Early Slavs

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The early Slavs were a diverse group of tribal societies who lived during the Migration Period and Early Middle Ages (approximately the fifth to the tenth centuries) in Eastern Europe and established the foundations for the Slavic nations through the Slavic states of the High Middle Ages.[1][need quotation to verify] The first written use of the name "Slavs" dates to the sixth century, when the Slavic tribes inhabited a large portion of Central and Eastern Europe. By that century, native Iranian ethnic groups (the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Alans) had been absorbed by the region's Slavic population.[2][3][4][5] Over the next two centuries, the Slavs expanded southwest toward the Balkans and the Alps and northeast towards the Volga River.[6]

Beginning in the ninth century, the Slavs gradually converted to Christianity (both Byzantine Orthodoxy and Romean Catholicism). By the 12th century, they were the core population of a number of medieval Christian states: the East Slavs in Kievan Rus', the South Slavs in Bulgaria, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia and the West Slavs in Poland, the Holy Roman Empire (Pomerania, Bohemia, Moravia) and the Kingdom of Hungary (Nitria).


The meaning of "Slav" depends on the context in which it is used. The word can refer to a culture (or cultures) living north of the River Danube, east of the River Elbe, and west of the River Vistula during the 530s CE.[7] "Slav" is also an identifier for the ethnic group shared by these cultures,[8] and denotes any language with linguistic ties to the modern Slavic language family (which may have no connection to a common culture or shared ethnicity).[9] Despite these concepts of "Slav", it is unclear whether any of the descriptions add to an accurate representation of the group's history; historians such as George Vernadsky, Florin Curta, and Michael Karpovich have questioned how, why, and to what degree the Slavs were a cohesive society between the sixth and ninth centuries.[10][11] When discussing evidence used to construct a history of the Slavs, the information fall into three avenues of research: archeological, historiographic, and linguistic.

Archaeologically, early Slavic physical evidence ranges from hill forts, ceramic pots and fragments to abodes. However, archaeologists face difficulties distinguishing Slavic and non-Slavic findings.[12] Many of these findings are inaccurately radiocarbon-dated or so isolated that they do not reflect organized Slavic settlement.[13]

Woodcut of men worshiping a boar's head on a pole
Early Slavs worshiping

Although a number of sources describe the Slavs, there are several problems with using the texts to build upon available knowledge of the early Slavs. Useful historical information about the Slavs from them is cryptic or does not identify their source.[14] The works tend to discuss the Slavs only in terms of their effects on surrounding empires, particularly the Byzantines and the Franks. The variety of names referring to the Slavs, such as Antes, Sclaveni, and Venethi, and the regions they may have occupied make it difficult to establish geographical boundaries of major settlement. Place names have changed, or no longer survive, and most texts are second-hand accounts or describe an encounter with the Slavs years, decades, or centuries after it occurred. Earlier texts contextualize the Slavs' early history and development, but those written long after an event are less reliable.

Linguistic study of Slavic history has focused on three main areas: place names, the names of flora and fauna, and "lexical and structural similarities and differences between Slavic and other languages".[15] The Slavs were described by their neighbors as Antes, Sclaveni, and Venethi in texts written during and after the 500s. The concept of ethnicity during this period was fluid; more than one ethnicity would be ascribed to a group, depending on the circumstances of the encounter (such as Michal Parczewski's map). This map of Slavic settlement during the 6th century relative to their neighbors drawn from written fragments, omits source information which contradicted Parczewski's conclusions.[16] The association by archaeologists of pot and burial styles with ethnonyms and the selective use of historical materials assumes a connection between language and ethnicity. Ethnic identification can be subjective, especially in a region where many tribal groups identified themselves as distinct from one another.[17][18]

The history of the early Slavs is inseparable from political agendas underlying much 19th- and 20th-century archaeological, linguistic, and historiographic research. According to Florin Curta, the creation of such a history "was a function of both ethnic formation and ethnic identification".[19] The process was blurred by a number of interests, including Pan-Slavic researchers in Central and Eastern Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries,[20] European nations strengthening their legitimacy after World War II,[21][22] and a contemporary politicization of historical, archaeological, and linguistic discourse.[23]


Linguistic map of eastern Europe
Bronze Age archaeological cultures associated with early Balto-Slavic languages: Trzciniec, Sosnica and Komarov
Map of eastern European cultures around 750 BC
Archaeological map of eastern and central Europe at the beginning of the Iron Age, including the Balto-Slavic Lusatian, Milograd and Chernoles cultures

The Slavic languages, with about 300 million speakers in 2006, are a major branch of the Indo-European language family.[24] All known Slavic languages share a number of features (including a much of their vocabulary), which suggests that they evolved from mutually intelligible dialects spoken in a "relatively restricted core area".[25] Although the former common language (known as Proto- or Common Slavonic) is not attested in written sources, it can be reconstructed by studying its daughter languages.[26][27] The similarities among the daughter languages indicate that Common Slavonic was spoken during recorded history, with its division into daughter languages beginning in the 9th century AD.[25][26]

