The Eurasian Avars // were a group of equestrian warrior nomads of Altaic extraction who established an empire spanning considerable areas of Central and Eastern Europe from the late 6th to the early 9th century. They were ruled by a Khagan, who led a tight-knit entourage of professional nomad warriors. Although the name Avar first appeared in the mid-5th century, the Avars of Europe enter the historical scene in the mid-6th century AD, having formed as a mixed band of warriors in the Pontic-Caspian steppe wishing to escape Göktürk rule. Their linguistic affiliation may be tentatively deduced from a variety of sources, betraying a variety of languages spoken by ruling and subject clans. Oghur, a distinct branch of the Turkic languages, figures prominently for the original Avar language. In any event, Slavic ultimately became the lingua franca in the Avar Khaganate.
Early literary sources
The earliest clear reference to the Avar ethnonym comes from Priscus the Rhetor who accounts that, c. 463, the Saraghurs, Onoghurs and Ughors were attacked by the Sabirs, who had been attacked by the Avars. In turn, the Avars had been driven off by people fleeing “man-eating griffins” coming from “the ocean” (Priscus Fr 40). Whilst Priscus’ accounts provides some information about the ethno-political situation in the Don-Kuban-Volga region after the demise of the Huns, no unequivocal conclusions can be reached. In fact, Denis Sinor has argued that whoever the “Avars” referred to by Priscus were, they were different from the Avars who appear a century later, during Justinian’s reign.
The next late antique author to discuss the Avars was Menander Protector, who details Gokturk embassies in Constantinople in 565 and 568 CE. Each time, the Turks appear angered at the Byzantines for having made an alliance with the Avars, whom the Turks saw as their subjects and slaves. Turxanthos, a Turk prince, calls the Avars “Varchonites” and “escaped slaves of the Turks”, who numbered “about 20 thousand” (Menander Fr 43).
Much greater, but somewhat confusing, details are provided by Theophylact Simocatta, who wrote c. 629, but detailed the final two decades of the 6th century. In particular, he (claims to) quote a triumph letter from Turk Khan Tardan:
Then he .. enslaved the Avar nation.
But let no one think that we are distorting the history of these times because he supposes that the Avars are those barbarians neighbouring on Europe and Pannonia, and that their arrival was prior to the times of the emperor Maurice. For it is by a misnomer that the barbarians on the Ister have assumed the appellation of Avars; the origin of their race will shortly be revealed.
So, when the Avars had been defeated (for we are returning to the account) some of them made their escape to those who inhabit Taugast. Taugast is a famous city, which is a total of one thousand five hundred miles distant from those who are called Turks,.. Others of the Avars, who declined to humbler fortune because of their defeat, came to those who are called Mucri; this nation is the closest neighbour to the men of Taugast;
Then the Chagan embarked on yet another enterprise, and subdued all the Ogur, which is one of the strongest tribes on account of its large population and its armed training for war. These make their habitations in the east, by the course of the river Til, which Turks are accustomed to call Melas. The earliest leaders of this nation were named Var and Chunni; from them some parts of those nations were also accorded their nomenclature, being called Var and Chunni.
Then, while the emperor Justinian was in possession of the royal power, a small section of these Var and Chunni fled from that ancestral tribe and settled in Europe. These named themselves Avars and glorified their leader with the appellation of Chagan. Let us declare, without departing in the least from the truth, how the means of changing their name came to them.... When the Barselt, Onogurs, Sabir, and other Hun nations in addition to these, saw that a section of those who were still Var and Chunni had fled to their regions, they plunged into extreme panic, since they suspected that the settlers were Avars. For this reason they honoured the fugitives with splendid gifts and supposed that they received from them security in exchange.
Then, after the Var and Chunni saw the well-omened beginning to their flight, they appropriated the ambassadors' error and named themselves Avars: for among the Scythian nations that of the Avars is said to be the most adept tribe. In point of fact even up to our present times the Pseudo-Avars (for it is more correct to refer to them thus) are divided in their ancestry, some bearing the time-honoured name of Var while others are called Chunni....
According to the interpretation of Dobrovits and Nechaeva, the Turks insisted that the Avars are only pseudo-Avars, so as to boast that they were the only formidable power in the Eurasian steppe. The Gokturks claimed that the "real Avars" remained loyal subjects of the Turks, farther east.
Furthermore, Dobrovits has questioned the authenticity of Theophylact's account. As such, they have argued that Theophylact borrowed information from Menander’s accounts of Byzantine-Turk negotiations to meet political needs of his time – i.e. to castigate and deride the Avars during a time of strained political relations between the Byzantines and Avars (coinciding with Emperor Maurice's north Balkan campaigns). By calling the Avars "Turkish slaves" and "pseudo-Avars", Theophylact undermined their political legitimacy.
The French historian de Guignes postulated a link between the Avars of European history with the Juan-Juan of Inner Asia based on a coincidence between Tardan Khan’s letter to Constantinople and events recorded in Chinese sources, notably the Wei-shi and Pei-shi.
The Chinese sources state that T’u-men (=Bumin) khan, founder of Turkic dynasty and son of the legendary Ashina, defeated the Juan-Juan. Some of the Juan-Juan fled to the Chinese Western Wei. Later, according to another Chinese source, Mu-han khan, Bumin’s successor, defeated the "I-ta" (interpreted as Hephthalites) as well as the Tieh-le, who were also known as Oghuz. Thus the events contained in the various Chinese sources, recording victories over the Tiehle, Juan-Juan and Ita (Hephthalites), seem to coincide with the narrative in the Turk envoy’s letter (in Theophylact above), boasting of Tardan’s victories over the Hephthalites, Avars and Oghurs. However, the two series of events are not synonymous. The events of the letter took place during Tardan’s rule, c. 580-599, whilst Chinese sources referring to the Turk defeat of the Juan-Juan and other inner Asian peoples occurred 50 years earlier, at founding of Turk khanate by Bumen.
