Vistula Veneti

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This article is about the Veneti of the Vistula River basin. For other peoples called Veneti, see Veneti (disambiguation).
"Venedi" redirects here. For the village in Azerbaijan, see Vənədi.
The Roman empire under Hadrian (ruled 117-38), showing the location of the Veneti (as Venedi) in the upper Vistula region (SE Poland).
Late Pre-Roman Iron Age:
dark green: Nordic group
dark red: late phase Jastorf culture
buff: Harpstedt-Nienburg group
green: House Urns culture
dark brown: Oksywie culture
red: Gubin group of Jastorf
olive: Przeworsk culture
lilac: West-Baltic cairns culture
reddish: East-Baltic culture
turquoise: Zarubincy culture
orange: Celtic

The term Vistula Veneti (or Baltic Veneti) has been used in modern times to distinguish the Veneti noted by Greek and Roman geographers along the Vistula and the Bay of Gdańsk from other tribes of the same name elsewhere.

Etymology of the ethnonym Veneti[edit]

According to Julius Pokorný, the ethnonym Venetī (singular *Venetos) is derived from Proto Indo-European root *u̯en- 'to strive; to wish for, to love'. As shown by the comparative material, the Germanic languages may have had two terms of different origin: Old High German Winida 'Wende' points to Pre-Germanic *u̯enétos, while Lat.-Germ. Venedi (as attested in Tacitus) and Old English Winedas 'Wends' call for Pre-Germanic *u̯énetos.

The ethnonym would then be etymologically related to words as Latin venus, -eris 'love, passion, grace'; Sanskrit vanas- 'lust, zest', vani- 'wish, desire'; Old Irish fine (< Proto-Celtic *venjā) 'kinship, kinfolk, alliance, tribe, family'; Old Norse vinr, Old Saxon, Old High German wini, Old Frisian, Old English wine 'friend'.[1]

Historical sources[edit]

From the 2nd century AD, Roman authors saw the lands between the Rhine and the Vistula rivers as Germania. East of the Vistula was classed as Sarmatia. The 2nd-century geographer Ptolemy makes that boundary clear. In his section on Sarmatia he places the Greater Ouenedai along the entire Venedic Bay, which can be located from the context on the southern shores of the Baltic. He names tribes south of these Greater Venedae both along the eastern bank of the Vistula and further east.[2] Pliny the Elder also places the Veneti along the Baltic coast. He calls them the Sarmatian Venedi (Latin Sarmatae Venedi).[3]

This region was barely known to the Romans a century earlier than Ptolemy. Tacitus, writing in AD 98 did not refer to the Vistula as a boundary, but simply locates the Veneti among the peoples on the eastern fringe of Germania. He was uncertain of their ethnic identity:

The Veneti have borrowed largely from Sarmatian ways; their plundering forays take them all over the wooded and mountainous country that rises between the Peucini and the Fenni. Nevertheless, they are to be classed as Germani, for they have settled houses, carry shields and are fond of travelling fast on foot; in all these respects they differ from the Sarmatians, who live in wagons or on horseback.[4]

The Gothic author Jordanes, who wrote in Constantinople, ended his work Getica in 550 or 551 AD.[5] He delivered an account of the origin of Sclavenes and he mentioned three group names: the Venethi, Sclavenes and Antes. In one chapter Jordanes presented the Sclavenes and Antes as the most numerous of the Venethi, however in another chapter he saw them as three different groups.[6] Though Jordanes is the only author to make these claims, the Tabula Peutingeriana, originating from the 4th century AD, separately mentions the Venedi on the northern bank of the Danube somewhat upstream of its mouth, and the Venadi Sarmatae along the Baltic coast.[7]

Henry of Livonia in his Latin chronicle of c. 1200 described a clearly non-Slavic tribe of the Vindi (German Winden, English Wends) which lived in Courland and Livonia in what is now Latvia. The tribe’s name is preserved in the river Windau (Latvian Venta), with the town of Windau (Latvian Ventspils) at its mouth, and in Wenden, the old name of the town of Cēsis in Livonia.[8] (See Vends).

