serb-Bulgarian border [23][24].

The Bulgarian invasion came sometime in the 840s, but was repelled by Knez Vlastimir. Vlastimir gave his daughter's hand to the son of the Zhupan of Travunia, Balaes. This established a long-lasting allegiance. Travunia henceforth acknowledged Serbia’s authority, and was incorporated in Serbia as a semi-independent principality. Vlastimir's sons- Mutimir, Gojnik and Stojmir- defeated another Bulgarian attack c.853, capturing Khan Boris’ son, Vladimir, and twelve leading boljars. They escorted Vladimir to Ras, at the Serb-Bulgarian border, exchanged gifts and concluded a peace treaty. However, this early princedom was far from a consolidated, cetralized state, and the various zhupans retained considerable independence[25]. Rather than practising primogeniture, Slavic rulers practiced staresina[26], where rule fell upon the eldest person in the extended family (rather than the son of the King). The realm would then be split between the surviving brothers, sons, nephews and cousins. Such tradition repeatedly caused succession strife.

Serbia's political borders during the reign of Caslav Klonimirovic, ~ 950 AD

Sometime after defeating the Bulgarians, Mutimir ousted his brothers (who fled to Bulgaria). He kept Gojnik’s son Peter in his court, but he managed to escape to Croatia. Mutimir ruled until 890, being succeeded by his son Prvoslav. However, Prvoslav was overthrown by Petar Gojnikovic, who had returned from his exile in Croatia c. 892. The name Peter is Christian; suggesting that Christianity had started to permeate into Serbia, undoubtedly through Serbia’s contacts with the Bulgarians and Byzantines. Peter secured himself on the throne (after fending off a challenge from Klonimir, son of Stojmir) and was recognised by Tsar Symeon of Bulgaria. An alliance was signed between the two states. Already having Travunia’s loyalty, Peter began to expand his state north and west. He annexed the Bosna River valley[4], and then moved west securing allegiance from the Pagans - who were fiercely independent, pirateering Slavs. However, Peter’s expansion into Dalmatia brought him into conflict with Prince Michael Visevic of Zahumlje. Michael had also grown powerful, ruling not only Zachlumia, but exerting his influence over Travunia and Dioklea. Porphyrogenitus explains that Michael’s roots were different from Vlastimirovici, and was unwilling to yield authority to Peter.

Although allied to Symeon, Peter became increasingly disgruntled by the fact that he was essentially subordinate to him. Peter’s expansion toward the coast facilitated contacts with the Byzantines, by way of the strategos of Dyrrachium. Searching for allies against Bulgaria, the Byzantines showered Peter with gold and promises of greater independence if he would join their alliance- a convincing strategy. Peter might have been planning an attack on Bulgaria with the Magyars, showing that his realm had stretched north to the Sava river [4]. However, Michael of Zahumlje fore-warned Symeon of this plan, since Michael was an enemy of Peter, and a loyal vassal of Symeon. What followed was multiple Bulgarian interventions and a succession of Serb rulers. Symeon attacked Serbia (in 917) and deposed Peter, placing Pavel Branovic (a grandson of Mutimir) as Prince of Serbia, subordinate to Symeon (although some scholars suggest that Symeon took control over Serbi directly at this time)[27]. Unhappy with this, the Byzantines then sent Zaharije Prvoslaviljevic in 920 to oust Pavel, but he failed and was sent to Bulgaria as prisoner. The Byzantines then succeeded in turning Prince Pavel to their side. In turn, the Bulgarians started indoctrinating Zaharije. Zaharije invaded Serbia with a Bulgarian force, and ousted his cousin Pavel in 922. However, he too turned to Byzantium. A punitive force sent by the Bulgarians was defeated. Zaharije sent the heads of the Bulgarian generals to Emperor Romanus as a sign of his loyalty to the Byzantines. Thus we see a continuous cycle of dynastic strife amongst Vlastimir’s successors, stirred on by the Byzantine and Bulgarians, who were effectively using the Serbs as pawns. Whilst Bulgarian help was more effective, Byzantine help seemed preferable[4].

