The First Bulgarian Empire (680 – 1018 AD)

Episode 16: Avars, Bulgars and Constantinople

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

The main focus of this lecture is the shifting alliances between the steppes nomads and the Byzantine Empire between the 6th and 10th century AD. During the reign of the emperor Justinian (527-565 AD), the Avar Khan formed an alliance with Constantinople against the western Gökturk Khanate. The latter sought to annex them as a colony. However by 575 AD, the Avars, having migrated to the Hungarian plains, had abandoned this alliance and were conducting periodic raids on the Balkan provinces of the Byzantine empire.

In a constant state of war, Byzantine forces simultaneously fought to reclaim provinces of the former eastern Roman empire (in Italy, North Africa, Armenia, Syria and the Middle East) and to repel repeated attacks by the Sassanid Khanate (Persia). In 591 AD, there was a temporary halt to the Persian-Byzantines war after the Sassanid shah was deposed and Emperor Maurice lent him troops to help him regain his throne.

Between 602-626 AD, Persia and the Avars formed an alliance and came close to conquering the Byzantine Empire. However this time the Byzantines formed an alliance with the Göturks, whose rout of the Sassanid Khanate enabled the Byzantine empire to assimilate Asia Minor, the Balkans and Italy.

The Lombards* eventually allied with the Avars to reclaim the Balkans, opening the territory to Slav settlement.**

In 790 AD, the Franks reunited western Europe under Charlemagne, who conquered the Avars in 796 and ended their presence as an organized political entity.

In the 9th and 10 century, a Turkic tribe called the Bulgars combined a Slavic infantry and a nomad cavalry to repeatedly sack the western Byzantine province and became a major power in the Balkans.

In 864 AD, the Bulgar ruler Khan Boris converted to Christianity after two monks created the Cyrillic script and translated the scriptures into the Bulgar language. He became known as Czar Boris following his conversion.

His son Vladimir raided Constantinople to pressure the emperor to offer him a royal princess in marriage. In the ensuring war, the Balkans were re-taken by the Byzantine Empire.

*The Lombands were a Germanic people originating near the Elbe River who ruled most of the Italian peninsula from 568-774 AD.

**At which point the Balkan provinces ceased to be Latin and Greek speaking.

The Dark Ages: When Barbarians and Peasant Farmers Took Back Power

The Dark Ages Are Upon Us : Imperator

Episode 22: Chaos and Consolidation

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this fascinating lecture, Benjamin traces the reconfiguration of Eurasia following the collapse of the Rome and the Han empire in China. The period 400 – 1000 AD is commonly referred to as the Dark Ages, owing to the break-up of Western Europe into smaller kingdoms and city-states. This seems to be based on the traditional view that large totalitarian empires run by ruthless dictators are preferable to smaller city-states, largely because the latter are at greater risk of being overthrown by the peasant farmers who generate state wealth.

  • China – Between the 3rd and 7th century AD (following the collapse of the Han Dynasty in 200 AD), 37 separate dynasties attempted to rule different areas of China. During the 6th century AD, the Sui dynasty unified northern and southern China via construction of the Grand Canal linking the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. This paved the way for the Tang dynasty. The the wealthiest, most powerful and most urbanized* empire to that point in history, it would conquer Vietnam and much of Tibet and Central Asia.
  • Japan – adopted Buddhism and Chinese administrative systems in the 3rd Century BC, but independent regions controlled by powerful Samurai would not be unified under a single emperor until 1000 AD.
  • India – the Kushan empire controlling Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and northern India collapsed in the 3rd century AD to be replaced by the Gupta network of regional rulers. During this period, Aryabhata (476-550) discovered the rotation of the Earth and first calculated the length of the solar year, and Varahamira invented the concept of zero.
  • Iran – the Parthian and Kushan empire was replaced by the Sassanian empire (251-651 AD), which promoted a resurgence of Zororastrianism and traded with the Byzantine Empire and the Chinese.
  • Western Europe – (following the collapse of Rome) broke up into six independent kingdoms governed by the Franks and Burgundians (in northern France), the Alemanni (in Germany), the Ostrogoths (in the Balkans) and the Odoaccerdom (Italy) and Visigoth kingdoms (Spain and southwest France). Many former Roman cities were taken over by peasant farmers and converted to pasture and market gardens.** There was a brief effort to unify Western Europe (as the Holy Roman consecrated by the Pope) effort under Charlemagne in 800 AD, but following Charlemagne’s death, reverted to warring kingdoms governed by local kings.
  • Western Asia – the eastern Roman empire (consisting of modern day Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Macedonia) continued under centralized  Byzantine rule from Constantinople.

The political dynamics of this era were complicated by a number of significant invasions:

  • Muslim: the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD, leading to the Muslim conquest of much of central Asia, North Africa and the Iberian peninsula.
  • Barbarians: the invasion of formerly Roman Britain by Picts, Scots and Anglo-Saxons.
  • Vikings: the invasion of Britain, northern Europe***and Russia**** by Vikings.

*By the 10th century AD, 2 million people lived in Chang’an and 1 million in Hangzhou.

**In the 7th century AD Rome had a population of 25,000, down from a population of one million in 150 AD.

***Normandy in France was settled by Vikings.

****Vikings controlled most of Ukraine and Russia via the trading networks they established. Kievan Russ, the first Russian state, was created by Viking elites who controlled these networks.

This film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.

Colonization: Deciding It’s OK to Steal Someone Else’s Land (and/or Body)

In the following presentation, Native American activist Ward Churchill offers ones of the most fascinating explorations of colonization I have ever encountered.

He maintains that indigenous people have an inherent right both to self-determination and to fulfill their duty to manage land and habitat to guarantee the survival of their descendants for seven generations into the future.

With colonization, colonists dispossess a native population of their land for some alternative use.

He explains the concept of “settler colonialism” – giving the Nazi occupation of Europe as the prime example (along with the Israeli colonization of Palestine, the European colonization of North and South America and the English colonization of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand).

He also introduces the concept of “false colonization,” which occurs when settlers continue to deprive native peoples of  their land and rights despite breaking away from the mother country.

He blames the plight of African Americans on “black colonies,” which he defines as “internal colonial constructions.”

Churchill believes Europeans themselves have been colonized, which he traces back to Charlemagne (737-814 AD), when early European tribal groups (“barbarians”) were dispossessed of their land and right of self-governance in the formation of nation states.