A history of the First Bulgarian Empire

Steven Runciman





An Emperor’s skull



The Empress-Regent Irene, of blessed memory, spent the spring of 784 in touring her northern frontier. It was a felicitous time. Last year her general, Stauracius, had conquered the Slavs of the Greek peninsula, forcing them into obedience to the Empire. Over the frontier everything was quiet; Thrace, devastated by the wars of the last century, was being refilled with a busy population transported from the East, Armenians—heretics indeed, but politically harmless so far away from their kindred. And so the Empress, with music playing, made her Imperial progress along to the town of Berrhoea, rebuilding it and rechristening it Irenupolis, and back to Anchialus. [1]


Her mind was set at rest by what she saw. There could be no danger from Bulgaria. Indeed, two years later, in September 786, when her son, the Emperor Constantine VI, was reaching maturity and appearing dangerously popular with the army, she found it both wise and safe to deplete Thrace of its militia on the plea of an Eastern campaign, so as to have the soldiers, under her friend Stauracius, close by her side in Constantinople. [2]


But early in 789 there came an unpleasant shock. Philetus, strategus of Thrace, was reconnoitring up the River Struma and had, it seems, entered territory which the Bulgars regarded as theirs. He shared the confidence of the government and was marching carelessly. A sudden attack from the Bulgars surprised him at a disadvantage. Many of his soldiers and he himself were killed. [3]



1. Theophanes, pp. 699, 707. This was the Thracian Berrhoea or Beroe (the modern Stara Zagora), not the Macedonian Berrhoea.


2. Ibid., pp. 715-6.


3. Ibid., p. 718.







The Bulgars, then, were not utterly effete; they might usefully be attacked once more. In April 791 the young Emperor, supreme now and anxious for military glory with which to outshine his mother’s popularity, decided to invade Bulgaria. A certain Kardam was on the Bulgar throne. His antecedents and the date of his accession are unknown, but in him the Bulgars found at last a ruler of some competence. However, this campaign was on all sides a fiasco. Constantine advanced as far as a fort called Probatum on the River St. George. [1] There he fell in with the Bulgars; and in the evening a light skirmish began. But during the night the Imperial armies were seized with panic and fled: while the Bulgars, equally frightened, returned hurriedly to their own districts. [2]


Constantine burned to do better, and set out again against Kardam in July next year. An astronomer called Pancrat promised him a glorious victory. But Pancrat was wrong. Constantine marched as far as Marcellae on the frontier and repaired its fortifications; but, as he lay close by, on July 20 Kardam advanced on him with all the armies of his kingdom. The Emperor’s youthful ardour and confidence led him to fight without due preparation; and he was heavily defeated. He hastened back to Constantinople in ignominy, leaving his money, his horses, and his equipment in the hands of the enemy, accompanied by shamefaced generals and the false prophet Pancrat. [3]


After this disaster Constantine let the Bulgars alone. Meanwhile Kardam’s ambitions rose, and in 796 he sent insolently to the Emperor to demand tribute, threatening otherwise to ravage Thrace right up to the Golden Gate. Constantine replied scornfully that he would not trouble an old man to come so far; he would go to meet him at Marcellae, and God would decide what would happen.



1. The modern Provadia, to the north-east of Adrianople.


2. Theophanes, p. 723.


3. Ibid., pp. 724-5.





But God was extremely indecisive. Constantine advanced in full force as far as Versinicia, near Adrianople; Kardam, alarmed at the size of his army, hid in the forest of Abroleba. [1] For seventeen days Constantine invited the Bulgars to give battle, in vain; and eventually each monarch returned ineffectually home. [2]


Again a period of peace ensued. Whether a definite treaty was ever concluded is unknown. Modern historians, who unanimously agree in decrying the Empress Irene, are apt to picture her paying tribute to all her neighbours. [3] With regard to the Bulgars, there is no evidence for such an assertion. The Empress certainly desired peace; in 797 she had finally rid herself of her son by blinding him, and such strange maternal conduct lost her her popularity. The army had always been hostile to her, and ecclesiastical support, though it might canonize her, did not help her in foreign campaigns. But Kardam was equally anxious for peace. His timorousness during the wars showed how unsure he felt of his position. Bulgaria was still turbulent and weak; he was probably fully occupied in controlling his boyars and reorganizing his kingdom. And so both countries were grateful for a respite, though neither could manage to extract a tribute.


