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8. Early Slavs |
The amazing Slavs subdue their masters by ably serving them

Early Slavs is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 192, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Hundreds of thousands pour in from the East, absorb the nomads who enslaved them, embrace Christ, and bring all Eastern Europe into the faith

Early Slavs - The amazing Slavs subdue their masters by ably serving them

Early Slavs - The amazing Slavs subdue their masters by ably serving them
Alphonse Marie Mucha, born in Moravia, the future Czech Republic, in 1860, soared to wide acclaim in Paris as one of the founders of the Art Nouveau movement soon after the turn of the twentieth century. While his illustrations for theater posters and magazines became the talk of the art world, he never did lose his love for his homeland and the Slav peoples. His commission to paint a series of murals for the Lord Mayor’s Hall in Prague led him also to create what he called The Slav Epic, a series of magnificent paintings chronicling major events in the history of the Slav nations. Three are reproduced in this chapter. The above is entitled, The Slavs in Their Original Homeland.

In the year 591, the Byzantine emperor Maurice took advantage of a lull in the wars with Persia to visit the empire’s barbarian-infested eastern frontiers. Somewhere in Asia Minor, his scouts seized a party of three armed men whose “arms,” as it turned out, were some sort of musical instruments. The emperor curtly interrogated them. Who were they? What were they doing? What were these instruments for? They were Slavs, the three explained through interpreters, from the Western Sea (by which they probably meant the Baltic). The khagan of the ferocious Avars had demanded that their tribe send warriors to help in his wars, and these three had been dispatched as envoys with the tribe’s reply, to this effect: “We are a peaceful people who play zithers, not war trumpets. We have no iron. We have no weapons. We are of no use to you as soldiers. But we will gladly entertain you.”

This message was not well received, said the musical trio. So enraged was the khagan that he forbade them to return home. But they had escaped, and now after fifteen months on the road, they begged the Byzantine emperor for sanctuary. They could have been spies, of course, but the emperor believed them. The Avars, as he well knew, were the latest wave of nomadic plunderers to come out of central Asia. Besides, Maurice was a pious man, fascinated by the unprecedented notion of an entirely pacifist people, trying to live without war in a world drenched in blood. He granted them safe passage to the nearest Byzantine city.

This story, one of the early mentions in Byzantine annals of the Slavic people, accurately portrays them as the least warlike of all the tribes competing for territory in central Europe during the Dark Ages. Throughout the sixth and seventh centuries, as the Germanic and other groups fought their way into Roman territory, Slavs poured by hundreds of thousands into the vacated regions behind them. But rarely were they left in peace. Slavs were the “soft anvil” upon which successive warrior cultures pounded their “hard hammers,” writes Austrian historian Theodore Peisker in the Cambridge Medieval History. So thoroughly entrenched grew their reputation for docility that the name Slav came to designate a human being in complete servitude.1 Yet by culturally absorbing their overlords and tormentors, the enduring Slavs would ultimately inherit most of the territory.

This magnificent resilience can be most easily explained by farming and birth rate. The original cradle of the proto-Slav people, known as Polesie, apparently lay somewhere within the fertile region west of the Dnieper River, east of the Carpathian Mountains, north of the nomad-dominated steppes and south of modern Warsaw. Predominantly fair-haired and blue-eyed, this Indo-European folk seem to have concentrated entirely on agriculture. The Romans noted that Slavs characteristically lived in primitive villages and largely lacked class distinctions. Cultivation apparently enabled them to support large families, but as subsistence farmers, they did not readily organize themselves for war. Although Slavs sometimes fought vigorously among themselves, when menaced by a more militaristic power they would typically yield.

Slavic family life was rigidly patriarchal and resolutely monogamous. Wives were chattels, bought or abducted by the men. (Memory of the latter practice would survive into the twentieth century in premarital mock abductions, boisterous but good-humored.) Emperor Maurice described them as “hardened to heat, frost, wet, nakedness and hunger,” and “well-disposed to strangers.” The sixth-century Greek historian Procopius admired their gentle temperament. Later commentators remarked on their exceptional hospitality and love of music.

Historian Peisker praises the same traits, while voicing some common nineteenth-century generalizations about other alleged Slavic ways: “Void of all enterprise, the Slav leaves others to trade with the fruits of his labor–and they drain him to the last farthing. Drunkenness is his only hateful quality: otherwise he has very attractive traits. He is thrifty almost to avarice … and shows an endurance that harmonizes little with his slender physique. He is in no way aggressive but rather dreamy, confiding, not at all malicious, good tempered, not without dignity, very hospitable, and a lover of amusement.”

Massive migrations began in the third century. As more warlike barbarians conquered new territories, Slav peasants followed and settled in areas north to the Baltic Sea, east to the Oka River (south of Moscow), southeast as far as Kiev and southwest to the Carpathians. Slavery greatly accelerated this diaspora, Nordic traders and Asian nomads hunting Slavs like game and transporting their hardworking, cooperative captives to Europe, Asia and even Africa.2

In the late sixth century, the warlike Avar tribes were menacing the Byzantine Empire all along its northern frontier. Under Maurice, the imperial army won five decisive battles early in the seventh, and repelled a combined Avar-Slav attack on Constantinople in 617.3 For the better part of two centuries, however, much of the land formally designated as Avar territory was in fact occupied by resettled Slavs who produced food and other goods for their nomadic masters. They also served–reluctantly–as infantry in support of the formidable Avar cavalry. Poorly armed and trained, they were only motivated to fight because mounted Avars would kill anyone who tried to retreat.

In one form or another, Slavic blood came to dominate most of eastern Europe. Because the Avars were spread too thinly to effectively dominate all of their subjects, independent Slavic territories began to appear. One such, under a leader named Walluc, occupied the Carinthian region of southern Austria. To the north reigned a Slavicized Frankish prince named Samo, whose domain possibly ran as far west as what is now Bavaria. Smaller independent Slav jurisdictions sprouted in the Alps and along the valley of the Elbe River in eastern Germany.

