Mysterious origins of Boii – Gauls, Sarmatians or Slavs?

A few facts about the Boii tribe

  1. The region of Bohemia, in the modern-day Czech Republic, owes them its name. (and from there the word “boheme”)
  2. They belong to Celtic “La Thene” culture and most of the ancient authors refer to them as “Gauls”. (Polybius – Histories, Appian – Gallic history, Pliny the Elder – The Natural History…)
  3. They were also present in North Italy, where they lived along the Etruscans. Together, they fought against the Romans. And later, they even joined Hannibal.
  4. From North Italy, one wave retreated across the Alps. There, they fought against Caesar, together with Helvetians in France. They were defeated. (battle of Alesia)
  5. The other wave moved to Pannonia (north of modern-day Serbia and south of Hungary) where they fought against the Dacians.
  6. In year 8 AD, they were crushed by advancing Roman armies in Pannonia. They moved up north, to Bratislava, Slovakia, and all the way to Bohemia.
  7. In short, Boii left their traces in Poland, Italy, Balkans, Hungary, Slovakia, Germany, and France…
Boii tribe - horse-riding warriors who  crossed vast distances on the European territory before finally settling in Czech Bohemia. What were they origins?

So, we have a pretty good idea of WHERE they were, but we have no idea WHO they were and what was their language. Not a single inscription remains preserved today except few names of Boii rulers. There are some 14 coins minted in Bratislava, and a few more names from the ancient texts. But apart from labeling them as Gauls, and describing their battles and migrations, these sources do not really help us much either.

Boii – warriors or cowboys?

There are two popular versions of the etymology of the name Boii. The first one relates it to Celtic “bo” meaning “cow”. As one author “wittingly” states: “You can say that Boii were the first cowboys…” (?)

The other one relates it to the word “warrior”. If you are a Slavic person, I guess this is a point where you think “Well that was pretty obvious…” but hey, not so fast! Let’s see what Wikipedia says:

“The term “warrior” came from Julius Pokorny, from IE root *bhei(ə)- “to hit”. Not finding any similar Celtic names, he looks further back in time, for example, phohiio-s-, a Venetic personal name; Boioi, an Illyrian tribe; Boiōtoi, a Greek tribal name (“the Boeotians”)… Boii would be from the o-grade of *bhei-, which is *bhoi-. Such a connection is possible if the form Boii came from PIE speaking tribe, before the historic Boii. The Celtic tribe must have been a final, daughter population, of a linguistically diversifying ancestor tribe.

Wait…What? Why is it every time that something sounds Slavic it gets a label “Proto-Indo-European”? Why such a complicated theory when we know that Bohemia is on Slavic territory from at least early middle ages? Even before that, if not present, Slavs were not so far away. Some theories even connect the origins of Boii to Ukraine based on certain toponyms.

To clear things up to non-Slavic readers, “boj” (boy) means “battle” in Slavic languages, from Macedonia to Siberia, Russia, and also, very popular personal names come from this word, namely “Bojan” and “Bojana” (male and female “warrior”). Old Church Slavonic – “вои” – (plural form) troops, army.

But of course, even if the name sounds very Slavic (absolutely no reason for PIE analogies here) a name by itself does not prove much. You can only choose if the more logical name for is “cows” or “warriors”, that is pretty much it.

Pannonian Boii

As we saw, one part of the Boii migrated from Italy to Pannonia, modern-day Serbia. There are indications that they simply joined another part of their tribe, which had settled there much earlier. How much earlier, nobody knows. The Pannonian Boii are mentioned in the late 2nd century BC when they repelled the Cimbri and Teutones (Strabo VII, 2, 2).

This seems pretty logical. If they were retreating from the Romans, the safest bet would be to look for haven among their kinsfolk. This safety would not last too long though. In the year 8 AD Romans had conquered Pannonia and pushed Boii further north – to Slovakia and back in Bohemia.

And now let us have a quick fast-forward in time.

Boii and Serbs

A 10th century Eastern Roman Emperor, Constantine VII, describes the settlement of Serbs in Balkans, in the early 6th century AD, in the following manner:

“The Serbs are descended from the unbaptized Serbs, also called ‘white’, who live beyond Turkey (Hungary) in a place called by them Boiki, where their neighbor is Francia, as is also Great Croatia..” De Administrando Imperio, chapter 31

Moreover, sources on White Serbia mention the mythical King of Serbs as Bojka, Boika, or Boii.

So wait for a second, this is getting too confusing. Let us sum it up quickly.

So, the Boii tribe, that was Gaulish and not Slavic, moved from a modern-day Serbia to Bohemia, because they were pushed away by the Romans. But, some 6 centuries later, when Avars had crushed Romans, Serbs, that are Slavs and not Gauls, settled down in Serbia, from that same Bohemia? Does that make any sense??

Well, the truth is that it doesn’t if we make these two assumptions: 1. That Boii were Gauls and 2. That Serbs came on Balkans in the 6th century for the first time, even though Constantine VII never explicitly says that. It is just presumed based on the words  “they originally dwelt” in White Serbia. But bear in mind that he writes this in the 10th century, four centuries after the presumed migration to the Balkans took place.

Do we have a second opinion on this? Well yes, we have Slavic sources. I have already mentioned them in my post “Did Serbs construct the tower of Babel“. Nestor claims that Serbs originally dwelt on Balkans from where they were pushed away by Roman armies. The Chronicle of Dalimil claims that White Serbs (in Bohemia) are actually descendants of the Balkan Serbs.

Ok, so the Slavic sources match. If both Nestor and Chronicle of Dalimil considered Boii as Serbs, then their stories are actually historically accurate. But if Serbs were indeed present in this part of the world, do we have some toponyms that could confirm this presence? Yes, we do. First of all, it is indicative that Heraclius offered Serbs to settle in a place called SERBIA, near Thessaloniki. However, today we read that this Greek town got its name from a Latin word for watchtower…

Did Heraclius just think that it would be funny to play with words and settle Serbs in Serbia because these are similar sounding words? Who knows. (Even though in this exact place Old Church Slavonic was first defined less than 3 centuries later) But there is also another toponym, attested in Ptolemy’s Geography from the 2nd century AD – Serbinium. We do not know how much before the 2nd century AD Serbinium existed, but it surely had to be of significant size to end up Ptolemy’s map. Its location was in the modern-day Republic of Srpska, in the very region of Pannonia where the Boii thrived.

Pannonia02
Serbinum on the map of Pannonia, Wikipedia Commons

So do we have proof now? Well not really. This time Wikipedia does not connect the etymology of Serbinum (strangely) to a watchtower, but to the Sarmatian tribe – Serboi!

As we will see later, there could be some truth in this. But that will have to be the subject of another post. Here I just wanted to introduce you to the mysterious Boii tribe and their strange relationship with Serbs.

But maybe this is not a bad moment to mention an event which caused a great debate recently. Namely, when Serbian PM visited Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, the later gave a speech which began with words that

“Friendship between Jewish and Serbian people goes back to thousands of years, to the time of the Roman Republic

So what is the deal here, did Mr. Netanyahu just made lapsus not knowing the basic history, or he wanted to tell us something more? The Roman Republic lasted from 509 BC to 27 BC, but he also clearly mentions “thousands of years.” The Celtic invasion of Italy described above took place somewhere in the middle of this period.

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