The First Documented Slavic Ruler – Bož of the Antes
Bož(pronounced bozh) was the king of the Antes, an early Slavic people who lived in parts of present-day Ukraine and who were the ancestors of most of the Eastern Slavs. His story is mentioned by Jordanes in the Getica (De origine actibusque Getarum) which was written in 550 or 551.
Jordanes writes that King Ermanaric (reigned in the 370s) of the Greuthungi (a Gothic tribe, most likely the same as the later Ostrogoths), member of the Amali dynasty, managed to subdue a large number of tribes in Europe (Cassiodorus called him “ruler of all nations of Scythia and Germania”), and he is said to have lastly subjugated the Wends, ancestors of Western Slavs. Jordanes also notes that the Gothic tribes regularly made raids into Slavic territory.
Jordanes is our best source when it comes to early Slavic people, but we have to remember that he was of Gothic origin and could be pretty subjective when it comes to the Goths. In De origine actibusque Getarum, he glorified Gothic history so much that he claims that the Goths sacked “Troy and Ilium” barely after they had somewhat recovered from the war with Agamemnon. They are also said to have encountered the Egyptian pharaoh Vesosis. The less fictional part of Jordanes’ work begins when the Goths encounter Roman military forces in the 3rd century AD. The work concludes with the defeat of the Goths by the Byzantine general Belisarius. Jordanes concludes the work by stating that he writes to honor those who were victorious over the Goths after a history of 2030 years. Bož lived about 200 years before Jordanes, which means that Jordanes’ work is not based on contemporary history but rather on myths; therefore, we cannot be completely certain that everything he wrote is true. Having this in mind, we can continue researching the life of Bož.
Jordanes mentioned three tribes of the same origin which constituted the Slavs: Wends (ancestors of West Slavs), Antes (ancestors of East Slavs) and Sklaveni (ancestors of South Slavs), and stated that the Antes were the bravest and strongest among these. He also stated that the Antes’ rule was hereditary, while Procopius maintained that the Sklaveni and Antes “are not ruled by one man, but they have lived from old under a democracy“. The Antes inhabited the area between the Dniester and the Dnieper rivers, spanning most likely to the region of the Vistula, then from there to the mouth of the Danube, and eastwards to the Don. The tribal union of the Antes was probably neighboring the West Slavic tribes. The Antes had probably formed their own state judging by Jordanes’ referring to Bož as “king”. Jordanes does not tell us about the places where the Wends used to live, but according to his description, this would be the area populated by the Antes and the Sclavenes.
There was a good deal of fighting in the 4th century AD between the Goths and Antes. Most of it undoubtedly took place in southern Russia, but there is one interesting reference in Jordanes which seems to indicate that they may have fought in the Caucasus as well.
Vinitharius (the ruler of the Ostrogoths) loathed being under Hun rule, so he withdrew his forces and marched against the Antes in order to defeat them and show his courage. This took place in the last quarter of the 4th century, possibly around 380. Bož, the king of the Antes (rex Antorum), had organized an alliance to defend the Antes, and managed to defeat Vinitharius in their first encounters. However, Vinitharius fought valiantly and managed to capture and crucify Bož, together with his sons and 70 of his chiefs (primates). Vinitharius left their bodies hanging to induce fear into those who had surrendered.
Ermanaric and his Goths were not long to rejoice over this victory for, they went down beneath the scampering hooves of the Hunnish horses. The day of the Huns and of their greatest leader, Attila, was at hand. But whereas the Goths left Russia for the south as a result of the Hunnic invasion, the Antes survived right where they were. With the Goths gone and Attila’s Hunnic empire shifted far to the west, the Ante monarchy made a strong comeback. In the middle of the 6th century it stretched northwards from the Carpathians to the Pontic steppe. Procopius mentioned that the Goths were at one time known as “Scythians, Sarmatians, and Geten”, which shows us how big of a confusion it was for Romans to differentiate the “barbarian people”.
At the beginning, all the people who lived on the steppes of Eastern Europe were considered Sarmatians to Romans. The Romans themselves were often in doubt as to whether the peoples living west of the Vistula were of Sarmatian or Germanic origin. Both looked the same to them, both talked the languages they could not understand and both were pagans. I believe that many ancestors of modern Slavic people were mistaken for Germanic, Sarmatian or Scythian people and vice-versa. It is really hard to determine what sort of impact Sarmatians left on Slavic people and whether some Slavic tribes were regarded as Sarmatian in Roman histories.