Simeon made peace with the Byzantines to settle affairs with Serbia once and for all. Frustrated by the traitorous smaller neighbour militarily, the Bulgarians decided to finish the things once and for all. In 924, he sent a large army accompanied by Caslav, son of Klonimir. The army forced Zaharije to flee to Croatia. The Serbian zhupans were then summoned to recognise Caslav as the new Prince. When they came, however, they were all imprisoned and taken to Bulgaria, as too was Caslav. Much of Serbia was ravaged, and many people fled to Croatia, Bulgaria and Constantinople. Simeon made Serbia into a Bulgarian province, so that Bulgaria now bordered Croatia and Zahumlje. He then resolved to attack Croatia, because it was a Byzantine ally and had sheltered the Serbian Prince. At the battle of the Bosnian highlands, Croatia’s King Tomislav defeated the Bulgarians, whilst Prince Michael of Zahumlje maintained neutrality. During the fall of central Serbia, Michael Visevic was the pre-eminent Serb prince, having been awarded the honorary title of Patriakos by the Byzantine Emperor, and may have ruled over Zachlumia, Travunia and Dioklea.

The Bulgarian subjugation of Serbia was for only three years. After Symeon died, Caslav Klonimirovic (927- c. 960s) led Serb refugees back to Serbia. He secured the allegiance of the Dalmatian duchies and expelled Bulgarian rule from central Serbia. After Tomislav’s death, Croatia was in near anarchy as his sons vied for sole rule, so Caslav was able to extend his rule north to the Vrbas river (gaining the alliegence of the chiefs of the various Bosnian zhupa)[28]. During this apogee of Serbian power, Christianity and culture penetrated Serbia as the Serb prince lived in peaceful and cordial relations with the Byzantines.

However, strong as it had grown to be, Serbia’s power (as other early Slavic states) was only as strong as its ruler. There was no centralised rule, but was a more a confederacy of Slavic principalities. The existence of the unified Grand Principality was dependent on the alliegence of the lesser princes to Caslav. When he died defending Bosnia against Magyar incursions (sometime between 950–960), the coalition disintegrated. The various zhupans and princes previously loyal to Caslav undoubtedly tried to carve out their own realms, falling into conflict with each other.[4]. We do not know the details, and we do not know the names of any rulers- perhaps because no one was prominent enough to be noted. We do know that in the 990s, Jovan Vladimir rose as the most powerful Serbian noble, carving out a principality centred on the coast of modern Montenegro. This state became known as Duklja, after the ancient Roman town of Doclea. However, by 997, it had been conquered and made subject to Bulgaria again by tzar Samuel. When the Byzantines finally defeated the Bulgarians, they regained control over most of the Balkans for the first time in four centuries. Serbian lands were governed by a strategos presiding over the Theme of Sirmium. However, local Serbian princes continued to reign as suzerains to the Byzantines, maintaining total autonomy over their lands, such as the zhupanate of Rascia while only nominally being Byzantine vassals. Forts were maintained in Belgrade, Sirmium, Nis and Branicevo. These were, for the most part, in the hands of local nobility, which often revolted against Byzantine rule.

The Kingdom of Duklja

For the next 150 years, the mantle of leadership of the Serbs passed to the coastal areas, where a successor principality- that of Duklja- had arisen. Starting with Prince Stefan Voislav, his dynasty would create a powerful and influential state that freed Serb lands from Byzantine rule. During this time, we know very little about the events of Serbia Zagorje because Byzantine attention was focused primarily in the coastal Serbs[29].

The reign of the Nemanjic

Nemanjic’s Serbia, 1150–1220, during the reigns of Stefan Nemanja and Stefan Prvovencani

Stefan Nemanja was succeeded by his middle son Stefan, whilst his first-born son Vukan was given the rule of the Zeta region (present-day Montenegro). Stefan Nemanja’s youngest son Rastko became a monk and took the name of Sava, turning all his efforts to spreading religion among his people. Since the Curia already had ambitions to spread its influence to the Balkans as well, Stefan used these propitious circumstances to obtain his crown from the Pope, thereby becoming the first Serbian king, in 1217. In Byzantium, his brother Sava managed to secure autocephaly for the Serbian Church and became the first Serbian archbishop in 1219. Thus the Serbs acquired both forms of independence: temporal and religious.