The Proto-Slavic homeland is the area of Slavic settlement in Central and Eastern Europe during the first millennium AD, with its precise location debated by archaeologists, ethnographers and historians.[28][29] Theories attempting to place Slavic origin in the Near East have been discarded.[28] None of the proposed homelands reaches the Volga River in the east, over the Dinaric Alps in the southwest or the Balkan Mountains in the south, or past Bohemia in the west.[30][31]

Frederick Kortlandt has suggested that the number of candidates for Slavic homeland may rise from a tendency among historians to date "proto-languages farther back in time than is warranted by the linguistic evidence"; although all spoken languages change gradually over time, in the absence of written records that change can be identified by historians only after a population has expanded and separated long enough to develop daughter languages.[32] The existence of an "original home" is sometimes rejected as arbitrary,[33] because the earliest origin sources "always speak of origins and beginnings in a manner which presupposes earlier origins and beginnings".[34]

According to historical records, the Slavic homeland would have been somewhere in central Europe (possibly along the southern shore of the Baltic Sea. The Prague-Penkov-Kolochin complex of cultures during the sixth and seventh centuries AD is generally accepted to reflect the expansion of Slavic speakers at the time.[35] Core candidates are cultures within the territories of modern Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine. According to Polish historian Gerard Labuda, the ethnogenesis of Slavic people is the Trzciniec culture[36] from about 1700 to 1200 BC. The Milograd culture hypothesis posits that the pre-Proto-Slavs (or Balto-Slavs) originated in the seventh century BC–first century AD culture of northern Ukraine and southern Belarus. According to the Chernoles culture theory, the pre-Proto-Slavs originated in the 1025–700 BC culture of northern Ukraine and the third century BC–first century AD Zarubintsy culture. According to the Lusatian culture hypothesis, they were present in north-eastern Central Europe in the 1300–500 BC culture and the second century BC–fourth century AD Przeworsk culture. The Danube basin hypothesis, postulated by Oleg Trubachyov[37] and supported by Florin Curta and Nestor's Chronicle, theorizes that the Slavs originated in central and southeastern Europe.


Further information: History of Proto-Slavic
Map of the Slavic river names and the Prague horizon
The territory of Proto-Slavic hydronymy (smaller shaded area) and the area of the Prague-Penkov-Kolochin complex of cultures of the 6th to 7th centuries. Mallory & Adams (1997:524ff)

Proto-Slavonic started to develop among the languages emerging through the disintegration of Proto-Indo-European,[38] the reconstructed language from which a number of languages spoken in Eurasia originated.[26] [39][40] Slavic languages share a number of features with Baltic languages (including the putting of the objects of negative sentences into genitive case, and the similar development of Proto-Indo-European and other labialized velars), which may indicate a common "Proto-Balto-Slavic phase" in the development of the two branches of the Indo-European language family.[39][40] Frederick Kortlandt even places the territory where this common language was spoken near the Indo-European homeland itself: "the Indo-Europeans who remained after the migrations became speakers of Balto-Slavic".[41] However, "geographical contiguity, parallel development and interaction" may well explain the existence of these characteristics of the two language groups.[40]

Proto-Slavonic developed into a separate language in the first half of the second millennium (between around 2000 and 1500) BC.[38] Proto-Slavonic vocabulary inherited by its daughter languages was composed of words describing its speakers' physical and social environment, their feelings and needs.[42] For instance, Proto-Slavonic had a developed vocabulary for family connections, including svekry ("husband's mother"), and zъly ("sister-in-law").[43] 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 fish.[44]

Proto-Slavonic hydronyms have been preserved in the territory between the region where the Vistula has its source and the middle basin of the Dnieper.[45] Its northern regions are adjacent to the territory where river names of Baltic origin (Daugava, Nemunas and others) abound.[46][47] From the south and east, it borders on the area of the rivers with a name of Iranian origin (including the Dniester, the Dnieper and the Don).[48] A connection between Proto-Slavonic and Iranian languages is also proven by the earliest layer of loanwords in the former.[42] For instance, the Proto-Slavonic words for god (*bogъ), demon (*divъ), house (*xata), axe (*toporъ) and dog (*sobaka) are of Scythian origin.[49] The Iranian dialects of the Scythians and Sarmatians had a considerable impact on the Slavic vocabulary, during the extensive contacts between the aforementioned languages and (early) Proto-Slavic for about a millennium.[50]

