On Strangers in Strange Lands – Histories of the World Part I

Travelers from far off places, if they manage to have their travels recorded, are a real boon to historians.  Thousands of gallons of ink have been spilled and many an academic post obtained and maintained thanks to a fortuitous turn at a fork taken by a few strangers from a strange country or by a couple of sailors way out of their depth.  We tell now some of their stories as they relate (perhaps) to the story of the peoples discussed here.

Indian (?) Sailors in Gaul 

…there is Cornelius Nepos, who is more dependable as an authority because he is modern.  Nepos… adduces Quintus Metellus Celer as witness of the fact, and records, that Metellus reported it as follows.  When Celer was proconsul of Gaul, certain Indians were presented to him as a gift by the king of the Boii.  By asking what route they had followed to reach there, Celer learned  that they had been snatched by storm from Indian waters, that they and traverse the intervening region, and that finally they had arrived on the shores of Germany.



This is from Pomponius Mela‘s Description of the World Book 3, par 45 – section on Scythia (written about AD 43).  Mela was using this anecdote (as related by Nepos c110 BC – c25 BC originating from, ultimately, proconsul Celer c103 BC – c59 BC) to illustrate that beyond the Caspian Sea there was also the same Ocean as surrounded the rest of the world (since Indians came from that direction) and not some frozen land instead (“without a border and without end”).  Later some Slavicists used the same story to argue that these Indians were really Vindians or Venethi.  Others argued against that interpretation.  It seems to us that the story is more likely to refer to the Venethi than true Indians from India (although it’s more likely to refer to a number of peoples than to Indians).  On the other hand, Celer was consul in Cisalpine Gaul (Italy, really), not even Narbonensis (the province in the south of France) and that is presumably where he met the Celtic (?) Boii gift givers of humans (the Boii who gave their name to Bohemia were also at times located in Cisalpine Gaul) so where these gentle sailors got caught, where they came ashore, where they were from and, ultimately, who they were, is anyone’s guess.  Nonetheless, whatever the truth as to that matter, such a truth bears no light on the question of the identity of the Venethi as nothing more is said by Mela of these travelers, their customs, their language or anything else relating to them for at all that matter.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that Pliny retells the same story but with Suevi as the gift givers of the “Indians”.  Does that mean that the Boii were Suevi? (like Bohemians are now Slavs?)

Slavic Hippies (?) in Constantinople

Three men, Sclavenes by race, who were not wearing any iron or military equipment, were captured by the emperor’s [Heraclius’] bodyguards.  Lyres [or, perhaps, the Slavic gusle] were their baggage, and they were not carrying anything else at all; and so the emperor enquired what was their nation, where was their allotted abode, and the cause of their presence in the Roman [i.e., Byzantine] lands.  They replied that they were Sclavenes by nation and that they lived at the boundary of the western ocean, the kagan had dispatched ambassadors to their parts to levy a military force ad had lavished many gifts on their nation’s rulers; and so they accepted the gifts but refused him the alliance, asserting that the length of the journey daunted them, while they sent back to the kagan for the purpose of making a defence these same men who had been captured;  they had completed the journey in fifteen months; but the kagan had forgotten the law of ambassadors and had decreed a ban on their return; since they had heard that the Roman nation was much the most famous… for wealth and clemency, they had exploited the opportunity and retired to Thrace; they carried lyres [or gusle?] since it was not their practice to fire weapons ohm their bodies, because their country was ignorant of iron and thereby provided them with a peaceful and trouble free life; they made music on lyres because they did no know how to sound forth on trumpets.  Because for whoever finds war foreign, it is said that such a person should take up musical exercises.  Listening to this the sovereign, liked this nation, welcomed them warmly, and them alone among all the other barbarians who came into contact with him, admiring their height and the bountifulness of their members, he sent on to Heraclea.

