Ugrás a tartalomhoz Lépj a menübe



Attila Barany

PhD, Dr. habil. Senior Lecturer
University of Debrecen
Department of History
Debrecen 4010, Egyetem tér 1. Pf./PO Box 48. Hungary


Hungary and its Danube frontier in the age of the Árpád kings (c. 1000-1301)


The paper will give an overview of the southern borderline frontier of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary, ranging from medieval Slavonia and Szerém/the Sremska region to the northern parts of Serbia, partly along the Danube. It will oversee the history of Hungarian expansions towards Bosnia, Serbia and Cumania, then, Wallachia and will also give an insight into the history of the Byzantine-Hungarian clashes in the Danubian region.

In the early 11th century the Árpáds mostly enlarged their descensus territories, overwhelm rival tribal chieftains and make their rule recognized in the Carpathian basin. This state-organizing expansion did not always mean territorial growth, nevertheless, the whole history of the Árpádians are marked with an expansionist strive. The interests were often excused for with defensive concerns: the Árpáds several times found excuses in “the urgent necessity” of the kingdom. Yet, the interference and the support of the sedition of Romanus Diogenes in Byzantium against Emperor Constantine X Dukas in the late 1060s cannot be explained either with defensive concerns. To say the least, in some cases the interest of defence and expansion were intertwined. However, this policy was much more a defensive-offensive one, applying also preventive aggressive actions. The Hungarian interventions of the Árpáds did not always involve large-scale expeditions or territorial devastation. First, they put forward political pressure, reprimanded their allies, expressed their indignation before having resort to force. Even in that case, the kings were mostly contented with the demonstration of force, deploying their armies and marching along the border and if it was possible they wished to prevent direct military intervention. When it seemed inevitable, they moved in and occupied key points. 


In the late 10th century, Prince Géza (972-997), who was the first great prince to open towards Christianity, sought to establish warm relations with the Bulgarians. Géza married a daughter of his to the Bulgarian heir-to-the-throne, Gabriel Radomir. She was repudiated by her husband and gave birth to her son, Peter Delyan at the Hungarian court, who was then, during the reign of Stephen harboured as a political factor. However, his son, the first crowned St. Stephen (997/1000-1038), who adopted Latin Christianity, was to fight for his throne against his pagan opponents. Stephen needed Byzantine support. In exchange of his father’s Bulgarian connection, St. Stephen accepted the offer of Emperor Basil II, assisted him against the Bulgarians and took part in the siege of Ohrid (1015).ungarian court The narrative sources also report that he fought against Keanus magnus, the ruler of Slavs and Bulgarians in the south of the country, possibly a khagan or khan of a Bulgarian tribal lordship. (Some even identify him as Tsar Samuel.) First, Stephen and Emperor Basil II coordinated their assaults against Tsar Samuel and his Hungarian allies. Stephen was to counterweight his rival tribal overlord, Ajtony, along the river Maros in the south. Ajtony, being “baptised in the rite of Greeks”, had formerly enjoyed the support of and “gained his power from the Greeks”. Thus, when Stephen sought to wage war against Ajtony, he could have got a guarantee Byzantium would not assist him against the king. The Byzantine-Hungarian concord was cemented with the marriage of Prince (St.) Emericus/Imre and a Greek princess.

