Mysterious origins of Boii – Gauls, Slavs… or something different?

I will try to make this text short and simple as usual, but there is just so much to say about the Boii tribe and it is all really interesting!

Here are some facts:

  1. Presumably, their origins are in Bohemia, modern day Czech Republic which owes them its name.
  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 in symbiosis with Etruscans.Together with them, they had fought against Romans, as they did again some time later when Hannibal arrived with his army.
  4. From North Italy one wave moved back across the Alps and fought against Caesar together with Helvetians in France, where 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 and moved up north, to Bratislava, Slovakia, and presumably all the way back to Bohemia.
  7. Boii left their traces in Poland, Italy, Balkans, Hungary, Slovakia, Germany and France…


Boii migrations

Read more:

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

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 a 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 “warrior” derivation was adopted by the linguist Julius Pokorny, who presented it as being from Indo-European *bhei(ə)-, *bhī-, “hit;” however, not finding any Celtic names close to it (except for the Boii), he adduces examples somewhat more widely from originals further back in time: phohiio-s-, a Venetic personal name; Boioi, an Illyrian tribe; Boiōtoi, a Greek tribal name (“the Boeotians”) and a few others.Boii would be from the o-grade of *bhei-, which is *bhoi-. Such a connection is possible if the original form of Boii belonged to a tribe of Proto-Indo-European speakers long before the time of the historic Boii. If that is the case, then the Celtic tribe of central Europe must have been a final daughter population of a linguistically diversifying ancestor tribe.”

Wait…What? Why is it every time that something sounds Slavic that it is labeled as Proto-Indo-European? Why such a complicated theory when we know that Bohemia is on Slavic territory from at least early middle ages and 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 are derived from this word, namely “Bojan” and “Bojana” (male and female “warrior”). Old Church Slavonic – “вои” – (plural form) troops, army.

Anyway, 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 it is more logical for this tribe to be called “cows” or “warriors”, that is pretty much it.


Boii coin

To continue our story, what we do know for sure is that one part of the Boii had migrated from Italy to Pannonia. There are indications that over there they simply joined another division 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. Not for too long though, as in year 8 AD Romans had conquered Pannonia and pushed them further north, to Slovakia and back in Bohemia.

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

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 neighbour is Francia, as is also Great Croatia, the unbaptized, also called ‘white’: in this place, then, these Serbs also originally dwelt. But when two brothers succeeded their father in the rule of Serbia, one of them, taking a moiety of the folk, claimed the protection of Heraclius, the emperor of the Romans, and the same emperor Heraclius received him and gave him a place in the province of Thessalonica to settle in, namely Serbia, which from that time has acquired this denomination.”…
…”Now, after some time these same Serbs decided to depart to their own homes, and the emperor sent them off. But when they had crossed the river Danube, they changed their minds and sent a request to the emperor Heraclius, through the military governor then governing Belgrade, that he would grant them other land to settle in.”…
De Administrando Imperio, chapter 31

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

So wait a second, this is getting 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, settle 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, 4 centuries after the migration took place.

Do we have a second opinion on this? Well yes, we have Slavic sources that I have already mentioned 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, and Chronicle of Dalimil claims that White Serbs (in Bohemia) are actually descendants from Balkan Serbs. (full quotes with sources can be found in the mentioned post)

Ok, so the Slavic sources match. If both Nestor and Chronicle of Dalimil considered Boii as Serbs, than 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 town got its name from a Latin word for watchtower. Hmmmm…,_Greece

Did Heraclius just thought that it would be funny to play with words and settle Serbs in Serbia because it is a similar sounding word??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 2nd century AD Serbinium was founded but it surely had to be of significant size to end up Ptolemy’s map. This place is situated in modern day Republic of Srpska, in the very region of Pannonia where the Boii thrived.


So do we have a proof now? Well not really. This time Wikipedia does not connect etymology (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 a 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 with local historians recently. Namely, less than a year ago, 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” (Watch it, reaction of our PM is priceless)

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.” Celtic invasion of Italy described above took place somewhere in the middle of this period.

As always, you can make all the conclusions yourselves.