The (Eastern) Roman Empire and its northern neighbours (Alans, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Avars, Turks)

By Dr Charles Kadlec, Professor of Slavonic Law at the Charles University of Prague.

“While the Germans impressed their characteristic stamp on both the medieval and modern history of Western Europe, it was reserved for the Eastern Slavs, the Russians, to build a great empire on the borderlands of Europe and Asia. But the work of civilisation was far more difficult for the Russians than for the German race. The barbaric Germans settled in regions of an old civilisation among the conquered Romans and Romanised peoples, whereas the geographical and ethnical surroundings entered by the Eastern Slavs were unfavourable, in so far as no old inheritance existed there to further any endeavours in civilisation; this had to be built up from the very foundations. Boundless forests, vast lakes and swamps, were great obstacles to the colonisation of the immense plain of eastern Europe, and the long stretch of steppes in southern Russia was for many centuries the home of Asiatic nomads, who not only made any intercourse with Greek civilisation impossible but even endangered incessantly the results of the native progress of the Russian Slavs.


The growth of the Russian empire implies not only the extension of the area of its civilisation but also the absorption of many elements belonging to foreign races and speaking foreign tongues, and their coalescence with the dominant Russian nation.

It was only the southernmost parts of the later Russian empire that had from time immemorial active connexions with the several centres of ancient Greek civilisation. In the course of the seventh century B.C. numerous Greek colonies were founded on the northern shore of the Black Sea, such as Tyras, Olbia, Chersonesus, Theodosia, Panticapaeum (now Kerch), and Tanais. These towns were the intermediaries of the commerce between the barbaric peoples of what is now Russia and the civilised towns of Greece. They were at the same time centres of Greek civilisation, which they spread among their nearest neighbours who inhabited the southern steppes of Russia and were known in history first under the name of Scythians and then of Sarmatians. Of what race these peoples were, is not clearly established.

Alans, Goths, and Huns

The ancient historians mention several tribes who lived to the north and north-west of the Scythians and Sarmatians, and were in all probability Slavs or Finns.


The Scythian and Sarmatian nomads were a continuous danger to the security of the Greek colonies; they extorted from them regular yearly tributes. Still the chief towns to the north of the Black Sea did succeed though with difficulty in maintaining their existence during the whole period of the Scythian and Sarmatian dominion. These towns in course of time exchanged Greek independence for a Roman protectorate.

After the Sarmatians there appeared new enemies of the Greek colonies along the northern littoral of the Black Sea. Already in the first century of our era the name of the Sarmatians is superseded by that of Alans, which new generic name, according to the explanation of ancient historians, comprehends several nomadic races, mainly Iranian.


In the second and third centuries a.d. new immigrants poured in to the northern shores of the Black Sea. The western part of the steppes was occupied by German races, especially by the Goths, the eastern part by Asiatic Huns. The Goths remained more than two centuries in the steppes of southern Russia and the lands bordering the Black Sea, whence they made incursions into the Roman Empire. By the inroad of overwhelming masses of the Huns the Gothic state was subverted in a.d. 375, and the Goths disappeared slowly from the borders of the Black Sea. Only a small part of them remained, some in the Caucasus and others till much later in the Crimea. The other Goths acquired new homes in other lands of Europe. Of the Greek colonies on the north of the Black Sea only those in the Crimea outlived the Gothic period.


With the expansion of the power of the Huns a new period begins in the history of Eastern and Central Europe. Hitherto Asia sent its nomads only as far as the steppes of southern Russia. The Huns are the first nomads who by their conquests extend Asia to the lands on the central Danube. Like a violent tempest their hordes not only swept over the south Russian steppes but also penetrated to Roman Pannonia, where Attila, their king, in the first half of the fifth century founded the centre of his gigantic but short-lived empire. After Attila’s death his empire fell to pieces, and the Huns disappeared almost entirely among the neighbouring nations. Only a small part fled to the Black Sea, where they encountered the hordes of the nomadic Bulgars, a people in all probability of Finnish (Ugrian) origin, but mixed with Turkish elements.


The Bulgars were originally settled in the lands between the rivers Kama and Volga, where even later the so-called Kama and Volga Bulgars are found, but part of them moved at an unknown time to the south-west, and when the Huns had migrated to Pannonia came to the Black Sea, where they appear already in the second half of the fifth century. Before they arrived there they had lived under so strong a Turkish influence that they could easily blend with the remnants of the Huns. The Greek authors of the sixth century especially mention in these regions two Bulgarian tribes, the Kutrigurs or Kuturgurs and the Utigurs or Utrigurs. The Kutrigurs roamed as nomads on the right bank of the Don to the west, the Utigurs from the Don to the south, eastwards of the Sea of Azov. After the departure of the other Bulgarian hordes in the second half of the seventh century only the Utigurs remained in the lands near the Black Sea; they are later known as the Black Bulgars.


