From:  Emil Hersak <>
Sent:  22. rujan 1996. 07:12
Subject:  Vulgarum dux Alzeco


Dear AltaiNetters,

Since no one has yet has answered Renat Taziev's question on the Bulgars in Italy,  in the following posting I will try to give some information, as well as some other information that may be of interest to members of the list. If it is not, please excuse me for this rather long posting.


In the 6th century CE, a part of the Bulgar tribes living the North Pontic steppe had joined with the Avars, and had settled together with them in Pannonia in the later half of the 6th century. Avar  power seems to have extended also over a significant part of the North Pontic steppe. According to some authors, within the Avar Kaganat the Bulgars enjoyed a somewhat autonomous status. Yet ten-sions between Bulgars and Avars began to develop particularly after the Avar defeat at Constantinople in 626. In the struggle that followed, the Avars finally re-established the upper hand, which led to three Bulgarian exoduses from Avaria. The first two were directed to Italy, the third to Macedonia.

a) The first Bulgarian exodus from Avaria ended in tragedy. According to Fredegar's chronicle, in 630 (or 631-632) an insurrection broke out in Avaria, when (as it seems) the throne was vacant and the Bulgars and Avars were supporting opposing candidates for succession. The Bulgars were defeated; some 9.000 of them asked for refuge from the Frankish king Dagobert. On the king's intervention the Bavarians agreed to accept them, but they later attacked the Bulgars refugees and killed almost all of them. Alzek (or Altsek), the leader of the remaining 700 Bulgars, eventually was to find refuge with the Carantanian prince Valuh "in marea (sic) Vinedorum".

b) Three decades later (c/a 663), Alzek or more probably another Bulgar leader by the same name, came - apparently "for an uncertain reason" - together with his soldiers, to the Langobard king Grim-wald (d. 671). He offered to do military service in the Langobard land and to settle in it. This is actu-ally a typical request of land for military service.  Grimwald sent Alzek and his Bulgars to his son Romwald, in Beneventum. The latter assigned to the Bulgars some "spacious", but deserted lands around the towns of Sepinum, Bovianum (? Boiano) and Isernia, in the present Italy region of Molise. Alzek became, in fact, the local "gastald". The report of this episode,  given by Paul the Dea-con, concludes by claiming that Bulgars still live in the area, and that, although they speak "Latin", they have not forgotten the use of their own language. This would mean that they preserved their lan-guage for about two hundred years after their arrival in Italy (i.e. till the time when Paul was writing).

For those that wish to check the original, Paul's actual text reads as follows:

"Per haec tempora Vulgarum dux Alzeco nomine, incertum quam ob causam, a sua gente digres-sus, Italiam pacifice introiens, cum omni sui ducatus exercitu ad regem Grimuald venit, ei se ser-viturum atque in eius patria habitaturum promittens. Quem ille ad Romualdum filium Beneventum dirigens, ut ei cum suo popolo loca ad habitandum concedere deberet, praecepit. Quos Romualdus dux gratanter excipiens, eisdem spatiosa ad habitandum loca, quae usque ad illud tempus deserta erant, contribuit, scilicet Sepinum, Bovianum et Iserniam et alias cum suis territoriis civitates, ip-sumque Alzeconem, mutato dignitatis nomine, de duce gastaldium vocitari praecepit. Qui usque hodie in his ut diximus locis habitantes, quamquam et Latine loquantur, linguae tamen propriae usum minime amiserunt." (Historia Langobardorum, V: 29)

I might add that while on a visit to Molise in 1986, where there are also still some Croat and Albanian villages, my friends from Campobasso took me to the reconstructed ruins of Sepino. The guidebook mentioned the settlement of the Bulgars during the reign of Grimwald (or Grimoaldo in Italian). Later, when writing an article on the ethnic isolates in South Italy, in a Croatian-Molisan magazine that was published in the early 1970s, I came across a short note that the Molisan village of Cantalupo may have been the centre of Bulgar settlement. It name had supposedly come from "khan-teleped", which was explained as "the base of the khan" (see: Franco Romagnolo - "Nel Molise vivono ancora: albanesi, bulgari e croati", Naš jezik/La nostra lingua. Rome, 1970, 5/6, p. 9).

