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Sclavini in Europe



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Origin of the term Slav

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 Excluding the ambiguous] mention by Ptolemy of tribes Slavanoi and Soubenoi, the earliest references of "Slavs" under this name are from the 6th century AD. The word is written variously as Sklabenoi, Sklauenoi, or Sklabinoi in Byzantine Greek, and as Sclaueni, Sclauini, or Sthlaueni in Latin. The oldest documents written in Old Church Slavonic and dating from the 9th century attest slověne to describe the Slavs around Thessalonica. Other early attestations include Old Russian slověně "an East Slavic group near Novgorod", Slovutich "Dnieper river", and Croatian Slavonica, a river.


 The name is normally linked with the Slavic forms sláva "glory", "fame" or slovo "word, talk" (both akin to slušati "to hear" from the IE root *ḱlew-). Thus slověne would mean "people who speak (the same language)", i.e. people who understand each other, as opposed to the Slavic word for foreign nations, němtsi, meaning "mumbling, murmuring people" (from Slavic němъ - mumbling, mute).[10] For example, the Polish word Niemcy means "Germans" or "Germany" (as do its cognates in many other Slavic languages).

However, some scholars have advanced alternative theories as to the origin of theFile:Slavic fibula Crypta Balbi.jpg name. B.P. Lozinski argues that the word sláva once had the meaning of worshipper, in this context meaning practicer of a common Slavic religion, and from that evolved into an ethonym.[11] S.B. Bernstein speculates that it derives from a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European *(s)lawos, cognate to Greek laós "population, people", which itself has no commonly accepted etymology.[12] Meanwhile Max Vasmer and others suggest that the word originated as a river name (compare the etymology of the Volcae), comparing it with such cognates as Latin cluere "to cleanse, purge", a root not known to have been continued in Slavic, although it appears in other languages with similar meanings (cf. Greek klyzein "to wash", Old English hlūtor "clean, pure", Old Norse hlér "sea", Welsh clir "clear, clean", Lithuanian šlúoti "to sweep").

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 Genetics  Further information: Genetic history of Europe

Haplogroup R1a Distribution

The modern Slavic peoples come from a wide variety of genetic backgrounds. The frequency of Haplogroup R1a [6] ranges from 63.39% by the Serbs, 56.4% in Poland and 54% in Ukraine, to 15.2% in Republic of Macedonia, 14.7% in Bulgaria and 12.1% in Herzegovina.[18][19] Haplogroup R1a may be connected to the spread of Proto-Indo-Europeans (see Kurgan hypothesis for more information).

A new study[20] studied several Slavic populations with the aim of localizing the Proto-Slavic homeland. The significant findings of this study are that:

  1. Two genetically distant groups of Slavic populations were revealed: One encompassing all Western-Slavic, Eastern-Slavic, and two Southern-Slavic populations (north-western Croats, Slovenes), and one encompassing all remaining Southern Slavs. According to the authors most Slavic populations have similar Y chromosome pools — R1a, and this similarity can be traced to an origin in the middle Dnieper basin of Ukraine from the Ukrainian LGM refuge 15 kya.[21]
  2. However, some southern Slavic populations such as Serbs, Bosniaks, Montenegrins, Macedonians, and Bulgarians are clearly separated from the tight DNA cluster of the rest of the Slavic populations. According to the authors this phenomenon is explained by "...contribution to the Y chromosomes of peoples who settled in the Balkan region before the Slavic expansion to the genetic heritage of Southern Slavs..."[22]

Northern Eastern Slavs are distinguished by the presence of Y Haplogroup N in their genome. Postulated to originate from Central Asia, it is found at high rates in Finnic peoples. Its presence in Northern Russians[23] attests to the Northern Eastern Slavic tribes mixing with Finnic peoples in northern Eurasia.



Early Slavs


The early Slavs were a diverse group of tribal societies in Migration Age Europe whose tribal organizations created the foundations for today’s Slavic nations.[1] Although it is not until the sixth century AD that literary sources first mention the name Slavs, yet, by this time, sources reported that Slavs inhabited a vast area of central-eastern Europe, and were to spread even further over the next two centuries. The circumstances surrounding the formation and expansion of Slav identity remain a topic of intense academic debate. What is certain is that "between the sixth and seventh centuries, large parts of Europe came to be controlled by Slavs, a process less understood and documented than that of the Germanic ethnogenesis in the west. Yet the effects of Slavicization were far more profound".[2]


The question of Slavic origins has generated many theories, none of which have been universally accepted. Disagreement results from not just different types of evidence utilized by different scholars, or from the different ways of thinking about the issues involved, but also from strong political influences which, until recently, determined how the problem of the origin of the Slavs was seen.[3] When discussing early "Slavs", one is referring to a diverse set of tribal communities who shared a common language and material culture.


Historical evidence

In historical literature, the tribal names Antes, Sclaveni and Venethi have been connected with early Slavic peoples. The earliest clear reference to the ethonym Slav does not occur until the sixth century of the Common Era. Nevertheless, attempts have been made to identify the Slavs, or their ancestors, with earlier groups. The Soubenoi mentioned by Ptolemy in the second century A.D. have often been deemed to have been Slavs, their name having originally been Sthlavanoi - a distorted form of Slovenoi. They lived in Sarmatia, north of the Alans. Another tribe linked with Slavs was the Venethi mentioned by writers such as Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy and Tacitus.[4] They occupied the area between the Oder and Vistula river basins. Although Tacitus listed the Venethi as a Germanic tribe, in his Getica, Jordanes, several centuries later, stated that they were Slavic,[5] although it is far from certain that they were referring to the same people. The third major ancient Slavic group, the Antes, were described by Jordanes as living on the northern curve of the Sea of Pontus – from the Dniester to the Dnieper.

