How Bohemia gained its name

The Latin equivalent of the Czech name “Čechy” (one of three parts of the Czech Republic next to Moravia and Silesia) is “Bohemia”, originally “Boiohaemum”. This expression gave rise to other foreign language variants. But where does origin of this Latin version lie?

The answer in one sentence would be: at Celtic tribe of the Boii that inhabited these territories for several centuries. The Boii however left more traces in our country than just their name in the title of Bohemia.



The beginnings of the Celts can be found as early as in the Bronze Age through the time of Hallstatt period but main development of the Celts falls within the Late Iron Age – the so-called La Tene culture (lasting from about half of 5th century BC to turn of the era). For example, we know about the Boii from the Greek historian Strabo, according to which they dwelt in the Hercynian forest – a zone of forests and mountains north of the Danube. Czech basin’s connection with the Boii was then confirmed by the Roman historian Tacitus (Germania, 98 AD). But it is not entirely clear whether the Boii came to Bohemia from the west within the huge movements of the Celtic tribes throughout Europe, that were marked with such milestones as conquest of Rome (387 BC) or of  Greek Delphi (279 BC); or whether their origin lies in southern and western Bohemia. In case the first possibility is correct, the Boii first participated in military campaigns and then came here from the south from Italy, where they began to be pushed out over the time by the Romans (decisive battle, though it cost the Romans dearly, was the battle of Mutina in 193 BC); on Czech territory, they then mingled with the Celts already living here. In case the second option is true the Boii could migrate south to Italy from their homeland and after pressure from the Romans they could simply return. Either way, founding of city of Bologna (originally Bononia) in the north of Italy is attributed to the Boii. According to Livy, it was a Boii man who showed the way over the Alps to Hannibal. The Boii also founded Bavarian town of Passau – Boiodurum at their times. Also the Bavarian town of Manching stands on the foundations of Celtic oppidum, probably also of Boii origin according to a finding of ceramic potsherd with inscription “Boios”. Even the name “Bavaria” probably comes from the original “Baiuvarii” referring to the Boii.

The material evidence of Celtic culture is found mainly on the sites of the former settlements – especially “oppida”; in the Czech Republic they are Závist at Zbraslav, Stradonice, Nevězice, Třísov, Hrazany and České Lhotice, in Moravia there are at least Staré Hradisko and Hostýn if not more. In addition, we have archaeological findings from other types of settlements and graves as well as from shrines or other sacred places.

In the 1st century BC in the Western Europe, the Celtic tribes began to recede because of pressure of the Germanic tribes and the Romans. The Boii also participated in the wars alongside the Helvetians; after their defeat by Caesar at Bibracte in year 58 BC, the Boii were allowed to stay as the only tribe (they settled between the region of the Celtic Haedui and the Bituriges – oppidum Gorgobina), although some of them might in time come back to the east. As well as because of this expedition, contact with the West was maintained by trade. In Boiohaemum there was gradually general decline and depopulation, abandonment of traditional settlements. Here, too, the Celts had to face pressure of the Germans (military victory is documented over the Cimbri tribe in year 113 BC). New centre of the Boii moves to area around confluence of the Morava river and the Danube with center in oppidum of today’s Bratislava; this era was successful but very short – the fatal mistake turned out to be a decision to conquer area between the Danube and Tisza rivers together with the Taurisci tribe. Both tribes were heavily defeated and decimated by enemy, king Burebista of Thracian tribe of the Dhacians (authors talk about “deserta Boiorum”). Remnants of the population left either to the west and back to Boiohaemum or settled by the Danube (Děvín). There are evidences of Boii settlements even from the 1st century AD. Probably even before settlement of the Czech lands by new nations, signs of advanced civilization faded away – coinage, a special production technologies, administrative organization and fortified agglomerations – and that all for many centuries.

If we go back to the names, names of some local rivers also bear the Celtic origin (Eger, Labe, Jizera, Mže, maybe even more). Name of the Sudetenland could also be of the Celtic origin (“forest of wildboars”), as well as another name for Šumava mountains – Gabreta (“ibex mountains”).

And the name of the Boii themselves? It originated probably in the Indo-European word for “cow” or “warrior”. Theoretically both is possible; Polybius writes about the Boii that their wealth was in gold and cows and that they depended on agriculture and wars.

Boians (1)


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