Archaeological evidence of Paleolithic settlements on the territory of present-day Serbia is scarce. The oldest such evidence is a fragment of a human jaw, found in the village of Sicevo (Mala Balanica), which is believed to be up to 525,000–397,000 years old.
Approximately around 6,500 years BC, during the Neolithic, the Starcevo and Vinca cultures existed in the region of modern-day Belgrade. They dominated much of Southeastern Europe, (as well as parts of Central Europe and Asia Minor). Several important archaeological sites from this era, including Lepenski Vir and Vinca-Belo Brdo, are near the banks of the Danube
During the Iron Age, local tribes of Triballi, Dardani, and Autariatae were encountered by the Ancient Greeks during their cultural and political expansion into the region, from the 5th up to the 2nd century BC. The Celtic tribe of Scordisci settled throughout the area in the 3rd century BC. It formed a tribal state, building several fortifications, including their capital at Singidunum (present-day Belgrade) and Naissos (present-day Nis).
The Romans conquered much of the territory in the 2nd century BC. In 167 BC the Roman province of Illyricum was established; the remainder was conquered around 75 BC, forming the Roman province of Moesia Superior; the modern-day Srem region was conquered in 9 BC; and Backa and Banat in 106 AD after the Dacian Wars. As a result of this, contemporary Serbia extends fully or partially over several former Roman provinces, including Moesia, Pannonia, Praevalitana, Dalmatia, Dacia and Macedonia.
The chief towns of Upper Moesia (and broader) were: Singidunum (Belgrade), Viminacium (now Old Kostolac), Remesiana (now Bela Palanka), Naissos (Nis), and Sirmium (now Sremska Mitrovica), the latter of which served as a Roman capital during the Tetrarchy. Seventeen Roman Emperors were born in the area of modern-day Serbia, second only to contemporary Italy. The most famous of these was Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor, who issued an edict ordering religious tolerance throughout the Empire.
When the Roman Empire was divided in 395, most of Serbia remained under the Eastern Roman Empire. At the same time, its northwestern parts were included in the Western Roman Empire. By the 6th century, South Slavs migrated into the European provinces of the Byzantine Empire in large numbers. They merged with the local Romanised population that was gradually assimilated.
Slavic settlement and early medieval Principality of Serbia
In the middle of the 5th century, the Huns led by Attila created a powerful state, which collapsed after his death in 453, and the Gepids and the Eastern Goths established their states on the territory of the present-day Serbia. In the early decades of the 6th century, the raids on the territory of the Eastern Roman Empire were joined by the Slavs, sometimes as independent invaders and sometimes united with other barbaric tribes. In the middle of the same century, the Avars arrived in the Balkan Peninsula, expanding their power and influence over the surrounding Slavs over the next half century, with whose help they invaded and plundered the Byzantine territories, and in 582 occupied Sirmium itself.
By the end of the century, the Slavs strengthened so much that already in 584 history recorded their permanent settlement in the areas south of the Sava and Danube, and two years later their attack on Thessaloniki.
The turning point in the settlement of the Slavs was the coming to power of Emperor Heraclius in 610. He estimated that the war with Persia on the eastern borders of the empire was a far greater problem and, upon taking the throne, withdrew all remaining forces from the Danube border and shifted them east, paving the way for the permanent and unimpeded settlement of the Slavs, who in the ensuing decades flooded the entire Balkan Peninsula.
After the unsuccessful Slavic siege of Thessaloniki in 611 and the siege of Constantinople in 626, the Serbs migrated to the Balkans and present-day Serbia. According to the Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (913-959), with the permission of Heraclius, they settled in the areas between the rivers Cetina and Vrbas in the west, Bojana, Ibar and Morava in the east, the Danube and the Sava in the north and the Adriatic Sea in the south. He also noted that the Serbs came from the region of Boika or White Serbia (the territory of present-day Czech Republic). Heraclius first settled them in an area west of Thessaloniki, most likely to defend the city from other Slavs, however, they decided to return to the White Serbia. They crossed the Danube, but when they saw that the Avars had strengthened their power again, they requested another land to settle through the strategos of Singidunum, so Heraclius assigned them Dalmatia.
Half a century later, more precisely in 680 AD, the people of Turkish origin, Proto-Bulgars, who settled east of the Serbs, came to the Balkans among the Slovenes in the area of former Thrace. Over the next centuries, they mixed with the surrounding Slavic mass and lost their language and customs, but imposed their name, the Bulgarians. Their country encompassed eastern Serbia with the Moravian Valley, Belgrade and Srem. The barbaric invasion destroyed the old Roman cities and structures, so that the next few centuries were characterized by the complete absence of any information about the events in the interior of the Balkan Peninsula.