Both writing in the mid-sixth century, Jordanes and Procopius provide the first indisputable reference to the Slav ethonym, in the form Sclavenoi. Jordanes writes that their land stretched from the town of Noviodunum, to the river Dniester, then northward to the Vistula river. He adds that the Sclavenoi, Antae, and Veneti were but one people. In his work De Bellis, Procopius also links the Sclavenoi and Antes, being two barbarian tribes speaking the 'same' language and bearing a similar appearance, living just north of the River Ister (Danube). He adds that they were originally one people, called Sporoi.[6]

Jordanes’ account suggests that Slavs were ancient, and had long lived in the forest zone of eastern Europe. Paul Barford and Curta, however, have questioned the extent of Jordanes’ understanding of ancient demography and geography.[7][8] Although the various references to postulated Slavic groups consistently locate such tribes in the expanses between the upper Vistula river and the region north of the Black Sea, such information “is far too enigmatic to form the basis for the proposition of unequivocal conclusions”.[4]

Moreover, whilst Sclavene may have originally been the self-designation of a particular ethnic group, Curta argues that it came to be used by the Byzantines as an 'umbrella term' to categorize various barbarian ethnic groups who dwelt beyond the River Danube.[9]

Linguistic evidence

Balto-Slavic dialects c. 600 BCE

For a long time, language was seen as the defining factor in the formation of a people's culture and world view.[10] Although deductions about the existence of a proto-Slavic people based on an unattested and reconstructed proto-Slavic language must be held with caution, scholars often place great emphasis on linguistics in the hope of discovering the Slavic Urheimat. So far, scholars have been unable to agree on the exact region where the proto-Slavic language developed. Nevertheless, Marija Gimbutas’ model for analysing the spread of Indo-Europeans is currently the favoured one. Hence, other theories attempting to place the origins of proto-Slavic in the Near East (Anatolian hypothesis), the Balkans (modified Anatolian hypothesis, PCT), or beyond the Urals are now considered peripheral.[11]

Historical distribution of the Slavic languages. The larger shaded area is the Prague-Penkov-Kolochin complex of cultures of the sixth to seventh centuries, likely corresponding to the spread of Slavic-speaking tribes of the time. The smaller shaded area indicates the core area of Slavic river names (after Mallory & Adams (1997:524ff).

The communis opinio proposes that, “somewhere in eastern Europe”, proto-Slavic had separated from proto-Indo-European by 1500- 1000 BC, probably via a proto-Balto-Slavic medium.[12] Kortlandt places the Slavs near the Indo-European homeland itself: “the Indo-Europeans who remained after the migrations became speakers of Balto-Slavic”.[13]

Proto-Slavic remained surprisingly conservative for over one millennium. According to Kortlandt, the earliest evidence for dialectal divergence within Common Slavic can be dated to no earlier than the fourth century C.E., apparently in connection with the earliest phases of the Slavic expansion.[14] Analysis of loan words reveals that Slavs have had a long period of contact with Germanic groups, occurring from the period of Proto-Slavic proper, through to the Middle Ages. The majority of Germanic loan words are of Gothic origin. In addition, there are also some Iranic influences, although not as many as once thought.[15] In addition to the proposed genetic relationship with Baltic, much of the Balto-Slavic similarity has also been viewed to be a result of ongoing cultural contacts between the two peoples. This would place the proto-Slavs in the vicinity of speakers of early Baltic, Germanic and the Iranic speaking nomads of the steppe.

In attempt to localise the linguistic Urheimat, linguists have employed place names, especially hydronyms, as indirect evidence. According to one interpretation of the onomastic evidence, the most ancient recognizably Slavic hydronyms are to be found in northern and western Ukraine and southern Belarus. In fact, proto-Slavic has very well-developed terminology for inland bodies of water (lakes, river, swamps), as well as the flora and fauna indigenous to the temperate forest zone. In contrast, inherited Common Slavic vocabulary does not include detailed terminology for physical surface features peculiar of the mountains or the steppe, nor any relating to the sea, to coastal features, littoral flora or fauna, or salt water fishes.[16] Therefore, supporters of this line of reasoning view this area as the Urheimat of the Slavs.[5] Others, adopting a different methodology, note that the Common Slavic words for beech, larch and yew were foreign (Germanic) in origin, whilst that for hornbeam was native. Hence they argued that the original Slavic homeland was devoid of beech, larch and yew, but was plentiful in hornbeam. On the basis of the modern distribution of those trees (and assuming geo-botanical stability over the past two thousand years), some believe the Slavic urheimat was within the Pripet marshes, in Polesie.[17]

Although linguists cannot agree exactly where it first developed, the evidence shows that proto-Slavic remained archaic for over a millennium, suggesting that it developed in a relatively confined region and was spoken by a relatively compact body of peoples. Its spread has been dated to have begun in the fourth century A.D., evidenced by increasing dialectical divergence and the acquisition of Germanic and Sarmatian loanwords.

Archaeological evidence

Slavic lands c. 500-550 CE

In the archaeological literature, attempts have been made to assign a Slavic, or proto-Slavic, ethnicity to several different archaeological cultures encompassing various time periods and territorial zones.[18] The Prague-Korchak cultural complex is regarded as the "Slavic cultural model",[19] a remarkably uniform cultural tradition which spanned almost half of Europe, coinciding neatly with the historic distribution of Slavic speech[20]. Scholars have attempted to ascertain how far back this commonality of tradition can be traced in the archaeological record. It is certain that Prague-type assemblages represented a new cultural model in eastern Europe, where the Przeworsk and Chernyakov cultures previously existed. These cultures 'disappeared' in the late fourth century (attributed to the “violent irruption of the Huns”,[21]) and had been 'replaced' by the Slavic model by the late fifth century A.D.

