Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.12.04

Alexander Avenarius, Die byzantinische Kultur und die Slawen. Zum Problem der Rezeption und Transformation (6. bis 12. Jahrhundert). Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für österreichische Geschichtsforschung, 34.   Vienna:  R. Oldenbourg, 2000.  Pp. 264.  ISBN 3-7029-0448-4.  DM 79.00.  

Reviewed by Florin Curta, University of Florida (
Word count: 2310 words

The title of this book needs translation. Alexander Avenarius's "Slavs" are not a clearly defined ethnic group, but an umbrella term for a variety of political and ethnic phenomena ranging from ninth-century Moravia to Kievan Rus'. He defines "culture" as the "Gesamtheit vorwiegend künstlerischer und ästhetischer Werte, aber auch verschiedener geistig-intellektueller Aktivitäten," while assuring readers that this is in fact how Hegel, Burckhardt, and Likhachov also defined this concept (p.13). Yet the last three, and for a historian far more interesting, chapters of the book analyze the rise and fall of the Cyrillic-Methodian tradition between the ninth and the twelfth century, and Avenarius ends his book with the paradoxical conclusion that in many cases, the Cyrillic-Methodian tradition became a symbol of Slavic cultural autonomy, if not independence, against the growing power of "transnational cultures," such as that of Byzantium. Old Church Slavonic became the basis on which a new form of pan-Slavic identity emerged by the twelfth century, as expressed in Bohemia by Christian and in Rus' by Nestor (pp.214-5).

The book is divided into four chapters, the last three of which deal with Central Europe, the Balkans, and Rus', respectively. Following a brief introduction, Chapter 2 describes the beginning and the character of the "Byzantine influence" on the early Slavs. The author's notion that the long-term implications of Byzantine political and cultural influence on the Empire's northern frontier need to be considered in order to understand the remarkable success of Constantine and Methodius is laudable, as is his use of the archaeological evidence. Two problems loom. First, the evidence presented in this chapter pertains to what is known as the "archaeology of the steppe" and has little, if anything, to do with the Slavs. Avenarius endorses Nándor Fettich's outdated thesis that the hoard of silver found in Ukraine on the eve of World War I and known as the Martynovka hoard epitomizes an "archaeological culture" (which Fettich called the "Martynovka culture"), which in turn "represents" the early medieval Slavs. He even revives Josef Strzygowski's idea of a revival of the "Scythian animal style," first during the seventh century, then, again, in twelfth-century Rus' (p.209). In reality, neither seventh-century hoard or burial assemblages, nor the reliefs on the fac,ade of the Church of St. Demetrius in Vladimir have anything to do with Scythian art. Moreover, since Fettich much has been written on the Martynovka hoard, and its recent scholarly publication1 clarified many aspects long obscured by Fettich's analysis. Avenarius also ignores Csanád Bálint's devastating critique of the "Martynovka culture" concept, although he cites Bálint's 1989 study of the "archaeology of the steppe."2 He takes at face value Joachim Werner's idea that the Malo Pereshchepino burial (?) assemblage is the grave of Kubrat, the seventh-century Bulgar qagan mentioned by Theophanes and Nicephorus, despite clear evidence that some artifacts found in this remarkably rich assemblage post-date the Kubrat episode. In fact, the key piece of evidence for Werner's thesis is just a finger-ring bearing the monogram (not the inscription, so Avenarius on p.22) tentatively deciphered as "Koubratos patrikios." The Ukrainian assemblage found at Malo Pereshchepino is in many ways similar to burial assemblages of the mid- or late seventh-century in Hungary and Ukraine, such as Kunágota and Glodosy.

Equally dubious is Avenarius's interpretation of the controversial hoard from Vrap (Albania), which Joachim Werner dated to the mid-seventh century. Belt straps associated with the Byzantine silverware found in that hoard are typical for the beginning of the latest phase of Avar archaeology, the so-called Late Avar period, which is now dated for the most part after A.D. 700.3 Although no evidence exists that the Vrap hoard came from Hungary (in fact, the hoard was found not far from Dyrrachium, which seems to have remained in Byzantine hands throughout the "Dark Age" period), Avenarius insists -- following Werner's misconstrued argument--that artifacts found at Vrap were initially collected by some member of the Avar elite (p. 33). A similar interpretation is applied to the Zemiansky/ Vrbovok hoard. Avenarius ignores the presence in this hoard of both Byzantine and, probably, Sassanian silverware, in association with miliaresia minted for Emperor Constans II, many of which are die-linked, an indication that the coins did not change many hands after leaving the imperial mint. According to him, some, if not all, artifacts found at Zemiansky/ Vrbovok were manufactured on site (i.e. outside the Byzantine Empire) by itinerant craftsmen who were also merchants sent from Constantinople to pay the tribute to the Avars (p.36). Needless to say, both the date (after 626 no evidence exists that stipends continued to be paid to the Avars) and the structure of this hoard show Avenarius's interpretation to be wrong. In any case, neither Malo Pereshchepino, nor Zemiansky/ Vrbovok (or, for that matter, the one other contemporary hoard of silver found in Romania, that of Priseaca) have anything to do with the "Slavs" and, as a consequence, with the topic of this book.

