Eurasian Avars

Eurasian Avars

The image is based on reconstruction by Norman J. Finkelshteyn of an image from an 8th-century ewer found at Nagyszentmiklos in Transylvania (original at [] ). some scholars regard the image as that of a Khazar warrior.] ] distinguish|Caucasian Avars:"The Caucasian Avars are a modern people of Caucasus, mainly of Dagestan."

The Avars were a highly organized and powerful multi-ethnic tribal confederation, with a Turkic core of aristocratic nomads, governed by a central ruler ("khagan") [Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages 500-1250. Florin Curta] . They appeared in Central and Eastern Europe in the 6th century. Avar rule persisted over much of the Pannonian plain up to the early 9th century.


The origin of the European Avars is unclear. Information is derived primarily from the works of Byzantine historians Menander Protector and Theophylact Simocatta. The confusion is compounded by the fact that many clans carried a particular name because they believed it to be prestigious, or it was attributed to them by outsiders describing their common characteristics, believed place of origin or reputation. [ name="Pohl"] Such a case has been seen repeatedly for many nomadic confederacies.

According to the research of historian András Róna-Tas [Hungarians and Europe in the Middle Ages. CEU press] , the Avars formed in central Asia through a fusion of several tribal elements, in the classical age. Rona-Tas suggests that Turkic "Oghurs" migrated to the Kazakh steppe, possibly moving south to inhabit the lands vacated by the Huns. Here they interacted with a body Indo-European-speaking Iranians – forming the Xionites (Hunas). Sometime during the 460s, they were subordinated by the Mongolic Ruanruan. The Ruanruan imposed their own rulers– referred to as "Uar" -at the head of the confederacy. Being a highly cultured people, the Ughurs rose to prominence within the tribal confederacy. The 6th century historian Menander Protector noted that the language of the Avars was the same (possibly meaning "similar") as that of the Huns. If language is an indicator of origin, this supports the theory that they might have been an Oghuric Turkic people [ name="Iranica">K.H. Menges, "Altaic people", Encyclopaedia Iranica, v, p. 908-912, Online Edition ( [] . The connection with the Rouran has prompted some scholars to suggest that the European Avars’ ruling core was Mongolic, although this has been disputed by others. [E. H. Parker: "A Thousand Years of the Tartars", ISBN-10: 0710307462; ISBN-13: 978-0710307460] empire (the Gokturks were previously yet another vassal tribal element under Ruanruan supremacy). In his "History of the World", Theophylact Simocatta noted that the (Gok)Turks “enslaved the entire Ohgur tribe, which was one of the most powerful, .. and was accomplished in the art of war”. One body of people, perhaps wishing to evade Gokturk rule, escaped and migrated to the northern Caucasus region c. 555 AD. According to Simocatta, their new neighbours believed them to be the true Avars. They established diplomatic contact with the Byzantines, and the other nomadic tribes of the steppes lavished them with gifts. However, the Gokturks later persuaded the Byzantines that these nomads were not the "real" Avars, but were instead a group of "fugitive Scythians" who had fled from the Gokturks and stolen the prestigious name of "Avar" [Curta] . Hence they have subsequently been called "pseudo-Avars" (or "Eurasian Avars").

