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Racial history is the bane of the Balkans as anyone who has lived or travelled in this part of Europe will know, there is no such ting as a racially homogeneous province there, let alone a racially homogeneous state. Few individuals in the entire Balkan peninsula could honestly claim a racially pure ancestry for themselves. And yet, at many times during the last few centuries, bogus theories of racial-ethnic identity had dominated national politics of the Balkan lands. By looking at the early history of the region is that it enables us to see that even if it were right to conduct modern politics in terms of ancient racial origins, it would simply not be possible.

Historical map of the Bosnian State

Historical map of the Bosnian State

The country is heavily mountainous, with terrain ranging from the dense forest and the lush upland pastures of the north-central Bosnia to the arid and gaunt landscape of the western Hercegovina; it is divided by rivers most of which are non-navigable. An impenetrable mass of land stands between two of the main routes trough which waves of invading populations entered the west Balkans: the Dalmatian coastal strip, and the lowland thoroughfare which lead which led from Belgrade down to Serbia to Macedonia and Bulgaria. So the direct effect of these invasions on Bosnia was probably much smaller then the impact on the fertile lands of Serbia or the eminently plunderable Dalmatian coastal towns. But the indirect effect, in terms of the accumulation of racial types, was probably greater. Mountainous areas act as refuges for populations which, in flatter country, would otherwise be exterminated or driven away. One has only to look at the survival of the Basques in the Pyrenees, or the richly-stocked racial museum which is the Caucasus. In the case of Bosnia, the Slav invasions of the 6th and 7th century established the linguistic identity which eventually replaced all others. But the signs of racial diversity are there for anyone with eyes in his/her head to see.

For the reasons of language and culture, and because of more than a thousand years of history, modern population of Bosnia can properly be called Slav. The arrival of Slavs in the Balkans is thus natural starting point for any history of Bosnia. But no starting points can be absolute in human history; we need to know something too about the population of Bosnia which the Slavs found on their arrival, and which they later absorbed.

The early inhabitants of whom wee have any historical details are the Illyrians, a collection of tribes which covered much of modern Yugoslavia and Albania and spoke an Indo-European language related to modern Albania [1]. The tribe which gave its name to Dalmatia, the Delmatae, was probably named after a word related to the Albanian for ‘sheep’, delme; its territory covered part of western Bosnia, and the archaeological evidence from several sites in Bosnia shows that the Illyrian tribes were stock-breeders specializing in sheep, pig and goats [2]. Other tribes, encountered by Romans as they extended their power inland in second and first century BC, included a mixed Illyrian-Celtic grouping, the Scordisci, on the north-eastern fringe of Bosnia, and the war like tribe in the central Bosnia, the Daesitates, whose last rebellion against the Roman Empire was finally crushed in AD 9. From then on, all of the Illyrian lands were firmly under Roman rule, and a network of roads and Roman Settlements was gradually established [3]. The roads were needed for military operations in the east but also for trade, and as delivery routes for gold, silver and lead which was mined in eastern Bosnia in Roman times [4]. Most of Bosnia was included in the Roman Province of Dalmatia, but part of northern Bosnia fell within the province of Pannonia, which included modern north-eastern Croatia and southern Hungary. Christianity came quickly to the Roman towns: the first bishops are mentioned as early as the first century in Sirmium in Pannonia (Sremska Mitrovica, a few miles beyond the north-eastern corner of Modern Bosnia), and at least twenty Roman basilicas were excavated with in modern Bosnia. One of these, near Stolac in Hercegovina, is a burned ruin containing coins from the fourth century: a graphic sign of the fact that this earliest phase of Bosnian Christianity came to an abrupt end with the invasion of the Goths [5].

