Avars

   An amalgamation of peoples from the central steppes of Europe, the Avars were a late arrival among the barbarian peoples who were the successors of the Western Roman Empire. They were skilled horsemen, who may have had an important impact on the development of military technology in the early Middle Ages, and successful warriors. Although less well known than their relatives the Huns, they had similar success in threatening the established kingdoms of their day and greater success in creating a permanent kingdom. They were seen as a threat by the Byzantine Empire and caused difficulty for the Franks before their great capital was destroyed by Charlemagne's armies.
   The exact origins of the Avars remain uncertain. They have been identified with the Juan-Juan, a group of tribes in Mongolia, and with a tribal group of Afghanistan, the Ephthalites. There is, however, general agreement that at some time in the mid-sixth century, the Avars were pushed out of their homeland by the Turks. They appear in the historical record in 558, when an Avar embassy arrived in Constantinople and met with the emperor Justinian. They settled not long after that in the region of modern Hungary.
   On their arrival, the Avars were welcomed by the Byzantines, who needed allies along their eastern frontier, but they quickly wore out their welcome. They demanded land and other privileges from Emperor Justinian, who offered them some gifts but insisted they prove themselves before he made any major concessions. They very quickly subdued several nomadic steppe tribes and thus demonstrated their abilities. By 562 they made further demands for territory from Justinian, who agreed to give them land west of modern Belgrade. They had wanted other territory, and the two powers were on the verge of war when the Avars turned their attention for the first time to the Franks. For the next generation they continued their westward efforts. By the 580s, with Slavic subjects and allies, the Avars turned their attention to Byzantine territory in the Balkans. They extended their influence into the Balkans and posed a serious threat to the empire, which they forced out of the region of the Danube River in 602. In 626, with the Slavs and new Persian allies, the Avars pressed on and threatened the city of Constantinople. The siege failed, and the Avars lost ground to the Byzantines, as well as to the Bulgars and other Slavs who were supported by the empire. The Avars showed their first sign of decline in the face of their defeat and the Slavic rebellions. These losses of ground were the first sign of decline for the Avars. They subsequently posed less of a problem for the Byzantines, even though occasional battles took place for decades to come.
   The Avars made their mark not only on the Byzantine Empire but also on the kingdom of the Franks and other powers in the former Western Roman Empire. In 562, rather than launch an attack on the Byzantine Empire, the Avars turned their attention westward to make their strength known in that region. They attacked the Merovingian kingdom of Austrasia in 562 but were turned back by the king Sigebert (r. 560/561-575). But in 565 or 566, the Avars attacked Sigebert's kingdom again and defeated him. According to Gregory of Tours, the Avars won the second battle because they "made a number of phantom figures dance before [the Franks'] eyes and so beat them easily" (29). Sigebert gave them many gifts and agreed to a treaty with them. Following this success, the Avars, in 567, joined with the Lombards to destroy the Gepid kingdom. The Lombards, uncertain of Avar intentions, moved into Italy, leaving the Avars the main power along the Danube River.
   Although they turned their attention elsewhere, the Avars returned to their struggle with the Franks in the early seventh century. They had some success in the early seventh century, but an alliance of Franks and Saxons led by King Dagobert pushed them out of eastern Frankish territory in the Rhineland. Again in the eighth century, the Avars and the Franks were at war when the Avars invaded the kingdom and destroyed the city of Lorch and its surrounding territory in 711. They launched another campaign into Frankish territories in 740 and were decisively defeated. This marked the end of their period of aggression and the beginning of the end of their kingdom. They now faced the expansionistic policies of the Carolingian dynasty and its greatest member, Charlemagne. He directed an eight-year war against the Avars from 788 to 796 that led to the destruction of the kingdom and its great capital. According to Einhard, the entire Avar "nobility died in this war, all their glory departed" (67). He noted further that the Avars had unjustly acquired their wealth and that Charlemagne justly took it from them in a war that brought the Franks more wealth than any other war.
   Although the Avars disappeared in the face of the Carolingian attack, they left an important legacy. According to some historians, the Avars introduced important military technology to Europe. The Avars may have used an iron stirrup. The stirrup improved the fighting ability of soldiers on horseback by making them more secure and steady in the saddle. With the stirrup, they could more effectively wield their lances. The Byzantines, who made contact with them before other peoples around the Mediterranean, adopted the iron stirrup for their cavalry by 600, but the stirrup only gradually made its appearance in the barbarian kingdoms. The Avars also used a composite bow in battle that was more effective than other bows, and skilled Avar riders at full gallop could shoot up to twenty arrows a minute. The arrows had heavy three-winged heads and could be fired up to 1500 feet. The bow was shorter than most other simple bows and was made of layers of horn, sinew, and wood that were glued together and reinforced with bone. Although very effective for the Avars, the bows were not widely used by other peoples because they were difficult to produce.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Bury, John B. History of the Later Roman Empire: From the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian. 2 vols. 1923. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1959.
 ♦ Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1981.
 ♦ Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1982.
 ♦ Herrin, Judith. The Formation of Christendom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
 ♦ Wallace-Hadrill, John M. The Barbarian West, a.d. 400-1000. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
 ♦ Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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