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C - 19 : Pandemics and Migration

Over the last few days, several of you asked me about the origin of the Croatian people. Where did they come? How did they get to Dalmatia? It is a tricky question. There is no mentioning of Slavic people in any historical records before the 6th century AD.

Slave migration in the 7th and 8th century AD

Have to admit that nobody really knows. Historians assume that the Romans knew of the Slavic People and called them Veneti. But it is a bit speculative. What we do know from a few archeological digs is that the Slaves were a group of tribal people who lived in the forests of the Carpathian mountains tending fields in small clearings. As far as we know they were self sufficient and hardly traded with the outside world. The word Slaves does not originated from the Latin word sclavus (slave) as often mentioned but from the Greek word Slovo = common language - people who speak the same language.

We also know from language analysis that Croatian contains certain traces of Illyrian and Latin. It is thus reasonable to assume that they merged with the population which already lived there. But how did they become the dominant group of people?

Pandemics affecting the Roman Empire


The answer probably lies with the three pandemics which ravaged the Roman Empire in antiquity:


- the Antonine Pandemic (165 - 170 AD) - Measels or Small Pox imported from Persia

- the Pandemic of Cyprian (251 - 266 AD) - probably the same diseases

- the Plague of Justinian (541 - 550) - first bubonic plague in Europe from Africa

The pandemics were brought home by legionaires or traders and met a very unprepared population. People lived without any sanitary standards. Waste water was not separated, town people lived very close together, the diet was unhealthy and unbalanced, people and animals often shared the same rooms. Whilst the noble elite had beautiful baths, ordinary people never washed and had no idea of hygene. They were the easy targets for the new bugs who spread quickly. It is estimated that each pandemic killed 25 - 35% of the Roman population - in some areas even up to 50%. Just think about this number in the context of the town you live in - it is frightening!

The first two pandemics are not well documented but there are better records for the Plague of Justinian (the Emperor kept records - he also canonised the Roman Law!)

With a loss of 35% of people, agriculture collapses, fields remain untended, harvests remain uncollected, cows not milked. Without any food towns have to be abandoned. The normal working of society and government came to a standstill. A deadly silence fell on the affected regions. It took usually decades to recover from such population loss unless it could be compensated by migration.

And this is what i believe happened. The Slavic migrations coincides with the end of the Plague of Justinian. Maybe surviving plantation owners looked for new labour north of the river Danube, the Roman border. Maybe traders talked about opportunities in the south. We will never know. But word about the possibility of a better living spread. The first Byzantine sources which talk about Slavic people say that more and more Slovo showed up on the border. Not as organised warriors with kings. Just people. And over the following 100 years more and more followed.

The Great Migration to the North 1914 - 1960

My friend Sarah who will be sailing with us told me that my hypothesis reminds her of the Great Migration of Black Americans who moved north when the first world war offered new jobs and prosperity. There was no organised treck - just individuals moving souzth to north. But it was a mass movement nonetheless. By 1960 the share of black Americans who lived in southern US states had dropped from 95% to below 60%.

Unorganised mass migration may indeed have been the way the Croatians arrived in Dalmatia. It would also explain why there are no records of conflicts between Croatians and the Illyrians already living there - the Croatians simply moved into the deserted villages and towns and brought them back to life. Chroniclers loved reporting on wars and religious miracles - they surely would have written about clashes - helas there are no such reports

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