A more intensive and longer connection between Proto-Slavonic and Germanic languages can be assumed due to the great number of Germanic loanwords.[51] For instance, words like *duma ("thought"), *kupiti ("to buy"), *mĕčь ("sword"), *šelmъ ("helmet"), and *xъlmъ ("hill") belong to this group.[51] The Common Slavonic words for beech, larch and yew were also borrowed from Germanic, which led the Polish botanist Józef Rostafiński to search the Slavic homeland in the Pripet Marshes where these plants were missing.[52] Germanic languages also served as a mediator between Common Slavonic and other languages: for instance, the Proto-Slavonic word for emperor (*cĕsar'ь) was transmitted from Latin through a Germanic idiom, similarly to the Common Slavonic word for church (*crъky) from the Greek language.[51]

Common Slavic dialects existing before the 4th century AD cannot be detected, because all daughter languages emerged from later variants.[53] On the other hand, word-stress based on tonal features, a linguistic change taking place in the 9th century is detectable in all Slavic languages.[53] Consequently, the reconstructed form of Proto-Slavonic reflects the variant most likely spoken at the end of the 1st millennium.[53]


Southeastern Europe in 520, showing the Byzantine Empire under Justin I and the Ostrogothic kingdom with the "barbarian" polities along their borders.

Jordanes, Procopius and other late Roman authors provide the likely earliest references to southern Slavs in the second half of the 6th century.[54] Jordanes completed his Gothic History at Constantinople in 550 or 551: this book is basically an abridgement of Cassiodorus' much longer work.[55][56] He undoubtedly also utilized additional sources, either books, maps or oral tradition.[57]

Jordanes wrote of the "Venethi", the "Sclavenes" and the "Antes", adding that all three ethnonyms referred to the one and same people.[58] His claim would be accepted more than a millennium later by Wawrzyniec Surowiecki, Pavel Jozef Šafárik and other historians.[59] Accordingly, they have searched the Slavic Urheimat in the lands where the Venethi, a people in Tacitus's Germania[60] lived in the last decades of the 1st century AD.[61] Similarly Pliny the Elder stated that the territory extending from the Vistula river, as far as Eningia (probably he meant Feningia = Finland), is inhabited by the following nations: the Sarmati, the Wends, the Scirri and the Hirri.[62]

Procopius completed his three works on Emperor Justinian I's reign (Buildings, History of the Wars, and Secret History) in the 550s.[63][64] Each book contains detailed information on the raids conducted by Sclavenes and Antes against the Eastern Roman Empire,[65] but the History of the Wars provides a comprehensive description of the groups, including their beliefs, customs, and dwellings.[66][67] Although not an eyewitness, Procopius had personal contacts with Sclavene mercenaries fighting on the Romans' side in Italy.[66]

Not in disagreement with Jordanes's report, Procopius stated that the Sclavenes and Antes spoke the same languages, but did not trace their common origin back to the Venethi but to a people he called "Sporoi".[68] Sporoi means "seeds" in Greek (as in 'spores') and is equivalent to the Latin word semnones and germani as in 'germs', 'seedlings' or 'spores'. In this respect, the German linguist Jacob Grimm believed the word Suebi to be the same as Slav. [69] In fact, by the time of Jordanes and Procopius, the former Suebi were called by these authors "Suavi" as in "Suavs". In this respect, the Bavarian Geographer's list of Slavic tribes contains at the end a note stating that "Suevi are not born they are sown" 'seminati'. There is no known evidence as to what language the Suevi of Tacitus spoke. In his description of the emigration (c. 512) of the Heruli to Scandinavia, Procopius locates the Slavs in all of Central Europe (i.e., their current location).

A similarly comprehensive description of the Sclavenes and Antes can be found in the Strategikon, a military handbook written between 592 and 602 by an unknown author.[70] He was apparently an experienced officer who participated in the Eastern Roman campaigns against the Sclavenes on the Lower Danube at the end of the century.[71] Likewise a member of the military staff was the source of Theophylact Simocatta's narration about the same military operations.[72]

Bishop Martin of Braga was the first western author to make a (passing) reference, some years before 580, to a people called "Sclavus", but Jonas of Bobbio included the earliest longer record on the nearby Slavs in his Life of Saint Columbanus, written between 639 and 643.[73] Jonas of Bobbio referred to the Slavs under the name "Veneti", but noting that they were also called "Sclavi".[74]

Western authors, including Fredegar and Boniface, preserved the "Venethi" term.[75] Thus, the Franks (see, e.g., Life of Saint Martinus, Fredegar's Chronicle, Gregory of Tours), Lombards (see, e.g., Paul the Deacon), and Anglo-Saxons (see Widsith's Traveler's Song) referred to Slavs both in the Elbe-Saal region and in Pomerania generally, as Wenden or Winden (see Wends). Likewise, the Franks and Bavarians of Styria and Carinthia referred to their Slavic neighbours as Windische.