Slavs resisted Christianity, not necessarily because they rejected its principles, but because supposed Christians were often their most vicious tormentors. For example, when an envoy from the Frankish king Dagobert threatened to invade Samo’s region, Samo politely assured him that Dagobert was welcome to his kingdom so long as he “maintained friendship” with its people. The envoy contemptuously replied that Christian Franks could never be friends with pagan dogs. “Then if you are the servants of God, and we are God’s dogs,” Samo countered, “we are permitted to bite you when you ceaselessly act against his will.”4

Centuries of subjugation instilled in the Slavic soul a powerful desire for justice, Peisker contends. “The appeal to law and not to the sword is the basis of Old Slavonic thought and aspiration,” and Slavic blood fertilized the soil of Europe in their pursuit of “social and religious dreams of an evangelical way of life.… This movement was democratic, not communistic–a wonderful theoretic union of human perfection with spiritual purity in the midst of a society saturated with selfishness.” The power of the essentially pacific Slavic culture was such that it first transformed the predatory Avars, he maintains, and after them the Bulgars, the next wave of pagan nomads.

Small predatory bands of Bulgars, yet another population from the mysterious lands east of the Black Sea, appeared in the Balkans during the late 400s, and occasionally served Byzantium as mercenaries. A century and a half later, they were well established in their first kingdom east of the Sea of Azov, and what historians call the Old Bulgarian Empire reached its zenith in the 600s, under a powerful khagan named Kubrat, who ruled for six decades. (The term “khan” and its variants derive from the Mongolian language.) Then it was extinguished by new invaders, the Khazars (see sidebar, page 200), while four of Kubrat’s five sons migrated farther west.

The most successful was the third son, Asperuch, who resettled his large following around the Danube Delta, where Emperor Constantine IV, mindful of previous depredations by Huns and Avars, led a major assault on them–and suffered a disastrous defeat. The triumphant Bulgars chased his legions across the Danube, slaughtering all stragglers. Then they pressed south and west into the lands that would become their European home, much of which was already occupied by Slavic tribes.

The Slavs capitulated, although the two cultures diverged dramatically. The Bulgars practiced polygamy, for instance, and their women wore the veil, while the men wore turbans. Nonetheless, the obliging Slavs helped the Bulgars expand, muscling Byzantium to the south and the weakening Avars to north and west. The heavily fortified Bulgarian capital was Pliska, 190 miles northwest of Constantinople. The Byzantines periodically tried to regain the lost territory, and frequently had to contend with further Bulgar assaults. One emperor actually invited them to attack Constantinople itself.5

In the early ninth century, a cunning warrior named Krum, possibly descended from Khagan Kubrat’s fourth son, vanquished the Avars in the onetime Roman province of Pannonia (a portion of modern Hungary and Austria). As sublime khan, Krum united Bulgar tribes until his realm stretched from the Black Sea far into the rugged Balkans, and the empress Irene had to pay him protection money. But Nicephorus I, who succeeded Irene in 802, was determined to confront him. During a lull in Byzantium’s constant fight against the Islamic Empire on his southeastern border, Nicephorus attacked–and failed. Worse still, the failure inspired Krum to march on Macedonia the following year. There he managed to trick the defenders of the frontier fortress of Sardica into opening their gates, and slaughtered the entire garrison of six thousand men.

Nicephorus responded briskly by seizing Pliska, that city being nearly undefended at the time. (He wrote home to Constantinople, with satisfaction, that he spent a pleasant Easter enjoying the comforts of Krum’s palace.) The combatants then retired to their respective capitals until the spring of 811, when Nicephorus decided to eliminate Krum. With a mighty army that included battle-hardened legions from the Muslim front, he bore down on Pliska. Krum tried to parley. Nicephorus refused, routed the khan from his stronghold, torched it, and put all its inhabitants–irrespective of age or sex–to the sword.

Again the khan tried to parley. Again the emperor refused. Instead, he chased the fleeing Bulgar warriors into a narrow mountain pass–and there met disaster, for they were able to take cover and ambush their pursuers. Nicephorus, realizing his mistake too late, exclaimed, “Even were we birds, we could not hope to escape.” On that night of July 26, the Bulgarians fell upon his troops and butchered most of them, including the emperor. His son and successor, Stauracius, escaped but died later of his wounds. The severed head of Nicephorus was gleefully displayed on a pike, then prepared for a new use. The skull, lined with silver, became a drinking goblet used by Krum to celebrate his victory with a Slavonic toast: Zdravitsa–that is, “To your good health!”6

Krum’s use of a Slavonic word is a small but significant indication of his attitude toward the Slavs, who by then enjoyed more or less equal social status. The Bulgar ambassador to Constantinople, for example, was a Slav. Krum realized that the relatively sedentary, productive, law-abiding Slavs could supply the social and economic savvy his people needed, and among other innovations he promulgated a code of laws. (One of these, incidentally, banned cultivation of grapes, perhaps an attempt to curb the bibulous Slavs.) Krum saw no value in Christianity, however, although it was spreading among his subjects. He reputedly would use Byzantine captives as craftsmen and bureaucrats only if they would renounce their faith (the other option being death).

Further Bulgar gains in Thrace and Macedonia in 812 culminated in the defeat at Versinicia of a far larger Byzantine force. Just six days later, Krum was before the walls of Constantinople, conducting a grotesque exhibition of barbarism. While he paraded about with his concubines, his troops sacrificed both humans and animals on pagan altars. Then, with Emperor Leo V still refusing to surrender, the Bulgars embarked on a bloody rampage through the suburbs outside the walls.

Krum offered to raise the siege if the Byzantines would pay him a vast indemnity, and would display for his selection all their most beautiful women. He wanted to choose a few for his already extensive harem. The emperor craftily suggested that he and Krum and a few aides meet unarmed on the shore outside the walls, to discuss these matters. This they did–and at a prearranged signal three assassins, secreted in a nearby hut, burst out to attack the Bulgars. But the trick failed. Krum leaped on his horse and galloped off, barely nicked by one arrow.

The orgy of death and destruction he now unleashed was beyond anything Constantinople had yet seen. Thousands were massacred. Captives, women and children included, were herded like cattle to the barbarian lands north of the Danube. Scores of churches, palaces, bridges and forts became smoking ruins.

A successful counterattack by Leo near the Bulgarian coastal city of Mesembria (now Nesebûr) only quickened Krum’s thirst for revenge. But in April 814, while he was recruiting more Slavs and Avars and amassing armaments for another monumental assault on Constantinople, a blood vessel burst in his brain. The sublime Khan was no more, and one of Christianity’s major bastions was thereby spared what might well have been final destruction.

