The Avars were a pastoral nomadic group from the Eurasian steppe who conquered the Carpathian Basin and became a major force in central and eastern Europe from the late sixth through eighth centuries. Walter Pohl’s monograph is a detailed study of Avar political, military, diplomatic, economic, and social history which was originally published in three German editions from 1988 to 2015. Pohl revised the English translation by cutting outdated material and including new research findings, particularly in the field of archaeology. So, in essence, the book is not only the first translation, but also the third revision of the original publication. Since the reviewer is a specialist in China’s relations with the steppe, this review will focus on Pohl’s analysis of the Avars as a case study of pastoral nomadic rule over a mixed society of farmers and pastoralists.
Chapter 1 “Approaching the Avars” serves as the introduction. According to Pohl, modern historians of European Late Antiquity have ignored, underestimated, or disparaged the Avars because they were a nomadic people who never established a Christianized state on the model of the Goths, Franks, and Lombards. In addition, the limited Avar state apparatus—with relatively low levels of record-keeping and commemorative writing—has left only a few terse inscriptions that have proven difficult to decipher. Consequently, “the history of the Avars was written by their enemies,” particularly the Byzantines, whose negative stereotypes later influenced modern historians to regard the Avars as inferior “barbarians” (p. 2). In contrast, Pohl argues that Avar khagans (kings) used “a carefully managed economy of force, a skillful alternation of threats, attacks and negotiations” to deliver wealth to their warriors and ensure their loyalty (2). More significantly, he argues that study of the Avars is essential to understanding “the diversity of lifestyles in early medieval Europe and their complementarity” and the “process from which, ultimately, the European Middle Ages would emerge” (4-5). After the introduction, the book is arranged into seven roughly chronological chapters.
Chapter 2 “The Avar Migration” examines the appearance of the Avars on the steppe north of the Caucasus around 557. Since the fall of Attila’s Hun Empire in 454, this steppe region had become the home to groups of “stateless nomads.” Pohl analyzes the long-standing debates about whether the European Avars were related to the earlier Rouran/Avar Khaganate that had dominated the Mongolian steppe before being overthrown by the Turks in 555. The author argues plausibly that the Europeans Avars were a mixed population of steppe people, including remnants of the Rouran, who had fled Turk domination and chose the name Avar because of its prestige. Since Pohl’s goal is to situate the Avars in European history, this chapter examines other background information, including the contemporary struggle for control of the Carpathian Basin between the Gepids and Lombards, and Byzantine policies toward the Avars that shifted from appeasement under Justinian (r. 526-565) to hostility under Justin II (r. 565-578).
Chapter 3 “The New Power, 567-90” investigates the Avar western migration under their khagan, Baian, and conquest of the Carpathian Basin that was to remain their base of power for over two centuries. The available sources are Byzantine histories of diplomacy and war with the Avars that have little to say about events in the Carpathian heartland. After a failed siege of the Byzantine frontier fortress at Sirmium in modern northwestern Serbia, the Avars initially agreed to accept status as a Byzantine vassal in return for annual subsidies. Pohl argues plausibly that peace lasted for over a decade because the Avars were busy with internal consoli dation, but became hostile in 579 because Baian had to satisfy his army “hungry for success and booty” (83). The subsequent Avar conquests of Sirmium and additional territory succeeded in part because the Byzantines were involved in a long war with Sasanian Iran. To compensate for the dearth of information on events in the Carpathian Basin, the author carefully examines the archaeological evidence and concludes that the Avar Empire was “open to the multiplicity of lifestyles that existed in eastern central Europe and beyond it” (116). The most numerous and important subjects of the Avars, the Slavs, are the topic of Chapter 4 “Avars and Slavs.” Pohl argues that the simple, decentralized Slavic lifestyle of cattle herding, millet farming, and raiding for plunder thrived in post-Roman Europe because it was suited to survival on marginal lands and did not require state protection. In the Carpathian Basin, the Avars and Slavs developed an interdependency with Slavs providing agricultural products and serving as infantry and boatmen in armies. Slavic groups also appear to have raided Byzantine territory independently.
Chapter 5 “The Balkan Wars of Maurice, 591-602” is recounted mainly from the Byzantine perspective. Having sealed a peace treaty with the Sasanian Iran in the east, Emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) shifted troops to the Balkans to confront the Avars and Slavs north of the Danube River. During a decade of war, Byzantine armies proved to be capable of achieving victories, mainly under General Priscus, but suffered defeats usually when the emperor’s brother Peter was in charge. The war defies stereotypes because, as Pohl argues, the armies were “increasingly similar to one another. ‘Barbarians’ fought on both sides” (166). For example, Byzantine armies brutally massacred Slav and Gepid villagers and took slaves and plunder. In contrast, the pagan khagan proved capable of chivalry by supplying Priscus’ underfed troops with food on Easter of 598. Despite successes in battle, the war proved to be disastrous for Maurice. When he ordered the exhausted army to prolong a winter campaign into Avar territory, the soldiers and officers rebelled, marched on Constantinople, and killed the emperor and his family in 602.
