Early Slavs

Early Slavs

Early Slavs - Early Slavs
The early Slavs were a diverse group of tribal societies in Migration period and early medieval Europe (ca. 5th to 10th centuries) whose tribal organizations indirectly created the foundations for today's Slavic nations (via the Slavic states of the High Middle Ages).

The first mention of the name Slavs dates to the 6th century, by which time the Slavic tribes inhabited a vast area of central-eastern Europe. Over the following two centuries, the Slavs expanded further, towards the Balkans and the Alps in the south and west, and the Volga in the north and east.[1]

From the 9th century, the Slavs were gradually Christianized, and by the 12th century, they formed the population within a number of medieval Christian states, the East Slavs in the Kievan Rus' and Lithuania, the South Slavs in Bulgaria and Serbia, and the West Slavs in Poland and the Holy Roman Empire (Pomerania, Bohemia).


The question of Slavic origins has generated many theories, none of which have been universally accepted. The competing theories on the origin of Slavs used different types of evidence, had different perspectives upon the issues involved, but also were influenced by political factors. 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 often connected with early Slavic peoples. The earliest clear reference to the ethnonym Slav does not occur until the 6th century AD. Nevertheless, attempts have been made to identify the Slavs, or their ancestors, with earlier groups. The Soubenoi mentioned by Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD 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. 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, although it is far from certain that they were referring to the same people. The third major ancient Slavic groups, the Antes, were mentioned as early as the 1st century AD by Pliny the Elder (Natural History). Counted amongst the ranks of Sarmatian and Scythian tribes, they occupied the open steppe north of the Black Sea. Jordanes' Slavic Antes were said to dwell along the northern curve of the Sea of Pontus – from the Dniester to the Dnieper.

Both writing in the mid-6th century, Jordanes and Procopius provide the first indisputable reference to the Slav ethnonym, 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.[2]

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.[3] [4] 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".[5]

Linguistic evidence

For a long time, language was seen as the defining factor in the formation of a people's culture and world view. 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 analyzing the spread of Indo-Europeans is the favored 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.

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.[6] Kortlandt places the Slavs near the Indo-European homeland itself: "the Indo-Europeans who remained after the migrations became speakers of Balto-Slavic".[7]

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 4th century, apparently in connection with the earliest phases of the Slavic expansion.[8] 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.[9] 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 an attempt to localize 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.[10] Therefore, supporters of this line of reasoning view this area as the Urheimat of the Slavs.[11]

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 4th century, evidenced by increasing dialectical divergence and the acquisition of Germanic and Sarmatia loanwords.

Archaeological evidence

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. The Prague-Korchak cultural complex is regarded as the "Slavic cultural model", a remarkably uniform cultural tradition which spanned almost half of Europe, coinciding neatly with the historic distribution of Slavic speech.[12] 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 4th century (attributed to the "violent irruption of the Huns",) and had been 'replaced' by the Slavic model by the late 5th century AD.The Chernyakhov culture existed from the second to the 5th centuries, 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. In the earlier half of the 20th 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, 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".[13] "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. 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. The Chernyakov zone also consisted of Dacians and, quite possibly, early Slavs. In fact, one of the settlement types in the Chernyakov zone was semi-subterranean dwellings with hearths in one of the corners. This settlement type later became typical of early Slavic sites." Volodymir Baran labelled it as the Slavic "ethnic badge".[14]

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. It arose considerably earlier than the Chernyakov culture. During the early 20th 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.[15] The area occupied by the Zarubinets culture is one where very ancient Slavic hydronyms are found,[16] or an ethnically mixed community which became Slavonicized.[19]

As one looks even further back in pre-history, the confidence with which archaeological connections can be made to known historic groups regresses correspondingly. 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. Gimbutas goes so far as identifying it as the proto-Slavic homeland. Others instead have labelled the neighboring 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.[20]

Social anthropology

Primordialism[21] is a paradigm that has been employed in analyzing the processes involved in the formation of a people, or ethnos. It was connected to the nationalism movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and today has largely fallen out of favor amongst social anthropologists. Ethnicity, according to primordia lists, is defined by biological descent and is tied to a geographic homeland (Urheimat).[22] They argued that a people, or nation, is a natural and organic social grouping, and is therefore timeless. Essentially, primordia lists saw modern ethnicity as the survival of an ancient tribalism,[23] 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.[24]

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.[25] 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". 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".[26] 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. "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".

Given that historic groups were amalgams of different peoples and cultures, scholars such as Florin Curta and Patrick 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.


'Traditional' theories explain the changes seen in 6th 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, using the Herderian concept of a nation, 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 Dnieper. By the 4th century, they had slowly expanded southward and eastward, assimilating the neighboring 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.

