Ērān ud Anērān
Webfestschrift Marshak 2003


"They called themselves Avar" - Considering the pseudo-Avar question in the work of Theophylaktos

Mihály Dobrovits*


My paper deals with the problem why and how the pastoral nomads settled in the Carpathian Basin in 568 and introducing themselves as Avars were held for and called Pseudo-Avars in the Turko-Byzantine diplomatica affairs. My point is that they were held for Pseudo-Avars by the Türks for diplomatic reasons. Recognizing that the people settled in the Carpathian Basin were true Avars connected with the Juan-juan khaganate meant that thei chiefs also were legitime khagans and therefore both rivals to the A-shih-na and legitime allies to the Byzantine Empire.

A new branch of pastoral nomads settled in the Carpathian Basin at the Easter of 568. According to the written sources, they called themselves Avar. They were undoubtedly fleeing from the Turks. Their presence constituted the key issue in the Turk-Byzantine relations is the last 30 years of the 6th century. It was the diplomatic demand of the Turks that brought about the issue of the "pseudo-Avars". The question at hand is whether we are talking about true Avars or this population was only using the name Avar in their foreign relations. This present paper would like to take stand in this issue. In my opinion what we have here is a historical postulate professed by the Turks that was later accepted by Byzantium. The essence of this postulate concerns the unity of the kagans authority. The question formulated in present-day diplomatic terminology would be: legally speaking whose subjects are the Avars taken in foedus by Byzantium? Though the pseudo-Avar question came down to us in Byzantine Greek sources, it was an argument postulated by the Turks. They were attempting to prove that the population admitted by Byzantium used the name Avar for malicious reasons, since they were actually Varchonites, the subjects of the Turks fleeing from their rule.

The Evidence of Protector Menander

Protector Menander described the Turk envoy arriving in Byzantium in 568 as follows: The Sogdian Maniach and his fellow envoys bringing the Scythian letter sent by the Turk kagan in 568 were only talking about the rebellion of the Hephtalite city dwelling people [...] and part of the Avars against the Turk rule. Then we get to know that "There are, oh Emperor, people who faithfully cling to our country, while those who escaped were about 20 thousand" (CONSTANINUS PROPHYROGENETUS II. 452; SZÁDECZKY-KARDOSS 1992, 35).

The statement that the population moving into the Carpathian Basin were not Avars but Varchonites first appears in the sources in connection to the diplomatic mission of Valentinos (576). It was Valentinos and his fellow envoys, who were threatened by the Turk prince - Turxanthos - with execution because the Emperor took into his alliance "the escaped slaves of the Turks," the Varchonites, that is the Avars. It is apparent from this source that in 576 they considered the population which had eight years earlier been regarded as Avars, Varchonites in the Turk-Byzantine relations: "And your Emperor will expiate as well, since he tells me he is devoted to our friendship, while in the meantime he makes an alliance with the Varchonites, who are our servants and still dared to flee their lords" (CONSTANINUS PROPHYROGENETUS 205; SZÁDECZKY-KARDOSS 1992, 45).

The population Maniach called Avar was called Varchonite by Turxanthos. It is especially important that in his outrage he precisely listed the dwelling areas of the European Avars together with the routes to reach them.

The Evidence of Theophylaktos Simokatta

The continuer of Menander was Theophylaktos Simokatta, with whose work even textual connections can be demonstrated (OLAJOS 1988, 96-106). The most important evaluation of Thephylaktos was written by Haussig (HAUSSIG 1953) Theophylaktos Simokatta composed his work around 629 on the reign of emperor Maurikios (582-602). Theophylaktos text can be dated at the earliest to the mission of Tardu in the years 583-584, or to the period between 595-603 (OLAJOS 1988, 102-103; PHOL 1988, 30, 81.) Czeglédy thinks that the events described in the letter were carried out by at least three kagans (CZEGLÉDY 1969, 103). In his Scythian excursus Theophylaktos already applies the usual expressions of the Turk kagan (VII 7,7-8,6): "The one who is honored by the Turks as kagan" establishes contact with the Byzantine emperor (THEOPHYLAKTOS 275). He is the lord of the seven clans and the sovereign of the seven regions. He is the one who announces the defeat of the Abdels or in other words the Hephtalites, he is the one, who made Stembischagan his ally, thus subduing the Avars. And we are informed that the Avars are not the same barbarians living in Europe in and around the area of Pannonia, who arrived here before the era of the emperor Maurikios.

The barbarians living in the Danube area had only maliciously adopted the name Avar. Part of the defeated Avars fled to the masters of the city of Taugast. Taugast is a splendid city lying about 1500 miles from those called Turks. This place has a border with the Indians. The barbarians dwelling around Taugast make up the most aggressive and the most numerous people. They cannot be set in line with the people of the rest of the world precisely because of their number. The rest of the Avars fled to the people of Mukri.