Ethnolinguistic character[edit]

During the Middle Ages the region was inhabited by people speaking Old Prussian, a now-extinct Baltic language.

It has been argued that the Veneti were a centum Indo-European people, rather than satem Baltic-speakers. Zbigniew Gołąb considers that the hydronyms of the Vistula and Odra river basins had a North-West Indo-European character with close affinities to the Italo-Celtic branch, but different from the Germanic branch, and show resemblances to those attested in the area of the Adriatic Veneti (in Northeastern Italy) as well as those attested in the Western Balkans that are attributed to Illyrians, which suggests points to a possible connection between these ancient Indo-European peoples.[9] However, according to Steinacher, the Adriatic Veneti, the Veneti of Gaul and the North Balkan/Paphlagonian Enetoi mentioned by Herodotus and Appian were not related to each other, nor to the Veneti/Venedi mentioned by Tacitus, Pliny and Ptolemy.[10]


In the region identified by Ptolemy and Pliny, east of the Vistula and adjoining the Baltic, there was an Iron Age culture, known to archaeologists as the West Baltic Cairns Culture or West Baltic Barrow Culture, shown coloured violet on the map given here. The culture is associated with the Proto-Balts, who kept this area for almost two thousand years, avoiding adoption of new ideas from their neighbours. These herders lived in small settlements or in little lake dwellings built on artificial islands made of several layers of wooden logs attached by stakes. Their metals were imported, and their dead were cremated and put in urns covered by small mounds.[11]

In the Post-War era Polish archaeologists generally interpreted the Veneti as the possible bearers of the Pomeranian culture, an Iron Age archaeological culture in Poland to the west of the Vistula, despite the clear location of the Veneti in Roman sources to the east of the Vistula. This identification can still be found in the work of Polish authors of the 1980s and 1990s,[12] although more recent Polish authors tend to reject it.[13]

Relation between Veneti, Balts and Slavs[edit]

The Veneti were geographically and temporally contiguous to the Germanic and Slavic peoples and were eventually assimilated by both groups, perhaps even more decisively by Slavs, who later settled in the territory which erstwhile belonged to the Veneti. The Germanic peoples subsequently transferred the ethnonym Veneti to their new easterly neighbours, the Slavs. This tradition survived in German language where Slavs living in closest proximity to Germany were originally called Wenden or Winden (see Wends), while the people of the Austrian federal lands Styria and Carinthia referred to their Slavic neighbours as Windische. It should be emphasised, though, that Slavic peoples never used the ethnonym Veneti for themselves but were called thus only by the neighbouring Germanic peoples. Such transfers of ethnonyms from one group to another are not unusual and have occurred frequently in history.[14] Although Tacitus listed the Venethi as a tribe in Germania, in his Getica, Jordanes equated the Venethi with the Sclavenes and Antes. Slavists such as Pavel Josef Šafařík have criticized Tacitus for erroneously identifying the Venethi as Germanic,[15] due to the similar appearance of Slavs and Germans.[16][unreliable source?]

Considering Ptolemy's Ouenedai and their location along the Baltic sea, a German linguist, Alexander M. Schenker, underlines that the vocabulary of the Slavic languages shows no evidence that the early Slavs were exposed to the sea. Proto-Slavic had no maritime terminology and even lacked a word for amber which was the most important item of export from the shores of the Baltic to the Mediterranean. In view of this, the very fact that Ptolemy refers to the Baltic as the Venedic Bay appears to rule out a possible identification of the Veneti of his times with the Slavs.[17] Schenker's conclusion is supported by the fact that to the east of the Ouenedai, Ptolemy mentions two further tribes called Stauanoi and Souobenoi, both of which have been interpreted as possibly the oldest historical attestations of Slavs.[18]