Mercifully for both sides, Krum’s son and successor, Omurtag, negotiated a durable peace with Byzantium, although the accompanying ceremonies scandalized church and state authorities alike. Leo had to express his sincerity by performing pagan rites that included swearing on a sword and sacrificing a dog, while Omurtag swore an oath in the name of God. Though some saw subsequent plagues and earthquakes as divine retribution for such sacrilege, it brought a thirty-year peace–almost unprecedented for the times.

Omurtag continued his father’s policies regarding the Slavs, and Slavonic became the de facto official language. Only the military establishment remained purely Bulgar. From the Byzantine Greeks he imported architecture, art and a written alphabet, but one Greek import he vigorously and brutally resisted: Christianity. To expose secret Christians in his realms, he insisted that everyone eat meat during Lent. Any man who refused to renounce his faith was killed, and his wife and children enslaved.

Peace with Byzantium allowed Omurtag to challenge the Franks in the Slav-inhabited regions north and west of his fortress at Belgrade. His youngest son, Malamir, who succeeded him in 831, added Macedonia and the northern Greek Peninsula to the Bulgar realm. But Malamir first had to deal with his older brother, Enravotas, who had been persuaded by his Greek slave to believe in Jesus Christ. British historian Steven Runciman, in A History of the First Bulgarian Empire, suggests this was a Byzantine plot, to unsettle the enemy. However that may be, Enravotas held firm in his faith. When his brother Malamir had him killed, he became Bulgaria’s first recognized martyr.

This may have impressed the youthful mind of the next Bulgarian khan, Boris, a great-grandson of Krum, who equaled his ancestor in statecraft. Boris brought his people into the Christian faith despite many obstacles, one of which was his uneasy relationship with neighboring Moravia. A coalition of Slavic tribes, the Moravians occupied an area that would one day encompass the Czech and Slovak republics, along with parts of Hungary, Austria and Poland. They were ruled by a prince named Rostislav, and he and Boris appear to have concluded, quite independently, that formal conversion of their countries to Christianity was necessary and probably inevitable.

The steps that Rostislav and Boris took to accomplish this would significantly exacerbate the uneasy relationship of Rome and Constantinople. Each Slav ruler was justifiably suspicious of the other, and of the Christian nations on their respective doorsteps, so each sought alliance with a more distant Christian power. In 862, Rostislav reached out to Patriarch Photius of Constantinople. Boris signed a treaty with the Frankish king, Louis the Pious, which also linked him to Pope Nicholas. But Boris’s alliance with Rome prompted Constantinople to attack Bulgaria’s thinly defended eastern flank. He had to capitulate, formally recognizing the temporal authority of the emperor and the spiritual authority of the patriarch in Constantinople. He was baptized in September 865, with the Byzantine emperor as godfather.

Many of his pagan chieftains consequently rose in a violent insurrection that nearly cost him his life, but Boris prevailed. He then secured his future by executing some fifty ringleaders (along with their children, to eliminate any revenge-seekers). Still, the Bulgars regarded the Greek priests, now flooding their land, as emissaries of their longtime enemy. Furthermore, they complained, these supposed missionaries treated them contemptuously, and seemed none too competent, either. When one Greek priest was revealed as a complete fraud, they cut off his nose and ears and deported him. Besides, Patriarch Photius insulted Boris with a letter the Bulgar monarch deemed patronizing–describing Boris as “the fruit of my labors” and lecturing him on the finer points of Byzantine theology.7

In exasperation, or confusion (or possibly both), Boris again approached Pope Nicholas I, requesting missionaries from Rome and asking many questions about Christianity, which the pope answered in truly exemplary fashion (See sidebar, page 204). Nicholas also promised to assign Bulgaria its own bishops immediately, and an archbishop as soon as the number of Christians warranted. Boris, anxious to keep the Bulgarian Church as free as possible from both Constantinople and Rome, was delighted. He expelled all the Greek priests and welcomed the Romans.

Familiarity of language and geographical proximity might sooner or later have returned Bulgaria to the Eastern Church in any case, but the process was now hastened by a seemingly fortuitous series of events. Emperor Michael III, “the Drunkard,” who had been proclaimed emperor at age two, had spent his entire reign in the shadow of his mother, Theodora, and had developed into a thorough wastrel. In 867, at the age of twenty-seven, he was murdered by the man who would succeed him, Basil I “the Macedonian.” (See page 137.) Emperor Basil removed Photius from the patriarchy and restored the previously ousted Ignatius. That same year, Pope Nicholas died, and his successor, Adrian II, persistently ignored Bulgarian requests for their archbishop.

Since Boris’s central concern was still autonomy for the Bulgarian Church, he again turned eastward, and he got results. A major ecclesiastical council, held in Constantinople and attended by all concerned, agreed that this was where Bulgaria belonged. Patriarch Ignatius immediately assigned for it an archbishop and several bishops. Boris at last was satisfied. In Byzantium, he had perceived, the church tended to be subordinate to the state.

But the clinching argument for Boris, who aspired to unite his people by both religion and language, may have been that the Eastern Church was ready to permit worship in the vernacular, while Rome insisted on Latin for all. In fact, a Slavic alphabet had recently been developed by two Greek missionaries in Moravia, Cyril and Methodius, who were even then translating into Slavonic the Christian Gospels and the Eastern liturgy. This monumental accomplishment would lead to the conversion of Europe’s entire Slavic population, most of it to the Eastern Church. It would also earn sainthood for both translators.

Uniquely suited to the job, the two were brothers, born in the Aegean city of Thessalonica. Their father, a government official, served a regional population largely comprised of Macedonian Slavs, and the brothers grew up among them. Besides, Cyril in particular was said to possess a particular gift for language, a prodigious thirst for knowledge, rigorous self-discipline and intense devotion to God. At fifteen, he was sent to the imperial school in Constantinople, where the future patriarch Photius was a teacher, and where he became acquainted with the boy-emperor Michael III, then only six. Later on, both these relationships would matter.

At twenty-four, Cyril was attached to a diplomatic mission to the new Arab capital of Samara, north of Baghdad, where he is said to have made a memorable impression on the Abbasid courtiers.8 Elder brother Methodius governed a Slavic region outside Thessalonica for ten years. In 855, after palace intrigues broke their links to the court of Emperor Michael III, both men retreated to a monastery on Mount Olympus. Later, their status restored, they were members of an imperial delegation attempting to improve relations with the Khazars.