c) The third "Bulgar" exodus from Avaria often mentioned refers to a mixed case. Byzantine captives whom the Avars had settled near Sirmium  (today Sremski Mitrovci in Serbia) had apparently devel-oped into a "new people". Hence, around 680 the Avar khan assigned them a leader - the Bulgarian Kuver. However, Kuver raised a rebellion, defeated the Avars and led his people to a new settlement area in Macedonia, located to the northwest of Thessalonica. Yet on arriving to this new location, many of the people fled to Thessalonica, Constantinople and the cities of Thrace (as said - "to their native cities"). Kuver attempted to forbid such desertion. He tried to negotiate with the Byzantine em-peror and at the same time attempted to gain control of Thessalonica - with no success. It has been said that the leader Kuver, was in fact one of Kubrat's sons, which links this story to the events sur-rounding the rise and fall of Great Bulgaria in the North Pontic area.


As I said, the Bulgars of the North Pontic area, at least the tribes west of the Don seem also to have fallen under the political control of the Avars in the 6th century. However, in the first part of the 7th century, under the leadership of Kubrat of the Dulo clan (a grouping that most certainly originated farther east within the Turkic Kaganat), the Pontic Bulgars freed themselves first from the Avars and then from the Turkic Kaganat itself. Conflicts with the Turkic Khazars (among whom the formerly dominant Ashina clan had taken power), led to the destruction of Great Bulgaria shortly after Kubrat's death. The five sons of Kubrat then chose each a different solution:

a) Around 660. Batbayan, the eldest son, who ruled probably among the Onogurs (i.e. "ten arrows" - "ten tribes") in the east part of Great Bulgaria, recognised Khazar overlordship. The Magyar tribes had most probably been in some close ties with the Onogurs at this time, and hence they also fell un-der Khazar authority (the later name *ugor ? Hungar stemming from the Onogurs, while the link with the Khazars being one of the main reasons why the Byzantine writers identified the Magyars as "Turks" - i.e. Turks and Khazars are sometimes equated in the Byzantine texts).

b) Kubrat's second son, Kotrag, led his people to the "Black Islands" in Middle Volga, where finally by the 10th century the Volga Bulgar state arose (I will leave further elaboration and/or correction of this part of the history to Renat Taziev).

c) The third son, Asparukh, seems to have opposed the Khazars in the lands between the Dnjepr and Dnjestr, before he led his people to the lower Danube, where the Byzantine sources first mention this particular Bulgar group in 681. Some say that Asparukh's Bulgars was mainly composed of Kutrigur tribes, who were already active in the Balkans a few centuries earlier. At any rate, the further history and final linguistic assimilation of  Askparukh's people in the local Slavic population is the legacy of Danubian Bulgaria.

d) The fourth son, as it appears, was the already mentioned Kuver, who had fled with some of his people to Pannonia, among the Avars, before the episode of insurrection and migration to Macedonia. A part of the Pannonian Bulgars would finally join Asparukh's group.

e) There is also mention of a fifth son, who led his clans to Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna in Italy, i.e. to the Pentapolis, where these people would be settled and converted to Christianity by the local Byzantine authorities. This Bulgar group is to be distinguished from the Bulgars that Grimwald and his son settled in Beneventum (Molise). In fact both the Langobards and Byzantines, being most of the time in mutual conflict, where settling various immigrant groups along the military frontiers. I should also note that in areas relatively near the border of Langobard Beneventum, the Byzantines had brought in Slavic colonists, who like the Bulgars in the Langobard area were permitted to keep their local leaders. There is some question of whether or not Slavic words survived from this time in the local dialects of Gargano (as was at one time suggested by Gerhard Rohlfs - see: ("Ignote colonie slave sulle coste del Gargano", in: G. Rohlf, Studi e ricerche su lingua e dialetti d'Italia. Firenze, 1972).