But Bulgaria had recovered marvellously since the days of Constantine Copronymus. Freed from concentrated attack by the discord in the family of its adversaries the Emperors, it had somehow worked out its own salvation. Kardam might be insecure, but apparently he never fell. Had Constantine VI possessed the ability of his grandfather and namesake, again the Bulgars might have lapsed into feeble anarchy. But Kardam’s victories must have



1. Places identified by Zlatarski (Istoriya, pp. 244-5).


2. Theophanes, pp. 728-9.


3. e.g. even Bury (Eastern Roman Empire, p. 339).





served to strengthen him in his own country, and by strengthening him to strengthen his whole country. Had the statesmen of Constantinople turned their eyes to the north, instead of wondering feverishly who would displace the heirless Empress, they might well have been alarmed —terribly alarmed, for far worse was to follow.


Some time after the year 797 the Khan Kardam died, in the same obscurity in which he had ascended the throne. The Empress Irene fell in 802; her white horses no longer drove through the streets of Constantinople. In her place was her genial, dissimulating logothete, now the Emperor Nicephorus I, eager to display the vigour of a man’s rule. He little guessed whither it would lead him.


Far away to the north, in the plains and foothills of Pannonia, the Hungary and Transylvania of to-day, the Avar Empire still lingered, and under Avar domination there still lived large numbers of Bulgars, the descendants of those ancient Bulgars whom the Avars carried into captivity over two centuries before, and of the fourth son of King Kubrat and his following. But in the closing years of the eighth century a new power had spread to the Central European plains; the kingdom of the Franks, masters of France and Germany, was seeking to safeguard its eastern frontier by pushing its influence farther and farther down the Danube. In 791 and again in 795-6 the Frankish King Charles—soon, in 800, to be crowned Emperor at Rome in defiance of Byzantium—had invaded the territory of the Avars, supported by their restive Slav vassals. The Avar resistance was feeble; by the end of the century the Frankish dominion reached the banks of the River Theiss.


The Pannonian Bulgars took advantage of the situation. On the eastern bank of the Theiss they completed the destruction of the Avars. The details are unknown; but by about the year 803 the Avar Empire had utterly





disappeared. Instead, the Franks and the Bulgars met one another at the Theiss. The Frankish Emperor had even contemplated moving farther eastward and destroying the Pannonian Bulgars; but he desisted, assuming that without Avar help they would not be able to hurt his realm. He could probably count on the Moravian or the Croatian Slavs acting as buffers for him.


The Bulgar chieftain that conquered the Avars was called Krum. [1] His origin is unknown. From his apparent security on the throne throughout his life, it is tempting to see in him the scion of an old-established royal race—for only monarchs of undoubtedly higher birth could long maintain themselves over the jealous Bulgar boyars—the royal race of the Bulgars of Pannonia. He may even have been a descendant of the fourth son of King Kubrat, a child of the House of Attila. But more important than his birth were his ambitions and his ability. Krum was not going to remain a Pannonian princeling. By the year 808 he was firmly placed upon the throne of Pliska, Sublime Khan of Balkan Bulgaria.