Like other barbarians the hordes of the Bulgars were an unceasing source of trouble to the Eastern Roman Empire. Justinian was forced to pay a yearly tribute to the Kutrigurs. But, as even this subsidy did not restrain them from frequent invasions, he made use of the common Byzantine policy, bribing the Utigurs to be their enemies.

The Utigurs violently attacked the Greek colonies situated on both shores of the Cimmerian Bosphorus. Panticapaeum, better known to the Byzantine authors as Bosphorus, resisted only a short time, and finally had to acknowledge the Utigurs’ supremacy in order to save some sort of autonomy. In 522, during Justinian I’s reign, Bosphorus had a Greek garrison.

Avars and Turks

Immediately after the Huns other nomads from Asia thronged to Europe. They were part of a people named by the Chinese Yuan-Yuan but calling themselves Yu-kue-lii, who in Europe became known by the name of Avars. This nation appeared in the territory of the empire of the T’o-pa, founded by a secession from the Chinese Empire.


The empire of the T’o-pa was short-lived. The Yuan-Yuan revolted against their masters and founded on a part of their territory a separate state, for a time under the supremacy of the T’o-pa, but in the second half of the fourth century they rose to such power that they tried to gain their independence. They succeeded in this endeavour under their chief Shelun (402-410), who assumed the title of Khagan. From that time down to the sixth century the Yuan-Yuan became the foremost people in Central Asia. They ruled over Eastern Turkestan, and over the present territories of Mongolia and Manchuria as far as Korea. But from the end of the fifth century the empire of the Yuan-Yuan was
already in decline.

The subdued races took advantage of this weakness and endeavoured to shake off their yoke. The Chinese call these hordes T’u-kiie, the nearest they could get to Turks. The Chinese knew of a long series of Turkish hordes and counted them among their tributary tribes. Some of these hordes were also under the dominion of the Huns. In the middle of the sixth century the half mythical chieftain T’u-men united the numerous Turkish tribes and rose to the leadership of the whole Turkish nation in northern and central Asia, whereupon the Turks allied themselves with the T’o-pa against the Yuan-Yuan. These succumbed, their Khagan A-na-kuei (Anagay) in 552 committed suicide, and their empire came to an end.

That part of the Turks which formerly was under the dominion of the Yuan-Yuan remained in their homes and acknowledged the supremacy of T’u-men, but the other part migrated to the west into the steppes of southern Russia and further into Pannonia. These new nomadic hordes appear in Europe under the name of Avars. But according to Theophylact Simocatta the European Avars were not the genuine Avars but Pseudo-avars. In any case they, like the other Asiatic nomads, were not an ethnically pure race but a mixed people.

During the migration the number of the Avars increased considerably, since other tribes, kindred as well as foreign, joined them, and among these was also a part of the Bulgars. Soon after their arrival in Europe in 558 the Avars encountered the Eastern Slavs, called Antae in the ancient histories, the ancestors of the later South. Russian Slavonic races. The Avars repeatedly invaded the lands of the Antae, devastating the country, dragging away the inhabitants as prisoners, and carrying with them great spoils.

A few years later, in 568, they appear in Pannonia, which they selected as the centre of their extensive dominion, and where they roamed for two centuries and a half. From there they made their predatory incursions into the neighbouring lands, especially into the Balkan peninsula, often in company with the Slavs. The worst period of these devastations by the Avars lasted no longer than about sixty years, for they soon experienced several disasters. From the western Slavonic lands they had been driven by Samo, the founder of the first great Slavonic empire (623-658), and in the East the Bulgarian ruler Kovrat, who was in friendly relations with the Greeks, shook off their yoke. After 626, when the Avars beleaguered Constantinople in vain, the Balkan peninsula remained unmolested by their inroads, their last hostile incursion being the aid they gave to the Slavs in their attack on Thessalonica. Moreover there began in their dominion internal disorders which were in all probability the principal cause of the downfall of their power. In 631 there arose a severe conflict between the genuine Avars and their allied Bulgarian horde, because the chieftain of the Bulgarians had the courage to compete with an Avar for the throne. A fight arose between the two contending parties, which resulted in the victory of the Avars. The vanquished Bulgarian and 9000 of his followers with their families were driven from Pannonia.”


[Source: “The Cambridge Medieval History“, planned by J. B. Bury, M.A., F.B.A.
Regius Professor of Modern History – Edited by J. R. Tanner, Litt.D., C. W. Previte-Orton, M.A., Z. N. Brooke, M.A., Volume IV – The Eastern Roman Empire (717— 1453), 1923]

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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