History of Hungary before the Hungarian Conquest
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This article discusses the known pre-history and early history of the territory of present-day Hungary up to the Magyar (Hungarian) conquest in the 9th century and the foundation of the Principality of Hungary.
The oldest archaeological site which yielded evidence of human presence – human bones, pebble tools and kitchen refuse – in the Carpathian Basin was excavated at Vértesszőlős in Transdanubia in the early 1960s. The Lower Palaeolithic site was situated in calcareous tuff basins with a diameter of 3–6 meters (9.8–19.7 ft) that the nearby warm springs had built. The occipital bone of an adult male, who is now known as "Samu", and a child's milk tooth show that the early humans who inhabited the basins represent a transitional species between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. The local inhabitants made their tools of quartzite and silex pebbles that they collected at the nearby river. They were familiar with fire and made hearths from crushed animal bones. They hunted wild horses, aurochs, bisons, red deer, deer, wolves, bears, and saber-toothed cats. The site at Vértesszőlős was occupied five times between about 500,000 and 350,000 BC.
No archaeological evidence of human settlements in the Carpathian Basin during the next 250,000-200,000 years have been excavated. The earliest Middle Palaeolithic sites are dated to the transitory period between the Riss and Würm glacial periods around 100,000 years ago. Remains of skulls show that Neanderthals inhabited northeastern Transdanubia and the Bükk Mountains during this period. The Neanderthals who lived in the region of Érd between around 100,000 and 40,000 BC used quartzite pebbles. They led hunting expeditions as far as the Gerecse Hills for cave bears, wild horses, woolly rhinos and other animals. A Neanderthal community settled near the hot-water springs at Tata around 50,000 BC. They hunted mammoth calves, brown bear, wild horses and reed deer. A flat oval object made from mammoth tooth lamella, similar to the Indigenous Australians' ritual tjurunga, was found at the site. A third group of Neanderthals settled in the caves of the Pilis, Vértes and Gerecse Hills. They regularly visited the Bükk Mountains and the White Carpathians to collect raw material for their tools. Ibex was the main prey of the Neanderthals of the Middle Palaeolothic sites in the Bükk Mountains. In addition to local stone, they used raw material from the White Carpathians and the region of the river Prut. Archaeological research suggest that the Neanderthals disappeared from the northern regions of the Carpathian Basin around 40,000 years ago.
Latest research shows that the first communities of Homo sapiens sapiens, or anatomically modern humans, came to the Carpathian Basin between 33,000 and 28,000 BC. Consequently, the cohabitation of the Neanderthals and modern humans in the territory, which was assumed by earlier scholarship, cannot be proved. The Aurignacian group of modern humans who settled in the Istállóskő Cave primarily used tools made of bones and used the cave as a seasonal camping site during their hunts for chamois, red deer, reindeer and other local animals. Their tools made of stone suggest that they came to the Bükk Mountains from the Northern Carpathians and the region of the Prut. According to a scholarly view, a local archaeological culture – the "Szeleta culture" – can be distinguished, which represents a transition between the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic and was featured by leaf shaped spearheads from around 32,000 BC. However, the existence of a distinct archaeological culture is not unanimously accepted by specialists, because most prehistoric tools from the eponymous Szeleta Cave (in the eastern side of the Bükk) are similar to those found in the Upper Palaeolithic sites of Central Europe.
Attracted by the rich fauna of the lowlands in the centre of the Carpathian Basin, groups of "Gravettian" hunters penetrated into the territory from the West about 27,000 years ago. The central grasslands were not covered by ice even at the maximum of the last glaciation (around 20,000 years ago). The new arrivals settled on hilltops along the rivers Hernád and Bodrog. They primarily hunted mammoth and elk and used stone blades to work skin, bone, antler and wood. Artistic finds are rare; for instance, a disc with serrated edges, which was made of polished limestone, was found at Bodrogkeresztúr. A second wave of "Gravettians" arrived during the warmer period that began about 20,000 years ago. They primarily made their tools from pebbles, similarly to Lower Palaeolithic communities, but no continuity between the two groups can be detected. The remains of semi-sunken huts were excavated at site on a hilltop near Sárvár where reindeer bones were also found. The site also yielded a perforated (but not decorated) reindeer antler. In addition to permanent settlements, the Gravettian hunters' temporary camps were unearthed in the plains of the Jászság and around Szeged. About 15,000 years ago, new hunters came to the territory; their best-known settlements were situated in northeastern Transdanubia. A pendant made of wolf tooth, a pair of red deer teeth and similar finds suggest that these hunters wore ornaments.