The story comes from Theophylact Simocatta‘s Histories (at 160).  A substantially similar tale is relayed also by Theophanes in his Chronographia (226) except that here the trip took place in 18 months, the Slavs never made it to the kagan but went straight to the Byzantines and the emperor admired their age/youth (?) (not their height) and their bodybuild (not their members). The story seems curious on a number of levels.

Slavic Hippie becomes temporarily agitated as he recounts his experience with Khan

Slavic Hippie becomes temporarily agitated as he recounts his experience with Khan

For one, if the Slavs were not familiar with ironmaking, why bring them in as allies as the kagan intended apparently?  Further, whether the trip to the kagan was 15 or 18 months, it seems exceedingly long unless the Slavs were traveling  from Ireland or Siberia.  That any people, hippies, beatniks, peaceniks or whatever, would willingly travel to anyone styling himself a kagan (the etymology proposed being that of “khan of khans”) to tell him basically “Here we are to give you word from our leaders.  Ok, you ready?  Here it is: fuck off”, seems slightly doubtful (though stranger things have, on occasion, happened; on this at least Theophanes seems more convincing since in his telling the Slavs went straight to the Romans).

One thing is, of course, for sure: Byzantine emperor Heraclius (reigning in 610-640) was way flaming gay (not that there is anything wrong with that).

Rus Spies (?) in the Frankish Lands

[Emperor Theophilius] sent with them some men who called themselves, that is the people to which they belonged, Rhos; according to them, their king, called kagan, sent them to [Theophilius] in friendship.  [Theophilius] asked in [his] letter that the emperor graciously give them permission and help to return to their country through his empire because the roads by which they had travelled to Constantinople fell into the hands of barbarian and exceedingly wild trines and would not wish to expose them to great danger.  Having diligently investigated the reasons for their arrival, the emperor [Louis the Pious] established that they belonged to the people of the Sueoni [Swedes].

This little juicy tidbit comes from the Annals of Saint Bertin and describes a Byzantine embassy out of Constantinople to the Franks bringing with it these “Rhos”.  The Byzantine emperor is  Theophilus (ruling 829-842) and the Frankish emperor is Louis the Pious (in power 814-840) with the incident taking place in the year 839 at Ingelheim on Rhein (where Louis held court).

There was something about the leader of the Rus that made Louis the Pious suspicious

There was something about the leader of the Rus that made Louis the Pious suspicious

It seems, at least from today’s perspective (thus far), strange that such a long detour would have been advisable to return the Rhos back to the “kagan”.  Of course, much here is rivetingly strange.  First, again the kagan (see the story of the Slavenes above)?  What’s up with that guy?Why did the kagan send these tokens of his friendship to the Byzantine emperor?  Did they have any special talents?  Why did the emperor decide to send them back?  Why is the Rhos leader called a kagan?  Were the Rhos under the Khazars then?

The French/German emperor was also confused it seems.  Seeing as Germany was at the time being raided by Vikings, knowing that such Vikings were Swedes and suspecting these ones may well be spies, the Frankish emperor thought better of aiding these particular Rhos and decided to keep them around explaining to the Byzantine embassy that he would aid them should they turn out to be ok.

However, Louis the Pious died the next year at Ingelheim and the Frankish country fell into a civil war resulting in the creation of future France, Germany and an in-between land (disputed territory).  It is not clear, whether the poor (or not so poor) Swedes were able to make it back home or whether they perished of hunger in some dungeon once their jailer fell in the fighting.

So that’s for Part 1 of this mini-series.

Next up, Histories of the World Part 2, the long-awaited, much-demanded, Jews in Space!

Oh, wait, actually Jews in Spain but it’s almost as good!

But this blog is about Slavs!?  What gives?  Stay tuned!

Shaettner Rickover & Borg Corporation – Copyright ©2014, All Rights Reserved

October 20, 2014

One thought on “On Strangers in Strange Lands – Histories of the World Part I

  1. Pingback: “C’est ce qu’il n’est pas facile de determiner” and other potpourri | In Nomine Jassa

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