Fredegar seems to have used the term "Venedi" and its variants exclusively when referring to a specific group among the Slavs subjugated to the Avars.[74] In his narration, "Venedi" formed the state emerging from the revolt[74] led by a Frankish merchant, Samo, against the Avars around 623.[76] A comparably significant change in terminology, the appearance of Slavic tribal names in lieu of the so far uniform terms of "Sclavenes" and "Antes", took place at the end of the century.[77] The first tribal names were recorded in the second book of the Miracles of Saint Demetrius around 690.[78] Florin Curta argues that this change points at pre-existing differences among Slavic groups, which suggests that "Sclavene" (although may have originally been the self-designation of a particular ethnic group) was "a purelly Byzantine construct", "an umbrella term for various groups living north of the Danube frontier, which were neither 'Antes', nor 'Huns' or 'Avars'."[79] Of the Slavic tribes of Central and Eastern Europe, an unknown author, the Bavarian Geographer completed a list within the Frankish Empire around 840.[65] A detailed description of the 10th-century tribes of the Balkan Peninsula was compiled under the auspices of Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus in Constantinople around 950.[80]


Archaeological cultures associated with early Slavs (the Prague-Penkov-Kolochin complex) in the 7th century: the Prague and Mogilla cultures reflect the separation of the early Western Slavs (the Sukow-Dziedzice group to the north-west may represent the earliest Slavic expansion to the Baltic Sea); the Kolochin culture reflects the territory of the early East Slavs; the Penkovka culture, and its south-westward extension, the Ipoteşti-Cândeşti culture show the beginning Slavic expansion into the Balkans (what would later result in the separation of the South Slavs; associated with the Antes people of Byzantine historiography). In the Carpathian basin, the remnant of the Eurasian Avars is shown, who began to be "Slavicized" during this period in the course of the Slavic settlement of the Eastern Alps.
Samples of early Slavic artefacts from Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia (6th century)

In the archaeological literature, attempts have been made to assign an early Slavic character to several different archaeological cultures encompassing various time periods and territorial zones.[81]

The so-called Prague-Korchak cultural horizon encompasses the entirety of postulated early Slavic cultures from the Elbe to the Dniester, as opposed to the eastern Penkovka culture (Dniester to Dnieper). "Prague culture" is used to refer specifically to the westernmost Slavic material grouping (around Bohemia, Moravia and western Slovakia), as opposed to the Mogilla (southern Poland), and Korchak (central Ukraine, southern Belarus) groups further east. The Prague and Mogilla groups are seen as the archaeological reflection of incipient western Slavs in the 6th century.[82]

The Chernyakhov culture existed from the 2nd to the 5th centuries, and it encompassed[when?] the territories of modern Ukraine, Moldova and Wallachia. Chernyakov finds are characterized by polished black pottery vessels, fine metal ornaments, and impressive iron tools.[83] Soviet scholars such as Boris Rybakov saw it as the archaeological reflection of the proto-Slavs.[84]

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.[83][85] The Chernyakov zone also consisted of Dacians and, quite possibly, early Slavs.[citation needed] In fact, one of the settlement types in the Chernyakov zone were semi-subterranean dwellings with hearths in one of the corners.[citation needed] This settlement type later became typical of early Slavic sites.".[86] Volodymir Baran labelled it as the Slavic "ethnic badge".[86] Baran therefore placed Slavic cultural origins in the Carpathian foothills of Podolia.[citation needed] Here, along the northwestern fringes of the Chernyakov zone, the Slavs gradually accreted into a culturally unified people,[unbalanced opinion] since the multiethnic environment of the Chernyakhov zone necessitated the “need for self-identification in order to manifest their differentiation from other groups”.[87]

The Przeworsk culture lay to the northwest of the Chernyakov zone, and extended from the Dniester to the Tisza valley and northward to the Vistula and Oder rivers.[88] It arose considerably earlier[when?] than the Chernyakov culture.[citation needed] During the early 20th century, Slavic, and in particular Polish, archaeologists[who?] argued that the Przeworsk culture represented the material remains of the Venethi, who were a proto-Slavic tribe.[citation needed] German archaeologists[who?] rather connected it to the Germanic Vandals and Burgundians.[citation needed] Such debates were influenced by the prevailing political climate of the time- namely German expansionism in Europe.[vague]

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 Tène 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.[citation needed] The Venethi may have played a part, but others included Vandals, Burguindians and even Sarmatians.[88] To the east of the Przeworsk zone lay the Zarubinets culture, sometimes[when?] considered[by whom?] part of the Przeworsk complex.[89] The area occupied by the Zarubinets culture is one where very ancient Slavic hydronyms are found,[89] and where Irena Rusinova proposed that the most proto-typical examples of Prague-type pottery later arose.[86] The Zarubinets culture is identified as either being proto-Slavic,[90] or an ethnically mixed community which became Slavonicized.[91]

