Home Languages and scripts Pre-Roman, Slavic toponyms of the ancient Balkans

Pre-Roman, Slavic toponyms of the ancient Balkans

During the years of research of the ancient history of the Balkans, I have encountered many words that sound Slavic. Many of these words predate the alleged arrival of the Slavs between the 5th-6th centuries AD. With time, I realized that the list of such words is too large to be ignored. Even the most ancient name of the Balkan peninsula – Helm, can best be explained through Slavic xъlmъ (hulm – hill).

As this is a list, I will add just a short explanation after each word. There are many other articles on this website that deal with these alternative theories in more detail. Also, I will write from the top of my head, so there will be some updates in the future.

And finally, there are many more toponyms that can be connected to Slavic languages, but here I decided to stick only with the most obvious examples.

So, without further ado, we will start with some toponyms from Pannonia. The illustration comes from Ptolemy’s “Geography”, 2nd century AD, Tabula V.

Pannonia

1. Serbinum

The city of Serbinum once stood in the Roman province of Pannonia. The first mention comes from the map of Ptolemy, in the 2nd century AD, although the city probably predated the Romans. Scholars identify Serbinum with modern-day Gradishka, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Gradishka (loosely translated as “old town”) lies in the part of Bosnia that is called “Republika Srpska” and its predominant population are Serbs. However, most scholars believe that this ancient toponym has nothing to do with Serbs, it’s just a bizarre coincidence.

Another coincidence is that Pliny mentions the tribe called Serapilli in this same region. Modern scholars see them as Celts.

2. Osseriates

We see them as “Oderiates” on this map, but the version Osseriates was more common in other ancient sources. Once again, scholars label them as Celts by default. In reality, the etymology of their name is unknown, as is virtually anything else about them.

They lived near the lake Balaton, a large lake that dominates the landscape of flat fertile plains in modern-day Hungary. For this reason, many Slavic researchers have connected their name with the Old East Slavic word for lake – ozero.

3. Bolentium

The name Bolentium sounds very close to the name of the lake Balaton, and it also matches its approximate location on the map. According to Wikipedia, the name Balaton comes from the Slavic word “bolto/blato”, meaning “mud, swamp”. This is supposed to be the direct translation of the Roman name for the swamp – Pelsodis, Pelso.

However, if this is really a Slavic toponym from the 2nd century, it is more likely that it was the Romans who translated the name of the lake.

4. Sogora

Sogora sounds very similar to the common Slavic toponym “Zagora” (a place behind the hill, forest). There are literally dozens of such toponyms all around the Slavic-speaking countries. But more importantly, there is one Zagora that perfectly matches the location. It is a village in Bosnia, the Trebinje region. The region of Trebinje belonged to the Latobici tribe.

5. Latobici

The etymology of this name is unknown. Similar toponyms do exist in Slavic countries – see Latowicz in Poland or Lytovezh in Ukraine.

6. Mursella

Mursella was a city on the Mur river. According to Wikipedia, this name is Slavic and comes from the word “dark”.

7. Lugionum

Also known as Lugio. Strabo claimed that the Illyrian word for swamp was “lugas”. For Slavs, that word is “lug” (swamp, meadow) and it appears in numerous toponyms.

8. Carnus

Carnus lies in the proximity of Sacrabanta, modern-day Sopron, and today we know it as Caruntum in Austria. The etymology of this word is unknown, but perhaps we can relate it to the nearby Csorna. As you can see on Wikipedia, it was Slavs who named this city (when?) that now lies on the border between Hungary and Austria. Its name means “black”. (see the etymology here)

9. Corrodunu

Interestingly, Ptolemy knew one more city of Corrodunum. And this wasn’t just any city – it was the modern-day Krakow, Poland! The etymology of this name is obscure, and at first glance, the suffix “dunu” points to the Celtic origin (dun – hill, dunon – castle).

However, as with many other toponyms on Ptolemy’s maps, this could be a misspelled word “Gradina” – a common Slavic word for an old city. There are more than twenty such placenames in Slavic countries, but most are in the Balkans.

Also, scolars actually believe that Corrodunu matches the locality Gradina in Croatia! Gradina lies on the Drava river, precisely where we would expect it to be based on Ptolemy’s map.

The connection between this Corrodunum and the Krakow in Poland is very important, as we will now see.

