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Avars - 558-822

From the third to the fifth century the hurricanes of war stirred up by the Goths and the Huns between the Carpathians, the Pontus, and the Danube raged over and around the Slavs. Not before the seventh decade of the sixth century did the advance of the Avars to the Elbe disclose the great change which had silently come to pass. The Avars, like the Huns, must have needed an enormous number of dependent Slavs. The territory by the Pontus left vacant by the withdrawal of the Goths, Heruli, etc. was occupied by Slavs, naturally as serfs to the Huns.

The Avars, confused by the Franks with the Huns, to whom they were related as belonging to the Ural-Altaic family, had for some centuries come in contact with the Byzantines and Franks. About the end of the sixth century, as we have seen,1 they held a great dominion: but by the end of the eighth century the period of their greatest power was past. They had never risen above the level of barbarian nomads, and the Slavs of the south-east had long thrown off their yoke, and even their own sense of unity was gone. It was remarkable how this uncivilised people sought to make use of the civilised labour of other peoples. Agriculture, like all other productive labour, was unknown to them.

Kandik [Khingila]552562
Bayan Kagan 565 602
Bayan II602617
Khazar Avar alliance602 791
Tudun I 791 803
Zodan 803 805
Thedorus 805 ?
Abraham ? ?
Tudun II ? 835
In the plain between the Danube and the Theiss were situated the "Rings" - the strong circular walls round extensive dwelling-places. According to the assertion of a Frankish warrior - quoted by the Monk of St Gall - the Rings extended as far "as from Zurich to Constance" (therefore about 60 kilometres or nearly 38 miles) and embraced several districts. In these Rings, of which, according to the Monk of St Gall, there were nine, the Avars had heaped their plunder of two centuries.

The existence of the first Avar-Slavonic kingdom is proved by the account which the Arabian geographer of the second quarter of the ninth century (before the conquest of Hungary by the Magyars) gives of the mare-milking and therefore Altaic Great King, whose realm lay in the territory of the Slavonic Dulyebs or Volynyans south-west of Polesie the very people who according to Pseudo-Nestor had been formerly kept in servitude by the Avars. Bordering on the steppes as they did, they were from the earliest times a prey to the inhabitants of the steppes. Before the Avars various nomadic and Germanic peoples were their masters; and these peoples left behind warlike elements which were sharply distinguished-even after becoming Slavised-from the subjected Slav mass.

From the earliest times the Wends [here in particular are meant the Slavs of the upper Main and its tributary the Regnitz north and east of Nuremberg] were used by the Avars. When the Avars took the field against any people the Wends had to fight in front. If they won the Huns advanced to make booty; but if they were defeated they rallied with the support of the Huns. Without these befulci the Avars, who were speedy on their marvellously trained horses but helpless and defenceless on foot, could have done little against trained infantry. They therefore had to call out countless, because wretchedly armed, masses of Slav foot-soldiers who, with certain death at the hands of their goaders behind them, charged forward in despair. On the other hand the Avar cavalry formed an incomparable mail-armed force with sword, bow, and pickaxe, and even the horses of the leaders were protected by armour. However the Avars were not in themselves numerous enough to supply the necessary reserves for their enormous empire, and with the expansion of their dominion the need for new masses of cavalry grew. This need was supplied by constant reinforcements from other Altaian hordes out of the steppe. Among them the most numerous were the Bulgars. The Khagan's victorious flag, and the prospect of booty, worked irresistibly upon the plundering sons of the steppe.

The limits of the Avar power are marked by the abode of the Obodritzi in Mecklenburg, the Volynyans at the mouth of the Oder, the Dregovichi in Polesie and in Macedonia, the Milengi in Morea, the Severyans east of the Dnieper and in Moesia, the Serbs and Croats on the Adriatic and on the Saale. Thus the Avar power at one time or another extended from the Baltic to the southern extremity of Greece, from East Tyrol to the river Donetz in Russia, doubtless with very unequal intensity and unequal duration. Only one will, that of the Khagan, could carry through so vast a change-the transplanting of one and the same people partly to the Baltic, partly to the Adriatic, Ionic, and Aegean Seas.

The Khagan could not leave his Slavs without supervision, and therefore he had to maintain among them a standing Avar garrison with wives and children. But the Avars were a nomad people who only camped among the Slavonic peasantry in winter - more than half the year-and during the summer grazed the higher positions and heaths, of course leaving behind a guard over the Slavs, while their army went to battle and plunder.