It should be added that toponyms in Italy that may suggest a Bulgar presence - e.g. Bolgare in Lom-bardy, Bolgheri in Tuscany and Monte di Bulgheria - are probably not related to the earliest Bulgar migrations, but either to late Mediaeval immigrations from the Balkans (when the Slavic and Alba-nian presence was also established or re-established), or to earlier Christian heretics (e.g. in the 12-13th centuries the later were called Bougres in France, from when the English coarsity "bugger" de-rives). There is also a small possibility that some such toponyms in Italy may come from the Albanian word bulgër or bujgër, denoting a type of plant.


There is another aspect relating to the historical Avar/Bulgar context that ties into the early history of my own people - the Croats (or  "Hrvati" as we call ourselves, sing. "Hrvat" ? x?rvat?, which gave Mediaeval Latin Chro/u/at). I hope that it might be of some interest to members of AltaiNet.

a) The cornerstone of Croatian history is the statement, made by Constantine Porphyrogenitus in the 10th century, that the Croats, originating from the "White Croats" in the North, arrived in Dalmatia in the reign of emperor Heraclius. On the emperor's order they supposedly took up arms, expelled the Avars from the land, and settled in it themselves (De administrando imperio XXXI). It was, of course, during the reign of Heraclius (610-641) that the Avars were defeated at Constantinople, that the above-mentioned Avar-Bulgar conflict broke out in Pannonia, and that Kubrat established Great Bul-garia in the North Pontic Area. Hence, suggestions have existed for a long time that there might have been cause and effect factors relating these events to the Croat migration, and that there even might be an ethnogenetical link between the Avars, Bulgars and Croats.

b) A major point in the theories has been a migration legend that is recorded in the corpus of Porphyrogenitus' work. As the legend goes: a tribe of the White Croats (????????????), led by five brothers - KLOUKAS, LOBELOS, KOSENTZES, MOUHLO and HROBATOS, and two sisters named TOUGA and BOUGA (b/v transliteration can be changed in the Byzantine Greek text) come to Dalmatia, where they found the Avars holding the land. After a time of warring they were able to de-feat the Avars and subjugated them, but some of the descendants of the Avars survived in Croatia, and - as the text says explicitly - it can be seen that they are Avars (the idea is that the descendants of the Avars preserved some type of Mongoloid appearance, distinct from the Croat population) (De admin-istrando imperio XXX).

c) Even today this legend has been generally taken as authentic, i.e. as an authentic legend reflecting more complex history, not exact history itself. For one thing it was recorded quite early (i.e. in the 10th century), at a time when the Mediaeval Croatian Kingdom was still relatively powerful, and without doubt a country about which the Byzantines wanted to gather various strategic details (the report of as much as 100.000 foot soldiers and 60.000 horsemen in the DAI is, of course, exaggerated to stress the importance). Several authors have assumed that the legend was first conveyed to the Byz-antines by some member of the Croat nobility, who knew it from oral tradition. This is a real possibil-ity, for a time-span of 300 years, although a bit stretched, is not too much for some oral tradition, es-pecially in a society in which laws and other social traditions are still being transmitted by word of mouth (as was the case in Mediaeval Croatia), and especially in the nobility, which as a rule preserves memories of its origins much longer than the general population. Another indicative detail concerns one of the names of the brothers - "Kosentzes" is in fact nothing other then the title "kosez", written with an Old Slavic nasal /e/. Quite genuine, since the "kosezi" truly were a noble class, well distrib-uted in the Slovenian lands and in parts of northern Croatia, and especially in a region of Old Caran-tania that was known in the 11-12th century as Pagus Chrouuat. Kosentzes and Hrobat (whose name is an obvious eponym of the Croats)  are the two most important brothers in the legend.