The Goth invasion of the Roman Empire

The Goth invasion of the Roman Empire

The Illyrians themselves were heavily recruited into the Roman legions, and from the late second century onwards the Illyrian lands were military bower-base for a number of provincial governors and generals who became Roman Emperors. The first of these, Seprimius Severus, dismissed the Praetorian Guard when he came to Rome in 193 and replace it with Illyrian troops: ‘a throng’ in the words of one Roman historian, ‘of motley soldiers most savage in appearance, most terrifying in speech, and most boorish in conversation’ [6]. Because of this superior attitude towards those provincial Balkan tribesmen, we have no real detailed accounts of their social structure, their religion or their way of life. But one passing comment by the Greek geographer Strabo (63 BC-AD 25) is particularly intriguing: he mentions that tattooing was common among the Illyrians. His testimony has been confirmed by the discovery of tattooing needles in Illyrian burial mounds in Bosnia [7]. Tattooing is not known to have been a Slav custom at any time or in any part of the Slav realms, and yet it has survived into this century.

Illyrian Helmet

Illyrian Helmet

Given not only the evidence of tattooing, but also what is known about history of Balkan invasions and settlements, we can be fairly sure that some of the Illyrians have survived the latter invasions and were absorbed into what become the Slav population. But the romantic theory of some 19th century Yugoslav ideologists, who argued that the Serbs and Croats were ‘really’ Illyrians (and therefore single, special, age-old racial unit), tells us more about modern Yugoslav politics than about early Balkan history [8].

The Goths were not the only race to have visited the western Balkan, and perhaps left some descendants there, between the Romans and the Slavs. Asiatic Huns (a Mongol-Turkic people) and Iranian Alans (ancestors of the modern Ossetians in the Caucasus) also appeared in the 4th and 5th centuries. In the 6th century two new populations entered the Balkans: the Avars (a Turkic tribe who came from the region north of the Caucasus) and the Slavs. Modern research (in archaeology and the study of place-names) suggests that Avars were long term settlers in many parts of western Bosnia, Hercegovina and Montenegro [9]. In some places, including area just to the north and north-west Bosnia, distinct group of Avar settlers may have lingered for generations: the Slav name for Avars was Obri, and there are many place-names such as Obrovac which recorded their presence [10]. It is also possible that the word ban, which from the early times was used as a title of Croatian and Bosnian rulers, is itself of Avar origin [11].

But it was of course the Slavs who predominated in the end. By 620s a Slav population was well established in modern Bulgaria and Serbia, and had probably penetrated much of Bosnia too. Then with in few years, two new Slav tribes arrived on the scene: the Croats and the Serbs. According to the Byzantine historian and Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (written 300 years later, but making use of the imperial archives), the Croats were invited into the Balkans by the Byzantine Emperor of the day to drive out the troublesome Avars. The Serbs, according to Constantine, were not engaged to fight Avars, but they were connected with the Croats and entered Balkans in the same Period [12].

Who exactly were the Serbs and the Croats? Scholars have long been aware that the name ‘Croat’ (Hrvat) is not a Slav word. It is taught to be the same as and Iranian name, Choroatos, found in inscriptions on the tombstones near the Greek town of Tanais on the lower Don, in southern Russia. The whole region north of the Black Sea was inhabited in the early centuries AD by a mixture of tribes which included Slavs and Sarmatians: the latter ware Iranian nomads who had passed westwards round the northern side of the Caucasus in the second century BC. The Sarmatians gained political dominance over the other tribes, and it seems likely that some of the Slav tribes acquired and Iranian- speaking ruling elite [13]. One theory connects Hrvat and Choroatos with the word hu-urvatha, which means ‘friend’ in the language of Alans (who were part of the Sarmatian grouping of Iranian tribes at this time) [14]. Another theory proposes that the root of the name ‘Serb’, serv (slave, servant) become charv in Iranian, and together with the suffix-at this gave rise to Choroatos and Hrvat [15]. What is clear is that he Serbs and the Croats had a similar and connected history from the earliest times: Ptolemy, writing in the 2nd century AD, also located the Serboi among the Sarmatian tribes in the north of the Caucasus. Most scholars believe that the Serbs and the Croats were Slavic tribes with Iranian ruling castes, or that they were originally Iranian tribes which had acquired Slavic subjects [16]. By the early seventh century both tribes have established kingdoms in central Europe: ‘White Croatia’, which covered the part of the modern southern Poland, and ‘White Serbia’ in the modern Czech lands. It was from then that they have came to western Balkans.

