Czech Lands/Slovakia

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The Slavs may have entered the historical scene late, but they did so in an impressive way. Sometime in the fifth century a.d., the expansion of the nomadic Huns in central Asia led to massive ethnic migrations. The Slavs, too, began to move away from their original domiciles in the east of Europe, soon becoming acquainted with the advanced cultural world of the eastern Roman Empire. From a.d. 531 onward, Slavic warriors plundered the territory of the Balkans, leaving terror in their wake. The Slavic expansion to central Europe took a quieter course. There the colonists met only remnants of the original Germanic population in an almost depopulated landscape. At about the beginning of the sixth century, the first wave of immigration arrived in the territories of Bohemia and Moravia. The chronicler Kosmas, who lived and worked during the late eleventh century and early twelfth century, describes the time of the arrival of the Slavs (who were led by their mythical ancestor Čech, or "Czech") and their settlement as idyllic and their life as quiet and peaceful. The results of archaeological excavations suggest that this was the case.

The first Slavic settlements followed the fertile basins of major rivers, and their appearance is remarkably uniform: a group of several countersunk dwellings in plots 3.65 by 3.65 meters in size, all equipped with oven and bed plus storage pits for grain. Traces of internal social differentiation are unclear. Unfortified settlements are laid out in a more or less regular pattern at a distance of about 1.6 kilometers from one another, which gave the individual communities space for fields and pastures. Only occasionally, a grouping of some ten houses appears at a strategic and important site.

the empire of samo

The peaceful times did not last long. Apart from the influences of states west and south of Czech territory, social changes in the Slavic world stemmed from a new wave of attacks, this time by the Avars from the steppes of Asia. In a.d. 558 a new series of conflicts with the Roman Empire began. The Germanic Langobards started to leave Pannonia, and the territory was occupied by the Avar ruler. Thus the Czech Slavs gained an unwelcome neighbor in the southeast. The pressure from the incursions of these nomadic horsemen brought about a new wave of Slavic colonists, who arrived in Bohemia and Moravia at the end of the sixth century.

The degree of the Slavs' dependence on the Avars varied. Some Slavic troops even fought in the Avar armies, but at the beginning of the seventh century relations became strained. Led by the merchant Samo, perhaps an emissary of the western Roman Empire, the Slavs rose up and prevailed against the Avars. In a.d. 623 Samo was elected king of a newly established "state," which included modern-day Bohemia and Moravia plus parts of Slovakia and Carinthia (now a part of Austria). Samo's domain probably had its center in the lowlands of southern Moravia.

The independence of this new empire soon became a thorn in the side of its neighbor in the west, the Merovingian western Roman Empire. In a.d. 631 King Dagobert of that empire sent expeditionart troops of Langobards, Alemanni, and Austrasians, with the aim of forcing Samo to submit fully to Merovingian domination. Despite the limited victories by the first two military corps, the expedition was not ultimately successful: the third and main corps of forces was stopped on the border of Samo's empire, at the castle Wogastiburg. The location of the castle is the subject of controversy, but it probably was situated in northwestern Bohemia. Still this is the first time that literary documents mention the existence of fortified seats (that is, castles) in the Slavic world of central Europe.

Samo's empire did not survive its ruler, however, and for the following two centuries accounts of Slavs in Bohemia and Moravia are vague. The reason is clear: after a.d. 680 the newly arrived nomadic Bulgars were wedged between the Byzantine Empire and the Avar territory in the southeast. They cut off the Avars from their rich sources of booty and thus indirectly forced these nomads in the lowlands of Pannonia to adapt to a settled life. Meanwhile the neighboring territories to the west were beset by internal fighting among the Merovingians. Eventually their majordomos emerged as the winners, and Charlemagne began a new era as emperor of the western Roman Empire. Charlemagne did not neglect his eastern neighbors in his policy of expansion. Having defeated the Saxons and the settled Avars, his armies once again set out to the Czech territory in three parts, only to fail again in a.d. 805 at a castle known as Canburg somewhere in the northern half of Bohemia. This time, though, the success of the Slavs did not persist. The Frankish army resorted to the usual strategy of destroying crops, and the following year another expedition forced the Czech Slavs formally to acknowledge their dependence on Charlemagne's empire and to pay taxes.

