On the Danube Theories and the Suavi – Part I

A number of Slavic chroniclers identify Slavs as coming out of the Danube area.  Most famously, we have Nestor in the PVL who calls Slavs Noricans and says they, after “many years,” settled on the Danube.  But a similar set of concepts appears in other sources, e.g., the Vincenty Kadlubek Chronicle (Crocus conducts raids in and returns North from Carinthia) or the Greater Poland Chronicle (Slavs come from Pannonia).  Jan Dlugosz himself thought that Poles came from somewhere in Dalmatia (Psary Castle as the source of the eponymous forefather Lech).

We think there is value in returning to this theory primarily for two reasons:

  • The Suevi, now more often as Suavi, are present in the middle Danube (Donau-Sueben), and
  • The same Suevi have now associated themselves with the Sarmatians.

The importance of the Slavic connection to the middle Danube cannot thus be overstated.  Why you ask? Well, let’s see:

If the presence of the Suevi in the greater part of Germania (the same part that later is called Sclavinia, i.e., Slavia/Suavia by Adam of Bremen) were not enough (why is it not enough? Well, maybe it should be but maybe it’s just too long a time? A millennium to be exact), now, we have a chronological “contact” zone much closer in “distance”.

Moreover, there are the repeated mentions of the Suevi and various Sarmatian folk that we know were present in Pannonia and that may well have had contact with the Slavs.

The Donau Sueben & Other Suavi… 

The Suevi are famous mostly by reason of Caesar’s Gallic War (Ario-vist-us), the later works dealing with the Armin-ius/Marobod-us revolt and the Marcomannic Wars in the 170s.  Then they supposedly (not true – see below) disappear from view and reappear emigrating with the Vandals (but also with Alans) into Gaul and then onto Spain/Portugal.  What was left of them was apparently left only in Swabia.

Thus, a people whom Tacitus described as covering the greater part of the land area between the Rhine through the Vistula and beyond are supposed to have become the relatively insignificant Swabians and the smallest contingent in the Vandal-Alan-Suevi confederacy (so small that no one in Portugal or Spain spoke a Suevic language past the 7/8th centuries).   One might say either Tacitus is a liar or the history set out above is pure bunk.

Well, if you look, you will find that, in fact, there were “Others” – Suevi, starting in the 5th century often appearing as Suavi (i.e., with an “a”) in the Danube area.  What’s more these Suavi also appear in a number of places where references to them are rather “hard to explain” using traditional assumptions about who they were and ended up being.  There are references to these and related Suevi in numerous sources.  Some of them include:

  • possibly Tacitus’ Annals (see below);
  • possibly Cassius Dio (see below);
  • Ammianus Marcellinus (see below);
  • arguably, the Marcus Aurelianus section of the Historia Augusta (see below);
  • Procopius’ Gothic Wars;
  • Jordanes’ Getica;
  • possibly, the Vita Severini;
  • Cassiodorus’ Letters;
  • Origin of the Lombards;
  • Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards;
  • possibly, Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks;
  • possibly, the Annales Mettenses Priores;
  • possibly, the diplomatic correspondence of Henry I the Fowler;
  • possibly, the Chronicle of the Priest of Dukla;
  • and others…

We also know from other (late) sources that there were Suevi living in Slovenia near the beautiful Lake Cerknica (Zirknitzer See) in a place called Gotschee – though they spoke a true “Teutonic” tongue apparently.


This is described here by Wolfgang Lazius (aka Wolfgang Laz) a 16th century author of the first “modern” book about the Voelkerwanderung: lazio1


Outside of the Danube area, the Suavi name also comes up.  Thus, we learn that right outside of Magdeburg (where Slavs lived) – far from Swabia – there was an area called Suavia (on the River Boda – for the Polish Deity Boda see here) which was, however, we are told, named that way by reason of the Suevi not Slavs… 


And their Sarmatian Connection…

What is more many of these Suevi/Suavi – particularly the Danube Suavi – are known to have interacted with Sarmatians.  (This makes eminent sense since the Iazygi lived by Pannonia).  Why is that relevant?  For one thing, the Polish nobility for the longest time believed itself to have been Sarmatian in descent which may (or may not) be a clue.  The Sarmatians are known to have had a large slave, i.e., serf class who repeatedly revolted against their overlords…

More importantly, it is often said that the Slavs “must have” lived next to Iranian-speaking peoples – and, if so, then they should have been living closer to Persia.  This is a rather absurd proposition and a violation of the Occam’s Razor principle if one considers that there were always plenty of Sarmatians within Europe – especially in Pannonia.

