The earliest records of Bulgar invasions in Europe come from the fifth century. In 481 Emperor Zeno employed Bulgar mercenaries against the Ostrogoths who had invaded the Danubian provinces of the Eastern Roman Empire. During the reign of Emperor Anastasius (491–518), the Bulgars made several incursions into Thrace and Illyricum.
During the sixth century the Bulgars raided the Balkan Peninsula twice, and in 568 hordes of them surged into Italy from central Europe. Further invasions of Bulgars into present-day Italy took place around 630. At the time, the bulk of Bulgar invasions were focused on the lands of Byzantium south of the Danube River.
The original homeland of the Bulgars was somewhere between the northern coast of the Caspian Sea and the expanses of Central Asia and China. The name “Bulgar” is of Turkic origin—from the word Bulgha, which means “to mix.” This derivation underlines the complex ethnic makeup of the Bulgars and suggests that they were a hybrid people with a Central Asian, Turkic, or Mongol core combined with Iranian elements.
The Bulgars were stockbreeders, who chiefly raised horses. The Bulgar army was dominated by its fast-moving cavalry. It is often argued that the semilegendary leader of the Bulgars, Avitokhol, who allegedly commanded them into Europe, was none other than Attila the Hun (406–453).
During the sixth century the Bulgars consolidated much of their European possessions into a state called Great Bulgaria, which extended over the North Caucasian steppe and what is now Ukraine. The capital of this state was at Phanagoria (modern-day Taman in Russia).
The leader of Great Bulgaria was Khan Kubrat (c. 585–650). After his death his five sons divided the Bulgar tribes and continued invading European territories. The eldest son, Baian, remained in Great Bulgaria. The second son, Kotrag, crossed the river Don and settled on its far side.
The descendants of either Kotrag’s or Baian’s Bulgars (or both) are reputed to be the founders of Volga Bulgaria in the eighth century, which is considered to be the cultural and ethnic predecessor of the present-day Tatarstan in the Russian Federation. Kubrat’s fourth son, Kubert, moved to Pannonia and later settled in the area of present-day Transylvania. The fifth son, Altchek, moved on to Italy and took Pentapolis, near Ravenna.
Kubrat’s third son, Khan Asparuh (644–701), moved his part of the Bulgar tribes in southern Bessarabia and established himself on an island at the mouth of the river Danube. From there he began attacks against the territory of Byzantium. By that time, Slavs had colonized most of the territory of the Balkan Peninsula. Asparuh entered into an alliance against Byzantium with the league of the seven Slavic tribes, which occupied the territory between the Danube and the Balkan mountain range.
Soon the Bulgars began settling in the territory south of the Danube River. Around 679 a Bulgaro-Slavic state was formed with its center at Pliska (in modern-day northern Bulgaria). Under the leadership of Asparuh the new state defeated the armies of Emperor Constantine IV in 680. This forced Byzantium to recognize the existence of an independent Bulgaro-Slavic state within the territory of its empire in 681.
Although the Bulgar invasions were to continue in the following decades, these became wars for the establishment and enlargement of the new Bulgaro-Slavic state. The Bulgaro-Slavic state established by Asparuh grew into the Bulgarian Empire and became the predecessor of modern-day Bulgaria.