Principality of Serbia (medieval)

Principality of Serbia (medieval)
Serbian Principality
Cрпска Кнежевина / Srpska Kneževina



Serbia, during the rule of Časlav (927–960)
Capital Dostinika (768–839)
Ras (839–971)
Skadar (1040)
Language(s) Serbian (Old Serbian)
Religion Slavic polytheism (768–869)
Eastern Christianity (Orthodoxy)
Government Monarchy
 - fl. 768–814 Višeslav (first)
 - 831–850 Vlastimir (notable)
 - 850–891 Mutimir (first Christian)
 - 927–960 Časlav (last dynastic member)
 - 960–969 Tihomir (last Prince)
Historical era Medieval
 - Unification 768
 - Byzantine annexation 969
Today part of  Serbia

Principality of Serbia or Serbian Principality (Serbian: Cрпска Кнежевина, Srpska Kneževina) was an early medieval state of the Serbs ruled by the Vlastimirović dynasty, that existed from ca 768 to 969 in Southeastern Europe.[a] It was established through an unification of several provincial chiefs under the supreme rule of a certain Višeslav, the first known Serbian ruler by name (fl. 768–814). In 822, the Serbs were said to rule the "greater part of Dalmatia", and at the same time the Bulgars had taken the lands to the east, preparing to conquer Serbia. Vlastimir of Serbia defeated the Bulgar army in a three-year-war (839-842), and the two powers lived in peace for some decades. Vlastimir's three sons succeeded in ruling Serbia together, although not for long; Serbia became a key part in the power struggle between the Byzantines and Bulgars (in predominantly Byzantine alliance), which also resulted in major dynastic civil wars for a period of three decades. Serbia was annexed by the Bulgars for three years (924-927), until the return of the political hostage Prince Časlav, who united several provinces, becoming the most powerful of the Vlastimirovićs. An important event was the establishment of Christianity as state-religion in 869 AD, and the founding of the first Serbian eparchy, the Eparchy of Ras. The information of the Vlastimirović dynasty ends with De Administrando Imperio (fl. 950-960). Serbia is annexed by the Byzantines in 969.




Serbia in 850

The Serbs, a Slavic people, specifically of the South Slavic subgroup, has its origins in the 6th- and 7th century communities developed in Southeastern Europe (see Great Migration). Slav raids on Eastern Roman territory are mentioned in 518, and by the 580s they had conquered large areas referred to as Sclavinia (transl. Slavdom, from Sklavenoi – Σκλαυηνοι, the early South Slavic tribe which is eponymous to the current ethnic and linguistic Indo-European people).[1]

During Byzantine rule, the archon was overseen by the strategoi (provincial military [and civil] governors) in the nearby Byzantine cities. The Emperor later recognized the Serb realm in turn for military aid (foederati) and nominal overlordship of the Emperor.

Serbian-Bulgarian frontier (805-818)

In the east, the Bulgarian Empire grew strong. In 805, Khan Krum conquered the Braničevci, Timočani and Obotrites, banishing the tribal chiefs and replacing them with administrators appointed by the central government.[2] In 818 during the rule of Omurtag (814-836) they, together with other tribes of the frontier, revolted and seceded from Bulgaria because of an administrative reform that deprived them of much of their local authority.[3][4] They left the association (societas) of the Bulgarian Empire and sought, together with many other Slavic tribes, protection from Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious, meeting him at his court at Herstal.[5] They came under Frankish rule in 822.[6] Timok and Branicevo would be of dispute between the Franks and Bulgars, the Khan sent embassies in 824 and 826 seeking to settle the border dispute, but was neglected.[7][8] The Bulgarian Empire subsequently annex the region again. In 827, Omurtag invades Frankish Croatia with boats sailing from the Danube up the Drave, spreading destruction. The Slavs and other tribes on its banks were cowed into submission, and agreed to accept Bulgar governors.[9]


Beginning (822-891)