In the 11th-13th centuries Hungary had to fight the “eastern aggression” to protect its existence and many times suffered large-scale Pecheneg and Cuman invasions, from the 1020s on and it needed to organize its defence along the Danube. The Árpáds’ traditional policy had a recurrent accusation that Byzantium instigated their auxiliaries to ravage Hungary, and laid retaliatory attacks to the Balkans. The invasions, or alleged assaults were repulsed by the “scorched earth” method and preventive campaigns. In the early 1070s, as the Patzinaks/Pechenegs broke into Hungary, allegedly incited by Byzantium, Prince St. Ladislaus (later monarch, 1077-1095) led preventive counter-attacks into Byzantine territory and, as a base against further assaults, captured Belgrade. Hungary tried to extend its frontiers south of the Danube. Expansion was in this way justified by defence interests, though the pillaging up to Niš and the seizure of the relic of St. Prokop as well as the huge booty the Hungarians gained cannot be argued for. However, the Hungarians, after their campaigns in the Balkans were to enter into peace with Byzantium in the early 1070s as soon as possible, and were ready to restore Hungary’s conquests (Belgrade). Facing Norman, Seljuk, Arabic and Pecheneg threat, Byzantium was very much in need of Hungarian alliance. The warm relationship was marked by a grant of a crown: the so-called corona Graeca was donated to King Géza I (1074-77) by Emperor Michael Dukas (presently incorporated into the Holy Crown, as its lower part). The grant of the crown did not mean a recognition of suzerainty in practice, only a formal acknowledgement of Byzantium as the first power – the only autocracy – in the hierarchy of Christian states. This is underlined by the fact that the princes treated as Byznatium’s subordinated vassals – addressed as brothers, sons, friends – did not receive crowns from the basileus. The Emperor acknowledged Géza as the legitimate ruler of Hungary – not equal in rank, but not subjected to Byzantine overlordship – as signified by the inscription beside the portrait of Géza on the crown as “faithful king of Hungary” (kralés). Still, in contrast to the approach, the pagans were again incited against Hungary by Byzantium: in 1091/1092 the king of Hungary needed to lay a campaign against the Cumans and was forced to combat them beyond the borders, in Byzantine territory, “rode in advance of them fearing a devastation of the country”. In exchange, the Hungarians never hesitated to turn against Byzantium when they sought convenient for pragmatic concerns: the kings usually made preventive steps to have throne pretenders ousted from Greek harbour. In 1127 the refugee Prince Álmos was received in Byzantium, the expulsion of whom was demanded and invasions led by King Stephen II (up to Naissos/Niš, Sofia, Philippopolis), also calling in foreign help. It was also a pretext for territorial expansion (Belgrade, Braničevo).

A most critical period was the mid-twelfth century when the Árpáds had to face the expansive ambitions of the Comneni. It is not the task of present study to give an overview of the whole history of Byzantine-Hungarian conflicts in the twelfth century, but I am trying to grasp the major issues from the focus of territorial expansion. In contrast to the largely defensive endeavours in the twelfth century, the kings of Hungary did lead expansive campaigns into Byzantine territories before the 1140s and did not even refrain from preventive assaults in the shadow of aggressions of Manuel Comnenus who did in fact, manifestedly threaten Hungary’s independence. A political means of defence was to find allies or partners – e.g. Serbiaand push the frontier forward to take up the fight in Byzantine territory. Alliances, however, were not enough to face the armies of Manuel Comnenus.

From the early 1150s Hungary had to face, almost annually, large-scale invasions and fight battles against almost the whole body of the imperial army. By the mid-1160s the kingdom lost large, precious territories in the south and was to agree to Prince Béla, the future king, be taken as a hostage to the Byzantine court. However, although Béla was brought up as Alexius and taken for a few years as a Greek heir-presumptive, it is disputed – and I find it unlikely – whether Manuel considered for a united Byzantino-Hungarian empire. The Árpáds had to find methods against the Byzantine threat to save the kingdom from Byzantine suzerainty. Although the Byzantine army, having the one of the most formidable military machinery of the age, laid smashing, two- and even three-pronged assaults, the Árpáds did manage to ward them off and prevent them from moving deeply into Hungarian territories. They lost several battles and thousands perished but although the areas south of the Sava, Srem, Croatia and Dalmatia were lost, the country was never under permanent foreign territorial rule. The kings allied with the Serbs, “dispatched auxiliary forces” to their revolt against Byzantium, brought forth a marriage alliance with the Uroš of Raška, and pushed the defensive frontier forward to take up the fight in Byzantine territory, south of the Danube. The kings also gave political asylum to foreign dynasty members or refugee prince: in the twelfth century the King Géza II (1141-61) sheltered his uncle, the Serbian ban Belos/Belus of the house of Uroš. Kinnamos also relates that Géza II’s uncle, ban Belus “undertook to make Serbia a subject-ally” to the Árpáds.