The Chernyakov & Przeworsk cultures, c. 3rd century A.D.

The Chernyakov culture existed from the second to the fifth centuries AD, and it encompassed the territories of modern Ukraine, Moldavia and Wallachia. Chernyakov finds are characterized by polished black pottery vessels, fine metal ornaments, and impressive iron tools.[22] In the earlier half of the twentieth century, much energy had been spent by scholars debating the ethnic affinity of the people which inhabited the Chernyakov zone. Soviet scholars such as Boris Rybakov saw it as the archaeological reflection of the proto-Slavs,[23] whilst western, especially German, historians attributed it to the Goths.

However, the remains of archaeologically visible material culture and their link with ethnic identity are not as clear as originally thought. The 'Culture-Historical' doctrine founded by German archaeologist Gustaf Kossinna, assumed that “sharply defined archaeological culture areas correspond unquestionably with the areas of particular peoples or tribes".[24] "Kossina simply equated culture provinces with ethnic groups and further equated those groups with historically attested peoples or tribes”. However, material cultures are better understood to represent cultural-economic systems incorporating many different groups. "What created the boundaries of these cultural areas were not the political frontiers of a particular people, but the geographical limits within which the population groups interacted with sufficient intensity to make some or all of the remains of their physical culture – pottery, metal work, building styles, burial goods and so on- look very similar.[25] Therefore, the spread of cultures is not necessarily the result of direct migrations, but may be due to the spread of ideas.

Today, the Chernyakov zone is recognized to represent a cultural interaction of a diversity of peoples, one rooted primarily in Scytho-Sarmatian traditions modified by an admixture of Germanic elements introduced by the Goths.[22][26] The Chernyakov zone also consisted of Dacians and, quite possibly, early Slavs. In fact, one of the settlement types in the Chernyakov zone were semi-subterranean dwellings with hearths in one of the corners. This settlement type later became typical of early Slavic sites.[27] Volodymir Baran labelled it as the Slavic "ethnic badge".[28] Baran therefore placed Slavic cultural origins in the Carpathian foothills of Podolia. Here, along the northwestern fringes of the Chernyakov zone, the Slavs gradually accreted into a culturally unified people, since the multiethnic environment of the Chernyakhov zone necessitated the “need for self-identification in order to manifest their differentiation from other groups”.[29]

Iron Age eastern Europe

The Przeworsk culture lay to the northeast of the Chernyakov zone, and extended from the Dniester to the Tisza valley and northward to the Vistula and Oder rivers.[30] It arose considerably earlier than the Chernyakov culture. During the early twentieth century, Slavic, and in particular Polish, archaeologists argued that the Przeworsk culture represented the material remains of the Venethi, who were a proto-Slavic tribe.


German archaeologists rather connected it to the Germanic Vandals and Burgundians. Not surprisingly, such debates were influenced by the prevailing political climate of the time- namely German expansionism in Europe.

More accurately, the Przeworsk culture represents an amalgam of a series of localized cultures, most with roots in earlier traditions, modified by influences from the (Celtic) La Tene culture, (Germanic) Jastorf culture from beyond the Oder, and the local Bell-Grave culture of the Polish plain. It is impossible to believe that a single people could lay behind such a territorially wide and culturally varied zone. The Venethi may have played a part, but others included Vandals, Burguindians and even Sarmatians.[30] To the east of the Przeworsk zone lay the Zarubinets culture, sometimes considered part of the Przeworsk complex.[31] The area occupied by the Zarubinets culture is one where very ancient Slavic hydronyms are found,[31] and where Irena Rusinova proposed that the most proto-typical examples of Prague-type pottery later arose.[28] The Zarubinets culture is identified as either being proto-Slavic,[32] or an ethnically mixed community which became Slavonicized.[33]

As one looks even further back in pre-history, the confidence with which archaeological connections can be made to known historic groups regresses correspondingly.[34] Much attention has been given to the Chernoles culture, which existed from 1050 to 725 BC in the forest-steppe zone. This area seems to correspond to where Herodotus placed his "Scythian ploughmen", postulated to represent proto-Slavic agriculturalists under the Scythian clientship. The Chernoles culture has been seen to represent a stage in the evolution of Slavic stock.[35] Gimbutas goes so far as identifying it as the proto-Slavic homeland.[36] Others, instead have labelled the neighbouring Milogradi or Lusatian cultures as proto-Slavic. However, many pre-historians argue that it is spurious to ascribe ethnic labels to the Iron Age peoples of Europe.[37]

Genetic evidence

A new investigation with comparisons of genetic structure of modern Slavic-speaking populations was published by an international group of scientists in 2007.[38] A set of 18 Y-chromosomal microsatellite loci was analysed in 568 males from Poland, Slovakia and three regions of Belarus. The results were compared to data available for 2,937 Y chromosome samples from 20 other Slavic populations.

A lack of relationship between linguistic, geographic and historical relations between Slavic populations and Y-short tandem repeat (STR) haplotype distribution was observed. Two genetically distant groups of Slavic populations were revealed: one encompassing all Western-Slavic, Eastern-Slavic, and two Southern-Slavic populations, and one encompassing all remaining Southern Slavs. An analysis of molecular variance (AMOVA) based on Y-chromosomal STRs showed that the variation observed between the two population groups was 4.3%, and was higher than the level of genetic variance among populations within the groups (1.2%). Homogeneity of northern Slavic paternal lineages in Europe was shown to stretch from the Alps to the upper Volga and involves ethnicities speaking completely different branches of Slavic languages. Their results indicate that using the population-of-origin approach based on the AMOVA, as many as nine (P > 0.05) or ten (P > 0.01) populations can be traced back to the lands of present-day Ukraine, including Eastern-Slavic Russians and Belarusians, Western-Slavic Poles and Slovaks, and Southern-Slavic Slovenes and Croats.

