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Clashes in central Europe: 9th - 10th century

Central and eastern Europe, northwards from the Adriatic and the Aegean, is the arena in which many conflicting forces confront each other in the 9th and 10th centuries.

Germans, pressing towards the east, meet onslaughts from Slavs and Magyars moving westwards. Missionaries from Rome confront their rivals from Constantinople, competing for pagan souls with their rival brands of Christianity. The rulers of new kingdoms, emerging in this region at this period, decide which alliance and which religion to adopt. The frontiers established in these conflicts remain sensitive throughout European history.

Roman Catholic kingdoms: 9th - 10th century

The earliest large kingdom in central Europe is Moravia, the realm of a Slav dynasty which by the second half of the 9th century also controls Bohemia and adjacent parts of modern Poland and Hungary.

The struggle between Roman and Byzantine Christianity crystallizes here. The district is first evangelized by Roman missionaries from Bavaria, but the king of Moravia, resenting German pressure, wants his people to receive the faith in their own Slavonic tongue. He sends to Constantinople for missionaries, and receives (in 863) the brothers Cyril and Methodius. They introduce a Slavonic liturgy. It is later outlawed by German clerics, who in association with Rome impose the Latin rite on the region.

In neighbouring Hungary there are similar swings of faith, though here the Magyar royal family takes the opposite line. The Magyars, established in Hungary from about 896, overwhelm the Moravian kingdom soon after 900 and become a major threat to the Germans until defeated near the Lech river in 955.

By that time many of their chieftains are Greek Orthodox Christians. But the Hungarian king (Gezá, a great-grandson of Arpad) prefers to look westwards. In 975 he and his family are baptized in the Roman Catholic faith, initiating a lasting link between Hungary and Rome.

An even closer link with Rome is forged by Mieszko, the founder of the Polish kingdom. Deciding that his best hope of security lies in a western alliance, he adopts Roman Catholic Christianity in 966 and makes subtle use of the feudal system to win himself powerful protection.

He accepts the German emperor Otto I as his feudal lord, and shortly before his death goes one step better - placing Poland directly under the authority of the pope in Rome.

A much disputed border between Roman and Greek influence falls within the region known for much of the 20th century as Yugoslavia. Croatia, in the west, is Roman Catholic. Christian from the 7th century, it is an established duchy by 880; in 925 a Croatian ruler receives his crown directly from the pope. By contrast the ruler of Serbia, in the east, adopts the Greek Orthodox faith. In about 880 he invites disciples of Cyril and Methodius to educate his people.

This ancient division between two closely linked groups of Slavs is evident in their writing. Their shared language (called in recent times Serbo-Croatian) is written in the Roman script by the Croatians and in Cyrillic by the Serbians.

Greek Orthodox kingdoms: 9th - 10th century

The two great Slav kingdoms within the Greek Orthodox fold are Bulgaria and Russia. The rulers of both, according to tradition, weigh up the attractions of Rome and Constantinople. They choose the glories of the east.

The Bulgarian decision appears to be primarily political. The ruler, Boris I, is baptized in the Greek Orthodox church in 865, but for the next five years he plays Rome and Constantinople off against each other. In 870, when it is plain that Rome will not accept an independent Bulgarian patriarch, he brings his mainly pagan nation within the Byzantine fold (which allows greater independence to provincial churches).

The decision of the Russian ruler to embrace Greek Orthodoxy is presented in the traditional account as aesthetic rather than political. In about 988 the prince of Kiev, Vladimir, commissions a report which persuades him of the attractions of Byzantine Christianity.

It is a decision of profound importance for Orthodox Christianity, which in Russia finds its third great empire. Constantinople, the Christian seat of the Roman empire, becomes thought of as the second Rome. After its fall to the Turks, in 1453, Moscow is in place to take on the sacred mantle - describing itself proudly as the third Rome.

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