How it happened we cannot tell. Probably the Balkan Bulgars had always kept in touch with their cousins. Since Asperuch’s day the Khan of Pliska had controlled the plains of Wallachia and Moldavia; and the Pannonian Bulgars in Transylvania were not far off; only the Carpathian mountains divided them. On Kardam’s death, the Balkan Bulgars were left without a Khan. It was probably easy for Krum, the splendid victor of the Avar wars, either by some show of arms or only by persuasion, to transfer himself on to the greater throne, and thus unite



1. His name appears in various forms, in Greek Κροῦμμος, Κροῦμνος, Κροῦμος, Κυϊμος (once in Leo Grammaticus, probably by error), Κροῦβος, and Κρέμ ; in Latin Crumnus, Crimas, Brimas (both probably miscopied), Crumas, and Crusmas; in early Slavonic translations Kroum, Krâg, Krem, Kreml, Krumel, and Agrum. On his inscriptions (Aboba-Pliska, p. 233—the Shumla inscription) he Graecised his name as Κρουμος. Krum must therefore approximately represent the original. See Zlatarski, Istoriya, p. 247.





the two Bulgar kingdoms into one great empire, from the Theiss and the Save to the shores of the Black Sea. [1]


The effect of the union is difficult to gauge. Pannonian Bulgaria was a Bulgar state, not a Bulgar-Slav state; in the double kingdom the Bulgar element, the aristocratic militarist element, must have been proportionately enhanced. But Krum was too astute a monarch to allow the aristocracy to wax too powerful; he probably countered by subordinating Pannonia to the Balkans and in the Balkans encouraging the Slav elements. On the whole, the only important result of the union was to increase the military strength and temper of the kingdom. The Balkan Bulgars had made a poor show in the wars of the eighth century—the Slavs, who formed the bulk of their armies, were by nature unenthusiastic and disorganized fighters—but in the ninth century Bulgaria was one of the great militarist powers of Europe.


Kardam and Irene had both desired peace. Nicephorus wanted war; and Krum, with his new strength and his Balkan ambitions, was ready to give him war. It broke out in 807. Hitherto Nicephorus had been occupied with wars on his eastern frontier, but that year he had time to set out against Bulgaria. The campaign was still-born; when he reached Adrianople he discovered a conspiracy against him amongst his troops. He put it down with



1. This account of Krum’s early career is conjectural. Dvornik (Les Slaves, Byzance et Rome, pp. 34-5) states it categorically, with embroideries and dates, but for once he gives no references. However, his account is in the main certainly the only coherent interpretation of the evidence: which is as follows: (i.) The Avars were utterly conquered by Krum (Suidas, Lexicon, art. ‘ Bulgari,’ p. 761). (ii.) Charles the Great attacked the Avars in 791 and 795-6 (according to Ekkehard, he first attacked them in 788, and conquered them in eight years). After they were utterly conquered, he withheld his hand from the Bulgars as being unlikely to be harmful, now that the Avars (Huns) were extinct (Ekkehard, p. 162). It is only reasonable, therefore, to assume that Krum’s conquest of the Avars was before their utter extinction. But in 796 Kardam was still Khan of Balkan Bulgaria; we do not hear of Krum there till 808 (see below). Krum must, therefore, have been ruler of Pannonian Bulgaria before he ascended the throne of Pliska. But the date of his accession must remain unknown.





severity, but thought it wise not to proceed farther; and so he returned to Constantinople. [1] Next year the Bulgars took the offensive: Nicephorus, suspecting their designs on Macedonia, had mustered an army in the theme of Strymon. Late in the winter, so late that no attack seemed likely, the Bulgars surprised this force, slew the strategus of the theme and annihilated many of the regiments, and captured 1,100 lb. of gold destined to pay the soldiers. [2]


In the spring of 809 Krum followed up his victory by a far more harmful move. There was a strong line of Imperial fortresses barring the Bulgar advance on the south and the south-west—Develtus, Adrianople, Philippopolis, and Sardica. They had probably been reconditioned by Constantine Copronymus, who saw their strategic importance. To the Bulgars they had always been an irritant, particularly Sardica, lying as it did across their road to Serbia and to Upper Macedonia. In March Krum suddenly appeared before Sardica. The fortifications were too strong for him, but somehow his guile won him an entrance. The garrison, 6,000 strong, was massacred, with numberless civilians, and the fortress dismantled. It does not seem that Krum intended to annex the district, but merely to make Sardica untenable as an Imperial fortress.