On the other hand, the Polish population gave insignificant FST values in pairwise comparisons with only one (i.e. Ukrainians) or three (i.e. Ukrainians, Slovaks, and Lusatians) populations (P > 0.05 or 0.01, respectively). Moreover, the Y-STR genetic distance between Poles and Belarusians, who are geographic neighbours, excludes significant gene flow between the two populations and localisation of Belarusians’ ancestors in present-day Poland. The central position of the population of Ukraine in the network of insignificant AMOVA comparisons, and the lack of traces of significant contribution of ancient tribes inhabiting present-day Poland to the gene pool of Eastern and Southern Slavs, support hypothesis placing the earliest known homeland of Slavs in the middle Dnieper basin.

Social anthropology

Primordialism[39] is a paradigm that has been employed in analysing the processes involved in the formation of a people, or ethnos. It was connected to the nationalism movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and today has largely fallen out of favour amongst social anthropologists. Ethnicity, according to primordialists, is defined by biological descent and is tied to a geographic homeland (Urheimat).[40] They argued that a people, or nation, is a natural and organic social grouping, and is therefore timeless. Essentially, primordialists saw modern ethnicity as the survival of an ancient tribalism,[41] and therefore believe that the national character of modern Europeans was set over a millennium ago when Urvolk (original people) known as Celts, Goths and Sclavenes traversed, and eventually settled, over large parts of Europe. These groups, in turn, had their origins in the Bronze and Iron Ages, when the ancestral Indo-Europeans dispersed.[42]

However, a more recent, constructionist approach sees ethnicity as historical, not biological. That is, they see ethnicity as an instrument of political strategy, used as a resource by groups to achieve secondary goals, such as acquiring wealth, power or status.[43] According to this view, the chief forces of group cohesion were primarily economic and political interests. As a rule, therefore, members are of diverse origin (multi-ethnic).

Nevertheless, ethnicity is not altogether arbitrary or subjective. Constructionists argue that ethnicity is created upon pre-existing cultures, myths and practices. Wenksus coined the term Traditionskern (‘kernel of tradition’) to refer to a small group who claimed to “embody and perpetuate some ancient people”.[44] This core group, usually the elite, was a standard to set up much larger units. Charismatic rulers gathered adherents from diverse backgrounds. “A victorious campaign confirmed their right to rule and drew them an ever growing people who accepted and shared in their identity”.[44] In time, these heterogeneous armies grew into a new people. Despite their diversity, they had “a strong belief in a common biological origin’’.[45] The stimuli for forging group identity seemed to have been particularly strong along the frontiers of the Roman Empire. Chiefs supported by Rome became more powerful and wealthy than would have otherwise been possible. Yet neither the support of Rome, nor that of their own people, was secured with certainty. Opposing factions arose within a group who would contest the right to lead the people and uphold its traditions. At the same time, defeat by an external power could not only spell the end of a ruler, but also his people, who would be absorbed into another, more victorious confederacy.[46] “Seen in this light, ‘ethnic’ identity among barbarians was extraordinarily fluid, as new groups emerged and old ones disappeared. What remained was the belief, however imaginary, that the groups held an ancient and divinely sanctioned past”.[47]

Given that historic groups were amalgams of different peoples and cultures, scholars such as Curta and Geary have dubbed the search for homelands as ‘meaningless’, whilst Andras Rona-Tas advocates the use plural, Urheimats, as being more appropriate in an attempt to highlight the several major stages in the formation of a people.[48]


Walter Pohl highlights the mystery of how a "regional and hitherto virtually unknown group could take over virtually all of eastern and east-central Europe in a relatively short period from c. 500 to c. 650 AD".[49]

'Traditional' theories explain the changes seen in sixth century eastern Europe in terms of a demographic expansion of Slavic people, carrying with them their customs and language. Although there has been no consensus regarding the precise location of the Slavic homeland, scholars generally looked somewhere north of the Carpathian Mountains. For example, the Russian archaeologist Valentin Sedov proposed that the Venethi were the proto-Slavic bearers of the Przeworsk culture. Their expansion began in the second century AD, having come to occupy a large area of eastern Europe, from the Vistula to the middle Dneiper. By the fourth century A.D., they had slowly expanded southward and eastward, assimilating the neighbouring Zarubinec culture (which he perceived to have been partly Baltic), and continuing southeast to become a constituent population of the Chernyakhov culture. The Antes then separated themselves from the Venethic block by 300 AD, followed by the Sclaveni by 500 AD, in the areas which neatly coincided with the distribution of the Pen’kovka and Prague-Korchak cultures, respectively.[50]