Byzantium traditionally had a liking to welcome, receive, nurture and harbour foreign pretenders. In the 1150s-60s Byzantium granted asylum to Boris, and assisted his military interventions, then enthroned two anti-kings in Hungary (Ladislaus II and Stephen IV), having them acknowledged Byzantine overlordship. However, Hungary was able to overcome these difficult periods and oust the anti-kings, neither of their rules lasted more than a few months and the reigning king, Stephen III and his followers, also with Western help was able to regain the throne. Formally the anti-kings recognized Byzantine suzerainty and took an oath of vassalage, but their rule did not mean in practice a Byzantine conquest. Neither of the anti-kings brought in Byzantine administration or had the castles garrisoned with Greeks. The Árpáds did even fight Byzantium with its own arms and sought to embrace the cause and gain the support of a rival Comnenus prince, Andronicus, and under the promise of territorial grants made him to assist Hungary with his troops against his cousin, the Emperor (1154).


A greatest achievement of the medieval Hungarian kingdom are the efforts to organize a defence frontier. The preventive action or active defence based upon a frontier-guarding indago- or gyepű-system, a wide area of wastes and borderlands, consisting of gates and obstacles, was already applied by St. Stephen in 1030. No stable borders were fixed until the later Middle Ages in the east and north-east. In the defence of the realm special border guard troops were settled in uninhabited frontier zones. These military frontier zones were in some cases pushed forward as advanced outposts and stretched over onto non-Hungarian territories to serve as buffers against foreign invasion (e.g. the northern territories of Bosnia and the wardenship of Szörény/Severin, its military administration extending to the east beyond the Danube and the Carpathians into Wallachia).

Another defensive technique was “not to come close quarters”, to march along the Danube, defer open-field combat and have the engagement prolongated until until the Greeks were “gripped by anguish and fear”. “They fled after a brief engagement…during the flight they dispersed and all of a sudden got lost”. “When the Romans observed no one opposing them they thought of returning”. There was only one occasion that the Byzantine army were able to pass through the Hungarian defences, and crossed the Danube. But they never moved further to the north then Bács/Bač, the Temesköz/the county, then wardenship of Timişoara and the southern territories of Transylvania. The Árpáds did lead preventive campaigns and broke into Byzantine territories: in 1154 Géza laid siege to Niš and Braničevo. However, it can be seen as a great result that at last Manuel accepted that he was not able to conquer Hungary. The wars were “laden with horror”, the Greeks “suffered great losses”, at the battles he “achieved nothing worth mentioning”, once barely escaped with his life. He was satisfied with the territories south of the Sava and the Danube, but Croatia was kept only as the inheritance of Prince Béla, and it was only Dalmatian and Bosnia that were established as Byzantine thema-districts. “For some time neither desired to join battle”. Even though the region Szerém/Srem was captured and integrated into the Byzantine thema-system, the Hungarians in a few years’ time were able to reoccupy and keep it in a compromise. Hungary survivd the “Greek peril”, Byzantium had only a restructed, temporary political influence and had no direct rule in practice over the kingdom.

Frontier forces were garrisoned in these military outposts also obliged to lead preventive campaigns into enemy territory. The Árpáds usually sent their auxiliary troops (Patzinaks) for these defensive campaigns. This was “harassing” technique was the one that led to a successful resistance against the Byzantine armies in the twelfth century. Abū Hāmid al-Garnātī writes of Muslims, possibly Khalyzians of Khwarazmian origin in twelfth-century Hungary, “with whom they launch raids to Byzantine territories.”[1] Kinnamos also report that they plundered Byzantine territories with Pechenegs and Chalisioi.

Foreign invasion or the prevention of an aggression were also to have Hungarian actions accounted for. When in 1202 King Imre led an invasion into Bulgaria, he was to find pretext for it in the former inroad of Bulgarian-subject Cumans into Hungary and the capture of the Belgrade and Braničevo – although it was at that time Byzantine territory as Hungary surrendered them as the Árpád-princess, Empress Margaret’s (consort of Isaac Angelus) dowry. True to say, by that time the Árpáds had already been waging war in the Balkans for years against the Bulgarian Tsar Kaloyan. Imre also interfered in the dynastic rivalry in Serbia, then, on the pretext of supporting one claimant, led an invasion and assumed the title rex Serviae, and although he was not able to consolidate his rule, his successors kept on ruling as kings of Serbia as well.