Still the Dark Ages (the seventh and eighth centuries), from which there are no written accounts, represent a period of lively social changes in the Slavic world. The Canburg castle was just one of numerous castles built—as archaeologists' findings have proved—with growing intensity in these two centuries. The system of forts, which for the most part were situated at the ingresses into and at the peripheries of populated areas, is itself a sign of the social changes taking place that were necessary for the building of such large fortification systems. This building work was probably organized by the emerging local military nobility, as is evident in the finds of both western spurs and eastern jewels and ornaments from the Avar culture. This cultural synthesis gave rise to the first more or less stable state.

great moravia

In a.d. 791 Charlemagne instigated wars with the Pannonian Avars that went on for decades, and it was—among other things—quarrels inside the Avar kingdom that contributed to the definitive victory of the Frankish empire. Charlemagne probably had no idea that in this way he was untying the hands of the Avars' Slavic neighbors in Moravia and western Slovakia. It is no accident that the last appearance of the Avars on the political stage in a.d. 822 is at the same time as the first appearance of the Slavs known as Moravians. That year the Moravians appeared with the Slavs dependent on the empire before the Bavarian king Ludwig the German.

The Moravians, however, had their own idea of dependence on the Frankish empire. Relatively soon they used both the fall of the Avar kingdom and the internal crisis in the Frankish empire to strengthen their hegemony. Mojmír I, the first of the princes (dukes) of the emerging dynasty, appeared in the a.d. 830s; at about the same time, Western Christianity was accepted in Moravia. Apart from the assumption of certain ideological and spiritual values, the acceptance of Christianity in early medieval central Europe meant both juridical protection (though not completely reliable) from the eagerness of the Frankish empire to convert pagans to Christianity and a new sociopolitical system that would strengthen the increasing stratification in Moravian society. But the new state would soon be tested. In a.d. 843 the Frankish empire fell apart, and three years later Ludwig the German, by then ruler of the newly established eastern Frankish empire, attacked Moravia, dethroned Mojmír, and replaced him with Prince Rostislav.

Rostislav's vassalage was fabricated, however. This clever politician formed a coalition with neighboring Slavs and persistently strengthened his position in Moravia. At his behest, a mission of Eastern Christianity came to Moravia from the Byzantine Empire in a.d. 863. This mission did not bring the longed-for independent bishopric to Moravia right away, but it did bring a newly created script based on the phonetic transcription of the "universal" Slavic language. In his attempt to gain control over Moravia in the years a.d. 864–874, Ludwig the German made another wrong choice when installing a new ruler. This ruler, Svatopluk, a nephew of Rostislav, managed to occupy and defend Moravian territory with his own forces, and he proved to be a provident politician when he acknowledged his dependence on the eastern Frankish empire, thus showing his loyalty. This ensured him peace, and he could begin to develop further the state concept of his predecessor: formal annexation of neighboring territories, which ensured him revenues to run the state apparatus and allowed him to keep a large professional military retinue.

The social hierarchy in Moravia was a complicated system. At the top of the social pyramid was the ruler, the "chief of chiefs." At the lower levels were magnates and princes from the original tribal nobility and the nongoverning members of the Mojmír dynasty on the one hand and the clergy on the other. Then there was a special group: the military retinue, that is, the state army. The lowest stratum among the free consisted of the rural population. The base of this imaginary pyramid (but not the economic basis) was formed by the unfree domestics, or slaves—that is, those who were not sold to the Mediterranean as a frequent and welcome source of income.