d) If the two sisters mentioned in the legend are excluded - as has for often been done! - The story fundamentally tells of FIVE brothers from a foreign land (the location of "White Croatia", despite the details, is still disputed) coming and defeating the Avars, in the first part of the 7th century. Hence, both recently, and in the past, there have been serious attempts to link the story with that of the Bulgar khan Kubrat and his FIVE SONS! Furthermore, it has been noted that Kubrat's name appears in Greek, Latin, Arabic and Slavic sources in several variations: Koubratos, Kobratos, Krobatos, Kouber (his son?), Crobatus, Chudbadr, Chubraat, Quetrades, Kour't?. Equating the form Krobatos, with the Hrobatos in the Croat tradition, the English historian J. Bury was once quick in concluding: "This Croatian legend has a strong family resemblance to the Bulgarian legend of Krobat (or Kubrat) and his five sons, and I therefore think that we should hardly hesitate to take Krobat and Hrobat as the same prehistoric hero of the Hunnic people..." (unfortunately my translation back to English of a Croatian translation of Bury's words - for the original see: J. Bury. A History of the later Roman em-pire from Arcadius to Irene (395-800). vol II London, 1889, 275-275). In his following sentences, Bury attempted also to derive the Croatian title "ban" (governor, viceroy) from Bayan, the name of the Avar khan who had led his people to Pannonia, or even from Batbayan, the eldest son of Kubrat. This type of concluding quickly led to the birth of the "Turkic" theory of Croatian origins.

e) However the two sisters, as I said, were excluded from most interpretation. To this day it seems that almost nobody takes them seriously, yet they might throw some light on another detail that was no-ticed at the turn of the 19-20th century that was to influence future research. Namely, at this time A.I. Pogodin indicated the relevance of that two stone plates from the former Greek colony Tanais at the mouth of the Don, dated from the 2nd-3rd centuries, on which were the names Khoroathos and Khor-ouathos, along with the comment that a Khoroathos or Khorouathos had been an arkhontos in Tanais during the reign of Julius Sauromatus (175-211). If the name was derived from an ethnonym, as seemed very plausible, and since a Turkic presence at the mouth of the Don in the 2nd-3rd was not deemed possible, the most likely conclusion was that the name must be Iranian, i.e. Sarmatian (or Alanic). However, there were also some attempts at finding a Caucasian etymology, and one author, in the same context, even tried to derive the name of the other brother "Kosentzes", or "Kosez", from the "Kasogs" appearing in the Russian Primary Chronicle and in the Poem of Prince Igor. But that the Croatian ethnonym itself could have been indigenous to the Don-Azov area was further strengthened by a high concentration of ethnonyms with an -at suffix in this area. Along with various Iranian and other speculations as to what it meant, Trubachev finally suggested that it might be derived from *xar-va(n)t, meaning in Iranian something like "those that have women".  Such an interpretation was supported by the indications of a higher status of women among the (Iranian) Sarmatians, and maybe of some form of matrilineal descent, if not actual "matriarchy". Even the Greek myth of the Amazons, and their supposed geographic location by the Black Sea was pertinent in this regard. Thus, it would seem that the sisters in the Croat ethnogenetic legend may perhaps not be only a casual variation.

f) Interestingly, Paul the Deacon, in this History of the Langobards (that I have already mentioned in connection with the Bulgars in Molise), wrote that the Langobards, on the way to Pannonia, had to fight a group of Amazons at a river crossing - and right after that they were confronted by a group of Bulgars! (Historia Langobardorum, I: 16-17). Would it be too much to see in this half-mythical/half-historical reference a faint indication of a Croat, Proto-Croat or Iranian groups that might have been in some sort of close relationship with a tribe of Bulgars? Most probably it would, at least until we have more information. But for me it is intriguing to think about it.