Mesolithic sites are rare, but start to appear after systematic surveys, especially in the Jászság area (Latin Jazygia) in northern Hungary (Jászberény I). Neolithic settlement begins with the Criş Körös culture, carbon-dated to around 6200 BC. The Middle Neolithic sees the Western Linear Pottery culture in Transdanubia and Satu-Mare (Szatmar) and Eastern Linear pottery (called "Alföld Linear Pottery" in Hungary) in the East, developing into Želiezovce (Slovakia) and Szakálhát and Bükk, respectively. The Late Neolithic Tisza culture is followed by the Eneolithic Tiszapolgár and Bodrogkeresztúr cultures.
In the Carpathian Basin, the Iron Age commenced around 800 BC, when a new population moved into the territory and took possession of the former population’s centers fortified by earthworks. The new population may have consisted of ancient Iranian tribes that had seceded from the federation of the tribes living under the suzerainty of the Cimmerians. They were equestrian nomads and formed the people of the Mezőcsát culture who used tools and weapons made of iron. They extended their rule over what are now the Great Hungarian Plain and the eastern parts of Transdanubia.
Around 750 BC, people of the Halstatt culture gradually occupied the western parts of Transdanubia, but the earlier population of the territory also survived and thus the two archaeological cultures existed together for centuries. The people of the Halstatt culture took over the former population’s fortifications (e.g., in Velem, Celldömölk, Tihany) but they also built new ones enclosed with earthworks (e.g., in Sopron). The nobility were buried in chamber tombs covered by earth. Some of their settlements situated along the Amber Road developed into commercial centers.
Between 550 and 500 BC, new people settled along the river Tisza and in Transylvania. Their immigration may have been connected either to the military campaigns of king Darius I of Persia (522 BC - 486 BC) on the Balkan Peninsula or to the struggles between the Cimmerians and the Scythians. Those people, who settled down in Transylvania and in the Banat, may be identified with the Agathyrsi (probably an ancient Thracian tribe whose presence on the territory was recorded by Herodotus); while those who lived in what is now the Great Hungarian Plain may be identified with the Sigynnae. The new population introduced the use of the potter’s wheel in the Carpathian Basin and they maintained close commercial contacts with the neighboring peoples.
In the 4th century BC, Celtic tribes immigrated to the territories around the river Rába and defeated the Illyrian people who had been living there, but the Illyrians managed to assimilate the Celts who adopted their language. In the 290s and 280s BC, the Celtic people who were migrating towards the Balkan Peninsula passed through Transdanubia but some of the tribes settled on the territory. Following 279 BC, the Scordisci (a Celtic tribe), who had been defeated at Delphi, settled at the confluence of the rivers Sava and Danube and they extended their rule over the southern parts of Transdanubia. Around that time, the northern parts of Transdanubia were ruled by the Taurisci (also a Celtic tribe) and by 230 BC, Celtic people (the people of the La Tène culture) had occupied gradually the whole territory of the Great Hungarian Plain. Between 150 and 100 BC, a new Celtic tribe, the Boii moved to the Carpathian Basin and they occupied the northern and northeastern parts of the territory (mainly the territory of present Slovakia).
The Romans commenced their military raids against the Carpathian Basin in 156 BC when they attacked the Scordisci living in the Transdanubian region. In 119 BC, they marched against Siscia (today Sisak in Croatia) and strengthened their rule over the future Illyricum province south of the Carpathian Basin. In 88 BC, the Romans defeated the Scordisci whose rule was driven back to the eastern parts of Syrmia, while the Pannonians moved to the northern parts of Transdanubia. When King Mithridates VI of Pontus made plans to attack the Romans by way of the Balkan Peninsula, he referred to the Pannonic tribes, and not to the Scordisci, as masters of the region on his path; it appears, therefore, that around 70–60 BC, the Pannonic tribes were no longer subjugated.
Around 50 BC, the mainly Celtic tribes living on the territory were confronted by Burebista, king of the Dacians (82-44 BC), who began suddenly to expand his domain centered in Transylvania. The sources do not indicate clearly whether Burebista was the original unifier of the Dacian tribes, or whether his efforts at unification built upon the work of his predecessors. Burebista subjugated the Taurisci and the Anarti; in the process, he confronted the Celtic tribal alliance led by the Boii. Burebista’s victory over the Celts led not only to the breakup of their tribal alliance, but also to the establishment of Dacian settlements in the southern parts of today's Slovakia. Burebista, however, fell victim to his political enemies and his domain was divided into five, then four parts.