By the transplantation of Slav peoples to the western borders of his robber-State the Khagan meant to keep in check his neighbours, the Saxons on the lower Elbe, the Franks on the Saale, the Bavarians on the Nab and upper Danube, the Lombards in Italy, while he himself, with his rear protected, was free for plundering raids on the East Roman Empire, in which he employed enormous masses of Slavs as befulci. He had no intention of conquering even a part of the Roman Empire and settling it with Slavs, for this was not to his interest; he had land in abundance and he needed the Slavs for his own colonising purposes. He therefore left them the East Roman to pay tribute, and his plundering supplied him further. Nevertheless his procedure was uneconomical. The greater number of the East Romans were partly exterminated and partly carried into slavery. The vacuum thus created was permanently occupied by the Slavs who finally spread almost over the entire Balkan peninsula and even reached Asia Minor.

Between the Dniester and Dnieper in the first half of the sixth century lived the Antae, "the bravest of the Slavs," who constantly joined in the Bulgar plundering raids in the East Roman Empire. In 558 Justinian was successful in instigating against them both the Avars who had suddenly emerged from the Asiatic background. The Avars demanded territory of Justinian but refused the offer of Lower Pannonia - which they would have had to wrest from the fierce Heruli and Lombards - and remained in the Dobrudja, contenting themselves with a yearly tribute for their defeat of the Bulgars and Antae.

The Avar base of operations against the Franks in Thuringia is to be sought in Bohemia, where they found excellent summer-pastures in the mountain ring and good winter-quarters in the plains for their herds. It would be misunderstanding the entire nature of the mounted nomads, and of the Avars in particular, to regard these wars with Sigebert the king of the Franks as mere plundering expeditions. In the latter the nomads never confronted the enemy, but went round his positions with marvellous speed, and then charged behind his back. They confronted him or sought him out only when they had to defend their own land. In the first campaign they were defeated, but they won the second, and the consequence was that the North Sueves evacuated the oldest German land between the Elbe and the Oder.

The evacuation of Old Germany by the North Sueves, the destruction of the kingdom of the Gepidae, and the withdrawal of the Lombards to Italy - three co-related events - mark an epoch in the history of the world, for the entire East was abandoned by the Germans to the Avars and their followers the Slavs. Once more the map of Europe was suddenly changed, and from the steppes of Hungary the Avars became the terror of all their neighbours. But they did not give up the territories won from the Germans between the Oder and the Elbe, Saale, Main, Regnitz, Nab, for - as we shall see - a horde of the Avars wintered yearly on the Main and Regnitz till about the year 603, and the Khagan resettled the waste German land as far as the Baltic with Slavs brought there from the first, North-Carpathian, Avar kingdom.

The Avars appeared in the Eastern Alps as early as 595-596, and had formally invested Thessalonica in 597. The irruption of the Avars into Thuringia in 596 was due to outside pressure, for since 593 the Avar Slavs in what is now Roumania had been hard pressed by the Romans, and even the Avars' own territory in the Hungarian steppe was threatened. Something very pressing in the north-west of the Avar State must have therefore occurred to compel the Khagan to abandon the south-east and to leave the Slavs there to themselves.

In June 617 a disaster overtook the emperor Heraclius. The Khagan of the Avars made overtures for peace, and Athanasius the patrician and Kosmas the quaestor arranged a meeting between the Emperor and the barbarian chief at Heraclea. Splendid religious rites and a magnificent circus display were to mark the importance of the occasion, and huge crowds had poured forth from the city gates to be present at the festivities. But it was no longer increased money payments that the Khagan sought: he aimed at nothing less than the capture of Constantinople. At a sign from his whip the ambushed troops burst forth from their hiding-places about the Long Walls. Heraclius saw his peril: throwing off his purple, with his crown under his arm, he fled at a gallop to the city and warned its inhabitants.

Over the plain of the Hebdomon and up to the Golden Gate surged the Avar host: they raided the suburbs, they pillaged the church of Saints Cosmas and Damian in the Hebdomon, they crossed the Golden Horn and broke in pieces the holy table in the church of the Archangel. Fugitives who escaped reported that 270,000 prisoners, men and women, had been swept away to be settled beyond the Danube, and there was none to stay the Khagan's march. Constantinople was in despair; the inhabitants refused to see themselves deserted and the patriarch extracted an oath from the Emperor that he would not leave his capital. The turbulence of New Rome itself seems to have been silenced in this dark hour.

About this time too (the precise year is not known) the Persians, having collected a fleet,1 attacked Constantinople by water: it may well have been that this assault was timed to follow close upon the raid of the Avar horde. But upon the sea at least the Empire asserted its supremacy. The Persians fled, four thousand men perished with their ships, and the enemy did not dare to renew the attempt.

Heraclius realised that in order to carry war into Asia there must at all costs be peace in Europe. He sacrificed his pride and concluded a treaty with the Khagan (619). He raised 200,000 nomismata and sent as hostages to the Avars his own bastard son John or Athalarich, his cousin Stephanus, and John the bastard son of Bonus the magister. Sergius had forced Heraclius to swear that he would not abandon Constantinople, and the Church now supplied the funds for the new campaign. It agreed to lend at interest its vast wealth in plate that the gold and silver might be minted into money; for this was no ordinary struggle: it was a crusade to rescue from the infidel the Holy City and the Holy Cross.

