Georgios Kardaras, Byzantium and the Avars: Political, Diplomatic, and Cultural Relations (Lucas McMahon)

Georgios Kardaras

Byzantium and the Avars: Political, Diplomatic, and Cultural Relations

(Brill, 2019) 252 pp. $192.00

When it rains, it pours. Accessing material on the Avars has been a difficult matter in the English-speaking world, with limited literary source material juxtaposed to a wide range of archaeological evidence, the latter of which is largely scattered across an array of central European languages and academic traditions. Yet in the last year two monographs have appeared. The first is an English translation and revised edition of Walter Pohl’s Die Awaren (The Avars, Cornell, 2019) and the other is the book reviewed here, Georgios Kardaras’ Byzantium and the Avars. Kardaras’ study is an updated translation of a work originally published in Greek (Το Βυζάντιο και οι Άβαροι (Στ’-Θ’ αι.) Πολιτικές, διπλωματικές και πολιτισμικές σχέσεις, National Hellenic Research Foundation) in 2010, which itself was based on the author’s University of Ioannina doctoral dissertation. Kardaras casts the net wide: he aims both to study the political relations between Byzantium and the Avars but also questions of cultural transmission and communication. This effectively divides the book in two. The first three chapters are a political and military narrative, largely following the Roman historians of the later sixth and early seventh century. The subsequent two chapters introduce the archaeological evidence and examine what can actually be said about goings-on between Byzantium and the Avars after the failed siege of Constantinople in 626 and the Avar retreat to the Hungarian Plain. The final chapter raises some much-needed skepticism about the military influence of the Avars upon their neighbours.

The introductory chapter lays out the historiography and notes that the study of the Avars has been divided into national camps. Byzantinists are not let off the hook here, as Kardaras points out that they have been guilty of ignoring the Avars the moment Byzantine sources largely cease speaking of them after 626. The introduction then goes on to deal with the hostile terminology applied towards steppe people in the written sources and concludes with a discussion of what can be known about the Avars before contact with the Roman Empire. Scattered references point to them slowly moving west, and in the mid-sixth century they appear north of the Caucasus following a defeat by the Turks.

It was north of the Caucasus in A.D. 558 that the Avars first encountered Byzantium, and this is where Kardaras begins the first chapter. These early contacts were diplomatic. The Avars had hoped to settle in the Empire, but the emperor Justin II sought to have them as clients north of the Black Sea to defend the Caucasus and Asia Minor. Little came of this, but by the late 560s the Avars appear to have increased their power substantially and they moved to the west and effectively took control of the central Danube, taking advantage of a war between the Gepids and the Lombards. Diplomatic efforts continued: the Avars were offered foederati status in Pannonia but wanted Scythia. Kardaras interprets the imperial refusal of this request as a sensible strategy. The Avars in Scythia would have placed them in a position where they could put pressure on Constantinople. These early contacts highlight a continuing theme, namely ongoing Avar efforts to receive tribute from Byzantium and place themselves into a position where they have enough leverage over the Roman state to enforce payment. It is in this context that Kardaras argues the Avars conquered Sirmium, since they made no territorial demands afterwards.

The reign of Maurice saw an active effort to deal with the Avars. While he attempted to maintain the treaty that Tiberios II had struck, this fell apart rather rapidly and by the mid-580s war had broken out again. Kardaras sees a specific Avar strategy here designed to deny the Romans the capacity to operate north of the Danube, and he notes that the situation for the Romans had become quite dire, with Slavic raids devastating the countryside and few troops available for Balkan operations. The 590s saw the situation turn slightly, with the Romans retaking Singidunum in 595 and establishing a treaty in 598 that permitted them to campaign against the Slavs north of the Danube. Kardaras argues that the Romans misjudged their strength in breaking the treaty in 599. The archaeology of the Balkans indicates a ruralization and the severing of connections between coast and centre, and so having an economically depressed region attempt to support a major campaign was a blunder on Maurice’s part.