Most annoying is the author's insistence on the presence of the Slavs in the Middle Danube region, especially in Slovakia and Moravia, before 568 (the date traditionally accepted for the arrival of the Avars in what is today Hungary). Like Safarík, Avenarius takes Jordanes' description of the Slavic Venethi at face value and does not seem to have noticed the many problems associated with that particular part of Getica. Nor is he aware that "the ancient city named Turris" that Justinian ceded to the Antes in 545 (Procopius, Wars VII 14.32) was on the left, not on the right bank of the Danube and, as a consequence, cannot be used as an argument for an early settlement of the Slavs in the Balkans. Nor is Salona located in south Dalmatia (p.42). Avenarius's assertion that the Byzantine Empire returned in force against the Slavs only during the eighth and first half of the ninth century is simply wrong as it ignores Constans II's campaign of 658 and Constantine IV's attack of 678 against the Strymonian Slavs. Conjectural assertions abound, largely because Avenarius chose not to consult more or less recent studies to understand the relations he purports to be considering. For example, instead of Marlia Mundell Mango's or Vera Zalesskaia's studies of early Byzantine silverware, a disconcerting absence given the centrality of this topic, Avenarius relies on impressionistic descriptions of Byzantine art as characterized by "Regelmässigkeit, Symmetrie, Rhythmus, Autonomie [und] Einfachheit" (p. 25). This seems inexcusably superficial, or perhaps just hasty, for I surmise that Avenarius embarked on his exploration of the relations between Byzantine and "steppe" art as a way of testing (i.e. confirming) his ideas about the use of Byzantine culture in "barbarian" contexts.

On the other hand, his analysis of the "Byzantine mission to the Slavs" in chapter 3 struck me as masterly. For the most part he leaves his impressionistic approach behind by recognizing the difficult problems posed by church architecture in Moravia and emphasizing the correlation between architecture and mission (pp.61-63). By abandoning art history for history, in short, Avenarius becomes an admirably precise, insightful, and tentative interpreter of Moravian-Byzantine relations. Vita Constantini is a very interesting text, but Avenarius's analysis makes it fascinating. It is also an unusual text in that it departs from traditional hagiography to include a purely historical account. I find Avenarius's remarks on Constantine's use of patristic material, especially of Gregory Nazianzen's works, and of his concept of "philosophy" to be particularly convincing. Equally persuasive is his argument that the activity of Constantine and Methodius resulted not only in the creation of a new language but also in the creation of a new liturgy, best illustrated by the Fragmenta Sinaitica.

By contrast, I am not persuaded by his idea (mainly based on Vita Constantini 9.82) that Constantine may have been familiar with and influenced by Jerome (p.89). The considerable number of Greek calques surviving in the earliest Cyrillic (e.g. Evangeliarum Savvae) and Glagolitic (e.g., Codex Assemani) manuscripts of the Gospels makes the use of Latin texts problematic. The so-called Kievan Fragments (a tenth- or, more likely, early eleventh-century sacramentarium based on the Roman rite and written in Moravia or Bohemia) still contained misinterpretations of Latin words, such as "circa" translated as "church." As Avenarius points out, the use of "msha" (mass) in the Vita Methodii to replace "tainaia sluzhba" (liturgy), the phrase preferred in Vita Constantini, is the first linguistic evidence of a pro-Western bias to be associated with Methodius' own professio fidei for his appointment as archbishop of Sirmium (p.101).

Insights derived from Vasica's studies of medieval Slavic law (especially of the Zakon siudnyi liudem) clearly influenced Avenarius's interpretation of Methodius' Nomokanon. Methodius' source of inspiration was an abbreviated version of John Scholastikos' Synagoge, but a number of omissions (such as the canons of the Quinisext Council of 692) seem to indicate Methodius' efforts to accommodate papal views and to avoid doctrinal disputes. Against the still prevalent views (especially in Western literature), Avenarius demonstrates that Methodius' preoccupation with canon law is the background against which one should also consider the law code known as Zakon siudnyi liudem. In other words, the code was most likely written in Moravia, not in Bulgaria or Macedonia (pp.104-105). Equally refreshing is Avenarius's remark that the existing evidence points to the use of a Russian, not (Old Church) Slavonic rite at Sázava, the Benedictine monastery established in 1032 that became famous as a center for many translations of Latin texts into Old Church Slavonic. It is possible that the Russian influence became stronger after the Sázavan monks returned, in 1061, from a six-year exile to Hungary, where they may have met the Russian monks supported by Anastasia, the Rus' wife of King Andrew I of Hungary. Avenarius views the so-called Prague (Glagolitic) Fragments, with their "light songs" ("svetilny") of Kievan inspiration, as the product of these monastic contacts (p.123).

