We’ve received some requests asking us to talk a little about the origins of the Slavs. Specifically, the questions were “are they from Central Europe or from somewhere else” and were the Veneti or Suevi Slavic. Obviously, we can only provide educated guesses and our opinions on this topic but, to the extent it isn’t obvious to the readers yet, where we (at present) stand, we can try to discussion this again. (Incidentally, we tacked a version of this already here).
First of all, as repeated a million times, any question can only be answered once we agree on the terms. Otherwise we are all just speaking past each other. What do we mean by Slavs? People who speak a particular language? Or blood relations? And as of when? As of “forever” or during the period 0AD – 500 AD or during some other period? When we say the Veneti were Slavic, what do we mean by that? And as of when were they Slavic (or those we call Slavs today Venetic)? How does one account for people that were in a particular place, were then driven out for a few hundred years and then came back? Are they autochtonous or not? Does it matter that the people who came back were not exactly the same people as those who left? Does it matter that historical sources indicate that even before they were driven out, they themselves were the invaders?
All of this can best be illustrated in our discussion.
There are two theoretically opposed ideas here. One is that the Slavs migrated into Europe at some late date after the fall of the Roman Empire (512 being the earliest date typically given as attested by Procopius with the return trip of the Heruli through Slavic lands). This is the “allochtonous” theory. The other theory is that the Slavs were in Central Europe already during the Roman Age and likely some time before that. This is the “autochtonous” theory.
Note that right out of the gate we run into difficulties. Even the allochtonous theory (at least as it is stated these days) assumes that the newcomers did not entirely replace the existing population – positing some percentage as surviving and continuing on. But what is that percentage? As we’ve already discussed it might matter if that percentage is, say, 5% versus 95%. It would be hard to say that the Slavs were allochtones if they composed just 5% of the overall population at the time of their arrival. This is the case even if the newcomers brought with them their new culture, language (?) and form of government.
Assuming those populations mixed with one another, does that mean that your right hand is autochtonous but your left came from somewhere else? How do we measure this in other words?
And as of when? Let’s assume that the newcomers were 95% of the overall population but their offspring over the years amounts to no more than 50% of the current population with the remaining 50% being the product of the autochtonic community. Possible? Sure.
On the other hand, even the autochtonous theory presents its own difficulties and has to, at some point, run out of steam. If the Slavs lived in Europe at the time of Christ, did they also live in Europe at 2000 BC? What about 4000 BC? Unless you believe that the Slavs arose independently as a population in Eastern Europe or that they were the first Homo Sapiens out of Africa and into Europe or that, in a variation of this, God created the Slavs already in Eastern Europe, they must have come into their present at some point in time.
So what do we think?
(WARNING: entering aree rife with speculation)
It is striking that physiologically most northern Slavs, Balts and to some extent Finns resemble each other. Although this resemblance is not necessarily reflected through haplogroups the overall similarities are obvious. (The same could also be said of some Germans and many Scandinavians but on a more limited scale). Thus, the study that indicated the genetic similarity of Poles to Veps should not be surprising.
We are willing to posit that what is today’s Central Northern Europe was inhabited in the remote past by a population that is the direct ancestor to present day populations of the same area. It was not the only ancestor but it was the “main” component.
What language did that population speak? This is absolutely unknown and likely unknowable. We’d be inclined to believe that this language was akin to some Indo-European language (Baltic?) or, less likely, a “Uralic” language (Finnish?).*
* See below though on the discourse regarding potential for a pre-genetic Teutonic population.
(Indo-Europeans would have gotten to Europe thousands of years before the Veneti so there is no way that IE came to Europe first with the Veneti (if IE had indeed been their language) if that is what you were thinking – at least not with the Veneti of the Trojan War migration – whether the Veneti had already been in Europe before that time we will not take up here – if indeed such a topic could even be discussed sensibly given the present – and likely future – lack of data).
The Veneti were people who lived at one time in Paphlagonia. We know that much.
We do not know, however, where else they lived at the time. It is quite possible, for example, that they already also lived north of the Black Sea. The Veneti may also have lived in other parts of Anatolia and even down into Palestine (it is tempting to think that the Phoenicians may have had something to do with the Veneti – perhaps they were the Semitized Veneti or the Veneti were the Indo-Europeanized Phoenicians). They may have bordered on the Assyrians and Lake Van in Turkey may indeed derive its name from them. In fact, it is possible that it was the Veneti that – before the Trojan War – spread as “Arians” into India (see here on the Odras and the Wartas). This would explain the Mount Demawend, R1a in Afghanistan and the various “Venetic” names in India (not the least being the Vindhya Range).
