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Barbarian Europe

Avar Origins

by Trish Wilson, 15 June 2024

The story behind the appearance of the Avars still remains something of a mystery, and quite a puzzle. Who were the people of this group which swept into Europe some time in the sixth century AD?

From where did they originate? Why did they travel across the steppe - admittedly not a difficult journey for horseborne nomads - to find a new home and, most puzzling of all, why are there two groups of Avars which historians treat as if they were different?

Two types of Avar?

These two groups are the Caucasus Avars and the Pannonian Avars.

They are referred to as two clearly-distinguishable units. But why? Could this be a case of there being one initial group which divided upon its arrival in Europe, or of one group which followed another and then selected a different end destination?

There is still much debate regarding their origins, with some taking the view that they originated on the East Asian steppe which covers Mongolia and parts of northern China. This would have them being subject to the regional empire there, the Rouran khaganate.

Others have asserted the opinion that the Avar homeland was in Central Asia, in the region around the Aral Sea which today is shared between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

This is some way to the west of the Rouran khaganate's core territory, but it is likely between here and the Altai Mountains that early Turkic formation was taking place, with groups such as Xionites, Oghurs, and Bulgars potentially emerging here.

Matters are not helped by confused and often conflicting Eastern Roman reports which date to the sixth-to-eighth centuries AD. More recent investigation in the field which is known as archaeogenetics has established a DNA link between the Pannonian Avars and those who were living in the region of the East Asian steppe, today's Mongolians.

It would appear to have been the Chinese who had the best records, notably sources which are known as Wei Shu and Bei Shi, the history of the 'Northern Dynasties', compiled between AD 388-618, and part of official Chinese sources which are known as the Twenty Four Histories.

These cover the Northern Wei, the Western Wei, the Eastern Wei, the Northen Zhou, the Northern Qi, and the Sui dynasties.

Map of Eastern Europe AD 450-500
Soon after the middle of the fifth century AD the Hunnic empire crashed into extinction, starting with the death of Attila in 453. His son and successor, Ellac, was killed in battle in 454, and the Huns were defeated by the Ostrogoths in 456, ending Hunnic unity (click or tap on map to view full sized)

East Asian steppe politics

Before considering these sources, however, consideration also has to be made in regard to the situation at that time on the East Asian steppe. It was inhabited by nomad tribes for whom a horse culture was part of their way of life. Their horses were acquired from more highly-civilised societies such as those of the Chinese.

It was in this region that empires, known in Turkic dialects as khaganates, came and went, having been founded by groups which had been defeated in previous power struggles but which had fled from the stronger group instead of being fully subjugated.

The Avars were likely a losing faction which had previously been subordinate to the Ashina clan, the ruling dynasty of the Göktürk who had come to prominence during the mid-sixth century when their leader, Bumin Qaghan, had revolted against the Rouran khaganate.

The two main branches of this clan, one descended from Bumin and the other from his brother, Istami, ruled over the eastern and western parts of the confederation, respectively, forming the earliest-known Turkic khaganate.

One of the Avar claims was that they had fled west to get away from the Göktürks, an act which included crossing the River Dnieper. The first thing the Avars did when they reached the Caucasus on their flight from Central Asia was to send an embassy to the aging Eastern Roman emperor, Justinian.

That meeting took place sometime in the winter of AD 558/559, and the two parties struck the usual deal: the Avars were to fight for the empire against unruly factions and in turn would receive annual payments and other benefits.

Map of the Frankish Empire in AD 800
Under Charlemagne's leadership, the Franks greatly expanded their borders eastwards, engulfing tribal states, the Bavarian state and its satellite, Khorushka, and much of northern Italy, with the Avars now an eastern neighbour (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Indeed, for the next two decades the Avars, under their Khagan Baian, fought the Utigurs, Antes, Gepids, and Slavs, whereas their policy towards the empire relied more on negotiation than on war.

It was a deal which angered the Göktürks, according to a report on their embassies which visited Constantinople in AD 565 and 568, claiming that the Avars were their subjects and their slaves.

One interesting point about this record is that, while the Caucasus is mentioned, no mention is made of which group of Avars it was, whether those who settled in the Caucasus or those who headed further west.

The confusion between two forms of Avar was there from their first arrival in Europe.

Map of Central Asia AD 550-600
As was often the case with Central Asian states which had been created by horse-borne warriors on the sweeping steppelands, the Göktürk khaganate swiftly incorporated a vast stretch of territory in its westwards expansion, whilst being hemmed in by the powerful Chinese dynasties to the south-east and Siberia's uninviting tundra to the north (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Real or fake?

There is also reference to 'real' and 'fake' Avars, something which does not appear to connect to the two groups of Avars in Europe but goes deeper and earlier, despite being a question which has never fully been resolved.

According to Theophylacus Simocatta, an Eastern Roman historian of the early seventh century, there were two types of Avars: real and fake.

The real Avars are claimed as being Rouran people who spoke a certain dialect of Mongolian. They remained the masters of the Mongolian plateau throughout the fifth century AD until they were defeated by the Göktürks and fled westwards.

Nevertheless, it is the false Avars who apparently formed the Avars of European medieval history. They were composed of two united tribes, namely the Var ('uar' or 'var', from which Avars were named) and the Huns (Kunni or Huni, the name implies Hunnic origins but may also point to Xionites), plus Yueban remnants.

The Avars pictured here are on their way to conquer Sirmium from the Eastern Romans, which they successfully managed in AD 582, fourteen years after the confirmed founding of their khaganate in the Carpathian Basin

Establishing the khaganate

By AD 562 the Avars controlled the steppe to the north of the Black Sea and across the lower reaches of the Danube. There they established the First Avar khaganate with Pannonia at its centre, which also included considerable areas of central and Eastern Europe.

That khaganate waxed and waned across the next three centuries, spawning second and third khaganates along the way. They were eventually defeated several times by the Eastern Roman empire and Charlemagne in the seventh and eighth centuries. After that they gradually declined.


Main Sources

András Róna-Tas - Hungarians and Europe in the Early Middle Ages: An Introduction to Early Hungarian History (Central European University Press, 1999)

Fredegar? - Chronicle of Fredegar / Latin Chronicle (author uncertain)

Peter Stadler - Avar Chronology Revisited

Peter Štih & Simoniti Vasko - Slovenska zgodovina do razsvetljenstva (1996, in Slovenian)

René Grousset  - Empire of the Steppes - A History of Central Asia (1988)

Scott Fitzgerald Johnson - The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (Ed, Oxford University Press, 2010)

Tim Newark - The Barbarians: Warriors & Wars of the Dark Ages (Blandford Press, 1985)

Online Sources

B Lukács - For the Memory of the Avar Khagans

Mihály Dobrovits - They Called Themselves Avar - Considering the Pseudo-Avar Question in the Work of Theophylaktos (Transoxiana Webfestschrift Series, Webfestschrift Marshak, 2003)

Omeljan Pritsak - The Slavs and the Avars

Turkic History



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler & Trish Wilson. An original feature for the History Files.