After the rule of King Béla III (1172-96) and in the political vacuum following the conquest of Constantinople in 1204, Hungary aspired to the role of a political arbitrator and a central diplomatic factor in the Central and Eastern European theatre, also aiming to fill the positions the fall of Byzantine Empire had left empty. For example, the waning of Byzantine power was made use of by Béla III in 1183 when he led an invasion up to Niš and Sofia and recaptured most of the territories formerly lost to Manuel Comnenus. However, the kings also sought to keep the balance of powers: when in 1185 Byzantium suffered a major Norman assault, Béla, though being still at war with Byzantium, came to make peace with Emperor Isaac II Angelus, cemented with a matrimonial alliance, and was to supply military aid since the Willam II King of Sicily, capturing Thessalonica, broke forward as far as Constantinople. He also backed Byzantium in 1190 when the German crusaders wanted to lay siege to Constantinople. With his backing Byzantium was able to remain on the political map. Hungary was also concerned that the German-ally Normans not be strengthened and seize positions in the Balkans. To uphold the balance, Hungary also gave support to Isaac against the augmented Bulgarian (Asenid) power. Nonetheless, Hungarian diplomacy was rather flexible and pragmatic. The prime concern was to uphold the positions and the precious ties and alliances the kingdom had already seized. The rulers, when it seemed necessary, changed sides and chose to support new protégés. For example, although at the end of the twelfth century, Hungary gave support to Emperor Isaac Angelus against the augmented Bulgarian (Asenid) power, as a new actor, the Latin Empire appeared on the scene, in the 1210s-20s King Andrew II (1205-35) came to support Ivan Asen II, contracting a marriage alliance and even providing military help.

In many of their territorial expansions the kings of Hungary, up to the late fourteenth century were also led by religious fervour. A major direction of the expansion of the kings of Hungary in the thirteenth century was the region Cumania populated by Cumans, Romanians and Tatar fragments from the middle of the century. The Árpáds excelled in the evangelizing mission, and as “masses of the the Cumans living west of the Dniester” asked to embrace Christianity, they had Dominican friars settled and founded a missionary bishopric in the terra Cumanorum in 1226-29, centred in Milkó/Milkov/Milcov(ia), probably ranging from the rivers Olt, Danube, Siret and the Eastern Carpathians. Although the kings of Hungary assumed the title rex Cumaniae in 1233, apart from a few years in the 1230s they had only a formal suzerainty over the region, since in 1241 the Mongols swept the missionaries away, together with the Hungarian influence both east and south of the Carpathians.  Then, the Árpáds chose to establish a wardenship (banatus) in a smaller region of the southern part of the partes Transalpinae, between the Southern Carpathians, the Danube and the river Olt, centred in Szörényvár/Severin. They had now only a formal political influence over the Romanian-Cuman population, but organized the district into a military frontier zone to ward off the Mongol invasions from the south-east, under the leadership of Romanian or Cuman-origin voivodes. The wardens were under the obedience of Hungary, which did not mean however that they were obliged to pay taxes but supply troops for the defence of the realm. Szörény provided an early example of the would-be buffer-state system since in return for military defence the Romanian voivodes of Szörény were rewarded with estates in Hungary (for instance the Hátszeg/Haţeg district).

