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Serbian Empire

Serbian Empire
Српско Царство
Srpsko Carstvo

Serbian Empire under Stefan Dušan, 1355
Capital Skopje
Languages Serbian
Religion Orthodox Christian (Serbian Patriarchate)
Government Autocracy
 •  1346–1355 Stephen Uroš IV Dušan
 •  1355–1371 Stephen Uroš V
Historical era Middle Ages
 •  Coronation of Stefan Dušan 16 April 1346
 •  Empire collapses 4 December 1371
Currency Serbian perper
Today part of  Serbia
 Republic of Macedonia
 Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Serbian Empire (Serbian: Српско Царство / Srpsko Carstvo, pronounced ) is a historiographical term for the empire in the Balkan peninsula that emerged from the medieval Serbian Kingdom. It was established in 1346 by King Stefan Dušan, known as "the Mighty", who significantly expanded the state. He also promoted the Serbian Church to an Orthodox patriarchate. His son and successor, Stephen Uroš V the Weak, lost most of the territory (hence his epithet). The Serbian Empire effectively ended with Stephen V's death in 1371 and the break-up of the Serbian state. Some of Stephen V's successors in parts of Serbia claimed the title of Emperor until 1402.


  • History 1
    • Establishment 1.1
    • 1346–48 1.2
    • Reign of Stefan Uroš V 1.3
    • 1349–1354 1.4
    • March towards Constantinople and death of Dušan 1.5
  • Aftermath and legacy 2
  • Administration 3
  • Economy 4
  • Law 5
  • Military 6
  • State insignia 7
  • Culture 8
    • Education 8.1
    • Religion 8.2
  • Government 9
  • See also 10
  • Annotations 11
  • References 12
  • Sources 13
  • External links 14



In 1331, Stefan Uroš IV Dušan became King of Serbia by deposing and murdering his father, Stefan Uroš III Dečanski (r. 1322–1331). By 1345, Dušan the Mighty had expanded his state to cover half of the Balkans - more territory than either the Byzantine Empire or the Bulgarian Empire. Therefore, in 1345, in Serres, Dušan proclaimed himself "Tsar" ("Caesar").[1] On 16 April 1346, in Skopje, he had himself crowned "Emperor of the Serbs and Greeks" - a title signifying a claim to succession of the Byzantine Empire. The ceremony was performed by the newly elevated Serbian Patriarch Joanikije II, the Bulgarian Patriarch Simeon, and Nicholas, the Archbishop of Ohrid.


Tsar Dušan doubled the size of his former kingdom, seizing territories to the south, southeast and east at the expense of the Byzantine Empire. At his time, Serbia had parts of modern Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moravian Serbia, Kosovo, Zeta, modern Macedonia, modern Albania and half of modern Greece, with Bulgaria as its vassal. He did not fight a single field battle, instead winning his empire by besieging cities. Dušan undertook a campaign against the Byzantine Empire which, affected by the victories of the Fourth Crusade, was attempting to avert a deteriorating situation. Dušan swiftly seized Thessaly, Albania, Epirus and most of Macedonia. After besieging the emperor at Salonica in 1340, he imposed a treaty which assured Serbia sovereignty over regions extending from the Danube to the Gulf of Corinth, from the Adriatic Sea to the Maritsa river and all Bulgaria up to the environs of Adrianople. Bulgaria had never recouvered since their defeat from the Serbs at the Battle of Velbazhd,[2] and Bulgarian czar, whose sister later Dušan had married, became his vassal,[3] the Second Bulgarian Empire being a Serbian vasal state between 1331 to 1365.[4] Dušan thus ruled over the entire Balkan peninsula with only southern Greece, Salonica and Thrace escaping his authority. He gave sanctuary to the former regent of the Byzantine Empire, John VI Kantakouzenos, in revolt against the government, and agreed to an alliance

Reign of Stefan Uroš V

He was succeeded by his son Stefan Uroš V, called the Weak, a term that might also apply to the state of the empire, as it slowly slid into feudal anarchy. The combination of sudden conquest, backwards administration, and failure to consolidate his holdings led to the fragmenting of the empire. This is a period marked by the rise of a new threat: the Ottoman Turkish sultanate gradually spreading from Asia to Europe and conquering Byzantine Thrace first, and then the other Balkan states. Too incompetent to sustain the great empire created by his father, Stefan V could neither repel attacks of foreign enemies, nor combat the independence of his nobility. The Serbian Empire of Stefan Uroš fragmented into a conglomeration of principalities, some of which did not even nominally acknowledge his rule. Stefan Uroš V died childless on 4 December 1371, after much of the Serbian nobility had been killed by the Ottoman Turks during the Battle of Maritsa.


Tsar Dušan created a set of laws known as Dušan's Code, in 1349 and 1354. The Code was based on Roman-Byzantine law and the first Serbian constitutionSt. Sava's Nomocanon (1219). It was a Civil and Canon law (based on the Ecumenical Councils) for the functioning of the state and church. The Serbian Empire flourished.

