History Files
 

Please help the History Files

Contributed: 84

Target: 400

2023
Totals slider
2023

The History Files still needs your help. As a non-profit site, it is only able to support such a vast and ever-growing collection of information with your help, and this year your help is needed more than ever. Please make a donation so that we can continue to provide highly detailed historical research on a fully secure site. Your help really is appreciated.

European Kingdoms

Celtic Tribes

 

Venedi / Ouenedai / Vindi (Vistula / West Indo-Europeans)

FeatureA large area of Eastern Europe was occupied by people who were referred to as Veneti, Venedi, or Vendai. In today's references they are generally known as the Baltic or Vistula Veneti but, for the sake of distinguishing them from other Veneti groups, here they are termed Venedi. A western European population of the same people are known as the Armorican Veneti, and a much more distantly-related population is known as the Adriatic Veneti (see feature link for more).

The 'third wave' of Celtic expansion appears to have been formed of tribes which were seaborne and which lived along the North Atlantic and/or Baltic coastlines. Known as Belgae, they were Celts who seem to have established themselves in Northern Europe, although precisely where is entirely open to speculation (not to mention some heated debate).

Some of these people seem to have migrated eastwards towards the mouth of the Vistula, probably in the fifth century BC. It is here that a good deal of uncertainty surrounds them. It was generally thought that they provided the origins for the Celticised Vistula Venedi, but it now seems more likely that they simply intermixed with them to strengthen their population.

FeatureThe Vistula Venedi may well have been in position since at least the twelfth century BC, and perhaps as early as the start of the second millennium BC (see the main Veneti page for full details, and feature link for potential early battles against Germanics).

By the first century BC the Vistula Venedi were known to occupy a great swathe of territory which stretched from today's Kaliningrad to western Ukraine, largely following the eastern 'right' bank of the Vistula. The lack of substantial written evidence makes their history extremely uncertain and open to interpretation, but emerging DNA evidence shows a clear line of settlement between the central Baltic coast and the Black Sea coast above the mouth of the Danube. This aligns very well with other evidence for a Venedi presence in Eastern Europe.

The Venedi appear to have been river sailors (with sailing being a trait they seemed to share with the Belgae). They seem to have sailed along, conquered, and controlled the length of the Vistula and its tributary, the Bug, and then crossed land to the Dniester and parallel rivers. This would account for Ptolemy's description of the Venedi as the farthest eastern tribe, occupying territory from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Later, many of these river-based Venedi groups fell under Bastarnae domination when the Bastarnae were as Celtic as the Venedi were, with the Bastarnae taking over their entire river-based territory from north to south. They later lost the Baltic zone due to Germanic encroachment but long retained dominance of the Venedi and the Vistula outside of areas of Germanic control. Their journey southwards was not so much a migration, more a river-territory dominance which expanded along with them.

The Venedi gradually disappeared from history between the sixth and ninth centuries AD. Pressure from Germanic groups to their north and west, but more especially from migrating Slavs from the east saw them gradually being assimilated. The northernmost parts of their territory fell to various natives which include the Prussians and Lithuanians. More of the north was slowly amalgamated into early Poland. The south fell to the Huns, various early Turkic groups which included the regionally-dominant Bulgars, and then the Avars.

It was thanks to Slav assimilation that later Germans largely saw these new Slav masters of surviving identifiably-Venedi groups as being of the same stock, and the Venedi name was transferred to the new Slav masters (although Slavs did not use this name to describe themselves). In the German tongue they were called Wends, while farther south the early Carinthians and Styrians (later to form part of Austria) referred to them as Windische.

This helps to show just how great a territory had been settled by the Venedi in the millennium or more of their settlement east of the Vistula. Unfortunately the German mistake of referring to early western Slav groups as Wends (Venedi) has led some searchers of Slav origins to claim the Venedi as their own, a mistake which persists in some circles. The Venedi were clearly in place many centuries before the Slavs even began migrating out of their own core homeland.

