Becoming Christian, Becoming Pagan
In Acts 16:9-10, the area that would in modern times become known as the Balkans is first mentioned.
“During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him; ‘come over to Macedonia and help us.’ After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready to leave at once for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the Gospel to them.”
And then in Romans 15:19, no doubt is left about the exposure of the new religion of Christianity to the Balkan area:
“By the power of signs and wonders and by the power of God’s spirit, I have fully proclaimed the Gospel of the Messiah from Jerusalem as far as Illyricum.”
Illyricum being, of course, the Roman province that had formerly been settled by the Illyrians.
There was no doubt that the area of the Balkans was one of the first to receive the preaching of Christianity, and was in fact visited by the Apostles who laid the foundations of the next two thousand years.
But, except in urban areas where there was a large underground Christian presence, it is difficult to find evidence of the very first Christians in the Balkan areas. Part of this is that Christian worship was a capital crime from the reign of Nero (AD 54-68) until that of Valerian (AD 253-260). Enforcement varied from time to time, but being known as a Christian was to give the authorities the power of death over any adherents should the mood change or a scapegoat be needed. Christians could not build churches or lasting altars, and burials had to be disguised. Until the reign of Valerian, the growth of Christianity was largely confined to urban areas where Christians were able to exert some sort of strength in numbers. Group strength was needed to protect adherents from the often violent reaction of pagans who held the common belief (foreshadowing the beliefs held by Christians against Jews) that Christians were guilty of cannibalism and incest in their worship.
Although we don’t have much physical evidence of Christians in this time, there are anecdotal stories that can tell us quite a lot. Two famous martyrs of the second century- Saint Florus and Saint Laurus – were masons in the area around what is now Priština, Kosovo. Their village, Ulpiana, has since been discovered and excavated for archaeological research. Florus and Laurus, converted to Christianity by the masons who had trained them, were engaged to build a pagan temple, and in the building of this temple they managed to heal an injury of the son of the pagan priest Mamerton.
Mamerton and his son converted to Christianity, and the community in Ulpiana grew to fairly large numbers. In fact, the numbers grew large enough that the community became shockingly bold – when the pagan temple was finished, the local Christian community (led by Florus and Laurus) charged into the temple, pulled down the pagan icons, set up a cross, and declared the building a Christian church.
Shocking is almost an understatement for this act – Christianity was still technically a capital crime at this time. Christian worship was still done in homes and in hidden places. Churches were not a thing. And yet, the Christian community of Ulpiana felt they had enough weight on their side to invade and consecrate an officially commissioned temple. It’s a story that needs to be more fully analyzed, because it shows that the Christian community was beginning, even in the second century, to feel more empowered within the Roman Empire, illegal or not.
It didn’t work, of course. Three hundred Christians, including the formerly pagan Mamerton and his son, were burned alive. Florus and Laurus were thrown into a well and buried alive.
CHRISTIANITY BECOMES MAINSTREAM
One hundred years after Florus and Laurus were martyred, merely being Christian was no longer a sentence of death. However, there were frequent persecutions that would result in the death of Christians who refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. Emperor Valerian (253-260), before he became the first Roman Emperor to become a prisoner of war, issued edicts requiring Christians to perform sacrifices under penalty of death, Roman matrons confessing Christianity to lose their property and be banished, and for Roman civil servants to profess to pagan religions or be remanded into slavery. While this certainly indicates that Christians were still subject to persecution, it also shows that Christianity had begun to spread throughout even the upper classes.
Indeed, by the beginning of the third century, approximately ten percent of the Roman Empire professed Christianity and there was now evidence it had spread to the countryside. There were now even churches being built, and some of them were quite ornate (thanks to the new upper class members of the church).
The pagan leaders of Rome, by now overwhelmingly Balkan in origin, needed to tear down the threat of this new religion. The Diocletian Persecution began in 304 when everyone in the empire was ordered into public squares to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods under penalty of death. This was being enforced in the Balkans by March, and was, in fact, enforced in the Balkans to a greater extent than almost anywhere else in the Roman Empire.
The cities of Sirmium (now Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia) and Singidunum (now Belgrade, Serbia) had large lists of Christians killed for refusing to perform sacrifices, which included the area’s first Christian bishop, Iranaeus, who was beheaded.
The Diocletian Persecution ended in the East officially in 311 with the Edict of Serdica (also called the Edict of Toleration). The edict was signed in Serdica, which is now the city of Sofia, Bulgaria and a plaque is in place to commemorate this in front of St. Sofia Church. Constantine the Great, himself born in Naissus (now Niš, Serbia), not only greatly increased the toleration for Christians during his reign, but he Christianized the empire and became a Christian before his death.
He also had his wife Fausta boiled in her bath and attempted to erase her from the historical record, so he wasn’t perfect. But it certainly became less hazardous to be a Christian from his reign forward. Unless you were a Christian married to Constantine the Great. But no one is perfect.
And so, after Constantine the Great, the physical evidence of Christians in the Balkans became far more tangible. Churches were raised, gravestones openly showed the religion of adherents, and gradually it became the pagans who were the minority. Official documents were more and more Christian, and the government became actively involved in Christian affairs.
The bishop who replaced the martyred Iranaeus in Sirmium, Bishop Domnus, attended the First Council of Nicea in 325, and his signature is on the Nicene Creed. The council, which was sponsored by no less than Constantine himself, took places just over a decade after the official end of the Diocletian Persecutions. The turn-around was fast enough to give an empire whiplash.
