The Pontic Rhos: Intro

Names, like words, have their history.  Toponyms in particular carry not only their own etymology, but the history of the geographical or human entity which they represent.  For the study of sources, it is imperative to determine the value borne by a certain toponym or ethnym at a given point in time.

In the early days of the Roman Empire, the name of the Franks was applied to a Germanic people, living along the Rhine according to their ancient tribal fashion;  they were one of many such groups, allies of Rome who supplied the Empire with mercenaries.  By AD 500 (when Clovis was crowned) the Franks were a Christian kingdom covering most of present-day northern France, and a good chunk of the Rhine valley;  the people over whom they ruled were a mixture of Romanized Gauls (the majority), Germanic tribes, and some displaced people from the East:  Syrians, Alans.

By AD 800 (when Charlemagne was crowned), the Franks ruled over an empire which stretched from the Atlantic to the Oder and the middle Danube, from the Mediterranean to the North and Baltic seas.  This empire used Latin for most communications:  administration, religion, literature.  The language of the Franks was spoken only by a handful of people, descended from the original Germanic tribe.  The languages spoken in the Empire included Basque and Celtic in the West, Avar and Slavic in the East, and many others besides.

By 900, the Empire of the Franks was defunct;  its nomenclature entered the realm of history, and survivals.  On its ruins there emerged two substantial political formations, the Saxon Empire which was a continuation of Francia orientalis, but under a totally different hegemony;  in the west, the long lived Kingdom of France gradually emerged, which carried the name of the ancient Franks, but had very few ties with it.  On the periphery the kingdom of Hungary, the kingdom of Provence, the principalities of Northern Italy and the Slavic East, in particular Polabia, took a separate course.  Modern Europe was born.

The language of the Franks is now only known through the remnants which have survived in the rather inappropriately named French language:  this is fundamentally late Latin, with some Celtic substratum, and what linguists call an adstratum of some 800 Frankish words.  Survivals include place names like Frankfurt, Franconia, etc.  Survivals include such “French” words as guerre, gant (war, glove).

Farther afield, the name of the Franks and the empire over which they ruled was used for centuries after the empire vanished as a generic term for anything or anyone from Western Europe, whether France, Germany and even Italy.  In both the Byzantine empire and the Muslim world, this remained until after the Crusades the name of the Christian West.

I encountered this problem of terminology during the course of my research on the cross-bow (Petrin 1992).  In medieval Arabic and Turkish sources, the cross-bow is frequently called the Frankish bow.  The cross-bow had of course nothing to do with the nation of the Franks;  in this context, the Muslim sources mean the “European” or even more precisely “Western European” bow, that is the bow engine.

The history of the name Rhos = Rus’, the source of modern “Russia”, is just as complex, but even more poorly documented in its early stages.  The purpose of this article is to recover and organize this fragmentary information.  Unfortunately this etymological research will run counter to the accepted early historiography of the Slavs.  On the other hand, historians should have paid more attention to an obvious fact:  the name Rhos – Rus’ is clearly not Slavic in origin;  its phonologypoints to a rather different linguistic system.

The name Rhos was first recorded during the ninth century;  it
referred to a nation or a political formation (more probably the
latter) somewhere in the Pontic steppe.  The earliest dated
citation which I have found comes from a Frankish source:  the
Annals of St. Bertin.  The date is 839;  the event is a visit to
the Frankish emperor Louis the Pious by a Byzantine embassy;
they are accompanied by some envoys of a nation or state called
the Rhos.  The annals provide little information but it seems
evident that these people were not unknown to the Franks;  the
one useful bit of data is the word “chagan” which these Rhos give
their king.  This Oriental word, to which we will return, points
unequivocally to the East;  scholars who have speculated that
these mysterious Rhos might be Scandinavian have not really read
this text.  The Vikings did not call their rulers Chagans.

The next event on record is securely dated to June 860;  no
longer friends of the Byzantines, the Rhos attacked
Constantinople with their small but very fast boats called
akitia.  A number of sources describe the unpleasant incident,
and refer to the Rhos as a Scythian people:  The Anonymous
Chronicler of Brussels, Genesius, Nicetas of Byzantium, sundry
military writers.