Balkans and Asia Minor in 1265

The next generation of Serbian rulers—the sons of Stefan PrvovencaniRadoslav, Vladislav and Uroš I, marked a period of stagnation of the state structure. All three kings were more or less dependent on some of the neighbouring states—Byzantium, Bulgaria or Hungary. The ties with the Hungarians played a decisive role in the fact that Uroš I was succeeded by his son Dragutin whose wife was a Hungarian princess. Later on, when Dragutin abdicated in favour of his younger brother Milutin (in 1282), the Hungarian king Ladislaus IV gave him lands in northeastern Bosnia, the region of Mačva, and the city of Belgrade, whilst he managed to conquer and annex lands in northeastern Serbia. Thus, some of these territories became part of the Serbian state for the first time. His new state was named Kingdom of Srem. In that time the name Srem was a designation for two territories: Upper Srem (present day Srem) and Lower Srem (present day Mačva). Kingdom of Srem under the rule of Stefan Dragutin was actually Lower Srem, but some historical sources mention that Stefan Dragutin also ruled over Upper Srem and Slavonia. After Dragutin died (in 1316), the new ruler of the Kingdom of Srem became his son, king Vladislav II, who ruled this state until 1325.

Emperor Dušan’s Serbia, circa 1350 AD
Corronation of Emperor Dušan
Coat of Arms Nemanjic

Under the rule of Dragutin’s younger brother—King Milutin, Serbia grew stronger despite having to occasionally fight wars on three different fronts. King Milutin was an apt diplomat much inclined to the use of a customary medieval diplomatic expedients—dynastic marriages. He was married five times, with Hungarian, Bulgarian and Byzantine princesses. He is also famous for building churches, some of which are the finest examples of Medieval Serbian architecture: the Gračanica monastery in Kosovo, the Cathedral in Hilandar Monastery on Mt. Athos, the St. Archangel Church in Jerusalem etc. Because of his endowments, King Milutin has been proclaimed a saint, in spite of his tumultuous life. He was succeeded on the throne by his son Stefan, later dubbed Stefan Decanski. Spreading the kingdom to the east by winning the town of Nis and the surrounding counties, and to the south by acquiring territories on Macedonia, Stefan Decanski was worthy of his father and built the Visoki Decani Monastery in Metohija—the most monumental example of Serbian Medieval architecture—that earned him his byname. Stefan Decanski defeated the Bulgarians in Battle of Velbužd in 1330.

In 1333 the Republic of Ragusa bought the Island of Peljesac from the Serbian Kingdom of Tsar Dušan.

Medieval Serbia reached its apex in the mid-14th century, during the rule of Tzar Stefan Dušan. This is the period of the Dušanov Zakonik (Dušan's Code, 1349), a juridical achievement unique among the European states of the time. Tzar Dušan opened new trade routes and strengthened the state's economy. Serbia flourished, becoming one of the most evolved countries and cultures in Europe. Some of Serbia's greatest Medieval arts were created during this period, most notably St. Sava's Nomocanon. Medieval Serbia enjoyed a high political, economic, and cultural reputation in Europe. It was one of the few states that did not practice the feudal order.

Taking advantage of the Byzantine civil war of 1341–1347, Dušan doubled the size of his kingdom seizing territories to the south, southeast and east at the expense of Byzantium and conquered almost the entirety of today's Greece, except without the Peloponnese and the islands. After he conquered the city of Serres, he was crowned as the Emperor of the Serbs and Greeks by the first Serbian Patriarch in 1346. Before his sudden death, Stefan Dušan tried to organize a Crusade with the Pope against the threatening Turks. He died in December 1355 at the age 47. Modern inspection of the emperor's body revealed that he was poisoned.

The downfall of the Serbian empire

States that emerged after dissolution of Serbian Empire in the 14th century
House of Branković Coat of Arms
Serbian infantry armor, around 1420, Military Museum (Belgrade)
Kosovo battle by Petar Radicevic