10. Boei

Boei, or more commonly spelled Boii, are also supposed to be Celts. However, the most logical (and virtually only) etymology for their name comes from Slavic “soldiers, army”. See the Proto-Slavic etymology here. And army is precisely what the Boii were. I wrote a separate article on them, so I will not go into greater detail here. But here is a summary of the most important facts.

Buckle up, as this is the mainstream version of history, and it gets really weird:

Boii, whose name makes the most sense in Slavic, lived in Pannonia, amongst Serapilli and near Serbinum, but there were no Slavs or Serbs there, only Celts. From here, Boii moved to Bratislava, Slovakia and ended up in Bohemia, Poland. But back then, there were no Slavs in these countries either, only Germans and Celts. Remember, in the 2nd century AD, there were two cities named Corrodunu known to Ptolemy – one was in Poland and the other one was in the Balkans.

And so, the Celtic Boii gave name to their new home in Bohemia, Poland and disappeared from the face of the earth.

Later, in the 6th century, massive numbers of Slavs appeared from nowhere and started occupying large parts of Europe. Poland (and Bohemia) was inhabited by Serbs and Sorbs, two Slavic groups that (according to western historians) just happen to share the name but, in fact, are not too closely related. Anyhow, the Sorbs decided to stay in this new-founded homeland and ended up being Germanized for the most part.

On the other hand…

Serbs left Bohemia in Poland and (of all places) decided to settle in the ancestral lands of the Boii in the Balkans. In the 10th century, a Byzanthian emperor claims that Serbs still call their Polish homeland Boika (Bohemia).

All clear? I am not going to give you the alternative version. This is the official, mainstream history, and I will leave this here and let it sink.

11. Bononia = Pannonia – the homeland of the Boii

Now that we defined who the Boii (officially) were, I would like to add my theory of the etymology of the name Pannonia itself. According to Pocorny, it comes from the Proto-Indo-European root “pen”, meaning “swamp”.

I believe that the root lies in the name of the Boii – warriors, army. Namely, even today, the Serbian name for Pannonia is “Vojvodina” – which means “Earl’s land”. The root of the word “vojvoda” (earl) is “voi” – meaning “battle”, the same as Old Church Slavonic “boi”.

Moreover, the Serbian name for a central part of Pannonia is Banat. The root of this word is the title “ban“, which is attested already in the 10th century and officially means “lord, master”. But the oldest meaning of this word must have been “earl” as scholars reconstruct its root as “boian” – meaning “ruler of the horde” in Pannonian Avar, or simply “warrior” in Slavic.

This title “ban” is characteristic for the Balkans. In Western Slavic countries it is first attested in the 14th century but as a softened “pan”. The word is still in use in most of these countries.

However, it seems that a similar linguistic change took place in antiquity. Namely, as the Greeks do not have the sound “B”, they hand no choice but to label it as “Pann-onia”. Later the Romans must have acquired this word from the Greeks.

I think that my theory is much more plausible than the load of nonsense that you can read about these etymologies. As final proof, I would like to add the city of Bologna, in Italy. Its ancient name was “Bononia” and it was named like this because of the same Boii, who had moved here to fight the Romans, together with the Etruscans.

Of course, as the Romans didn’t have the problem with the sound “B”, there was no reason to change “Bononia” to “Panonia”. The same goes for Boulogne sur Mer in France, also called “Bononia” and also founded by the same Boii. And not to mention that this toponym Bologna, pronounced with the soft “P” sounds like “Pologna” – Poland, which could be the alternative explanation for the name of the country.

The city of Bononia that we see on this map was the capital of the Boii in Pannonia. its location corresponds to modern-day Banostor. According to Wikipedia, this is an early medieval name meaning “Earl’s monastery” and this name has nothing to do with the ancient Bononia that was located in the same place. (???)

12. Bustricius river

River Bustricius was mentioned in the Upper Pannonia (Rav). It does not appear on the map of Ptolemy, and it is not identified. The most commonly proposed etymology relates it to Slavic “bystro” – meaning “quick/clear”. There are quite a few rivers and streams with this name in the Slavic world.

13. Ulcisia, Ulca, Ulcaea, Ulcinj

Different authors mention different places with this root. River Vuka for example, in modern Croatia, was known as Ulca in antiquity. (Peut., Ennod) or Volcea (Dio Cass.) Obviously, the word means “wolf” in Slavic languages (volk, from Proto Balto Slavic wilkas). This same logic was applied to the name of Ulcinj, Montenegro. Shockingly, the Wikipedia article on Ulcinj claims that the word for the wolf comes from Albanian, and nobody has a problem with that!