For all the theories, historian Walter Pohl asserted in 1998, instancing the detailed attempts made by H. W. Haussig in 1953 [H. W. Haussig, "Theophylakts Exkurs über die skythischen Völker" "Byzantion" 23 (1953) pp 275-436.] and K. Czeglèdy in 1983 [K. Czeglédy, "From East to West" "Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi" 3 (1983) pp 25-126.] and his own methodological objections [in "Die Awaren" (1988) and in "Verlaufsformen der Ethnogenese: Awaren und Bulgaren," " Typen der Ethnogenese", ed. H. Wolfram and W. Pohl, vol. I, (1990) pp. 113-24.] :"It is pointless to ask who exactly the forefathers of the European Avars were. We only know that they carried an ancient, very prestigious name (our first hints to it date back to the times of Herodotus); and we may assume that they were a very mixed group of warriors who wanted to escape domination by the Gokturks." [ Walter Pohl, "Conceptions of Ethnicity in Early Medieval Studies" "Debating the Middle Ages: Issues and Readings", ed. Lester K. Little and Barbara H. Rosenwein, (Blackwell), 1998, pp 13-24) p. 18 ( [ On-line text] ).] If the Avars were ever a distinct ethnic group, that distinction does not seem to have survived their centuries in Europe. Being an 'Avar' seems to have meant being part of the Avar state (in a similar way that being 'Roman' ceased to have any ethnic meaning).What is certain, by the time they arrived in Europe, the Avars were a heterogeneous, polyethnic people [Curta] [The early Medieval Balkans. John Fine Jr] . Modern research showsWalter Pohl (1999), "Huns" in "Late Antiquity", editor Peter Brown, p.501-502 .. further references to F.H Bauml and M. Birnbaum, eds., "Attila: The Man and His Image" (1993). Peter Heather, "The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe," "English Historical Review" 90 (1995):4-41. Peter Heather, "The Fall of the Roman Empire" (2005). Otto Maenchen-Helfen, "The World of the Huns" (1973). E. de la Vaissière, Huns et Xiongnu "Central Asiatic Journal" 2005-1 pp. 3-26] that each of the large confederations of steppe warriors (such as the Scythians, Xiongnu, Huns, Avars, Khazars, Cumans, Mongols, etc.) were not ethnically homogeneous, but rather unions of multiple ethnicities. Archeological studies of Avar graves have so far failed to produce any conclusive evidence for an Asiatic origin of Avars [The Making of the Slavs. Florin Curta] .


Arrival in Europe

The Avars arrived to the vast grasslands of Ukraine circa 555 AD. With Byzantine encouragement, they subjugated various nomadic tribes- such as the Kutrigurs, Sabirs, Antes and Onogurs. Their first recorded official contact with the Roman world was in the winter of 558/59, when their embassy arrived in Constantinople and negotiated a treaty by which they were to subdue the abovementioned confederacies on behalf of the Empire, and receive payments and rights in return. [Pohl 1998:18] . Such was Byzantine policy- to turn various barbarian tribes against each other in order to divert their attention from imperial lands. By their arrival into the Balkans, the Avars were a heterogeneous group of c.20,000 horsemen [Curta] . Having been bought off by the Eastern Emperor Justinian I, they pushed north into Germany (as Attila the Hun had done a century before), eventually reaching as far north as the Baltic. However, further expansion into "Germania" was halted by stern Frankish opposition and the harsh conditions of western Europe.

By 562 AD, they settled the lower Danube basin. Seeking rich pastoral lands, they initially demanded land south of the Danube river (in present-day Bulgaria), but this was denied them by the Byzantines, who used their contacts with the Gokturks as a threat against Avar aggression. They thus turned their attention to the Carpathian plain, and the natural defenses it afforded [History of Transylvania, Volume I. László Makkai, András Mócsy. Columbia University Press. 2001] . However, the Carpathian basin was occupied by the Gepids at this time. In 567, the Avars signed an alliance with the Lombards, who were the enemies of the Gepids, and together destroyed much of the Gepid Kingdom. They then turned 'persuaded' the Lombards to move into northern Italy, an invasion that marked the last Germanic mass movement in the Migration Period.

Continuing their successful policy of turning the various barbarians against each other, the Byzantines convinced the Avars to then attack the "Sclavenes" in Scythia Minor - for their land was rich with booty and had never been conquered before [Florin Curta. The Making of the Slavs] . After "devastating" much of the Sclavenes' land, the Avars returned to Pannonia, but not before many of the qagan's subjects deserted to the Byzantine Emperor.

By 600 AD, the Avars had established a nomadic empire stretching from Austria in the west to the Pontic steppes in the east, ruling over a multitude of peoples.

The Early Avar Period (580-670)

Like Attila before him by about 580 the Avar Khagan, Bayan, established supremacy over practically all Slavic, Hunno-Bulgar, and Germanic tribes. [Pohl 1998:18.] When the Eastern Roman Empire was unable to pay subsidies or hire Avar mercenaries, the Avars raided Rome's Balkan communities. According to Menander, to sack Dalmatia in 568, Bayan commanded ten thousand “Kutrigurs” effectively cutting Byzantium's land link with North Italy and the West. By 582, the Avars had captured Sirmium, an important fort in the former Roman province of Pannonia. When the Byzantine's refused to increase the stipend amount requested by Bayans's son and successor (from 584), Bayan II, the Avars then proceeded to also capture Sigidunum and Viminacium. However, during Maurice’s Balkan campaigns in the 590s Avars experienced setbacks. Being defeated in their homeland, some Avars defected to the Byzantines in 602, [Walter Pohl, "Die Awaren" (Munich) 2.ed.2002., page 158.] but Emperor Maurice decided against returning home as was customary, but rather to maintain his army camp beyond the Danube throughout the winter, which caused the army to revolt (602). This gave the Avars a desperately needed respite. The ensuing civil war prompted a Persian invasion and after 615 gave the Avars a free hand in the undefended Balkans. An invasion of northern Italy was attempted in 610. Payments in gold and goods reached the record sum of 200,000 solidi shortly before 626. [Walter Pohl, "Die Awaren" (Munich) 1.ed.1988.]

