Isidore of Seville (560 A.D. – 636 A.D.) was one of the Church fathers and most revered writers of the early medieval period. We should then ask what did he have to say on the Slavs and the Suevi.
As for the Slavs, there appears to be only one Isidorian reference – in his Cronica Maiora (ironically, considered to be a minor work). There, he says;
“Heraclius has completed five years of his imperial rule. At the beginning, the Slavs took Greece from the Romans; the Persians took Syria, Egypt, and many provinces”. This appears to be a reference to events in the Byzantine Empire of either A.D. 615 – 616 or A.D. 625 – 626. The “five” above sometimes is a “sixteen”. Given that the so-called Continuation mentions a similar even in the 653rd year and we know that the Spanish Era had a 38 year difference from normal counting, the year would seem to be 615/616.
Regarding the Suevi, however, Isidore has considerably more to say. First of all, Isidore wrote the famous “History of the Kings of the Goths, Vandals and Suevi” (Historia de regibus Gothorum, Vandalorum et Suevorum) describing the Gothic, Vandalic, Suevic (and, occasionally, Alanic) conquest of Roman Spain (or, more accurately, of the Iberian Peninsula). To the extent this work talks about the Suevi, it deals entirely with the Suevi of Spain/Portugal.
Second, in the aforementioned Cronica Maiora, Isidore says of the same Iberian Suevi that “[t]he Suevi, held by King Leovigild, were subjected by the Goths.” The reference here is to the Visigothic king Leovigild (Liubagilds) (ruling 568 – 586) who first tried to defeat the Suevi in 576 (but the then Suevic King Miro (it’s claimed to be a “Germanic” name so don’t get too excited) negotiated peace) and who was finally able to achieve this goal in 585 (incorporating the Suevic kingdom into the Visigothic one).
Third, Isidore mentioned the Suevi in his most famous work – the Etymologies, where (at Book II, ii, 98) he says that:
“[t]he Suevi were a segment of the Germanic nation at the northern frontier. Of them, Lucan (Civil War, 2.51) says: ‘across the Elbe and the Rhein pour the fair-haired/blonde Suevi from the extreme north.’ Many have reported that there were a hundred villages and communities of Suevians. The Suevi are thought to have been named from Mount Suevus, which forms the eastern boundary of Germania and whose territory they occupied.”
Thus, here, for the first time we see that Isidore is referencing not the “Western” or Iberian Suevi known to him from Spain and Portugal but the ancient Suevi of Germania.
Well, in his Etymologies Isidore also comes to the geography of the world and Europe specifically. Here he makes the following comment (at Book XIV, iv, 3):
“The first region of Europe is lower Scythia, which begins in the Maeotian swamps (i.e., the Sea of Azov), stretching between the Danube and the northern Ocean up to Germania. And this land is called Barbarica in general usage on account of the barbaric people by whom it is inhabited. Its first part is Alania, which touches the Maeotian swamps; after this Dacia, where Gothia is; then Germania, where the Suevi inhabit the greater part.“
(Europa autem in tertiam partem orbis divisa incipit a flumine Tanai, descendens ad occasum per septentrionalem Oceanum usque in fines Hispaniae; cuius pars orientalis et meridiana a Ponto consurgens, tota mari Magno coniungitur, et in insulas Gades finitur. Prima Europae regio Scythia inferior, quae a Maeotidis paludibus incipiens inter Danubium et Oceanum septentrionalem usque ad Germaniam porrigitur; quae terra generaliter propter barbaras gentes, quibus inhabitatur, Barbarica dicitur. Huius pars prima Alania est, quae ad Maeotidis paludes pertingit; post hanc Dacia, ubi et Gothia; deinde Germania, ubi plurimam partem Suevi incoluerunt.)
“Where the Suevi inhabit the greater part”? If Isidore is writing this to describe the state of affairs around 636, then we have to ask the question: was he right? Did the Suevi really occupy the “greater part” of Germania at the beginning of the 7th century?
Even though Isidore seems to be describing the situation in his own time, this passage appears to be lifted close to verbatim from Paul Orosius‘ “Against the Pagans” which was written in 416-417, i.e., at the beginning of the 5th century. Here Orosius said (at Book 1, 2):
“I shall now wander with my pen through what man knows of Europe. Europe begins in the east at the Riphaean mountains, the river Tanais, and the Maeotid marshes. Its border runs along the shore of the Northern Ocean to Gallia Belgica and the river Rhine in the West. It then comes down to the Danube, which is also called Hister. This river runs from the south towards the east and ends in the Euxine Sea. On its east is Alania, in its centre Dacia, where Gothia is also found, then comes Germany, the greater part of which is held by the Sueves (where the Suevi possess the largest part).” [A.T. Fear translation (CUA translation)]
(Nunc Europam in quantum cognitioni hominis conceditur stilo pervagabor. A montibus Rhipaeis ac flumine Tanai Maeotidisque paludibus, quae sunt ad orientem, per litus septentrionalis oceani usque ad Galliam Belgicam et flumen Rhenum, quod est ab occasu, deinde usque ad Danubium, quem et Istrum vocant, qui est a meridie et ad orientem directus Ponto excipitur, ab oriente Alania est, in medio Dacia, ubi et Gothia, deinde Germania est, ubi plurimam partem Suevi tenent.)
