Magyars Invade Italy, Saxony, and Bavaria

The Magyar invasions of Italy, Saxony, and Bavaria introduced a new ethnic element into the Central European population. Eighty years after the Magyar incursions, a Central Asian ethnic presence was firmly established in the heart of Europe, altering the ethnic mix of the European continent.

Summary of Event

The origin of the Magyars is obscure and half-legendary. Yet historians have surmised that the Magyars were originally a Finno-Ugric people, related to the Finns, the Estonians, and the Mordvinians. These peoples tended to be sedentary forest-dwellers. Sometime in the earlier centuries of the first millennium, the Magyars abandoned their sedentary way of life and adopted the nomadic habits of the Turks and other Altaic peoples of the steppes. It was at this time that they were given the name “On-Ogur” or “ten tribes,” which later was corrupted by Europeans into “Hungarian” even though they always called themselves “Magyars” and continued to do so. [kw]Magyars Invade Italy, Saxony, and Bavaria (890’)
[kw]Italy, Saxony, and Bavaria, Magyars Invade (890’)
[kw]Saxony, and Bavaria, Magyars Invade Italy
[kw]Bavaria, Magyars Invade Italy, Saxony, and (890’)
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Italy;890’: Magyars Invade Italy, Saxony, and Bavaria[1060]
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Cultural and intellectual history;890’: Magyars Invade Italy, Saxony, and Bavaria[1060]
Expansion and land acquisition;890’: Magyars Invade Italy, Saxony, and Bavaria[1060]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;890’: Magyars Invade Italy, Saxony, and Bavaria[1060]
Lambert of Spoleto

In this era, the steppes were in constant turmoil, and nomads constantly invaded westward toward Europe in search of food and territory. The most famous of these incursions was by the Huns in the mid-fifth century. Although Hungarian tradition sees the Huns as ancestors of the Hungarians, and although the famous Hunnish name Attila is a popular Hungarian given name, there is no evidence that the Huns were anything more than collateral relatives of the Magyars.

After the Huns, steppe people such as the Avars Avars and Bulgars Bulgars continued to pour into central Europe. Whereas the Bulgars occupied a corner of southeastern Europe and settled there permanently, the Avars, although amassing a large realm that included what is now Hungary and that posed a threat to the Byzantine Empire in the seventh century, never jelled into a sovereign nation-state. The Avar realm soon collapsed and was replaced by the state of Great Moravia Great Moravia , the first major Slav-dominated political entity. Traditionally, historians assumed that Great Moravia was in the area of Moravia (in what is now the Czech Republic). Lately, though, some scholars have claimed that Great Moravia actually lay in portions of Serbia stretching toward the Hungarian border and that only that location explains why Great Moravia had as much to do with Byzantium as with the Latin West. This is important because the location of Great Moravia explains exactly where the lands were that the Magyars initially conquered.

At the time of the height of Great Moravia’s power, the Magyars were still living on the steppes, as vassals of the ethnically Turkish (and Jewish by religion) Khazar Khazars empire. Despite their Turkish lifestyle, the Magyars had retained their Finnish-related tongue, which enabled them to preserve their tribal identity. Because the Magyars had no written language and did not keep their own records, historical sources for the early Magyars are sparse, relying on Arabic, Greek, and Latin accounts far removed from the action. Nonetheless, a bare narrative of events can be pieced together. The Magyars left the Khazar confederation about 830 and moved westward to the Ukraine. They were just about to put down roots in this fertile breadbasket when pressed from the east by a ferocious Turkic tribe, the Pechenegs. The Pechenegs Pechenegs , who were later to establish an impermanent state on the shores of Romania and Moldova, also expelled some Khazar tribes who became attached to the Magyars in a grand federation. Recognizing the need to defend themselves against their opponents and secure a permanent home for all the tribes, the federation established a more stable leadership structure than was customary among the steppe peoples. The person chosen to lead this federation was a man named Árpád Árpád , a senior chief of the most powerful Magyar tribe.

The opportunities for the Magyars to attack central Europe had increased because of the decline of the Carolingian Empire Carolingian Empire , which had conquered the region under Charlemagne. By the 890’, the empire had been divided and subdivided into several states. The eastern, German portion was ruled by Arnulf Arnulf , who had only a peripheral connection to Carolingian ancestry and whose legitimacy was thus questioned. Arnulf lay claim to the symbolic center of the empire in Rome, but his authority was strongly challenged by Lambert of Spoleto Lambert of Spoleto , the young son of the late Italian count Guido of Spoleto, who was not a Carolingian at all but who nevertheless manifested a claim to the throne of, at least, Italy. The Magyars probably could have taken advantage of this dissension to invade, but there was no need for this.

