On the Criticisms of Jordanes

Jordanes has been criticized by so many people as to approach the level of critique applied previously only to Tacitus’ writings.  Jordanes’ most recent batch of critics reaches to Herr Doktor Professor Mommsen and has continued unabated thence.


Mommsen was a giant (Avar?) in his field, recognized as such even by other giants themselves (e.g., Mark Twain).  We will not delve into his interpretations of Getica here for that is not the time but we do bring him up because he is representative of a certain attitude that has, shall we say, infected, the topics we are studying here.  With that said, let us briefly look at Mommsen’s persona before looking closer at the words and arguments of his spiritual Nachfolger as relates to Jordanes and the Venethi.

Mommsen was, of course, like all methodical German (though he was Danish) scientists of the time, an unbiased, scientific, source on all things ancient and this, very much in contradistinction to the various Czech and other Slavic hysterio-nationalists.  His unbiased views were best expressed by the master himself in the Vienna Neue freie Presse on October 31, 1897, when he called the Czechs ‘‘apostles of barbarism’’ who would swamp German cultural achievements in ‘‘the abyss of their Unkultur.’’

At this opportunity, he also provided some useful advice – to be taken up by future Viennese – by noting that the German response to the Czechs had to be tough, because ‘‘the Czech skull is impervious to reason, but it is susceptible to blows.’’ It is unclear, whether Mommsen reached this conclusion relying purely on his formidable deductive powers or whether actual experimentation was conducted.


Be that as it may, this incident reveals Mommsen as proudly belonging not merely to the “wie es eigentlich gewesen” school of history writing but also to the “wie es mit dir geshehen wird, wenn du eben nicht…” school of futurology.  

His multiple talents unquestioned, let us leave Mommsen to his proper due and look at some of the Mommsense that cannot be laid on the shoulders of the master but rather has to be placed with his current disciples.

Professor Theodor Moominsen facing his own Unkultur

Theodor Moominsen – winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1902) – facing the demons of his own Unkultur

At the beginning, we note that there seems to be an inverse relationship (and a logarithmic one at that) between time passed from the drafting of Getica and the number of brave academicians willing to assert that they know better wie es eigentlich gewesen ist than the people who lived in those days.  We understand, of course, that to exist, even if for only the alloted fifteen minutes and, even if only in academia, one has to publish.

And we most certainly ascribe these (in our view) biases to the world of academia and most certainly not to the fact that some publishers of this kind of stuff may or may not be German (or, err… Austrian) with names like the Oesterreichische Akademie der Wissenschafen, Franz Steiner Verlag, etc, etc, etc.  Certainly no one has shown that any such publication houses or their authors are or have ever taken any monies from or were given any tax-breaks by the German (and related) government(s) (though, let’s be honest, if they have, so what, really?).

On the other hand, matters being discussed here being important, it would seem prudent to take greater care with facts, sources and, especially, interpretations.   In discussing, any of this it is important most of all to honestly say what we do know and what we do not know.  We do know what Jordanes wrote.  The list of what we do not know is far longer.

On the Detraction of Jordanes

Up front let us note something.  It is certainly true, as some would have it that the fact that the Venethi are found where later the people now called the Slavs are found does not mean that the latter are the descendants of the former (note, again, we do not care about linguistic descendants here – just real ones). However, given that we all agree they do occupy the same space just at different points in time, it then seems to us that the burden of establishing that they are not the same people should shift to the proponents of the allochtonous theories.  It is incumbent on these folks to show both:

1) what happened to the Venethi – where did they go, these “populous tribes”? and also

2) where did the Slavs come from to replace them (these also so populous tribes)?

While many attempts have been made to establish the second point, the academic literature is completely silent on the very first question (though, of course, Jordanes does provide hints).

Now let us examine the claims against Jordanes.

We are told that Jordanes is generally “unreliable.”  This is quite a claim given that Jordanes posits to be related to the Amal house of Theodoric and having his own grandfather (and possibly father) serve this Gothic house.  Indeed an Ostrogoth (or Alan in some tellings) such as Jordanes telling this story adds credibility to his claims.  For one thing he would have had inside knowledge and understanding (certainly compared to Procopius) both as a result of his ethnos and, more specifically, as a result of his family’s connections.  But also, as an Ostrogoth – whose people  had conquered the Venethi (and plenty of others it seems) – Jordanes would have had no reason to sugarcoat anything related to the Venethi or to try to establish an “ancient past” for them – his entire attitude towards them seems to be quite neutral and unbiased.  Short of having an actual Slav or Antae come forth and tell us the story, any reasonable person will have to agree that Jordanes is the best one could wish for.