g) I must add that besides the Turkic and Iranian theories on the origins of the Proto-Croats, there has also been a Gothic theory, an indigenous "Illyrian" theory and obviously a Slavic, or more precisely "purely Slavic" theory. Each of these interpretations corresponded to a certain time, and to the needs of the time. Thus the Gothic theory appeared in the 12-13th century in the "Historia Salonitana" of Thomas the Archdeacon and in Chronicle of the Priest of Dioclea (Pop Dukljanin), who both equated Croats with Goths. Personally, although not excluding the possibility of a Germanic trace in the Croat ethnogenesis, I believe that the Gothic theory was a new dynastic myth, that replaced the original (i.e. authentic) legend of the five brothers and two sisters, precisely at a time when the Croatian kings were trying to re-affirm their political right to the land they were ruling.  In the late 11th century, after the schism in Christianity, Croatia was moving away from former ties with Byzantium, in which dynastic affirmation could be based on the story of Heraclius allowing the Croats to settle in Dalmatia as "foederati" of the Empire. Therefore it was more opportune to invent a Gothic genealogy, just as the Romans had once invented a Trojan genealogy, and the Britons had in their turn invented a Roman genealogy (cf. Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the British Kings"). But why pick Goths? Croatia had in fact once been part of Theodorik's Ostrogoth Kingdom, but the reason is most likely not this. Rather, of all the "barbarians" Theodorik's Goths had somehow left the best imagine of themselves in the mediaeval vision, to the point of being credited with doing God's work in eliminating the "sinful" Roman Empire. In this light, as Herwig Wolfram noted, even at the Council of Basil (1431-1449) the Austrians and Swedes were still arguing about which of them were the true descendants of the Goths (H. Wolfram, The History of the Goths. University of California Press, 1988. p. 2). It was only during the Renaissance that "Gothic" became a distasteful term, maybe because it had been used as positive in the era the Renaissance people were turning away from. Then typically, Croatian "literati" followed the trend and soon invented an illustrious Illyrian origin for the Croats, going back to the Roman days. This type of Illyrianism, soon expanded to include other Slavic-speaking peoples as well, and by the early 19th century it began to merge fully with Pan-Slavism, and eventually with "Yugoslavism" (which is only a subvariation of Pan-Slavism, with certain peculiar traits of its own).

h) Now, while it is truly impossible (and silly) to try to deny the dominant role of Slavs in Croatian ethnogensis, it was another problem when Pan-Slavist ideology, taken to the extreme, tried a priori to refute any possibility of non-Slavic elements being involved in the ethnogenesis of either the Croats, or any other Slavic-speaking people (cf. the fate of the Norman-theory in Russia, that finally resulted in willful destruction of Scandinavian archaeology material in that country).  In our case, the problem was compounded by Yugoslav state ideology, where Gothic, Turkic, Iranian theories were officially regarded not only as necessarily false, but also as subversive. True, the attempts to revive Gothicism were highly problematic (to say the least), since they were in some cases inspired by the racist views of Nordic and/or Germanic superiority that were being strongly in the first part of the 20th century. Gothicism taken literally, not in the way I tried to describe it in the previous paragraph, ALMOST became the official doctrine in Croatia during the wartime pro-Nazi regime.  It was therefore logi-cal that after W.W.II Gothicism was banned in the new Communist Yugoslavia, to the point of negat-ing that any Germanic groups might have left some traces in the Croatian ethnogenesis. Likewise, there was no discussion on the Turkic and Iranian theories, except to say how impossible and ridicu-lous they were. Thus, it came rather as shock, when about ten years ago the state-media mentioned that some historians were claiming that "Croats were not Slavs". In fact, the late Nada Klai?  (who was at the end of her career and had already earned herself the image of an iconoclast) had favourably com-mented the works of O. Kronsteiner  ("Gab es unter den Alpenslawen eine kroatische etnische Gruppe", etc.), and W. Pohl ("Das Avarenreich und die kroatischen Ethnogenesen"), published some time earlier in the Weiner slavistisches Jahrbuch (vol 24 B, 1978).  Kronsteiner and Pohl were clai-ming that the first Croats (Proto-Croats) were an Avaric warrior class or category among the Al-pine Slavs. Besides the title "ban" that I already noted, other significant Mediaeval titles were added to this thesis: "cacatius" (kagan) used as a title among the Carantanian princes, the above mentioned "kosez" - apparently from Turkic gaziz/chaziz/haziz, and even župan, first noted in the sources in 777 in the Latinised form "jopan", relating to the Carantania. Obviously, since the Slovenes had with much justification claimed the historical legacy of the Mediaeval Carantanian state this Avaric-Croat-Carantanian re-interpretation hit their ethnovision as well. There had, of course, been earlier attempts to link the beginning of Slovene political organisation with a Croat group (e.g. by Ljudmil Haupt-mann before W.W.II), but in the ideology of the Yugoslav state such suggestions were avoided, since they were seen as overt expressions of Croatian nationalism.