March towards Constantinople and death of Dušan

In 1355 Dušan begin military preparations and he assembled an army of 80.000 men, an enormous number at that time. Dušan marched towards Constantinople. After capturing Adrianople in a fierce battle, the Serbian army was close to its goal, Constantinople, located 40 miles to the east, when Dušan suddenly died of an unknown illness at age 46. Dušan expedition ended with him, and the army retreated carrying the dead body of the man who had elevated Serbia to the rank of a great power.[3]

Aftermath and legacy

German map from 19th century showing Bulgaria as Serbian vassal state after Battle of Velbazhd.

The crumbling Serbian Empire under Uroš the Weak was to be of little resistance to the powerful Ottomans. In light of conflicts and decentralization of the realm, the Ottomans defeated the Serbs under Vukašin at the Battle of Maritsa in 1371, making vassals of the southern governors, and soon thereafter, the Emperor died. As Uroš was childless and the nobility could not agree on the rightful heir, the Empire continued to be ruled by semi-independent provincial lords, who often were in feud with each other. The most powerful of these, Lazar, a Duke of present-day central Serbia (which had not yet come under Ottoman rule), stood against the Ottomans at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The result was indecisive, but it resulted in the subsequent fall of Serbia. Stefan Lazarević, the son of Lazar, succeeded as ruler, but had by 1394 become an Ottoman vassal. In 1402 he renounced Ottoman rule and became an Hungarian ally; the following years are characterized by power struggle of the Ottomans and Hungary over the territory of Serbia. In 1453, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, and in 1458 Athens was taken. In 1459, Serbia was annexed, Greece as well, a year later.

With the fall of Serbia, migrations began to the north. Serbs became mercenaries in foreign armies, and fought in the irregular militias and guerrilla units of Hajduks and Uskoks within the Balkans (Habsburg Monarchy), while others joined the Hussars, Seimeni, Stratioti etc.

Jovan Nenad, a Serbian military commander in service to Hungary, proclaimed himself Emperor in 1527, ruling a region of southern Pannonian Plain.


Serbian Emperor Stefan Dušan.

After finishing most of the conquests, he stated dedicating fully to the supervision of the administration of the vast empire. His great merit was to recognize the need of endowing the empire with a body of laws in written form, an effort his predecessors had only begun. An assembly of bishops, nobles and provincial governors was charged with creating a code of laws, bringing together the customs of the Slav countries. What was thus created resembled the feudal system then prevalent in Western Europe. This legislation bore witness to the degree of civilization which yielded no place to most other countries of the same era. Having an aristocratic basis, it established a wide distinction between nobility and peasantry. Commerce was also object of Dušans concerns. He gave strict orders to combat piracy and to assure the safety of travelers and foreign merchants. Traditional relations with Venice were resumed, with the port of Ragusa (Dubrovnik) becoming an important transaction point. Exploitation of mines produced appreciable resources.[3]

The monarch had wide autocratic powers, but was surrounded and advised by a permanent council of magnates and prelates.[5] The court, chancellery and administration were rough copies of those of Constantinople.[5]

Dušan's Code (1349), the constitution, named the administrative hierarchy as following: "lands, cities, župas and krajištes", the župas and krajištes were one and the same, with the župas on the borders were called krajištes (frontier).[6] The župa consisted of villages, and their status, rights and obligations were regulated in the constitution. The ruling nobility possessed hereditary allodial estates, which were worked by dependent sebri, the equivalent of Greek paroikoi; peasants owing labour services, formally bound by decree.[5] The earlier župan title was abolished and replaced with the Greek-derived kefalija (kephale, "head, master").[5]


The east-west Roman roads carried a variety of commodities: wine, manufactures, and luxury goods from the coast; metals, cattle, timber, wool, skins and leather from the interior.[7] This economic development made it possible for the creation of the Empire.[7] Important roads were the ancient Roman Via Militaris, Via Egnatia, the Via de Zenta, and the Kopaonik road among others. Ragusan merchants in particular had trading privileges throughout the realm.[7]

Srebrenica, Rudnik, Trepča, Novo Brdo, Kopaonik, Majdanpek, Brskovo and Samokov were the main centers of the mining of iron, copper and lead ores, and silver and gold placers.[8] The silver mines provided much of the royal income, and were worked by slave-labour, managed by Saxons.[5] A colony of Saxons worked the Novo Brdo mines and traded charcoal burners.[7] The silver mines processed an annual 0.5 million dollars (1919 comparation).[9] In East Serbia were mainly copper mines.

The currency used was called dinars, an alternative name was perper, derived from the Byzantine hyperpyron. The golden dinar was the largest unit; the imperial tax was one dinar coin, per house, annually.[10]


Dušan's Code from 1349



Serbian medieval armor

Serbian military tactics consisted of wedge shaped heavy cavalry attacks with horse archers on the flanks. Many foreign mercenaries were in the Serbian army, mostly Germans as cavalry and Spaniards as infantry. He also had personal mercenary guards, mainly German knights. A German nobleman Palman became the commander of the Serbian "Alemannic Guard" in 1331 upon crossing Serbia to Jerusalem; he became leader of all mercenaries in the Serbian Army. The main strength of the Serbian army was the armoured knight feared for their ferocious charge and fighting skills.