The year 626 was memorable for the great siege of the capital by the united hordes of Avars, Bulgars, Slavs, and Gepids, acting in concert with a Persian force, which endeavoured to co-operate with them from the Asiatic side of the strait. On 29 July 626 the Avars and the countless forces of their subject tribesmen encamped before New Rome. The full story of the heroic defence cannot be related in this place, but one consideration is too important to be omitted. Had the Romans not been masters of the sea, the issue might well have been less favorable; but the small Slav boats were all sunk or overturned in the waters of the Golden Horn.

Thus at the very time that the barbarian attack by sea collapsed in hopeless failure, the citizens had repulsed with heavy loss the assault on the land walls which was directed mainly against that section where the depression of the Lycus valley rendered the defences most vulnerable. At length, on the eleventh day after his appearance before Constantinople, the Khagan destroyed by fire his engines of war and withdrew, vowing a speedy return with forces even more overwhelming. This was indeed the furthest advance of the Avars; it would seem that the city was only saved through an outbreak of pestilence amongst the besiegers.

The Avar nomads oppressed the subjugated Slav peasantry, for here the Avar was master, and the peasant was without rights and protection. The Avar tribes as wandering herdsmen among the West Slavs could not graze their herds in connected winter-quarters as in the steppes, because the snow lies deeper and longer in central Europe. Neither had they there, as in Dalmatia, mild coasts rich in salt and free from snow - the best imaginable winter-pasture - and so they had to break up and live scattered in the Slav villages where the peasantry had to store up grain and hay for them during the summer and convert even the villages into suitable cattle-pens.

Compared with the Slavs, the Avar oppressors were very few in number, and could not therefore always master them. Now and then these became restive, and refused obedience. The Khagan, occupied in many distant places, did not always find leisure to chastise them, and thus many Slav tribes gained their liberty.

There were, however, differences among the Avars themselves, who were only held together by the iron hand of the Khagan. They were but a mixed multitude. Where there was a prospect of rich booty they followed him joyfully, but where no treasure allured them - e.g. in 602 against the poor but warlike Antae - they simply refused obedience and deserted to the Romans. According to " Mauricius" such desertion was a common event, and it helps to explain why the Khagan did not repeat his victorious marches against the Frankish kingdom till the year 596.2 Avar hordes were indeed very loosely held together, and some fell away and established small States on the old basis of Slav servitude. The dissolution began as early as 603 in consequence of the successful revolution of a part of the north-west Slavs and the formation of a Slav union under Samo. By this the Avar hordes distributed among the Elbe Slavs between Bohemia and the Baltic were permanently cut off from the main horde in Hungary.

In 788 the Avars had advanced westward in two divisions, but had been completely defeated near the Danube and in Friuli. In 791 Charles had taken the offensive, not only to acquire rich treasures or to punish the invaders of 788, but to obtain a natural closed frontier towards the East. The Franks advanced as far as the Raab without making a permanent conquest. Their important task in Saxony for a long time hindered new and decisive action. Political alliances began to be formed among those who were at that time threatened by the Frankish sword. The Saracens, the Saxons, and the Avars knew of each other, and Charles' enemies in the north and south counted especially on a successful advance of the Avars. But the Avars lacked endurance. In the year 795 the Margrave Erich of Friuli, supported by the Slav prince Woinimir, advanced over the Danube and took the principal Ring. Large treasures of gold made their way to the Franks, and even if the opinion is scarcely tenable that great changes in prices in the Frankish Empire were the result, still his success was great. In the following year Charles' son Pepin completed the work of conquest. He destroyed the Ring, subdued the Avars, and opened large districts to the preaching of Christianity.

After the destruction of the Avar kingdom by Charles the Great, the Bulgarian kingdom extended from the Balkans to the Moravian Carpathians. The Serbs and Croats also founded mighty States. In the Middle Ages the Slavs of Dalmatia were dreaded pirates, and even the tiny Slav peoples of Macedonia and Greece kept the Romans occupied with many wars. But even at the beginning of the seventh century the commercial town of Saloniki obtained grain from the Thessalian Slavs. Led by the Avars, the Slavs pressed into the Peloponnesus, and the report was long believed that the Avars occupied the Peloponnesus for 218 years so that no Roman durst enter it.

After the dissolution of the great Avar State the Avars and the Bulgars themselves remained as a noble class, which finally became Slavised and nationally absorbed in the subjected peasantry. In Dalmatia as late as the tenth century the Avars were still sharply distinguished from the Croats. The mare-milking grand-prince north of the Carpathians in the ninth century may indeed already have become Slav, but by origin he must have been Avar.

The Avars themselves are mentioned for the last time in 822.



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