Mary Gimbutas envisaged a Slavic cultural continuity spanning two millennia, centred on the Chernoles, and the preceding Komarov cultures. In the seventh century B.C., these proto-Slavs were conquered by the Scythians. However, there was limited interaction between the Slavs, who served as tribute-paying Scythian ploughmen, and the nomads. Moreover, the protection afforded by their homeland in the forest steppe enabled them to preserve their language and their patrilineal, agricultural customs.[51] After a millennium, when the Hun Empire collapsed, a distinct Slavic culture re-emerged and spread rapidly. Gimbutas wrote, "Neither Bulgars nor Avars colonized the Balkan Peninsula; after storming Thrace, Illyria and Greece they went back to their territory north of the Danube. It was the Slavs who did the colonizing; . . . entire families or even whole tribes infiltrated lands. As an agricultural people, they constantly sought an outlet for the population surplus. Suppressed for over a millennium by foreign rule of Scythians, Sarmatians and Goths, they had been restricted to a small territory; now the barriers were down and they poured out”.[52] In addition to sheer numbers, the relative depopulation of eastern Europe (due in part to the outmigration of Germani), and the lack of imperial defences further catalyzed Slavic expansion.[53]

Commencing with the processual archaeology movement in the 1960s, some scholars began to assert that "there was no need to explain culture change exclusively in terms of migration and population replacement".[54] Historical linguist Johanna Nichols argued that "Ethnic spreads can involve either the spread of a language to speakers of other languages or the spread of a population. Massive population spread or demographic replacement has probably been a rarity in human history.... [T]here is no reason to assume that the Slavic expansion was a primarily demographic event. Some migration took place, but the parsimonious assumption is the Slavic expansion was primarily a linguistic spread".[55] Renfrew proposed the ideas of Elite Dominance and System collapse to explain scenarios of language replacement.

Dolukhanov suggests that their experience with nomads enabled the Slavs to gain substantial political and military experience, emerging as a “dominant force and establishing a new socio-political network in the entire area of central and southeastern Europe”.[56]

Slavic cultural development

Apart from military successes, Paul Barford has suggested that “the spartan and egalitarian (Slavic) culture . . . clearly had something attractive for great numbers of the populations living over considerable areas of central Europe”, resulting in their assimilation. “The analysis of Slav material culture (especially South Slavs) and results of anthropological investigations, as well as the loan-words in philological studies, clearly demonstrate the contribution of the previous populations of these territories in the make-up of some of the Slav populations".[57]

Byzantine chroniclers also noted that Roman prisoners captured by the Sclavenes were soon able to become free members of Slav society, if they wished.[57] Horace Lunt attributed the spread of Slavic to the "success and mobility of the Slavic 'special border guards' of the Avar khanate",[58] military elites who used Slavic as a lingua franca within the Avar Khanate. He argued that only as a lingua franca could Slavic have spread, obliterating other languages and dialects, whilst at the same time remaining remarkably uniform. Whilst explaining the formation of specific regional Slavic groups within the Balkans, eastern Alps and the Morava-Danube basin, Lunt's theory fails to explain how Slavic spread to the Baltic region and to the territories of the Eastern Slavs, areas which had no historical links with the Avar Khanate.[59]

A related concept to elite dominance is system collapse, whereby the power vacuum associated with the demise of the Hun Empire on the one hand and the Roman Empire on the other allowed certain minority groups to take control and impose their customs and language (Renfrew 1987). Paul Barford suggests that Slavic groups might have existed in a wide area of central-eastern Europe (the territories lying within the abovementioned Chernyakov and Zarubintsy-Przeworsk culture zones), even prior to the historically documented 'Slavic migrations' of the 6th to 9th centuries. Serving as auxiliaries in Sarmatian, Goth and Hun armies, small numbers of Slavic speakers might have even reached the Balkans prior to the sixth century:[60] These scattered groups then served as multiple foci for the creation of a consolidated Slavic cultural identity, when conditions favoured this, assimilating or passing on their material culture and language onto other ethnies.

A similar idea is proposed by Florin Curta. Seeing no clear evidence for a migration from the Polesie, or elsewhere north, he suggests that southeastern Europe witnessed the development of a "broad area of common economic and cultural traditions". "Whether living within the same region or widely scattered, adherence to this style helped to integrate isolated individuals within a group whose social boundaries criss-crossed those of local communities".[61] "During the early 600s, however, at the time of the general collapse of the Byzantine administration in the Balkans, access to and manipulation of such (Slavic) artifacts may have been strategies for creating a new sense of identity for local elites". Curta suggests that the gretest impetus for the creation of this identity originated from the Danubian frontier.

Recent scholarship acknowledges that it may be simplistic to attempt to define a localized Slavic homeland. Although proto-Slavic language may have developed in a localized area, Slavic ethnogenesis occurred in a large area stretching from the Oder in the west to the Dnieper in the east, and south to the Danube river.[61][62] It was a complex process fueled by changes within barbaricum and as well as within the Roman Empire. Despite the remarkable cultural uniformity, Slavic development appears to have been less politically consolidated compared to the Germani.

Peter Geary points out that the Slavic expansion was a decentralized, yet often forceful process resulting in the assimilation of great numbers of people. The assimilating power was carried by small groups of "soldier-farmers" who carried common traditions and language. "Without kings or large –scales chieftains to bribe or defeat, the Byzantine Empire had little hope of either destroying them or coopting them into the imperial system".[63] Pohl agrees: “Avars and Bulgars conformed to the rules of the game established by the Romans. They built up a concentration of military power that was paid, in the last resort, from Roman tax revenues. Therefore they paradoxically depended on the functioning of the Byzantine state. The Slavs managed to keep up their agriculture (and a rather efficient kind of agriculture, by the standards of the time), even in times when they took their part in plundering Roman provinces. The booty they won apparently did not (at least initially) create a new military class with the greed for more and a contempt for peasant's work, as it did with the Germans. Thus the Slavic model proved an attractive alternative . . . which proved practically indestructible. Slav traditions, language, and culture shaped, or at least influenced, innumerable local and regional communities: a surprising similarity that developed without any central institution to promote it. These regional ethnogeneses inspired by Slavic tradition incorporated considerable remnants of Roman or Germanic population ready enough to give up ethnic identities that had lost their cohesion”.[64] 


Physical appearance

Procopius stated the Slavs "are tall and especially strong, their skin is not very white, and their hair is neither blond nor black, but all have reddish hair’’. They are neither dishonourable nor spiteful, but simple in their ways, like the Huns (Avars)”.[65] "Some of them do not have either a tunic or cloak, but only wear a kind of breeches pulled up to the groin”.

