Episode 16: Avars, Bulgars and Constantinople
Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)
Dr Kenneth Harl
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.