We can assume that the Veneti spoke a language akin to Slavic (proto-Slavic?) (certainly names of places in Anatolia that include Prusa suggest something like that). But it is possible that they spoke their own language and got Slavicized once they crossed the Bosphorus.
At some point, let’s say after the Trojan War, the Veneti, or some portion of them, really did migrate East. They went over the Ister and ended up spreading their “Slavic” language (or adopting the Slavic of the autochtones they encountered) and their culture all the way up to the Adriatic (perhaps into Dacia and Illyricum in the first instance). It is for this reason that the Slovene city of Ljubljana has Jason feature in its founding myth. It’s likely that Jason was in fact a Venetic fertility God that found His way into Greek myth (and that Iasion and Jason were the same originally).
The Veneti went further ending up in today’s Poland as well as Eastern Germany and Noricum/Vindelicia (which lic refers to the nearby River Lech – unsurprisingly, the alleged progenitor of the Poles and of the other Western Slavs – note too that Lech may mean a “white” river as in Leuco-Syrians). They went further through France (hence the various Wendish names in France) yet, ending up in today’s northern France and, famously, Bretagne and then, eventually, crossing to Gwynedd in Wales and perhaps portions of Ireland (Dublin – Lublin). They also may have crossed from Illyria over to southern portions of Italy (such as Messapia) and even northern Spain/Portugal. And they may have reached present day Denmark and southern Sweden and perhaps even other portions of Britain (Picts? Apennine Range whose name seems to be constantly getting older?).
If the Veneti originally spoke Slavic then all these Veneti would have (at least initially) spoken Slavic. If, however, that was not the case, it is possible that each grouping of the Veneti – even if springing from a common source – begun to speak the language of the local population they were absorbed into. In Central Europe that could have been Slavic but elsewhere not so much. It is also possible that a combination of these two cases occurred and that Slavic (or some other language) is the language of the original Veneti but that in other places the Veneti adopted the local language.
Although the same could be said about culture, there appears to be something that is the distinguishing characteristic of the Venetic culture – cremation burials. It is curious that – in Poland – such burials in this period stop roughly on the Vistula line – as if the Venetic influence did not penetrate further east towards Prussia. This may explain why even as late as the time of Alfred the Great, west of the Vistula we had Wendland but east of the Vistula we had Vitland. The fact that in the West, the Rugians worshipped Svante-vit (and Rugevit and Porevit) may indicate that those populations – at least originally – were more akin to the Prussians and Lithuanians (or derived from them) and that – later – they became separated by the “Veneti”.
What happened to the “autochtons” when the Veneti arrived?
And we know there were autochtons present. Sources tell us that even in the Venice region, the Veneti displaced a local population. More generally, we obviously do know that there were humans in Central Europe prior to the Trojan War.
The Trojan War itself has been dated to the 13th or 12th century BC. It is curious that the recently discovered remains of an ancient battle at Tollensee have been both dated to approximately 1250 BC and said to have contained dNA similar to that of present day Poles/Scandinavians but also southern Europeans. Although obviously this is pure speculation, a tempting construct would see these as being the “locals” and the “Venetic” arrivals. (Of course, we have no idea whether the battle groups were in fact divided according to today’s “geographies” or whether they had anything at all to do with the Veneti – this is all obvious speculation).
If all of the above is true then the first question we ought to be asking is what was the percentage of the Veneti among the locals? 5% or 95%? And at what location?
We can assume that the Veneti controlled most of Central Europe but would guess that it was at this point that the “Balts” remained outside of the Venetic influence while the Balts’ autochtonous cousins became pre-Slavic “Wends” by reason of their mingling with the Veneti. It is possible that it was at this point that Slavic was carved out of Baltic with the former either being originally a “Venetic” language or, more likely, a mixture of Venetic and Baltic. The Veneti and the “captured Balts” became Slavs – from Trieste through Noricum, possibly Suevia and up to the Baltic.* The remaining Balts stayed Balts – now designated Aestii.
* In fairness, it is possible that the original pre-Venetic population may have been Nordic or Teutonic even in Central Europe… As an interesting side note recall that the word Deutsch comes from the same PIE root (*teuta- “people”) as:
- Old Irish tuoth “people,”
- Old Lithuanian tauta “people,”
- Old Prussian tauto “country,”
- Oscan touto “community.”
- Polish tu or tutaj each meaning “here” or tutejsi “the ones from here” (Hierige) or tato “dad” (on this last point note also the Suevic – Langobardic ruler Tato – the Langobards who seem to have conquered the original Winulli also had a king named Lethuc which is just way too similar to the Polish prehistoric Leszek)
Not to mention the Germanic Ur-Gott Tuisco or Tuisto.