Illyria – countries of the Adriatic coast

1. Trieste, Italy and Trogir, Croatia

According to the mainstream theory, the name of Trieste (originally Tergeste, Tergestum) comes from the Illyrian word “terg” – market. The only cognate in any language is the Old Church Slavonic “tьrgъ”. The same etymology probably works for Trogir, Croatia.

Now, you might say that this proves nothing and that Slavs simply adopted this term from Illyrians in the 6th century, which would be a valid point. But hold your horses…

In Spain, there is a city called Trujillo. Its ancient name was Turgalium, etymology unknown. Turgalium belonged to the region Lusitania, which just happened to host a tribe called Seurbi. These Seurbi spoke a non-Celtic, Indo-European language, still unknown. However, (you guessed it) these Suerbi have nothing to do with the Serbs or Sorbs who are by the way, also known as Lusitani.

It’s just another really bizarre coincidence…

Also, if you think that Spain is too far from Pannonia and Poland, just remember that the Boii actually fought Caesar in modern-day France. That is a historical fact.

2. Duklja, Montenegro

In the 3rd century AD, centuries before the arrival of the Slavs to the Balkans according to mainstream history, Roman emperor Diocletian built the city of Doclea. Centuries later, Slavs built a medieval city-state around it and preserved the original name – Duklja. However, the original toponym Doclea was surely not Roman, but of local origin. The etymology is unknown, but strangely enough, there is a place called Duklja in Poland as well.

As Montenegrian toponym Doclea dates to Roman times, we can only imagine that the migration went from the Balkans to Poland and not vice-versa as mainstream history claims. Indeed, most of the medieval Slavic support this claim. They state that groups of Slavs migrated from the Balkans to Poland, escaping the Romans.

However, the oldest mention of this name was probably the ancient Boeotian town of Decelea, attested already by Herodotus.

3. Epidamnos, Albania

Scolars identify Epidamnos with Durres, Albania. The whole region around the city was known as Epidamnia in ancient times. The legend says that the Romans didn’t like the name, as “damnos” means “cursed” so they changed it to Dyrachium. However, there is no explanation why was this city “cursed” in the first place.

The Greek suffix “epi” means “before, pro” and put together, this compound word is a direct translation of the name for the unhospitable mountain chain that Serbs call Prokletije (cursed mountains) and that lies not too far from this region.

4. Albanopolis, Albania

Officially, Albanopolis was the seat of the Albani, a tribe that gave name to modern Albania. However, as the word “alba” means “white” and “polis” means “city”, we can also translate this name as “white city”, or in Slavic version “Belgrade” as in the capital of Serbia. The location of Albanopolis is unknown, but what is certain is that it is in general proximity to the city of Berat, which is officially a modern corruption of the original Slavic name – Belgrade.

That Belgrade (and white city) is typically, a Slavic construction can be proven by the fact that both Moscow and Kyiv, arguably the two most important Slavic cities, were called “Belgrade” at one point in time. There are many other similar toponyms in Slavic countries. And interestingly, even the name of Vienna, Austria, was once Vindobona, which translates to “white city”. On the first map, we can see it just above the Boii territory, in the top left corner, but Ptolemy marks it as Iulio Bona.

Macedonia

1. Byalazora

The city of Byalazora was mentioned in the 2nd century AD by authors such as Polybius and Livius. It was the city of Paeonians before it got captured by the armies of Philip V. Many alternative historians have noticed that this name would mean “white dawn” in Slavic languages.

However, it should be said that the “white dawn” toponym has no parallels in other Slavic countries, and that is a bit strange. Slavic toponyms are quite predictable and they repeat over and over again, from the Balkans to Siberia.

It could be that the word is a corruption of “Vila Azorum”, as the city called Azorum does exist on Ptolemy’s map. A similar explanation exists for the town Vilassar in Spain.

2. Gordynia

The name Gordynia could be another corruption of the Slavic toponym “gradina”. Most scholars agree that the root “gord” means “a city”, and they label the word as Phrygian. Indeed, Gordion was a famous city of the Phrygians. In the middle ages, it was known as Gordo-Serbon or Gordo-Serba…

3. Stobi

On Ptolemy’s map, Stobi is very close to Gordynia. The city still exists under the same name. Its name means “columns” in Slavic, and this is the official etymology of its name. (compare with Sanskrit “stupa”). The name probably referred to a group of ancient dolmens or some natural formation such as Pobiti Kamani in Bulgaria.