Prince Višeslav (fl. 768–814), the first known Serbian monarch by name, ruled the hereditary lands (Županias, counties) of Neretva, Tara, Piva, Lim. He managed to unite several more provinces and tribes into what was known as Serbia. Višeslav was succeeded by his son Radoslav and then Prosigoj, during which "Serbs inhabit the greater part of Dalmatia" (Royal Frankish Annals, 822). At this time, there was peace with the eastern neighbours of Bulgars, who had began to expand their territory significantly (see next section). Prosigoj's son, Prince Vlastimir, further expanded the realm, which prompted the Bulgars, who had already taken parts of Macedonia, to invade in 839. The invasion led to a three-year-war, which ended in 842, with a decisive Serbian victory. The Bulgars were driven out and Vlastimir expanded to the west and south, meanwhile the Bulgars had taken most of modern Serbia's east. Prince Mutimir (r. 851–891),[10] the son of Vlastimir, managed to defeat the Bulgars once again in 834–835, also capturing the son of the Bulgar Khan. The Serbs and Bulgars concluded peace, and the Christianization of the Slavs began; by the 870s the Serbs were baptized and had established the Eparchy of Ras, on the order of Emperor Basil I. The remaining years well into the 920s are characterized by civil wars; succession wars between the branches of the Vlastimirović Dynasty.

The Serbian realm gained more power by the turn of the 9th century. At this time, the Bulgarian Khanate was expanding westward, and had already annexed the Slavic tribes of Syrmia and eastern Slavonia. At the same time, it pushed into Macedonia to the south, effectively encircling the Serbs. As a response to this, in Byzantine alliance, the Serbian Županate was led by Knez (‘Prince’) Vlastimir – the founder of the Vlastimirovic dynasty, to counter the Bulgars. The extent of the realm corresponds to modern southern Serbia, southeastern Bosnia, eastern Herzegovina and Konavli. At the Adriatic coastline existed a minor 'principality', Pagania. Travunia and Zachlumia were formed after the Bulgaro-Serbian Wars, evolving from city-states to broader administrative regions.

Basil I with delegation of Serbs and Croats.

The Bulgaro-Serbian War took place 836–846 and ended with Serbian victory. Vlastimir gave his daughter's hand to Krajina Belojević, the son of the local lord Beloje of Trebinje. This established Travunia as a principality part of Rascia. Vlastimir's sons- Mutimir, Gojnik and Strojimir- defeated another Bulgarian attack c. 853, capturing Khan Boris’ son, Vladimir, and twelve leading bojars. 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, centralized state, and the various zhupans retained considerable independence. Rather than practising primogeniture, Slavic rulers practiced staresina, 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.

Church of Saint Apostles Peter and Paul (UNESCO item)

Mutimir was baptized by missionaries Cyril and Methodius during the rule of Byzantine Emperor Basil I (867–886), who sent the priests after Mutimir acknowledged Byzantine suzerainty. The Serbs were fully Christianized by 873, seen in the tradition of theophoric names (e.g. Petar Gojniković, Pavle Branović) and the fact that he maintained the communion with the Eastern Church (Constantinople) when Pope John VIII invited him to recognize the jurisdiction of the bishopric of Sirmium. The Serbs and Bulgarians adopted the Old Slavonic liturgy instead of the Greek.[11][12]

Mutimir founded the Bishopric of Ras, mentioned in the Fourth Council of Constantinople 878–880.

Wars of the throne

Sometime after defeating the Bulgarians, Mutimir ousted his brothers (who fled to Bulgaria). He kept Gojnik’s son Petar Gojniković 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 Gojniković, who had returned from his exile in Croatia c. 892. The name Peter the 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, and then moved west securing allegiance from the Pagania – who were fiercely independent, pirateering Serbian tribe. However, Peter’s expansion into Dalmatia brought him into conflict with Prince Michael 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 Dyrrhachium. 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. However, Michael of Zahumlje forewarned 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 Pavle Branović (a grandson of Mutimir) as Prince of Serbia, subordinate to Symeon (although some scholars suggest that Symeon took control over Serbia directly at this time. Unhappy with this, the Byzantines then sent Zaharije Prvoslavljevic in 920 to oust Pavle, but he failed and was sent to Bulgaria as prisoner. The Byzantines then succeeded in turning Prince Pavle 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.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. 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 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.

