Samo the First Named Ruler of Slavs

Samo (died 658) was a Frankish merchant from the “Senonian country” (Senonago), probably modern Soignies, Belgium or Sens, France. He was the first ruler of the Slavs (623–658) whose name is known, and established one of the earliest Slav states, a supra-tribal union usually called (King) Samo’s empire, realm, kingdom, or tribal union.

Primary sources

The main source of written information on Samo and his empire is the Fredegarii Chronicon, a Frankish chronicle written in the mid-seventh century (c. 660). Though theories of multiple authorship abounded once, the notion of a single “Fredegar” is common scholarly fare today. The last or only Fredegar was the author of the brief account of the Wends in which is found the best, and only contemporary, information on Samo. All other sources for Samo are derived from Fredegar, and are much more recent. The Gesta Dagoberti I regis Francorum (“Deeds of King Dagobert I of the Franks”) was written in the first third of the ninth century. The Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum (“Conversion of the Bavarians and Karantanians”) from Salzburg (the Bavarian ecclesiastic centre), written in 871–872, is a very tendentious source, as its name suggests. According mainly to the Conversio, Samo was a Karantanian merchant.

The sources “Fredegar” used to compile his Wendish account are unknown. A few scholars have attacked the entire account as fictitious, but Fredegar displays a critical attitude and a knowledge of detail that suggest otherwise. It is possible that he had an eyewitness in the person of Sicharius, the ambassador of Dagobert I to the Slavs. According to Fredegar, the “Wends” had long been subjects and befulci of the Avars. Befulci is a term, cognate with the word fulcfree found in the Edict of Rothari, signifying “entrusted [to guard]”, from the Old German root felhan, falh, fulgum and Middle German bevelhen. Fredegar appears to have envisaged the Wends as a military unit of the Avar host. He probably based his account on “native” Wendish accounts. Fredegar records the story of the origo gentis (origin of the people) of the Wends. The Wends were Slavs, but Samo was only king of the Wends, at least in Fredegar’s eyes.

It has also been suggested that Fredegar’s sources may have been the reports of Christian missionaries, especially disciples of Columbanus and the Abbey of Luxeuil. If this is the case, it may explain why he is remarkably free of typical stereotypes of heathen Slavs: he was familiar with the Wends as a specifically pagan nation.



Samo’s dates are based on Fredegar, who says that he went to the Slavs in the fortieth year of Chlothar II (623–4) and reigned for thirty five years. The interpretation of Fredegar which places the start of Samo’s reign in the year of his arrival has been questioned on the basis that the Wends would have most likely rebelled after the defeat of the Avar khagan at the First Siege of Constantinople in 626. The Avars first arrived in the Carpathian Basin and subdued the local Slavs in the 560s. Samo may have been one of the merchants who supplied arms to the Slavs for their regular revolts. Whether he became king during a revolt of 623–4 or during the one which inevitably followed the Avar defeat in 626, he definitely took advantage of the latter to solidify his position. A string of victories over the Avars proved his utilitas (usefulness) to his subjects and secured his election as rex (king). Samo went on to secure his throne by marriage into the major Wendish families, wedding at least twelve women and fathering twenty-two sons and fifteen daughters.

The most famous event of Samo’s career is his victory over Frankish royal army under Dagobert I in 631 or 632. Provoked to action by a “violent quarrel in the Pannonian kingdom of the Avars or Huns” during his ninth year (631–2), Dagobert led three armies against the Wends, the largest being composed of Austrasians under himself. The Franks were routed near Wogastisburg (Latin castrum Wogastisburc), an unidentified location meaning “fortress/castle of Vogast.” In the aftermath of the Wendish victory, the Sorbian prince Dervan abandoned the Franks and “placed himself and his people under Samo” (Fredegar). Samo even invaded Frankish Thuringia several times and undertook looting raids there. In 641 the rebellious duke of Thuringia, Radulf, sought an alliance with Samo against his sovereign, Sigebert III. Samo also maintained long-distance trade relationships. On his death, however, his title was not inherited by his sons. Ultimately, Samo can be credited with forging a Wendish identity by speaking on behalf of the community which recognised his authority.

Extent of his empire

Archaeological findings indicate that the “empire” was situated in present-day Moravia, Slovakia, Lower Austria and Slovenia. According to Slovak historian Richard Marsina, it is not very probable that the center of Samo’s tribal union was in the territory of present-day Slovakia. The settlements of the later Moravian and Nitrian principalities (see Great Moravia) are often identical with those from the time of Samo’s Empire. Since we have no direct documentation about the Slavonic tribes and their names or their political organization between the 6th and 7th centuries, furthermore, because we don’t have any concrete records from the following 150 years long period, there is no historical evidence to suppose or to prove any connection between Samo’s kingdom and the ethnogenesis of the Slovaks.

Probably present-day Bohemia, Sorbia at the Elbe, and the state of Karantania became parts of the empire later (in the 630s), as well. Although the Slavs, led by King Samo, managed to defeat all Avar attacks, Slav conflicts with Frankish merchants, in which merchants were killed and goods stolen, forced them to fight against the Franks as well.

The history of the empire after Samo’s death in 658 or 659 is largely unclear. It is generally assumed that it disappeared with Samo’s death. Archaeological findings show that the Avars returned to their previous territories (at least to southernmost part of present-day Slovakia) and entered into a symbiosis with the Slavs, whereas territories to the north of the Avar empire were purely Slav territories. The first specific thing that is known about the fate of these Slavs and Avars, is the existence of the Moravian and Nitrian principalities in the late eighth century which were attacking the Avars, and the defeat of the Avars by the Franks under Charlemagne in 799 or 802–3, after which the Avars quickly ceased to exist.

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