A similar description is later given by the Persian writer Ibn Fadlan describing the Rus: “Never have I seen a people of such perfect physique. They are as tall as date-palms and reddish in colour”.[citation needed] However, he was not impressed by the state of their hygiene.

Anthropological investigation of prehistoric Slav sites appears to support the historical literature, suggesting that Early Slavs were dolicocephalic and fair-haired.[66] Today, physical anthropology, especially cranial indices, have fallen out of favour. As Luca Cavalli-Sforza states, there is no guarantee that anthropological observations reflect genetic differences rather than socio-economic, nutritional, environmental, or other historic factors.[67]


Social structuring

Samples of early Slavic artefacts from Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia (6th century AD)

Early Slav society is often said[citation needed] to have been egalitarian and based around family clans, as noted by Procopius description of Slavic “democracy”. No individual held permanent power; however, brave and influential chiefs would arise during periods of conflict. When the conditions which brought them to power subsided, so too did their power. A slow process of consolidation occurred between the seventh and ninth centuries. During this period, the previously uniform Slav cultural area formed into more discrete zones. Various Slavic groups were to be influenced by more 'advanced' neighbouring cultures such as Byzantium, the Khazars, Vikings and the Carolingians, although these processes should not be necessarily thought to be unidirectional.[68]

Gradually, there developed increasing evidence of differentiations of status within the organizations, leading to class divisions and the development of centralized socio-political organizations. Perhaps, the first rudiments of higher organizations were temporary pan-tribal warrior associations. We have the greatest evidence for this in the Danubian area, where various barbarian elements organized around military chiefs for the purpose of raiding Byzantine territory and defending themselves against Avars.[69] Gradually, a higher degree of social stratification developed- that of a chiefdom, associated with the development of inherited inequality in personal status and centralisation of power. Chiefdoms often contained fortified sites to back up their authority, a feature first seen in west Slavic areas. The chief was supported by a retinue of high-status warriors who owed their positions to the chief. As chiefdoms grew powerful and expanded, centres of subsidiary power were created, ruled by lesser chiefs. It is difficult to draw the line between the powerful chiefs of "developed chiefdoms" and the princes who ruled centralized Medieval "states".

By the mid-ninth century, Slavic elite attained a high level of sophistication. They wore luxurious clothing, rode on horseback, hunted with falcons and travelled with a retinue of soldiers.[70]

Settlement features

Early Slavic settlements were no larger than 0.5 to 2 hectares. Settlements were often temporary, perhaps a reflection of the itinerant form agriculture they practiced.[71] Settlements were often located on river terraces.


The largest proportion of settlement features were the sunken buildings, called Grubenhauser in German, or poluzemlianki in Russian. They were erected over a rectangular pit and varied from four to twenty square meters of floor area, which could accommodate a typical nuclear family. Each house contained a stone or clay oven in one of the corners, a defining feature of the early Slavic dwellings throughout Europe. On average, each settlement consisted of fifty to seventy individuals.[72] Settlements were structured in specific manner; there was a central, open area which served as a "communal front" where communal activities and ceremonies were conducted. The settlement was polarized, divided into a production zone and settlement zone.[73]

Strongholds appeared later, in the ninth century, especially in the territories of Western Slavs. They were often found in the centre of settlement cells. In contrast, South Slavs did not form enclosed strongholds. Instead they lived in open rural settlements adopted from the social models of the indigenous populations they came across.

Tribal and territorial organization

Slavic tribes in central-eastern Europe 8th century
Slavic tribes in the Balkans

Settlements were not uniformly distributed, but tended to form clusters separated by areas where settlement density falls[74]. The clustering was a result of the expansion of single settlements. These 'settlement cells' were therefore linked by family or clan relationships. Settlement cells formed the basis of the simplest form of territorial organization, known as a zupa in South Slavic, or opole in Polish. For example, Primary Chronicle noted that “the men of the Poliane lived each with his own clan in his own place”. There were several such zupa containing the territorial confines of individual clans, which together formed the known tribes. “The complex processes initiated by the Slav expansion and subsequent demographic and ethnic consolidation culminated in the formation of tribal groups, which later coalesced to create state which form the framework of the ethnic make-up of modern eastern Europe”[75].

The root of many tribal names denotes their territory which they inhabited, such as the Vistulans (along the Vistula river), the Moravians (along the Morava rivers), the Diokletians (near the former Roman city of Doclea) and Severiani (northern-folk), to mention a few. Others names derive from more general meanings, such as the Polanes (pola, field), Derevlane (drevo, tree). Others appear to have a non-Slavic, possibly Iranic, roots such as the Antes, Serbs, and Croats. Some geographically distant tribes appear to share names. The Dregoviti appear north of the Pripet river as well as in the Vardar valley, the Croats in Galicia and northern Dalmatia, the Poliani between the Oder and Vistula and their namesake further east along the middle Dniester river. Historically, three groups retained the root Slav in their names- Slovenes, Slovaks, and the historical East Slavic Slovene tribe. Although much has been made of supposed migratory links between tribes sharing the same names, the evidence in support of such a theory is very scarce at present. The occurrence of common names may merely be a reflection of how historians named the various tribes.