Vistula lagoon, Poland

(Information by Peter Kessler and Edward Dawson, with additional information from The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C, David K Faux, from Getica, Jordanes, from The History of the Baltic Countries, Zigmantas Kiaupa, Ain Mäesalu, Ago Pajur, & Gvido Straube (Eds, Estonia 2008), from Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831, Panos Sophoulis, from Gesta Danorum: The History of the Danes, Karsten Friis-Jensen & Peter Fisher (Ed & Trans), from Geography, Ptolemy, from Roman History, Cassius Dio, from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W Anthony, and from External Links: The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars, and The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed), and The Proto-Bulgars, and Hudud al-'Alam, The Regions of the World, and The Balts, Marija Gimbutas (1963, previously available online thanks to Gabriella at Vaidilute, but still available as a PDF - click or tap on link to download or access it), and Turkic History.)

1st century BC

By the first century BC the Vistula Venedi are known to occupy a great swathe of territory which stretches from modern Kaliningrad to western Belarus and western Ukraine. They may even have absorbed Belgic groups which have migrated into the Vistula from the north, although the lack of any written evidence makes their history extremely uncertain and open to interpretation.

Map of Scandinavia c.AD 100
Early Germanic peoples in Scandinavia were clustered for the most part along the coasts of southern Scandinavia, and only began to expand inland from around the third century AD or so (click or tap on map to view full sized)

AD 77

The Roman geographer Pliny the Elder mentions the 'Sarmatian' Venedi, meaning those Venedi who live to the east of the Vistula, all of which is still Sarmatia to the Romans. Germania lies on the western bank of the Vistula.

However, as quoted by Marija Gimbutas in The Balts: 'Amber is imported by the Germans into Pannonia, more particularly; from whence the Adriatic Veneti called by the Greeks Eneti, a people in the vicinity of Pannonia, and dwelling on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, first brought it to general notice...'.

This would seem to be a hopeless confusion, a combination of the Vistula Venedi of 'Sarmatia' and perhaps the Vistula, the Adriatic Veneti (later founders of Venice), and the Eneti, a Paphlagonian tribe which had been included in Homer's Iliad. It is impossible to be sure precisely who Pliny is talking about in this context.

A Venedi presence along the Vistula at this time is confirmed somewhat obliquely, though. A translation of the name of the earliest-known Goth king looks like 'King Bee'. 'Bee' would be in the form of Beon, shortened to 'ber', plus the 'rig' suffix which is the Celtic 'rix', meaning 'king'.

It is clearly a Celtic name because the 'rix' is a suffix instead of a prefix. The use of 'Bee' as a Germanic name has support in the later Beowulf of the Geats. The Goths are temporarily settled on the southern Baltic coast, immediately to the west of the Vistula.

Vistula
For a seagoing people like the Belgae, it would have been a fairly simple process to sail along the southern waters of the Baltic and enter a wide river mouth such as the Vistula (one of two viable theories) - settlement quickly followed, spreading south along the river's east bank between the fifth or fourth centuries BC and the first and second AD

98

By the later part of the first century BC, the Vistula Venedi are neighboured even farther east by a collection of Finno-Ugric tribes, and to the north-east by the Aestii and Eastern Balts. To the west the situation is less certain, and is changing rapidly.

Noted by Tacitus, a host of Germanic tribes have occupied territory on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea in the past century or so, including the Gepids, Goths, Heruli, Scirii, and Vandali.

Farther south, in modern southern Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary and western Ukraine, the situation is even less clear, with elements of former Celtic tribes existing alongside encroaching Germanic tribes, including the Boii and Lugii for the former, and the Buri, Marcomanni, and Quadi for the latter.

Tacitus does not use the Vistula as a boundary, or even describe a boundary between Germania and the lands to its east. He does describe the Venedi as living along the eastern fringe of Germania, inferring some kind of borderland, but is uncertain of their ethnic identity.

It is quite probable that the Venedi have not settled deep into Eastern Europe to the west of the Vistula but instead occupy the lower Vistula on a permanent basis and simply raid further south and east, following the rivers and using seasonal bases.