If one were to believe the ancient writers, the Gauls may have originally come into Gall and other places from Germany. But to get to Germany they likely would have come from Scandinavia. While the La Tène culture with its cremation burials may have been Venetic, Hallstadt was likely Celtic. This does not mean however that the Celts exterminated the Veneti (meaning – at this point – what we would call today Slavs). In many places they melted into the local population and only maintained their “Gallic” presence in today’s France.
The Suevi and the Nordics
The Nordics or those what we would today call “Germans” likely came next. They too however did not displace the local population. The language of the Suevi who arose at this time is quite uncertain but it is interesting to note that they may have had “Indic” prisoners (as per Pliny) and that they did keep slaves – the Latin word for whom at the time was Servi. Whether the Servi were the same as the Veneti and whether they were ethnically different from the Suevi is, of course, uncertain. It is certainly possible that the Suevi of Ariovistus and Veleda were Slavic speaking and no different from their servitors. It is curious that the Suevi maintained good relations with the Rhaetians or the Norici (one of Ariovistus’ wives came from there) and that their names sound similar to those of the Dacians of the time. This suggests a common Venetic heritage. Note too that the very name Suevi may have derived from the River Suevus which may well have been the Eastern Saale (Solawa in Slavic and hence the later Solaviane). These Suevi thus may well have been a combination of the original “Baltic” population, the Veneti who arrived a millennium or so earlier and, possibly, a new northern element. Their language, however, may well have been a version of Venetic. The fact that their garb and customs are supposed to be similar to that of the Baltic Aestii (or, really, vice versa) and just the language a little (?) different suggests that the Suevi and Aestii were not too separate. The fact that Tacitus views them as a large assembly of nations not like the “other” German tribes also suggests that the Suevi were not just Nordics.
But the Suevi were soon broken. Initially, in the time of Caesar, they reached the Rhine. But then they kept being beaten back and by the time of Tacitus the bulk of them (some Suevi – Wiltzi – may have remained in the Netherlands/Belgium– for that see here) was nowhere near the Rhine, having been driven by the Romans as well as by the continued outpouring of tribes out of Scandinavia, further East towards the Elbe. The country of the Veneti was cut off and what we now view as Western Germany became, well, Germanized.
Other Suevi, we know, were driven towards the Danube and, later yet, into Pannonia where they allied frequently with the “Sarmatian” Jazyges. Did the Jazyges speak Venetic as well? They were Sarmatian as were the (Vistula) Veneti so – if that term means more than just geographic association – perhaps they had been “Venetized” already (by the forces of Antenor on the way west or even earlier?). (The names of the individual Sarmatians (Jazyges?) do not sound Slavic and neither do the names of the, perhaps, related Alans – but then again, we are told that Germans take Roman names and Sarmatians frequently taken Germanic names).
The Vandals – to the extent they existed prior to their appearance in modern day Romania – likely skipped along the Elbe/Oder down into Czechia/Moravia bypassing Poland entirely. The notion that the so-called Przeworsk culture has anything to do with Vandals is nothing but a flight of fancy, wishful thinking or outright lying.
The Goths may have lived at the Vistula but we do not even know which river the Vistula was with the Oder being the main candidate. It is also rather remarkable that all the tribes mentioned in the Getica as having fallen to the Goths appear to be of eastern origin. This is true of the Spali who appear in the East and then the numerous Finnic tribes that are conquered before the Goths try their hand at taming the Veneti. But for the seemingly earlier mention of the Vandals and Rugi, it would be tempting to suggest that the Goths came from the East – not from Scandinavia. The fact that the Tocharian language seems to have been a centum language would support this hypothesis.
What of the Veneti at This Time?
It would be quite simplistic and unrealistic that cultures such as Wielbark and Przeworsk were exclusively assignable to one particular group. It would likewise be silly to suggest that a particular territory was exclusively possessed by a particular group. And also silly to suggest that only one language must have been spoken in the same territory.
Central Europe was likely still mostly Venetic at the time, no matter who ran the show. This is so for no other reason than the fact that invaders were far too lazy to till the soil – why would they, if they could just impose themselves upon the locals (much as the Rus did later in Russia – transferring the name onto the native Polans but otherwise becoming thoroughly assimilated).
This is not to say that the Veneti were the only people there. In fact, if the tales of Scrithifinni (or Screrefennae) are to be believed, a Finnic or Baltic (original?) population may have remained present in the area even into that late day. Note that skryty means hidden or reserved in Slavic.
As we’ve discussed numerous times, it’s less than clear who the Lugii/Legii/Lygii were. They were supposedly Suevic (implicit in Tacitus’ Germania) but what does that really mean if we can’t even say what language the Suevi spoke? It is quite likely that the Lugii were the ancestors of some of the Poles and spoke some sort of Venetic (Slavic) language – but the north of Poland (including Pomerania, Mazovia and, of course, Prussia probably still spoke the language of the “Baltic” autochtones – the “Aesti”. There may also have been some Goth outposts on the Baltic shore.