Linguists agree that Slavic languages evolved in close proximity with the Baltic languages. The two language families probably evolved from a common ancestor, a phylogenetic Proto-Balto-Slavic language continuum. The earliest origins of Slavs seem to lie in the area between the Middle Dnieper and the Bug rivers, where the most archaic Slavic hydronyms have been established.[19] The vocabulary of Proto-Slavic had a heterogenous character and there is evidence that in the early stages of its evolution it adopted some loanwords from centum-type Indo-European languages. It has been proposed that contacts of Proto-Slavs with the Veneti may have been one of the sources for these borrowings.[20][21] The aforementioned area of proto-Slavic hydronyms roughly corresponds with the Zarubintsy archeological culture which has been interpreted as the most likely locus of the ethnogenesis of Slavs. According to Polish archaeologist Michał Parczewski, Slavs began to settle in southeastern Poland no earlier than the late 5th century AD, the Prague culture being their recognizable expression.[22]


Steinacher states: "The name Veneder was introduced by Jordanes. The assumption that these were Slavs can be traced back to the 19th century to Pavel Josef Šafařík from Prague, who tried to establish a Slavic Origin history. Scholars and historians since then viewed the reports on Venedi/Venethi by Tacitus, Pliny and Ptolemy as the earliest historical attestation of Slavs. In addition, phonetic similarity and geographic proximity of the ethnicons Veneti and Vandali inspired an erroneous belief that the Germanic people of Vandals were Slavs as well".[23] Such conceptions, started in the 16th century, resurfaced in the 19th century where they provided the basis for interpretations of the history and origins of Slavs.[24]

In the 1980s some Slovene scholars proposed a theory according to which the Veneti were Proto-Slavs and bearers of the Lusatian culture along the Amber Path who conquered and settled the region between the Baltic sea and Adriatic Sea, as presented in their book "Veneti - First Builders of European Community". This theory has been criticised and rejected by some Slovenian and other European scholars.[25]

"An Encyclopedia of World History" (William L. Langer, Harvard University, 1940 & 1948), "The Slavs, an eastern branch of the Indo-European family, were known to the Roman and Greek writers of the 1st and 2d centuries A.D. under the name of Venedi as inhabiting the region beyond the Vistula. ... In the course of the early centuries of our era the Slavs expanded in all directions, and by the 6th century, when they were known to Gothic and Byzantine writers as Sclaveni, they were apparently already separated into three main divisions: ..."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pokorny 1959: 1146 - 1147; Steinacher 2002: 33
  2. ^ Ptolemy, Geography, III 5. 21.
  3. ^ Pliny, Natural History, IV: 96-97.
  4. ^ Tacitus, Germania, 46.
  5. ^ Curta 2001: 38. Dzino 2010: 95.
  6. ^ Curta 2001: 40-41. Dzino 2010: 95-96.
  7. ^ Gołąb 1992: 287-291, 295-296.
  8. ^ Alexander M. Schenker, The Dawn of Slavic: An Introduction to Slavic Philology (1995), 1.4., including a reference to J. Ochmański, Ochmański, Historia Litwy, 2nd ed. (Wrocław, 1982)
  9. ^ Zbigniew Gołąb, The Origins of the Slavs: A Linguist's view (1992) pp. 888, 263-268
  10. ^ Steinacher 2002: 32.
  11. ^ Przemyslaw Urbanczyk, Iron Age Poland in Pam Crabtree and Peter Bogucki (eds), Ancient Europe, 8000 B.C. to A.D. 1000: An Encyclopedia of the Barbarian World (2004).
  12. ^ Okulicz 1986; Pleterski 1995
  13. ^ Andrzej Buko, The archaeology of early medieval Poland: discoveries - hypotheses - interpretations (2008)
  14. ^ Schenker 1996: 3-4; Steinacher 2002: 28-29.
  15. ^ Curta (2001, p. 7)
  16. ^ Carleton S Coon. The Peoples of Europe. Chapter VI, Section 7 ‘’they (Slavs) were often confused with Germans’’
  17. ^ Schenker 1996: 3-5
  18. ^ Gołąb 1992: 291.
  19. ^ Gołąb 1992: 300.
  20. ^ Andersen 2003
  21. ^ Gołąb 1992: 175; for detailed examples see p. 79-86.
  22. ^ Parczewski 1993.
  23. ^ Steinacher 2004; see also Origins of Vandals.
  24. ^ Steinacher 2002: 31-35.
  25. ^ Z. Skrbiš, 41-56 and M. Svašek, 144.


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