The results of this war were inconclusive. Maurice had scored some successes against the Slavs, but renewed war with Persia following his deposition and murder and theAvar preoccupation with the west meant that the two powers were no longer focused on each other. The source base also changes here, which makes our understanding of Roman-Avar relations difficult as Theophylact Simocatta’s detailed history ended in 602 and no (near-) contemporary continued the narrative. This makes even the basic “what” of the chain of events difficult to determine, but Kardaras still makes three convincing points. Kardaras argues against the old view that the limes did not collapse rapidly bur rather was a gradual process over the decades of the 610s-620s, although noting that the major attacks of Thessaloniki and the effort to move relics out of Salona point to a difficult situation in the Balkans for the Romans. The second key argument is that the formation of Samo’s polity was not a Byzantine endeavour. The communication lines were too distant and passed through either Lombard or Avar territory, and so any sort of Roman impetus in opening a new front against the Avars is unlikely. The third and final conclusion that Kardaras comes to for the first quarter of the seventh century is that although the siege of Constantinople in 626 failed, Rome had lost control of all but the coasts in the Balkans. The damage was done, even as the Avars retreated and direct relations came to an end.

A short chapter then deals with the Avars and Byzantium after 626. Here Kardaras is mostly concerned with the few scanty references to Avars in Byzantine sources, which amount to little more than a couple of embassies and some Avars present in the army of the Bulgar khan Krum in the early ninth century. Here Kardaras may expect too much from the sources, which are notably scanty in this period. Although much later, the famous example of no one but the Picard knight Robert of Clari mentioning the Nubian king’s visit to Constantinople in 1204 during the amply-sourced Fourth Crusade stands as a point of contrast. Nonetheless, it remains difficult to say what is going on unless the sources say something, which unfortunately they do not. Most of this final historical chapter deals with the movement of the Serbs and Croats and Kubrat’s Bulgars. Kardaras argues that Constantine VII’s claim that Herakleios settled the Croats is dubious, as it is unlikely the empire had the power to do anything other than attempt to remain on good terms. In the case of Kubrat, Kardaras suggests that his polity of Greater Bulgaria in the 630s was based around the sea of Azov and thus he must have revolted from the Western Turks rather than the Avars because the Avars had no power in that region.

At this point Kardaras shifts from the historical narrative to using the archaeology of burials to explore what can be known about the next century and a half of Byzantine-Avar relations. The interest of this section is what sort of Byzantine influence can be seen. The general trend that Kardaras notes is that by the mid-seventh century a distinct Avar identity can be discerned in grave goods, but that fine pieces tend to show either Byzantine import or influence. This continues into the eighth century, although Kardaras is unsure how Byzantine influence continued to reach the Avars now that there was a wide belt of Slavic principalities and the Bulgars between them and Byzantium. He proposes that captives may have served as agents of transmission, as Kardaras dismisses most other possible communication routes. Some mediation by Slavic chiefs or Bulgars is also an option, and he proposes that another likely route was to the north through Khazar lands. It is a useful discussion of possibilities that could have used some attention directed to how Byzantine embassies circumvented or moved through potentially hostile territory, as well as a little more openness to the possibility of influence by indirect osmosis, as Byzantine goods distributed to Lombards, Khazars, and Bulgars slowly made their way to the Avars.

The final chapter discusses warfare. Here Kardaras makes a number of valuable observations as part of his main argument that the Avars may not be quite as important to the history of warfare as some have traditionally assumed. The Strategikon attributes to the Avars a number of innovations, but Kardaras notes that most of these are Persian. In other matters that the text refers to as “in the Avar manner” are likewise common to the steppe or to Persia. The curiosity here is that they may have brought the stirrup, which the Strategikon fails to credit them with. Kardaras also argues that there is no real evidence that the Avars brought any sort of tactical change to the Byzantine army. On the matter of siegecraft, Kardaras is agnostic. We cannot discount that the Avars might have brought traction trebuchet technology from China, but they also ruled over a multi-ethnic state and any number of the peoples they controlled could potentially have had some knowledge of poliorcetics.

The book is well-presented and comprehensible, and Kardaras’ choice to break the book into an interpretive narrative followed by more loosely connected essays around the general theme of Byzantium and the Avars is effective. Kardaras makes good use of a wide range of scholarship, especially that of Hungarian and Slovak scholars who wrote in German or French. Some further editing would have been beneficial, however. While not especially common, the use of the definitive article is a recurring issue. There are occasionally some odd Anglicizations, such as “Herodote” for Herodotos. With the exception of the poor quality of the reproduction of map 4, in which the legend cannot be read, the maps and figures are helpful supplements to the text.

Overall, this book is a major contribution that brings together a range of source material into a coherent narrative centered on Byzantine-Avar relations. Kardaras goes a long way towards pulling back the curtain on these mysterious steppe nomads and their interactions with the Roman Empire.

Lucas McMahon
Princeton University

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