It is possible that some of the Veneti had been dragged south-eastwards by the advance of the Goths (assuming the Goths came from the North. Perhaps some had been taken prisoner. Hence we have the Veneti on the Danube on the Tabula who then later invade the Byzantine Empire. It is however possible that these Veneti had been there from time immemorial – perhaps a result of Antenor’s march or perhaps a result of the presence of an even earlier, pre-Trojan War Venetic population.
So What Happened Next?
That Slavic was likely spoken in Pannonia in the 5th century is best shown by the strava reference in Jordanes’ description of Atila’s funeral. As noted above the mixing of the Suevi and the Jazyges is likely to have been happening even before Nedao but likely accelerated thereafter.
After the Battle of Nedao (in which the Suevi – but now referred to as the Suavi – took part), it is possible that the remnants of the Suevi (previously Venetic speaking and now further mixed with the Pannonian Jazyges who, again, could have spoken the same tongue), still remembering that they came from somewhere further Northwest (Noricum) headed back North and West. This is likely where the Suevic – now Slavic – name arose but the Slavs even later remembered that they were Noricans (as noted in Nestor) before they got to Pannonia.
(That the Slav name may have been a late addition into this mix is suggested by the fact that Jordanes explicitly names the Veneti as the progenitors of the tribe and says that the other group was the Antes which itself may be a version of the Veneti or maybe even a reference to a long-remembered memory of Antenor.)
In the North, any returning Venetic Suevi, would have found the remaining Vistula Veneti and perhaps also Balts even at the Pomeranian coast plus some Gothic remnants (hence Viti- or Vidi-varii) and over time merged with them – all now calling themselves Suavi or “Slavs”.
In the West, however, the matter was not so simple. In Eastern Germany some remnants of the original Suevi/Veneti may have survived (Germanized?) but Western Germany was now the abode of the Saxons, Thuringians and, further West, the Frisians and Franks.
And in the East the lands would have already been held by the Veneti who now, with the Byzantine Empire weak began to pour over the border.
Note too that the suggestion only the Eastern Danube Veneti were Slavs whereas the “Sarmatian” Veneti of the Vistula were not, is silly on its face. It would be quite bizarre if each of these populations, on the one hand, shared a name and the fact that each became “Slavicized” in the future but, on the other hand, did not – at the time of the crafting of the Tabula – share anything else in common.
Note further that the fact that Slavic remained mutually understandable for most Slavs at this time does not necessarily indicate that all the Slavs must have lived close to one another (though Suavic Pannonia could have been that area if we must go there). It is indisputable that even today Slavic languages are to a large extent mutually comprehensible for all Slavs (at least if spoken slowly) and certainly more so than Germanic languages. This seems to be a function of the complicated nature of the language. In other words, the Germanic languages are much simpler and as such they are much simpler also to change. This is their strength – they are easier to learn than Slavic or Chinese and, consequently are more adaptable or changeable – something that is harder to achieve with a more complicated language.
So Where Does This Leave Us?
It is thus entirely possible that the original (and largely continuing) autochtonous population of Central Europe was Venetic (as in Slavic) by Roman times. But all of this may also mean that the Veneti – post 1250 AD – just gave such population its fire-worshipping culture and – perhaps – language (Slavic)* whereas such population was – and remains – largely “Baltic” or perhaps “Balto-Finnic” biologically (Balts are somewhat similar to Slavs on a genetic level – Finns – at least today’s Finns – are somewhat different). Whether or not the Suevi were Venetic (Slavic) speaking originally or became so later (either after contacts with the Veneti or, much later, with the Venetized Jazyges) they may well have given their name to the Slavs.
[* It is also possible however that Slavic was spoken in Central Europe already before the Veneti and that the Veneti became Slavicized as a result of their conquest of the area.]
Thus, it is possible, that Slavs are autochtonous to Central Europe (including Slovenia) as a population and – perhaps – as a matter of language. It is also very likely that the Vistula, Danube (and possibly the Adriatic and… maybe the Gallic) Veneti spoke some form of Slavic. But this does not necessarily mean the Veneti – before 1250 BC – had much to do with the population that today is called Slavic (or, depending on your vies, with the Slavic language).
If you can live with that distinction then we’d say that the Vistula and Danube Veneti – by Roman times – were very likely identical with Slavs. The Adriatic Veneti and Vindelici – even though they may have been the same “Slavic” people originally – were likely for the most part first Gallicized and then Latinized by that time in terms of language – though, perhaps, some pockets survived deep in the Alps or other forlorn places (and it may well be that it was these pockets that resuscitated the Slovenes).
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