The Slavs and the Avars

Omeljan Pritsak









When the charismatic clan of a steppe pax retained its charisma among the ruling elites but was forced to abandon its habitat, it would try to restore itself on another territory. Two patterns are observable. In the first, the ruling elites persuaded their partners and forced their chattel to accompany them. In the second, they sought new partners and chattel from among local peoples.





A classic example of the first pattern were the originally Proto-Mongolian Säbirs (the ancestors of the Hungarians), who, when they left their Ob-Irtysh habitat in Siberia around 460, took with them several leading tribes of their confederation as well as their chattel, the cousins of the modern Mansi (Voguls) and Khanti (Ostjaks). In the course of its history this pax changed its charismatic clans with their official languages (Majġar, Lebed, Arpad, Anjou, Habsburg) and its name (Säbir, Turks, Onnoġurs, etc.) several times. The speech of its chattel was to have a remarkable course of development: in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, due to the impact of German Romanticism, it became the Hungarian national language [170].


The (Pseudo-)Avars had arrived in the Maeotis-North Caucasus region as fugitives. The Byzantine sources give their number as twenty thousand [171] (two tümäns), and say that the vigorous young adventurers immediately caught the attention of the neighboring peoples.


The Avars brought with them the vision of a pax and they immediately began to try to establish it. They required the usual six elements for the formation of a pax:

1) moneylenders

2) new partners

3) new territory

4) military forces

5) chattel

6) provisions.


(170) See Pritsak, «From the Säbirs to the Hungarians», Hungaro-Turcica. Studies in honour of Julius Németh, Budapest 1976, pp. 17-30.


(171) Menander Protector, ed. Dindorf, p. 48 (fragm. 18; a.a. 668).





Thanks to the unusual sagacity of their leader (Kagan Bayan, ca. 558-582), they succeeded in securing all six within a decade (558-568). Evidently the Iranian merchants of the «Alan» confederacy, who immediately recognized that the future pax would hold great opportunities for them, provided the Avars with funds while they were still in the North Caucasus. Proof of this is that the Avars requested and received assistance from the «king» of the Alans in establishing contacts with Byzantium [172]. Subsequently, all territories important for commercial strategy, including the Danube limes, the Elbe frontier with the Franks, and the Baltic coast, immediately came under the control of the Iranian establishments, called in the sources Serbs, Croats, Obotriti and Vilti [173].


The first to join the Avars as partners were the Hunnic Onnoġurs and Quturġurs, and, a little later, the Tarniax [174]. Soon they forced into the confederacy other Hunnic groups, the Utiġurs and the Proto-Mongolian Ζαβενδέρ = Zäben-der (= Säbir), who previously had ordinarily cooperated with Byzantium [175].


To organize a military force, the Avars needed the military and administrative specialists obtainable from sedentary states. At that time this meant Byzantium and the Frankish empire. Bayan, the new charismatic leader, chose to look to the Franks. His first attack on the Frankish frontier was defeated, in 562 [176]. Three years later, however, he won a great victory over the Frankish king Sigibert and, to judge from the data in



(172) Menander Protector, p. 4 (fragm. 4; s.a. 558).


(173) Details in vol. 5 of my The Origin of Rus' (in preparation).


(174) Theophylact Simocattes, ed. de Boor/Wirth, p. 260.


(175) Menander, pp. 62-65 (fragm. 28; s.a. 568); Theophylact Simocattes, p. 260.


(176) Gregory of Tours, Historiarum libri X, ed. Beuno Krusch and Rudolf Buchner, Berlin 1961, p. 224; Book 4, ch. 2-3.





both Frankish and Byzantine sources, he accomplished his objectives in 565 [177].


The treaty Sigibert and Bayan that ensued was mediated by Sigibert's brother-in-law, Alboin, the new king of the Lombards and a determined foe of the Gepidae, who at that time lived in Pannonia. For his help in destroying the Gepidae, Bayan demanded and received from Alboin one tenth of the Lombardian livestock, half of their Gepidian booty, and the habitat of the Gepidae, Pannonia, for the Avars to settle in [178].


Having accomplished all this, Bayan set to work on the three last items on his agenda - obtaining and training specialists, and establishing a standing military force.


Unfortunately, the existing sources do not touch directly upon these extremely important matters. They do, however, contain information which allows us to construct the following hypothesis.


Bayan wanted to station frontier warriors of Proto-Bulgarian, Antai and Sklavin type along the Byzantine limes. By this time he had already obtained military instructors of the Winidi class from the Frankish frontier. He still needed expendable soldiers for an army, a problem he solved by systematic capture of the local peasantry, ancestors of the future Slovenes, Czechs, Poles, and Sorbs. We can assume that he coopted peoples whose descendants even today use the name «Avar» (obr, etc.) with the meaning «giant» [179]. The Winidi, as this new



(177) Gregory of Tours, Historiarum, pp. 232-234 (Book 4, ch. 29); Menander Protector, p. 56 (fragm. 23 s.a. 568); Paul the Deacon, Historia langobardorum, ed. Pertz, pp. 92-93 (Book 2, ch. 10).