Unification under Časlav, annexation of Rascia (927–960)

Časlav Klonimirović 927–950/960

The Bulgarian rule over Serbia lasted only three years. After Symeon died, Časlav Klonimirović (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 zhupas).

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, a confederacy of Slavic principalities existed instead. The existence of the unified Grand Principality was dependent on the allegiance of the lesser princes to Caslav. When he died defending Bosnia against Magyar incursions (sometime between 950 and 960), the coalition disintegrated.

After this, there is a gap in the history of Rascia as it is annexed by the Byzantine Empire and the Bulgarian Empire. The dynasty continues to rule the maritime regions, and in the 990s, Jovan Vladimir (Vlastimirović) rises as the most powerful Serbian prince, with a realm of present-day Montenegro, eastern Herzegovina, and Koplik in Albania, this state becomes known as Duklja, after the ancient Roman town of Doclea. However, by 997, it had been conquered and made subject to Bulgaria again by tsar 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, Niš and Branicevo. These were, for the most part, in the hands of local nobility, which often revolted against Byzantine rule.

Fall and aftermath

After Časlav died ca 960, Rascia was annexed by the Byzantines (Catepanate of Serbia 971–976) and Bulgars. Serbia lost its centralized rule and the provinces again became subordinate to the Empire.

Jovan Vladimir emerged as a ruler of a little land called Duklja, centered in Bar on the Adriatic coast, as a Byzantine vassal. His realm was called Serbia, Dalmatia, Sklavonia' etc, and eventually had much of the maritime provinces, including Travunia and Zachlumia. His realm probably stretched into the hinterland to include some parts of Zagorje (inland Serbia and Bosnia) as well. Vladimir’s pre-eminent position over other Slavic nobles in the area explains why Emperor Basil approached him for an anti-Bulgarian alliance. With his hands tied by war in Anatolia, Emperor Basil required allies for his war against Tsar Samuel, who ruled a Bulgarian empire stretched over Macedonia. In retaliation, Samuel invaded Duklja in 997, and pushed through Dalmatia up to the city of Zadar, incorporating Bosnia and Serbia into his realm. After defeating Vladimir, Samuel reinstated him as a vassal Prince. We do not know what Vladimir’s connection was to the previous princes of Serbia, or to the rulers of Croatia- much of what is written in the Chronicles of the Priest of Duklja about the genealogy of the Doclean rulers is mythological.[13] Vladimir was murdered by Vladislav, Samuel’s brother and successor, circa 1016 AD. The last prominent member of his family, his uncle Dragimir, was killed by some local citizens in Kotor in 1018. That same year, the Byzantines had defeated the Bulgarians, and in one masterful stroke re-took virtually the entire Balkans.



The establishment of Christianity as state-religion dates to the time of Prince Mutimir and Byzantine Emperor Basil I (r. 867–886),[14][15] who, after managing to put the Serbs under his nominal rule, sends priests together with admiral Niketas Ooryphas, before the operations against the Saracens in 869 when Dalmatian fleets were sent to defend the town of Ragusa).[16]

The Christianization was due partly to Byzantine and subsequent Bulgarian influence.[14] It is important to note that at least during the rule of Kotsel of Pannonia (861-874), communications between Serbia and Great Moravia must have been possible.[14] This fact, the pope was presumably aware of, when planning Methodios' diocese as well as the Dalmatian coast, which was in Byzantine hands as far north as Split.[14] There is a possibility that some Cyrillomethodian pupils reached Serbia in the 870s, perhaps even sent by Methodius himself.[14] Serbia is accounted Christian as of about 870.[14]

The first Serbian bishopric was founded at the political center at Ras, near modern Novi Pazar on the Ibar river.[14] The initial affiliation is uncertain, it may have been under the subordination of either Split or Durazzo, both then Byzantine.[14] The early church of Saint Apostles Peter and Paul at Ras, can be dated to the 9th-10th century, with the rotunda plan characteristic of first court chapels.[17] The bishopric was established shortly after 871, during the rule of Mutimir, and was part of the general plan of establishing bishoprics in the Slav lands of the Empire, confirmed by the Council of Constantinople in 879-880.[17][18] The Eparchy of Braničevo was founded in 878 (as continuation of Viminacium and Horreum Margi). The seal of Strojimir (died between 880–896), the brother of Mutimir, was bought by the Serbian state in an auction in Germany. The seal has a Patriarchal cross in the center and Greek inscriptions that say: "God, help Strojimir (CTPOHMIP)".[19][20]