We have descriptions of the Rhos in Muslim sources (in particular
ibn-Rusta and Gardezi).  They have a king called Khagan Rus to
whom merchants pay a tithe, their lands are swampy with many
rivers, they have no horses, but are expert boatmen.  They have a
rich economy based on furs, the slave trade (their neighbours the
agricultural Saqlaba whom they abduct and sell to the Khazars and
the Bulkar).  They also raid the Saqlaba for grain.  They wear
linen and gold.  They have Saqlab mercenaries.  They are pagans.
Later Muslim geographers, such as Al-Bekri, no longer carry
notices of these Rhos.

The wealth of the Rhos, described in the Muslim sources, is
confirmed by archaeology:  valuable Byzantine and Arab coins from
the seventh and the eighth centuries have been recovered from the
Pontic steppe in the hundreds of thousands.  The Rhos seem to
have simply hoarded this money:  when they needed food, like
grain and pork, they raided their poor Saqlab neighbours!!  They
could have paid for this food with all the money which they
buried in the ground.

Later the Kievan Rus’ was to build an entire civilisation upon
the basis of this same wealth (namely furs, wax, honey, amber):
beautiful buildings, costly books, incredible art, and other
appurtenances of gracious living.  Somehow the Rhos — or at
least their leadership class — don’t come across as an engaging
people;  not surprisingly historians have ignored them, even
those who have cheerfully retrieved these amazing coins from the ground.

The heading of the notices in ibn-Rusta and Gardezi is often
translated as “Russians”;  many modern historians have assumed
that these authors refer to the Kievan Rus’ without realizing
that these notices have little to identify the Rus’:  a Christian
state, with horses, and many large and beautiful cities, the
Kievan Rus’ did not bury their wealth in swamps.  There are some
features of continuity between the later Kievan Rus’ and this
earlier state known as Rhos, particularly their role in
international trade, just as one can find some continuity between
the Empire of the Franks and the Kingdom of France;  but for
historical purposes, they must be treated separately until the
ties between the two are well known.

Linguistic features such as the word “Chagan” point to generic
Oriental political terminology.  The ruling class of the Rhos may
well have been cousins of the mixed Turkish-Sogdians who ruled
the empire of the Avars, and also the Khanate of Bulgaria:
recent comers from Inner Asia.  The masses of the people were
probably long time dwellers of the steppes.  Those are standard
features in ancient multi-ethnic empires, and may be taken for
granted, unless actual evidence should improbably point in
another direction.

The name “Bulgar” appears in Late Roman sources (Marcellinus
Comes) as early as the fifth century;  it refers to a Danubian
nation or a group of nations also known as Sclaveni in other
sources of the same period, describing the same events.  The
Khanate of Bulgaria was ruled by an aristocracy which spoke a
curious mixture of Iranian and Turkish:  their language (called
proto-Bulgar by philologists) can be studied from their
inscriptions.  The name Bulgar is that of the Slavic speaking
nations whom they vassalized.  Likewise the name Rhos may be the
name of the steppe people whom the new comers from Inner Asia
organized into a mercantile and predatory formation.

Clues? In late antiquity, there was a nation known as Rhoxolani in the steppe region. Theirs is a compound name of a type familiar to ancient ethnography: the Celtibers, the Gallo-Romans, etc. The Alans are very well known in the historical record; the first part of the name Rhoxolani points to the Volga, known as Rha in antiquity. Our word rhubarb (Rhos barbaricon) is derived from this source. Then there are the mysterious Rhipaean mountains, located somewhere in Scythia, which were only known by hearsay to the Greeks and the Romans. Philostorgius testifies that these mountains were associated with the Huns, also a nation from the Pontic steppe.