A missionary bishopric was to pave the way for Hungarian expansion in Bosnia as well. King Béla II the Blind (1131-41) occupied Bosnia in 1136/37, or, more probably only the region around the river Rama as he, and the subsequent monarchs, assumed the address rex Ramae. Although the territory was addressed as a princely duchy (ducatus) and donated to the younger son of Béla, it was not organized into this type of apanage for the heir-presumptive or senior dynastic members. It was not under Hungarian rule but a vassal ban, Borić was appointed to represent the rights of the dux. Beyond that we do not know of any Hungarian influence, and it is most probable that the vassalage was only the result of one campaign as in the midst of the Byzantine wars of the mid-twelfth century Hungary would have not been to keep the territory any longer. Bosnia was occupied by Emperor Manuel, and even after his death, in the 1180s its ban was a Byzantine vassal. However, the assumedly Patarene heresy, Bogumilism provided justification both for the territorial expansion of the Árpáds and the spread of the Roman Catholic faith, the kings of Hungary, hand in hand with the Papacy intervened and led crusades into Bosnia from 1200 onwards. The backing of the militant pontiff, Innocent III provided an opportunity for the Árpáds to intervene in Serbia and Bulgaria as well extending the conversion campaigns on to the Orthodox schismatici. From the late 1190s on the Hungarians led several campaigns to Serbia and Bulgaria, and captured large territories, but were not able to make their influence permanent and extend their control beyond the Lower Danube. They tried to enthrone their own claimants, and had them crowned as vassals of the regnum Hungariae, but got into conflict with the Pope Innocent III, who wished to have them taken under the sole suzerainty of the Holy See instead and make them accept the crowns St. Peter dispatched. In Bosnia it was not until 1237, when Prince Coloman was authorized to lead a crusade, that Hungarian suzerainty was not consolidated in the region. As a result of this, suzerainty was re-imposed and a vassal ban installed. The conversion was led by Dominican missionaries, also aided by the Pope in establishing a new Catholic bishopric in Bosnia in the 1230s, which was later on moved to Diakóvár/Đakovo on the Hungarian border. The conversion of the Slav schismatici in the Balkans was to be furthered by the foundation of the bishopric of Szerém/Srem in 1229. Hungarian influence was also fostered by the fact that the bishopric was under the authority of the Archbishopric of Kalocsa, which had Hungarians installed as bishops. In the fourteenth century the bishopric, held by Franciscans, and also aided by a newly organized Franciscan vicariate within Bosnia gained a new rule and assisted in King Louis’ conversion activity and contributed to uphold Hungarian influence.


Medieval Hungary’s focal national concept, a “a frontier ideology”, based upon the symbolic concept of the “bulwark of Christendom”, was first applied by King Béla IV after the Mongol Invasion in 1241. In Béla’s interpretation the “gate of Christendom” was not only a rhetoric means to uphold the country’s precarious position, but did in fact mean a physical defence shield along the Lower Danube, where he was to face the greatest threat. (Hoewever, I agree that the ideology was later on turned to Hungary’s advantage from and applied many times for political benefits.) True, the Tatar pretext was often expounded in the service of royal power. But the Tatars would have been able and did seek to conquer at least the frontier areas, Transylvania and the eastern regions of Hungary up to the line of the Danube. They did lay invasions up to the Lower Danube and had large territories in the Balkans and several princes acknowledge their overlordship. The kings of Hungary had to face recurrent onslaughts. King Béla also wrote in a desperate letter to the pope that the danger was most acute from the south, “over the Danube along the frontier of the Cumans and Bulgarians, where a gate had been opened to the Tatars when they first invaded the country”, and “we are currently fighting against them there”. There should be castles erected along the Danube since “it is the water of resistance” (aqua contradictionis) where “we had been resisting the Tatars”, because “if they got hold of it, a gate would be opened towards Christendom”. The Danube was called in Byzantium as Hungary’s “acquatic bulwark”, and Manuel was much proud when his armies were able to cross this shield. Béla indicated that a major invasion was to be expected from the south where the Tatars had already been established their overlordship. Truth is, however, that the Hungarian phraseology seemed to justify the southern invasions, throughout the 1250s-70s, with the Tatar threat, even in those periods when there was no serious chance for a Mongol onslaught or the influence of the Mongols was not so intensive. The crown organized wardenships of advance posts over the “frontiers of the Tatars”, first in Cumania east of Severin/Szörény, extended a firm control over Bosnia, and organized banates in the “duchy of Macsó/Mačva”. The crown called the Hospitallers in Transylvania and the Cumanian territories east of Szörény/Severin, to serve “on the frontiers of pagans” against the Tatars. The Mongols were now as close as royal charters were speaking of the “frontiers of the Tatars”. The increase of the threat is well signified by the fact that in a few years the knight, probably suffering tragic defeats, abandoned their positions and left.

