The Slavic Label

Identity in Eastern Europe has been a based on multiple, constantly differing criteria over the course of history. Whether it is language, religion, or ethnic affiliation, identities for many Balkan people have had a fluid meaning. One of these identities is the Slav-ethnic identity, a term with a heavily politicized connotation.  Past theories held that that all Slavic-speaking people are of one bloodline and are invaders who migrated into the Balkans and Central Europe. These theories are then used in modern politics to support an outdated status quo or the territorial ambitions of non-Slavic groups.   However, evidence[hs2] , both recent and historic, paints a different story. Slavs are united by the bonds of language, but not necessarily blood and homeland and those who assume the latter have often used this assumption to justify their own territorial claims and undermine those of others.

Defining an ethnic group in any context can be difficult so it is best to start at the beginning with the word Slav itself. The word Slav is ultimately a corrupted form of Sloveni which is what the Slavic tribes called themselves. However, it is not clear if these two terms are synonymous. Slav is a proper noun, representing an ethnicity. Sloveni is a descriptive noun that is a relational term. It equates itself to an imagined or real kinship by way of linguistic similarity between at least two different populations. In other words, a Macedonian cannot technically be a Slovene by oneself. A Macedonian and Serbian can be Sloveni because they both speak a common tongue. In fact,  the very word Sloveni comes from the common Slavic word slovo, meaning “word”. Thus , people who called themselves Sloveni were people who could mutually understand each other to a degree. Structural linguistics show  that if two words do not carry the same meaning,  they cannot be cognates, such as in the case between Slavs and Sloveni., However, the fact that these people share a common language does not necessarily prove that there was a large migration of Slavs who managed to conquer and re-settle most of Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, while being virtually unnoticed beforehand.

Most proponents of the Slavic migration theory focus on the medieval invasions of the Byzantine Empire. Like all other empires it was subject to attacks, pillages, and raids by various tribes.  By the 6th century a group of obscure “barbarians” began to amass along the Danube River and began regularly attacking Byzantine territory. Primary sources show that there were Illyrians, Macedonians, Greeks, Thracians, Getae, Veneti,  Sarmatians, and Scythians among other nations located around the Danube at the time.

The Thracians, according to Herodotus[1], were the most numerous nation in Eurasia, only outnumbered by the Indians. Furthermore, Polybius[2] wrote that Macedonians and Thracians were even related. The remnants of the Thracian language also support this conclusion, because it shares  a striking similarity to modern Balto-Slavic languages. If modern historians were to accept this notion it would present a huge discrepancy in the Slavic Migration model because it is widely accepted that the Thracians were indigenous to Eastern Europe. Much of the remaining Thracian glossary is Slavic[3] as the following hypothetical sentence shows, constructed  entirely from known Thracian words.

translation:  At the center of the city, I quickly gave vegetables to the beast mouth

translation: At the center of the city, I quickly gave lettuce to the beast mouth

Nevertheless, the theory remains that a tribe, which was unrecorded before the 6th century, appeared from behind the Carpathian Mountains to become the largest ethno-linguistic group in Europe replacing the Thracians, who were previously the largest ethnic group in Europe. Not only did Thracians territorially cover most of the same regions as modern Slavs do, but their languages were related as has been clearly demonstrated.  There are detailed records of the migration of the Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Goths, Tartars, Mongols, Turks, and other groups yet the Slavic-migration, which would be arguably one of the most massive migrations in recent history, went virtually unnoticed by historians. This begs the question -could the Slav label simply be a new reference for existing populations?

The first mention of Slavs came from Pseudo-Caesarios of Nazianzum in the 6th century who referred to them as Sklavenoi. Most sources placed the Sklavenoi right along the Danube River, and no source indicates a recent arrival. In fact, Byzantine chronicler Theophylact Simocatta gives an interesting perspective as to what Sklavenoi could have meant to Byzantines. He states, “As for the Getae, that is to say the herds of Sclavenes, they were fiercely ravaging the regions of Thrace”[4]. The Getae were an indigenous Thracian tribe that has been recorded since ancient times. It is clear that they did not migrate from anywhere, nor were they previously called anything but Getae. A possible explanation is that they became labeled Sklavenoi because they, along with other tribes, started to attack the Byzantine Empire. Sklavenoi was a Byzantine-era slang term for the various tribes that began to attack the empire.  More importantly, it was not limited to the attackers; it soon became used to refer to local populations who also rebelled against the empire. For example, some Slavic “tribal” names, such as the Timochani, Strymonoi, Caranatianians are clearly Balkan in origin, yet the groups it referred to were still labelled  Sklavenoi. Therefore, Sklavenoi, based on Sloveni, came to signify a rebel, with a derogatory connotation.  In other words, they did not become Sklavenoi because they exclusively spoke in a Slavic tongue. In fact, some Slavic tribal names have Iranian and Nordic roots[5]. Even though some groups may have used Slavic languages as a lingua franca, the important takeaway is that they all became Sklavenoi because at least some of the participating groups used the relational term “Sloveni” to signify kinship. By the time indigenous pockets of population began to support their attacks and started forming rebel enclaves called Sklavinaes, the derogatory term became synonymous with an anti-Byzantine rebel or marauding barbarian.