As one looks even further back in pre-history,[vague] the confidence with which archaeological connections can be made to known historic groups regresses correspondingly.[92] Much attention has been given[by whom?] to the Chernoles culture, which existed from 1050 to 725 BC[dubious ] in the forest-steppe zone.[citation needed] This area seems to correspond to where Herodotus placed his "Scythian ploughmen", postulated to represent proto-Slavic agriculturalists under the Scythian clientship.[citation needed] The Chernoles culture has been seen[by whom?][when?] to represent a stage in the evolution of Slavic stock.[93] Gimbutas goes so far as identifying it as the proto-Slavic homeland.[94] Others,[who?] instead have labelled the neighbouring Milogradi or Lusatian cultures as proto-Slavic.[citation needed] However, many[quantify] pre-historians[who?] argue that it is spurious to ascribe ethnic labels to the Iron Age peoples of Europe.[95][improper synthesis?]

The Globular Amphora culture stretches from the middle Dnieper to the Elbe in the late 4th and early 3rd millennia BCE. It has been suggested as the locus of a Germano-Balto-Slavic continuum (compare Germanic substrate hypothesis), but the identification of its bearers as Indo-Europeans is uncertain. The area of this culture contains numerous tumuli – typical for IE originators.

The Chernoles culture (8th to 3rd centuries BC, sometimes associated with the "Scythian farmers" of Herodotus) is "sometimes portrayed as either a state in the development of the Slavic languages or at least some form of late Indo-European ancestral to the evolution of the Slavic stock."[96] The Milograd culture (700 BCE – 100 CE), centered roughly on present-day Belarus, north of the contemporaneous Chernoles culture, has also been proposed as ancestral to either Slavs or Balts.

The ethnic composition of the bearers of the Przeworsk culture (2nd century BC to the 4th century AD, associated with the Lugii) of central and southern Poland, northern Slovakia and Ukraine, including the Zarubintsy culture (2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE, also connected with the Bastarnae tribe) and the Oksywie culture are other candidates.

The area of southern Ukraine is known to have been inhabited by Scythian and Sarmatian tribes prior to the foundation of the Gothic kingdom. Early Slavic stone stelae found in the middle Dniester region are markedly different from the Scythian and Sarmatian stelae found in the Crimea.

The Wielbark Culture displaced the eastern Oksywie part of the Przeworsk culture from the 1st century AD. While the Chernyakhov culture; 2nd to 5th centuries CE leads to the decline of the late Sarmatian culture in the 2nd to 4th centuries, the western part of the Przeworsk culture remains intact until the 4th century, and the Kiev culture flourishes during the same time, in the 2nd to 5th centuries AD. This latter culture is recognized as the direct predecessor of the Prague-Korchak and Pen'kovo cultures (6th–7th centuries AD), the first archaeological cultures the bearers of which are indisputably identified as Slavic.

Proto-Slavic is thus likely to have reached its final stage in the Kiev area; there is, however, substantial disagreement in the scientific community over the identity of the Kiev culture's predecessors, with some scholars tracing it from the Ruthenian Milograd culture, others from the "Ukrainian" Chernoles and Zarubintsy cultures and still others from the "Polish" Przeworsk culture.


Traditional[specify] theories explain the changes seen in 6th-century eastern Europe in terms of a demographic expansion of Slavic people, who carried 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, using the Herderian concept of a nation,[97] proposed that the Venethi were the proto-Slavic bearers of the Przeworsk culture. Their expansion began in the 2nd century AD, having come to occupy a large area of eastern Europe, from the Vistula to the middle Dneiper. By the 4th century, 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, followed by the Sclaveni by 500, in the areas which neatly coincided with the distribution of the Pen’kovka and Prague-Korchak cultures, respectively.[98] In 2003, Walter Pohl wrote:

The hypothesis of an ancient Slavic people that spread through migration had always appealed Slav nationalists, and is still widely held, but there is little sound evidence to recommend it. Most of all, it fails to make plausible why a regional and hitherto virtually unknown group could take over almost the whole of eastern and east central Europe in a relatively short period from c. 500 to c. 650 A.D.[99]

Marija Gimbutas envisaged a Slavic cultural continuity spanning two millennia, centred on the Chernoles, and the preceding Komarov cultures.[citation needed] In the 7th century BC, people who belonged to the Chernoles culture were governed by the Scythians, but relatively loosely, via trade: 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, except for phonetic and some lexical constituents (i.e. Satemisation), and their patrilineal, agricultural customs.[100] After a millennium, when the Hunnic Empire collapsed, a distinct Slavic culture - at least the then eastern constituent of the then entire Slavic world - re-emerged and spread rapidly in the and south- and central-eastern Europe. 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”.[101] 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.[102]

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".[103] 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".[104] 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”.[105] 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".[106]

Byzantine chroniclers also noted that Roman prisoners captured by the Sclavenes were soon able to become free members of Slav society, if they wished.[106] Horace Lunt attributed the spread of Slavic to the "success and mobility of the Slavic 'special border guards' of the Avar khanate",[107] 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.[108]

Generic Monoxylon, found in Bulgaria.

