The Costoboci: Ancient Slavic Warriors of the Carpathians

The Costoboci are believed to have inhabited the area around the Carpathian Mountains, which spans modern-day Romania, Ukraine, and Poland. They first appear in historical records around the 2nd century AD.

The Costoboci emerged unexpectedly, launched swift and fierce raids across the Balkans, and then vanished from the historical record, leaving a legacy of mystery and intrigue.

Cultural Identity

The cultural identity of the Costoboci is complex and multifaceted. They are often associated with the Dacians, a Thracian people known for their conflicts with the Roman Empire. Some scholars suggest that the Costoboci were either a subgroup of the Dacians or heavily influenced by them. Their material culture, including pottery and weapons, shows similarities with neighboring tribes, indicating a blend of local and foreign influences.

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The Costoboci’s origins are debated, and besides Dacian – Thracian, their proposed origins are also Sarmatian – Slavic, or Germanic – Celtic, or a mix of these cultures.

However, in the 19th century, most scholars agreed on the Slavic origins:

“Costoboci, a people of Dacia, probably belonging to the Wendish stock (Schafarik, Slavische Alterthum, vol. i. p. 122). Their position has been sought in the district of Tschernigow” – (E.B.J. in Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, illustrated by numerous engravings on wood. William Smith, LLD. London, 1854). See here.

Of the same opinion was a German scolar Karl Müllenhoff, Deutsche altertumskunde. Vol. 2. Berlin, (1887).

Historical References

The Costoboci are mentioned in Ptolemy’s “Geographia,” which was published between 135-143 AD. However, one of the most significant references to the Costoboci comes from Roman historical accounts.

In 170 AD, during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Costoboci launched a series of raids into the Roman province of Moesia. These incursions were part of the larger Marcomannic Wars, a series of conflicts between the Roman Empire and various barbarian tribes. The Costoboci’s bold raids brought them into direct conflict with Rome.

Around the same time, the Costoboci crossed the Danube and launched a series of devastating raids into Greece, penetrating as far south as Eleusis near Athens, where they desecrated sacred sites, including the temple of Demeter.

Decline and Legacy

The fate of the Costoboci is not well-documented, leading to much speculation among historians. Some theories suggest that they were gradually assimilated into neighboring cultures, such as the Slavs, Goths or the Huns. Others propose that their decline was due to continued conflicts with the Roman Empire and other tribes, leading to their eventual disappearance from historical records.

The language of the Costoboci

The language of the Costoboci remains largely unknown due to the scant historical and archaeological evidence available. However, their onomastics—names recorded in ancient sources—offer some clues.

A Latin-language funerary inscription, dating from the 2nd century AD, was discovered in Rome and dedicated to Zia or Ziais the Dacian, daughter of Tiatus and wife of Pieporus, king of the Costoboci. The monument was erected by her grandsons, Natoporus and Drigisa. This inscription was first published by the Italian scholar Mariangelus Accursius in the 16th century but has since been lost.

As to why this funerary inscription was found in Rome, and not Dacia, the answer is quite simple. Zia and her grandsons were likely Roman hostages, following the common practice of the era to ensure loyalty from subjugated or allied tribes.

The text of the Roman Costoboci inscription

Translation

To the Spirits of the Dead.
(Dedicated) to ZIA
Daughter of TIATUS
the Dacian,
Wife of PIEPORUS,
Costobocan king.
NATOPORUS and DRIGISA (made this memorial)
for their most dear, well-deserving grandmother.”

In this inscription, only the names – Zia, Pieporus, Natoporus, and Drigisa – can be considered as Costobocian, while the remainder of the text is written in Latin, and therefore very clear.

So what can these personal names tell us about the Costobocian origins?

The names ZIA and TIATUS lack clear Slavic etymologies. Some scholars believe that Zia meant “mare,” relating it to the Thracian “Ziaka” and the Sanskrit “hayaka” meaning “horse,” but I think this connection is a bit of a stretch.

However, the other three names sound really Slavic.

PIEPORUS – The name Piepor is also a Slovak word for black pepper – piepor. Black pepper was a valuable commodity in ancient times, and it was common for families involved in the spice trade to adopt related names, as seen with the Piper dynasty of Montenegro.

NATOPORUS – The name Natoporus could be related to the Macedonian verb “натопори” (natopori), which in its third-singular present form means “to erect, stick out, or place ostentatiously,” suggesting a possible etymological connection to actions or qualities of prominence and visibility. Topor is also universal Slavic word for a small battle ax.

DRIGISA – The name Drigisa sounds similar to the very popular Slavic name Dragisa, which comes from the root “drag,” meaning “dear” or “beloved”. Similar names have been recorded elsewhere in this period: Drigissa in Superior Moesia and Diagiza, slave at Rome. See here.

The real homeland of the Costoboci

Ammianus Marcellinus, writing around 400 AD, placed the Costoboci between the Dniester and Danube rivers, likely northeast of Dacia, while Ptolemy’s “Geographia” suggests they inhabited northwestern or northeastern Dacia.

Now, it is a fact that Slavic tribal names are often derived from the natural landscape, such as rivers, mountains, and forests. However, in this particular region there are no traces of the toponym that sounds similar to “Costoboci”.

On the other hand, deeper in the Ukrainian territory, there is a place called Kostobobriv. And much further in Russia, there is anotehr village called Kostobobrovka. The etymology of both names means: “bridge on the river Kosta”. Following the usual Slavic logic, the tribes living in these areas would be called Kostoboci.

Although the Ukrainian toponym is closer to Dacia, it is still about 1,000 kilometers away from where modern scholars typically locate the Costoboci based on ancient sources. However, this distance is relatively small considering that the Costoboci raided Eleusis, which is at least 2,000 kilometers from northern Dacia!

Roman legions could travel from Rome to Paris, a similar distance, in just over a month. Therefore, 1,000 kilometers is not significant, especially when moving through familiar and friendly territory.

For this reason, I believe that the homeland of the Costoboci was further into what is now Ukraine and Russia, and I concur with the perspective that they were Slavs. Consequently, they likely assimilated with other Slavic tribes, which explains their disappearance from the historical record.

Slavs return

And while scholars may disagree about the true identity of the Costoboci, the fact is that just a few centuries later, it was the Slavs that came (or returned) via the same route. According to the testimony of the Syrian church historian John of Ephesus, Ecclesiastical History VI Chapter 25, in the year 577:

“In the third year after the death of Emperor Justinian and the ascension of Tiberius the Victorious to the throne, the accursed people of the Slavs appeared and attacked all of Hellas, the surroundings of Thessalonica, and all of Thrace.

They captured many cities and fortresses, ravaged, plundered, looted, and ruled the land, behaving as freely as in their own homeland. This lasted for four years while the emperor was at war with the Persians; thus, they had free rein in the land [until God drove them out]. Their plundering extended to the outermost wall; all imperial herds were taken by them as booty.

To this day, they remain in the Roman provinces without concern or fear, plundering, killing, burning; they have become rich, possessing gold and silver, herds of horses, and many weapons; they have learned to wage war better than the Romans.”

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