Pannonian Avars

Coins of the Avars 6th–7th centuries CE, imitating Ravenna mint types of Heraclius.[1]

The Pannonian Avars (z/; also known as the Obri in chronicles of Rus, the Abaroi or Varchonitai[2] (Varchonites) or Pseudo-Avars[3] in Byzantine sources) were an alliance of several groups of Eurasian nomads of unknown origins.[4][5][6][7][8][9]

They are probably best known for their invasions and destruction in the Avar–Byzantine wars from 568 to 626.

The name Pannonian Avars (after the area in which they eventually settled) is used to distinguish them from the Avars of the Caucasus, a separate people with whom the Pannonian Avars may or may not have been linked.

They established the Avar Khaganate, which spanned the Pannonian Basin and considerable areas of Central and Eastern Europe from the late 6th to the early 9th century.[10]

Although the name Avar first appeared in the mid-5th century, the Pannonian Avars entered the historical scene in the mid-6th century,[11] on the Pontic-Caspian steppe as a people who wished to escape the rule of the Göktürks.


Avars and Pseudo-Avars

The earliest clear reference to the Avar ethnonym comes from Priscus the Rhetor (died after 472 AD). Priscus recounts that, c. 463, the Šaragurs, Onogurs and Ogurs 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).[12] Whilst Priscus' accounts provide 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. Denis Sinor has argued that whoever the "Avars" referred to by Priscus were, they differed from the Avars who appear a century later, during the time of Justinian (who reigned from 527 to 565).[13]

The next author to discuss the Avars, Menander Protector, appeared during the 6th century, and wrote of Göktürk embassies to Constantinople in 565 and 568 AD. The Turks appeared angry 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).[14]

Many more, but somewhat confusing, details come from 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 the Turk lord Tamgan:

For this very Chagan had in fact outfought the leader of the nation of the Abdeli (I mean indeed, of the Hephthalites, as they are called), conquered him, and assumed the rule of the nation.

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 Barsils, Onogurs, Sabirs, 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....

Gold Avar bowl, found in modern Albania.

According to the interpretation of Dobrovits and Nechaeva, the Turks insisted that the Avars were 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.[13][15]

Furthermore, Dobrovits has questioned the authenticity of Theophylact's account. As such, they[who?] 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.[13]

Uar, Rouran and other Central Asian peoples

According to some scholars the Pannonian Avars originated from a confederation formed in the Aral Sea region, by the Uar, also known as the Var or Warr (who were probably a Uralic people) and the Xūn or Xionites (also known as the Chionitae, Chunni, Hunni, Yun and similar names);[16][17] the Xionites were most likely Iranian-speaking. A third tribe affiliated previously to the Uar and Xionites, the Hephthalites, had remained in Central and South Asia. In some transliterations, the term Var is rendered Hua, which is an alternate Chinese term for the Hephthalites. (While one of the cities most significant to the Hephthalites was Walwalij or Varvaliz, this may also be an Iranian term for "upper fortress".[18]) The Pannonian Avars were also known by names including Uarkhon or Varchonites – which may have been portmanteau words combining Var and Chunni.

The 18th-century historian Joseph de Guignes postulates a link between the Avars of European history with the proto-Mongolian Rouran (Ju-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.[18] Chinese sources state that Bumin Qaghan (T'u-men khan), founder of the Turkic Khaganate, defeated the Rouran, some of whom fled and joined the Western Wei. Later – according to another Chinese source – Muqan Qaghan (Mu-han khan), Bumin's successor, defeated the Hephthalites (Chinese name: I-ta) as well as the Turkic Tiele (Tieh-le). Superficially these victories over the Tiele, Rouran and Hephthalites echo a narrative in the Theophylact, 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 Rouran and other Central Asian peoples occurred 50 years earlier, at the founding of the Turk khanate by Bumen. It is for this reason that the linguist Janos Harmatta rejects the identification of the Avars with the Rouran. According to Edwin G. Pulleyblank the name Avar is the same as the prestigious name Wuhuan in the Chinese sources.[19]

Steppe empire dynamics and ethnogenesis

The Pontic steppe, c. 650, showing the early territories of the Khazars, Bulgars, and Avars

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.

In 2003, Walter Pohl summarized the formation of nomadic empires:[20]

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 Western Turkic Khaganate, and they 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 (Kutrigurs, 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 Csanád Bálint. "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.[21]

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.[22]

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Aware
Alemannisch: Awaren
العربية: آفار أوراسيا
aragonés: Avaros
asturianu: Ávaros
azərbaycanca: Avarlar
беларуская: Авары
български: Авари
Boarisch: Awarn
bosanski: Avari
čeština: Avaři
dansk: Avarere
Deutsch: Awaren
dolnoserbski: Awary
Ελληνικά: Άβαροι
español: Pueblo ávaro
euskara: Abaro
français: Avars
galego: Ávaros
한국어: 아바르족
hrvatski: Avari
Bahasa Indonesia: Avar Eurasia
italiano: Avari
қазақша: Аварлар
Latina: Avari
latviešu: Avāri (senie)
lietuvių: Avarai
magyar: Avarok
македонски: Авари
монгол: Авар
Nederlands: Avaren (Europa)
日本語: アヴァール
norsk: Avarer
norsk nynorsk: Avarar
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Avarlar
polski: Awarowie
português: Ávaros
română: Avari
русский: Авары
shqip: Avarët
Simple English: Eurasian Avars
slovenščina: Avari
српски / srpski: Евроазијски Авари
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Obri
svenska: Avarer
Türkçe: Avarlar
українська: Авари
Tiếng Việt: Người Avar Pannonia
中文: 阿瓦尔人
Lingua Franca Nova: Avares