A related concept to elite dominance is that of "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.[109] 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 6th century:[110] 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".[111] "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.

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.[111][112] 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.

Patrick 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".[113] 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”.[114]

Physical appearance[edit]

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)”.[115] "Some of them do not have either a tunic or cloak, but only wear a kind of breeches pulled up to the groin”.

Anthropological investigation of prehistoric Slav sites appears to support the historical literature, suggesting that Early Slavs were dolicocephalic and fair-haired.[116] Today, physical anthropology, especially cranial indices, has 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.[117] Today the modern Slavic people come from a wide variety of genetic backgrounds, but the frequency of the haplogroup R1a (Y-DNA) is predominant and ranges accordingly: 63.39% by the Sorbs, 56.4% in Poland, 54% in Ukraine, 47% in Russia, 39% in Belarus, 24.6% in Bosnia, 15.2% in Republic of Macedonia, 14.7% in Bulgaria, and 12.1% in Herzegovina.[118]


Early Slav society was a typical tribal society of the European Iron Age, with a decentralized organisation in local chiefdoms. A slow process of consolidation occurred between the 7th and 9th 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.[119]

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.[120] 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-9th century, the 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.[121]


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.[122] Settlements were often located on river terraces. The largest proportion of settlement features were the sunken buildings, called Grubenhäuser 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 dwellings throughout Eastern Europe. On average, each settlement consisted of fifty to seventy individuals.[123] 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.[124]

Strongholds appeared later, in the 9th 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[edit]

Settlements were not uniformly distributed, but tended to form clusters separated by areas where settlement density falls.[125] 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 župa in South Slavic, or opole in Polish. For example, Primary Chronicle noted that “the men of the Polanie lived each with his own clan in his own place”. There were several such župas 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”.[126]

The root of many tribal names denotes their territory which they inhabited, such as the Milczanie (on the areas covered by měl' - loess), 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), Drevlyans (drevo, tree). Others appear to have a non-Slavic, possibly Iranian, 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 Obodrites near Lübeck and their namesake further south in Panonia. Historically, four groups retained the root Slav in their names- Slovenes, Slovaks, Slavonians 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, or appreciation of a common tongue as a distinction mark between 'us' (slovo = word, letter) and 'others', such as 'Nemci' (mutes), which is a common Slavic name for Germans. In 1998, Walter Pohl wrote:

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. These regional ethnogeneses inspired by Slavic tradition incorporated considerable remnants of Roman and Germanic population ready enough to give up ethnic identities that had lost their cohesion.[127]

The first historical state of Slavs is Samo's realm (7th century); situated in present-day Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Germany, Austria and Slovenia, it soon evolved into Great Moravia and Carantania. In Balkans formed Duchy of Pannonia and Duchy of Dalmatia and Bulgaria. In the north the first states are formed by Obodrites and Wieletes.


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 and guerrilla tactics, often attacking 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".[128] Procopius mentions that Slav and "Hun" horsemen served as mercenaries in the Byzantine army.[129] 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.[130]

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 5th to 9th centuries, most Slavs practiced cremation burials.[citation needed] The funeral pyre was seen as a means of freeing the soul from the body in a rapid, visible and public manner.[131][not in citation given]

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]


Ilya Yefimovich Repin, Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom (1876).
Viktor Vasnetsov, The Frog-Princess (1918)

Little is known about Slavic pre-Christian religion because of the scarcity of evidence and artifacts dating to the period before the Christianization of Kievan Rus’. After the Slavs’ Christianization, the Christian authorities destroyed many records of the old religion. Some evidence remains, though, including evidence found in apocryphal and devotional texts,[132] the etymology of Slavic religious terms,[133] and the Primary Chronicle.[134] The existing evidence allows scholars to piece together information about the early Slavs’ pre-Christian religion.

