Friday, August 15, 2014

Avar Wars for Empire (562–601)

Avar Wars for Empire (562–601)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Avars vs. Franks, Bulgars, Slavs,
and Romans

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Germany, Italy, and the Baltic


MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Chased from Central Asia,
the Avars were determined to conquer an empire in the

OUTCOME: Decades of conquest left the Avars with
an empire stretching east from the Julian Alps to the
Volga and south from the Danube River valley to the
Baltic Sea.



TREATIES: None recorded

Native to the steppes that lay between the Volga, Kama,
and Ural Rivers, the Avars, akin to the Huns and Tartars,
were driven from their homeland by the Turks around 555.
Relocating to the northern Caucasus, the Avars, under the
leadership of their great chief, Baian (fl. sixth century),
were determined to conquer central Europe and dominate
the region as they once had Central Asia. In 562 the Avars
invaded westward into Germany, but, during the course of
several large battles in Thuringia, they were repulsed by
the counterattacking Franks, led by the sons of Clotaire I
(d. 561). The Avars then looked to the east and made raids
into the eastern Roman Empire in 564 before concluding
an alliance with the Germanic Lombards in their war
against the Gepidae in Italy. In exchange for Avar support,
the Lombards agreed to give the Avars 10 percent of their
livestock and any conquered Gepidae territory.
In a classic pincer movement the Avars invaded from
the northeast while the Lombards attacked from the
northwest, converging in the Danube River valley and
crushing the Gepidae. Alboin (d. 572), king of the Lombards,
personally slew the Gepidae king and then took his
reluctant daughter as a bride. The Avars and the Lombards
followed their victory with a campaign that decimated the
Gepidae lands. Seeing the ferocity with which the Avars
waged war, Alboin realized that they—having annexed all
Gepidae lands—were now potentially his most dangerous
enemy. He quickly concluded a new alliance with them
and migrated south across the Alps and into northern
Italy, leaving Pannonia and Noricum to the Avars but
putting enough distance behind him to create a buffer
zone between the two people.
In the east Justinian (b. 483), who had managed to
hold the Roman Empire together through sheer force of
will and his tremendous personal influence, died in 565.
Several years later Baian recognized that the empire lay
vulnerable, and he fully intended to take advantage of the
situation. The king of the Avars turned his attention especially
to the city of Sirmium. The Romans had occupied
the city during the joint Avar-Lombard attack on the Gepidae,
but Baian reasoned that it was rightly his, since it had
been a Gepidaen city, and—as everyone knew, per his
agreement with Alboin—all Gepidae now belonged to
him. When the Romans refused to hand Sirmium over,
Baian laid siege to the city and at the same time offered
generous terms. All he wanted, he said, was a silver plate,
some gold, and a ceremonial toga; he would gladly break
off the siege, since he had fighting to do elsewhere, but to
come away with nothing would be disgraceful before his
allies. Sirmium’s city elders had no authority to accept
terms but passed them on to Rome, recommending their
acceptance. While he was waiting for a reply, Baian sent
10,000 Huns into Dalmatia to ravage the countryside as a
show of force. The emperor Justin II (d. 578), and later
Tiberius (d. 582), refused to accept either the terms or the
surrender of Sirmium and hastily prepared for war. The
subsequent Roman offensives were ill-advised and never
successful. In 580 the Avars took Sirmium for good.
After securing Sirmium, Baian swept south against the
Slavs and marched through the Balkans undefeated, reaching
the Aegean Sea in 591 and again in 597. The southward
expansion would mark the zenith of Avar supremacy.
For more than a quarter century Baian and the Avars were
essentially without military peer in central Europe. Save
for the early defeat at the hands of the Franks, Baian was
never defeated in the field. His luck would end, however,
with the ascension of the emperor Maurice (582–602).
Although Tiberius died in 582, Maurice was not able to
consolidate his power and sufficiently gain control of the
army for another decade. But beginning in 595 Maurice
and his general, Priscus (fl. sixth century), engaged in a
series of decisive campaigns ranging from the Black Sea to
the Theiss River, successfully gaining the upper hand
against the Avars. In 601 Priscus soundly defeated Baian
on the south bank of the Danube at the Battle of Viminacium.
Although Baian’s defeat at Viminacium ended the
Avars’ unchecked dominance in the region, Baian maintained
suzerainty over an empire that stretched east from
the Julian Alps to the Volga and south from the Danube
River valley to the Baltic Sea.


Further reading: J. J. Saunders, The History of the
Mongol Conquests (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press, 2001); E. A. Thompson, The Huns (London:
Blackwell, 1999).

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