Apparently ethnicity operated on at least two levels: the "common Slavic" identity, and the identity of single Slavic groups, tribes, or peoples of different sizes that gradually developed, very often taking their name from the territory they lived in[76]



Typical early barbarian warrior bands contained only up to two hundred warriors. Such small bands were intended for fast penetration into enemy territory, and an equally quick withdrawal. In Wars VII.14, 25, Procopius tells us that the Slavs "fight on foot, advancing on the enemy, in their hands they carry small shields and spears, but they never wear body armour". According to the Strategikon, the Slavs favoured ambush, guerrilla tactics, and often attacked the enemy's flanks. It mentions "they are armed with short spears, each man carries two, one of them with a large shield". Sources also mention the use of Slavic cavalry. Theophylact Simocatta described how in the course of a raid, the Slavs "dismounted from their horses in order to cool themselves".[77] Procopius mentions that Slav and "Hun" horsemen served as mercenaries in the Byzantine army.[78] In their dealings with Sarmatians and Huns, it is not inconceivable that the Slavs became skilled horsemen, a feature which might explain their successful expansion.[79]

As the Slavic tribes enlarged, raids became larger and more organized, capable of permanently occupying newly gained territory. Armies were composed of specialist divisions including cavalry, archers and infantry, and even consisted of siege machines.[citation needed]

The Strategikon (XI.4.I-45) mentions that the Slavs were a hospitable people who did not keep prisoners indefinitely, "but lay down a certain period after which they can decide for themselves if they want to return to their former homelands after paying a ransom, or to stay amongst the Slavs as free men and friends".



During the fifth to ninth centuries, most Slavs practised cremation burials. The funeral pyre was seen as a means of freeing the soul from the body in a rapid, visible and public manner.[80]

Archaeological evidence suggests that the South Slavs quickly adopted inhumation practiced by the post-Roman Balkan natives. In areas under Avar control, Slavs practiced Avar-type burials.[citation needed]


Prior to Christinization, Slavs practiced a polytheistic religion characteristic of their Indo-European ancestors.