The fabled migration is conspicuously absent from oral or written accounts in Slavic folklore. Macedonian folklore, still containing  songs and stories about ancient Macedonian kings, neglects to refer to Macedonians as Slavs, nor even mention a move from behind the Carpathian Mountains. However, with 19th century nationalism sweeping the Balkans, the Slav term re-emerged as an integral part of one’s identity, this time with an ethnic connotation. While previously denoting kindred people, the 19th century, the era of mass historical revisionism, saw the birth of the new Slav term, Strongly influenced by the German theory that all nations must have ancestors in the ancient world, the futile search for a Slavic origin relied on linguistic and philological enterprise, instead of historiography and archeology as a means of identifying ethnicity.     

The first theory put forth was based off of a linguistic analysis of Slavic vegetation terms. Linguists determined that given the large amount of German loan-words  for certain types of trees, Slavs had to have come from an area devoid of those tree-types[6] . The area they settled on was the Pripet Marshes in modern-day Ukraine. Unifying and confining the numerous Slavic nations’ origins to the Pripet Marshes had a twofold effect. First, it demonstrated that Slavic-speakers were not indigenous to their lands, thus justifying the conquest and occupation of Slavic lands. the By choosing to solely identify diverse peoples with the Slav ethnonym the Great powers signified the inferiority of Slavic nations. This label not only associated them with the sense of  having no clear origin, but also with “slaves”. This association is still seen in many other languages, with Spanish using esclavo for slaves, and Arabic using  Saqaliba.  

Modern research has revealed the fallacy of using such an approach to denote origin. In an attempt to solidify the homeland of the Slavs, geneticists isolated a special haplogroup- a group of similar DNA variations-to be the “Slavic gene”. Named Haplogroup R1a, it naturally showed its highest frequencies in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus, averaging 65%-70%[7]. In the Southern Balkans, however, the national frequencies averaged only about 15%, not nearly enough to show evidence of mass-migration. More troublesome for the Slavic Migration Theory is that some Scandinavian countries show a higher frequency, about 30%, than the Southern Balkan populations  do.  Furthermore, the one haplogroup that is the highest defining haplogroup for the region, Haplogroup I2, is simply dubbed as being “Southern Proto-European”.

        The problem with the Slav title being used to denote origin and bloodline does not affect only Macedonians. In the 20th century Croatians launched an attempt to rekindle their Illyrian ancestry, and Poles their Sarmatian ancestry. Both attempts were suppressed by the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empire, respectively. By the time World War II came around, the strong unity created by the Slavic ethnic identity came at a tremendous cost. In Hitler’s mind, by virtue of the Bolshevik Revolution having had Jewish leaders, all Slavic people were deemed untermenschen (subhuman) by ethnic association. Since Slavic people like Czechs and Slovaks also “occupied” German land, the invader theory of origins also played nicely for the Nazi ideology.  The truth is, all nations become affected by such a titles. Eastern Europe in particular is a treasure trove of vibrant histories, cultures, and people. The ethnic Slav label creates a forged unity, at the cost of people’s identities.

It comes as no surprise that this label was most used during the period of communism and socialism in Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia under Tito’s regime constantly suppressed nationalism and non-state identities. Grouping people under the Slav ethnicity made all Yugoslavs  (literally South Slavs) not only have a common history and origin, but in turn, a common future. The Slavic ethnicity and migration also worked well for Russia, which was able to reaffirm its view of being “Mother Russia” by showing that all Slavs originated from then-Russian territory. Greece’s modern-day use of this communist-influenced ethnicity to label Macedonians and others simply Slavs, serves the same purpose now as it did then: it generalizes a group and forces an identity upon them. By painting Macedonians as Slavs, Greece succeeds in blurring the distinct nature of their identity and history by connecting  them to the  history of the numerous other Slavic nations. Furthermore, the generalization  of Macedonians as Slavs, makes claiming Macedonian history, such as that of Alexander the Great, laughable since Slavs are supposed new-comers to the Balkans.

Like all labels, it leads to assumptions, generalizations and misconceptions when heard by others. Fortunately, the move to separate politics from history has begun, and leading anthropologists and historians like Florin Curta, Mario Alinei, and Charles Abraham Bryant now call into question the Slav label and migration theory as a whole. Identity in the Balkans has the potential to shift once more. Restoring the Slavic term to its original purpose-denoting kinship- will  not only allow individual identities to be reclaimed, but for differences to be accepted and celebrated.

[1] Herodotus, The Histories. 5.2

[2] Book XXIX, 6.2


[4] Simocatta, The History of Theophylact Simocatta. IV, 4.7

[5] See Sagudates and Guduscani tribes

[6] Florin Curta, “The Making of the Slavs” (pg. 8)



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