Charlemagne And The Avars by Charles Morris

Story type: Literature

Striking is the story which the early centuries of modern Europe have to
tell us. After the era of the busy building of empire in which the
sturdy old Romans were the active agents, there came an era of the
overthrow of empire, during which the vast results of centuries of
active civilization seemed about to sink and be lost in the seething
whirlpool of barbarism. The wild hordes of the north of Europe
overflowed the rich cities and smiling plains of the south, and left
ruin where they found wealth and splendor. Later, the half-savage
nomades of eastern Europe and northern Asia–the devastating
Huns–poured out upon the budding kingdoms which had succeeded the
mighty empire of Rome, and threatened to trample under foot all that was
left of the work of long preceding ages. Civilization had swung downward
into barbarism; was barbarism to swing downward into savagery, and man
return to his primitive state?

Against such a conceivable fate of Europe Charlemagne served as a mighty
bulwark, and built by his genius an impermeable wall against the torrent
of savage invasion, saying to its inflowing waves, “Thus far shalt thou
come, and no farther.” Attila, the “Scourge of God,” in the track of
whose horses’ hoofs “no grass could grow,” met his only great defeat at
Chalons-sur-Marne, on the soil of Gaul. He died in Hungary; his hordes
were scattered; Europe again began to breathe. But not long had the Huns
of Attila ceased their devastations when another tribe of Hunnish origin
appeared, and began a like career of ravage and ruin. These called
themselves Avars. Small in numbers at first, they grew by vanquishing
and amalgamating other tribes of Huns until they became the terror and
threatened to become the masters of Europe. Hungary, the centre of
Attila’s great circle of power, was made their place of abode. Here was
the palace and stronghold of their monarchs, the Chagans, and here they
continued a threat to all the surrounding nations, while enjoying the
vast spoils which they had wrung from ruined peoples.

Time passed on; civilization showed feeble signs of recovery; France and
Italy became its abiding-places; but barbarian invasion still threatened
these lands, and no security could be felt while the hordes of the north
and east remained free to move at will. This was the task that
Charlemagne was born to perform. Before his day the Huns of the east,
the Saxons of the north, the Moors of the south kept the growing
civilization of France in constant alarm. After his day aggression by
land was at an end; only by sea could the north invade the south.

The record of the deeds of Charlemagne is a long one. The Saxons were
conquered and incorporated into the kingdom of the Franks. Then
collision with the Avars took place. The story of how Charlemagne dealt
with these savage hordes is one of the most interesting episodes in the
extended tale of his wars, and we therefore select it for our present
theme. The Avars had long been quiet, but now again began to stir,
making two invasions, one of Lombardy, the other of Bavaria. Both were
repelled. Stung by defeat, they raised a greater army than before, and
in 788 crossed the Danube, determined in their savage souls to teach
these proud Franks a lesson, and write on their land in blood the old
story of the prowess and invincibility of the Huns. To their alarm and
astonishment they found themselves not only checked, but utterly routed,
thousands of them being left dead upon the field, and other thousands
swallowed up by the Danube, in their wild effort to swim that swollen

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This brings us to the record of the dealings of Charlemagne with the
Huns, who had thus dared to invade his far-extending kingdom. Vast had
been the work of this mighty monarch in subduing the unquiet realms
around him. Italy had been made a part of his dominions, Spain invaded
and quieted, and the Saxons, the fiercest people of the north, forced to
submit to the power of the Franks. Now the Avars of Hungary, the most
dangerous of the remaining neighbors of Charlemagne’s great empire, were
to be dealt with.

During the two years succeeding their defeat, overtures for peace
passed between the Avars and Charlemagne, overtures which, perhaps, had
their chief purpose in the desire to gain time to prepare for war.

These nomadic hordes were celebrated alike for their cunning and their
arrogance,–cunning when they had an object to gain, arrogance when they
had gained it. In their dealings with Charlemagne they displayed the
same mixture of artfulness and insolence which they had employed in
their dealings with the empire of the East. But they had now to do with
a different man from the weak emperors of Constantinople. Charlemagne
continued his negotiations, but prepared for hostilities, and in the
spring of 791 put himself at the head of a powerful army, prepared to
repay the barbarian hordes with some of the havoc which they had dealt
out to the other nations of Europe.