Ones again, modern ideology have had its way with ancient history. There have been Croat nationalist theorists who have selectively accepted the evidence of Iranian ancestry for their own people but rejected it for Serbs, thus creating an age-old racial divide between the two populations. On the other hand, there had been South-Slav or Pan-Slav ideologists who had rejected, for their own political reasons, all of early Iranian connections. What is also clear is that by the time they came to the Balkan there was already a large Slav population in place – larger than the population Of the Serbs and of the Croats.

The Serbs settled in an area corresponding to a modern south-western Serbia (a territory which later in the middle ages became known as Raška or Rascia), and gradually extended their rule into the territories of Duklje or Dioclea (Montenegro) and Hum or Zachumlje (Hercegovina). The Croats settled in areas roughly corresponding to modern Croatia, and probably including also including most of Bosnia proper.

There are many signs of pagan practices being carried over first in to Christianity and later into Islam in Bosnia – for example, the use of the mountain tops as a place of worship. The names of the pagan Gods such as Pir, Oganj and Tur survived in oral tradition until the twentieth century (one researcher recorded a rhyme about them from an old man in Sarajevo in 1933), and they have been preserved also in Bosnian personal names such as Tiro and Pirić [17].

The political history of the western Balkans from the seventh to the eleventh centuries is patchy and confused, with succession of conquests and shifting allegiances. The oldest established power in the Balkans, the Byzantine Empire, had little control there, but managed to get its authority acknowledged from time to time. Byzantine connections were maintained with the coastal towns and islands of Dalmatia: they were organized as theme (military districts) in the ninth century, but Byzantine authority in Dalmatia became increasingly notional – not least because the churches there were placed under jurisdiction of Rome. The northern Croatia territory, including much of northern and north-western Bosnia, was conquered by Charlemagne’s Franks in the late eight and early ninth centuries, and remained under Frankish rule until the 870s. It was probably during that time that the old tribal system in Bosnia and Croatia began to be remodeled into a form of west European feudalism [18].

Flag of the Byzantine Empire

Flag of the Byzantine Empire

(This is a template for the Serbian national symbol)

Meanwhile a number of Serb Ruled territories in modern Herzegovina and Montenegro had been established, and the easternmost group of Serb župas in modern south-west Serbia had been gathered together into a kind of Serb princedom (under a ‘grand župan’) by the mid-ninth century. In the early tenth century Croatia enjoyed a period of power and independence under King Tomislav; again, much of northern and western Bosnia was part of his realm. After his death (probably in 928) the Croatian territory was riven by civil war, and for a brief period (from the 930s to 960s) much of Bosnia was taken over by a newly restored and temporarily powerful Serb princedom which had agreed to acknowledged the sovereignty of the Byzantine empire [19].

These details give us the historical context for the first surviving mention of Bosnia as a territory. It occurs in the politico-geographical handbook written in 958 by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus. This mention of Bosnia makes it clear that Bosnia (an area smaller than modern Bosnia proper, and centered on the river Bosna which flows northwards from near Sarajevo) was considered separate territory. In the 960s it fell once again under Croatian rule, and remained Croatian territory for roughly half a century. Then, in 1019, a newly powerful Byzantine Empire under the Emperor Basil II, the ‘Bulgar-slayer’, forced the Serb and Croat rulers to acknowledge Byzantine sovereignty. The nominal subjection of the Croats gradually turned into something more like an alliance, and during the eleventh century Bosnia was ruled some of the time by a Croatian governor and some of the time by Serbian rulers to the east who were more directly under Byzantine control [20]. There was a little more independence to the south of Bosnia proper, in the territories of Duklje, otherwise known as Zeta (Montenegro) and Hum or Zachumlje (Hercegovina), where the local Serb princes resisted Byzantine rule. These lands were consolidated into single Serb kingdom, which extended to include the Serbian territory of Raška in the 1070s. Under King Bodin in the 1080s it expanded still further to take in most of Bosnia; but the kingdom broke up sun after his death in 1101.