Churches built in the fourth through sixth centuries Balkans still survive today, the most famous being the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in Ras, Serbia and the Church of St George in Sofia, Bulgaria. Both of these churches were built in the fourth centuries. Frescoes on the wall of the Church of St George date back to the Roman era, and it was used as a mosque under the Ottomans before being converted back to the Orthodox Church at the end of the nineteenth century. The Church of the Holy Apostles shows evidence of being built on the remains of even earlier churches.
The ruins of churches from before the sixth century also survive in Bosnia and Herzegovina – with Crkvina near Mramorak being a very intriguing example. The church itself is near a the remains of a Roman Road, showing it was at a busy trade area. A second century non-Christian tombstone was discovered in the same area, showing that the church was in an ongoing settlement, also testified to by the necropolis of more than 34 stecci in the area. Stecci were a product of the Christian middle ages, so the area of the church ruins was not forgotten even after the coming of the Slavs and the re-paganization of the Balkans.
By the fifth century, pagans – once the dominant religious force in the Roman Empire – were beginning to be marginalized. Christianity seemed firmly rooted. And, indeed, Christianity was firmly established in the Roman Empire. However, the Balkans themselves were not as firmly entrenched in the Empire as the new dominant religion. And, after the year 578, no amount of emperors, born in the Balkans or not, would be able to hold on.
Disasters began to strike, one after the other. First the Huns, forced out of the Steppes by the Avars, began to pillage the Balkans. When they retreated, the Avars, forced out of the Steppes by Turkic tribes, pillaged the Balkans in their turn. The Avars also retreated, but following in their footsteps were the Slavs, people from the Northern Ukraine/Southern Belarus area. The Slavs participated in raiding and pillaging as well, and took advantage of the newly depopulated areas of the Balkans to settle down.
“The accursed people, the Slavs, advanced, and invaded the whole of Greece, the environs of Thessalonica and the whole of Thrace. They conquered many towns and fortresses, they ravaged, burned, pillaged, and dominated the country, which they inhabited as if it was their own land. This lasted four years, as long as the Bailees was making war against the Persians; in this way they had a free run of the country until God drove them out. Their devastations reached the outer walls [of Constantinople]. They took away all the imperial flocks and herds. Now  they are still quietly settled in the Roman provinces without anxiety or fear, laying waste, murdering, and burning. They grow rich, they possess gold and silver, they possess flocks and horses and many arms. They have learned to wage war better than the Byzantines.” John of Ephesus
Tiberius didn’t do himself any favors. Rather than working with the Slavs to absorb them into the empire in the depopulated Balkan fields and mountains, he turned to the previous Avar raiders to root the Slavs out. Tiberius engaged the Avars in 580, but instead of attacking the Slavs as they were hired to do, the Avars instead attacked the important Roman town of Sirmium. After a two year siege the city fell and most of the inhabitants left for Salona.
Fifteen hundred years later, a testimony to the siege was discovered in the archaeological ruins of the area. A roof tile bearing the inscription: “Christ our Lord, help our city halt the Avars. Protect the Roman Empire, and he who has written this. Amen.” The tile was dated to the 580/582 time period, but there is no evidence of exactly what happened to the author of the prayer.
Nor were the bloody raids and invasions the only thing the Balkans were contending with in the sixth and seventh centuries -plagues and famines resurfaced as well, as they tend to do whenever rampaging and pillaging barbarians are at the gates.
Throughout the Balkans, formerly thriving cities were being depopulated and pulled down by the Slavs. In Morgojelo, near what is now Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a rustic Roman villa built in the second century was pulled down by the invading Slavs who, rather than living in the Roman buildings, built more primitive structures of their own design on top of them.
Golemo Gradište, near what is now the small village of Konjuh in North Macedonia, is another village that met its end when the Slavs invaded. Current excavations show a basilica type unknown anywhere else in the Balkans and a city that had thriving trade. The trade, however, dried up as the people were killed or left.
The Slavs, illiterate and pagan, had no use for churches and preferred a more rural existence. The great Roman cities of the Balkans were simply not necessary, and not worth keeping up.
“In the third year of Tiberius the accursed people of the Slavs came out and overran Hellade, the region of the Thessalonians, and Thrace, which they ravaged and burned. They invaded the region and spread out there. They took the Emperor’s herds of horses; these barbarous men, who [until now] could not show themselves outside forests and covered places and did not know what a weapon was except for two or three little lances or darts, learned the art of warfare. For a long time they dominated the country of the Romans.” Michael the Syrian
Much as the Romans had swept into a depopulated Illyria and established their own people into that outpost of the Roman empire – spreading their culture, literacy, and eventually Christianity; the Slavs took advantage of a Balkans that was again depopulated. They intermarried with the few Romans who were left, established their own language as dominant, and brought their own Slavic pagan gods and beliefs, many of which managed to coexist in a syncretic manner with the eventual re-introduction of Christianity three hundred years later.
One of the first places in the world to Christianize, the Balkans would also become the first to leave Christianity for paganism, and the first area to be rebaptized into the Christian faith. As convoluted as the history of religion in the Balkans is to read, there is one further unintended consequence of the regional religious ping pong: when the Ottomans invaded in the fourteenth century, they instituted a practice called devširme, the taking of Christian boys as slaves to serve in the Janissary corps and the Ottoman civil service. This was a cornerstone of the Ottoman Empire.
Muslim religious law expressly forbid the taking of Jewish and Christian slaves, as they were also people of the book. But the Ottomans argued their way around this fact by stating that the Christianization of the Balkans took place after the advent of Islam, thus relegating Balkan Christians to the status of pagans and making them eligible for capture and slavery.
Thus it was the Slavs themselves, and their sixth century re-paganization of the area, that created the conditions for the unique Ottoman slavery system that would form the foundations of the ethnic tensions in the region through the twenty-first century.