4. Aedesa

Next to Gordinia and Stobi we see Aedesa. In antiquity, there were many cities with such names, mainly on the territory of ancient Thrace, for example ancient Varna in Bulgaria or modern-day Edessa in Turkey. Scolars agree that the name is derived from the word for water – which is “voda” in Slavic, but “hydro” in Greek. Also “Vode” / “Vodice” are very popular Slavic toponyms.

5. Corabia

The city of Corabia lies on the mountain chain that is today known as Korab. As you can see here, korab is exclusively a Slavic word, and a common Slavic toponym, sometimes precisely as Korab, as for example, in the case of a village in Bulgaria, or a city in Romania. But even more commonly we see it as “brod”, which is another word for ship.

The association between mountain tops and ships is very ancient, perhaps even as old as the flood narratives.

5. Tristolus

Tristolus (on the north) is probably one of the most interesting toponyms in Macedonia. Its name would mean “three chairs” or “three thrones” in Slavic languages. This toponym is Slavic without any doubt, as there is a place that Czechs call Tristolicnik in Bavaria, Germany. Germans translated this name to Dreisesselberg – three chairs.

Without any doubt, the Slavic toponym is older than German, and we see the same toponym in ancient Macedonia, in the 2nd century AD!

As for what those “thrones” are, I believe that these were astronomical observation points, typical for megalithic observatories. One such example is Kokino, in North Macedonia, located in the general area of the ancient Tristolus. The thrones of Kokino are one of the main reasons that NASA listed this site as one of the top 10 ancient observatories in the world.

6. Stenae

This ancient toponym sounds like “stene” – rocks in Slavic languages. And this is precisely what it is. see Stenae.

Interestingly, many of these Macedonian toponyms are clustered around the region of ancient Boeotia. Boeotia (Boiotia in some sources) apparently got this name from the mountain Boeon (unknown etymology). It’s inhabitants called themselves Boiotoi.

What if once again, we see here the name of Boii, before their homeland was destroyed by Macedonians and perhaps, before their migration to Pannonia?

Thrace

1. Divsipara, Turkey (on the Balkan side)

I discovered this city recently, and to my knowledge, Ptolemy is the only person who mentions it. I couldn’t find any other info online, nor have I ever heard anybody mention it. What caught my eye is that it sounds very close to Divcibare, a famous mountain in Serbia. In the case of the Serbian toponym, the etymology is more-less clear. It is a compound word, made of the words “divci” which means “girl’s” or and “bare” meaning “small lakes”. In other words, these were probably famous baths in antiquity.

Confirmation for this etymology comes from Czech “Dívčí Hrad” (girl’s town) whose German name is a literal translation – Maidelberg. Whether we can relate it to Divsipara of Ptolemy is of course questionable. But interestingly, this area of Turkey is known for its floodplains, it is full of small lakes and waterfalls – see İğneada Floodplain Forests National Park.

2. Crybyzy

We know virtually nothing of this tribe, but some Slavic authors claim that this was a misspelled name of the Krivichs (Kryvichi), one of the most important Slavic tribes, and the founders of Kyiv. Kyiv is not too far from the place marked on the map. Their name was perhaps supposed to mean “of the same blood.”

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6 COMMENTS

    • Yes, it is quite possible, as the Greeks did not have the “B” sound and they substituted it with “V” or “P”. For this reason, it is also possible that the name of the Ptolemy dynasty comes from the toponym Bitula in Macedonia, with both words meaning “battle”. But like I said in the intro, I decided to stick only to firmer eymologies in this article.

      • I see, thank you for your response! The Ptolemy and Bitola connection seems very possible, I have never heard of it before, but isn´t it more likely for Bitola to have come from Old Church Slavonic ˝обитѣль˝ meaning monastery?

        • Yes, that is the official etymology and I am aware of it. However, even the scholars admit that they are not sure if this is the real meaning. Dropping the initial “O” sound of the word “obitel” would be strange as it is not difficult to pronounce, and I am not aware of any similar examples.

          On the other hand, I have this idea (just an idea) that we should analyse this word as it is, starting with the root “bit”, a Slavic (Indo-European) root meaning “to hit, fight”. In that case, the name Bitula would be a cognate with English “battle” or French “bataille”, as well as with Greek “Ptolemy”.

          Of course, the idea would be that the city lies on a location of an ancient battlefield.

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