Tombstone of Tacitus
The tombstone of Tacitus once marked the final resting place of one of Rome's most important authors, who not only chronicled the creation of the empire, but also listed the many barbarian tribes of Europe and the British Isles (External Link: Creative Commons Licence 4.0 Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike International)

Tacitus refers to them as having borrowed from Sarmatians in their habit of plundering the mountainous and wooded country that lies between the Peucini to the south (in the Balkans) and the Finni to the north (generally accepted as being the Finns).

Even so, he says that they should be classed as Germans thanks to their settled houses, the shields they carry, and their fondness for travelling fast on foot, as opposed to the horse-riding Sarmatians. Clearly he was linking them with the nearest, most similar people without being aware of their migration and potential relationship with the Belgae.

c.140s

Ptolemy in his Geography confirms the traditional Roman idea that the Vistula divides Germania from the east, which they call Sarmatia. He places the greater Ouenedai along the entire Venedic Bay which, when taken in context, can be located on the southern Baltic coast. The similarity between 'Ouenedai' and 'Venedi' is clear even without linguistic analysis.

Map of Scythian Lands around 500 BC
This map attempts to show the Scythian lands at their greatest extent, failing to extend northwards thanks to the Balts (click or tap on map to view full sized)

4th century

The Tabula Peutingeriana dates from the fourth century AD. It mentions Venedi who are located on the northern bank of the Danube, some way upstream of the river's mouth into the Black Sea (a presence which is supported by modern DNA evidence of Celtic settlers here).

It also mentions the Venadi Sarmatae along the Baltic coast. The latter are the Venedi of Sarmatia, this being the main body of Venedi along the east bank of the Vistula. Those Venedi who are near the Danube would appear to be a migratory group which has probably travelled through modern western Ukraine towards the Black Sea.

372 - 432

The Huns and Alani arrive in the territory to the north of the Danube and there they take control. The region is nominally under the control of the Ostrogoths, and is peopled by Gepids, Heruli, Illirs (called Pannons by the Romans, they later give their name to Illyria - the region at the top of the Adriatic Sea), plus Scirii and Avars, and some Saxons who had settled in Dacia (later Transylvania), and also the southernmost groups of Venedi.

The Germanic Rugian kingdom in Austria is made a client state and the Quadi are effectively destroyed. The Huns eventually unify and only then begin to threaten the Western Roman empire. They start by clashing with the Ostrogoths, overrunning them, and in 376 they also defeat the Visigoths.

Huns
The approach of the Huns into Central Europe spread terror and fear not only in the Roman empire but in those great Germanic tribes that lay along the line of advance

c.376

The name of King Vinithar of the Ostrogoths is curious. It is commonly formed of three elements, 'vinith', plus '-ar', plus '-ius'. The first part, 'vinith' refers to the Venedi. The '-ius' is a Latin suffix which can be discarded, so the name is probably pronounced 'Winithara' in East Germanic.

The second element, '-ar', may simply be indicating action, a doer (essentially describing him as a warrior in the style of the Venedi), or perhaps a compressed form of 'uari', meaning 'man of, men of' (perhaps producing 'man of the Venedi').

This implies that 'Vinith' has evolved to become the name of a military style of warrior. Since the Venedi style of travel is by water (their whole process of settlement has been driven by their exploration of river courses), an educated guess is that a 'vinith' is a boat-borne fighter.

The description of early migratory Slavs as boat-using raiders seems to occur because they have learned this from Venedi fighters amongst whom they had been stationed by their masters, the Avars.

Naming Vinithar this way may be akin to a modern child being called 'SASer' or 'Navy Sealer' in the first instance or 'man of the SAS' in the second, although clearly this concept has lost something of its meaning over time!

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

456 - 457

MapThe Ostrogoths defeat and rout Attila's sons in their fight for independence. The central core of Huns apparently divides into the Kutrigurs and the Utigurs (so-called 'Bulgarian Huns').

The Ostrogoths reassert power over the region following their military victory, and most Huns drift back to Scythia (possibly taking elements of the Venedi with them as subjects, one group of which seemingly reappears in 652 and another (or the same?) in 668). The bulk of the Venedi remain, probably in their traditional settlements, from which they provide mercenary services to the Ostrogoths.