The early Slavs were relatively uniform in their religion.[135] The religion was animistic, anthropomorphic[136] and nature-inspired.[137] Often Slavs developed cults around natural objects – such as springs, trees, or stones – in reverence to the spirit, or demon, within.[138] The Slavic pre-Christian religion was polytheistic with no organized pantheon,[139] though this changed over time. The earliest Slavs seemed to have a weak concept of “god” but the concept developed[140] until the Slavs had a variation of monotheism, where a “supreme god [ruled] in heaven over the others”.[141] They also had no concept of fate[142] or predestination.[143]

The pre-Christian Slavs believed in spirits and demons, which could be either entities in their own right, or spirits of the dead, and associated with home or nature. Forest spirits were entities in their own right and highly venerated as counterparts to home spirits which were usually related to ancestors.[144] These demons and spirits could be either good or evil, suggesting that the Slavs’ had the concept of dualism. All spirits and demons were revered, and were often given sacrifices and gifts.[145]

The pre-Christian religion of the Early Slavs was syncretistic,[146] combining and sharing with a variety of other religions. Aspects shared with Teutonic religions can be found in the Slavs’ pre-Christian beliefs.[147] Also, linguistics show that part of the Slavic pre-Christian religion developed when Baltic and Slavic languages were the same;[148] thus, pre-Christian Slavic beliefs contained elements also found in Baltic religions. After Slavic and Baltic languages diverged –- also evidenced by etymology –- the Early Slavs interacted with Iranian peoples and merged elements of Iranian spirituality into their beliefs. For example, both Early Iranian and Slavic supreme gods were considered givers of wealth, unlike the supreme thunder gods in many other European religions. Also, both Slavs and Iranians had demons –- given names from similar linguistic roots, Daêva (Iranian) and Divŭ (Slavic) –- and a concept of dualism, of good and evil.[dubious ][141][149]

While evidence of pre-Christian Slavic worship is scarce – leading scholars to suspect that the Slavic pre-Christian religion was aniconic – religious sites and idols exist; they seem most plentiful in Ukraine and Poland. Slavic temples and indoor places of worship seem rare. Outdoor places of worship are more common especially in Kievan Rus’. These outdoor cult sites were often situated on hills and included ringed ditches.[150] Indoor shrines did exist, though. “Early Russian sources…refer to pagan shrines or altars known as kapishcha”; these were small and enclosed structures with an altar inside. One was found in Kiev, surrounded by the bones of sacrificed animals.[151] Written records tell of pagan temples being destroyed during Christianization.[152]

Records of pre-Christian Slavic priests, like the pagan temples, appeared later.[152] No explicit earlier evidence of priests among the pre-Christian Slavs has been found, but the prevalence of sorcerers and magicians after Christianization suggests that the pre-Christian Slavs did, in fact, have religious leaders.[153] Slavic pagan priests were known to commune with the gods, being able to predict the future,[143] and to make preparations for religious rituals. The pagan priests or magicians – called volkhvy by the Rus’[134] – resisted Christianity,[154] even after Christianization. The Russian Primary Chronicles discuss a campaign against Christianity in 1071, during a time of famine. The volkhvy were well-received nearly one-hundred years after Christianization, suggesting that pagan priests held an esteemed position – both in 1071 and in pre-Christian times.[155]

Later history[edit]


"Bishop Absalon topples the god Svantevit at Arkona", painting by Laurits Tuxen.

Christianization began in the 9th century, and was not complete until the second half of the 12th century. The Christianization of Bulgaria was a result of the khan's shifting political alliances with the kingdom of the East Franks and the Byzantine Empire, as well as his reception by the Pope of the Roman Church. Because of Bulgaria's strategic position, both the Greek East and the Latin West wanted Bulgaria's people to adhere to their respective liturgies and be aligned with them politically. After some overtures to each side, the khan aligned with Eastern Orthodox Christianity.[dubious ] Through them, he achieved his goal of gaining an independent Bulgarian national church and having an archbishop appointed to head it. There is some evidence of early Christianization of the East Slavs, but the Kievan Rus' remained largely pagan, or relapsed into paganism, until the baptism of Vladimir the Great in the 980s. Also in the 10th century, the Baptism of Poland began with the baptism of Mieszko I of Poland in 966. The last remnants of Slavic paganism persisted into the 12th century, on the north-western fringe of the Slavic world, in Pomerania. Here, Christianization took place in the wake of the establishment of the Duchy of Pomerania within the Holy Roman Empire, in 1121. This process was mostly completed with the Wendish Crusade of 1147. The final stronghold of Slavic paganism were the Rani, with a temple to their god Svantevit on Cape Arkona, which was finally taken in a campaign by Valdemar I of Denmark in 1168.

Medieval Slavic states[edit]

Kiev Missal
Page from the 10th-century Kiev Missal, an Old Church Slavonic manuscript written in Glagolitic script

After Christianisation, the Slavic nations established a number of kingdoms or feudal principalities which persisted during the High Middle Ages. The East Slavs after the death of Yaroslav the Wise (1054) fragmented in a number of principalities, of which Muscovy would eventually (after 1300) emerge as the most powerful. The western principalities of the former Kievan Rus became parts of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The South Slavs consolidated the Principality of Serbia and the Bulgarian Empire. The Kingdom of Croatia, in the Balkans, comprised most of what is today Croatia (without most of Istria and some Dalmatian coastal cities), as well as parts of modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina. The West Slavs were distributed between Poland, the Kingdom of Hungary (Slovakia) and the Holy Roman Empire (Bohemia and Moravia).