In 862, however, Cyril’s old mentor Photius asked them to handle a request from Prince Rostislav of Moravia. “Christian teachers have been among us already, from Italy, Greece and Germany, teaching us contradictory doctrines,” Rostislav had told the patriarch, “but we are simple Slavs and we want someone to teach us the whole truth.” Further, he wanted it done in their own language. Irish missionaries had preached in the region since the late 700s, and Rome had considerable influence there, but in ecclesiastical matters, Rostislav was of one mind with Boris of Bulgaria; he wanted an autonomous church for Moravia.

Cyril and Methodius were providentially at hand, and already preparing for such a job. Historian A. P. Vlasto writes in The Entry of the Slavs into Christendom that Cyril had begun working on a Slavonic alphabet at least seven years earlier, and he now completed the thirty-eight-letter system that would evolve into the Cyrillic alphabet. The letters were symbols such as circles, triangles and crosses (these three respectively inspired by eternity, the Trinity and the Crucifixion), designed to express the unique phonetics of Slavonic. A biography written shortly after his death claims that the first words Cyril translated were “Iskoni b_ Slovo, i Slovo b_ u Boga, i Bog b_ Slovo”–the magnificent opening lines of St. John’s Gospel (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”).

Within the year, the brothers were in Moravia, establishing a school to teach the new alphabet and train priests. They were bitterly resented by the Latin priests already there, mainly Bavarians, who considered their linguistic endeavors downright heretical. But Cyril and Methodius, unlike most church and state authorities on both sides of the East—West divide, really seem to have been more interested in evangelizing than ecclesiastical politicking. Recognizing the deep Western roots of the Moravian Church, they tried to collaborate with both Rome and Constantinople. Cyril eventually translated both the Western and the Eastern liturgies into Slavonic, and taught both.

The brothers’ success nevertheless made Rome nervous, and in 867 Pope Nicholas summoned them to Rome. On the way, they detoured into the adjacent Slavic realm of Pannonia. Its ruler, Prince Kocel, was also interested in an autonomous Slavic Church. He accepted copies of the Slavonic gospels and liturgies, and offered Cyril and Methodius fifty disciples to train for the priesthood.

Their reception was quite different in Venice, where the Italian clergy, ardent “trilingualists,” assailed them with furious argumentation. Only Hebrew, Greek and Latin should be used for liturgical worship, they insisted, because these were the languages of the inscription on Christ’s cross. Cyril’s response, as recorded by his Slavonic biographer, was a rhetorical masterpiece: “Does not God send the rain equally upon all? Does He not permit the sun to shine upon all? Do we not all equally breathe the air? Are you not ashamed to recognize only three tongues, as though all other nations and races were blind and deaf? Tell me, do you make God a powerless God, Who cannot bestow equal powers on all nations; or do you make Him an envious God Who refuses to do so?”

They reached Rome shortly after the death of Pope Nicholas. His successor, Adrian II, now realizing that Rome could lose the Slavs altogether on the language issue, approved the use of the Slavonic for preaching and teaching in Moravia. He also allowed several of their protégés to be ordained as priests, and proposed that Cyril himself become bishop of Moravia. But at this crowning moment, Cyril fell mortally ill. Recognizing that death was imminent, on Christmas Day he had himself tonsured a monk, and fifty days later, on February 14, 869, he died at age forty-two. On Adrian’s orders, he was given a funeral fit for a pope, attended by Greeks and Romans alike.9

Methodius carried on their work. He returned to their adopted land, with the pope’s blessing, as archbishop of Sirmium, responsible for the Slavs of Moravia, Slovakia and Pannonia. This honor was both blessing and curse. Western clergy formerly responsible to the Bavarian bishops of Salzburg and Passau were horrified to find a Greek in charge–and a Greek who in their eyes was corrupting the church with his Slavonic liturgies. Moreover, Prince Rostislav’s nephew, Svatopluk, governor of Nitra, was currently conspiring with the Germans to depose his uncle. Svatopluk found it expedient to charge Methodius with violating Christian doctrine and trespassing on another bishop’s jurisdiction.

The aging missionary was tortured, horsewhipped by a Bavarian bishop, and confined to a monastery, while Rostislav fared far worse–he was blinded, and imprisoned until his death. Two and a half years later, Methodius was freed at the request of a new pope, John VIII, and resumed his mission, although under dramatically changed circumstances. Pope John rejected the Slavonic liturgy and Svatopluk ruled at the pleasure of the Germans. In Pannonia, Prince Kocel died while putting down a Croatian insurrection, which halted development of the Slavonic Church there. Svatopluk was an effective military leader, however, who expanded the Moravian Empire into adjacent Slavic regions. Methodius and his missionaries, following the troops, made many converts in the new regions, and their popularity among the Slavs of central Europe afforded some protection from Svatopluk and hostile Latin clergy. Even so, they were relentlessly harassed, particularly by a priest named Wiching.

Wiching was probably responsible for another formal rebuke from Rome in 879. Methodius was accused this time of outright heresy, of using Slavonic liturgically, and of failing to add the filioque–the phrase “and from the Son”–to the assertion in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father.” (The last allegation was a curious one; Rome itself would not officially adopt this change for another thirty-five years.) Once again, Methodius had to troop off to Rome, where he easily defended himself, and won another papal endorsement for the Slavonic liturgy.

Pope John also told him to carry on as archbishop of Greater Moravia, though he terminated his jurisdiction over Pannonia. But Methodius’s nemesis, Wiching, was made bishop of Nitra. As such, he was nominally answerable to Methodius, but since he had the ear of Svatopluk, his real power was considerable. So was his cunning. When the beleaguered missionary returned to Moravia in 880, he encountered a widespread and very solid misapprehension that the pope had in fact found him guilty, and replaced him with Wiching. The author of these lies? The mendacious bishop himself, no doubt.

Now well into his sixties, Methodius must have been growing weary of plots. In 881-882, he traveled to Constantinople one last time and visited his old friend Photius. The meeting by all accounts was cordial; Photius did not complain that the brothers had fallen in with the pope. Indeed, after his own long, tempestuous relationship with Rome, Photius had recently negotiated an accord with the pope that acknowledged him as patriarch of Constantinople. Returning to Moravia, Methodius resumed the translation of religious texts, including the Old Testament, into Slavonic. And he excommunicated Wiching and some of his confederates–a vain attempt to safeguard his own followers and successors.