The period between 15 BC and 9 AD was characterized by the continuous uprisings of the Pannonians against the emerging power of the Roman Empire. The Romans, however, could strengthen their supremacy over the rebellious tribes and they organised the occupied territory into a new province.
The Roman Empire subdued the Pannonians, Dacians, Celts and other peoples in this territory. The territory west of the Danube was conquered by the Roman Empire between 35 and 9 BC, and became a province of the Roman Empire under the name of Pannonia. The easternmost parts of present-day Hungary were later (106 AD) organized as the Roman province of Dacia (lasting until 271). The territory between the Danube and the Tisza was inhabited by the Sarmatian Iazyges between the 1st and 4th centuries AD, or even earlier (earliest remains have been dated to 80 BC). The Roman Emperor Trajan officially allowed the Iazyges to settle there as confederates. The remaining territory was in Thracian (Dacian) hands. In addition, the Vandals settled on the upper Tisza in the 2nd half of the 2nd century AD.
The four centuries of Roman rule created an advanced and flourishing civilization. Many of the important cities of today's Hungary were founded during this period, such as Aquincum (Budapest), Sopianae (Pécs), Arrabona (Győr), Solva (Esztergom), Savaria (Szombathely) and Scarbantia (Sopron). Christianity spread in Pannonia in the 4th century, when it became the Empire's official religion.
In 375 AD, the nomadic Huns began invading Europe from the eastern steppes, instigating the Great Age of Migrations. In 380, the Huns penetrated into present-day Hungary, and remained an important factor in the region well into the 5th century.
Around the same time (379-395), the Roman Empire allowed the groups of Goths, Alans, Huns, Marcomanni and Quadi to settle Pannonia, which still was a Roman territory. The Visigoths, Alans, Vandals and most of the Quadi and Marcomanni, however, left this territory around 400, and moved on to western and southern Europe.
The Huns, taking advantage of the departure of the Goths, Quadi, et al., created a significant empire in 423 based in Hungary. In 453 they reached the height of their expansion under the well-known conqueror, Attila the Hun. The empire collapsed in 455, when the Huns were defeated by the neighbouring Germanic tribes (such as the Quadi, Gepidi and Scirii).
The Gepidi (having lived to the east of the upper Tisza river since 260 AD) then moved into the eastern Carpathian Basin in 455. They ceased to exist in 567 when they were defeated by the Lombards and Avars (see below).
The Germanic Ostrogoths inhabited Pannonia, with Rome's consent, between 456 and 471.
After the Romans
Roman influence in Pannonia had begun to decline as early as the arrival of the Huns in the 4th century. The remaining romanized Pannonians created at the end of the 5th century the Keszthely culture, around the Balaton lake.
The first Slavs came to the region, almost certainly from the north, soon after the departure of the Ostrogoths (471 AD), together with the Lombards and Herulis. Around 530, the Germanic Lombards settled in Pannonia. They had to fight against the Gepidi and the Slavs. In 568, pushed out by the Avars, they moved into northern Italy.
The nomadic Avars arrived from Asia in the 560s, utterly destroyed the Gepidi in the east, drove away the Lombards in the west, and subjugated the Slavs, partly assimilating them. The Avars, just as the Huns had decades before, established a large empire. This empire was destroyed around 800 by Frankish and Bulgars attacks, and above all by internal feuds, however Avar population remained in numbers until the arrival of Árpád's Magyars. From 800, the whole area of Pannonian Basin was under control between two powers (East Francia and First Bulgarian Empire). Around 800, northeastern Hungary became part of the Slavic Principality of Nitra, which itself became part of Great Moravia in 833.
Also, after 800, southeastern Hungary was conquered by Bulgaria. Western Hungary (Pannonia) was a tributary to the Franks. In 839 the Slavic Balaton Principality was founded in southwestern Hungary (under Frank suzerainty). During the reign of Svatopluk I northwestern Hungary was conquered by Great Moravia. Pannonia remained under Frank control until the Hungarian Conquest.
Hungarian conquest in the Carpathian Basin
The first temporary raids of ancestral Hungarians in this territory occurred in the 860s. Constantine VII in the De Administrando Imperio, writes about the Magyar tribes as Turcois ("Turks", i.e. Khazars), stating that they spoke a "double language" dialect. Prince Árpád is traditionally said to be the person who led the seven ancestral Hungarian tribes into the Carpathian Basin from Etelköz, where the first known Hungarian principality was (established in 830). That territory was located around the rivers Dnieper, Southern Bug, Dniester, Prut and Siret. These seven Hungarian tribes (and the 3 Kabar tribes) established the Principality of Hungary.
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