Because of a lack of knowledge and misconceptions of the time, it is really hard and almost impossible to connect the tribes that lived before the 10th century to any modern ethnicity. Nevertheless, we have ventured to ascertain the true identity of the Vandals combining historical sources with genetics, and analyses on more Slavic tribes will follow.
It ought to be remembered, too, that while the Huns lived in the regions north and west of the Black Sea for seventy years, and while their empire included all the peoples dwelling between the Volga and the Rhine, Byzantine writers and others used the word “Huns” very indiscriminately. Sometimes they would list all the nomadic tribes of southern Russia under this category, who are in fact ancestors of Tatars. Byzantine writes could not make a difference between the Huns, Magyars and Volga-Bulgarians. Very often they attached the name to groups who were not of the Hunnic stock at all. It is with these facts in mind that we must pass on to consider the impact of a people from the mid-Dnieper region where the Antes held sway, whom most authorities consider to be neo-Hunnic.
Jordanes wrote the ruler’s name in Late Latin as Boz (“Boz nomine“), though several manuscripts of the Getica use Box or Booz. There are various theories in etymological studies regarding the name.
The name has been rendered in the Slavic languages as Bož (Бож, Божь; transliterated as Bozh). One theory is that it derives from the Slavic word bog, “God”, interpreted as “God’s”.
Polish linguist Stanisław Urbańczyk (1909–2000) mentioned *Božь (divine), *Vo(d)žь (chief), and *Bosь (barefooted) as possibilities. Stanisław Rospond (1906–1982), another Polish linguist, concluded that his name was Bos, “barefooted”, and that the other etymologies put forward by Urbańczyk were less probable; he supported this by connecting Boz with Bus (Боусь) of The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, as Omeljan Ohonovskyj (1833–1894) had first done in 1876.
Ukrainian scholar Mykhailo Hrushevsky (1866–1934) speculated that his name was “perhaps Bozhko, Bozhydar, Bohdan, Bogdan”. Ukrainian Bohdan Struminsky stressed that as the first palatalizations (gь > žь, etc.) had not yet occurred in the Slavic language at the time of Bož, *Božь was unconvincing and *Vo(d)žь “even less acceptable”. Although supporting the connection with Bus, he assumed that it was Gothic, as *Bōs, found in similar variants as West Gothic Bōsō, of uncertain date, “probably meaning ‘Sorcerer'”, and Anglo-Saxon Bōsa, from the 7th century.
His title, rex Antorum, translates to “King of the Antes”. Ukrainian historian Mykola Andrusiak assumed, as Jordanes used rex for both Germanic rulers and the ruler of the Antes, that the Eastern Slavs had adopted “*kuning-” from the Goths and Slavicized it into “kǔnędzǐ” (knyaz), translated by Jordanes as “rex”.
We can identify Bož with Bus as mentioned in The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, in which the boyars tell Sviatoslav I of Kiev (r. 945–972) of “Gothic maidens … singing about the time of Bus”. The first to connect the two was Omeljan Ohonovskyj (1833–1894), in 1876. He was later supported by Stanisław Rospond.
As you can see, the sources tell us more about the political situation of those times than about a single person; still, Bož is, even though a tragic hero and somebody who got killed by an enemy, very important for Slavic history. The existence of Bož proves that there was a Slavic ethnicity in Europe before the 6th century, and that there was some kind of organized country or at least, and probably more likely, a tribal confederation. A part of Slavs, the Wends probably, moved westwards, where they waged wars with Germanic tribes, but since neither have detailed written materials about those times, not much can be known.
The reason why Slavs are not known prior to the 6th century is because they did not live south enough to be of concern to the Roman empire; but as soon as they moved there, Roman scholars started writing about the Sclavenes, the Wends, and the Antes. They started calling them all Sclavenes at one point because they were of “the same kind” – the Romans didn’t care enough to tell them apart to a greater extent. Therefore, we can conclude that the ancestors of Slavic people have been living in Central and Eastern Europe for centuries and that the Slavic ethnos was formed prior to the 6th c. AD – but they were called by different names, which is a theme for another full-length article.
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