The Slavs or Slavic people were originally a diverse group of different tribes that existed during the time just before the early medieval period in European history. These various tribes became the foundation for the Slavic nations that exist today. First mentioned as “Slavs” sometime in the 6th century AD, these tribes certainly existed before that time in lands which now include modern Russia and the Ukraine.
By the 9th century, the Slavs had expanded their borders towards the Alps and the Balkans and to the east along the Volga River. It was during this time that Christianity spread into the Slavic people who then formed a series of small Christian states which included Croatia, Serbia, Lithuania and even the Holy Roman Empire.
While their latter history is well documented, it is their early existence that is still being discovered, particularly their culture as it existed before the advent of Christianity.
The Early Historical Evidence of the Slavs
The earliest evidence for the existence of the Slavic people as it relates to Western European cultures was written down by Roman authors that included Jordanes and Procopius sometime in the latter half of the 6th century AD. Jordanes had written his work, “Gothic History” in 550 or 551 AD which was a combination of different works and sources. These sources included references to the Slavic tribes, either through oral history, other books or perhaps maps that documented the existence of these tribes.
Jordanes had written about three seemingly different tribes that were part of the same people, the Venethi, Antes and Sclavenes. It would take over 1000 years before other historians would verify that the peoples Jordanes mentioned were of Slavic origins. However, it must be noted that because of Jordanes’ sources, some of his work has been called into question because it seemingly is carbon-copies of earlier works. The veracity of Jordanes however lies in the sources that were used and gathered, so whether Jordanes was an actual historian or simply wrote and copied the works of others without any regard for accuracy, the fact remains that his work helped provide a base description for the Slavic people as Western Europeans knew of them.
Pre-Roman Evidence of the Slavic Tribes
Research by historians Pavel Jozef Safarik and Wawrzyniec Surowiecki has led to the discovery of earlier records, some of which may have been used by Jordanes and other Roman authors, about the Slavic people. One of the more interesting sources is Ptolemy of Alexandria from the 2nd century AD in which a description of a people known as “Stavonoi” occupied much of Central Europe, who were in all likelihood part of the Slavic tribes that are known to have existed in that region.
Other sources, such as the Veneti, a Germanic tribe that listed accounts of people who could very well have been the Slavs dates back to the 1st century AD, so it seems that the presence of the Slavs were well known during this time, if only for the amount of land that they occupied and their interaction with other tribes in the region.
Additional Roman Sources
The author Procopius completed three works about the reign of Emperor Justinian the First in the mid-6th century AD. These works contain detailed information about the Antes and Sclavenes tribe conducting raids against the Eastern Roman Empire. Procopius also writes about having personal contacts with the Sclavene, including mercenaries from that tribe who actually fought on the Western Roman Side in Italy. Such actions of European and Asian tribes were not uncommon as some would both fight against or side with the Roman Empire depending on the circumstances. Still, in the accounts Procopius cites that both the Sclavene and Antes spoke the same language. Unlike Jordanes, Procopius does not cite the Venethi as the original tribe, but another called the Sporoi which is actually a Slavic word for “multitude”.
The book Strategikon, a military handbook that was written just at the turn of the 7th century by an unknown author, lists the campaigns of the Eastern Roman Empire against a people known as the Sclavenes near the Lower Danube River during that time period. This source is confirmed by another Roman author, Theophylact Simocatta who talked about the same military operations conducted against these people.
For those in Western Europe, the first confirmed author who spoke about the Slavic people was Bishop Martin of Braga, who made a passing reference to a tribe known as Sclavus around 580 AD. Jonas of Bobbio also wrote about a similar people in his work, the “Life of Saint Columbanus” and eventually referred to them as the Sclavi.
The term Venedi and variations of that term were commonly used to describe Slavic people who were under the subjugation of the Avars. In time, the Veneti revolted against the Avars around 623 AD. Around this time, the various names for the Slavic tribes which include the Venedi, Sclavenes and Antes began to form into a more singular name that described a group of tribes.
In Florin Curta’s work, “Miracles of Saint Demetrius” which was published around 690 AD, the author argues that the name Sclavene was Byzantine in origin and was used to describe a group of different peoples who were living around the Danube frontier. Around 150 years later, the author of the “Bavarian Geographer” provided a detailed list of the tribes that occupied the Balkan Peninsula which included many Slavic tribes.
These more detailed descriptions shine a light on the different tribes that were actually part of the same Slavic group. The fall of the Eastern Roman Empire along with the disruption of Europe in general during this time commonly known as the Dark Ages combined with the loss of so much printed material has made relying on historical recordings of the Slavic tribes sketchy at best. Still, there is plenty of evidence that the Slavic people, as divided as they were in separate tribal clans, were still considered by many on the outside as one larger group of people.