That was one of the last earthly acts of Archbishop Methodius. He died at Easter 885, and his disciples, in an exquisitely fitting farewell, made a point of conducting his funeral rites in Latin, Greek–and Slavonic. But his death marked the beginning of the end for that language in Moravia. Wiching persuaded the next pope, Stephen V, to make him archbishop, to totally ban the Slavonic liturgy, and to approve the purging of followers of Cyril and Methodius. Many were arrested. Some fled. Some were sold as slaves.

The future of the Slavonic Church would be determined elsewhere, with Bulgaria playing the pivotal role. Methodius had reportedly left copies of all the Slavonic texts in Constantinople on his last visit there along with a group of disciples (one of whom was the khagan Boris’s youngest son, Simeon), who were to found a training school for missionaries to Bulgaria. Meanwhile, many Moravian clergy sought haven in Bulgaria. Boris welcomed them all, envisioning them as founders of a fully Slavicized and Christian Bulgaria. Confident that his nation was firmly set on this path, Boris then turned over the throne to his eldest son, Vladimir, and retired to a monastery.

Vladimir proved to be a lax Christian, however, and a pawn of the stubbornly pagan Bulgar aristocracy. Four years later, Boris therefore replaced him with Simeon, who was made of much sterner stuff. Simeon the Great, as he came to be known, reigned from 893 to 927, presiding over a florescence of art, culture, commerce and–not least–faith. Written Slavonic evolved from Cyril’s original notation into the more Greek-influenced Cyrillic, while still retaining the name of the saintly linguist.10 Translation of religious texts became a large-scale enterprise. Simeon also discarded the titles “khan” and “khagan” in favor of the Slavonic “czar” (from the Latin caesar).

Simeon was a fighter, too. When a trade dispute again triggered war with Byzantium, the Greeks sought lethal assistance from the Magyars, the latest nomads out of the Ural Mountains. The Bulgars beat them back, and a decade later, twice stormed the gates of Constantinople. Simeon also battled the Serbs and Croats, extending his reach from the Black Sea to the Adriatic. Seemingly his greatest desire, however, was to become emperor of Byzantium, and after persistent failure he persuaded the pope to declare him “Emperor of Rome and the Balkans” instead. As such, he appointed a patriarch for Bulgaria, a presumptuous move steadfastly ignored by Constantinople.

With Simeon’s death in 927 his war-stressed empire collapsed into secession (by the western provinces) and invasion (by Serbs and Magyars). It even endured a short-lived Kievan occupation in the 960s, but the Byzantines delivered the deathblow. Emperor Basil II “the Bulgar-slayer,” invaded three times between 981 and 1014, and crowned his final victory with an act of brutality so stupendously cruel as to stupefy even that callous age. When his army took prisoner fifteen thousand Bulgar soldiers, Basil had ninety-nine men out of every hundred blinded. The hundredth man he left with just one eye, so that he could guide his sightless comrades home. Then he turned them all loose.

Samuel, fourth czar since Simeon, was reportedly so horrified by the sight of his stumbling army that he collapsed and died, and within a few years, the last vestiges of the Bulgar Empire were absorbed into Byzantium, where they would lie dormant for some two centuries. But the work of Cyril and Methodius, and their royal sponsors, had sown the seeds of Christianity wide and deep in Bulgar territory–so deep that it would survive both pitiless cruelty from fellow Christians, and the coming assaults of Islamic and Turkish invaders. Through it all, the Bulgars would remain loyal to the Eastern Church.

In some other regions, the ecclesiastical orientation of the Slavs was yet unresolved, but Latin jurisdiction naturally tended to prevail in the more westerly areas. So it was with Bohemia, precursor of the twentieth-century Czech Republic. Settled by Slavs in the six and seventh centuries, Bohemia remained pagan until the late 800s, when it fell under Christian influence. A Czech legend relates how Borivoj, a Slav chieftain from Prague, led his country into the faith after a humiliating incident at the Moravian court. As a heathen, so the story goes, he was expected to sit on the floor to eat, while Christian dignitaries dined in style at tables.

Some sources suggest that Borivoj was baptized by Methodius himself, and it is altogether likely that priests trained by Methodius catechized his subjects. But the disintegration of Moravia forced Bohemia to look westward for security, and its introduction to faith in Jesus Christ proceeded under direction from Rome. One particular Bohemian, incidentally, would become well known in England in the nineteenth century, by way of a popular Christmas carol–Borivoj’s grandson, Wenceslas.11 Reputedly a gentle, pious soul, whose brief life emphasized charity for the poor, this young ruler had absorbed his religious convictions from his grandmother, an early Bohemian convert who was assassinated by her pagan daughter-in-law, Wenceslas’s mother. He himself was murdered in 929, at the age of twenty-two, by his power-hungry brother, thereby qualifying as a Christian martyr and a hero of the Czech people.

The next Slavic flock to enter the Christian fold was Poland. In the mid-tenth century, the disparate tribes east of Germany and north of Bohemia were led by a dominant chief named Mieszko (or Mieczyslaw). Mieszko may have been an illiterate barbarian, observes historian Vlasto, but he was no fool. Recognizing a formidable power in the mighty German Empire just across the Oder River, he followed the advice Methodius had given another Slavic prince many years earlier: “Better to embrace Christianity voluntarily and retain your independence than to be forcibly baptized in foreign captivity.”

So Prince Mieszko invited in missionaries from his nonthreatening southern neighbor, Bohemia. He also wed the daughter of its king, Boleslaw, and their marriage became one of the many instances in the conversion of Europe where, as St. Paul put it, “the unbelieving husband is saved through the believing wife.” (I Cor. 7:14) The bride traveled north in 964 accompanied by priests, liturgies and scripture translations. Two years later Mieszko was baptized, subsequently persuaded the pope to create a Polish diocese under direct papal supervision, and in the next two decades extended his territory from the mouth of the Oder to the borders of Baltic Prussia and the Kievan state. Finally, trying to ensure strong Christian support on his western border, he arranged his renowned “Donation of Poland” to the pope, just before his death in 992.12

Under Mieszko’s son Boleslaw, “the Brave,” Poland experienced a blossoming of Christianity, commerce and conquest, its influence spreading from the Baltic beyond the Carpathians, and east of the Vistula River. Emperor Otto III formally recognized Boleslaw and his kingdom, and the pope appointed an archbishop for Poland. The Latin language and the Latin rite dominated from the beginning. Mieszko and Boleslaw both sanctioned conversion by force, and anyone who broke a religious fast, for instance, risked having his teeth knocked out. After Boleslaw died in 1025, parts of Poland rapidly reverted to paganism. Mobs of peasants roamed the country murdering clergymen, nobles and government officials, and ransacking churches, convents and castles.

