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8-08-2015, 00:25


It is widely accepted that the fall of Constantinople in 1204 brought to its knees an empire already on the point of collapse, notably on its Balkan fringes, where three peoples showed new vigour: the Bulgarians, the Serbs and the Albanians. The boundaries between their lands were still very fluid, especially those between Bulgaria and Serbia, and each was at a different stage of evolution towards political and cultural autonomy. Bulgaria under the Asen dynasty, which broke with the Byzantines in 1185–7 and which in 1202 gained Byzantine recognition of its mastery over the lands from Belgrade to Sofia, represented the resurgence of an older state, though with rather different territorial boundaries. Even after two centuries of Byzantine dominance, Bulgaria retained distinctive political and cultural traditions which sustained its self-image as the major power in the Balkans, and, in consequence, implied Bulgarian rights over Constantinople itself.1 In Serbia, Stefan Nemanja (c. 1165/8–96) had recently brought together the two old power centres of Raˇska and Duklja (the latter roughly corresponding to modern Montenegro). Duklja, it is true, retained strong particularist tendencies, and internecine strife within the family of the Nemanjids only made this worse.2 On the Dalmatian coast, Italian influences spawned short-lived communes, which barely managed to withstand the Serb princes’ attempts to absorb them into their realms; the best example is that of Kotor.3 In any event, Nemanja directed a push southwards from 1183, which enabled him to put pressure on Macedonia beyond Niˇs. He exerted influence on the Dalmatian coastal region north of Dubrovnik (Ragusa), which oscillated between Byzantine and Norman Sicilian overlordship. Nemanja also drove southwards down the coast as far as the Mati estuary in northern Albania, thus cutting off Duklja from the sea. At the same time the church of Rome attempted to extend its influence into the region of Albania, spreading outwards from the archiepiscopal seat at Antivari.4 Although it seems that Serbia had already gained some selfawareness as an ethnic identity, it would be premature to see it as amounting to a properly constituted ‘state’. Remaining within the Byzantine orbit, Serbia was quite capable of keeping its distance from Constantinople, and at the same time refraining from the Latin church’s temptations: in 1200 the young veliki ˇzupan Stefan (1196–1227) repudiated his wife, Eudocia, daughter of Emperor Alexios III (1195–1203), and she withdrew near-naked to Dyrrachium (Durr¨es).5 As for Albania, its separate identity was real enough, even though it had not made a clean break with Constantinople. The rulers of the region of Arbanon around 1190, Progon and his sons Dhimit¨er and Gjin, had their base at Kruja. They were virtually self-governing, even though Progon merely had the status of arch¯on; in fact the title of panhypersebastos, borne by Dhimit¨er at the start of the thirteenth century, can only be seen as a sign of his dependence on the Byzantines.6 Nonetheless, the earliest inscription to mention Progon and Dhimit¨er, fromG¨eziq, in the hinterland of Alessio, is written in Latin and calls them judices, while noting their dependence on Vladin and George, princes of Duklja. This gives us a snapshot of the political and cultural convergences underway in Arbanon.7 This Arbanon, the ‘Raban’ of the Life of Stefan Nemanja, had no direct access to the sea, even though the coasts of Epiros were still inhabited mainly by Albanians, for all the Serbs’ andGreeks’ overlordship. Albanians were also the principal inhabitants of the mountain areas rising above the eastern shore of Lake Shkod¨er.8 These lands came under the Roman church during the twelfth century, but the lower reaches were increasingly populated by Albanians. So was the ancient Dardania (modern Kosovo), which lay open to the Albanians via the river system of the Drin, some distance from the Serb power centres of Raˇska and Duklja. It is hard to see how the Albanians could have spread down from the mountains towards the shores of Lake Shkod¨er if one does not accept their earlier expansion down from the other side of the mountains, towards Gjakova and Prizren.9 There was certainly a religious divide in the region, but it would be wrong to exaggerate its impermeability, particularly as both the Bulgarian and Serbian rulers showed their willingness to be crowned by the pope.10 It was in recognition of continued population growth, rather than by way of punishment, that in 1348 StefanDuˇsan (1331–55) required Latin priests from Shkod¨er to pay their taxes to the orthodox bishop of Prizren, a suffragan of Ohrid.11 And it is apparent from a charter granted to Dubrovnik by Ivan II Asen (1218–41) in 1230 that the Albanians dominated the central regions of what is now the Albanian republic, in the areas drained by the Devolli river.12 One is not dealing with Albania in the sense of a tight-knit political or territorial entity; on the other hand the imperial government took account of the ethnic character of the region when the former theme of Dyrrachion became known as provintia Dirrachii et Arbani. This was its name, if the partitio Romaniae is to be believed (and it probably does reflect pre-1204 realities). Such a name would register the existence of two main centres of Albanian settlement, Arbanon-Raban and Devol.13