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European Kingdoms

Barbarians

 

Serboi (Indo-Iranians? / Slavs?)

During the first millennium BC (and likely for much of the largely-unrecorded second millennium BC too) various Indo-Iranian tribes of the East Indo-European division dominated the Pontic-Caspian steppe. They took control from remaining West Indo-European groups, with the Agathyrsi rising early to supremacy over the other tribes. They in turn were superseded by the Scythians, and it was they who imposed a ruling elite over the early Sarmatians and Alani.

The Alani were either neighbours of the Sarmatians or (as some claim) a division of the Sarmatians themselves. The fortunes of both groups were closely intertwined, and some of their constituent sub-groups could be mistaken as Alani or Sarmatians, depending upon how they were being recorded by early writers.

The Sarmatians soon migrated from Central Asia towards the Ural Mountains, at a point between the sixth and fourth centuries BC. This was just in time for them - with a division of the Alani in tow - to be mentioned by Herodotus when he described the tribes to the north of the Black Sea.

The Serboi (or Serbi) were one such constituent sub-group, described as being Sarmatians (although there was very little difference between them and the Alani). In time the general Sarmatian confederation settled much of southern European Russia and the eastern Balkans. Like the closely-related Scythians, they were highly developed horse-riding warriors. Their administrative capability and political astuteness contributed to their gaining widespread influence, and it was through this that many of their sub-groups were able to spread far into Central Europe.

The tribe occupied territory in the North Caucasus, on the eastern side. They would have been flanked to their own east by the Volga as it exits into the Caspian Sea. A division of modern scholarship likes to link the Serboi to the Serbs.

The theory goes that the Serboi fled the fourth century AD Hunnic advance into Europe and entered southern Poland and south-eastern Germany where they were absorbed by Slavs, possibly the earliest such groups to be found in the region. Ultimately they found their way into the Balkans.

Alternatively the tribe was not Sarmatian to begin with, but was in fact Slav, and therefore no assimilation was required. A balancing concept is that Sarmatians formed part of the general ethnogenesis of Slavs when mixed with proto-Slavic groups which would have been located to the north of the Pontic steppe. This idea at least deserves some attention and perhaps acceptance.

A name breakdown provides a crumb of guidance in the matter. The name 'serb' or its variation, 'sorb', could derive from either proto-Indo-Iranian or proto-Slavic tongues. Old Iranian provides examples such as 'sūrċ', meaning 'strong, powerful', while Avestan and Sanskrit offer 'a god, divinity, becoming a god'. None of that contains the 'b' in Serboi, however, so that meaning is very doubtful.

Pokorny comes up with a viable route, though, offering 's(u̯)e-bh(o)-, su̯o-bho-', meaning 'of one's own kind'. From this, Gothic had 'sibja', meaning 'clan, the totality of one's own people'. German and Latin offer a similar meaning, while even Russian has 'sjabr', meaning 'neighbour, friend'.

The core meaning appears to be 'us, the people, our clans, our free men, the free men'. This last option means they were not slaves. Very tellingly the 'slave farmers' of the Sarmatians are thought to be Slavs, so the Serboi could be Slavs who had established their freedom.

Sakas on a frieze at Persepolis

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, from the Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture, J P Mallory & D Q Adams (Eds, 1997), and from External Links: The United Sites of Indo-Europeans, and Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians, and Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, and Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples, and Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, J Pokorny, and Sarmatians (Encyclopaedia Britannica), and Geography, Strabo (H C Hamilton & W Falconer, London, 1903, Perseus Online Edition).)

c.AD 150

Ptolemy, who writes in the mid-second century, records the existence of the Serboi tribe of Sarmatians. They live on the western flank of the Volga as it exits into the Caspian Sea, near the marshlands on the river's western bank. This area forms part of the foothills of the northern Caucasus mountains, with flat, sweeping plains which stretch to the north in today's southern Russia.

Map of Barbarian Europe 52 BC
This vast map covers just about all possible tribes which were documented in the first centuries BC and AD, mostly by the Romans and Greeks, and with an especial focus on 52 BC (click or tap on map to view at an intermediate size)

374 - 375

The Romans assassinate the ruler of the Quadi, sparking two years of fighting. The brief war ends with peace terms being agreed, and the event marks the last time the Romans enter what is now Slovakia.

It also marks the last hurrah for Sarmatians. Their population in central and Eastern Europe is gradually absorbed by larger bodies while their more easterly steppe elements are dominated by the Hunnic empire, or take on elements of Greek colonial culture, or become indivisible from the still-powerful Alani.

Ultimately, expanding Slav tribes directly absorb many Sarmatian groups, including the Serboi. This gives rise in modern scholarly circles to the theory that the Serboi are the originators of the later Serbs, but no evidence exists to prove such a connection.

Instead, today's Kabardians, Ossetians, and neighbours are almost the only direct descendants of surviving core Alani and Sarmatian bodies.

Szybowcowa Hill in Lower Silesia
Slavs migrated outwards to occupy areas of Europe which had previously been home to the Germanic Vandali and the Celtic Naharvali before them, including the rolling hills of Silesia

 
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