550/551

The Gothic writer Jordanes, a bureaucrat in the Eastern Roman capital of Constantinople, completes his sixth century work at this time, entitled Getica. Among many other things, it provides an account of the origins of the Sclavenes or Sclaveni (Slavs, but various translations produce the two different plural suffixes seen here).

In relation to them he mentions two other kinds of professional warriors, the Antes and 'Venethi' or 'Venethae', although he appears confused as to the exact relationship between the three groups. This could be due to that relationship being a confused one in the real world, with the Venedi probably undergoing a gradual absorption by newly-arriving Slav groups and also by their various masters over the ensuing centuries (Huns, Goths, Avars, Magyars, etc).

Ermanaric's death
In the face of an unstoppable and destructive Hunnic invasion, Ermanaric's final act as king of the Goths was a (probable) ritualistic death ceremony in which he ended his own life

The Venethae (Vinidi, or Venedi) are associated with the great fourth century king of the Ostrogoths, Hermanarich, while the Antes (an early Slavic tribal polity) are linked with his successor, King Vinitharius. No specific deeds with regard to the Sclaveni are ascribed to any Gothic ruler, showing that they are essentially a post-Gothic institution.

652 - 653

The Arab General Salman in 652-653 campaigns through the Caucasus from Armenia, concentrating on the towns and settlements of the western coast of the Caspian Sea and on defeating the Khazars.

A description of this campaign is based on a manuscript by Ahmed-bin-Azami, and it mentions that '...Salman reached the Khazar town of Burgur... He continued and finally reached Bilkhar, which was not a Khazar possession, and camped with his army near that town, on rich meadows intersected by a large river'.

This is why several historians connect the town with the proto-Bulgarians. The Arab missionary Ahmed ibn-Fadlan also confirms this connection, as he mentions the fact that, during his trip to the Volga Bulgars in 922, he sees a group of five thousand Barandzhars (balandzhars) who had migrated a long time ago to Volga Bulgaria.

Map of Eastern Europe AD 632-665
In AD 632, Qaghan Koubrat came to power as the head of an Onogur-Bulgar confederation and three years later he was able to throw off Avar domination and found Great Bulgaria (click or tap on map to view full sized)

According to Ibn al-Nasira, after capturing Belendzher-Bulker, Salman reaches another large town, called Vabandar, which has 40,000 houses (families?). M I Artamonov links the name of that town with the ethnicon of the Unogundur Bulgars, which is given as 'v-n-nt-r' by the Khazars (in the letter by their Khagan Joseph).

It is shown as 'venender' or 'nender' by the Arabs, and as Unogundur-Onogur by the Eastern Romans. Variations of 'v-n-nt-r' appear in 668, 982, and 1094, and all suggest that elements of the Venedi have been pinpointed without the authors really knowing their identity. Could these Venedi be part of the backwash of Huns and others of 456-457?

668

Great Bulgaria disintegrates following a massive Khazar attack during their period of expansion in the second half of the seventh century. Bat Bayan and his brothers part company, each leading their own followers.

The youngest, Asparukh, leads between 30,000 to 50,000 people westwards from the Ergeni Hills (the Hippian Mountains) in northern present-day Kalmykia (in Russia), towards the northern coast of the Black Sea. They soon reach the Danube and found a new kingdom of Bulgaria.

The Caspian Sea around Dagestan
Could at least one group of peoples who lived close to seventh century Dagestan and the western shores of the Caspian Sea have been Venedi who had been dragged there by the returning Huns and their other associates?

A number of other tribal names have been associated with that of the Bulgars. Some medieval documents mention that Asparukh also leads a people named 'v.n.n.tr' (in Khazar sources) or 'Unogundur' (in Eastern Roman sources). This ethnonym has been related by historians to the names 'Venender', 'Vhndur', and 'Onogur' which appear in other texts.