We are told that Jordanes’ Getica is based on the Cassiodorus longer Chronicle.  In his preface, Jordanes, however, mentions only a book belonging to a certain Senator as being a source of much of Getica. The word Cassiodorus does not appear in the Getica at all.  Therefore, discussing the faults and abilities of Cassiodorus in the context of Getica is mere speculation.  This speculation comes from Mommsen and is based on the reference to “written records” of the Goths.  The fact that Ablabius (note the name – think Laba/Elbe) is cited as being one of the Gothic authors seems to not have mattered to Mommsen.

We are told, on the other hand, that it be likely that certain passages of Getica are simply Gothic oral tradition or have been just made up.  But for this there is also no proof other than speculation.  In fact, we know written sources were involved and we know some were oral and we also know that Jordanes filled in some blanks – we know all this because he comes out and says so – and not after water torture but right up front.  The question of which passage is attributable to which source, however, is the kind of thinking that people in the real world do not spend time on, for they know that any answer must necessarily be composed of high quantities of hot air.

We are told that, as to the Venethi, Jordanes used two different sources (at least).  Whether that should matter or not (isn’t more better, at least sometimes?) is here beside the point.  The current point is that the only evidence of this is that the “same” river (pol) Wisla is referred to as Vistula, then Viscla, then Vistula again in the same paragraph (elsewhere it’s Visclae).   This, however, assumes that Vistla/Viscla and Vistula in fact were the same river in the Romans’ minds.  But were they?  (Pliny says only that Visculus sive Vistla) Further, were they the same in Jordanes’ mind?  (One also ought to ask about the minds of the scriveners since we only have late copies of the Getica).  If so, then he seems to have been rather sloppy.  If not, then regardless of the names, what does that tell us?  There is, however, no easy and clear line here to concluding that Jordanes used more than one source for this passage.  (See below regarding maps – we are not discussing that here since a coup d’grace this early on would not be as delicious as it ought to be).

We are told, recently, that somehow Jordanes wrote in opposition to Procopius.  The discussion of the Venethi seems to have become wrapped into this interpretation.   But there is nothing to suggest that Jordanes’ stature (and the stature of his sponsor we can only guess at) was anywhere near that of Procopius – or that Procopius who was a senator would even have noticed .  The Venethi, Slavs and Antae of Jordanes and the Slavs and Antae of Procopius are side stories, at best.  If one were to want to have an argument with Procopius, it would seem strange to have one on such a side issue.  It is also unclear whether Procopius (or anyone) would have even noticed what Jordanes wrote (he was not a bishop or at least there is no proof of his position as other than that of a monk).

We are told that Jordanes is not consistent (and, therefore, either ignorant, making things up or ill informed) by first discussing the Antae and Sclavenes as two separate categories of the archetype Venethi but then referring to each of the three names as separate peoples.  But this is just silly.  Jordanes is clear that there was one group called the Venethi before, the new people are chiefly called Sclavenes and Antes.  But that implies that there are also others.  This is no different than the practice of medieval scholars who, once these identities have crystallized, would describe Czechs and Poles as separate peoples of the Slavs but would refer to the other Slavs who seemed to lack a permanent polity, simply as Slavs (or Wends).  In fact, the progression is visible since the initial Frankish authorship discusses Slavs (including Mieszko and Boleslaw in Poland) only as Slavs but later German scholars speak of Czechs, Poles, Carinthians, Russians and other Slavs with the Slavs now acting basically as a residual category.  That there were other tribes of the type “Slav” at the time is attested to by Procopius who, in discussing the return trip of the Heruli states that they went back through the lands of the various tribes of the Slavs.  These other Venethi may have had other specific names that Jordanes was not aware of or they may have just called themselves Venethi.  This seems hardly surprising.  (And to be clear, we are not claiming that the Venethi were one “Ur-Slavic” tribe as opposed to one general designation for a whole bunch of separate groups).

