Historical Tales: 6— French - Charles Morris

Charlemagne and the Avars

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 Châlons-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 stream.

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.

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 comment.

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.

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 doubt.

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.

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.

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.