Unlike their Turco-Sogdian masters, the masses of the Rhos spoke
probably some form of Finno-Ugrian.  The entire corridor from the
Black Sea to the North Sea is saturated with ancient Finno-Ugrian
toponyms.  Even after centuries of Slavic colonisation, the
ancient names are found in the thousands.  The languages
themselves survive only on the periphery:  Finland, Baltic
states, and an emigre group in Hungary.  This distribution is a
typical pattern for language families which are only known from
their surviving substrata.

The capital of the rich and powerful state of the Kievan Rus’
bears a name which is impossible in Slavic:  /k/ followed by a
fronted vowel /i/.  In such an environment, /k/ would normally
become palatalized, and indeed one finds the variant Chiev
occasionally in medieval Slavic chronicles.  Nevertheless the
name Kiev has survived to this day, bearing its original and non-Slavic phonology.

River names are the most persistent:  Moskva, Neva are some of
these survivals.  One clue to ancient Finno-Ugrian names is, as
in the case of Kiev, the lack of palatalization.  Many ancient
Iranian names are associated with the steppe region;  Iranian,
like Slavic, is marked with palatalisation.  Such names as
Scythi, Sciri, Scrithifinni, cannot be either Slavic or Iranian.
They could be Finno-Ugrian;  at least the phonology allows this.
Names, yes, and words too:  the boats known as akitia which the
Rhos used in the attack on Constantinople bear a name which is
neither Slavic nor Iranian:  the lack of palatalisation proves it.

The few historians, such as Vasiliev, who have at all paid
attention to the Pontic Rhos have not extracted much data from
the sources.  Their methodology was deficient.  They have treated
these Rhos as some loose aggregate of people without any kind of
institutions.  Actually human societies are all organized in some
way;  even refugee camps made up of displaced persons from varied
origins soon develop some form of structure, for the purpose of

Political formations in particular all have some form of
leadership class, some source of economic wealth, whether
peasants who produce food or merchants who trade goods, or a
mixture of both;  armies and other supports of power are also
found in most states;  organized religion, cultural producers,
fishermen, miners, craftsmen, etc.  Political formations occupy a
given territory which may expand or shrink over time, but is
always identifiable at a given time.

Furthermore, political formations are living things;  they are
born, they grow, they become old, and they die — or at least go
through a protracted period of renewal.  As established by Ellis
Minns in his Scythians, the usual lifespan for a political
formation is 240 years.  The periods of conflict which act as
transition from one formation to the next tend to last about
fifty years.

By 860, the Pontic Rhos had started to disintegrate; by 900, the successor state of the Kievan Rus’ emerges in its place. This would place the foundation of the Pontic Rhos in ca AD 600. Confirmation? All those coins from foreign trade. The enormous deposits date from the seventh and eight centuries. Successful international trade cannot exist without the support of well-organized political formations; this becomes evident during political crises, when even basic foodstuffs and materials become unavailable.

Assuming a rich and reasonably powerful state in the Pontic
steppe from ca AD 600 to ca 860 — why have we so little
information about it?  A number of reasons may explain this.  The
period from AD 600 to 800 is one of the most poorly documented in
human history, especially since the invention of writing;  even
the history of a highly literate state such as Byzantium is
almost unknown from those two centuries.  Not surprisingly, we
have hardly anything on the Pontic Rhos:  they don’t seem to have
used writing, and are known through their neighbours, who had
better things to do than write about the Rhos.

Another problem may be terminology.  Political formations have
fluctuating names:  Serbia vs Yugoslavia, Prussia vs Germany,
Greece vs Hellas, Byzantium vs Rum, etc.  One source, the
Cosmographer of Ravenna, mentions a state in the Pontic steppe
which he calls in his barbarous Latin Onogoria;  the date of this
work is uncertain, but cannot be beyond AD 800.  The origin of
the name Onogoria has been debated;  it could be a double
barreled one combining the name of the Huns and the name of the
Ogurs (i.e. a Pontic nation and an Eastern one by way of Inner
Asia).  Whatever the name however, the geographic location
suggests the same formation as the Pontic Rhos.