We are told that the name Venethi was not in then current “common” use (in the 500s) the way that Jordanes states it was.  This is a bizarre claim and one only needs to read Getica to see that… Jordanes at least used the term.  But seriously, Jordanes does not say that the Venethi was to be applied to the people raiding Roman territory.  A normal reading of his Venethi passage suggests a rather unremarkable conclusion.  Venethi were the progenitors of Antae and Slavs.  There may be other people Venethi whose names Jordanes does not know.  Such other Venethi may be smaller tribes attached to Antae or Slavs but the umbrella group Venethi are also people who may currently (in the 500s) be living back in the old Venethi haunts on the Baltic.  (Further, whether they do or not, is irrelevant since the claim that they do is entirely separate from the claim that the Slavs and Antae derived from the Venethi).  To be more blunt, how many other authors of the sixth century do we have that discuss Slavs in any level of anthropological detail including their background?  Other than Procopus and Jordanes, none.  So, 1/2 of those authors discussing these topics used the name Venethi, the other 1/2 used the name Spori.  To talk about “common usage” of a term when the topic itself is at best obscure and talked about by a sample size of two authors is to waste everyone’s time.

We are told that somehow and for some reason Jordanes wanted to attach the currently relevant tribes of Slavs and Antes to the Venethi.   But the question is why would that have mattered to Jordanes?  And, if this was a major point, why make it as a side reference in the book on Goths?  If it really mattered to Jordanes to show that nothing changes beyond the frontiers of the Empire, he certainly could have written more about that.

To claim that the Venethi were of any interest to Jordanes is to leave the realm of reality and enter a twilight zone of speculation.  Everything that Jordanes wrote suggests that the Venethi were, to him, a minor reference in a minor paragraph in one of his works concerning itself with an entirely different topic – the Goths (vide the title of the book) – he was not focused on the Venethi except as related to the Antes and Slavs and, he wasn’t very focused on the Antes and the Slavs either.  It is also for that reason, that there does not seem to be any reason for him to have lied or misstated facts related to the Venethi.  Would he have called the victor over the Antes, Vinitharius just to spice up his lies?

Moreover, in his other work Romana which does not deal with the Goths he limits himself only to discussing Slavs and Antae but if he were interested in stressing this connection why not throw it in, in Romana as well?

Of course, it is also possible that Jordanes was an entirely faithful compiler of partially untrustworthy sources.  The problem with saying anything about this, however, is that we are now speculating about the veracity of sources not only not in our possession but ones whose identity or even whose very fact of existence is, to put it generously, uncertain.

We are told that the episode of Boz comes from oral tradition applied to the Antes.  But there is no basis for this assertion.  We are alternatively told that it must have had a Greek source (as opposed to Cassiodorus) because of the Anti spelling used there by Jordanes is Greek and there is no evidence that Cassiodorus spoke Greek.  But Jordanes spoke Greek and there is no reason not to think that he could have switched back and forth between Latin and Greek as regards personal names.  Moreover, as per above, we do not even know whether Cassiodorus’ chronicle was a source used by Jordanes.  Even if it was to speculate now as to what languages Cassiodorus spoke seems rather silly – we do know, or at least we think we know, that he went to Constantinople at some point after the collapse of Theodoric’s kingdom – would he have done so, had he not known how to communicate with the appropriate social strata?

Who knows.

All we know is that Jordanes says what he says.  And we do not even know that because no original autographed manuscripts exist – the most ancient one seems to have burned down in Mommsen’s house and the other ones may well have been written by Greeks.

What about the title Vinitharius, “conqueror of the Venethi” as applied to Boz and the Antes?

We are told that the Boz episode Jordanes (or others, in turn, copied by Jordanes) have copied from the account of Ammianus Marcellinus’ discussion of Vithimiris’ war on the Alans, thereby giving the Antes a “pre-history”.  (Incidentally, a discussion on “Gothic” names may well be in order soon too).   However, Jordanes, who did not seem to have had much pride in authorship (listing elsewhere several sources he used), at no point claims to have used Marcellinus.  Moreover, there is no evidence that Vithimiris was Vinitharius.  But let’s say we are taking about the same person.  Vithimiris may well have fought both the Alans and the Antes (the crucifixion was not in Marcellinus and neither is the name Boz).  Or maybe the Alans were also of the Antes or the Antes of the Alans (see, e.g., “Slavs who were previously called Alans” or the claims that Antes may not have been Slavs sensu stricte whatever that means).