The Carpathian basin was the centre of the Avar power base. The Avars re-settled captives from the peripheries of their empire to more central regions. Avar material culture is found south to Macedonia. However, to the east of the Carpathians, there are next to no Avar archaeological finds, suggesting that they were mainly in the western Balkans. Scholars propose that a highly structured and heirarchical Avar society existed, having complex interations with other 'barbarian' groups. The khagan was the paramount figure, surrounded by a minority of nomadic aristocracy. A few expectionally rich burials have been uncovered, confirming that power was limited to the Khagan and a close-knit class of 'elite warriors'. Apart from hoards of gold coins, they were often buried with symbols of rank, such as decorated belts, weapons, stirrups resembling those found in central Asia, as well as their horse. The Avar army itself was composed from numerous other groups - Slavic, Gepidic and Bulgar military units - who did the bulk of the fighting for little reward. There also appeared to have existed semi-independent 'client', predominantly Slavic, tribes which served strategic roles such as engaging in divertory attacks and guarding the Avars western borders abutting Frankia. Yet other tribes were equals and allies of the Avars, such as Zabergan's Kutrigurs and Ardagastus' Slavs, which often conducted autonomous offensives into Byzantine land.

Initially, the Avars and their subjects lived separately, except for Slavic and Germanic women that were married by Avar men. Eventually, the Germanic and Slavic peoples were included in the Avaric social order and culture – which itself was Persian- Byzantine in fashion [History of Transylvania] . Scholars have identified a fused, Avar-Slavic culture, characterized by ornaments such as half moon-shaped earrings, Byzantine-styled buckles, beads, bracelets with horn-shaped ends [History of Transylvania] . Paul Fouracre notes “there appears in the seventh century a mixed Slavic-Avar material culture, interpreted as peaceful and harmonious relationships between Avar warriors and Slavic peasants. It is thought possible that at least some of the leaders of the Slav tribes could have become part of the Avar aristocracy” [ The New Cambridge Medieval History. Paul Fouracre] . Apart from the assimilated Gepids, a few graves of west Germanic (Carolingian) peoples have been found through the Avar lands, who perhaps served as mercenaries. [History of Transylvania]

Middle (670-720) and Late (720-800) Avar Periods

In 626, the Avars and the Persians jointly besieged Constantinople and failed. Following this defeat, the Avars' prestige and power declined. The Byzantines document a battle between the Avars and their Slav clients in 629. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Bysantine emperor in the 10th century writes that seven Croat tribes had been hired as mercenaries to help in war against Avars. Shortly after this, the Croats and Serbs took over rule in Dalmatia/ Illyria. In the 630s, Samo increased his authority over lands to the north and west of the khanate, at the expense of the Avars, becoming ‘’King of the Wends’’. In 631-32, there was a civil war, possibly a succession struggle, between Bulgar and Avar parties. The Bulgar party lost, and chroniclers recorded that 9,000 Bulgars sought asylum and fled to Bavaria, only to be slaughtered by King Dagobert. Around 630, Kubrat of the Dulo clan revolted, ending Avar authority over the Pontic steppes, and formed an independent Bulgarian realm on the Don.

By 670, the Khazars broke the Kubrat’s Onogur-Bulgar confederation, causing various tribal groups to migrate. One group of Bulgars migrated into the Carpathian basin and accepted Avar supremacy. Byzantine sources reveal they later revolted, led by Kuber (possibly one of Kubrat’s sons). After fending off a punitive Avar attack, they moved to Macedonia. However significant number of Bulgars must have remained in Pannonia. This new ethnic element (marked by hair clips for pigtails; curved, single-edged sabres; broad, symmetrical bows) marks the middle Avar period (670-720 AD). Although the Avar’s empire had diminished to half its original size, they consolidated ruled over the central Pannonian lands, mid Danubian basin, and once again extended their sphere of influence west to the Viennese Basin (with the Death of Samo, some Slavic tribes again fell under Avar rule). New regional centers appear, such as those near Ozora and Igaz (county Fehér/Hungary). This strengthened the Avars' power base, although most of the Balkans now lay in the hands of Slav tribes, since neither the Avars nor Byzantines were able to reassert control.