It was no light task he had undertaken, and the great general made ready
for it with the utmost care and deliberation. He was about to invade a
country of great resources, of remarkable natural and artificial
defences, and inhabited by a people celebrated for their fierceness and
impetuosity, and who had hitherto known little besides victory. And he
was to leave behind him in his march a kingdom full of unquiet elements,
which needed the presence of his strong arm and quick mind to keep it in
subjection. He knew not but that the Saxons might rise upon his march
and spread ruin upon his path. There was one way to avoid this, and that
he took. Years before, he had incorporated the Lombards with his army,
and found them to fight as valiantly for him as against him. He now did
the same with the Saxons, drafting a large body of them into his ranks,
with the double purpose of weakening the fighting power of the nation,
and employing their fierce courage in his own service. All winter the
world of the Franks was in commotion, preparing for war. The chroniclers
of the times speak of “innumerable multitudes” which the great conqueror
set in motion in the early spring.

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The army marched in three grand divisions. One entered Bavaria, joined
to itself recruits raised in that country, and descended the Danube in
boats, which carried also an abundance of provisions and military
stores. A second division, under Charlemagne himself, marched along the
southern side of the river; and a third, under his generals Theoderic
and Meginfried, along its northern banks. The emperor had besides sent
orders to his son Pepin, king of Italy, bidding him to lead an army of
Lombards and other Italians to the frontier of Hungary, and co-operate
with the other troops.

Before telling the story of the expedition, it behooves us to give some
account of the country which the king of the Franks was about to invade,
and particularly to describe the extraordinary defences and interior
conditions with which it is credited by the gossipy old Monk of St.
Gall, the most entertaining, though hardly the most credible, writer of
that period. All authors admit that the country of the Avars was
defended by an ingenious and singular system of fortifications. The
account we propose to give, the Monk of St. Gall declares that he wrote
down from the words of an eye-witness, Adelbart by name, who took part
in the expedition. But one cannot help thinking that either this
eye-witness mingled a strong infusion of imagination with his vision, or
that the monk added fiction to his facts, with the laudable purpose of
making an attractive story. Such as it is, we give it, without further

Nine concentric circles of palisaded walls, says the garrulous old monk,
surrounded the country of the Avars, the outer one enclosing the entire
realm of Hungary, the inner ones growing successively smaller, the
innermost being the central fortification within which dwelt the Chagan,
with his palace and his treasures. These walls were made of double rows
of palisades of oak, beech, and pine logs, twenty feet high and twenty
feet asunder, the interval between them being filled with stone and
lime. Thus was formed a great wall, which at a distance must have
presented a singular appearance, since the top was covered with soil and
planted with bushes and trees.

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The outermost wall surrounded the whole country. Within it, at a
distance of twenty Teutonic, or forty Italian, miles, was a second, of
smaller diameter, but constructed in the same manner. At an equal
distance inward was a third, and thus they continued inward, fortress
after fortress, to the number of nine, the outer one rivalling the
Chinese wall in extent, the inner one–the ring, as it was
called–being of small diameter, and enclosing a central space within
which the Avars guarded the accumulated wealth of centuries of conquest
and plunder.

The only places of exit from these great palisaded fortifications were
very narrow gates, or sally-ports, opening at proper intervals, and well
guarded by armed sentinels. The space between the successive ramparts
was a well-wooded and thickly-settled country, filled with villages and
homesteads, so close together that the sound of a trumpet could be heard
from one to the other, and thus an alarm from the exterior be conveyed
with remarkable rapidity throughout the whole land.

This and more the veracious Monk of St. Gall tells us. As to believing
him, that is quite another matter. Sufficient is told by other writers
to convince us that the country was guarded by strong and singular
defences, but the nine concentric circles of breastworks, surpassing the
Chinese wall in length and size, the reader is quite privileged to

Certainly the defences failed to check the advance of the army of
Charlemagne. Though he had begun his march in the spring, so extensive
were his preparations that it was September before he reached the banks
of the river Enns, the border line between Bavaria and Hungary. Here the
army encamped for three days, engaged in prayers for victory, and here
encouraging news came to Charlemagne. His son Pepin, with the Duke of
Friuli, had already invaded Hungary, met an army of the Avars, and
defeated it with great slaughter. The news of this success must have
invigorated the army under Charlemagne. Breaking camp, they invaded the
country of the Avars, advancing with the usual impetuosity of their
great leader. One after another the Hungarian lines of defence were
taken, until three had fallen, while the country between them was laid
waste. No army appeared in the path of the invaders; sword in hand,
Charlemagne assailed and broke through the strong walls of his foes;
soon he reached the river Raab, which he followed to its junction with
the Danube.