This name in its Khazar form is very similar to references to the same people in 982 and 1094 - strongly suggesting that they are the Venedi. If they are migrating with Asparukh, then it means that this particular group has ventured far further east than has previously been suspected of any Venedi, possibly part of the backwash of peoples at the time of the collapse of the Hunnic empire.

In addition, the tribes or groups which are known as Utigurs and Kutrigurs, which appear in some narrative sources which refer to the sixth century, are associated by many historians with the Bulgars.

Hunnic nomad warrior
This illustration shows a horse-borne Hun killing an Eastern Roman soldier although, even though they were direct successors of the Hunnic empire and were initially led by Huns, the Kutrigurs and Utigurs were more probably of Turkic descent

8th century

FeatureThe Venedi gradually disappear between the sixth and ninth centuries AD. Pressure from Germanic groups to their west, but more especially from migrating Slavs from the east sees them assimilated (with reverse influence also taking place - see feature link).

The northernmost parts of their territory are absorbed by various natives which include the Prussians and Lithuanians. A major part of the north is also slowly amalgamated into early Poland.

Thanks to that assimilation, contemporary Germans largely see the new Slav masters of surviving identifiably-Venedi groups as being of the same group, and the Venedi name is transferred to them (although they do not use it to describe themselves).

In the German tongue they are called Wends, while farther south the early Carinthians and Styrians (later to form part of Austria) refer to them as Windische. This helps to show just how great a territory had been settled by the Venedi in the millennium (or more) of their settlement east of the Vistula.

Wends
A personification of the early Wends was presented by a gospel book of 990 which showed them as the Sclavinia (early Slavs, of which the westernmost groups were known as Wends), plus Germania, Gallia, and Roma, all of whom were bringing tribute to Holy Roman emperor Otto III

The vocabulary of the proto-Slavic language shows signs of adoption from multiple sources, with evidence of loan words from Indo-European languages of Eastern Europe. Naturally the Venedi have been suggested as one of those sources.

Given the probable origins of the Slavs between the rivers Bug and Dnieper (the latter of which runs through Belarus and Kyiv in Ukraine before draining into the Black Sea), the two groups have probably interacted long before the Slavs now become dominant, in much the same way as Germans and Gauls had interacted across the Rhine in the second and first centuries BC.

8th - 10th cent

FeatureThe Veleti Union has formed on the western edge of Pomerania, on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea and the western bank of the Oder, in modern north-eastern Germany. The name is the same as 'Galati', but without the 'w' to 'gw' to 'g' shift which long ago had produced 'Galati' (see feature link). Instead this 'Veleti' is either the original 'w' pronunciation (which seems most likely) or a Belgic-style 'w' to 'v' pronunciation (which is also possible).

Stettin in Pomerania
Stettin in Pomerania was for a brief time controlled by Poland during one of that state's many forays into Pomeranian lands in an attempt to control the pagan natives (and possibly also to block similar German incursions)

What this 'Veleti' means is that the Venedi and other Celtic groups in this region are recorded not by tribal name but by ethnic identity, usually as Wends. These Celticised groups eventually adopt Slavic speech before being incorporated into the German empire.

789

Charlemagne leads an expedition against Dragovit, king of the Veleti (on the west bank of the Oder, with the Pomeranians on the other side). Charlemagne defeats him and makes him a vassal in the only venture he and the Carolingian Franks make into what are now Slavic lands - generally, at least. This expedition shows that some earlier groups are still recognisable here.

c.850s

The Venedi remain identifiable as an ethnic group, although their situation is not particularly envious. Two authors describe their plight in 982 and 1094 respectively (see below). In general, after expanding from the Vistula along river valleys towards the Black Sea, the Venedi have settled and have gradually become subjected to later peoples.

Western Ukraine
Western Ukraine covers the modern Volyn, Ivano-Frankovsk, Lvov, Rovno, Ternopol and Chernovtsy regions, and its sweeping plains and gentle hills would have provided perfect farming territory for any Venedi who settled here

Various waves of nomads on horseback (and Goths too) have subsequently disrupted them, conquered, destroyed, and co-opted them, with the result that they have disappeared in many places, or have fled to various mountains, or have joined their conquerors thanks to which they could end up being moved as far as the Caspian Sea as subordinates of those nomads.