But there is also some evidence that the unrest, especially in the South, was due to conflict between Latin loyalists and Moravian supporters of Slavonic traditions. Not until 1039, with the reign of Kazimierz, great-grandson of Mieszko I, was order restored in Poland. Kazimierz insisted on Latin rule and usage, although the country’s written language, as in Bohemia, was influenced by the Slavonic alphabet of Cyril and Methodius. Thus the work of the two Greek brothers, who accomplished one of the great missionary achievements of the Eastern Church, is inextricably interwoven with the political and religious history of virtually all Slavdom.

Ironically, however, in Byzantium’s home territory in the eighth century, these supposedly “peaceful Slavs” had begun rolling back the frontier of the empire itself, supplanting the Greeks as far south as Thessalonica and infiltrating most of the Balkan Peninsula’s interior as well. The Greeks clung to a few seaports, but even some of their islands, including Crete, were subject to Slav incursions. In the North, Slavonic-speakers occupied Macedonia, effectively blocking the Via Egnatia, the old imperial highway linking east and west–a physical separation that added to the estrangement of Rome and Constantinople.

Arriving Slavs took up farming and settled in small villages, while the Greek cities and towns fell to ruin. The newcomers shunned them utterly, calling them “walled tombs,” but this resistance to urbanization, and to organization, proved their undoing in Greece. By the mid-ninth century, the Byzantine reconquest was almost complete, and the Slavic population was converting to Christianity. Moreover, in Greece they would ultimately lose not only their language, but all cultural distinction as well–a rare instance of a large Slavic population succumbing to assimilation.

Such was by no means the case in the rest of the Balkan area, however. In the seventh century, their northernmost territories, eventually to be known as Croatia and Slovenia, were heavily populated by pagan Slavs along the northern part of the Dalmatian coast and east to the Drava River. The Dalmatian Croats became especially turbulent, looting churches, extorting protection payments and practicing piracy on the Adriatic, even occasionally raiding Italian ports.

As always, pope and patriarch both sought Croat and Slovene souls. The patriarch had an initial advantage, as the Slavonic alphabet and liturgy migrated south from Moravia and Pannonia, but in the early tenth century, Croatia opted irrevocably for Rome. Mild measures against the use of Slavonic became compulsory measures. Eastern Slavic priests were ordered to cut their hair and beards; men who could not speak Latin were refused ordination; Methodius was branded a heretic; and Cyril’s alphabet suffered guilt by association. The Eastern Church lingered on only in rural parishes and monasteries along the Dalmatian coast. Croatians and Slovenians would consequently maintain their Slavic language and culture, but their alphabet would be Latin and their church Roman.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles to the southeast, in the valleys of the Drina and Ibar rivers, a different destiny awaited another group of Slavs. Little is known of the Serbs before the ninth century, when they began to impinge upon Byzantium, and missionaries from Moravia and Bohemia began spreading literacy and Christianity. By the eleventh, the locus of Serbian power shifted west to latter-day Montenegro and the southern Dalmatian coast. In the twelfth, it gained cohesion and still more territory under its first significant leader, Symeon Nemanja (not to be confused with Simeon of Bulgaria).

Eastern Serbia was inevitably influenced by the Eastern Church, and the Dalmatian side by the Western, a circumstance sharply illustrated by the Nemanja dynasty. Vukan Nemanja, who governed Montenegro, married a relative of the pope and embraced the West. His brother Stephen, governor of the interior, married a Byzantine princess and remained with the East. The inevitable conflict was mediated by a third brother, Rastko–though not under that name. In 1191, Rastko secretly became a monk on the famous monastic peninsula of Mount Athos, taking the name Sava. Seventeen years later he returned, to play a key role in establishing the independent Serbian Orthodox Church, and to become its first archbishop–and before very long, its patron saint.13

Both Serbia and Bulgaria harbored the Bogomil heresy, an uncompromising belief that the material world is hopelessly evil, and Satan’s exclusive domain. The country most infected with Bogomilism, however, was the last Slavic Balkan realm, Bosnia-Herzegovina, which never did fully resolve its Christian orientation. Straddling the very edge of the religious chasm between East and West, Bosnia-Herzegovina evolved into a patchwork of Western and Eastern communities, and eventually–after the Turkish invasion of the late fifteenth century–Muslim as well. Nevertheless, it was still culturally Slavic, like most of central Europe.14

At the very center of the Slavic world was one glaring cultural anomaly. Hungary was not slavicized, and never would be. The chosen home of the fearsome Magyars, it became a permanent wedge between the Slavs of the North and South. Magyar durability apparently owed much to Magyar temperament. Reportedly more ruthless even than the Huns, they exterminated whole populations, sparing only young women for use as sexual slaves. At their horrifying arrival in the late ninth century, terrorized Christian populations associated them with Gog and Magog, Satan’s dreadful harbingers of the Apocalypse as described in Revelation 20:8.

Temporarily blocked by the Bulgars, the Magyars crossed the Danube in the tenth century, seizing the territories once ruled by the Slavic princes Svatopluk and Kocel. They repeatedly attacked Germany, France and Italy (and Constantinople at least once), until the Germans stopped them at Merseberg in Saxony in 933, and at Lechfield in Bavaria in 955. (See chapter 3.) Thoroughly chastened, the Magyars settled down on the Hungarian plain.

Christian influence from surrounding areas also seems to have been a factor in Magyar cultural independence. A powerful prince named Geza apparently decided that his people could not survive as a pagan enclave. He married a Polish Christian named Adelaide, who in 985 arranged the baptism of her husband and their ten-year-old heir, Stephen. Coming to his throne in 997, Stephen was known as a devout Christian who liberated his slaves, and built churches and monasteries. By then, too, the papacy was allowing national churches some autonomy (although not on language). For the Magyars, Pope Sylvester II authorized a church free of German supervision in 1001. This ensured for the second millennium Hungary’s allegiance to the West.

