The Avars

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Origins - The Avar Empire

Origins

The Avars were a Mongolian peoples, known to the Chinese as the Juan-Juan. In the Fourth Century they were one of many Mongol and Turkic groupings to trouble the northern borders of the Chinese Empire. At this time there was political chaos in China, the north of which fragmented into numerous local states. The restlessness and upheaval, on both sides of the Great Wall, mirrored what was happening in Europe at the same time.

It was also at this time that the Huns, another of the peoples who had troubled China's northern borders, began to migrate westwards, driving back the Goths and other Germanic peoples and thus setting off the chain-reaction that led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. But their movements affected events in Eastern Asia as much as in Western Europe. The migration of the Huns paved the way for the Kök Türük (the Blue or Celestial Turks) to succeed them. It was the Celestial Turks who first drove the Juan-Juan (together with many of their fellow Turks) westwards.

The Juan-Juan migrated through northern Iran to the Russian steppes. Here, they mingled with other Turkic and Hunnic peoples, primarily the Uighurs, finally emerging into Eastern Europe in the middle of the Sixth Century. This new confederacy, now known as the Avars, were to threaten Constantinople and much of western Europe for over three centuries.

The Avar Empire

Little is known about the Avars in the period of their greatest power. Their base was situated somewhere near present-day Belgrade. By the end of the Sixth Century, their empire stretched from the River Volga to the Baltic Sea and archaeological evidence suggests that they remained a powerful presence until well into the Eighth Century. They succeeded in driving out both the Gepids (567) and the Lombards from the Danube Basin. They also drove the Western Slavs into the areas they have occupied ever since. During this early period they were ruled by the khagan (khan), Baian.

When a new Emperor, Justin II, was crowned in Constantinople, the Avars requested the payment of tribute, which had been promised them by his uncle and predecessor, the great Justinian. Typically, Justin refused. In 568, in pursuit of this tribute, the Avars invaded Dalmatia and indulged in a frenzy of destruction. Justin, sent a large force under his 'Count of the Excubitors', Tiberius. The resulting war lasted for three years, after which the Byzantines were forced to seek a truce. The ensuing treaty cost Justin 80,000 pieces of silver - far greater than the original sum promised.

In 581, by use of trickery, they captured Sirmium, on the River Sava, which they used as a base from which to mop up a number of poorly-defended Byzantine fortresses along the Danube. Their demands for tribute grew ever greater. After rejecting such exotic gifts as an elephant and a golden bed, the khagan forced the Emperor Maurice to agree to a tribute of no less than 100,000 silver pieces. Such was the drain on Imperial resources that when, in 599, the Avars captured 12,000 Byzantine prisoners, Maurice had to refuse to pay their ransom and every one of them was put to death.

Maurice's successor, Phocas, preoccupied with wars against the Persians, was forced to agree a truce with the Avars at the expense of inevitably huge tribute. With the Byzantine army in the east, however - treaties notwithstanding - the Avars continued to expand into the Balkan Peninsula.

After narrowly failing to capture the Emperor Heraclius by more underhand trickery, the Avars reached Constantinople itself. Faced with the huge fortifications of the Theodosian Walls, however, they contented themselves with destroying a few churches and departed.

In 626, conspiring with the Persians, and leading a barbarian host of 80,000 Avars, Huns, Gepids and Bulgars, the khagan laid more formal siege to the city from the European side of the Bosphorus, while the Persians did likewise from the Asiatic side. True to form, the Avars made one last offer to spare the city - in return for a ransom - but the Emperor rejected it magnificently. Like so many sieges of Constantinople, the attack came to nothing. The Persian fleet was defeated and by the following morning, the khagan's cosmopolitan army had struck camp and left.

After the death of their khagan, the Avars began to decline in the face of Slavic and Bulgar expansion. Charlemagne inflicted crushing defeats on them, destroying their massive military fortifications, the "Avar Ring", in 791. Their power was ended once and for all by the resurgent Bulgars, under their great king, Krum, early in the Ninth Century.

De Avaren

Thanks to the efforts of Rien van de Wall, this page is now available in Dutch translation at http://users.pandora.be/vroege-middeleeuwen/avaren.htm (Or just click on the flag).

Mark Furnival, 1998

This page was last updated on 10 August, 2002