At this point, a regional assessment may be helpful.  In ca AD
550, there were some severe convulsions in Inner Asia (the area
around Bukhara and Samarkand).  One result was the emigration of
hundreds of thousands of people, some speaking some form of
Turkic, others Sogdian, who travelled West.  For the next few
decades, they strove to establish new homes for themselves.
Since the lands and resources they coveted already belonged to
other people, these were war-filled decades.

Some of these refugees settled along the middle Danube, and
attempted to conquer the Byzantine empire.  Ultimately they
failed;  by the early seventh century they consolidated their
khaganate on the middle Danube;  they are known as the Avars
(Obri in the Slavic sources).  Their western territories were
conquered by the Franks shortly before AD 800;  their eastern
provinces may have lived on for a while.  Eventually, they fell
to the Petchenegs.

An offshot of the Avars settled on the northern shore of the
lower Danube, and gradually added territories from the Byzantine
lands to the south of that major river.  They are known in
history books as the Bulgars, or even Proto-Bulgars.  Their state
is normally called the First Bulgarian Khanate;  it disintegrated
in the mid tenth century, and its southern lands were
reintegrated into the Byzantine empire for a few centuries.  Its
Rumanian possessons fell likewise to the Petchenegs.

A similar process of state formation and disintegration took
place at the same time in the steppe region but is not equally
well recorded.  It marks the birth of the political formation
known as Onogoria or Rhos.  The collapse of this state in the
mid©ninth century inaugurated the birth of the Kievan Rus’, and
also the mass emigration of the people later known as Hungarians,
who created a new state on the middle Danube, on the ruins of the

That the Hungarians came from the Pontic steppe is demonstrated
from contemporary historical sources (Frankish chronicles);  that
they spoke a Finno-Ugrian language with much material of Oriental
origin is equally clear from the linguistic evidence.  This
supports my contention that the Pontic Rhos was made up of a
Finno-Ugrian mass, with Oriental leadership.  The Rhos also
included an increasingly important military element of Slavic
origin:  the Saqlab janissaries whom the Rhos boatmen shanghaied
in the course of their raids.

Over time, when the Oriental leadership disintegrated, the Saqlab janissaries took over the state. The Kievan Rus’ was born. By one of those cheerful little ironies of history, the Hungarian kingdom was made up of a Finno-Ugrian aristocracy ruling Slavic peasants; the Kievan Rus’ had a Slavic aristocracy and Finno-Ugrian peasants. Language replacement is an important, though
overlooked element of history.

Oh yes, the Vikings.  Did they found the Kievan Rus’?  Clearly
not:  we have an overwhelming body of written sources which
indicate that the Rus’ aristocracy spoke Slavic.  In his Oration
on Law and Grace, Metropolitan Ilarion addressed his ruler as
Chagan — showing the origins of the political structure of the
Kievan Rus’.  The Vikings?  Their name derives from Germanic wik
or wijk:  market place.  The Vikings were traders and they played
a significant role in the economy of the Pontic Rhos and beyond.

Over 100,000 coins bearing Cufic and Pahlavi legends have been discovered in Scandinavia, contemporary with the Pontic Rhos.  But the Vikings lived up to their names;  they did trade — furs, wax and honey from the East in return for iron, and cloth from the West (Frankish sources document this).  They may well have taught the Rhos the art of ship-building:  those lethal akitia which frightened the Byzantines.  Some of their vocabulary lived on.  Their names also:  Oleg, Olga.  The Saqlab janissaries who emerged as the next military aristocracy were not pure Slavs; they must have intermarried with the Viking traders (their social equals in the Pontic Rhos) and others.

Now that I have upset everybody’s national pride, we can go on
and write true history, uncontaminated by national deviations (as
the Communists termed it).  The Pontic Rhos have their place in
the historical record, having mediated such powerfully
significant states as the Kingdom of Hungary and the Kievan Rus’,
and played a key role in international trade and technology
transfer.  True, they were an unprepossessing lot:  having grown
up on a farm, I find their robbing the food of the poor Saqlab
farmers beyond the pale, especially while they sat on masses of
useless gold and silver.  But history is full of unpleasant people.

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