Tzar Stefan Dušan was succeeded by his son Uroš, called the Weak, a term that might also apply to the state of the kingdom, as it slowly slid into feudal anarchy. This is a period marked by the rise of a new threat: the Ottoman Turk sultanate, which gradually spread from Asia to Europe and conquered Byzantium first, and then the other Balkan states. Serbia was divided between the feudal lords. The most powerful was Vukašin Mrnjavčević, who was the right hand of Stefan Uroš, but he died in the Battle of Marica in his campaign to drive the Turks out of Europe. Tzar Uroš died several months later, and with his death, the Nemanjić dynasty was over. However, a new figure emerged - Lazar Hrebeljanović, who managed to unite most of Serbia with war and diplomacy. He could not unite all of Serbia, because some of the regional feudal lords were significantly powerful, and yet he had to fight the greater threat, the Ottoman Empire. The first raids on Lazar's territory began in 1381, but the real invasion came in 1389. Lazar gathered every soldier he could, leading Serbian army to face the Turks. On the 28th of July 1389 the two armies met at Kosovo, in what became known as the Battle of Kosovo. The attack began with the Serbs penetrating the first 2 lines of the Turkish army, and completely destroyed the right flank, under the command of the sultan's son, Yakub. At one point in the battle, a Serbian knight Miloš Obilić managed to assassinate the Ottoman sultan, Murad I. His son, Bayezid I, took command of the army and managed to defeat the Serbs and to capture Prince Lazar and execute him. The losses are unknown, but it is said that the Serbian-led army fought to the last man. After the Battle of Kosovo there was no army among the Balkan states capable of halting the advancing Ottoman Empire and the first victim was the Bulgarian Tarnovo state, which fell four years later. Serbia however managed to recuperate under despot Stefan Lazarević, surviving for 70 more years, experiencing a cultural and political renaissance, but after Stefan Lazarević's death, his successors from the House of Branković did not manage to stop the Ottoman advance. Serbia finally fell under the Ottomans in 1540, and stayed under their occupation until 1804, when Serbia finally managed to regain its sovereignty from the Ottomans.


  1. ^ The Serbs. Sima Cirkovic. Blackwell Publishing. 2004. ISBN 0-631-20471-7
  2. ^ The early Medieval Balkans. A Critical Survey from the 6th to the Late 12th Century. John V A Fine. The University of Michigan Press. 1991. ISBN 0-472-08149-7. Pg 52 Great Croatia called White was still unbaptized in his (Constantine's) day as were the Serbs who are neighbouring it
  3. ^ The Serbian Origin of Montenegrins
  4. ^ a b c d e Fine
  5. ^ Florin Curta. The Making of the Slavs
  6. ^ Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages 500–1250. Florin Curta. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks
  7. ^ The Early Slavs. Culture and Society in Early Medieval Europe. Cornell University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-801-431-779
  8. ^ Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages 500–1250. Florin Curta. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. NB Curta applies the example primarily to the Croats, for whom the early archaeological evidence is, at present, more available. He sugests that perhaps a similar process occurred for th Serbs.
  9. ^ Illyria Sacrum. D Farlati. 1751
  10. ^ Encyclopedia Brittanica Online; Montenegro
  11. ^ The Balkans. From Constantinople to Communism. D Hupchik
  12. ^ Cirkovic. Pg 11 tribal territory formed the basis for political groups of various sizes
  13. ^ Hupchik. Pg 35 They lived in tribal groups led by native chiefs
  14. ^ Fine. Pg 38 zupa organisation seems to have been heavily influenced by the earlier Illyrian territorial organization
  15. ^ Paul Barford. The Early Slavs. Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe. Cornell University Press. 2001. ISBN 0-8014-3977-9. Pg 129
  16. ^ The early Medieval Balkans. J V A Fine. Pg 107
  17. ^ Hupchik. Pg 39–40: a small Serb state ruled by one Vlastimir arose in the 9th century. Bulgar westward expansion might have inspired some Serb tribes to unite defensively under Vlastimir's authority. The Byzantines sent agents and gold to encourage Serb unification
  18. ^ Quote from: Entry of the Slavs into Christendom: An Introduction to the Medieval History of the Slavs. A. P. Vlasto. Serbia, part 1
  19. ^ The Early Medieval Balkans. A Critical Survey from the 6th to the late 12th century. John Fine. Pg 53 The Serbs setlled far to the south of what we now think of as the centre of Serbia
  20. ^ Florin Curta. Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500–1250. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. . Pg 146. in the valleys of the upper Drin and Lim rivers (southeastern Bosnia and southwestern Serbia) the late 800s, the region of Ras was a frontier district of Bulgaria
  21. ^ The Balkans. From Constantinople to Communism. D Hupchik. Pg 39 In the mountains south of Dalmatian Croatia and west of the Morava River..
  22. ^ The early Medieval balkans. J V A Fine
  23. ^ Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages. Florin Curta
  24. ^ Cirkovic. Pg 12
  25. ^ Fine. Pg 57 the nobles retained great local independence
  26. ^ The Serbs. Sima Crikovic
  27. ^ Entry of the Slavs into Christendom: An Introduction to the Medieval History of the Slavs.A Vlasto
  28. ^ Curta
  29. ^ The Serbs. Sima Cirkovic

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