The prince (archont) who led the Serbs in the migration to the Balkans was succeeded by his son, so that the power remained in the same family for centuries, but the first prince whose name was recorded was Viseslav, who presumably ruled the region in the 8th century. His great-grandson Vlastimir, who ruled in the first half of the 9th century, is considered the founder of the Serbian state in the Middle Ages. During his reign, Serbia was attacked by the neighbouring Bulgarians, who, however, suffered a total defeat in the three-year war, losing much of the army.
After Vlastimir’s death, around 851, the Bulgarians attacked Serbia again, but his sons Mutimir (851-891), Strojimir and Gojnik defeated the Bulgarians again, after which peace was concluded between the Serbs and the Bulgarians.
A power struggle ensued among Vlastimir’s sons, in which the eldest, Mutimir, won. During his reign, the ruling family received Christianity, and Pope John VIII (872-882) requested him in 873, after the success of the Moravian-Pannonian mission, to submit to Methodius, as a Slavic bishop, based in Sirmium. After Mutimir’s death in 891, Serbia was once again gripped by power struggle, from which Mutimir’s cousin Petar Gojnikovic emerged victorious (892-917). As the best man of the Prince of Bulgaria and then the most powerful ruler in the Balkans, Simeon the Great (Prince 893-913, Emperor 913-927), he was able to rule Serbia in peace for almost two decades. His reign was ended by Simeon himself, who received reports from Mihailo of Zachumlia about Peter’s contacts with his Byzantine opponents, after which Peter was captured by deception and Simeon appointed Mutimir’s grandson Pavle Branovic the new Prince (917-923).
A few years later, the Byzantines tried to overthrow him, with the help of his cousin, Zaharija Pribislavljevic, but he was captured and sent to Bulgaria. The strengthening of Bulgaria under Simeon forced Pavle to cross over to the Byzantine side, after which the Bulgarian emperor sent Zaharija to oust him in 923. However, Zaharija himself quickly crossed over to Byzantine side, forcing Simeon to send his army against him. The Bulgarian army was defeated, but the Bulgarian emperor sent a new army to Serbia, with which he also sent Vlastimir’s great-grandson Caslav Klonimirovic (931-960), who was to be appointed the new Prince. Faced with the new Bulgarian army, Zaharija fled to Croatia, while the Bulgarians invited Serbian zupans to come and yield to the new Prince. However, instead of appointing a new Prince, Serbian zupans were captured and all of Serbia was looted and annexed to Bulgaria.
After Simeon’s death in 927, Caslav fled Bulgaria and, with Byzantine help, rebuilt Serbia, with the largest cities being Dostinika (the first capital of Serbia), Tzernabouskeï, Megyretous, Dresneïk, Lesnik and Salines, while the “small land” of Bosnia, then part of Serbia, had the cities of Katera and Desnik. In the mid-10th century, the northern borders of Serbia began to be threatened by the Hungarians, and Prince Caslav died fighting them. His death extinguished the first Serbian ruling dynasty, the Vlastimirovics, who ruled the Serbs from arriving in the Balkans until the mid-10th century.
Decades later, in 971, the Bulgarian Empire collapsed and became part of Byzantium. The brutal Byzantine administration in parts of the Balkans inhabited by the Slavs, led to the rebellion in Macedonia in 976. The uprising quickly spread, with Samuil, later Emperor of Bulgaria, at the helm. After penetrating Greece, to Corinth and the Peloponnese, in about 998, he launched a march to the western parts of the Balkans and by 989 conquered much of present-day Serbia and the surrounding Serbian principalities. At the beginning of the 11th century, Byzantium led by Emperor Basil II began to suppress the uprising and after a great victory in Battle of Kleidion in 1014, Emperor Samuil died and his Empire virtually collapsed due to dynastic power struggles. As early as in 1018, the widow of the last Emperor surrendered with her whole family to Basil II, but some of Samuil’s military leaders continued to resist. The last of these was Sermon who ruled Srem. He was deceived and killed by the Byzantine commander of Belgrade in 1019, which ended the last remnant of Samuil’s state.
