Hungary has an unusual and sprawling history. Today it’s a rather small country located in Eastern Europe, but it was once a very large country located in Eastern Europe, and before that it simply did not exist. It’s easy to forget that Hungary only came into being both as a country and as a people many centuries after the other staples of modern-day Europe. Read on for an overview of how all that happened.
The earliest history of the Magyar or Hungarian people is difficult to pin down. Extensive linguistic studies reveal that their language originated somewhere in what is now northern central Russia around 800 BC.
The expansion of the Central Asian steppe into the grasslands on which they and other Ugric peoples raised their livestock and crops at around that time led to the adoption of a nomadic way of life.
Migration of the Hungarian people
What happened next for the Magyars is uncertain, and there is no scholarly consensus on the path that they took in their over 1500 years of semi- or fully-nomadic existence.
What is known is that by around 800 AD the Magyar people existed in significant numbers on the northern coast of the Black Sea — the southernmost part of the expansive Pontic Steppe.
Magyar origins and the first mentions of Hungarians
The first event in written history connected to the Magyars is a short-lived alliance in the 830s AD between the Magyars and the Bulgarians (of modern-day Bulgaria) against the Byzantines (Greek-ruled Eastern Roman Empire spanning modern Greece and Turkey), in which the Magyars were hired by the Bulgarians to fight Byzantine prisoners of the Bulgarians.
The Magyars were defeated and had little known interaction with the Byzantines or Bulgarians for some time after, but in the 900s AD the Byzantine emperor and scholar Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus wrote a detailed account of their activity after this event.
His account is disputed slightly by other sources from around the same time, but the overall picture is that the Magyars were a federation of 7 tribes, each represented by a single captain or “voivode” with little political power, but who was seen as a military leader in times of war. These tribes had no supreme ruler or prince.
The Magyars settled in a land named Levidia after one of their Voivodes, Levidi. It’s unknown exactly where Levidia was, but it’s thought that the Magyars controlled a fairly expansive territory centered around the mouth of the Don river.
They lived here for approximately 20 years, during which time they were close allies or subjects of the powerful Khazar Khaganate for at least three years. By the 850s the defeat of the Pecheneg tribe by the Khazars caused the former’s migration into Levidia.
The Magyars, trying to defend their territory, were defeated in turn by the Pechenegs and forced to migrate.
At this point the Magyars split into two groups. One went east, over the caucasus mountains and into Persia, where they settled. The other, led by Levidi, went west to a region in or around what is now Moldova that was then called Etelköz.
The Khazar Khagan (a title roughly equivalent to King) sent envoys to the Magyars offering to make Levidi the supreme ruler of the Magyar tribes in exchange for accepting the Khagan’s suzerainty. Levidi suggested the supreme ruler instead be another voivode’s son, Árpád. The Khagan accepted this proposal and the Magyars proclaimed Árpád their supreme prince.
Accounts differ here – some say it was simply a change in dynasty, or a usurpation, or that it was Árpád’s father who took the reins. But it was certainly Árpád himself who came to be the more pivotal figure in Hungarian history. He would oversee the establishment of the Magyars as a serious force in European politics and their conquest of the Carpathian basin.
Medieval Hungarian history
While settled in Etelköz, the Magyars became a significant force in medieval politics. At some point they shook off the suzerainty of the Khazar Khaganate, and they conducted many invasions and raids at the urging of various rulers and were renowned for their savagery.
At this time there was significant effort by rulers in Eastern Europe and the steppe to fortify their realms, which is thought to be a direct consequence of the prolific raiding of the Magyars.
Invasions causing invasions causing invasions
Then, in 893, the Samanids invaded the Oghuz Turks. The Oghuz Turks invaded the Pechenegs. Then the Pechenegs invaded the Magyar territory of Etelköz. The Magyars couldn’t defend Etelköz because they were busy invading the Bulgarians. Basically, a lot of invading happened, and the result was the Magyars
invading migrating to the lands over the Carpathian Mountains in 895.
At first they peacefully settled along the eastern Danube, and then crossed the river to invade the territory on the western banks held by East Francia’s march, Pannonia (a march is a kind of vassal or subject that exists to act as a buffer between its suzerain and some scary enemy).
East Francia was one of three kingdoms founded by Charlemagne, the most famous Frankish king. Franks are a kind of German. They were also the proto-French. This is a bit more detail than is maybe necessary, but isn’t it interesting?
Anyway, East Francia was a large kingdom stretching from what is now Austria up to the northern parts of Eastern Germany, and they created the march of Pannonia as a buffer against Moravia.
After taking Pannonia from the Franks of East Francia (Germany), the Magyars (now frequently referred to as Hungarians) exploited internal conflicts in the Czechoslovak kingdom of Moravia to annihilate it and annex its territories by the very early 900s AD.
In July of 907, the Hungarians under Grand Prince Árpád fought the three-day long Battle of Pressburg against an East Francian army composed almost entirely of Bavarians (another kind of German, but not the same as Franks). The Hungarians completely destroyed the (East Francian) Bavarian army, which dealt a crippling blow to the Franks (Germans), forcing them to acknowledge the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin.
Hungarian invasions of Europe
From this strong position, the Hungarians consolidated their control of the region and launched a century-long series of raids into Europe and the Byzantine Empire, plundering the Balkans, Italy, and Central and Western Europe.
In the (second) Battle of Lechfeld in 955, the German (not really called Frankish anymore) king Otto I defeated and subsequently trapped and annihilated a large Hungarian army. This effectively ended Hungarian raids into Central and Western Europe, but their raiding of the Byzantines continued.
Christianisation of Hungarian culture
It wasn’t until the Byzantines cleverly managed to convert the Hungarians to christianity that the raiding ended. It was a long process starting with a single tribal chief baptised in Constantinople in 950 and ending with the ascendancy of his Christian grandson, Stephen I, to the title of Grand Prince in 997 AD. Stephan I was recognised with a crown from the Pope in 1000 AD and so became the first official King of Hungary.
It’s at this point that the Kingdom of Hungary joined the other Christian Kingdoms of Europe as part of the distinctly Christian and European political and cultural system.
The Kingdom of Hungary was far larger than modern Hungary, and it would continue to be an important independent political entity for almost 1000 years, and then an extremely important part of the Austrian and later Austro-Hungarian Empire for centuries after.
It was only with the crushing defeat and collapse of Austria-Hungary in World War I and strife suffered by independent Hungary during World War II that Hungary was reduced to its present size, but it continues to have a rich cultural heritage and proud history.
If you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating country’s past, check out our post on Hungarian myths and legends!