These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.



The First Slovak State?

    Rastislav brandishes the distinctive cross of the Orthodox Church.
 Rastislav brandishes the distinctive cross of the Orthodox Church.
 Courtesy: Museum of the City of Bratislava

The Great Moravian Empire, founded in the 9th century, was a watershed for two reasons. First, it stands as the earliest historical period to make a lasting mark on the Slovak folk tradition. Second, its story coincides with the Christianization not only of the Slavs in the Danube basin, but also of Central Europe as a whole.

The empire lasted just 80 years, and its territory was roughly divided between the present-day Slovak and Czech republics. Yet some Slovak historians see in it the birth of the idea of Slovak nationalism; undeniably, it served as a rallying point for the National Awakening of the 19th century.

By the end of the 8th century, the Franks had managed to defeat the Avars, who retreated south. With their Avar tormenters gone, Slavic tribes managed to establish principalities on either side of the Moravian river - one in Moravia, in today's Czech Republic, the other, larger one in Nitra, now a Slovak city. Both principalities answered to the political authority of the Franks.

The Franks, meanwhile, had been Christianised, and they set about converting the Slavs to the Cross. The first concrete manifestation of this was a church consecrated in Nitra in 828. By embracing Christianity, the Slavs carved out a place for themselves within the Frankish political structure.

The Great Moravian Empire began when the prince of Moravia, Mojmír, drove his Nitra counterpart, Pribina, out of Nitra, and established a unified state within the Frankish sphere of influence.

Around 850, Mojmír ran foul of the Frankish leadership over the question of the annual tribute that had to be paid the kingdom. He was soon sacked and replaced by Rastislav, who set about consolidating and expanding the empire. Under him, the empire spread eastward to the Slanské mountains near present-day Košice.

    Constantine (later Cyril) and Methodius
 Constantine (later Cyril) and Methodius
 Courtesy: Museum of the City of Bratislava

In 859, the Great Moravian Empire reached a mature phase. The Franks had invaded Moravian territory after Rastislav chose the wrong side in a Frankish power dispute. But the Moravians managed to defend their land, fighting the Franks to a standstill and forcing a peace treaty. At this point, the empire had achieved a degree of autonomy.

But Rastislav wasn't done. Concerned that Frankish missionaries were gaining heavy influence over his subjects, he petitioned Pope Nicholas I to create an independent ecclesiastical province on his territory. This would have given him a direct line of communication to Rome, bypassing the Frankish authorities that ultimately held sway.

Rebuffed at first by the Pope, Rastislav turned east to Byzantium, petitioning Emperor Michael III to send a representative to Moravia. The emperor agreed, dispatching Constantine (later Cyril) and Methodius - two Greek brothers who had created a basic Slavic alphabet, Glagolitic - to the area. A later form of their alphabet, based on Greek symbols, would become known as Cyrillic, after Cyril. And Glagolitic itself would be used for centuries in parts of the Balkans.

The two brothers began in earnest preaching the liturgy in the vernacular. This enraged the Frankish clergy, who saw the flouting of Latin as a challenge to their power over the Slavs. Paradoxically, Rome initially supported the work of Constantine and Methodius, as a check on what it saw as a threat from the growing power of the Frankish clergy. In 869, Pope Hadrian shocked the Franks by naming Constantine archbishop of an independent ecclesiastical province in Great Moravia, and by sanctioning the use of the vernacular in the liturgy.

Constantine died that same year (shortly after changing his name to Cyril), and Methodius succeeded him as archbishop of Great Moravia, preaching and administering in Slavic against the wishes of the Frankish clergy until his death in 885. However, under heavy pressure from the Franks, his disciples soon lost the support of Rome, and by 893, the Great Moravian ecclesiastical district had reverted to Latin as its official language; and in fact, the area comprising present-day Slovakia would be one of the last in modern times to abandon the Latin liturgy.

    Svätopluk
 Svätopluk
 Courtesy: Museum of the City of Bratislava

Cyril and Methodius remain towering figures in Slovak religious and cultural history.

Meanwhile, under a new ruler, Svätopluk, Great Moravia continued to struggle with Franks to expand its territory. By 882, the empire was at its largest, extending as far north and west as present-day Poland, incorporating much of the modern Czech Republic, and reaching as far south as the border of Bulgaria.

But its success in the battlefield and in Rome only stoked the hatred of its Frankish enemies, who engaged Great Moravia in an intense series of battles. Overstretched and weakened by a constant state of war, the Great Moravian Empire fell in 907. The final impetus came not from the Franks but rather from a new enemy: the Magyars, who were seeking to expand their influence to the north of the Danube in direct defiance of the Franks.

The Magyars would succeed where the Great Moravians had ultimately failed in repelling Frankish influence and carving out an autonomous region in the Danubian basin and in the mountains north and east. The Magyars - also known as the Hungarians - would dominate the area for the next 1,000 years. And the descendants of the Great Moravians would continue living in the area and speaking dialects alphabetized by Cyril and Methodius.


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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