Until now all had promised complete success. Those frightful Huns, who
had so long kept Europe in terror, seemed about to be subdued and made
subjects of the great monarch of the Franks. But, through that fatality
which so often ruins the best-laid plans of men, Charlemagne suddenly
found himself in a perilous and critical situation. His army was
composed almost wholly of cavalry. As he lay encamped by the Danube, a
deadly pestilence attacked the horses, and swept them off with such
rapidity that a hasty retreat became necessary. Nine-tenths of the
horses had perished before the retiring army reached Bavaria. Good
fortune, however, attended the retreat. Had the Avars recovered from the
panic into which their successive defeats had thrown them, they might
have taken a disastrous revenge upon the invaders. But as it was,
Charlemagne succeeded in retiring without being attacked, and was able
to take with him the valuable booty and the host of prisoners which were
the trophies of his victorious progress.

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He fully intended to return and complete the conquest of Hungary in the
spring, and, to facilitate his advance, had a bridge of boats
constructed, during the winter, across the Danube. He never returned, as
it happened. Circumstances hindered. But in 794 his subject, the
margrave Eric, Duke of Friuli, again invaded Hungary, which had in the
interval been exhausted by civil wars. All the defences of the Avars
went down before him, and his victorious troops penetrated to that inner
fortress, called the Ring, which so long had been the boasted
stronghold of the Chagans, and within whose confines were gathered the
vast treasures which the conquering hordes had accumulated during
centuries of victory and plunder, together with the great wealth in gold
and silver coin which they had wrung by way of tribute from the weak
rulers of the Eastern Empire. A conception of the extent of this spoil
may be gathered from the fact that the Greek emperor during the seventh
century paid the Avars annually as tribute eighty thousand gold solidi,
and that on a single occasion the Emperor Heraclius was forced to pay
them an equal sum.

In a nation that had made any progress towards civilization this wealth
would have been distributed and perhaps dissipated. But the only use
which the half-savage Avars seem to have found for it was to store it
up as spoil. For centuries it had been accumulating within the
treasure-house of the Ring, in convenient form to be seized and borne
away by the conquering army which now broke into this long-defiant
stronghold. The great bulk of this wealth, consisting of gold and silver
coin, vessels of the precious metals, garments of great value, rich
weapons and ornaments, jewels of priceless worth, and innumerable other
articles, was taken to Aix-la-Chapelle, and laid at the feet of
Charlemagne, to be disposed of as he saw fit. So extensive was it, that,
as we are told, fifteen wagons, each drawn by four oxen, were needed to
convey it to the capital of the mighty emperor.

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Charlemagne dealt with it in a very different manner from that pursued
by the monarchs of the Avars. He distributed it with a liberal hand, the
church receiving valuable donations, including some of the most splendid
objects, a large share being set aside for the pope, and most of the
balance being given to the poor and to the royal officers, nobles, and
soldiers. The amount thus divided was so great that, as we are told, the
nation of the Franks “became rich, whereas they had been poor before.”
That treasure which the barbarian invaders had been centuries in
collecting from the nations of Europe was in a few months again
scattered far and wide.

Eric’s invasion was followed by one from Pepin, king of Italy, who in
his turn entered the Ring, took the wealth which Eric’s raiders had
left, demolished the palace of the Chagan, and completely destroyed the
central stronghold of the Avars. They were not, however, fully subdued.
Risings afterwards took place, invading armies were destroyed, and not
until 803 was a permanent conquest made. The Avars in the end accepted
baptism and held themselves as vassals or subjects of the great Frankish
monarch, who permitted them to retain some of their old laws and
governmental forms. At a subsequent date they were nearly exterminated
by the Moravians, and after the year 827 this once powerful people
disappear from history. Part of their realm was incorporated with
Moravia, and remained so until the incursion of the Magyars in 884.

As regards the location of the Ring, or central stronghold of the
Avars, it is believed to have been in the wide plain between the Danube
and the Theiss, the probable site being the Pusste-Sarto-Sar, on the
right of the Tatar. Traces of the wonderful circular wall, or of the
palisaded and earth-filled fortifications of the Avars, are said still
to exist in this locality. They are known as Avarian Rings, and in a
measure sustain the old stories told of them, though hardly that of the
legend-loving Monk of St. Gall and his romancing informant.

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