Early Czechs and Great Moravia

The Lands of The Bohemian Crown, presently known as the Czech Republic, or Czechia, is a land rich with many resources, and a wild history. Bohemia is said to have gotten it’s name from the Celtic tribe Boii (pronounced “boy”), who inhabited the land long before the Czechs arrived. The Boii lived in the region during Roman times, during which it was called Boiohaemum, meaning “Homeland of the Boii.” By the first century B.C., the Boii left, largely due to Germanic tribes coming from the north were settling in. The name, however, stuck. Around the 5th century, the Germanic tribes started to disappear, and Slavs begin to settle in.

It is debated to this day where the Slavs came from, but out of these tribes emerged one called Čechy, who are the ancestors of modern day Czechs. In fact, the western region of Czechia, which is called Bohemia in English, is called Čechy in Czech language. It is important to note that Bohemia, when it is referred to historically, was not just one kingdom with one people. There were several Slavic groups, some which are still around today, and some that are no more. Another notable Slavic tribe were the Moravians. Today, most of the eastern half of Czechia is called Moravia, or Morava in Czech.

 

Samo The “Slavic King”

In the mid 6th century, a group of nomadic Asians, known as the Avars, had taken control over the Slavic tribes that lived in occupied the lowlands of the Pannonian Plain. The Pannonian Plain consists of today’s Hungary, Central Croatia and Slavonia, Northern Serbia, western Slovakia, the Eastern Slovak Lowland (including the southwestern tip of Ukraine), besides the border regions of northern Bosnia and Herzegovina, some western portions of Romania, and the eastern extremities of Slovenia and of Austria.

The Avars dominated these Slavs, and they were forced to pay tribute to their overlords. A Frankish merchant by the name of Samo, who most likely had sold weapons to the Slavs during their revolts, helped to unify several of the Slavic tribes to fight against the Avars. After the revolt of 623-624, the Slavs were able to break away. They had unified and broken away from the Avars rule, and because of Samo’s resourcefulness and help that he had given them, they elected him to be the “Slavic King.”

He ruled for 35 years, but his empire dissolved after his death. His empire might have included parts of Bohemia as well. Samo’s empire helped in unifying the different Slavic tribes, so even though it dissolved after his death, it allowed for the tribes to get settled and become stronger. His dissolved empire would eventually turn into Great Moravia and Carantania.

Great Moravia

The Avars were defeated by Charlemagne (Charles the Great, King of the Franks) between the years of 792 and 796. Separate Slavic principalities began to emerge during this short time. The Moravian principality appeared for the first time when they showed up to pay tribute to the Son of Charlemagne, Louis the Pious in 822.

Moravian ruler, Mojmír I, came into prominence around the 820s. He is credited for unifying several slavic tribes to create Great Moravia. Great Moravia was the first Slavic state to emerge from Central Europe. By the 830s Moravia was expanding, although it is unclear exactly how big it was.

Somewhere between the years of 818-824, Mojmír I was baptized in Passau. His baptism was the first of several politically motivated conversions amongst the leaders of the Slavs. Although at first it looked as though Mojmír was cooperating with the Frankish Empire, when civil war broke out between the three grandsons of Charlemagne, Mojmír saw this as an opportunity to break away from Carolingian overlordship.

 

Carolingian Civil War and the Treaty of Verdun

The Carolingian Empire was experiencing internal conflict. After Charlemagne’s death in 814, his heirs had began to quarrel, which weakened the Frankish empire. In 843, after a few years of civil war, the three grandsons of Charlemagne signed the Treaty of Verdun, dividing the empire into three parts. After the Treaty of Verdun, Charlemagne’s grandson, Louis the German, took over what would be known as East Francia. He wanted to expand his authority with religious expansion. Under his command, Christian missionaries were sent out to convert the Slavs. Moravians were the first to respond to the evangelical efforts of Louis the German.

 

With the Frankish Empire in its weakened state as a result of the civil war between Charlemagne’s heirs, Mojmír took advantage to revolt against Carolingian overlordship. As a result, his authority began to grow which threatened Louis the German. He was able to overthrow Mojmír, and placed Mojmír’s nephew Rostislav (or Rastislav) on the throne in 845. At this time, fourteen Bohemian princes were going to swear their allegiance with Louis the German by getting baptised. However, when Rostislav was placed on the thrown, all of them backed down from their politically motivated conversion.

During the first eight years of Rostislav’s reign he remained loyal to Louis the German. Rostislav’s dominion expanded during this time, as the Bulgarian Empire joined to Great Moravia. Because of a conflict between Louis the German and his brother Charles the Bald, it is believed that the Bulgarians were bribed into joining the Moravians by Charles the Bald in order to be large enough to successfully revolt against Louis the German. Louis the German and Charles the Bald had fought together during the civil war that broke up the Frankish Empire. However, once they had gotten what they wanted, they started to turn against each other.