We shall return to the immeasurable parts of Germania that were inhabited by the Suevi, of course. For now, however, we may want to ask a more modest question: was the largest/greater part of Germania occupied by the Suevi even in Orosius’ time? Were we to answer this question in the affirmative, the answer would be less shocking than the same answer referencing Isidore’s own time. Considering the lack of information regarding the Suevi for such a long time, such an answer would, nevertheless, be quite surprising. It would, if correct, establish the Suevi (and not the Goths, Vandals or Alans) as the primary people of Germania – at the beginning of the fifth century – notwithstanding all that by then would have happened there since Caesar’s encounters with Ariovistus and since the Marcomannic Wars.
If, so then surely Orosius would not have been referring just to the tiny remnants of the Suebi in the form of the Swabians?
We leave you with the relevant passages (118 – 120 with some lead-in) from Isidore’s Cronica Maior along with (in brackets) the latest (e-Spania) translation based on the edition of José Carlos Martín (2003) (there are two versions of the manuscripts, hence the two versions in brackets). The manuscript below is from the St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek (Cod. Sang. 133).
As a final teaser, note the reference to the events from the time of the Emperor Phocas (Byzantine Emperor 602 – 610) where Isidore tells us: “the Prasini and the Veneti waged civil war throughout the east and Egypt and prostrated themselves with mutual slaughter.” The e-Spania translation states that “[t]his is a reference to civil strife between different circus factions in the east.” The “circus factions” are the teams competing at the Hippodrome of Constantinople but this conclusion is strange. Why the circus teams of the “greens” (Prasini) or “blues” (Veneti) should have fought outside of the Hippodrome “in the East” and also in Egypt (!?) is less than clear. Of course, the alternative solution, i.e., that these are somehow references to Prasini (whoever they were) and Veneti, as in, the tribe of the Veneti (perhaps some Slavs) would be only mildly less confusing (at least as regards the “Egyptian” reference).
That the Veneti means “the Blues” is itself interesting as, as we have pointed out before, the word Wundan referred to “water” – in the Old Prussian tongue (and the same is vanduo in Lithuanian).
115. Justinian ruled for thirty-nine years. Receiving the heresy of the Acephali, he compelled every bishop in his kingdom to condemn the three chapters of the Council of Chalcedon. In Alexandria, the Theodosian and Gaianan heresies appeared. In Spain the Roman “miles” was invaded by the tyrant Athanagild. The patricius Belisarius triumphed wonderfully over the Persians. From there he was sent by Justinian to Africa and destroyed the people of the Vandals. Also in Italy, Totila, king of the Ostrogoths, was overcome by Narses, the Roman patricius. At the same time, the body of St. Anthony the monk, discovered by divine revelation, was taken to Alexandria and buried in the church of St. John the Baptist.
[5761 Justinian reigns 39 years. The patrician Belisarius remarkably triumphed over the Persians. Who then, having been sent to Africa by Justinian, destroyed the people of the Vandals. At the same time the body of Saint Antony the monk, having been discovered by divine revelation, is taken to Alexandria and is interred in the church of Saint John the Baptist.]
[5765 Justinian reigns 40 years. He, admiring the heresy of the Acefali, compels all the bishops in his kingdom to condemn the three chapters of the council of Chalcedon. The Theodosian and Gaianan heresy arise in Alexandria. In Africa the Vandals were destroyed by Belisarius. The Roman soldier enters Spain due to Athanagild. Also, in Italy, Totila, King of the Ostrogoths, is overcome by Narses, the Roman patrician. At the same time the body of Saint Antony the monk, having been discovered by divine revelation, is taken to Alexandria and is interred in the church of Saint John the Baptist.]
116. Justin the younger ruled for eleven years. He destroyed those who had spoken out against the Synod of Chalcedon and ordered the effigy of the 150 fathers to be burned by the people in the time of sacrifice. The Armenians first received the faith of Christ at that time. The Gepids were extinguished by the Lombards. At the same time Martin, bishop of Braga in Galicia, was regarded as illustrious in prudence and the teaching of the Catholic faith. The patricius Narses, after he had overcome King Totila of the Goths in Italy in the time of the Augustus Justinian, was frightened by the threats of the empress Sophia, wife of Justin, and so invited the Lombards from Pannonia and introduced them into Italy. At that time Leovigild, king of the Goths, brought back, under the power of his kingdom, certain regions of Spain that were rebelling against him.
