1: The Prehistory of the Region
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Where were Árpád's Hungarians preparing to settle?
Could it have been an uninhabited land? Unpopulated for hundreds of thousands of years,
where only plants ran wild and animals roamed freely, unmolested by man? A heated debate
about this question raged barely a century ago. It was mainly geologists who insisted that
an ice-age, diluvial man never lived in the region of the Carpathian Basin. However,
evidence from accidental finds could not long be denied; diggings that commenced crammed
the prehistoric archaeological map of the region with symbols, whether we consider the
ancient historical homeland or the territory of present-day Hungary shrunk to a fragment
by the Versailles peace treaty (Trianon) in 1920. From among these symbols on the map we
shall select only a few, without any connections among them.
At Vértesszöllös, barely a stone's throw from the M-1 highway, running between
Vienna and Budapest, is sheltered one of the oldest sites in Europe, with scattered tools,
petrified footprints, and an exact copy of the nape of a prehistoric man. He gained the
pet name "Samuel" from his excavators. He made crude tools from pebbles, he
already used fire and had fed it with fatty pieces of bone. He came here about 350 to 400
thousand years ago for several hundred generations, taking pleasure in the thermal springs
of that time, the mild microclimate of the spring basins; he belonged in the domain of
"upright man", or homo erectus. His delineator named him homo
sapiens palaeo-hungaricus on the basis of the estimated volume of his brain and his
tools. Is he, perhaps, the very first who properly fits into the classification of sapiens?
Over and above its age, the great value of the site is its completeness: it indicates
an often interrupted but very lengthy residence. The spring-water limestone preserved the
camp and hearth, heaps of tools, the bones of captured animals, and the imprints of
plants, indicating the climate. Careful analysis of the legacy layer-by-layer clearly
shows how the stockpile of tools became more advanced and better designed and formed. Here
the rapidity of man's evolution seems mathematically measurable. All this is enormously
interesting even if today much uncertainty still surrounds Samuel, who was unearthed in
1965. Uncertainty surrounds even the identity of the "owner" of the nape: is he
the one who ate in the camp or the one who was actually devoured there?
About 35 to 40 thousand years ago, the Carpathian Basin was populated by the
Neanderthal man of prehistory, with his "specialized" hunting tribes, who cannot
be included among our presumably extinct direct ancestors of a later time. At Érd, near
Budapest, his hunting specialists pursued the cave bear (thus in name only, not in its
habit), at Tata the young mammoth, likewise settling down beside hot springs, and in the
Bükk mountains around the Subalyuk cave the ibex and the chamois.
After the hardly comprehensible distance of 400 thousand and 40 thousand years, we
place the time of our next segment at 4000 years before the Christian era, or 6000 years
from today. For several reasons. On the basis of anthropological investigations, it can be
a small fragment of the original inhabitants in the Carpathian Basin assimilated by
Árpád's conquerors that by that time they had been living in this very region for four
to five thousand years, something rare in the history of a Europe diversified by many mass
migrations. A very special historical occurrence also accounts for the choice of our third
segment of time: the sudden and prolonged halt of neolithic development in our region. It
was only recently that the knowledge of the raising of food, of animal husbandry and
agriculture, coming from the Zagros mountain range and Mesopotamia, or more directly from
Asia Minor and the region of the eastern Mediterranean, had reached the Carpathian Basin,
taking hold in its soft underbelly, the southern part of the Alföld, or great Hungarian
plain. However, for a while it came to a stop here and in a section of Transylvania.
An amazing phenomenon prevailed at this time, one that had never occurred before and
would never happen again: the civilization east of the Danube was superior to the one to
its west. A part of the Alföld was the border area of the most developed center of
civilization at the time, a place where the mother culture still emanated directly from
the Mediterranean. We can say, "it was carried in by hand": in all probability,
it can be linked to a migrating population. To the west and the north, however, only an
indirect influence could be demonstrated later as well; indeed, even a counter-force
appeared in these regions.
No doubt, this line of demarcation marked by the advanced development and lasting for
many generations was due to nature and the climate. The well-watered and immensely rich
soil of the Alföld made permanent settlement and agriculture possible. Proof of this is
provided by a spectacular form of settlement, whose name also points to the Near East: the
artificial mound of settlement or tell. This is the outermost instance of this
type of settlement in Europe. When, however, the knowledge of agriculture finally spread
farther west, the clearing of forests for agricultural purposes began in Transdanubia, the
later Pannonia, i.e. the western part of modern Hungary, with the appearance of different
kinds of dwellings and villages and with frequent onward migration, because the soil was
quickly exhausted there.
Of course, the size and richness of the settlement mounds in the southern Alföld did
not equal those of the ancestral tells in the Near East. Nevertheless, it is
worth mentioning not only the numerous cultic and other material finds related to the
centers of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean but also the ruins of a two-story house from
the Neolithic Age that recent excavations in Hungary have uncovered. This was already a
neolithic "city" and not a "village".