Meanwhile Serb political ambitions shifted eastwards towards Raška, which become the heartland of the medieval kingdom of Serbia, while Croatian lands had been taken over by Hungary, and in 1102 the Hungarian King Koloman was crowned King of Croatia – thus establishing a relationship between the two states, sometimes of direct subjection, sometimes of a personal union and alliance, which would last (with few interruptions and modifications) until 1918. Hungarian rule was also extended onto Bosnia in 1102; but as more remote and impenetrable territory, it was ruled by ban whose authority became more and more independent as the century progressed [21]. In the 1160s and 1170s Croatia and Bosnia were briefly restored to Byzantine rule after a successful champagne by the expansionist Emperor Manuel Comnenus; but after his death in 1180 his achievements were quickly undone. Croatia resumed its Hungarian connection. Bosnia, however, become virtually free of Hungarian control; and since it was no longer ruled by the Byzantine Empire or Croatia, it was able to stand, for the first time, as a more or less independent state. Hence the famous description of Bosnia by written by Manuel Comnenus’ secretary, the chronicler Kinnamos, who was writing probably in the 1180s: ‘Bosnia does not obey the grand župan of the Serbs; it is a neighboring people with its own customs and government.’ [22] Kinnamos also noted that Bosnia was separated from Serbia by the river Drina.

Due to its complex history of early Slav Bosnia, between the arrival of the Croats and Serbs in the 620s and the emergence of an independent Bosnian state in the 1180s, no simple conclusion can be drawn. As for the question of whether the inhabitants of Bosnia were really Croat or really Serb in 1180, it cannot be answered, for two reasons: because we lack the evidence, and secondly, because the question lacks meaning. All that one can say about the ethnic identity of the Bosnians is this: they were the Slavs who lived in Bosnia [23]. However recent finding in the field of genetic research conducted by "iGENEA" has shown that population of Bosnia and Herzegovina is mainly of Illyrian origins (40%), followed by Teuton (20%), Celtic (15%), Slav (15%), Hunnians (8%) and Thracians (4%). The full results of this genetic reaserch can be found here.


1. The best modern survey of the archaeological, historical and linguistic evidence is Wilkes, Illyrians. See also Stipčević, Illyrians, Russu, Illirii; and Stadtmuller, Forschungen zur albanischen Fruhgeschichte.
2. Wilkes, Illyrians, p. 244; Stipčević, Illyrians, p. 137.
3. Wilkes, Illyrians, p. 205-213.
4. See Wilkes, Dalmatia, p. 266-280; Klaić, Geschichte Bosniens, p. 48-49; Jireček, Die Handelsstrassen; Miller, Essay on the Latin Orient, p. 462.
5. Matkotić, ‘Archaeology’, p. 45-46.
6. Dio Cassius, quoted in Wilkes, Illyrians, p. 260
7. Stipčević, Illyrians, p. 80
8. The use of term ‘Illyrians’ for South Slavs has a long history going back to 15th century humanist writers: see Hadžijahić, ‘Die Anfange der nationalen Entwicklung’ p. 171-172
9. Kovačević, Istorija Crne Gore, p. 282-288.
10. Markotić, ‘Archaeology’, p. 49. A small Avar kingdom remained in Pannonia (southern Hungary) until it was finally destroyed by Charlemagne in the 790s.
11. Andjelić, ‘Periodi u kulturnoj historiji’, p .200.
12. There are in fact two different accounts of these events in Constantine’s book. See the discussion in Fine, Early Medieval Balkans, p. 49-59.
13. Rostovtseff, Iranians and Greeks, p 135-146.
14. Kalfuss, Die Slawen, p. 6-9.
15. Gimbutas, Slavs, p. 60.
16. Fine, Early Medieval Balkans, p. 56.
17. Hadžijahić, ‘Sinkretistički elementi’, p. 304-305. (montain tops), p. 309-313 (Gods’ names).
18. Andjelić, ‘Periodi u kulturnoj historiji’, p .202-203.
19. Fine, Early Medieval Balkans, p. 159, p. 262-265; Obolensky, Byzantine Commonwealth, p. 159-160.
20. Fine, Early Medieval Balkans, p. 201, p. 278-280; Obolensky, Byzantine Commonwealth, p. 287-288.
21. Fine, Early Medieval Balkans, p. 288.
22. Cinnamus, Epitome, p. 104 (bk. 3. Ch. 7)
23. Bosnia a short history by Noel Malcolm; Pan Books 2002

Tags: Bosnia to 1180, Early history

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