The greatest Slavic colossus of all would arise from another union, this time with Nordic barbarians first known to eastern Europeans as Varangians, and later as the Rus. Elsewhere, of course, the close relatives of those gentry were called Vikings, or Northmen. (See chapter 4.) Indefatigable pirate-merchants, they came in the eighth century from Scandinavia, via the Gulf of Finland and the network of navigable waterways that traverses the great plains between the Baltic, Black and Caspian seas. The eastern Slavs, who earlier used some of these rivers to move north from their prehistoric Polesie homeland, watched with interest as the Varangians built a fortified settlement at Novgorod.

And then, according to the primary source of early Russian history, The Chronicle of Bygone Years, written around 1100, the Slavs approached the Varangians. “Our land is vast and rich but there is no order in it,” they told the new arrivals. “Come and rule over us.” The Scandinavians needed no second asking. With a few modest portages in the Valdai Hills, they had discovered, the Volga, Don and Dnieper river systems could handily carry them to the fabled lands of the Khazars, Byzantines and Arabs. By expelling its Khazar overlords, they next took the Slavic city of Kiev on the Dnieper where northern forest met southern grassland. From Kiev in 860, two hundred boatloads of Varangian warriors launched their first attack on Constantinople.15

Patriarch Photius of Constantinople initially persuaded the Rus to accept some Christian evangelists, an arrangement that lasted only until a ruthless Viking chief named Oleg, a Thor-worshiping polygamist, seized central power and threw them out. Oleg also built Kiev into what he proclaimed to be “the mother of Rus cities,” before he died, according to legend, from a snakebite in 913.16 His successor was Igor, a scion of the Rurikid family that had established Novgorod, thus launching the dynasty that would preside over the Rus emergence as a Slavic and Christian power. Integral to this process was Igor’s wife, Olga, who became regent in 945, after her husband was captured and hideously executed.

His captors, says The Chronicle, were a recalcitrant Slav group who tied Igor between two bent-over sapling trees, then released them to tear him apart. Olga, tall, handsome and formidable, is described by Vladimir Volkoff in his 1984 biography, Vladimir the Russian Viking, as a “petticoated Machiavelli with a touch of sadism.” She amply punished her husband’s killers, burying some alive and burning down their chief town. But a decade later, Olga suddenly mellowed, became an ardent Christian, and traveled to Constantinople to discuss the conversion of her people. Then, dissatisfied with what she considered cavalier treatment by the Byzantines, she did what other monarchs had done. She contacted Rome.

By then the Varangians had acquired, likely from Bulgaria, the Cyrillic alphabet and some knowledge of Christianity, although most of them remained stubbornly heathen. Volkoff imagines Olga’s son, Sviatoslav, for example, as dearly loving his mother, but vehemently rejecting her religion. “Mother,” he might have said, “my retinue will laugh at me if I become a do-gooder. Yours is not a faith for soldiers and princes.” Sviatoslav became king in 962, gave his pious mother a Christian funeral when the time came, and reigned a proper pagan, barring Roman missionaries, although he did not deliberately persecute Christians. Fearless in battle, he headed victorious campaigns against the Khazars, Bulgars, Greeks and more.

As an ardent polygamist, Sviatoslav had the customary complement of children, but three were predominant: Yaropolk and Oleg, sons of his primary wife; and Vladimir, born of a tryst with Olga’s Slavic servant. Vladimir, although ridiculed by his half brothers as the “son of a slave,” was raised within the royal family, and was in fact Olga’s particular favorite. He trained eagerly in martial arts, writes Volkoff, quickly maturing into a formidable warrior. Fonder of conquest than governing, Sviatoslav divided his kingdom’s administration among these three sons, while he concentrated on conquering Bulgaria. Yaropolk got Kiev and environs, Oleg the southern lands, and Vladimir the original Viking settlement at Novgorod.

Whether any other dispensation would have worked is unlikely; certainly this one did not. When the king died on his way home from a defeat by Byzantine forces, Yaropolk of Kiev immediately attacked and killed Oleg. Vladimir, not yet twenty, escaped a similar fate by fleeing to Sweden. There he recruited such a sizable army of Varangian mercenaries that two years later Yaropolk surrendered Kiev without a fight. Vladimir thereupon killed his half brother, amply avenging those childhood taunts.

The year was 978. Christianity was the dominant faith in most of Europe, and spreading. Vladimir’s cherished (and later sainted) grandmother had explained her faith to him, and he now took as his third wife Yaropolk’s widow, a Greek and a former nun. Furthermore, his closest friend, Olaf, son of a murdered king of Norway, was a Christian. (Rescued from slavery in Estonia, Olaf had been adopted into Sviatoslav’s household.) Nevertheless, one of Vladimir’s first projects as king was a pagan revival that installed images of Slavic gods, headed by a huge wooden idol of Perun, god of thunder and lightning, the Slavic Thor. In Kiev before the image of Perun, with its silver head and golden mustache, regular bloody sacrifices were performed.

An efficient administrator and ambitious imperialist, Vladimir was even more renowned for drinking, feasting and fornicating. He reputedly had four wives, and more than a thousand concubines. But suddenly, while still in his twenties, he mysteriously changed character, and even began to seriously consider the religion he once rejected. Was he influenced by Olga and Olaf? Was he sated with hedonistic pleasures? Was it divine inspiration? All of these, and more? Whatever the explanation, he proceeded with notable deliberation.

First Vladimir carefully examined all options, says The Chronicle, inviting Western and Eastern Christians, Jewish and Muslim spokesmen to make their case. Then he sent agents to observe these religions in their homelands. Islam he summarily rejected for banning pork and alcohol. “For the Rus,” he said, “drinking is their only joy. We cannot be without it.” The Judaism of the Khazars he dismissed, when told that Jews seemingly had so offended their God that he gave their homeland to others. Latin liturgies were austere, his envoys reported, and Latin priests obsessed with fasting. But in Constantinople, according to The Chronicles, his agents were absolutely dazzled. “The Greeks led us to edifices where they worship their God,” they told Vladimir, “and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor, or such beauty.… We know only that God dwells there among men.”