Finally, I mention that special feature which influenced the prehistory of our region
from the Mesolithic Age to the Bronze Age with varying intensity. In addition to the
Aegean and the Caucasus, that remarkably chippable volcanic glass, obsidian, turned up in
Europe only in the Carpathian Basin, or more precisely in the region of the Eperjes-Tokaj
mountain range which today partly falls in Slovakia and in Hungary. This rare, valuable
mineral substance was, from time to time, the reason for sudden migrations or slow
infiltrations and also for powerful conflicts; in its raw form or shaped into tools, it
was the object of continual commercial exchange and brought into existence early and
advanced modes of the division of labor. Since through their trace elements the Aegean,
Caucasian, and Tokaj obsidian are today clearly separable, we can determine the connection
of the Carpathian area and Tokaj with many distant archaeological sites in Central Europe.
As is the case with amber, because of the presence of certain shells or, later, different
kinds of money, the basic trade routes for obsidian can be traced, which were
simultaneously paths for cultural expansion and exchange.
The history of the Copper, Bronze, and Iron Ages in the Carpathian Basin does not lack
for points of interest in finds whose significance extends beyond Hungary's own borders.
As a consequence of a slightly drier climate, tribes of herdsmen replaced, or rather
absorbed, the early agriculturists and keepers of animals. Long-time migration mainly from
the southeast was time and again interrupted and replaced by the more southerly movement
of peoples from the northeast and the Steppes, among them those of Iranian origin, but
migrations from the west also took place and later on actually became determinative.
During the Bronze and Iron Ages, a row of mountain centers, secured by powerful
fortifications, developed in the western reaches, and their warlike lords of various
ethnic origins brought the agriculturists in the neighboring, lower-lying areas under
their control. Meanwhile, a fraction of a mysterious people who originated in Iberia and
who made bell-shaped utensils arrived in the Carpathian Basin, bogged down in the Danube
Bend, and were assimilated by the people living there. To the despair of anthropologists,
the close tracking of the migrations and amalgamations was made difficult by the fact that
beginning with the early Bronze Age, burial by cremation became more common. The Bronze
Age also brought to the settlement hills agricultural tell-dwellers, who further
increased the height of the abandoned, long uninhabited neolithic mounds, although they
set up new ones as well. The Copper, Bronze, and Iron Ages were crammed with armed
clashes, which sometimes disturbed the surface only slightly, sometimes produced a slow
but far-reaching wave but sometimes brought about sudden, blood-soaked transformations
that set back civilization for centuries.
The prehistory of what we today call Europe closed with the Iron Age, not so much in a
geographical as in a historical and cultural sense. This half continent first entered real
history on fleet Greek legs and then with the supple strides of diverse, sandal-shod,
So let us now take a good step into the future, all the way to the time when the
location in the Neolithic Age of "civilized" and "barbarian" became
reversed. From the dividing waters of the Danube to the east and on the mountain ridges to
the north, the watch-fires of advanced guards burned: barbarian tribes looked covetously
at rich Pannonia. During a pause in a grueling military campaign conducted against the
barbarians, "on the land of the Quadi, on the bank of the [River] Garam",
somewhere across from today's Esztergom, Marcus Aurelius, the philosophical Caesar, the
last Stoic, who did not like to govern and even less to wage war, wrote his Meditations
in the flickering lamplight in his camp.
Those who gave their name to the province of Pannonia were other Pannonian tribes which
lived more to the south and were of different origin; the Roman legions penetrating into
the Carpathian Basin from the south and southwest had to subjugate mainly Celtic tribes
and make peace with them. It is surprising that the tribes of this very dynamic ethnic
group, long settled in the region and a branch of which had recently ravaged Rome, hardly
resisted the Romans. They integrated much more peacefully than the Dacians who had moved
up from the Balkans and whom the Roman legions tried to pacify in what is now Transylvania
and on the eastern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains. Thus the history and fate of the
two parts of the Carpathian Basin which became a part of the Roman Empire temporarily,
today's Transdanubia and Transylvania, which now belongs to Rumania, diverged. Between
them lay the Alföld -a wedged-in, barbarian strip where Sarmatian tribes of Iranian
origin, the Iazyges and the Roxolani, faced the Romans sometimes in open hostility,
sometimes in shaky alliance.