(178) Menander Protector, pp. 57-58 (fragm. 25, s.a. 568); Paul the Deacon, p. 89 (Book 2, ch. 7).


(179) Upper Sorbian hobr, Czech obr, Slovene obər, Slovak obor, and, with a historical singulative suffix (cf. OR obĭrinŭ), Old Polish obrzym, further distorted to modern olbrzym. Cf. Bohumila Zástěrová, «Avaři a Dulebové v svědectví Povesti Vremennych Let», Vznik a počátky slovanů 3, Prague 1960, 15-37.





force was called, under the influence of the more developed Germanic lingua franca used by their military instructors, had considerable impact on the Slavophone masses (see below).


The terminology of the Samo passage in Pseudo-Fredegar's «History» strengthens our hypothesis. As we saw above in section III.2., a close analysis reveals an opposition between the leaders, called Winidi, and the masses, called Sclavi.





Gradually a Slavic lingua franca developed in the military camps of the Avar pax, a language more sophisticated than the «hamlet idioms» and capable of conveying military orders, recording bureaucratic reports, and expressing ideas in the emerging, if limited, cultural life of the pax.


This wholly contemporary common Slavic language was stabilized by the end of the eighth century, and even later borrowings from one area to another would be adapted to the local dialect variants. Thus the word for 'king' among Catholic Slavs was taken from «Common Slavic» *karl-, derived from the name of the destroyer of the Avar Pax, Charlemagne (d. 814), becoming kralj in Croatian, král in Czech and Slovak, król in Polish and then korol' in East Slavic, where the word referred to western rulers, or eastern rulers crowned by the pope [180].



(180) The word apparently contains a *j, *karl-j-, very likely a possessive formant, and therefore had the meaning of «Karl's [local] man, representative, governer»; see H. G. Lunt, «OCS '*kralj'?» Orbis Scriptus. Dmitrij Tschižewskij zum 70. Geburtstag, Munich 1966, pp. 383-490.





By that time the first essential stratum of «Common Slavic» cultural borrowings is already in place. From Germanic, for example, we see such words as kŭnędzĭ 'prince', *pŭlkŭ '[military] unit: band', mečĭ 'sword', *šlěmŭ 'helmet', brŭnja 'coat of mail', brady 'war-ax', sedŭlo 'saddle', *oldiji 'boat', greb- in the sense of 'paddle, row' (possibly also *jękorĭ 'anchor'), likŭ 'triumphal dance', istŭba '[heated] room', xlěvŭ 'cattle-shed', tynŭ 'stockade', kladędzĭ 'well', plugŭ 'plow', osĭlŭ 'ass', skotŭ 'cattle: money', gobino 'riches', kupiti 'to buy', pěnędzĭ 'coin', lixva 'interest, profit', mytarĭ 'tax-gatherer', stĭklo 'glass', bljudo 'plate', kotĭlŭ 'cauldron', [-]kusiti 'to taste', pila 'file', duma 'thought', xd 'artistic', lěčiti 'to cure', The name of the frontier (limes) itself, 'Danube', Dunaj, is apparently derived from a Germanic form, *Dunāwios. It was very likely borrowed as late as the Avar period, approximately 550-650; in any case the very early date of 400-250 B.C.E. suggested by Max Vasmer is implausible [181].


Concurrently, a uniform material culture of «lower upper classes» was developing (as archeological finds have demonstrated) which adopted Avar metal art, primarily the Keszthely metal culture. As Helmut Preidel has shown, artifacts of this Avar metal culture became a status symbol among all non-Avar peoples of the pax [182].


The bearers of this refined culture - the new military and administrative elites of non-Avar origin - separated themselves from the «lower classes» (smerdi 'paesants') [183]



(181) My list is based on Vasmer's «Urheimat der Slaven» [1926], repr. in his Schriften zur slavischen Altertumskunde und Namenkunde, ed. Herbert Brauer, vol. 1, Berlin 1971, pp. 38-42, with some additions and corrections kindly supplied by H. G. Lunt.


(182) See his paper «Awaren und Slawen», cited above in footnote 4.


(183) On this group see Juliusz Bardach, «Smerdowie», SSS, vol. 5, pp. 312-316.





and adopted designations and titles of Germanic or Oriental origin that survived the Avar catastrophe. Thus we find edlinger and casenz in Carinthia, vitez and župan in Sorbia (Saxony), and szlachta in Poland [184].


The forcible destruction of parochial kinship ties and the amalgamation of disparate primitive elements into professional units which had a larger group culture, were turbulent experiences that left an indelible mark on popular tradition. Witnesses to this are the stories about Avar oppression preserved in Pseudo-Fredegar [185] and the Povèst' vremennyx lět [186].