i) As for the Iranian theory, it was confined for some time only to "political emigrants" living abroad. S. Saka?, who had upheld it in 1937, presented a new elaboration in an émigré journal in 1945. Only in the late 1980s did it become better known in Croatia. I am somewhat pleased to say that the jour-nal "Migration Themes" of which I am the editor-in-chief published a short paper by Ivo Goldstein, Nada Klai?'s successor as the head of the Dept. of Mediaeval History at the University of Zagreb, in which he described the Iranian theory as "the least unlikely" (see:  "O etnogenezi Hrvata u ranom srednjem vijeku", Migracijske teme, 1989, br. 2-3, pp. 221-227). Today, however, the Iranian theory is well on its way to becoming almost official in Croatia. It is mentioned explicitly in textbooks, and is nicely depicted in the secondary school historical atlas (see: Hrvatski povijesni zemljovidi. Zagreb, Školska knjiga, 1993. p. 7). Unfortunately, the extreme Iranism that was developed among our émigrés abroad is also very present, so that the search for roots often ends up in Afghanistan or Iran proper, at any rate in Achaemenian antiquity, i.e. in the 6-5th centuries BCE, where there was once a region called in the Avestan texts Xarauvati, and in Greek - Arakhosia. This seems to be good exam-ple of how in a relatively small modern nation, or more precisely in a nation who feels itself to be small, an illustrious ancestry is once again being invented, to fill the need of a genuine identity that has been repressed by decades of ideological violence.

h) I personally do believe that an Iranian component in Proto-Croat ethnogenesis is likely (not to say "least unlikely"), but here one cannot go much further than Tanais and the Don, and likewise such Iranism is nothing exceptional in the Slavic-speaking world. As to the Turkic theory, which even Trubachev later adopted, I can't rule it our either, yet I am pretty certain that some of the words or titles suggested as Avaric or Turkic, such as župan (which has cognates in Polish and Baltic), most probably have a different origin. If people on this list will be interested I will attempt to gather a list of possible Avar, Bulgar or Old Turkic loans in Croatian - but this might take some time. On the other hand, the reasons why the Turkic theory was not received with hardly as much "public favour" in Croatia, as the Iranian interpretation was, probably lies also in deep-rooted and very unfortunate prejudices, that can be traced to Mediaeval visions of Gog and Magog, Tatars and Tartarus, and to memories preserved in the chronicles and epic poems of battles with the Huns, Avars, Magyars, Ta-tars and Ottoman Turks. Croatia was often at the end-point of all these invasions, and the historical coat-of-arms of my country, a red and white checker-board shield (now in the middle of our national flag), symbolises in heraldry a battle-field (just as it does in the game of chess). Interestingly enough, an even older symbol that can also be seen on our coat-of-arms (in the present version) is a moon and star on a blue night sky. However, this is probably irrelevant.

Again, I apologise for this very long posting, but I do hope that there will be in it something of inter-est to Altaists. Your comments, corrections and suggestions will be appreciated.

Emil Hersak (
Zagreb, CROATIA.

          The text was kindly provided to me by Dr. Hersak.