Roman occupation of Pannonia lasted for four whole centuries, from the years after the
birth of Christ to the beginning of the fifth century, during which, though disturbed by
barbarian incursions and smaller turbulences, the development of the Danubian limes,
the line of military defense, made excellent economic expansion possible. However, in
Dacia, to which Transylvania belonged, Rome's supremacy was much shorter, lasting from
A.D. 106 to 268 - 271, barely more than a century and a half, and severe uprisings also
frequently disturbed this period. As a matter of fact, the occupation was never total,
because individual Dacian tribes remained independent throughout in their earthen
fortifications on high mountain tops. This view runs contrary to theories that proclaim
the strong Romanization of the Dacians, the fusion of Dacian and Roman inhabitants, and
then the unbroken survival of this alleged ethnic group; and henceforth, in the future
history of Transylvania and Moldavia as well as the Wallachian plain, these theories see
nothing more than the continual battle for independence of the pre-Rumanian and Rumanian
population respectively. Actually, the evolution of the Rumanian ethnic group -its history
and locality- as well as the history of the peopling of this region, of the successive
appearance of the ethnic groups living intermingled here today, is much more complicated
than that: the first Rumanian inhabitants settled down later and at various times in
individual parts of the region over an extended period.
It is very tempting to plunge deeper into this theme at this point. The sources
available are numberless. In Hungarian archaeology, the Roman Age has always, and perhaps
excessively, stood in the foreground. Pannonia is one of the provinces about which we know
the most. And it is not merely pictures of local life that present themselves -their
colors like those of a most resplendent mosaic- but also the piquant historical
circumstance that during the later period of the caesars, Pannonia was the cradle of the
caesars. After all, because of the limes, the concentration of military might was
very great in the region. Stationed comparatively close to Rome, Pannonia's legions were
swiftly deployable against the capital to overthrow and elevate rulers. So much so
that-was "the tail wagging the dog" perhaps?-in the third century the expression
"Pannonia's world domination" was coined. Yet it was precisely the numerous
"putsches", garrison revolts, and changing "juntas" of the legions
that formed one of the reasons why, in the end, the barbarian Germanic peoples soon did
not look longingly at Pannonia and the Sarmatian Alföld and pounded directly on the gates
of Rome, instead.
The destruction that quickly followed Pannonia's period of false glory was severe but
not devastating. Although it is shocking to see the archaeologist dig up wretched huts in
the nooks of villas, palaces, and bath halls -the occasional abodes of vagrant shepherds
and agriculturists clinging, like swallows' nests, to the broad stone walls- certain signs
manifest the continuity of life. In some towns and encampments we can find the traces of
Pannonian inhabitants who did not leave their localities during the period of the great
migrations. Nor did urban life cease completely. On the edge of Budapest, the thick
encrustation deposited on the aqueduct of former Aquincum proves such long utilization
that we must conclude it was used for a long time even after Roman domination ended.
Moreover, we know about Christian bishoprics that were active in Pannonia as late as A.D.
570-580. One of them was Sabaria (today's Szombathely), where Martin was born in 316 or
317 as a pagan but into a milieu becoming Christian. This is that Martin who, following
his father's example, was first a soldier, a cavalry officer of the Guards in Italy, but
later became the Bishop of Tours and then the patron saint of the whole of Gaul (his feast
day is November 11).
In the footsteps of the progressively withdrawn Roman legion, the Huns of savage
reputation swarmed all over the region. What is more, their center was also located here
at the peak of this nomadic empire's power -very warlike but disintegrating because it was
based on a loose mixture of people- at the time of Attila, who was honored as the Scourge
of God. This center was either in the southern Alföld near Szeged, in the border area
between Hungary and Yugoslavia today, or, perhaps -collaterally as a winter and a summer
encampment?- in modern Óbuda, which is identical with the Roman Aquincum mentioned above.
This is that Sicambria which the Hun- Magyar cycle of legends describes as Attila's city.
And -again a "French Connection "- some ancient legends of Gaul record it as the
place where, in flight from a destroyed Troy and after centuries of wandering, the
ancestors of the Gauls lived for a long time and where they moved on from to Western
What more shall we say about the tumultuous time of the great migrations?
We know the route of one of the Germanic peoples frequently turning up in Pannonia with
an accuracy unusual for this period. The Langobards, cast out of the valley of the Elbe,
arrived in fairly large numbers in 546, densely populating the northern and eastern
perimeters of Pannonia along the Danube, areas not uninhabited of course. However, in 568,
they moved on to the southwest beyond the Alps almost to the last person, something
tremendously rare in this period. They founded Lombardy in Italy.
The Avars advanced into their place from the east, a people warlike and of Turkish
blood, who had grown stronger in the Eurasian steppes. A portion of them can still be
found in the Soviet Caucasus, although some deny the continuity to the Avars living there
Our Avar dilemma is entirely different. According to material finds and anthropological
data, the bloody and uneven "Avar" domination of the Carpathian Basin for three
centuries falls into two periods. The question has arisen as to whether, in contrast to
hardly any relationship with the people of the early Avars, we are not or were not
ourselves, the Hungarians, really identical to those whom anthropology calls the late
Of course, for this we have to clarify what a Hungarian is.
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