Further, at a minimum Jordanes (or someone before him) would have had to have invented the title Vinitharius and, likely, also the name Boz (BTW if Boz is not a Slavic name then we can conclude rather safely that not only Slavs were not Venethi but also that Slavs never existed and continue not existing to this day [3]).

We have even seen people claim that Vinitharius was a real title but seeing the Antes (and not the Venethi) and needing to explain the inconsistency of their whooping at the hands of Vinitharius, Jordanes went back and fabricated the earlier section on the Antes, Slavs and Venethi.

When asking as to why Jordanes (or someone prior to him) would have had an interest in such petty fabrications we ought expect no answers and we receive none.

And this is quite aside from the fact that, as per Jordanes, he had about three days to summarize the entire chronicle he was copying.  Perhaps he could think quickly on his feet and make up the most elaborate contortions but (there is a reason why police interrogators want to get a suspect talking ASAP after his capture) it is just as likely that, strapped for time, he copied more than he made up.

We are, finally, told that he must have used multiple maps – one “normal” and one being of the Peutinger non-projection type.  This is because the Slavs were, according to Jordanes, bound by the Vistula on the North and also because different spellings of Vistula were used by our noble author.  We are then told that Jordanes was a good Christian and respectful of past authority (but, apparently a fibber or, at least, a slob) and, faced with irreconcilable inconsistencies in his maps, his brow sweating with confusion and steam coming out of his ears like an android on instruction-overload kept repeating “error, error, error” while writing nonsense in his pages of the Getica.

The Goddess Perplexia - mistakenly associated with Jordanes

Jordanes, though not in the best of health, never suffered from any documented cases of exploding head

There is no evidence for any of this, however.  We know exactly nothing as to what maps (if any) Jordanes used.


An actual case of a Delusiosa Grandiosa Explosiosa

Moreover, the reference of the Sclaveni’s domains extending as far north as the Vistula is entirely consistent with a “regular” map being used.  Vistula, both lower and upper, is north of something.  That something (which happens to be Moravia/Pannonia) in turn is where Jordanes locates his Slavs.  A sideways, “east is up” map is entirely unnecessary for this statement to make sense.  Neither is a Peutinger-type map necessary.  Moreover, for the claim of Jordanes’ being confused to work, one would also have to argue that not only did Jordanes use an east is up or Peutinger map but also that he did not appreciate the fact that on such a map north was really “left”.  We do not know who Jordanes’ taskmaster was but, if all of that were true, one has to seriously question the judgment of this unfortunate patron.

It is, of course, possible that Jordanes used one, two or a billion maps of entirely different projections but to derive such a conclusion from the word Vistla versus Vistula and the statement that the Venethi were bound by a river on the north, seems, to us, a bit much.

But this stuff actually does raise an interesting point…

Venethi on the Peutinger Map

The Peutinger Map has been alleged to be based on an early fifth century or maybe even early third century map.  We will not quibble with such eminently sagacious assertions. (Of course, such versions could have been changed over time, etc).  Instead, let’s take a look at what we have…

And look we can – now – because the Peutinger Map, being item 324 in the Codex Vindobonensis  (named after Vienna aka Vindobona, an ironic nomen omen name, it seems to us, given this current exercise) has been generously (and recently) digitized and placed on the Internets.  This, we think, will have a healthy, democratizing effect on the state of the research in this area…

So what does the Peutinger Map show regarding the Venethi?

First, there are at least three Venethi tribes shown on the map.  We will ignore, for now, the Venethi of Gall (and Wales) whose ships fought Ceasar (see 1A2 on the map) .  This leaves us with two other Venethi.

These include the Venethi of the Danube (Venedi) (7A4):


But they also include the Venethi of Sarmatia (Venadi) (7A1):


Second, it should be (should be…) relatively straightforward to understand that the Venethi discussed by Jordanes as being the “source” of Antes and Slavs are the Venethi of Sarmatia that reside on the shores of the Northern (or Germanic) Ocean.