After the demise of the Avar Pax (ca. 796), several successor states emerged in which the Slavic-speaking, Avar-trained charismatic clans (of both Slavic and non-Slavic origin, especially Iranian) of Serbs and Croats were all-powerful. This process was documented in part by Constantine Porphyrogenitus in «De administrando imperio» (ca. 948) [187].



(184) See P. Lessiak, «Edling-Kasaze», Carinthia I 103 (1913) 81-94; Ljudmil Hauptmann, «Politische Umwälzungen unter den Slowenen vom Ende des 6. bis zur Mitte des 9. Jh.», Mitteilungen des Instituts für österreichische Geschichtsforschung 36, Vienna, 1915 230-287; Id., «Die Herkunft der Kärntner Edlinge», Vierteljahrschrift für Social- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte 21, Stuttgart 1928, pp. 245-279; Josef Peisker, «Die älteren Bezeichnungen der Slawen zu Turkotataren und Germanen und ihre sozialgeschichtliche Bedeutung», in Vierteljahrschrift f. Soc. u. Wirtschaftsges. 3 (1905) 187-360, 465-533; Adolf Stender-Petersen, «La conquète danoise de la Samlande et Vitingi prusiens», repr. in his Varangica, Aarhus 1953, pp. 43-63; Zygmunt Wojciechowski, «La condition des nobles et le problème de la féodalité en Pologne de moyen-âge», Revue Historique de Droit Français et Étranger, 4 ser. 15, Paris 1936, 651-700, 16 (1937) 20-76; Id., «Powstanie szlachectwa w Polsce», Miesiecznik Heraldyczny 12 (1936) 97-110.


(185) The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar, ed. J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, London 1960, p. 40.


(186) Ed. D. S. Lixačev, vol. 1, Moscow-Leningrad 1950, p. 14. Cf. Zástěrová, «Avari a Dulebové», cited in fn. 179 above.


(187) Ed. Moravcsik, vol. 1 (1949), ch. 29-36 (pp. 122-165) and Francis Dvornik's commentary, vol. 2 (1962), pp. 93-142. See also Relja Novakovic, Odakle su Srbi došli na Balkansko poluostrvo, Belgrade 1978, and Bogo Grafenauer, «Prilog kritici izveštaja Konstantine Porfirogenita o doseljenju Hrvata», Historiski zbornik 5, Zagreb 1952, 1-56.





Later, after Christianization, the local charismatic clans, now the ruling classes, regarded it as incumbent upon them to abandon their Avar past in favor of their alleged true peasant and Slavic origin. There is good documentation about this development in Slavonia [188], Bohemia [189], and Poland [190].





The Avar Pax, which existed throughout Central Europe for some two and a half centuries (558-796), left an indelible mark on European development. During that time, the local peasants, disparate in language, with horizons not reaching beyond their own hamlets, were uprooted and brought together into larger communities in military colonies on the Danube frontier, thereby setting the stage for the development of a common Slavic language, which would be capable of serving as a means of communication for a larger territory.


Speakers of this new lingua franca now began to appropriate the professional term Sklavin (of non-Slavic origin) as a self-designation, with the result that it created the illusion that an ethnic consciousness had existed long ago in remote Proto-Slavic periods.


The old tradition (especially that of the Pověst' vremennyx lět) [191] about the origin of the Slavs along the Da-



(188) K. Rauch, «Die Kärntner Herzogseinsetzung nach allemanischen Handschriften», Abhandlungen zur Rechts- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte. Festschrift für Adolf Zycha, Weimar 1941, pp. 185-188; Johannis abbatis Victoriensis, Liber certum historiarum, ed. Fedor Schmeidler (Hannover), vol. 1 (1909), Book 1, ch. 13, vol. 2 (1910), Book 6, ch. 6.


(189) Cosmae Pragensis Chronica Boemorum, ed. Bertold Bretholz and Wilhelm Weinberger, MGH, SS n.s., Hannover 1923, Book I, chapters 4-8.


(190) Anonima tzw. Galla. Kronika czyli dzieje książąt i wladców polskich, ed. Karol Maleczyński, Monumenta Poloniae Historica, ser. 2, vol. 2, Cracow 1952, Book 1, ch. 2.


(191) Ed. Lixačev, vol. 1, p. 11.





nube should not be understood in the Romantic sense of an Ur-Heimat or original home from which the Slavio ethnic tribes migrated in different directions. Instead, it refers to the period of Avar military colonies along the Danube frontier, where untutored parochial peasants were trained, were formed into larger communities, and worked out a more capacious and sophisticated lingua franca.


The puzzle of rapid Slavic «colonization» along the great Central and East European rivers during the 6th to 9th century can now be regarded as solved: as the «marines» of their time, the Sklavins (the future Slavs) were trained to move swiftly along the rivers, the only local highways of the epoch.


The activity on the Avar-Byzantine and the Avar-Frankish frontiers was, indeed, a requisite stage for the future development of the Slavic cultures and nations.


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