Avenarius's meticulous discussion of the Cyrillic-Methodian tradition in Croatia illuminates the context and the reasons for the exceptional body of Glagolitic manuscripts written in the northwestern Balkans during the High Middle Ages. Ultimately, though, Avenarius's account points to the ambiguity of this tradition, as the synod of 1060 declared Methodius a heretic for having devised the "Gothic" (i.e., Glagolitic) script and falsely taught in Old Church Slavonic against the dogma of the Roman church (p.148). Equally interesting is the discussion of the relationship between the Ochrid school and the Cyrillic-Methodian tradition, one of the best sub-chapters of this book (pp.154-161). It has long been noted that the works produced by this school established by Methodius' disciples expelled from Moravia fall into two major categories: commemorative speeches (the so-called pouchitel'nye slova) and sermons. Avenarius explains this homiletic bias by means of the "politics of conversion," which in the case of tenth-century Bulgaria, was aimed at common people, not elites (p.154). This may also explain the motif of "Adam, the archetypal sinner," which dominates Clement of Ochrid's homiletics, as well as his use of general, moral topics, rather than specific themes associated with the festivals of saints. Clement was obsessed with eradicating drunkenness, perjury, false accusations, and ill intentions. In his panegyrics on Constantine/Cyril and Methodius, Clement of Ochrid, like Constantine, drew heavily on the patristic tradition, especially on Gregory Nazianzen, but followed the lines of the Cyrillic-Methodian hagiography, with its emphasis on historical narrative, rather than miracles. On the other hand, that some of Clement's sermons were later mistaken for those of John Chrysostom is a good indication of the degree to which they had incorporated the patristic tradition (p.157). Clement died in 916 and the extraordinary influence of the Ochrid school may explain the subsequent developments of the Cyrillic-Methodian tradition in Bulgaria. According to the Vita Clementis or, rather, to the author of its Greek version, Theophylact of Ochrid, Constantine had preached in Greek among the Bulgars long before going to Moravia.

Whatever one thinks about this tradition, it is possible, alternatively, that it may be a reflection of a Byzantine, rather than Bulgarian, agenda. By contrast, the mid-eleventh-century sermon of the Kievan metropolite Ilarion known as Slovo o zakone a blagodati is a clear attempt to minimize the Byzantine influence in Rus': Constantinople is referred to as the "New Jerusalem," but only the St. Sophia in Kiev (and not the one in Constantinople) is compared to the Temple, while Vladimir and Yaroslav appear as Solomon and David. The insertion of the Apostle Paul legend into the Russian Primary Chronicle may serve a similar purpose, as "Paul is the teacher of the Slavic race, from which we Russians too are sprung, even so the Apostle Paul is the teacher of us Russians, for he preached to the Slavic nation... But the Slavs and the Russes are one people..."4 As Nestor, the author of this chronicle, is the first known author to claim the (early) Slavs as ancestors of any ethnic group, Avenarius's conclusion is of considerable interest: Nestor's all-Slavic approach is a narrative strategy designed to diminish the importance of the Byzantine connection to Rus' Christianity (p.198). Indeed, according to Nestor, it was the Apostle Paul, not Emperor Basil II, who was responsible for the conversion of the Slavs (Rus'). But Avenarius takes his conclusion a step further. Nestor's use of such Byzantine chroniclers as John Malalas and George Hamartolos indicates his awareness that, unlike other works of Byzantine historiography, chronicles had an "universal," as opposed to Byzantine, focus. Since chronicles chronicled the history of humankind, not of the Empire, they were acceptable and could be incorporated into a native Rus' narrative (p.199).

On balance, this is a useful and decidedly worthwhile study, focused, but also wide ranging, meticulous and detailed. Avenarius's book has much to offer to a wide audience of historians and scholars with an interest in Slavic studies and religion. He provides tantalizing hints about areas where further investigation might be useful and asks us all to rethink our understanding of medieval Eastern Europe.


1.   Oleg M. Prikhodniuk et al. "Martynovskii klad," Materialy po arkheologii, istorii i etnografii Tavrii 2 (1991), 72-92; Ljudmila V. Pekarskaja and Dafydd Kidd, Der Silberschatz von Martynovka (Ukraine) aus dem 6. und 7. Jahrhundert (Innsbruck, 1994). See also Dafydd Kidd and Ludmila Pekarskaya, "New insight into the hoard of 6th-7th century silver from Martynovka," in La noblesse romaine et les chefs barbares du IIIe au VIIe siècle, ed. by Franc,oise Vallet and Michel Kazanski (Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 1995), pp. 351-60.
2.   Csanád Bálint, "Über einige östliche Beziehungen der Frühawarenzeit (568-circa 670/680)," Mitteilungen des archäologischen Instituts der ungarischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 10-11 (1980-1981), 131-46; Csanád Bálint, Die Archäologie der Steppe. Steppenvölker zwischen Volga und Donau vom 6. bis zum 10. Jahrhundert (Vienna/Cologne, 1989). See also Csanád Bálint, "Zwischen Orient und Europa. Die 'Steppenfixierung' in der Frühmittelalterarchäologie," in Zwischen Byzanz und Abendland. Pliska, der östliche Balkanraum und Europa im Spiegel der Frühmittelalterarchäologie, ed. by Joachim Henning (Frankfurt am Main, 1999), pp. 13-6.
3.   For a quick reference, see
4.   Samuel Hazzard Cross and Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (transl.), The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), p. 63.

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