Actually, the European Avars are the Ogors living on the banks of the black Til, whose chieves were Var and Chunni. They gave their names to the different branches of their race (that is the Ogurs) who are called by the names Var and Chunni. A fraction of these people migrated to the west and the Barselt, Onogur, Sabir and other people conquered by them identified their subduers with the Avars, so the name remained with them. They are the pseudo-Avars, whose Var and Chunni clan names also remained (CZEGLÉDY 1969, 101-103; SZÁDECZKY-KARDOSS 1992, 14-15, 20).

There have already been several attempts to interpret the text in question. It must be stated that these three quotations form an integral part of the text, and not only contextually, but also syntactically, as it is proved that Theophylaktos drew on Menander as a source. These passages come primarily from sources concerning the Turk-Byzantine diplomatic relations, where the Byzantine authors recorded the changes in the Turk point of view.

During the earliest Turk-Byzantine negotiations the Turks unambiguously called the population of about 20.000 (probably counting only squires), who fled from them, Avars. Eight years later, when Constantinople was forced to take them as allies, the Turks already insisted that they were Varchonites. The decisive innovation comes in Theophylaktos text - where he claims, referring to Turk sources, that the real Avars stayed in the east, while the Varchonites appearing in the west only usurp the name. This means that actually the Avars fled to the east, that is towards China and Korea. So according to Theophylaktos the true Avars are the Juanjuans - to which fact Haussig has already drew the attention (HAUSSIG 1957).

They Called Themselves Avar

However, there are no pseudo-Avars. Even if we accept Theophylaktos statement, that they began to use the name Avar only as a secondary development - which is contradicted by the data given by Maniach - they unambiguously used it to denote themselves. The farthest we can go is to suppose some kind of a duality in the use of names. The name Avar was used by the population moving into the Carpathian-basin at Easter, 568 to denote themselves, if not otherwise as a constituent of the name Varchonite. Regarding the Avar-Juan-juan relation, Dnis Sinor has already demonstrated that the Avars described by Priscos rhetor are different from the Juanjuan at the height of the power (SINOR 1946-47, 35). The work (470) by Priscos rhetor precede greatly the age researched here. According to him this Avar group left its earlier habitation together with the Saragurs, the Ogurs, and the Abirs (CONSTANTINUS PORHYREGENETUS 486.) Haussigs argument, that they are the real Avars and considering the data provided by Theophylaktos, they migrated in a west to east direction is based on the above passage (HAUSSIG 1957, 35-41). Though this argument is hardly acceptable, Czeglédy referred to the east-west movement of the Hephtalites in the mid 5th century in connection with the migration of the population mentioned by Priscos. The question was readmitted by János Harmatta in relation to the migration of the Onogurs (HARMATTA 1992), while Gábor Vékony (VÉKONY 1987) and István Erdélyi (ERDÉLYI 1988) provided detailed analyses of the pseudo-Avar question. According to these works part of the confusion is due to the fact that a century before the appearance of the European Avars, they had already left their original habitation, moved to the west and became constituents of the empire mentioned by the Hephtalite dynastic name.

On the Title of Kagan

A long list of historians have been trying to decipher Theophylaktos line "they called themselves Avar". Here is the text (VII 8, 1-6): "They called themselves Avar and awarded the title of kagan to their chief" (THEOPHYLAKTOS 258; SZÁDECZKY-KARDOSS 1992, 20.)

If we do not take the name Avar as our starting point, we might find what the real issue was here: "....and awarded the title of kagan to their chief". The Turk-Byzantine diplomatic issue was about the title of kagan. The title kagan appears first in Chinese sources around 265 AD. The tribes of Hsien-pi origin used it from the beginning and before 552, when the Turks took over, the last to use the title were the Juanjuans. The charisma called qut ('luck) in the sources, similar to the "celestial authorization" (tien ming) of the emperors of China, was given to the kagans by a mountain- Ötüken, identified as present-day Hangaya mountain. By occupying the territory, the power of the kagan should have passed over to the Turks. However, the Avars arriving in eastern Europe held on to it. The words of the Orchon inscription are clear - Ötüken and the title of kagan can only be held by one clan at a time. There was no use arguing about who the title of the kagan was vested in before 552. Thus the basic matter of the discussions with Byzantium was that the new population coming to Europe were not Avars entitled to the title of Kagan, but some fugitives, who had no right to this title. This is how we can reach the essence of the Avar-pseudo-Avar discussion. Nevertheless, we should not forget that the kaganate is not vested in a person, but in a clan that can utilize the single empowerment anytime, anywhere (CZEGLÉDY 1974). There is no reason to doubt this in the case of the Avars of the Carpathian-basin. Their sovereign was always awarded the title of kagan. This very argument had already been reflected by the Byzantine sources. The expressions -obstamus dominis, profugis damus ostia servis- of Corippus praising the new foreign policy of Justinos II who adopted a stricter approach to barbarians as opposed to the Justinian era, fits in this line exactly. Following the unsuccessful diplomatic attempt of 563, Byzantine diplomacy seems to have decided on the Turks in 5681.