Marija Gimbutas envisaged a Slavic cultural continuity spanning two millennia, centered on the Chernoles, and the preceding Komarov cultures. In the 7th century BC, 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. 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". In addition to sheer numbers, the relative depopulation of Eastern Europe (due in part to the outmigration of Germany), and the lack of imperial defenses further catalyzed Slavic expansion.

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".[27] 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".[28] 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". 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".

Byzantine chroniclers also noted that Roman prisoners captured by the Sclavenes were soon able to become free members of Slav society, if they wished.[29] 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.[30]

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 Sarmatia, Goth and Hun armies, small numbers of Slavic speakers might have even reached the Balkans prior to the 6th century:[31] These scattered groups then served as multiple foci for the creation of a consolidated Slavic cultural identity, when conditions favored this, assimilating or passing on their material culture and language onto other ethnics.

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 crisscrossed those of local communities". "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 greatest 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 ethno genesis occurred in a large area stretching from the Oder in the west to the Dnieper in the east, and south to the Danube river.[32] 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 Germany. 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". 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 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 ethno geneses inspired by Slavic tradition incorporated considerable remnants of Roman or Germanic population ready enough to give up ethnic identities that had lost their cohesion".

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 dishonorable nor spiteful, but simple in their ways, like the Huns (Avars)".[34] "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 dolichocephalic and fair-haired.[35] Today, physical anthropology, especially cranial indices, has fallen out of favor. 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.[36]

Social structuring

Early Slav society is often said 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 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' neighboring cultures such as Byzantium, the Khazars, Vikings and the Carolingians, although these processes should not be necessarily thought to be unidirectional.

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. Gradually, a higher degree of social stratification developed- that of chiefdom, associated with the development of inherited inequality in personal status and centralization 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, centers 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, 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.[37]

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. Settlements were often located on river terraces. The largest proportions 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 dwellings throughout Eastern Europe. On average, each settlement consisted of fifty to seventy individuals. 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.

Strongholds appeared later, in the 9th century, especially in the territories of Western Slavs. They were often found in the center 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

Settlements were not uniformly distributed, but tended to form clusters separated by areas where settlement density falls. 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 Polanie 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".

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 Diocletian (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 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 Obodrites near Lubeck and their namesake further south in Panonia. 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, 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.


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 armor". According to the Strategikon, the Slavs favored 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".[38] Procopius mentions that Slav and "Hun" horsemen served as mercenaries in the Byzantine army.[39] 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.

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 siege machines.

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. The funeral pyre was seen as a means of freeing the soul from the body in a rapid, visible and public manner.
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.


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' conversion to Christianity, the Christian authorities wiped out many records of the old religion. Some evidence remains, though, including evidence found in apocryphal and devotional texts[40], the etymology of Slavic religious terms[41], and the Primary Chronicle[42] . 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[43] . The religion was animistic, anthropomorphic[44] and nature-inspired[45] . Often Slavs developed cults around natural objects – such as springs, trees, or stones – in reverence to the spirit, or demon, within [46] . The Slavic pre-Christian religion was polytheistic with no organized pantheon [47], though this changed over time. The earliest Slavs seemed to have a weak concept of "god" but the concept developed[48] until the Slavs had a variation of monotheism, where a "supreme god [ruled] in heaven over the others"[49] . They also had no concept of fate [50] or predestination [51] . And although the pre-Christian Slavs did believe in an afterlife – as evidenced by their burial practices – their religion did not include a concept of heaven and hell as Christianity would [52] .

The pre-Christian Slavs believed in spirits and demons, both of which could be the spirits of the deceased or their own entities, of home or of nature. Forest spirits, though, were almost exclusively not spirits of the dead; instead, they were their own entities and served as the wild and highly-venerated counterparts of home spirits [53] . Pre-Christian Slavic demons and spirits could be either good or evil, suggesting that the Slavs' pre-Christian religion had the concept of dualism. All spirits and demons were revered, and were often given sacrifices and gifts [54] .

The pre-Christian religion of the Early Slavs was syncretistic [55], combining and sharing with a variety of other religions. Aspects shared with Teutonic religions can be found in the Slavs' pre-Christian beliefs [56] . Also, linguistics show that part of the Slavic pre-Christian religion developed when Baltic and Slavic languages were the same [57] ; thus, pre-Christian Slavic beliefs contained elements of Baltic religions. After Slavic and Baltic languages diverged – also evidenced by etymology – the Early Slavs interacted with Iranian Indo-Europeans and acquired elements of Iranian spirituality. For example, both Early Iranian and Slavic supreme gods were considered givers of wealth [58], unlike the supreme thunder gods in many other European religions [59] . Also, both Slavs and Iranians had demons – given names from similar linguistic roots, Daêva (Iranian) and Divŭ (Slavic) – and had a concept of dualism, of good and evil [60] .

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 [61] . 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 [62] . Written records tell of pagan temples being destroyed during Christianization [63] .

