Croatian ethnogenesis Part 1: Written Historical Sources for Early Middle Ages

Whether or not you like history, I'm sure you are interested in who you are. Where do I come from? Why I was born here instead in some other place? We all sometimes ask ourselves because we are intrigued by the roots, ancestors, family genesis. The loyalty to the nation, the name and the development of the state also arouse curiosity and hunger for knowledge. 

I did not miss that feeling either. How my Croatia was formed? Who are its inhabitants? Where my ancestors came from? And why was created here, on one of the most beautiful seas in the world?

I’ll try to give answers to these questions in this and in the following articles. I wrote try because we do not know for sure the correct answers, we only have theories.

Ethnogenesis: definition and scientific development

First, let’s define the word ethnogenesis. Ethnogenesis is the process of creation and development of a nation. Through a longer period of separation one nation from another, a new one can emerge with its culture, and perhaps with language, mythology and a sense of community. The ethnogenesis of one nation can involve other nations who also leave their ethnic, linguistic or cultural characteristics. When more nations combine, a new nation  can develop.

Science has tackled the origin of individual nations from the time of the Napoleonic wars, although this still interested ancient writers whose works, during the collapse of the Roman Empire, mentioned the Slavic and Germanic peoples. During this French occupation of German countries, ideas for the existence of a unique German nation were born, in which ancient roots had to be found.

After Europe started to identify the nation with the language, it should first create the idea of belonging to a nation in order to persuade the speakers of different dialects to accept the language of the nation. Thus, philology has played a major role in the research of the origin of nations.

In the multitude of researches and theories of ethnogenesis, according to early medieval research model made by Reinhard Wenskus in 1961 “ethnic” groups were very unstable composition, and their connection was an interpretation of common origin (lat. origo gentis - the story of the origin of the nation) and the common law. Such orally transmitted stories written by the Roman or Romanized historians were not data sources but more of symbolic texts arose in a Christian atmosphere.

According to historians Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm nation is “imagined community” that has only existed since the 19th century and can not have any roots.

In recent years there are more opinions modern nations haven’t grown out of nothing, and the national feelings, limited to the elite, existed as a form of belonging in the early modern age, and even in the middle Ages. Today ethnogeneses are uninterrupted processes that, in that way, persisting today. 

Some researchers like Walter Pohl does not use the concept of ethnogenesis but identity explaining that ethnogenesis means a strong ethnic identification within the group, and the identity is easily changeable category.

With great advances in medicine and technology, for the past thirty years, the interest in genetic research has been increasing, with the aim of explaining the ancient history of European nations. Migrations have left traces in today's European population. These genetic studies have nothing to do with emerging of early medieval ethnic identities, nor with the emergence of a modern nation.


There are three main written sources from which most theories about the arrival of Croats in these areas developed:

1. Constantine VII. Porphyrogenitus: De Administrando Imperio (On the Governance of the Empire)

2. Thomas the Archdeacon: Historia Salonitana or History of the Bishops of Salona and Split

3. Chronicle of the Priest of Dioclea or Duklja

De Administrando Imperio

The work of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII was written between 945 and 949, and it is considered incomplete. The chapter 30 was maybe written by someone else because it is in great contradiction with the other chapters. It relies on oral tradition.

Chapter 29 equates Slavs and Avars. Romans (Romans that Diocletian settled in Salona) ambushed Slavs/Avars dressed in their clothes and banners, someone released them into the city and thus won Salona. This chapter does not mention the arrival of the Croats at all.

In Chapter 30 the author writes that Croats voluntarily came to Dalmatia and ruled it after winning the war with Avars. Before this migration, Croats lived in the White Croatia, bordered by the Franks, Bavarians and Hungarians.

Christ blessing Emperor Constantine VII
A piece of carved ivory from the Pushkin Museum representing
Christ blessing Emperor Constantine VII

Some of them went to Dalmatia under the leadership of five brothers and two sisters: Klukas, Lobelos, Kosentzis, Muhlo, Hrobatos, Tuga and Buga. These settlers have recognized the authority of the Franks for some time and then subjugated them and became independent. The latter is a legend, famous in the Croatian tradition.

Chapter 31 tells us that the Croats came to White Croatia at the invitation of Emperor Heraclius who wanted them to expel Avars and settle there with his permission. They did these under the guidance of the father of the Archbishop of Porga, and during the Porga itself they baptized.

 Chronicle of the Priest of Dioclea or Duklja

The author called this work Kingdom of the Slavs, and its second name is Genealogy of Bar because it is most likely written by an anonymous priest from Bar in the 12th century. The Bar was then the seat of the Archdiocese in Dioclean church.

 Chronicle of the Priest of Dioclea or Duklja
Chronicle of the Priest of Dioclea in form of transcript
made by Croatian historian Ivan Ličić, 1669.

This source says the Croats haven’t moved here at all, but have come under Goths brothers Totila and Ostroilo. The latter won Dalmatia and ruled it as a kingdom of the Goths. Croatia is mentioned here as one province where Ostroilo’s heirs divided the kingdom: White and Red Croatia. Later in the text the author equates Goths and Slavs so the Gothic kingdom has become the kingdom of the Slavs.

Today's historiography does not take this work as a historical source, but more than a work of literary value. One reason for this is that connection between Goths and Slavs has no historical background. But, it is important because it shows the legends known in Croatian tradition (death of King Zvonimir, the founding of the Dubrovnik city...).

Historia Salonitana

Split historian, cleric and chronicler Thomas the Archdeacon wrote this work in the 13th century. He described the history of Split, and Salona church until 1266, when he stopped writing. It contains valuable information about the early history of Croatia: list of bishops and archbishops, the names of Croatian rulers, the theory of Gothic origin of the Croats, data on monuments (Diocletian's Palace, St. Stephen's church...). We will concentrate on supposedly Gothic origin of the Croats for now.

Tom equated Croats with Goths and thought they were an indigenous tribe. Name of their nation was Kureti whose homeland called Kurecija. Along with the Gothic Duke Totila under whose leadership Salona was conquered, came 7 or 8 tribes from Poland. They liked Croatia and settled there and intermarried with the natives. They have become one nation that Thomas called Goths because these immigrants came with the Gothic army, but also Slavs because the newcomers from Poland established the government.

Historia Salonitana
Thomas the Archdeacon: Historia Salonitana

This can not be entirely correct because Tom doesn’t know situation back then. The Emperor Justinian with Totila fought in Italy in the 6th century, and the Slavs destroyed Salona in the first half of the 7th century.
These three sources are second-rate sources because someone has written them several centuries after the events they describe. So, they can not be the means of proving the theories.

In this article you could read about the main written sources of origin and arrival of the Croats to this territory. In the following blogposts you can find out more on theories arising from them as well as other archaeological and philological sources that are important for the study of the earliest Croatian history. 

References and resources:

1. Budak, Neven. Raukar, Tomislav. Croatian History of Middle Ages. (2006). Školska knjiga.



  1. Your interest in history is evident from the hard work you have put in thispostt. It is not only well researched but also amply supported with facts and theories.

  2. I was supposed to go to Croatia for my honeymoon years ago but it was during rainy season so we didn't. I do hope to go someday as it looks amazing. Thanks for the historical background!

    1. Yes, you should come one day :) I recommend you my town, Split :)

  3. You hit on such an important target!! Where we come from. Great post!

  4. Ya, I too did not know much about Croatia until they made it to the world cup football finals and everyone had to take a note. But this surely seems like a country with rich history and culture!

  5. I am always i ntersted in history... this was an eye opener, thankyou