Of those who remain, many join incoming Slavs, and most have long since begun speaking the military language of the Avars which itself is Slavic.

982 & 1094

References to Vnnd.r and N.nd.r. in 982 and 1094 respectively remark upon a Christian 'nation' of Rum which is located between the lands of the 'Madjgharî' and the MIRV (M.rdât). The Pechenegs lie to the east (around the north-west corner of the Black Sea coast), while above them and leading north-eastwards are the Kievan Rus and the Volga Bulgars respectively.

The references are Arabic, hence their obliqueness when written in English. The first comes from a geographical work entitled Ḥudūd al-ʿĀlam (from a Persian version of an originally Arabic phrase meaning 'The Limits of The World'), by an unknown author from Jōzjān, or Gozgân, in Southern Khorasan (now northern Afghanistan).

Avars
The Avars pictured here are on their way to conquer Sirmium from the Eastern Romans, which they successfully managed in AD 582, fourteen years after the confirmed founding of their khaganate in the Carpathian Basin

This author writes in second-hand fashion, drawing his information from other tenth century works such as al-Istakhri's Book of the Paths and Provinces. The second comes from Ta‟rîkh-i Gardîzî, in his history, again using earlier sources such as al-Muqaffaʻ. Both describe Eastern Europe around the 'nation' of the Magyars in the mid-ninth century.

The Madjgharî are those Magyars, a people who contribute to the populating of Hungary. Rum is Rome, although the people are not specifically being labelled as Romans - they are simply more civilised than their neighbours in terms of being settled farmers with an element of presumed sophistication.

Whether they are Christianised is questionable, but proselytising Eastern Romans (or, much less likely, Roman Catholics) may well have had an influence by this period. The MIRV are Moravians, living to the north, but seemingly not yet having fully migrated far enough to settle next to the more westerly Bohemians (Moravia being the modern eastern half of Czechia).

As for the Vnnd.r and N.nd.r, this is a more complicated question. They have been linked with the Bulgars, and could be the 'Venender', 'Vhndur', and 'Onogur' which appear in other texts (especially in relation to the Bulgar events of 668).

Bulgarian troops of the eighth century
Oguric-speaking warriors on the Pontic-Caspian steppe in the sixth century would have been largely indistinguishable from each other but, under Eastern Roman influence, some would have begun to resemble the Romans just like the eighth century Bulgars shown here

The original version of the name, 'Vnnd.r' in 982 and an earlier version relating to 668, 'v.n.n.tr', strongly suggests a link to the Venedi, written as 'Vened' in Arabic and possibly with a suffix attached. They are described as cowards (badh-dil), weak, poor (darvīsh), and possess few goods (khwāsta).

They sound very much like Eastern Celts who have long settled into an agrarian existence and have lost their fighting spirit. Their location between the Moravians and Magyars places them in modern northern Romania and western Ukraine, probably close to the thirteenth century city of Lviv in the former region of Galicia.

This perhaps also ties them in with the headwaters of the ancient River Hypanis (the modern Southern Bug or Buh in Ukraine) and the northern bank of the Tyras (the modern Dniester), both rivers seemingly being close to the Venedi at the southerly extension of their occupation along the course of the Vistula.

1168

In his work, Gesta Danorum, Saxo Grammaticus describes the defeat of a group of Wends. They occupy the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea, off the coast of north-eastern Germany where they are conquered by King Valdemar of Denmark.

The Danes conquer Rugen
The Danish conquest of Rügen ended more than a millennium of independence for the native people - a possible combination of Celts, Germanics, and Slavs - pulling down their gods in the process

c.1200

The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia describes a clearly non-Slavic tribe called the Vindi (German Winden, English Wends). They live in Courland and Livonia in what is now Latvia, clearly the northernmost remnants of the Venedi. This would seem to be the last mention of Wends in history, their lands and those of the Venedi in general now forming part of other states.

 
Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original king list page for the History Files.