A New Look at Byzantium’s Northwestern Neighbors in the Tenth Century (Bulgaria, the Magyars, and Greeks in Byzantine and Hungarian Sources)

Ian S. R. Mladjov (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)


                The tenth century witnessed notable changes in the political geography of southeastern Europe and what became, in Obolensky’s words, the Byzantine Commonwealth.  A key feature of these transformations was the migration of the Magyars from their previous home in what is now Ukraine to their modern homeland.  This event is reflected in several contemporary western and Byzantine sources, as well as in later Hungarian chronicles, namely the Anonymi Gesta Hungarorum, Simon of Kéza’s Gesta Hunnorum et Hungarorum and the Vienna Illuminated Chronicle.  Modern historians tend to agree that the Hungarian migration across what is now Romania deprived the Bulgarian Empire of its transdanubian provinces and resulted in the virtually immediate establishment of Hungary as a unified political unit within its traditional medieval frontiers.  In many ways the Hungarian and Byzantine sources seem to support such an interpretation, but the information contained in them simultaneously poses serious obstacles to arriving at such a conclusion.


                Several statements of the Gesta Hungarorum that have been disregarded as historical evidence because they simply do not fit within western scholars’ conception of events need to be reconsidered, in particular the author’s repeated identification of the Magyars’ rivals in the Carpathian Basin as Bulgarians and ‘Greeks.’  As many of the events in the Gesta have been shown by Györffy to have occurred circa 1000 rather than circa 900, further analysis of the chronicle’s evidence would imply that the Carpathian Basin remained at least partly under Bulgarian control until the year 1000.  This conclusion is supported by Constantine Porphyrogenitus’ De Administrando Imperio, written in the middle of the tenth century.  The Byzantine  emperor’s account of his neighbors’ geographical placement exhibits contradictions that can be solved only by supposing a condominium between Bulgarians and Magyars in the Carpathian Basin and along the Tisza.  The present essay, drawing on the relevant primary sources and important secondary works, explores the status of the Carpathian Basin 900-1000 and agrees with a conclusion that Bulgarian nominal control in the region survived until 1000.


                Apart from correcting a misperception of the political geography of the region, and agreeing with recent Bulgarian scholarship’s argument that transdanubian Bulgaria endured for a century after the Magyar migration, this examination of the sources offers a new picture of tenth-century southeastern Europe.  The apparent Bulgaro-Magyar symbiotic settlement in the Carpathian Basin must account for much of the Byzantine cultural influence in that region.  Furthermore, the proposed arrangement offers a new understanding of the administrative structure of Bulgaria and of the power relations within the nascent Magyar state.  The apparent foedus-like arrangement in the Carpathian Basin may reflect a tradition going back to the fourth- and fifth-century Roman Empire, and in particular to the practices of the government at Constantinople.  On the other hand, the apparent willingness of some Magyar population and leaders to settle under nominal Bulgarian control and the need for them to be subjugated by the Arpadian monarchy after 1000 may reveal yet another dimension to the prolonged struggle between the Arpadians and other Magyar chieftains.