Thus Harmatta rejects the association of Avars with Juan-Juan. Further hypotheses linking them with the Hephthalites are based on the Avars being called Varchonites by the Turks, i.e. being led by Var and Chunni factions. For, according to some Chinese transliterations, the term Var is rendered Hua, a term used by some Chinese sources when referring to the Hephthalites. This appeared to be supported by the name of a Hephthalite town, Varvaliz. However, this has rather been interpreted to mean "upper Fortress" in various Iranic languages.
Steppe empire dynamics and ethnogenesis
Contemporary scholars are less inclined to view the tribal groupings mentioned in historical texts as monolithic and long-lived 'nations', but were rather volatile and fluid political formations whose dynamic depended on the sedentary civilizations they bordered as well as internal power struggles within the barbarian lands.
1. Many steppe empires were founded by groups who had been defeated in previous power struggles but had fled from the dominion of the stronger group. The Avars were likely a losing faction previously subordinate to the (legitimate) Ashina clan in the West Turk khanate, this fled west of the Dnieper.
2. These groups usually were of mixed origin, and each of its components was part of a previous group.
3. Crucial in the process was the elevation of a khagan, which signified a claim to independent power and an expansionist strategy. This group also needed a new name that would give all of its initial followers a sense of identity.
4. The name for a new group of steppe riders was often taken from a repertoire of prestigious names which did not necessarily denote any direct affiliation to or descent from groups of the same name; in the early middle ages, Huns, Avars, Bulgars, and Ogurs, or names connected with -(o)gur (Cutrigurs, Utigurs, Onogurs, etc.), were most important. In the process of name-giving, both perceptions by outsiders and self-designation played a role. These names were also connected with prestigious traditions that directly expressed political pretensions and programmes, and had to be endorsed by success. In the world of the steppe, where agglomerations of groups were rather fluid, it was vital to know how to deal with a newly-emergent power. The symbolical hierarchy of prestige expressed through names provided some orientation for friend and foe alike
Such views are mirrored by Csanad Balint. "The ethnogenesis of early medieval peoples of steppe origin cannot be conceived in a single linear fashion due to their great and constant mobility", with no ethnogenetic "point zero", theoretical "proto-people" or proto-language.
Moreover, Avar identity was strongly linked to Avar political institutions. Groups who rebelled or fled from the Avar realm could never be called "Avars", but were rather termed "Bulgars". Similarly, with the final demise of Avar power in the early 9th century, Avar identity disappeared almost instantaneously.
Anthropological research has revealed few skeletons with Mongoloid-type features, although there was continuing cultural influence from the Eurasian nomadic steppe. The late Avar period shows more hybridization, resulting in higher frequencies of Euro-Mongoloids. Mongoloid and Euro-Mongoloid types compose about one-third of the total population of the Avar graves of the eighth century. According to Pál Lipták the early Avar anthropological material was almost exclusively Europoid in the 7th century, while grave-goods indicated Middle and Central Asian parallels. On the other hand, cemeteries dated for the 8th century contained Mongoloid elements among others. He analysed population of the Danube-Tisza midland region in the Avar period and found that 80% of them showed Europoid characteristics. The Turanid was most common Europoid type among the Avars graves. Pál Lipták (1955) the Turanid type is a Caucasoid type with significant Mongoloid admixture, arising from the mixture of the Andronovo type of Europoid features and the Oriental (Mongoloid).
Social and tribal structure
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 lived mainly in the western Balkans. Scholars propose that a highly structured and hierarchical Avar society existed, having complex interactions with other "barbarian" groups. The khagan was the paramount figure, surrounded by a minority of nomadic aristocracy.
A few exceptionally rich burials have been uncovered, confirming that power was limited to the khagan and a close-knit class of "elite warriors". In addition to hoards of gold coins that accompanied the burials, the men 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 was composed from numerous other groups: Slavic, Gepidic and Bulgar military units. There also appeared to have existed semi-independent "client" (predominantly Slavic) tribes which served strategic roles, such as engaging in diversionary attacks and guarding the Avars' western borders abutting the Frankish Empire. Yet other tribes were equals and allies of the Avars, such as Khan Zabergan's Kutrigur Bulgars 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 who married Avar men. Eventually, the Germanic and Slavic peoples were included in the Avaric social order and culture, itself Persian-Byzantine in fashion. Scholars have identified a fused, Avar-Slavic culture, characterized by ornaments such as half-moon-shaped earrings, Byzantine-styled buckles, beads, and bracelets with horn-shaped ends. Paul Fouracre notes, "[T]here 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 Slavic tribes could have become part of the Avar aristocracy". Apart from the assimilated Gepids, a few graves of west Germanic (Carolingian) peoples have been found in the Avar lands. They perhaps served as mercenaries.
Although there is sparse knowledge about the Avar language, scholars generally posit that the extinct language of the Eurasian Avars belonged to the Oghur branch, of the Turkic language family. Today, Chuvash is thought to represent the last remaining branch of Oghuric. How well modern Chuvash represents archaic Oghuric remains speculative. Chuvash itself is not intelligible by speakers of other Turkic branches, despite having undergone significant degrees of Kipchakization in recent centuries.
Whatever the original Avar language was, Slavic eventually became the dominant language of the Avar Khaganate.
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- Avar Khaganate
- Historic states represented in Turkish presidential seal
- Oghur languages
- Khazar language
- Bulgar language
- Hunnic language
- Chuvash language
- Turkic language
- Keszthely culture
- Pannonian Romance
- Treasure of Nagyszentmiklós
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