How Lithuanians became descendants of Ancient Romans

The arrival of Palemon to Lithuania, by Teofil Żychowicz, Lviv 1852, The National Library of Poland

History is a powerful tool and sixteenth-century Lithuanian noble houses were only too happy to ground their contemporary power in a historical myth which traced their ancestry to Ancient Rome.

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Lithuanian chronicles recorded the legend of the Roman origins of Lithuanians in the early 16th century, even though foreign chroniclers had had the idea even earlier. Following the scholarly spirit of the time, they wanted to explain the origins of the nation that had been the most recent addition to Christendom and tie it to the European narrative.

Since known historical sources contained nothing about the origins of Lithuanians, these chroniclers resorted to the time-tested narratives that were often used for origin myths. In the Middle Ages, there were quite few places that most noble families liked to trace their ancestry to. Ancient Rome was one of them, while other popular places were Troy, Sarmatia or the lands ruled by Alexander the Great's generals.

Sixteenth-century chroniclers who wrote down the Lithuanian origin legend used one of the popular historical narratives widely used in European writings at the time. Unlike later and no less fictional historical narratives that emphasised the indissoluble connection between a people and a land, Medieval sensibilities sought to link one's ancestry to ancient peoples. Continuity was valued above originality and noble origins were a legitimation of current political power.

Lithuanians - dissidents of Ancient Rome

The Roman origin myth of Lithuanians takes us back to the times of Emperor Nero (or the year of Attila the Hun's invasion of Rome, according to a later version which sought to correct some timing discrepancies) when the Roman Duke Palemon and 500 of his noble companions, incensed by the tyrant's high-handedness, take their families (four Roman patrician houses: the Centaur family, the Column family, the Bear family and the Rose family) and leave the Eternal City. After a long journey through seas and oceans, they settle on the Baltic coast.

These 500 noble Romans allegedly started the dynasties of Lithuanian dukes and gentry. The Roman origins legend helped solve two important issues: first, Lithuanians thus made claim to a place in history among other European peoples and, second, linked their story to the history of Antiquity and Christendom.

Projections of contemporary realities

The need to come up with origin myths was also a sign of social change and a new kind of historical thinking. The most powerful families in the sixteenth-century Grand Duchy of Lithuania needed a way to legitimize and entrench their relatively new-found power and embed it into a historical narrative.

The Goštautai (Gasztołdowie), the Alšėniškiai (Olshanski), the Radvilos (Radziwiłł) and other noble houses used the Roman origins myth to claim historical tradition worthy of their power. This pushed the sixteenth-century values and social relations far into the past and gave historical legitimacy to the power of the nobility in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

According to contemporary attitudes, for something to be legitimate, it had to have a beginning and a tradition. Since the beginnings of most powerful families of the 16th century had not been written down in any sources, they had to be invented by projecting contemporary realities onto the past. Therefore chronicles started describing the reign of the Goštautai, the Alšėniškiai, the Giedraičiai (Giedroyć) set in the ancient times, when, according to chroniclers, these landlords owned roughly the same lands as they did in the 15th and 16th centuries.

If Jonas Goštautas (Jan Gasztołd) was the Voivod of Vilnius and his grandson Albert hoped to succeed him in the position, it was perfectly legitimate to assume that their legendary ancestor Petras Goštautas had probably held the position under Grand Duke Algirdas in the 1300s.

By the same token, Lithuanian nobility thus "discovered" their relations with other noble families of Europe. After all, it wasn't just the Goštautai or the Davainos who traced their pedigree to the Roman Colonna or Orsini families, but many other European dukes and princes as well.

Past serving the present

The Roman origins theory did more than explain the provenance of Lithuania's rulers and nobles. It helped map the "political geography" of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In the legends, these ancient dukes travelled across the lands and founded new towns and castles, from Samogitia to Podlakia and Ukraine, tying them into one realm. Maintaining the integrity of these lands was an urgent issue in the Grand Duchy of the 16th century.

In these legends, Palemon is succeeded by the Centaur and the Column dynasties, which gave the impression that history would not be interrupted if one dynasty ended and were succeeded by another. Moreover, the ruler seemed to have always been accompanied and helped by the aristocracy, which, in the 16th century, was claiming equal power to that of the sovereign.

The Roman theory also provided ideological basis for integrating noble families of Ruthenian origin into the Grand Duchy. The Chodkevičiai (Chodkiewicz), the Sapiegos (Sapiehas), the Tiškevičiai (Tyszkiewicz) and other Orthodox Christian families could feel equal to other "Roman-Lithuanians" like the Catholic Goštautai, Radvilos or Kęsgailos (Kieżgajło). After all, they all descended from the same 500 noblemen who had accompanied Palemon from Rome to the Baltic coast - and only later had they been dispersed over the vast lands of what would become the Grand Duchy.

In sixteenth-century Lithuania, the Roman origin myth became a powerful historical narrative and a centre of Lithuanian identity. The political community of the Grand Duchy, still in formation, needed it to anchor its identity. The story of Palemon, propagated in contemporary chronicles, gave the origin myth to the class of landowners, gave it a place among European peers and a powerful tool in future political feuds. As one member of the Radvilos family lated said: "I am a Roman."

By Rimvydas Petrauskas

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