The untold stories of the Merovingian dynasty

The story of France begins in the middle of the 5th century AD with the Merovingians,  a royal dynasty that ruled the Franks for almost three centuries. But even though this dynasty was always a popular and important subject in numerous historical accounts that started from the early middle ages, there are some well-known facts that make Merovingians one of the most mysterious royal bloodline to this date. Some of those facts are:

  • Merovech, was a semi-legendary founder of the dynasty. His father was a sea god according to the legend – a quinotaur with bull’s head.
  • Merovingians are also known as “reges-criniti” – long-haired kings, an unusual trait that distinguished them from the Franks, who commonly cut their hair short.
  • They were buried in burial mounds, rich with grave goods and horse burials, quite reminiscent on those of the steppe people, and very unusual in Western Europe of the time.
  • They themselves claimed to have Sicambrian (presumed to be Scythian or Cimmerian) origins and this topic was very popular in the earliest historical accounts.
  • Not unlike many other western dynasties, their earliest origins are related to the fall of Troy.

Some of the earliest accounts of the origins of the Merovingians come from “L’Historia Francorum” written by Frédégaire in 660 AD and anonymous work “Liber Historiae Francorum” from 727 AD. Both of the sources connect them with the fall of Troy. More precisely, the text from the later work goes like this:

“The other chiefs, namely Priam and Anténor, with what was left of the Troyan army (12.000 people) went on their ships, sailed off and arrived on the banks of Don river (Tanaïs). Penetrating with their ships to the Azov sea (Palus-Méotide,) they had crossed it and arrived in the region of Pannonia, not far from there. There they had constructed a city, in their memory, by the name of Sicambria. They settled there for many years and developed into a big nation.”

Of course, this could be just a mythological tale, as modern historians tend to see it. However we must remember that it sprang out directly from the time when Merovingians had still ruled France. So let us give it a chance and try to analyze it a bit further.

It seems that what we have here is a case of misplaced geography. We see that Sicambrians had ended their journey in Pannonia. But since there are no other records of a region called Pannonia apart from the one in the Balkans, it wouldn’t be a logical choice to make a trip from Troy, trough Bosphorus and Black Sea, all the way to Don river and then back. Could it be that the author has confused the river Don with the river Danube (Donnau – same etymological root), a river that is easily accessible directly from the Black sea and leads strait to Pannonian plains?

I am not the first person to propose this theory, and I believe that it is a reasonable solution, provided that there is some truth in this story of course. There is however little doubt that the author was talking about the Balkan Pannonia, as we can see from the following passage:

“And so the (Roman) emperor Valentinian named them Francs, in Attic Greek, which means ‘savages’, because of the hardness and the boldness of their heart. “

There is no doubt that this emperor was Valentinian I (ruled from 364-375AD), himself born in southern Pannonia, on a territory of modern Vinkovci, Croatia. His seat was in the biggest Pannonian city – Sirmium (modern Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia) from where he undertook many campaigns against Sarmatians, Allamani and Quadi. According to the author, these campaigns were so brutal that Sicambrians decided to leave their lands:

“Exiting Sicambria, they had arrived at the end of the Rhine river, in Germanic towns, and it is here where they lived with their princes, Marcomir, son of Priam, and Sunnon, son of Anténor. They had lived there for many years.”

Here we encounter another serious problem. Just as we got used to the idea of misplaced geography the author tells us that the events described here had happened in only two generations of fathers and their sons. Meanwhile, the officially accepted date for the fall of Troy is 1184 BC, while the events described here date to 4th century AD – a gap of almost 16 centuries! This is evidently the main reason why this and similar chronicles are nowadays taken as pure mythological tales. But taken into account the availability of information in those days and obvious flaws of oral tradition, we should not be so quick to dismiss all of these statements as a fairy tale. I will now present you with few facts that will go in defense of the author’s theory.

First of all, if we go backward in time, we see that the forefathers of the Franks may have arrived from the German lands, where they had settled just a few centuries before. This theory fits nicely with modern archaeological findings that have discovered many “Germanic elements” in the grave goods of the Merovingians.

