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.
“Before we delve deeper into the analyzing of Ancient Slavs’ battle tactics, it should be underlined that we don’t have a sufficient number of written historical sources which would enable us to reconstruct a detailed picture. Archeology, often helpful in studying history of the Ancient Slavs, contributes to research of their warfare by discovering material remains of weapons and fortification objects. It is of tremendous importance for revealing the earliest period of Slavic history, during which they inhabited primordial homeland.
There are hardly any written records of the life of Slavs in this period. Judging by the material remains, their main industries were agriculture and cattle breeding. Accordingly, we can presume that battle activities aimed to defend arable land and cattle, but also to conquer new farmlands and pasturages. There are archaeological findings of fortified settlements from the period between 750 to 500 BCE. They had palisade fences and were surrounded by moats, often filled with water. An example of such settlement exists in the valley of Tiasmin river. Later period, between 500 to 200 BCE, reveals fortifications of similar construction, but bigger and more spatial. The existence of fortified settlements in this period of Slavic history testifies about the need to defend from attacks, which certainly means they had some kind of warfare tactics. Unfortunately, we are not able to discover how exactly it looked like.
The significance of Slavic fortifications, albeit much simpler than Roman ones, lies in the fact that the Slavs must have known the strategies for conquering the fortresses, since they were able to build their own ones.
Interaction with Germanic peoples – Goths and Gepids – during their migrations in the second century considerably influenced the Slavs. There are several military terms imported from German languages. For example “šlem“ (helmet) came from the German word „helm“. Appropriation of this term perhaps points to the import of the helmet itself into the standard Slavic military equipment. Another important term is “troba” (trumpet), or “truba”. The trumpet server for signaling in the battle. The word “pulka”, or “puk” (regiment) is derived from German “fulkaz” which denotes the group of armed people. Thus, the Slavs appropriated this term to clearly define the group of soldiers.
As we can see, there is no definite knowledge about warfare tactics in the Slavic primordial homeland, and we have to rely on the assumptions when dealing with this problematic. During the migration of the Slavs, the first written sources appear, and military tactics become clearer.
The first invasions of the Slavs [into the Roman empire] are recorded during the reign of Justin I (518-527 AD), after which they become more and more frequent. In this period, Slavs encounter the culture much different from the one they were used to. They faced the task of conquering the cities and solid fortresses, without possessing the siege engines.
We should emphasize that Slavs, just like other Indo-European “barbaric” peoples, did not have a professional army. Ordinary stock breeders and farmers took a role of a soldier when the circumstances required it. They would go back to their normal, peasant lives after the war was over. In a society which doesn’t know for warfare as a profession, but only as an occasional need, there could have been no special military training. However, some basic battle skills of defense and attack were mastered by Slavs in their homeland.
Late antique scholar Procopius left some important records about Slavic conquering of the cities. He gives an interesting claim that Slavs did not fight over the fortifications before invading the Roman Empire. It could only be true if he writes particularly about castles made of stone. Even in this case it is doubtful and not supported by material evidence. We have already seen that Slavs had primitive, palisaded settlements, which were easier to conquer, but still required at least basic occupying strategy. A representative example of Slavic invasion into the city, brought by Procopius, describes the conquest of Topir. Namely, after approaching the city, the majority of Slavs hid all around the irregular landscape. Smaller group in front of the city walls provoked the Romans to come forth into the battle. Deceived by the seemingly small number of the Slavs, Romans left the fortress, and started chasing the challengers, who were running away, leading the Roman soldiers farther from the fortification. It actually led them into a trap. Hidden Slavs jumped from their shelters and those who were running away turned around to face the enemy. The reader himself can imagine what happened next. The remaining inhabitants of Topir attempted to defend their city from within, but unsuccessfully. Slavs climbed into the city using ladders, and conquered it. Ladders are not an elaborated siege equipment, but although simple, they proved very efficient, and would not have been utilized by the Slavs had they known not at least the basics of besiegement tactics.
Procopius writes about Slavic warfare strategy in several more places. He claims that they often use bulwark such as “little rock or some tree” and attack the enemy from hiding. An ambush was obviously used very often.
Procopius also informs us that the Antes (people that is considered either similar or identical to Slavs) are “more capable to fight on a difficult terrain than anyone else”. Again we find the proof that Slavic peoples, Antes in this case, are particularly skilled in techniques of utilizing the natural ground to their advantage in the battle.”
(the end of Part I)