Understanding the origins of a particular people require delving into their history on a number of levels. To understand their society as well as the archeological evidence helps to paint a more complete picture of who these people are and what they represent.
Early Slavic Society
From researching historical evidence both as written by observers at the time and the archeological findings, it appears that the earliest known forms of Slavic society were built around family clans which would make them typical of many tribes in human history. These family clans form the basis of structure for the Slavic people where no individual held any permanent power such as a kingdom. Instead, different clan leaders or chiefs would hold power from time to time depending on their own influence.
Usually, such persuasive leaders would take power in times of crisis or conflict with other tribes. Once these conditions went away, so did their power. From the 7th through the 9th centuries AD, the different Slavic clans and groups began to consolidate while still retaining much of their differences in terms of clan origins. Because of the sheer size of the land the Slavic people occupies, certain groups were influenced by the Byzantines, the Carolingians, the Khazars and even the Vikings.
As the population grew, it also expanded to incorporate knowledge and customs from other nearby peoples which in turn led to the development of social classes inside the Slavic culture. The elements of a higher organizational structure were still based on the older clan and warrior tendencies in the tribes that made up the Slavs. Such structure became apparent in certain areas such as the Danube where the Slavs there were in conflict with the Avars and raiding the Byzantium people. This structure that developed military leaders helped form more a more rigid social status system in the Slavs.
In some ways, the Slavs were much like Native American tribes of recent centuries, a large group of related people divided up into separate tribes with chiefs who were the military leaders surrounded by the warriors of each group. For the Slavs, these groups were autonomous within the larger whole of the people. As these chiefs extended their power and authority, lesser chiefs were established to run smaller groups of Slavs as well, similar to European princes who ruled their small states during medieval times.
Despite these seeming drawbacks, the establishment of this divided power structure allowed the Slavs to obtain a higher level of living. By the mid-9th century AD, the elites of the Slavic people managed to create a high level of sophistication by wearing luxurious cloths, using horses as personal transportation and even travelling with groups of soldiers.
The Archeological Evidence of the Slavic People
Using archeological means of discovering evidence of the daily lives of Slavic people has managed to trace their heritage back nearly 3,000 years. The very earliest evidence of the Slavic people dates back to over 1000 BC, well before the written history of this area came about. In what is known as the Chernoles culture, these people lived in a forested-stepped area and may have been later referred by the Greek historian Herodotus as the “Scythian Ploughmen” which may be an early form of the Slavic peoples.
This particular culture is seen to represent a particular stage of the Slavic evolution, an early form that would give rise to later cultures around the 1st and 2nd century AD. However, it is also fair to say that such an early culture that pre-dates the written history of that era should not be labeled in ethnic terms, although they may very well indeed be the origins of what would become the Slavic people.
During these early times, what was known as the “Chernyakhov Culture” that was in existence starting in the early 2nd century up to the 5th century lived in the region now known as Ukraine, Wallachia and Moldova. An impressive array of iron tools, polished black pottery and very fine metal items and ornaments were part of these early Slavic people’s culture. This general area that has been researched is considered the center point of Slavic culture that in turn radiated out in all directions over the next several centuries. Also, this area was influenced by Germanic people as well, particularly the Goths.
Early Slavic communities featured in some cases dwellings that were partially underground, which made this tribe somewhat distinctive from many other groups in Europe. Because of the uniqueness of these types of dwellings, the origins of the Slavic people can be traced to the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains near Podolia. It was here that the Slavic people first became their own distinct culture and were unified at least in terms of their ethnic heritage. As they spread out over the centuries, they would come under many outside influences.
Another culture, the Przeworks was located to the northwest of this area and extended from the Tisza Valley to the Dniester and north to the Oder and Vistula Rivers. This particular culture actually preceded the Chernyakov, but was not as purely Slavic as their group was influenced by more Germanic tribes of the region. Given the sheer size of the area, it is rather difficult to believe that only one tribe of people could occupy such a region. It was this mixture of different tribes and influences that made this particular culture not the true center of the Slavic people, but rather more of an extended version that eventually was blended in when the other culture began advancing and spreading their people across Eastern Europe.
The Zarubinets culture is sometimes mixed into the Przeworsk culture due to its proximity. This particular culture produced their own, unique type of artifacts, particularly in terms of pottery, although many consider this culture more ethnically mixed as well considering the location and the findings. Some have theorizes that these particular people may have been simply absorbed into the Slavic culture once it began to expand.
Overall, the archeological history of the Slavic people is still somewhat sketchy given the location and wide area that these tribes lived. However, such evidence is still being collected even today, providing a more complete picture of these fascinating people.