See also


  1. ^ Barford (2001, p. vii, Preface)
  2. ^ Geary (2003, p. 144)
  3. ^ Fouracre (2005, p. 526)
  4. ^ a b Fouracre (2005, p. 527)
  5. ^ a b Curta (2001, p. 7)
  6. ^ Procopius. Wars (VIII.I4, 22-30)
  7. ^ Curta (2001, p. 13) Jordanes’ Venethi have become the key argument in all constructions of the Slavic past. . . . Jordanes built his image of the Slavs on the basis of earlier accounts and maps, without any concern for accurate description.
  8. ^ Barford (2001, p. 36) this account has little value in discussions of the origin of Slavs
  9. ^ Curta (2001, p. 118-119)
  10. ^ Curta (2004, pp. 128–129)
  11. ^ Barford (2001, p. 37)
  12. ^ Barford (2001, p. 14) "it is likely that the speakers of this language were present somewhere in eastern or central Europe by the end of the Neolithic. . . . Some suggest the original existence of a “Proto-Slavic-Baltic language”"
  13. ^ F. Kortlandt, The spread of the Indo-Europeans, p. 4.
  14. ^ Kortlandt. Pg 3.
  15. ^ A surprising finding given the proximity between the Iranic–speaking nomads and the postulated Slavic urheimat in the vicinity of the forest steppe. Meillet and Vaillant explain the lack of Iranianisms in Slavic: ’’That fact should not surprise us: the civilization of warrior and partially nomadic tribes, like Scythian and Sarmatian, could have exerted only a cursory influence on the patriarchal civilization of Slavs. (Vaillant & Meillet 1934:508)
  16. ^ cf. Novotná & Blažek:2007 with references. "Classical glottochronology" conducted by Czech Slavist M. Čejka in 1974 dates the Balto-Slavic split to -910±340 BCE, Sergei Starostin in 1994 dates it to 1210 BCE, and "recalibrated glottochronology" conducted by Novotná & Blažek dates it to 1400-1340 BCE. This agrees well with Trziniec-Komarov culture, localized from Silesia to Central Ukraine and dated to the period 1500–1200 BCE.
  17. ^ Curta (2001, p. 7-8)
  18. ^ Fouracre (2005, p. 528)
  19. ^ Mallory (1997, p. 525)
  20. ^ As a comparison, the "proto-Celtic" Hallstatt and La tene cultures do not coincide with the geographic distribution of Celtic language nearly as well
  21. ^ Todd (, p. 28)
  22. ^ a b Todd (, p. 27)
  23. ^ Barford (2001, p. 40)
  24. ^ Curta (2001, p. 24) Citing Kossinna 1911:3
  25. ^ Heather (2006)
  26. ^ Mallory (1997, p. 104)
  27. ^ The Making of the Slavs. Pg 284
  28. ^ a b Curta (2001, p. 284)
  29. ^ Fouracre (2005, p. 529)
  30. ^ a b Todd (, p. 26)
  31. ^ a b Mallory ()
  32. ^ New Cambridge Medieval History, Pg 529
  33. ^ The role of migration in the history of the Eurasian steppe: sedentary civilization vs. "barbarian" and nomad. By Andrew Villen Bell, Andrew Bell-Fialkoff. Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2000. ISBN 0-312-21207-0.Pg 138
  34. ^ Mallory (1997, p. 524)
  35. ^ Mallory (1997, p. 637)
  36. ^ Gimbutas (, p. 42)
  37. ^ Green (1996, p. 3) many pre-historians argue it is spurious to identify Iron age Europeans as Celts (or other such labels).
  38. ^ K. Rebala et. al., Y-STR variation among Slavs: evidence for the Slavic homeland in the middle Dnieper basin: J. of Hum. Gen., Vol. 52, No. 5. (May 2007), pp. 406—414.
  39. ^ Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Oxford, 1966) pp. 6ff, popularized the term to separate these thinkers from those who view ethnicity as a situational construct, the product of history, rather than a cause, influenced by a variety of political, economic, and cultural factors. An earlier use of the term with such a meaning is that by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, "The Integrative Revolution: Primordial Sentiments and Civil Politics in the New States," in Old Societies and New States, Ed. Clifford Geertz. Pp. 105-157. Glencoe: Free Press.
  40. ^ Nationalism and Political Identity. S. F. Joireman. Continuum Publishing. ISBM 0-8264-6591-9. Page 19
  41. ^ The Anthropology of Globalization. Cultural Anthropology enters the 21st Century. Ted C Lewellen. ISBN 0-89789-738-2. Page 106
  42. ^ The Races of Europe. Carleton S Coon. Chapter VI, Section 8. The predominant peoples of the Iron Age in Europe as well as in central Asia, the West-Asiatic highlands, and India were Indo-European speakers. For some mysterious reason as yet incompletely understood, various branches of this linguistic stock underwent periods of rapid expansion during which the human beings who spread these languages migrated in many directions and disseminated their physical type as well as their speech among other peoples.
  43. ^ Abner Cohen (1974) Two-Dimensional Man: An essay on power and symbolism in complex society. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
  44. ^ a b Geary (2003, p. 77)
  45. ^ Curta (2001, p. 16)
  46. ^ Geary (2003, p. 78)
  47. ^ Geary (2003, p. 78-79)
  48. ^ Rona-Tas (1999, p. 315)
  49. ^ Goets (2003, p. 582)
  50. ^ Curta (2001, p. 11)
  51. ^ Magocsi (1996, p. 36)
  52. ^ Marija Gimbutas. The Slavs
  53. ^ Villen (, p. 582)
  54. ^ From Roman Provinces to Medieval Kingdoms. Archaeologists and Migrations. Pg 264
  55. ^ Russian Identities. A Historical Survey. N. V. Riasonovsky. Pg 10. Oxford University Press, quoting Johanna Nichols.
  56. ^ Villen (, p. 139)
  57. ^ a b Barford (2001, p. 46)
  58. ^ Curta (2004, p. 133)
  59. ^ Curta (2004, p. 148)It is possible that the expansion of the Avar khanate during the second half of the eighth century coincided with the spread of . . . Slavic into the neighbouring areas of Bohemia, Moravia and southern Poland, (but) could hardly explain the spread of Slavic into Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, all regions that produced so far almost no archaeological evidence of Avar influence.
  60. ^ Barford (2001, p. 43) "An indirect piece of evidence might be the Slavic word strava, which was used to describe Attila’s funerary feast". Priscus also noted that within the Hun confederacy there existed communities which had their own language and customs, separate from Gothic, Hun or Latin. They drank medos, and could sail in boats crafted from hollowed out trees (monoxyla).
  61. ^ a b Curta (2001, p. 309)
  62. ^ Geary (2003, p. 145) The question of origin is probably as meaningless for the Slavs as for other barbarian peoples
  63. ^ Geary (2003, p. 145)
  64. ^ Rosenwein (1998, p. 20)
  65. ^ Barford citing 59
  66. ^ From Kossina to Bromley. Ethnogenesis in Slavic Archaeology. Florin Curta. Pg 206. .. the local Slavs of the prehistoric period, as seen from the archaeological evidence, were fair haired people with elongated skulls
  67. ^ The History and Geography of Human genes. L Luca cavalli-Sforza, P Menozzi, A Piazza. Princeton University Press. 1994. ISBN 0-691-02905-9. Page 266.
  68. ^ Barford (2001, pp. 89–90)
  69. ^ Barford (2001, p. 128)
  70. ^ From Struggle for Empire. Kingship and Conflict under Louis the German. 917-976. E J Goldberg. ISBN 976-0-8014-3890-5. Pg 83-85
  71. ^ Curta (2001, p. 276)
  72. ^ Curta (2001, p. 283)
  73. ^ Curta (2001, pp. 297–307)
  74. ^ Barford (2001, p. 129)
  75. ^ Barford (2001, p. 124)
  76. ^ Walter Pohl on Ethnicity
  77. ^ Histories. VII. 4, II
  78. ^ Procopius. Wars V.27, 1-3
  79. ^ Curta (2001, p. 143)
  80. ^ Curta (2001, p. 200)


  • Barford, Paul M (2001), The Early Slavs: Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe, Cornell University Press, ISBN 0801439779 
  • Kobylinski, Zbigniew (2006), "The Slavs", in Fouracre, Paul, The New Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. 1: c. 500-c. 700, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521362911 
  • Curta, Florin (2001), The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region, C. 500-700, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521802024 
  • Cohen, Abner (1974), Two-dimensional Man: An Essay on the Anthropology of Power and Symbolism in Complex Society, University of California Press 
  • Róna-Tas, András (1999), Hungarians and Europe in the Early Middle Ages: An Introduction to Early Hungarian History, Central European University Press, ISBN 9639116483 
  • Heather, Peter (2006), The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195159543 
  • Green, Miranda (1996), The Celtic world, Routledge, ISBN 0415146275 
  • Goets, H.W.; Jarnut, Jörg; Pohl, Walter (2003), Regna and gentes: the relationship between late antique and early medieval peoples and kingdoms in the transformation of the Roman world, BRILL, ISBN 9004125248 

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