After the collapse of the Samuil’s uprising the Byzantine administration in the areas inhabited by the Slavic population began the process of Hellenization and the introduction of the taxes in cash, instead of, as before, in kind. These changes, along with the increase in taxes due to the Byzantine crisis, led to the rise of two new Slavic rebellions. First, in the summer of 1040, an uprising broke out in Pomoravlje, headed by the alleged Samuil’s grandson, Peter Delyan, who was declared Emperor in Belgrade. Although the uprising quickly spread to the present-day Serbia, Macedonia and northern Greece, it was suppressed already in 1041. Thirty years later, in 1072, a new uprising under the leadership of Georgi Voyteh broke out, and the insurgents proclaimed Duklja’s Prince Constantine Bodin the Emperor in Prizren. Under his leadership Nis was conquered, but at the end of the year, his army was defeated at Paun in Kosovo, which suppressed the uprising.
At the beginning of the following decade, Bodin, as the King of Zeta, occupied Raska and appointed Vukan and Marko zupans (circa 1083-1112). He subsequently conquered Bosnia, too, where he appointed Prince Stefan. The fighting with Byzantium since 1091 was led only by zupan Vukan from Raska, who penetrated Kosovo from Zvecan, burning Lipljan and later reaching Vranje, Skopje and Polog. He was replaced in power by his cousin Uros I, who allied with the Hungarians in fighting the Byzantium. His daughter Helen became the wife of the future King of Hungary Bela II, and his son Belos became the royal palatine.
Throughout the 12th century, the Hungarians fought against Byzantium, first around Srem and Belgrade, and then around the Moravian valley, and the zupans of Raska participated in almost every one of these wars as Hungarian allies. They succeeded in briefly conquering Belgrade and later Nis, but were suppressed by the Byzantines, led by the powerful Emperor Manuel I, so that all conflicts ended without significant territorial expansion. At the same time, Raska was shaken by internal power struggle between Uros’ sons Uros II and Desa, in which Emperor Manuel himself took part. The Byzantine Emperor eventually appointed Tihomir, the son of a local lord Zavid, as the new grand zupan.
The Nemanjic’s era
The grand zupan Tihomir’s youngest brother, Stefan Nemanja, rebelled against him in 1166 or 1168 and pushed his older brothers out of the country, later defeating at Pantin in Kosovo the Byzantine army led by his brothers, who subsequently recognized him as the ruler. Over the next three decades, Nemanja waged successful wars against Byzantium in which he significantly expanded his lands. The gains included the Neretva region, Zahumlje, Travunia, the Littoral and parts of Kosovo and Metohija. Nemanja briefly conquered Nis, where he met the Holy Roman Emperor and the leader of the 3rd Crusade Frederick Barbarossa, who proposed an alliance against Byzantium.
In agreement with the Byzantine emperor, Nemanja was succeeded by his middle son Stefan, who was opposed by his older brother Vukan, but eventually succeeded in remaining in power. Taking advantage of the political situation in the Balkans after the sack of Constantinople in 1204, he continued the expansion of his state conquering Prizren, Vranje and Nis. On 4 January 1217 he received a royal crown from Pope Honorius III, elevating Serbia to kingdom. Two years later, his younger brother Sava obtained permission from the Ecumenical Patriarch in Nicaea to elevate the diocese of Raska to the level of the archbishopric of which he became the first archbishop, thereby acquiring the Serbian Church’s autocephaly and laying the foundations of today’s Serbian Orthodox Church.
Stefan was succeeded by his sons Radoslav (1223-1234) and Vladislav (1234-1242) who ruled under the influence of their powerful father-in-laws, despot of Epirus and Bulgarian emperor, after which the youngest Stefan’s son Uros I (1242-1276) came to power. Although he failed to expand his lands, Uros managed to economically strengthen the state by bringing in Saxon miners from Transylvania, who began the exploitation of mines in Serbia, which provided Uros’ heirs with a stable financial base for further conquests. Uros I was married to Helen of Anjou, who played a significant role in the then Serbia. His endowment, the Sopocani monastery, is a designated World Heritage Site.
Due to unsuccessful wars and discontent in the country, Uros I was deposed in 1276 by his eldest son Dragutin (King of Serbia 1276-1282, King of Srem 1282-1316), who, just a few years later in 1282, transferred power to his younger son Milutin (1282-1321), who was one of the most important Serbian rulers. Over the next few years, Milutin will expand Serbia to the south, conquering much of present-day Northern Macedonia with Skopje becoming the capital of Serbia and northern parts of Albania, briefly holding Durres. He would later conquer Branicevo, which he handed over to Dragutin, who was assigned by the Hungarian king and his father-in-law the administrator of Macva, Belgrade and northern Bosnia. Milutin himself concluded peace with Byzantium in 1299, according to which Emperor Andronicus II (1282-1328) recognized his conquests and gave him the hand of his daughter Simonida.