The image of Great Moravia's fame has been made more complete thanks to archaeological excavations in the centers. At the top of an imaginary hierarchy one can put Mikulčice, probably Rostislav's seat of power, referred to by contemporaries as "an unspeakable fort, unlike all ancient forts." Originally an old castle, Mikulčice had almost become a town. Walls several kilometers long of complex tree-and-earth construction and the branches of the Morava River surrounded residences where the highest echelon of the Great Moravian nobility was concentrated. From the windows of his one-story palace, the ruler could enjoy a view of the magnates' estates, filled with light shining off the white walls of churches and reflecting from their varied architecture. The undisturbed peace of this view was enhanced further by the independent housing of the military retinue—uniform barracks-like log cabins, the homes of his well-fed and well-armed mounted warriors situated within sight of the ruler's palace. Only the smoke from the numerous artisans' workshops might have disturbed the view of the Moravian plains.

The artisans produced a whole range of material goods, instruments, tools, and weapons. The repeated Frankish bans on weapons export to the Slavs and the growing numbers of the warriors soon led to domestic production of high-quality swords for mounted warriors and also of Moravian war axes. These were the main weapons of foot soldiers, that is, free farmers, and they are found among the grave goods at most rural burial places from that time. The craftspeople developed their own style, which borrowed from cultural influences of both the Carolingian world to the west and the Avar and then Byzantine realms in the southeast. In particular, jewelry of exceptional artistic quality and technical achievement defined the development of art handicrafts in central Europe. Products that could not be produced at home came to the central Moravian market mainly with trading caravans. Commodities were imported from places ranging from the Rhineland to central Asia and from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean.

In light of the glory of Great Moravia, one could easily overlook the instability of its whole political system. Territorial expansion brought rulers income in the form of booty from the territories of today's Bohemia, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary. This made it possible for them to sustain their military retinue. At the same time, it brought about the interior instability of a conglomerate of dependent territories where allies could easily become enemies. The military retinue created its own vicious circle: more expansion led to a larger retinue, which meant further expansion, and so on. In the end, only the most powerful neighbors were left, in the shape of the reconsolidated eastern Frankish empire.

The social structure itself also was a cause of instability. Among the nobility were members of the original tribal aristocracy from the regional dynasties, and the population consisted to a considerable extent of free farmers who worked on their own, not state-owned, land, which provided no tax revenues for the state treasury. A test of Great Moravia's strength came in the a.d. 860s, when nomadic horsemen—this time the Hungarians—once again arrived from the eastern steppes. In the following decades they were both feared raiders and welcome allies of warring European rulers. In a.d. 892 Prince Svatopluk successfully opposed Bavarian-Hungarian aggression, but he died two years later, and the empire, held together only by the power of his personality, slowly began to collapse. His sons, Mojmír II and Svatopluk II, along with the Bavarians and the Hungarians, began to play an intricate political game, with mutual alliances and hostilities. In a.d. 906 this intrigue resulted in a devastating defeat of the allied Moravian-Bavarian army by the Hungarians in the territory of today's Slovakia. Thus under the hooves of Hungarian horses, Great Moravia disappeared from the map of Europe. Soon a close neighbor, Bohemia, found inspiration in its example.

the beginnings of the czech state

At the very beginning of the ninth century, Bohemia was in a period of extensive structural changes, among them the planning of castle building. No longer did castles line the perimeters of populated areas; instead, they were built in the centers. The asynchronous development of the individual parts of Bohemia betrayed the slowly emerging regional nobility. A certain emancipation in the material culture was another sign of change: gradually the proportions of men's and women's luxury objects in archaeological finds equalized, which may have been a result of the emergence of regional princely dynasties. There were also transformations in the spiritual sphere, evident in the changeover from cremation to inhumation. In this an effort to sustain and preserve the continuity of family can be anticipated. Gradually impulses from the Christian rite probably became a part of this effort.

In a.d. 845 a group of fourteen Czech princes traveled to Ludwig the German's domain in Bavaria to be converted to Christianity. Like the Moravians, their aim most likely was to avoid giving the Bavarian king an excuse for an attack against pagans. One year later, however, Ludwig the German attacked Christian Moravia, and the Czechs became radical allies of the Moravians. This more or less short-lived period of temporary Christianity in Bohemia gives an important piece of information about the number of magnates ruling in the individual regions of Bohemia. Similar to Moravia, Bohemia was a loosely structured grouping of states, appearing as a united whole from the outside though territorially divided within.