This alliance which formed in the mid 850s gave Rostislav the confidence to try and become independent of the East Frankish Empire. This proved to be a strong nuisance to Louis the German. Eventually he passed on the command of his army to his son Carloman. His duty was to keep the Moravians in check. However, he would go on to form an alliance with Rostislav against his father. The Bulgarians formed an alliance with Louis the German. He was able to force his son Carloman to surrender after he tricked him into believing that the Eastern Franks were going after Rostislav, but attacked an unprepared Carloman’s army instead.

 

Cyril and Metoděj

In an attempt to lessen the influence of Louis the German’s missionaries, Rostislave turned to Rome to send missionaries that could teach his people Christianity in the Slavic language. Rome never responded, so he then turned to the Byzantine Empire. Seeing this as an opportunity to spread Byzantine influence, two Christian missionaries from Constantinople, Cyril and Metoděj (Cyril and Methodius), were sent by Byzantine Emperor Michael III to Moravia. According to the Slavic Life of St. Methodius, the Moravians told the Emperor:

“We have prospered through God’s grace, and many Christian teachers have come to us from among the Italians, Greeks, and Germans, teaching us in various ways. But we Slavs are a simple people, and  have none to instruct us in the truth, and explain wisely.”

Upon receiving the request from Rostislav for Christianity to be taught and established in the Slavic tongue, the two brothers Cyril and Methodius came to Moravia. They knew Slavic language from having to speak it on a regular basis in their hometown. In 863 they took on their first task and began to translate the bible in a language that is now known as Old Church Slavonic. They then went to Great Moravia to promote it.

The efforts to try and translate the bible into a Slavonic language was very controversial at the time, and met with disapproval from Frankish clergy naturally. The Franks complained to the Pope in Rome, but to their dismay he would go on to support the Byzantine missionaries.

This was a very important time for the Slavonic languages. In order to translate the bible, the Glagolitic alphabet was created. The Cyrillic alphabet was a derivative of this, which is used today by many Slavic speaking countries, such as Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, etc…  the Glagolitic alphabet was the first written alphabet used in Slavonic texts.

The brothers also wrote the first Slavic Civil Code, which was used in Great Moravia. Cyril and Metoděj would find even more success with their work, and are honored by all Slavic countries in some way or another today. Metoděj would eventually become the first Moravian archbishop.

 

Louis the German started a new campaign against Rostislav which was successful. Rostislav was forced to surrender, but the Frankish king was unable to get the Moravians to Subjugate. For the next few years, Rostislav would experience numerous defeats. The worst of it came when he was betrayed by his nephew Svatopluk.

Svatopluk had been negotiating with Carloman behind his uncle’s back. When Rostislav found out, he conspired to assassinate his nephew. However, Svatopluk found out and managed to trick Rostislav into going after him. However, when Rostislav and his men were on their way to capture Svatopluk, Svatopluk ambushed them. Rostislav was the captured and taken to Carloman. Rostislav would live the remainder of his days in prison.

 

Bohemia

At the beginning of the 9th century, Charlemagne had united a large portion of Europe. He is known as the Father of Europe because he united most of western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire. In 805 he wanted to expand and as a result attacked the Bohemian lands. The Czechs retreated into the deep forests. There they hid and would ambush Charlemagne’s troops with surprise guerilla attacks. Charlemagne’s army eventually had to retreat because of their lack of supplies. A year later they came back and destroyed many Bohemian settlements, forcing the Czechs to have to pay tribute to Charlemagne.

As the Frankish empire was losing power, Bohemia became part of the Great Moravian state. In 867, Bořivoj I declared himself the first prince of Bohemia. He is the first historical Přemyslid prince. Legend has it that Bořivoj is a direct descendent from Libuše and Přemysl, although these are mythical figures, rather than historical. Most likely he was a relative of Svatopluk, as he was one of his deputies. Nevertheless, he was the sovereign prince of Bohemia. In 872 he was recognized by Svatopluk as a sovereign ruler.

Bořivoj I helped Svatopluk militarily against a dispute that he had with Louis the German. He also accepted Christianity at Svatopluk’s court, allegedly being baptized by Sv. Metoděj himself. This made him the first Czech prince to be baptized. He would go on to marry Sv. Ludmila, who was later made into a Czech patron saint. They were the grandparents of the Czech patron Saint Václav, commonly known in english as Good King Wenceslas.

In 880, Bořivoj moved his residence to the Hradčany mountain and started laying the foundations to the famous Prague Castle. He was trying to separate himself from Great Moravia. However, Great Moravia was able to take hold of the Bohemian principality once again after Bořivoj’s death in the late 880s. Luck changed for the Czechs though after Svatopluk died in 894.

During Svatopluk’s reign, Great Moravia was at its peak. After his death, it rapidly weakened. One major force in bringing down the Great Moravian state was a new group of nomads known as the Magyars (Hungarians). In 904 the Magyars defeated the Moravians and their state crumbled. The Czechs on the other hand were protected from the Magyars because of their mountain ranges. This would allow for Bohemia to change from being just a Moravian periphery into the dominating power.

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