Also, one of the princes is named as Marcomir. He could have been a real person, but also could have been the mythological forefather of the (presumably Germanic, although his name sounds rather Slavic) tribal confederation known as Marcomanni.  (According to Pausanias, “marka” was the Celtic name for a horse, so it could mean “horsemen”) The territory of Marcomanni is presumed to be around Bohemia, modern day Czech Republic.

Now, in this same area of Bohemia, flows a river Morava, giving the name Moravia to the whole region around it. This is very important for our story, because Slavic sources, and most notably Russian ones, relate the name of the founder of French dynasty – Moravech (Latin: Meroveus or Merovius) to this river. Indeed, in Slavic language a person descending from Morava would be known as Moravich. Moreover, there is very little doubt that the river Morava bears the name of the ancient river god or goddess (as it was almost always the case with all important rivers in the Indo-European world) These river gods were almost exclusively depicted with bull’s heads, just like in this case. I wrote another article on this subject and you can read it here.

But there is more to this. There is another Morava river on the Balkans, just below the plains of Pannonia. Nobody disputes that these two rivers are related to the same group of people. The problem is that we don’t know which river name is older as words do not have DNA that we could trace.

However, this Balkan river separates into Eastern and Western Morava. On the Western Morava lies a city of Cacak, in whose vicinity flows a tributary river Moravica (diminutive of Morava). On the banks of Moravica lies a very interesting archaeological find, “unique in Balkans”. Namely, archaeologists have discovered dozens of mound burials, rich with grave goods and horse chariots, dating to 6th-5th century BC. One of the most important findings is the set of golden bees, of exquisite craftsmanship. Their obvious use was for a decoration of the garments of an important figure, but their symbolic remains a puzzle for scholars. Curiously, archaeologists have determined that most of the findings on this site come from ancient Greece and Italy. Meanwhile, a village where they are discovered is called Atenica in Serbian (a diminutive of Athens). Is is possible that this name has really survived a 1000 years until the supposed arrival of Slavs to Balkans, or there was never any break in continuity?


Golden bees from Atenica, Museum of Cacak, Serbia (6th-5th century BC)

And while it is usually said that these bees have very little parallels with the findings from other regions, I will now show you the striking resemblance to the 300 bees that once adorned the cloak of Merovingian king Childeric I.


Bees from the tomb of the Childeric I (440 – 481/482 AD)

One possible parallel with other “bee objects” of the ancient world is with those of Artemis of Ephesus, also known as “bee goddess”, whose worship had spread across the whole of Mediterranean and particularly ancient Greece and Thracia during the Bronze age, at the time when Troy still existed. Balkan bees are probably influenced by this cult (or the one of Dionysus, who according to the myth reincarnated as a bee) and they almost surely belonged to a Thracian tribe. Balkans is the homeland of Thracians, but we also know that Thracians were involved in Troyan wars. This is interesting because the word “Sicambria”, a mythical homeland of Merovingians has never been identified or translated with any ancient language. However, it seems that in Thracian language “skumbras” meant “mountain, hill”. This was the ancient name of mountain Vitosha, that rises over Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria.

artemis efesus.jpgskumbras

Ancient coin from Ephesus | Skumbras –

To cut the long story short, could there in fact be some truth behind the claims presented in “Liber Historiae Francorum”? Could it be possible to trace the migration of a tribe that first settled on a territory stretching between the Balkan Morava river and Pannonian plains, and lived there for centuries until they were pushed to the North by the Roman armies, to the regions between the Rhyne and Morava river in Czech republic, from where a few centuries later they would reach France? In short, was the author of the chronicle familiar with the basic facts, even though his geography and timeline are way off?

As for the Troy, it should be noted that there are indeed many ancient toponyms on the course of Danube river from Black sea to Pannonia that may bear its name. Such examples are the ancient Troesmis as well as many other  that survived to this date in variations Tria, Troa, Troi all over Bulgarian and Romanian banks of river Danube. This region was conquered in the first centuries of the first millennium by the Roman emperor named Marcus Ulpius – Trajan, but I am adding it only as a curiosity fact, for it may also be a plain coincidence.