In the early 8th century a new Archaeological culture appeared in the Carpathian basin- the so called 'griffin and tendril' culture. Although, some earlier scholars (such as the “double conquest” theory of archaeologist Gyula László) have attempted to place it to the arrival of new settlers (such as early Magyars), there is no evidence for a new wave of immigration from the steppes after 700 AD. Instead, Laszló Makkai and András Móczy place this to an internal evolution of Avar culture, formed by the integration of the Bulgar émigrés from the previous generation (ie 670s): “’’the material culture — art, clothing, equipment, weapons — of the late Avar period evolved autonomously from these new foundations’’”. Many regions that had once been important centres of Avar Empire had lost their significance, whilst new ones arose. Whilst Avaric material culture found over a much of the northern Balkans might indicate an existing Avar presence, it probably more accurately represents the presence of independent Slavs who had adopted Avaric customs [History of Transylvania] .


The gradual decline of Avar power was brought to a rapid crash within the space of a decade. A series of campaigns in the 790s led by Frankish king Charlemagne led to their conquest of the Avar realm, taking most of Pannonia up to the Tisza river. The Franks baptised many Avars and integrated them into the Frankish Empire ("...(sc. Avaros) autem, qui obediebant fidei et baptismum sunt consecuti..."). The Franks turned the Avar lands under their control into a military march. The eastern half of this March was then granted to the Slavic Prince Pribina, who established the Balaton principality in 840 AD. The western part continued to exist until 871, when it was integrated into the Carantanian and Eastern marches. In 804, the Bulgarian Empire took the southeastern Avar lands- Transylvania and south-eastern Pannonia to the Middle Danube river. Many Avars joined the Bulgarian Khanate.

After the fall of the Avar Empire, the name "Avar" and the self-identified constructed ethnicity it carried disappeared within a single generation. An Avar presence in Pannonia is still certain in 871 but thereafter the name is no longer used by chroniclers: "It simply proved impossible to keep up an Avar identity after Avar institutions and the high claims of their tradition had failed." [Pohl 1998:19.] . The Avars had already been fusing with the more numerous Slavs for generations. In turn, they came under the rule of external polities – that of the Franks, the Bulgar khanate and Great Moravia [The early medieval Balkans. John Fine, Jr] . Isolated pockets of Avars in Transylvania and eastern Pannonia escaped assimilation, and might have been the “Huns” encountered by the invading Magyars in the 10th Century. The Avars of Tiszántúl and Crisana were still bilingual when the Hungarians arrived in 895. Their hypothetical descendants, the Székely (who apparently preserved the Avar Dragon Totem well into the 15th centuryFact|date=February 2007), were relocated to Transylvania in the 12th century. In contrast to Transylvania, the descendants of those who had considered themselves "Avars" in the 700s (i.e., part of the Avar polity, even if actually of Slavic or Germanic background) in the central Pannonian plain were absorbed by the invading Magyars to form the new nation of Hungary.

Language of the Eurasian Avars

The extinct language of the Eurasian Avars is now classified as belonging to the Oghur-Turkic subgroup, and the language itself is referred to as Turkic Avar or Eurasian Avar in order to distinguish it from the North-Caucasian Avar spoken by the modern Caucasian Avars. [For references on the classification of Turkic Avar, see the main article on Oghur languages.]


* E. Breuer "Chronological Studies to Early-Medieval Findings at the Danube Region. An Introduction to Byzantine Art at Barbaric Cemeteries." (Tettnang 2005)
* [ László Makkai and András Mócsy, editors, 2001. "History of Transylvania", II.4 "The period of Avar rule"]
*cite book
last = Curta
first = Florin
title = Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500-1250.
publisher = Cambridge Medieval Textbooks
year = 2006
isbn = 0-521-81539-8

*cite book
last = Fine, Jr
first = John V.A
title = The early Medieval Balkans; A critical survery from the sixth to the late twelfth century
publisher = The University of Michigan Press
year = 1991
isbn = 0-472-08149-7

ources and notes

ee also

* Oghur_languages
* Khazar language
* Bulgar language
* Hunnic language
* Chuvash
* Turkic language

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