It is thus almost certain that behind the claim of the Turks that the new inhabitants of the Carpathian basin were not "true" Avars, but another population, who just identify themselves with the Avars, there lies the argument about the title of the kagan. If the Avars are not real Avars, than their leaders are not real kagans either. Considering that Maniach described the Avars as possible mutual enemies, while the diplomatic mission of Valentianos took place following the foedus, we have arrived at the core of the problem. The Turks were preoccupied by the title of kagan, nevertheless they were talking about ethnic differences.

The authority of the kagan and the territory

We will find another interesting element of the argument about the legimacy of holding the title of kagan, if we take into consideration another factor as well - namely territory. Though the authority of the kagan is not essentially territorial, it still required beside celestial sanctioning that of the local spirits as well. It is well known from Turk inscriptions that beside the Heavens (täri) the area (yer sub) that is earth and water, (cf.: Chinese shan sui) also intervened.

This is what the texts say:

I. E 11; II. E 10: üzä türk tärisi ďduq yeri subď anča temis, türk bodun yoq bolmazun teyin, bodun bolčun teyin qaďm elteris qaanď, ögüm elbilgä qatunď täri töpüsintä tutup yügärü kötürmis ärinč. "High above the Turk Heaven, the holy region [that is its holy land and water] said: "The Turk confederation of tribes should not disappear, let it become a confederation of tribes!" [And for this reason], the Heaven raised my father, the Elteris [Empire gatherer] kagan and my mother, the Elbilgä [the sage of the Empire] katun practically by the top of their heads".

I.E 19; II. E 16: äčümiz apamiz tutmis yer sub idisiz bolmazun teyin az bodunu etip yaratďp "We have created the Az people, so the area owned by our forefathers would not become masterless".

II. E 35: II E 35: igidmis al [p qaanďa ya] ďltď. üzä täri, ďduq yer sub, [äčim qa] an qutď taplamadď ärinč" [The Tokuz-Oguz] rebelled [that is diverged] against the heroic kagan, who feeds them. Above the heavens, [below] the area [that is the earth and the waters], and the holy luck [qut] of my uncle the kagan [Qapan (691-716)] are indeed not happy about this".

Ib.: toquz ouz bodun yerin subin ďdďp tabačaru bardď "The Tokuz-Oguz confederation having left [actually having sent] the area, moved towards China".

We can decipher the meaning of these passages from the Scythian logos of Herodot. The Kimmer aristocracy that was beset by the Scythians was unwilling to leave the area, because by doing so they would have lost its blessing too. The text (IV/11) is cited below: "According to the traditions, the land now inhabited by Scythians used to be owned by the Kimmers. On hearing about the invasion of the Scythians - since a great army of the enemy was approaching - they held a council where opinions differed; both parties held steadfast to their opinion, but that of the kings was the more correct. The people thought that they should move and not take risks against heavy odds. However the kings thought that they should fight for the land with the invaders. Neither the people wanted to give in to the kings, nor the kings to the people. The people decided to move on and give over their land to the invaders without a fight. But the kings decided to meet their fate and have their resting place in their own country rather than escape with the people, as they have considered what great benefits this land had given them and what evils would await them, if they left their land. [...] As they reached two decisions, they were divided into two equal parties and began to fight each other and fought until they were killed by each other. The rest of the Kimmers buried them at the river Tyras (Dnester) (their burial mound can still be seen), then following the burial they left the country, while the Scythians moved in".

The documentary value of Theophylaktos

The work of Theophylaktos tells us about the Turk conception of the Avar kaganate. This statement is also supported by the fact that according to Boodberg the information provided by Theophylaktos on China are clearly from Turk sources (BOODBERG 1938, 231). However, Károly Czeglédy drew attention to the fact that "the letter includes such material errors, that could not have originated from the Turk ruler. It is much more probable that the information included in the letter was based on the communication of those Turk envoys, who appeared in Byzantium after 568, and took the written and oral messages of the Turk kagans to the Emperor. One of these letters must have reached Theophylaktos, however not in its original form, but in a rewritten version. This could be the reason why the letter contains a mixture of the messages of various Turk kagans, while also including such Byzantine literary commonplaces that cannot have any connection with the messages of Turk rulers. Considering the other parts of the work of Theophylaktos, we can conclud that he was a meticulous author. Thus it would not be right to suppose that the letter in this form was written by him". (CZEGLÉDY 1969, 103).