Slavic studies[edit]


The starting point in the autochthonous/allochthonous debate was the year 1745, when Johann Christoph de Jordan published De Originibus Slavicis. The works of 19th century Slovak philologist and poet Pavel Jozef Šafárik has influenced generations of scholars. The foundation of his theory was the work of Jordanes, the Getica. Jordanes had equated the Sclavenes and the Antes to the Venethi (or Venedi) also known from much earlier sources, such as Pliny the Elder, Tacitus and Ptolemy. Šafárik bequeathed to posterity not only his vision of a Slavic history, but also a powerful methodology for exploring its Dark Ages: language.[10] The Polish scholar Tadeusz Wojciechowski (1839–1919) was the first to use place names to write Slavic history. He was followed by A. L. Pogodin and Polish botanist J. Rostafinski.

The first to introduce archaeological data into the scholarly discourse about the early Slavs, Lubor Niederle (1865–1944), endorsed Rostafinski's theory in his multi-volume work The Antiquities of the Slavs. Vykentyi V.Khvoika (1850–1914), a Ukrainian archaeologist of Czech origin, linked the Slavs with Neolithic Cucuteni culture. A. A. Spicyn (1858–1931) assigned to the Antes the finds of silver and bronze in central and southern Ukraine. Czech archaeologist Ivan Borkovsky (1897–1976) postulated the existence of a pottery "Prague type" which was a national, exclusively Slavic, pottery. Boris Rybakov, has issued a theory that made a link between both Spicyn's "Antian antiquities" and the remains excavated by Khvoika from Chernyakhov culture and that those should be attributed to the Slavs.[10]

From the 19th century onwards, the debate became politically charged, particularly in connection with the history of the Partitions of Poland and German imperialism known as Drang nach Osten. The question whether Germanic or Slavic peoples were indigenous on the land east of the River Oder was used by factions to pursue their respective German and Polish political claims to governance of those lands.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Barford (2001, p. vii, Preface)
  2. ^ Brzezinski, Richard; Mielczarek, Mariusz (2002). The Sarmatians, 600 BC-AD 450. Osprey Publishing. p. 39. (..) Indeed, it is now accepted that the Sarmatians merged in with pre-Slavic populations. 
  3. ^ Adams, Douglas Q. (1997). Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Taylor & Francis. p. 523. (..) In their Ukrainian and Polish homeland the Slavs were intermixed and at times overlain by Germanic speakers (the Goths) and by Iranian speakers (Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans) in a shifting array of tribal and national configurations. 
  4. ^ Atkinson, Dorothy; Dallin, Alexander; Warshofsky Lapidus, Gail, eds. (1977). Women in Russia. Stanford University Press. p. 3. (..) Ancient accounts link the Amazons with the Scythians and the Sarmatians, who successively dominated the south of Russia for a millennium extending back to the seventh century B.C. The descendants of these peoples were absorbed by the Slavs who came to be known as Russians. 
  5. ^ Slovene Studies 9–11. Society for Slovene Studies. 1987. p. 36. (..) For example, the ancient Scythians, Sarmatians (amongst others), and many other attested but now extinct peoples were assimilated in the course of history by Proto-Slavs. 
  6. ^ "[B]etween 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". Geary (2003, p. 144)
  7. ^ Curta 2001, pp. 335–337.
  8. ^ Curta 2001, pp. 6–35.
  9. ^ Paul M. Barford, 2004. Identity And Material Culture Did The Early Slavs Follow The Rules Or Did They Make Up Their Own? East Central Europe 31, no. 1:102–103
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  28. ^ a b Barford (2001, p. 37)
  29. ^ Kobyliński (2005, pp. 525–526)
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  33. ^ Goffart (2006, p. 95)
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  44. ^ cf. Novotná & Blažek:2007 with references. "Classical glottochronology" conducted by Czech Slavist M. Čejka in 1974 dates the Balto-Slavic split to -910±340 BC, Sergei Starostin in 1994 dates it to 1210s BC, and "recalibrated glottochronology" conducted by Novotná & Blažek dates it to 1400-1340 BC. This agrees well with Trziniec-Komarov culture, localized from Silesia to Central Ukraine and dated to the period 1500–1200 BC.
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  93. ^ Mallory (1997, p. 637)
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  108. ^ 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."
  109. ^ Renfrew 1987
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  112. ^ Geary (2003, p. 145) The question of origin is probably as meaningless for the Slavs as for other barbarian peoples
  113. ^ Geary (2003, p. 145)
  114. ^ Rosenwein (1998, p. 20)
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