The Iazygi (and here notice that, e.g., the PVL’s Nestor refers to Slavic “tribes” as “Iazyks” – not to mention the fact that Iazyg is also the Slavic word for “tongue” – both as in language but also as in the organ) are attested in Europe (in Pannonia) in Ptolemy’s Geography; the Sarmatians (who could be the same) are listed as being in Europe (likely in Pannonia) in Germania.  The examples of the interaction are numerous (the third and fourth also dispel the notion that there was no mention of the Suevi after the Marcomannic Wars of the 170s until the 5th century):

  • Tacitus Annals – At this same time, Vannius, whom Drusus Caesar had made king of the Suevi, was driven from his kingdom. In the commencement of his reign he was renowned and popular with his countrymen; but subsequently, with long possession, he became a tyrant, and the enmity of neighbours, joined to intestine strife, was his ruin. Vibillius, king of the Hermunduri, and Vangio and Sido, sons of a sister of Vannius, led the movement… an immense host of Ligii, with other tribes, was advancing, attracted by the fame of the opulent realm which Vannius had enriched during thirty years of plunder and of tribute. Vannius’s own native force was infantry, and his cavalry was from the Iazyges of Sarmatia an army which was no match for his numerous enemy.  Consequently, he determined to maintain himself in fortified positions, and protract the war. But the Iazyges, who could not endure a siege, dispersed themselves throughout the surrounding country and rendered an engagement inevitable, as the Ligii and Hermunduri had there rushed to the attack ; …He then fled to the fleet which was awaiting him on the Danube, and was soon followed by his adherents, who received grants of land and were settled in Pannonia. Vangio and Sido divided his kingdom between them; they were admirably loyal to us [i.e., the Romans]…” [close to the years 40-50];
  • Cassius Dio – “In Moesia the Lygians, having become involved in war with some of the Suebi, sent envoys asking Domitian for aid. And they obtained a force that was strong, not in numbers, but in dignity; for a hundred knights alone were sent to help them. The Suebi, indignant at his giving help, attached to themselves some Iazyges and were making their preparations to cross the Ister with them.   Masyus, king of the Semnones, and Ganna, a virgin who was priestess in Germany, having succeeded Veleda, came to Domitian and after being honoured by him returned home.” [year 98];
  • Historia Augusta – “Aurelian, too, during that same time, fought with the greatest vigour against the Suebi and the Sarmatians and won a most splendid victory… It is not without advantage to know what manner of triumph Aurelian had… there were Goths, Alans, Roxolani, Sarmatians, Franks, Suebians, Vandals and Germans — all captive, with their hands bound fast.”  (Item Aurelianus contra Suebos et Sarmatas iisdem temporibus vehementissime dimicavit ac florentissimam victorian rettulit… Non absque re est cognoscere qui fuerit Aureliani triumphus… Gothi, Alani, Roxolani, Sarmatae, Franci, Suebi, Vandali, Germani, religatis manibus captive) [years 270-275];
  • Ammianus Marcellinus – “…but he [Constantius II] was alarmed by frequent reliable reports that the Suebi were attacking the two provinces of Raetia and the Quadi Valeria, and that the Sarmatians, who are particularly expert marauders, were devastating Upper Moesia and Lower Pannonia” [years 357-358];
  • Paulinus of Beziers – Says that the pillage of Gaul was by “Sarmatians, Vandals and Alans”; note that here the Suebi are actually replaced by Sarmatians [year 407];
  • Saint Jerome – “Nations innumerable and most savage have invaded all Gaul. The Whole region between the Alps and the Pyrenees, the ocean and the Rhine, has been devastated by the Quadi, the Vandals, the Sarmati, the Alani, the Gepidae, the hostile Heruli, the Saxons, the Burgundians, the Alemanni, and the Pannonians.” Again, the Vandals and the Alans are accounted for so which/where are the Suebi?
  • And, of course, the Baltic Sea is the Suevic Sea of Tacitus but also the Sarmatian Ocean of Ptolemy.

Having listed the first four mentions of what may be Donau-Sueben we continue with Procopius in a subsequent blog post.

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May 17, 2015

2 thoughts on “On the Danube Theories and the Suavi – Part I

  1. Pingback: On the Danube Theories and the Suavi – Part II | In Nomine Jassa

  2. Pingback: The Suevi-Sarmatian Connection | In Nomine Jassa

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