State insignia

The 1339 map by Angelino Dulcert depicts a number of flags, and Serbia is represented by a flag placed above Skoplje (Skopi) with the name Serbia near the hoist, which was characteristic for capital cities at the time of the drawing of the map. The flag, of a red double-headed eagle, represented the realm of Stefan Dušan.[15][16] A flag in Hilandar, seen by Dimitrije Avramović, was alleged by the brotherhood to have been a flag of Emperor Dušan; it was red at the top and bottom and white in the center, a triband.[17] Emperor Dušan also adopted the Imperial divelion, which was purple and had a golden cross in the center.[18] Another of Dušan's flags was the Imperial cavalry flag, kept at the Hilandar monastery on Mount Athos; a triangular bicolored flag, of red and yellow.[19]



Education, to which St. Sava had given the first impulse, progressed remarkably during Dušan's reign. Schools and monasteries secured royal favor. True seats of culture, they became institutions in perpetuating Serbian national traditions. The fine arts, influenced by Italians, were not neglected. Fragments of frescoes and mosaics testify the artistic level archived during this period.[3]


Influenced by the clergy, Dušan showed extreme severity towards Roman Catholicism. Those who adopted the Latin rite were condemned to work in mines, and people who propagated it were threatened to death. The Papacy grew concerned about this and the increasing power of Dušan and aroused the old rivalry of the Catholic Hungarians against the Orthodox Serbs. Once again Dušan overcame his enemies from whom he seized Bosnia and Herzegovina, which marked the height of the Serbian Empire in Middle Ages. However the most serious menace came from the East, from the Turks. Entrenched on the shores of the Dardanelles, the Turks were the common enemies of Christendom. It was against them that the question of uniting and directing all forces in the Balkans to save Europe from the invasion arose. The Serbian Empire already included most of the region, and to transform the peninsula into a cohesive whole under a rule of a single master required a seizure of Constantinople to add to Serbia what remained of the Byzantine Empire. Dušan intended to make himself emperor and defender of Christianity against the Islamic wave.[3]



For a list of magnates, feudal lords and officials, see Nobility of the Serbian Empire,

See also

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  1. ^ Kosovo is the subject of a territorial dispute between the Republic of Kosovo and the Republic of Serbia. The Republic of Kosovo unilaterally declared independence on 17 February 2008, but Serbia continues to claim it as part of its own sovereign territory. The two governments began to normalise relations in 2013, as part of the Brussels Agreement. Kosovo has been recognised as an independent state by 108 out of 193 United Nations member states.


  1. ^ Fine 1994, p. 309
  2. ^ Steven Runciman (26 March 2012). The Fall of Constantinople 1453. Cambridge University Press. pp. 37–.  
  3. ^ a b c d e René Ristelhueber (1971). A History of the Balkan Peoples. Ardent Media. pp. 35–. GGKEY:69RCKY1X0FZ. 
  4. ^ Kidd, (6 August 2013). Churches Of Eastern Christendom. Taylor & Francis. pp. 228–.  
  5. ^ a b c d e Perry Anderson (1996). Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism. Verso. pp. 290–.  
  6. ^ Radovanović, M. 2002, "Šar mountain and its župas in South Serbia's Kosovo-Metohia region: Geographical position and multiethnic characteristics", Zbornik radova Geografskog instituta "Jovan Cvijić", SANU, no. 51, pp. 7-22; p. 5
  7. ^ a b c d p. 96
  8. ^ East European Quarterly 2. University of Colorado. 1968. p. 14. 
  9. ^ National City Bank of New York (2002). JOM: the journal of the Minerals, Metals & Materials Society 6. Society (TMS). p. 27. 
  10. ^ Vladimir Ćorović: Историја српског народа: V.I Турски замах
  11. ^ Dusanov Zakonik. Dusanov Zakonik. Retrieved on 2011-04-17.
  13. ^ Fine 1994, p. 118
  14. ^ The Civil law, S. P. Scott
  15. ^ Solovyev 1958, pp. 134-135
  16. ^ Gavro A. Škrivanić (1979). Monumenta Cartographica Jugoslaviae 2. Narodna knjiga. 
  17. ^ Stanoje Stanojević (1934). Iz naše prošlosti. Geca Kon. pp. 78–80. 
  18. ^ Milić Milićević (1995). Grb Srbije: razvoj kroz istoriju. "Službeni Glasnik". p. 22. 
  19. ^ Atlagić, M. (1997). "The cross with symbols S as heraldic symbols" (PDF). Baština, no. 8. pp. 149–158. 


  • Fine, John Van Antwerp (1994). The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest. University of Michigan Press.  
  • Soulis, George Christos (1995), The Serbs and Byzantium during the reign of Emperor Stephen Dušan (1331–1355) and his successors,  
  • Sedlar, Jean W. (1994). East Central Europe in the Middle Ages, 1000–1500 III. Seattle: University of Washington Press.  

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