In a manner so often repeated throughout history, Arnulf willingly risked barbarians on his own soil in order to gain a temporary advantage over his opponent by asking the aid of the Magyars against Lambert. The Magyars swept into the central European plain in 892 and completely conquered Great Moravia, which had been attacking Arnulf on his east just as he was trying to subjugate Lambert on his south. King Zwentibald Zwentibald and much of the Moravian aristocracy were killed. Árpád and the other Magyar leaders were impressed by the space and fertility of the flatlands to the west of the Carpathian range and, given the presence of the Pechenegs on the Black Sea coast, decided to move the entire Magyar people there in 895 now that there was a vacuum after the end of the Moravian state. Arnulf was too busy with his other problems to prevent this.

The Magyars did not become vassals of Germany; they did not convert to Christianity or adopt Latin institutions. All this was to come later. Indeed, for several decades thereafter the Magyars lived and behaved like traditional steppe warriors, launching swift and massive invasions of Italy, Germany, France, and Serbia (often, as in the case of Arnulf, at the behest of embattled rulers of these countries who required aid) during which they captured booty and then quickly withdrew. A German attempt to conquer the Magyars was handily rebuffed at a battle near Bratislava in 907.


For Western Europeans, the Magyars represented as much of a problem as the ubiquitous Viking raids taking place at the same time, as is evidenced by the apparent derivation of the word “ogre” from “On-Ogur.” A new wave of terrible barbarian invasions seemed set to undermine Carolingian culture much as late Roman culture had been disjointed by the Germanic tribes centuries before.

Yet what happened to the Magyars turned out to be different. Whereas the Huns, for instance, had amassed a large territory during the lifetime of Attila only to see it totally collapse with his death, the Magyars settled a more compact, easily cultivated territory in which they established a permanent stake and identity. Instead of merely subjugating the Slavic populace that remained from Great Moravia, the Magyars integrated the Slavs into their tribal structure and, to some extent, assimilated them. This was symbolized by the marriage of Árpád’s son Zolta to a Moravian princess in 904.

A stabilizing secondary element in the ethnic mix were the Szekelers, a people related to the Avars who occupied a small but defined role in the Magyar realm. Historians are unsure whether the Szekelers had been part of the original Avar state or traveled in with the Magyars from the steppes.

Further Reading

  • Barraclough, Geoffrey. The Crucible of Europe: The Ninth and Tenth Centuries in European History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. A general history of the period that places some emphasis on the Magyar invasion.
  • Bobula, Ida Miriam. Origin of the Hungarian Nation. Gainesville, Fla.: Danubian Research and Information Center, 1966. A speculative account heavily influenced by Hungarian nationalism, but has useful background information.
  • Bowlus, Charles R. Franks, Moravians, and Magyars: The Struggle for the Middle Danube, 788-907. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. Controversial in its contention that Great Moravia was actually located in modern Serbia and a lightning rod for renewed debate about early Magyar history.
  • Kosztolnyik, Z. J. Hungary Under the Early Árpáds, 890’s to 1063. Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs, 2002. A historical survey of the House of Árpád. Discusses the early years of the Magyars, their migrations and settlement patterns, military campaigns, and more. Genealogical tables, maps, bibliography, index.
  • Lázár, István. Hungary: A Brief History. Translated by Albert Tezla. 6th ed. Budapest: Corvina Press, 2001. Presents a brief but concise history of Hungary, from its beginnings during the days of Árpád through the present day. Maps, index.
  • Lendavi, Paul. The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat. Translated by Ann Major. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. Comprehensively traces the history of the Hungarians from the Magyars’s entry into the Carpathian region in the 890’s to the end of the Cold War in the late twentieth century. Includes a summary, maps, chronology, bibliography, and an index.
  • McCartney, C. A. The Magyars in the Ninth Century. London: Cambridge University Press, 1968. Exhaustively detailed, scholarly account that is quite reliable and informative.
  • Riché, Pierre. The Carolingians. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Useful on the roles of Arnulf and Lambert in the events of the 890’.
  • Róna-Tas, András. Hungarians and Europe in the Early Middle Ages: An Introduction to Early Hungarian History. New York: Central European University Press, 1999. A comprehensive survey of the history of Hungary and a good introduction for general readers unfamiliar with the region. Maps, extensive bibliography, index.
  • Sugar, Peter F., ed. A History of Hungary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. A readable and reliable account that is good for an elementary overview of Hungarian history.