We should keep in mind that Theophylaktos describes an age when Avar-Byzantine relations were the most critical, while the Turks counted as faithful allies of the Empire. Sirmium was taken by the Avars in 582 following a long siege. The fight for the limes unfolded in 584 which was followed by the full-fledged Balkan war (592-602) lead by urice (582-602). This lead to the military rebellion resulting in the dethroning of the emperor, the usurpation by Phokas (602-610) and the collapse of the Justinian restoration. The great rebellion of the Tieh-lę tribes (that is the Ogurs identified as "pseudo-Avars" in the west) of the Turk kaganate about to be divided broke out shortly after 600. At the same time the Avars came to rule the western frontiers of the Eurasian plain. Thus it is most probable that the Theophylaktos work - who was a member of the circle formed around Heracleus and an enemy of Phokas - written about 629 and motivated by a commitment to the policies of Maurice and Heracleius, would want to conceal the legitimacy of the Avar kaganate more than anything else. Emphasising the legitimacy of the (western) Turks in alliance with Byzantium was a great argument against the Avars who forced Byzantium into a life or death struggle during the time of Heracleios by sieging the City in alliance with the Persians in 615/16, and by themselves in 626. The Turks and the Kazars in their footsteps counted as allies of Heracleios without whom the 627/28 campaign in Mesopotamia would have been impossible. What Theophylaktos, whose text fits in line with the descriptions of the 596 Byzantine counter offensive (HAUSSIG 1953, 299-300.) did was that he took the Turk arguments originally directed against the Avar-Byzantine alliance, and the Byzantine acknowledgement of the Avar kaganate and appropriated it to the contemporary needs of Byzantium.

And thus we have reached the bottom of the matter. The first phase of the Turk-Byzantine discussions at the end of the 6th century (the diplomatic mission of Valentianos, and the letter cited by Theophylaktos) was concerned about the legitimacy of holding the title of kagan, into which the memories of the 5th century movement of the Hephtalites (Varchonites) was incorporated. The second phase of the discussions - taking place in the 7th century - demonstrates how Byzantium took advantage of the Turk arguments.

Boodberg, P.A.: Marginalia to the Histories of the Northern Dynasties I: Theophylactus Simocatta on China, HJAS III (1938) pp. 223-243.

Excerpta de legationibus, ed. C. DE BOOR, I-II, Berolini MCMIII.

Czeglédy K.: IV.-IX. századi népmozgalmak a steppén, Budapest 1954. (A Magyar nyelvtudományi Társaság Kiadványai 84).

Czeglédy K.: Nomád népek vándorlása Napkelettől Napnyugatig (Kőrösi Csoma Kiskönyvtár 8), Budapest 1969.

Czeglédy Károly: Szakrális királyság a steppei népeknél (a kazároknál és a magyaroknál) Magyar Nyelv LXX (1974) pp. 11-17.

Dobrovits M.: Az apar népnév és az avar kérdés az orchoni feliratokon, in: Márton Alfréd (szerk.): A kelet-európai stppe és a Kárpát-medence történeti kapcsolata az 5-12. Században , Budapest 2001, 86-105.

Erdélyi István: Az avarság és a kelet a régészeti források tükrében, Budapest 1982

Farkas Csaba:Megjegyzések a bizánci-türk kapcsolatok történetéhez, előadás, a "Nomád népvándorlások, magyar honfoglalás" c. konferencián, Szeged 2000. február 8-9.

Harmatta János: Az onogur vándorlás, Magyar Nyelv LXXXVII (1992), pp. 257-272.

Haussig, H.W.: Theophylakts Exkurs über die skythischen Völker, Byzantion XXIII (1953) pp. 275-462.

Haussig, H.W.: Die Quellen über die zentralasiatische Herkunft der europäischen Awaren Central Asiatic Journal II. (1957).

Olajos, Th.: Les sources de Théophylacte Simocatta historien, Budapest 1988.

Ostrogorski, G.: Geschichte des Byzantinischen Staates München 1940

SINOR 1946-1947
Sinor, D.: Atour d'une migration des peuples au Ve si č cle, Journal Asiatique 1946-47.

Szádeczky-Kardoss Samu: Az avar történelem bizánci forrásai (Magyar őstörténeti Könyvtár 5) Szeged 1992.

Theophylacti Simocattae Historiae (ed. de Boor/Wirth) Stuttgart 1972.

Vékony Gábor: Az "ál-avarok", in: Gregor Ferenc-Nyomárkay István (szerk.) Szlavisztikai Tanulmányok (Budapest 1987), pp. 397-413.

* Research fellow, Univ. of Szeged, Dept. of Medieval History

1 Farkas, Csaba, Megjegyzések a bizánci-türk kapcsolatok történetéhez (Notes on the History of Byzantine-Turkic Relations). Lecture delivered at the conference entitled : "Nomad népvándorlások, magyar honfoglalás" (Nomad Migration, Hungarian Conquest), Szeged, 8-9. February, 2000.

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