One look at the Peutinger Map further establishes that these Venethi are shown as completely unbounded by any river. [2]

Third, if this map is merely a reproduction of the state of knowledge in the third (or, would one prefer, fifth?) century then, we are most curious, why the Venethi are found anywhere around the area that Jordanes mentions his Slavs and Antes to be in (i.e., the Danube delta)?



No doubt many papers can now be written about how:

(A) the Peutinger Map is a vicious Slavo-nationalistic forgery;

(B) the map was actually authored by Jordanes who used a time travel vehicle to…yes, you guessed it… time travel, all as part of his plot to link the Venethi to the Slavs and Antes (which plot was key to his strategy of arguing with Procopius that… something or something);


Jordanes arrives in the 3rd century in a plot to to insert the Peutinger Map with its Venethi into the flow of history – the evil mastermind was successful yet again

(C) the Peutinger Map’s original zwar was the correct description of places shown but the portions showing the Venethi were clearly altered after the map’s publication (by Slavic hypernationalist saboteurs working hand in hand with the mysterious Order of Jordanes) [3];

(D) in a post-national Europa we are all Freunde, errrrr… friends, that is, and we should no longer  look at the past but look solely to the Zukunft! Err… you know vat vee meenz.

To all that, we can only say:

Gute Nacht & Viel Glück! [4]

[1] Attempts have been made to do just that by suggesting that Boz was a… Goth and that the Antes (here it is Procopius that gets attacked rather than Jordanes) were “Pontic Goths” who, contrary, to Procopius’ statemens on their language being the same as that of the Slavs, actually spoke a Germanic tongue.  As far as we can tell the only argument for this is that some of the (few) known Antes names could have been Germanic in the sense that some people elsewhere, heretofore considered Germanic, may have carried similar names.  Assuming arguendo that  that were the case (and that names are a trustworthy indication ethnicity – a subject for another day),  one would think that the simplest solution to this “conundrum” would be to consider the possibility that some of those “Germanics” elsewhere (e.g., the Gothic king Radagaisus, in several sources unfamiliar with Slavs called “Scythian”) were not Germanics at all rather than arguing that the Antes, described by both Procopius and Jordanes as being the same as Slavs in manner and language and all else, were Germanic…  But we know of at least one author who instead chose not to follow Occom’s razor in this instance, championing his own theory of Pontic Goth hot air.  In any event, we have said already too much on this.  While we are willing to take up some of our precious time responding to, what we see as, wrong-headed theories, we will not entirely waste it entertaining theories that are, in the immortal words of Wolfgang Pauli, “not even wrong”.

(Incidentally, if the Antes were not Slavs and given that we have no record of the Sclavines ever migrating northward from the Danube (they just keep attacking the Byzantines), the subsequent appearance of the Slavs literally everywhere  in Eastern Europe would be that much more impressive as regards the Slavs’ reproductive capacity).

[2] But Venethi don’t get your hopes up – you actually are bound, it’s just that the people who penned this thing together did not know that the Baltic was not an ocean – not having discovered Scandinavia – or rather, thinking the latter was an island (the biggest of the four east of Cimbria in Tacitus).

[3] It is said that if you turn off all the lights on the 11th of November and hold the Venethi sections of the Peutinger Map close to your nose an image appears directly behind the map.  German old men and wise women who claim to have seen this phenomenon swear by Wodan that it was an image of an evil spirit who would utter these words: Scha- ffa- rik.  The Austrian High Commission for the Cultures and Arts denies these claims wholeheartedly though one commissioner was heard suggesting that, in the alternative, the apparition may be that of an ancient Germanic chieftain – Zavaricus.

[4] Of course, it is possible that the Venethi were at the Danube at some point the past and that that is what later, faced with Antes and Slavs, confused Jordanes who first connected the Slavs and Antes with those Danubian Venethi and then sought to locate their ancestors elsewhere, with the Sarmatian Venethi providing a “solution”.  However, this would be a slightly different and more limited theory than the general “Jordanes was confused” theory as it would, at the very least, have to agree to locate both groups in the same geography.  And, of course, such a theory would also have to explain the alleged population exchange – now, however, not taking place in some Sarmatian terra incognita on the Baltic who knows when but rather right in the Romans back yard at some point between 200-400 OTOH and early 500s OTOH.  All of this is possible, of course, but one fears only at the cost of creating even more Ptolemaic orbits.

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September 23, 2014

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