[5772 Justin the Younger reigned 11 years. Afterwards, the patrician Narses, under Justinian Augustus, overcame Totila, King of the Goths in Italy. Very frightened by the threats of Sofia Augusta, wife of Justin, he invited the Lombards from Pannonia and introduced them into Italy. At this time Leovigild, King of the Goths, by conquering certain rebellious regions of Spain for himself, rendered [them] into the power of his kingdom.]
[5776 Justin the Younger reigned 11 years. He destroyed those things which had been published against the synod of Chalcedon and he ordered that the profession of faith of the 150 fathers would be celebrated by the people at the time of the offering. Then the Armenians first take up Christianity. The Lombards extinguish the Gepids. At the same time Martin, Bishop of Dumium, preaches in Gallaecia in the doctrine of the faith.]
117. Tiberius ruled for seven years. The Lombards, expelled by the Romans, entered Italy. The Goths were divided into two by Hermenegild, son of King Leovigild, and they were devastated with mutual slaughter.
[5779 Tiberius reigned 7 years. The Goths, having been divided into two by Hermenegild, son of King Leovigild, are devastated by mutual slaughter.]
[5782 Tiberius reigned 7 years. After the Romans had been driven away, the Lombards came into Italy. The Goths, having been divided into two by Hermenegild, son of King Leovigild, are devastated by mutual slaughter.]
118. Maurice ruled for twenty-one years. The Suevi, held by King Leovigild, were subjected by the Goths. The Goths were also converted to the Catholic faith, having been summoned by that most religious prince, Reccared. The Avars, fighting against the Romans, were defeated more by gold than by iron. Thrace was seized by the Huns. At this time, Leander excelled in the teaching of the faith and the sciences for the conversion of the Gothic people in Spain.
[5800 Maurice reigned for 21 years. The Sueves, having been prevailed over by the Goths, are made subject by King Leovigild. Also, at the same time the Goths, being leaned on by Reccared, the princeps, are turned back to the Catholic faith. The Avars, fighting against the Romans, are driven out more with gold than with the sword.]
[5803 Maurice reigned for 21 years. The Sueves, having been prevailed over by the Goths, are made subject by King Leovigild of the Goths. Also, at the same time the Goths, being encouraged by Reccared, the most religious princeps, are converted to the Catholic faith. At this time bishop Leander is considered outstanding in Spain for his knowledge and faith.]
119. Phocas ruled for eight years. Made emperor as the result of a military revolt, he killed the emperor Maurice and many of the nobles. In his time the Prasini and the Veneti waged civil war throughout the east and Egypt and prostrated themselves with mutual slaughter. In addition, very grave battles were fought against the republic of the Persians, in which the Romans were forcefully beaten and lost many provinces up to the Euphrates River as well as, they say, Jerusalem.
[5808 Phocas reigned 8 years. He, having been made emperor by a military revolt, killed Maurice Augustus and many of the nobles. n his time the Greens and Blues made civil war throughout the East and Egypt and exhausted each other by mutual slaughter. Also, most serious Persian wars were stirred up against the republic. By which, when the Romans had been strongly subdued, they lost many provinces and Jerusalem itself.]
[5811 Phocas reigned 8 years. He, having been made emperor by a military revolt, killed Maurice Augustus and many of the nobles. The Greens and Blues made civil war throughout the East and Egypt. Also, most serious Persian wars are raised against the Romans. By which, when the Romans had been strongly subdued, they lost certain Eastern parts.]
120. Heraclius has completed five years of his imperial rule. At the beginning, the Slavs took Greece from the Romans; the Persians took Syria, Egypt, and many provinces. Also in Spain, Sisebut, king of the Goths, took certain cities from the same Roman “militia” and converted the Jews subject to his kingdom to the faith of Christ.
[5813 Thereafter Heraclius completes the fifth year of his rule. In Spain Sisebut, the most glorious princeps of the Goths, made many cities of the Roman military subject to himself by fighting. And he converted the Jews who were the subjects of his kingdom to Christianity.]
[5827 Heraclius completes the sixteenth year of his imperium. At the start of whose [reign] the Slavs took Greece from the Romans, the Persians Syria and Egypt and many provinces. Also, in Spain Sisebut, king of the Goths, took many of the cities of the same Roman military and he converted the Jews who were the subjects of his kingdom to Christianity.]
In the so-called Continuation of Isidore there is the following entry (same as above):
“In his days, in the year 653* of our era and the fourth of his rule, the Slavs take Greece.”
* This actually refers to 615 [?]. The “his” is Heraclius.
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