PROCOPIUS ON THE SLAVS

 

Procopius of Caesarea is one of the greatest historians of Late Antiquity. He was born around 500 and died ca. 560, having thus lived much of his life as a contemporary of Emperor Justinian (527-565). Procopius was an assessor (legal advisor) on the staff of General Belisarius and accompanied him on campaign in Mesopotamia, Africa, and Italy. His longest and most important work consist of a history of the wars of Emperor Justinian, comprising two books on the Persian, two on the Vandal, three on the Ostrogothic wars, and a final book continuing the story on all three fronts. The work covers the period 527-551 and is one of the most important sources for the sixth-century history of the Empire and its barbarian neighbors. The excursus (digression) on the Slavs in Book VII is the longest description of any barbarian group in the entire work on Justinianís wars, an indication of the special interest Procopius and his audience had in things Slavic. The excursus was most likely written in 550 or 551 on the basis of information that Procopius may have obtained through interviews with Sclavene and Antian mercenaries in Belisariusí army in Italy. Translation fromProcopius in Seven Volumes, with an English translation by H. B. Dewing, vol. 4 (London/New York, 1924), pp. 269-273.

 

 

(VII. 14. 22-30). For these nations, the Sclaveni and the Antae, are not ruled by one man, but they have lived from of old under a democracy, and consequently everything which involves their welfare, whether for good or for ill, is referred to the people. It is also true that in all other matters, practically speaking, these two barbarian peoples have had from ancient times the same institutions and customs. For they believe that one god, the maker of lightning, is alone lord of all things, and they sacrifice to him cattle and all other victims; but as for fate, they neither know it nor do they in any wise admit that it has any power among men, but whenever death stands close before them, either stricken with sickness or beginning a war, they make a promise that, if they escape, they will straightway make a sacrifice to the god in return for their life; and if they escape, they sacrifice just what they have promised, and consider that their safety has been bought with this same sacrifice. They reverence, however, both rivers and nymphs and some other spirits, and they sacrifice to all these also, and they make their divinations in connection with these sacrifices. They live in pitiful hovels which they set up far apart from one another, but, as a general thing, every man is constantly changing his place of abode. When they enter battle, the majority of them go against their enemy on foot carrying little shields and javelins in their hands, but they never wear corselets. Indeed, some of them do not wear even a shirt or a cloak, but gathering their trews up as far as to their private parts they enter into battle with their opponents. And both the two peoples have also the same language, an utterly barbarous tongue. Nay further, they do not differ at all from one another in appearance. For they are all exceptionally tall and stalwart men, while their bodies and hair are neither very fair or blonde, nor indeed do they incline entirely to the dark type, but they are all slightly ruddy in color. And they live a hard life, giving no heed to bodily comforts, just as the Massagetae do, and like them, they are continually and at all times covered with filth; however, they are in no respect base or evil-doers, but they preserve the Hunnic character in all its simplicity. In fact, the Sclaveni and the Antae actually had a single name in the remote past; for they were both called Spori in olden times, because, I suppose, living apart one man from another, they inhabit their country in a sporadic fashion. And in consequence of this very fact they hold a great amount of land; for they alone inhabit the greatest part of the northern bank of the Ister. So much then may be said regarding these peoples.