Petar Gojniković (r. 892-917), was evidently a Christian prince.[14] Christianity presumably was spreading in his time,[21] also since Serbia bordered Bulgaria, Christian influences and perhaps missionairies came from there.[21] This would increase in the twenty-year peace.[22] The previous generation (Mutimir, Strojimir and Gojnik) had Slav names, the following (Petar, Stefan, Pavle, Zaharija) has Christian names, a notice of strong Byzantine missions to Serbia, as well as to the Slavs of the Adriatic coast, in the 870s.[14]

The Bulgarian annexation of Serbia in 924 was important for the future direction of the Serbian church.[17] By now, at latest, Serbia must have received the Cyrillic alphabet and Slavic religious text, already familiar but perhaps not yet preferred to Greek.[17]


See also

History of Serbia
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  1. ^ "Slavyane v rannem srednevekovie" Valentin V. Sedov (Russian language), Archaeological institute of Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1995
  2. ^ Académie des sciences de Bulgarie, Institut d'histoire, 1966, Études historiques, p. 66, Google Books
  3. ^ The Macedonian question: the struggle for southern Serbia
  4. ^ The South Slav journal
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ The Turks: Early ages
  7. ^ Etudes historiques: A l'occasion du XIII Congrés international des sciences historiques
  8. ^ The early medieval Balkans
  9. ^ Einhard, p. 216.
  10. ^ Srpsko Nasledje
  11. ^ The wars of the Balkan Peninsula: their medieval origins ISBN 0-8108-5846-0
  12. ^ De Administrando Imperio
  13. ^ Fine[page needed]
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j The entry of the Slavs into Christendom, p. 208
  15. ^ De Administrando Imperio, ch. 29 [Of Dalmatia and of the adjacent nations in it]: "...the majority of these Slavs [Serbs, Croats] were not even baptized, and remained unbaptized for long enough. But in the time of Basil, the Christ-loving emperor, they sent diplomatic agents, begging and praying him that those of them who were unbaptized might receive baptism and that they might be, as they had originally been, subject to the empire of the Romans; and that glorious emperor, of blessed memory, gave ear to them and sent out an imperial agent and priests with him and baptized all of them that were unbaptized of the aforesaid nations..."
  16. ^
  17. ^ a b c d The entry of the Slavs into Christendom, p. 209
  18. ^ Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Raska and Prizren
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ a b The early medieval Balkans, p. 141
  22. ^ The early medieval Balkans, p. 142


  • (Primary) Moravcsik, Gyula (1967), De Administrando Imperio, Library of Congress Catalogue 
  • Fine, John Van Antwerp (1991), The Early Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Sixth to the Late Twelfth Century, University of Michigan Press, ISBN 978-0-472-08149-3, 
  • Whittow, Mark (1996), MacMillan Press, ISBN 0-520-20496-4 
  • Fine, Jr., John V.A. (2006), When Ethnicity did not matter in the Balkans. A study of Identity in pre-Nationalist Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia in the Medieval and Early-Modern Periods, University of Michigan Press, ISBN 0-472-11414-x 
  • Stephenson, Paul (2003), The Legend of Basil the Bulgar -Slayer, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-81530-4 
  • Curta, Florin (2006), Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500–1250, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-81539-0 
  • Hupchik, Dennis P. (2002), The Balkans. From Constantinople to Communism., Palgrave MacMillan, ISBN 1-4039-6417-3 
  • Vladimir Ćorović, Ilustrovana istorija Srba, knjige 1–6, Beograd, 2005–2006.
  • Sima M. Ćirković, Srbi među evropskim narodima, Beograd, 2004.
  • Tim Džuda, Srbi, Beograd, 2003. (translation of: Tim Judah, The Serbs, 2000.)
  • Milan Tutorov, Mala Raška a u Banatu, Zrenjanin, 1991.

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