Disclaimer: The following is the English version of the text “Ратна тактика старих Словена“ by Igor Stamenovic, originally written in Serbian and published by “Svevlad.org.rs”. The text is translated in full (two parts) by Meet the Slavs team with the permission of the Svevlad.org.rs editorship.
“…Simocatta mentions using natural landscape for hiding purposes. During Prisko’s foray in 594 CE, Slavs managed to drag the Roman enemy into the swamp terrain. In vain they tried to draw the Slavs out by fire, which is not very useful in a damp area. At the end, however, Slavs were betrayed and defeated, but this record testifies about Slavic usage of nature in warfare tactics. It tells us that Slavs, freely spoken, knew how to confront the enemy.
Next year, during the Petrov’s campaign against the Slavs, we see them hiding again, this time in the forest. Roman army was trapped one more time. It followed the Slavs and lost its way, staying without water. When Romans finally managed to find water, Slavs bestrewed the enemy with spears and killed all of them. Again, Slavic army used the forest as a bulwark during the battle.
“Strategicon” by Pseudo-Maurice is certainly the most important source for Slavic military strategy. It is of such significance because it was written by soldiers, for soldiers, as a practical book of reference. That is why we can consider it reliable. The whole chapter of this book is dedicated to the Slavs. At the very beginning, the author underlines that the Slavs are very tough. He also says that one of Slavic military strategies is hiding beneath the water, while using straw for breathing. It was some kind of underwater camouflage, since the observer from the shore could only see the straws. Pseudo-Maurice also described Slavic behavior during the battle. He claims that they perform disorderly and totally avoid plain and flat terrains. It confirms earlier cited Procopius and Simocatta. Pseudo-Maurice clearly states that Slavs, when entering the battle, “advance making a lot of noise; if this frightening of the enemy succeeds, they attack, but if not, they immediately retreat from whence they came”. Here we learn that the tactics of intimidation of an enemy was known to the Slavs. There is a psychological dimension to this strategy at which I will get back later in the text. For now it is important to point out that the Slavs were skilled in this segment of warfare.
In the year 586 CE, Slavs and Avars attacked Thessaloniki. There is a record of this event in the “Miraculi Sancti Demetrii” (“Miracles of St. Demetrius”). This source brings very important information about Slavs using the siege engines while conquering the cities. The devices mentioned are helepolis, battering ram, catapults and so called turtles. Unlike the earlier examples, now we see the Slavs and Avars utilizing advanced battle tool for besiegement. And that is not all. We also read that Slavs and Avars attempted to cross the water by using scaffolding, in order to invade the harbor of the city. However, it seems that the Slavs weren’t skilled in the handling of siege engines. According to the author of the “Miracles”, they kept throwing huge stones from dawn until the evening, but not one stone hit the city wall. It is apparent that this technology was still new to the Slavs, who were used to a different manner of conquering the cities.
Another way in which the Slavs reached the water-surrounded cities was the usage of famous boats made from one trunk of wood – monoksils. They were used during the attack on Constantinople in 626 CE, and earlier, in the invasion of Thessaloniki 614-616 CE. In the latter case, Slavs even protected their boats by raw leather, to make them resistant to arrows and stones.
“The Miracles of St. Demetrius” mention a certain Slavic craftsman skilled in fashioning wooden battle devices. This information refers to the year 677 CE. Thus we see that in less than 100 years Slavs learned how to produce siege engines of their own, and presumably, how to use them in a more efficient manner. It certainly doesn’t mean that this new technology put an end to their favorite ambush strategy. It was to be used for a long time, as an effective warfare system.
From what has been said before, we can conclude that the main military tactics of the Slavs was a sneak attack. According to the sources, Slavs were very skilled in hiding, during which they could also use different kinds of camouflage. It allowed them to defeat better equipped and trained enemies. Slavs were also able to utilize psychological elements of the battle, by making efforts to frighten the enemy. Hiding and camouflage gave a psychological advantage to the Slavs. The enemy could not know whence the attack can come from. It diminished his chances to regroup the forces efficiently, especially having in mind that Slavic attacks were organized as raids. Try to imagine yourself in a role of that Roman soldier, lost in some wood or a swamp, sent to fight against the invisible enemy whose location is unknown. The constant tension would certainly be the state you’re in. In a blink of an eye, you’re surrounded by a bunch of Slavs, who emerged from something you believed to be a bush or a tree. You would probably wish to be immediately transported to the East.
Later on, Slavs begun to apply advanced techniques, primarily war devices, which were at first handled clumsily. In time, they would master the usage and learn how to make the devices on their own.
Tactics described above yielded fruit. Thanks to them, among other important achievements, Slavs managed to inhabit the core of the Balkans, permanently changing the ethnic composition and culture of this peninsula.
Literature and sources:
1. Мариjа Гимбутас, Словени, синови Перуна, Београд 2004. 2. Владимир Ћоровић, Историjа српског народа 3. Група аутора, Историjа српског народа 4. Византиjски извори за историjу народа Jугославиjе, Београд 2007
original text by Igor Stamenovic;
for the first part of the translation, check out the previous post on our website