Chapter 6 “Life and Organization in the Avar Empire” attempts to knit together scattered bits of textual and archaeological evidence on the Avars and their subjects in the Carpathian Basin of the sixth century. Pohl argues that the empire was comprised of ethnicities that correlated “with social status and function” (263). The Avars were an “imperial ethnicity” that blended “ethnic and imperial identification” (270). They maintained pastoral nomadic lifestyles on grasslands and buried men in graves with horses, multipartite belts, and weapons that testify to warrior identities. Bulgar pastoral nomads comprised an intermediate ethnic stratum that provided auxiliary cavalry to the armies. On the lower tier, Slavic, Gepid, and other indigenous peasants provided agricultural and forest products, and served as infantry and boatmen in the armies. To the south, across the Danube River, the Byzantine Empire provided access to tribute and plunder. Byzantine subsidies of gold solidus coins (4.55 grams each) paid annually to the khagan escalated from 80,000 in 574 to 120,000 in 598. This explains the resplendent graves of Avar elites that were rich in precious metal objects and decorations. Pohl argues that the Avar polity was exceptional in comparison to steppe empires of Central Eurasia because of the “specific ecological, geopolitical and cultural conditions” of the Carpathian Basin (199). Although exceptional compared to relatively short-lived contemporary Turkic empires, the Avars had much in common with other Turko-Mongol polities in Eastern Eurasian borderland regions: for example the Tuyuhun (ca. 300-663) in Qinghai and Khitan Liao Dynasty (916-1125) in Manchuria. Ecologically, Manchuria and Qinghai–like the Carpathian Basin–included farmland and forest adjacent to steppe. Geopolitically, particularly during period of political division in North China, its agricultural states provided sources of plunder and subsidies. Turko-Mongol polities in borderland regions could be more resilient than nomadic states based on the rich grasslands of the Mongolian plateau in part because of the greater diversification of their subsistence economies.
In the seventh and eighth centuries, textual records on the Avars become exceedingly sparse, and therefore the book covers this time period in only two chapters. Nevertheless, Chapter 7 “The Seventh Century” provides some of the most revealing glimpses of the Avars in the entire book because Byzantine authors observed the khagan’s armies firsthand during sieges of Constantinople in 623 and 626. In addition to being well documented, the sieges were pivotal events in Avar history in which they seemingly reached an apex of power in 623 and then declined precipitously after 626. The increasing success of Avar raids between 602 and 623 is attributable to Byzantium’s renewed hostilities with the Sasanian Empire. The ensuing shift of troops to the east led to “the progressive devastation of Balkan provinces [and] forced the Avar ruler to greater ventures” (400). After the khagan nearly baited Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641) into an ambush in 623, the pair subsequently negotiated the highest subsidy ever of 200,000 gold coins annually. Nevertheless, the khagan, most likely a younger son of Baian who had succeeded an older brother, grew overconfident in 626 when he led a large army of Avar and Bulgar cavalry, Slavic infantry and boatmen, and Gepid infantry and siege engineers to besiege Constantinople and demand its total surrender and evacuation. The khagan apparently was unwilling to negotiate a cash settlement because Heraclius was away from the city fighting on the Sasanians frontier and a counterattacking Sasanian force allied with the Avars had marched to the Asian side of the Bosporus Strait. Byzantine naval control of the Bosporus proved decisive in thwarting Slavic boatmen and women attempting to ferry Sasanian and Slavic warriors to attack the less formidable seaward walls of the city. With siege engines also failing to breech the landward walls, the khagan was forced to withdraw after only ten days. As Pohl argues, this had important historical implications. The Avars lost control over peripheral territory, perhaps due to dissent in the army. Meanwhile, the previous raiding and devastation of the Balkans opened the way for Slavic settlements outside of Avar and Byzantine control. In the surviving Avar polity in the Carpathian basin, archaeological excavations demonstrate the rich burials of the warrior elite declined after the mid-seventh century. A more homogenous burial culture developed signaling the growing cultural assimilation of Avars, Bulgars, and Slavs, and an economy increasingly dependent on farming rather than herding and raiding. Pohl argues that the Avar Empire survived in the Carpathian Basin because Slavs and other peoples on the periphery were too disunified to mount serious challenges.
Pohl entitles Chapter 8 “The Century of the Griffin” because this mythical beast, popular in Roman and Byzantine art, became the most common motif on a new type of cast bronze belt set in eighth-century Carpathian Basin graves. In addition to the griffin, burials included belt pieces with images of predators, horses and hunters, and swords and other weapons. Pohl hypothesizes that “these expressive means enabled the Avar warrior, in a largely agricultural environment, to preserve his identity and pride” (349). Historical sources are lacking until Latin chroniclers document the rapid collapse of Avar power. An initial incursion under Charlemagne in 791 met no Avar resistance, but withdrew after most of the horses died of disease. Pohl argues that this epizootic pestilence may have also struck the Avars and would explain their anemic military capability. A few years later, a civil war broke out among the Avar elite that impelled an aristocrat holding the Turkic title of tudun to submit to Charlemagne and convert to Christianity in 796. Shortly thereafter, Frank armies invaded from the south prompting a newly enthroned khagan to surrender along with his wife and retinue. Although the tudun and other Avar elites who submitted managed to retain their local power under Frank suzerainty, within a generation the Avars disappear from historical sources and grow sparse in the archaeological record. Pohl’s hypothesis is that, in contrast to the subordinate Slavs and Bulgars, the Avars were a “political ethnos” that could not survive without centralized rule to provide identity (399).
Although the Avars subsequently faded from memory, Pohl has resurrected their history with meticulous, interdisciplinary scholarship and makes a persuasive case that their polity of steppe origin had a significant impact on Europe’s historical development. The facts are seldom straightforward, so Pohl assiduously analyzes the evidence, reviews debates among modern historians, archaeologists, and philologists, offers his opinions, and meticulously references sources in over 200 pages of endnotes and bibliography. The book’s only significant deficiency is an absence of visual evidence, which is a shortcoming given Pohl’s reliance on archaeological scholarship to reconstruct the social and cultural history of the Carpathian Basin. Regardless, the book clearly stands as a monumental starting point of any future research on the Avars. Pohl and Cornell University Press deserve praise for publishing this important work of scholarship in English.