THEOPHYLACT SIMOCATTA ON THE ORIGIN OF THE AVARS



Theophylact Simocatta lived in the early seventh century, most likely in Constantinople. Born in Egypt in a family of a high-ranking civil servant, he was prefect and imperial secretary in Constantinople during the reign of Emperor Heraclius (610-641). He probably witnessed the siege of Constantinople by Avars and Persians in 626, and the desperate defense organized by Patriarch Sergius. He was a protégé of the patriarch, who encouraged him to embark on writing a history of Emperor Maurice, which Theophylact finished in 638. Theophylact's History deals with developments on the eastern front with Persia, as well as with the wars with Slavs and Avars in the Balkans. Theophylact's bombastic style is responsible for many obscurities in his work. Like most Byzantine historians, he was fond of tradition and employed archaic names to refer to describe contemporary peoples and places. Although he called the Avars by their own name, he also believed them to be “Scythians,” a phrase he apparently reserved for steppe nomads. To him, the Danube is the “Ister,” and “Europe” is not a continent (a concept totally foreign to him), but the Byzantine province by that name surrounding Constantinople, one of the few parts of the Balkans that was still in Byzantine hands by the time Theophylact wrote his History. Translated by Michael and Mary Whitby, The History of Theophylact Simocatta, An English Translation with Introduction and Notes (Oxford, 1986), pp. 188-190.


  1. 7.6-8.6. But since were have made reference to the Scythians, both those in the Caucasus and those who face northwards, come then, come, let us interrupt our history and present, like an intercalated narrative, the events which attended these very great nations during these times. When summer had arrived in this particular year, he who is celebrated by the Turks as Chagan in the east, dispatched ambassadors to the emperor Maurice; he composed a letter and inscribed in it victory-praises. The letter's salutation was as follows, word for word: 'To the king of the Romans, the Chagan, the great lord of seven races and master of seven zones of the world.' For this very Chagan had in fact outfought the leader of the nation of the Abdeli (I mean, indeed, of the Hephthalites, as they are called), conquered him, and assumed the rule of the nation. Then he was greatly elated at the victory and, making an alliance with Stembischagan, he enslaved the Avar nation. But let no one think that we are distorting the history of these times because he supposed that the Avars are those barbarians neighboring on Europe and Pannonia, and that their arrival was prior to the times of the emperor Maurice. For it is by a misnomer that the barbarians on the Ister have assumed the appellation of Avars; the origin of their race will shortly be revealed. So, when the Avars had been defeated (for we are returning to the account), some of them made their escape to those who inhabit Taugast. Taugast is a famous city, which is a total of one thousand five hundred miles distant from those who are called Turks, and which borders on the Indians. The barbarians whose abode is near Taugast are a very brave and numerous nation, and without rival in size among the nations of the world. Others of the Avars, who declined to humbler fortune because of their defeat, came to those who are called Mucri; this nation is the closest neighbor to the men of Taugast; it has great might in battle both because of its daily practice of drill and because of endurance of spirit in danger.

Then the Chagan embarked on yet another enterprise, and subdued all the Ogur, which is one of the strongest tribes on account of its large population and its armed training for war. These make their habitations in the east, by the course of the river Til, which Turks are accustomed to call Melas. The earliest leaders of this nation were named Var and Chunni; from them some parts of those nations were also accorded their nomenclature, being called Var and Chunni. Then, while the emperor Justinian was in possesssion of royal power, a small sectiion of these Var and Chunni fled from that ancestral tribe and settled in Europe. These named themselves Avars and glorified their leader with the appellation of Chagan. Let us declare, without departing in the least from the truth how the means of changing their name came to them. When the Barselt, Onogurs, Sabir, and other Hun nations in addition to these, saw that a section of those who were still Var and Chunnihad fled to their regions, they plunged into extreme panic, since they suspected that the settlers were Avars. For this reason they honoured the fugitives with splendid gifts and supposed that they received from them security in exchange. Then , after the Var and Chunnisaw the well-omened beginning to their flight, they appropriated the ambassadors' error and named themselves Avars: for among the Scythian nations that of the Avars is said to the most adept tribe. In point of fact, even up to our present times, the Pseudo-Avars (for it is more correct to refer to them thus) are divided in their ancestry, some bearing the time-honoured name of Var, while others are called Chunni.