As fate would have it, Emperor Basil II needed help just then against both an internal rival and the Bulgars, and Vladimir still had some thousands of Viking mercenaries on his hands, hungry for war and pillage. He was happy to donate these now expendable warriors to the emperor’s service, but in return he wanted recognition of his impending conversion to Eastern Christianity, and something even more substantial: Basil’s sister Anna in marriage. The desperate emperor reluctantly agreed. Anna, however, did not agree at all.

The royal groom and bride were to meet in the spring of 988 near Cherson, the strategic Byzantine port city near the mouth of the Dnieper. In accord with the agreement, Vladimir dispatched six thousand Viking mercenaries to Constantinople, where they would earn fame as the elite “Varangian Guard” (see sidebar page 142). Then he waited for his bride. Instead, apologetic envoys arrived with the news that Anna didn’t want him for a husband, and was refusing to leave Constantinople. Always decisive, Vladimir laid siege to Cherson. It surrendered after eight months, and the terrified people awaited the usual Viking pillage and slaughter. But Vladimir, now committed to Christianity, said he was not interested in pillage and slaughter. All he wanted was his wife.

Since the empire now faced the loss of its crucial base on the Black Sea, Anna had no choice. Thus in the summer of 989 the twenty-five-year-old princess finally walked ashore, beautiful and imperial in white satin and gold filigree, accompanied by essential ecclesiastical personages also in full regalia. Vladimir was now baptized, says The Chronicle, along with “many of his companions.” Legend has it that in the meantime he had been stricken blind, and that the baptismal waters miraculously restored his sight. And now the marriage too could take place–the marriage that not only transformed Vladimir into a monogamous Christian, but also wedded the eastern Slavs to the Eastern Church from that moment onward.

As a bride-gift, he restored Cherson to his brother-in-law Basil. Back in Kiev, he ordered the destruction of every pagan idol. Perun, savagely mutilated, was sent down the Dnieper, to be destroyed in its wild cataracts. And now, Vladimir summoned his people for baptism. With the selfsame liturgical formula that the Orthodox Church would still use in the twenty-first century, Anna’s Greek priests performed the traditional exorcism of evil: “The Lord puts you under ban, O devil.…” Then they hallowed the waters of the Dnieper in the age-old baptismal blessing, making the whole river holy.

Kievans responded in their hundreds, according to The Chronicle, plunging eagerly into the water. “O God, who hast created heaven, earth, sea and all that is in them, look down upon these thy new men,” Vladimir prayed over his shivering people, “and cause them to know Thee who art the true God, even as other Christian nations do.…” Thus began the official conversion of Russia.17

It proceeded so speedily as to suggest that Christianity had already spread widely among the Rus, but the postscript to Vladimir’s proclamation may also have been persuasive: “Any man who fails to respond, let him consider himself my foe.” Nor was the process entirely peaceful. Novgorod’s pagans rebelled, for example. They were violently subdued and forcibly baptized, but paganism lingered in the North into the thirteenth century. Still, Vladimir seemingly tried to proceed peacefully. He built some four hundred churches, among them the immense oaken St. Sophia in Kiev, with its thirteen domes. Probably dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, it was called the Church of the Tithe because Vladimir dedicated one tenth of his revenue to its clergy and charities.

He also established schools, insisted that young people attend them, organized mass baptisms, liberated slaves, and presented his previous wives and concubines to deserving friends. He and his sons personally distributed food and drink to the poor, and organized regular Sunday feasts to replace the pagan bacchanals of old. He reputedly tried to restrict military operations to defense alone, usually against the Pechenegs, a group of ferocious eastern tribes who constantly harried the Rus. It is said he even tried to reduce the use of capital punishment in domestic law.

Bulgarian missionary priests doubtless helped to entrench the Slavonic language, and in the remaining quarter-century of his reign, Vladimir established the pattern of church-state governance that would prevail on one form or another in Russia until the Communist revolution of the twentieth century. He also created a legal system that made the church the arbiter of family matters, and cast the monarch as the “earthly representative of Christ,” equally responsible for the material and spiritual welfare of his people.

Like so many medieval monarchs, Vladimir was blessed with a superfluity of offspring, including ten legitimate sons by previous wives, and two by Anna. He appointed them all as princes and grand dukes to administer specific regions, with Yaroslav, the eldest, in Novgorod. Included on equal terms was his nephew, Sviatopolk, son of the brother he had killed (and whose widow he had married). Vladimir made him prince of Turov, near the Polish border. Even when Sviatopolk conspired against him, the grand prince merely imprisoned him briefly, and subsequently kept him near Kiev.

Yaroslav was likely his choice until he defied his father in 1014, when Vladimir’s thoughts seemingly shifted towards Boris, Anna’s elder son, and after that, the stalwart but pious prince of Rostov, who was deservedly popular with the people. But the grand prince appointed no definite successor. Four serious problems confronted him in 1015: Yaroslav’s defiance; Sviatopolk’s continued scheming; Pecheneg attacks on the East; and personal illness. In fact, he was fatally ill. No sooner had he commissioned Boris to march against the Pechenegs than Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev and all the Rus, died at his summer palace. He was in his late fifties.

Hardly had he been interred beside Anna and Olga in the Church of the Tithe when conflict erupted. Sviatopolk, who must have spent the last three decades nursing hatred of his uncle and cousins, swiftly dispatched assassins to murder Boris (on his way back from battle), as well as Boris’s devoted younger brother, Gleb.18 He then seized the throne, with some help from Poland, but did not hold it long. From Novgorod, Yaroslav managed to duplicate his father’s initial strategy, and finished off cousin Sviatopolk.

Yaroslav reigned long and well enough to be accounted “the Wise.” He expanded Kievan territory to include the last Slavic tribes in a realm that would be ruled by the Rurikid dynasty for another five centuries. In the next two, the Russian Orthodox Church would grow to encompass the entire realm, and would subsequently survive a millennium of persecution by Muslims, Mongols, Turks and Communists. In fact, during the period of Mongol domination, the patriarchy of Moscow would succeed Constantinople as chief bastion and defender of Eastern Christendom, and by the twenty-first century it would have missionary dioceses throughout Europe, the Americas, Africa, Australia and the Middle East.

This is the end of the Early Slavs category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page , of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Early Slavs from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at