Records of pre-Christian Slavic priests, like the pagan temples, appeared later [64] . 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 [65] . Slavic pagan priests were known to commune with the gods, being able to predict the future [66], and to make preparations for religious rituals. The pagan priests or magicians – called volkhvy by the Rus'[67] – resisted Christianity[68], 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 [69] .

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. 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.

Development of the medieval Slavic states

The first historical state of Slavs is Samo realm. It soon evolved into Great Moravia. In Balkans formed Duchy of Pannonia and Duchy of Dalmatia, Serbia and Bulgaria. In the north the first states are formed by Obodrites and Wieletes.

Further development of Slavic states in High Middle Ages

After Christianization, 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 South Slavs consolidated the Principality of Serbia and the Bulgarian Empire. The West Slavs were distributed between the Poland, Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Holy Roman Empire.

Notes and References

  1. "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 ethno genesis in the west. Yet the effects of Slavicization were far more profound".
  2. Procopius. Wars (VIII.I4, 22-30)
  3. 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.
  4. this account has little value in discussions of the origin of Slavs
  5. 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.
  6. "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""
  7. http://www.kortlandt.nl/publications/art111e.pdf F. Kortlandt, The spread of the Indo-Europeans
  8. Kortlandt. Pg 3.
  9. 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)
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. As a comparison, the "proto-Celtic" Hallstatt and La tene cultures do not coincide with the geographic distribution of Celtic language nearly as well
  13. Citing Kossinna 1911:3
  14. 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".
  15. To the east of the Przeworsk zone lay the Zarubinets culture, sometimes considered part of the Przeworsk complex.
  16. New Cambridge Medieval History, Pg 529
  17. The Zarubinets culture is identified as either being proto-Slavic,[16]
  18. and where Irena Rusinova proposed that the most proto-typical examples of Prague-type pottery later arose.[16]
  19. 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
  20. many pre-historians argue it is spurious to identify Iron age Europeans as Celts (or other such labels).
  21. 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.
  22. Nationalism and Political Identity. S. F. Joireman. Continuum Publishing. ISBM 0-8264-6591-9. Page 19
  23. The Anthropology of Globalization. Cultural Anthropology enters the 21st Century. Ted C Lewellen. ISBN 0-89789-738-2. Page 106
  24. 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.
  25. Abner Cohen (1974) Two-Dimensional Man: An essay on power and symbolism in complex society. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
  26. In time, these heterogeneous armies grew into a new people. Despite their diversity, they had "a strong belief in a common biological origin''.
  27. From Roman Provinces to Medieval Kingdoms. Archaeologists and Migrations. Pg 264
  28. Russian Identities. A Historical Survey. N. V. Riasonovsky. Pg 10. Oxford University Press, quoting Johanna Nichols.
  29. Horace Lunt attributed the spread of Slavic to the "success and mobility of the Slavic 'special border guards' of the Avar khanate",
  30. 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 neighboring 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.
  31. "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).
  32. The question of origin is probably as meaningless for the Slavs as for other barbarian peoples
  33. [32] 
  34. Barford citing Procopius.pg 59
  35. 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
  36. 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.
  37. 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
  38. Histories. VII. 4, II
  39. Procopius. Wars V.27, 1-3
  40. S.H. Cross. "Primitive Civilization of the Eastern Slavs." American Slavic and Eastern European Review. 5 no. 1/2 (1946): 77-78.
  41. Francis Dvornik. The Slavs: Their Early History and Civilization. (Boston: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1956).
  42. Russell Zguta. "The Pagan Priests of Early Russia: Some New Insights." Slavic Review. 33 no. 2 (1974).
  43. Dvornik, 47.
  44. Cross, 83-87.
  45. Nikolay Andreyev. "Pagan and Christian Elements in Old Russia." Slavic Review. 21 no. 1 (1962): 17.
  46. Paul M. Barford. The Early Slavs: Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001): 189.
  47. Cross, 78-87.
  48. Barford, 193.
  49. Dvornik, 48.
  50. Cross, 82.
  51. Barford, 209.
  52. Cross, 83.
  53. Barford, 189-191.
  54. Dvornik, 48-51.
  55. Barford, 194
  56. Allen Leeper. "Germans, Avars and Slavs." The Slavonic and Eastern European Review. 12 no. 34 (1933): 125.
  57. Dvornik 47.
  58. Dvornik, 48.
  59. Cross, 79.
  60. Dvornik, 48.
  61. Barford, 195-98.
  62. Cross, 84.
  63. Barford, 198.
  64. Barford, 198.
  65. Cross, 83.
  66. Barford, 209.
  67. Russell Zguta. "The Pagan Priests of Early Russia: Some New Insights." Slavic Review. 33 no. 2 (1974).
  68. Andreyev, 18.
  69. Zguta, 263.