The present state of archaeological information makes it possible, with varying degrees of detail, to define as many as ten small territorial formations in Bohemia at the time, each dominated by a castle situated in the center of the settlement. It was only a matter of time before one of the regional dynasties tried to seize power in the whole of Bohemia. It did not take long for a suitable candidate to appear. Prince Bořivoj was the first historically documented member of what was to be the Premyslide dynasty of central Bohemia, named after its legendary ancestor Přemysl. Relatively soon this ambitious magnate appeared at Svatopluk's court in Great Moravia, where he was converted to Christianity around the year a.d. 883. This conversion gave him access to the political elite in Moravia, but in Bohemia his baptism brought about a furious reaction and led to civil war. The war made it possible for Svatopluk to launch a military intervention for the benefit of his pretender and temporarily annex Bohemia as a part of the Great Moravian empire. In Bohemia it is possible to trace the close relations with Great Moravia and their varying intensity in this period, mostly in central Bohemia, where Great Moravian jewels and weapons had a strong presence.

Thanks to his firm political position, Bořivoj was able to exercise both his faith and his power. Having built his first church, Saint Clement's, at the Levý Hradec castle in central Bohemia, he immediately built another church consecrated to the Holy Virgin. This church is located in the very heart of the country, at the newly built castle of Prague. From this seat of power Bořivoj's sons, Spytihněv and then Vratislav, began building up the country. The situation abroad was favorable: the eastern Frankish empire to the west was in crisis, and the Great Moravian empire in the southeast was coming to an end.

It was probably the first of the two brothers who used the two peaceful decades of his reign in the years a.d. 895–915 to carry out the fortification of central Bohemia. North of Prague Spytihněv rebuilt the castle of Mělník, originally the center of an independent region. Four more castles were built, each about 12.5 kilometers (about 20 miles) from Prague; thus the Prague basin was surrounded at strategic points by a pentagon of forts. At the same time the building of churches inside the forts also declared the Premyslides' new concept of state. They still were not the sovereign rulers of the whole of Bohemia, however.

Václav, the eldest of Vratislav's sons, was content—just like his predecessors—with formal dependence of the surrounding principalities. His brother, Boleslav, was not so content. In a.d. 935 Boleslav murdered his brother and thus cleared the way to the throne for himself. One year later he launched an attack on one of the neighboring rulers and started both the systematic occupation of Czech territory and a fourteen-year-long conflict with the German emperor Otto I. Throughout Bohemia's territory, the castle network was restructured according to a unified concept. Older castles were abandoned or demolished, and new ones were built close by. They reflected a more or less unified type of fortification, and most of them also had churches. Large settlement groupings began to arise near the newly built castles. In the tenth century the Premyslides deprived the regional nobility of their power, deployed their own military retinue, built up a new bureaucratic apparatus, imposed taxes on the population, and introduced their own coins, thus laying the foundation of the Czech state.

See alsoSlavs and the Early Slav Culture (vol. 2, part 7).


Bubeník, J., I. Pleinerová, and N. Profantová. "Od počátků hradišˇt k počátkům přemyslovského státu. Von den Anfängen der Burwälle zu den Anfängen des Přemyslidenstaates." Památky archeologické 89, no. 1 (1998): 104–145.

Sláma, J. Střední Čechy v raném středověku. Vol. 3, Archeologie o počátcích přemyslovského státu [Central Bohemia in the Early Middle Ages. Vol. 3, Archaeology and the beginnings of the Přemysl-Dynasty State]. Praehistorica 4. Prague, Czech Republic: Universita Karlova, 1988.

Třeštík, D. Vznik Velké Moravy: Moravané, Čechové a středníEvropa v letech. Prague, Czech Republic: Nakladatelství Lidové noviny, 2002.

——. Počátky Přemyslovců: Vstup Čechů do dějin. Prague, Czech Republic: Nakladatelství Lidové noviny, 1997.

Petr Meduna