As the defence outposts were under the rule of Serbia and Bulgaria, the kings of Hungary laid expansive campaign to get hold of them and made large efforts to hold them even against their fellow-Christians, who did feel these campaigns offensive and did even ally with Tatar warlords against the oppressive hegemony of the Hungarians. One of the most important of these wardenships was that of Vidin in Bulgaria. First, King Béla rendered his son-in-law, a refugee Rurikid prince of Chernigov/Chernihiv, Rostislav on to the territories of the “duchy of Macsó/Mačva”, around Belgrade, spreading to the south from the Sava and the Danube and east of the Drina and west of the Kolubara rivers, which were partly taken under Hungarian control in the 1220s. First the king wished to have the whole region from Slavonia through the northern parts of Bosnia along the Lower Danube up to Belgrade as one defensive block. The king also wanted to extend a firm control over Bosnia: the former vassal ban, Ninoslav defected Hungarian suzerainty, and although submitted to Béla in 1244, the king established a directly dependent zone, two banates in the north governed by Hungarian wardens. The southern parts were still ruled by vassal princes, then, in the 1260s were put under direct control under members of the dynasty. Rostislav, as dux de Macho (1247-62) also had control over Slavonia (1247-48), and the banates of Bosnia (Só/Tuzla, 1253-, and Ozora/Usora, 1247-). Rostislav also tried to spread his influence over to Bulgaria. First, he was not at all led by expansive interests, but was to make peace, and have the 1246 one confirmed that Béla concluded with the Bulgarians. Rostislav represented the Árpáds’ policies and got another ally in the Balkans: that is why he married his daughter, granddaughter of the King to the Tsar Michael Asen I (1255). However, as far as we know that in 1255 King Béla IV assumed the title rex Bulgariae, and the following year the Hungarian protégé tsar was murdered, we might propose that it was in defence of his daughter’s defence and probably against the new ruler, Kaliman Asen II who married the widow of Tsar Michael that Rostislav extended his rule over the north-eastern parts of Bulgaria. In Hungarian sources we do not know what this Hungarian rule was like, and what areas Rostislav in fact had under his control, although he was using the title Tsar of Bulgaria. However, after Tsar Constantine Tikh assumed the crown and laid aggressive assaults into Hungarian-controlled territories, and even to Hungary proper (Severin), in Hungarian sources probably with Tatar help (1259-61), the Hungarians led several campaigns to Bulgaria, and capturing Vidin they brought it under direct Hungarian control. In 1263 the Tatar influence intensified, and as Emir Nogai embraced Islam and interfered in the Balkanic power struggles. Prince Stephen’s interventions to Bulgaria can also be viewed as anti-Mongol actions: in 1263 he faced the anti-Byzantine intervention of Nogai. However, the direct rule was hardly possible to be maintained. Hungarian influence decreased by the late 1260s, and the banate of Vidin practically ceased to exist. The duchy of Macho was divided into certain lesser banates, as the defence concerns needed the leadership to be decentralized. In the 1270s new Hungarian banates were organized in Northern Serbian territories, Braničevo, between the rivers Morava and Kolubara, and Kučevo, ranging from the Morava to the Danube and the Timok in the south. As a counter-balance, Hungary sought to conclude a dynastic alliance with Byzantium, since the Palaeologi’s newly acquired territories, as far as Thrace, were also exposed to Tatar attacks from the 1260s on. During the 1285 Tatar invasion Emperor Andronicus II sent military aid to Hungary, even after his Árpádian empress’ (Stephen V’s daughter) death.

In 1284 however, as the crown was hardly able to protect the southern border any longer, Mačva was put under the control of a Hungarian-loyal, deposed Serbian ruler, Stephen Dragutin. (The Árpáds led an intervention to Serbia in 1268, but peace was concluded between Béla IV and Stephen Uroš I.) Dragutin, facing his rival, Stephen Uroš II Milutin, Tsar of Serbia, was to head a buffer-principality, to which Braničevo, Kučevo, Usora and Tuzla were also adjoined. Dragutin’s vassal state was only loosely connected to Hungary, Hungarian rule was not possible to be enforced amidst the anarchical period of the late thirteenth century.


The Árpáds very rarely and in only certain territories applied direct territorial rule or established military administration. This policy was to be justified by the fact that Hungary, necessarily, almost constantly had to face confrontations from the two empires. Problem is that historiography has been trying to find justification for and explain the expansive ambitions of Hungary even when there was no foreign threat at all and the kings were not forced “in between the Byzantine and German hegemony”. The German expansions ceased to threaten Hungary’s integrity after the late twelfth century the latest, and, likewise, Byzantine aggression was not a serious menace except for the attempts for supremacy by Manuel Comnenus (1143-80).

[1] Abū Hāmid al-Garnātī, Al-Mu’rib ’an ba’ḍ ’ayā’ib al-Magrib [Eulogy on the countries of the West]. Hungarian translation. Budapest, 1985. 58.