The beginning of the 14th century was marked by a civil war between the brothers over the right to succeed the throne, which ended with returning to the Dezeva Agreement, by which Dragutin surrendered power to Milutin in 1282 and according to which Dragutin’s son Vladislav should succeed him. In 1314, Milutin’s son Stefan (1322-1331) attempted to oust his father, but was captured, blinded and sent into exile in Constantinople.
After Dragutin’s death in 1316, Milutin captured his son and heir Vladislav and occupied his lands, after which he waged a three-year war against King of Hungary Charles Robert (1310-1342), in which he lost Belgrade but retained Macva and Branicevo. After Milutin’s death in 1321, the state was engulfed by a civil war between his sons Konstantin and Stefan, which included Vladislav after Konstantin’s death, but Stefan defeated him, too.
Stefan Decanski continued to expand his state southward at the expense of Byzantium, but failed to reclaim the Adriatic coast from Cetina to Dubrovnik, which split off after Milutin’s death and was subsequently conquered by the Ban of Bosnia Stefan II Kotromanic (1322-1353).
Defeating heavily the Bulgars in the Battle of Velbuzhd in 1330, Stefan Decanski destroyed the alliance of Byzantium and Bulgaria that had been created against him. Just a year later, his son Dusan (King 1331-1346, Emperor 1346-1355) took advantage of the noblemen’s discontent and captured his father in Nerodimlje. Stefan Decanski died in prison in Zvecan the same year, and Dusan became the new king.
In the following decades Dusan fought the Byzantine Empire, taking advantage of the Byzantine civil wars. After conquering Albania, Macedonia and much of Greece, he was crowned Emperor in 1346, after having elevated the Serbian archbishopric into a patriarchate. He had his son crowned King, giving him nominal rule over the “Serbian lands”, and although Dusan was governing the whole state, he had special responsibility for the “Roman” (Byzantine) lands.
The Imperial constitution, Dusan’s Code, was enacted in 1349 and amended in 1354. Dusan sought to conquer Constantinople and become the new Byzantine emperor, however, he suddenly died in 1355 at the age of 47. His son and successor, Serbian Emperor Stefan Uros V (1355-1371) did not inherit his father’s ruling abilities, and by 1365 Serbian lords appointed him a co-ruler, King Vukasin, who fell in Battle of Maritsa, fighting against Ottoman Turks.
The death of Emperor Stefan Uros V in 1371 marked the end of the Nemanjic dynasty in Serbia. The empire in disintegration was left without an heir and regional lords finally obtained the absolute rule over their provinces, completing the process of feudal fragmentation. They continued to govern as independent rulers, with titles such as lord and despot, given to them during the Empire.
Serbian lands were thus divided between the regional lords: King Marko, the son of King Vukasin of Serbia, claimed the royal title and seized southwestern regions, while the Dejanovic brothers, nephews of the late Emperor Dusan, ruled the southeastern provinces. Other lords were Djuradj I Balsic, Vuk Brankovic, Nikola Altomanovic, and Lazar Hrebeljanovic, who ruled most of what is today Central Serbia (known as Moravian Serbia). He was unable to unite the Serbian lords, as they were too powerful and pursued their own interests, fighting each other. On the other side, Tvrtko I of Bosnia annexed several western regions, and claimed, since he was descended through his paternal grandmother from the Nemanjic dynasty, that he was the rightful heir to Serbian throne. In 1377, he came to his newly acquired provinces in western Serbia and was crowned in Mileseva Monastery as the King of the Serbs and Bosnia.
The period after the Battle of Maritsa (1371) saw the rise of a new threat, the Ottoman Turks. They began raiding Moravian Serbia in 1381, though the actual invasion came later. In 1386, Lazar’s knights beat the Ottoman army near Plocnik, in what is today southern Serbia. Another invasion by the Ottomans came in the summer of 1389, this time aiming towards Kosovo.
On 28 June 1389 the two armies met at Kosovo, in a battle that ended in a draw, decimating both armies (both Lazar and Murad I fell). The battle is particularly important to Serbian history, tradition, and national identity. By now, the Balkans was unable to halt the advancing Ottomans. Eventually, Serbian nobility became Ottoman vassals.
Serbia managed to recuperate under Despot Stefan Lazarevic, surviving for 70 more years, experiencing a cultural and political renaissance, but after Stefan Lazarevic’s death, his successors from the Brankovic dynasty did not manage to stop the Ottoman advance. Serbia finally fell under the Ottomans in 1459, and remained under their occupation for another four centuries.