On the Thursday before Easter (April 3) Nicephorus heard the news, and left his capital in full strength. By forced marches he pushed into the enemy country, and on Easter Day reached the undefended city of Pliska. Pliska paid the penalty for Sardica; Krum’s palace was plundered, and the Emperor wrote a triumphant letter to Constantinople announcing his arrival in the Bulgar capital. It had been a triumphant feat of the Imperial armies; the



1. Theophanes, p. 749.


2. Ibid., p. 752. See Bury (Eastern Roman Empire, p. 340) for exact dating. The amount 1,100 lb. is the equivalent to nearly £50,000.





pious chronicler Theophanes, who strongly disapproved of Nicephorus, decided indeed that he was lying when he claimed to have achieved it. From Pliska, Nicephorus marched on to Sardica, to rebuild the fortress; whether deliberately or by chance, he did not meet Krum’s returning army on the way. At Sardica the Emperor had certain difficulties; the soldiers disliked having to work as masons, and were suspicious of his subterfuges to induce them to do so. However, in the end their mutiny was quashed; Sardica was cheaply and quickly rebuilt, and the Emperor returned complacently to Constantinople. [1] But there had been one more distressing incident. A few officers from the Sardica garrison had escaped Krum’s massacre and had come to Nicephorus. He, however, would not promise not to punish them—he probably suspected, with reason, that there had been treason somewhere; so the officers fled to the Bulgar court (thus more definitely hinting at their guilt), where Krum received them gladly. Amongst these refugees was the celebrated engineer Eumathius—a welcome acquisition for the Bulgars, for he taught them all the artifices of up-to-date warfare. Later, Theophanes tells us a fuller and quite different tale of Eumathius, who was an Arab; Nicephorus had employed him at Adrianople, but had remunerated him with parsimony—Nicephorus was always anxious to do things inexpensively—and had, further, struck him when he complained; the touchy Arab promptly deserted. Both stories may be true; Eumathius, who was always



1. Theophanes, pp. 752-4: Bury (op. cit., p. 341) assumes that Theophanes was acting from malevolence in casting doubt on Nicephorus’s arrival at Pliska; most other historians—e.g. Zlatarski (op. cit., pp. 252-3) or Dvornik (op. cit., p. 36)—believe Theophanes implicitly—Dvornik even adds a successful Bulgar attack. Bury must surely be right. Theophanes took every opportunity for decrying Nicephorus, and, though a saint, he was not above telling lies to discredit Emperors of whom he morally disapproved. Nicephorus, on the other hand, was not a half-wit; he would not have claimed to have penetrated to Pliska when the whole army could have shown him up as an impostor.





employed in repairing fortresses, was working at Sardica at the time of Krum’s invasion, and was tempted by bis grievance into treachery. Certainly somehow, by his tactlessness, Nicephorus had handed over a valuable asset to the Khan. [1]


The Bulgar ambitions for Macedonia still disquieted the Emperor; and through the next winter he carried out extensive transportations. The Macedonian Slavs were unreliable; he attempted to keep them in control by settling among them colonies of faithful peasants from Asia Minor, the backbone of his Empire. The Anatolian peasants did not appreciate this policy; some even committed suicide rather than leave their homes and the tombs of their fathers. But Nicephorus was inexorable; the situation, he thought, was urgent, and he prided himself on the way in which he dealt with it. The transportations were not, however, on a vast enough scale to be really effective. [2]


But the Emperor had already decided to crush Krum absolutely, for ever. His preparations were long and careful; troops were collected from throughout the Empire. There was no danger from the Saracens at the moment; so the armies of the themes of Asia Minor came with their strategi to swell the host. In May 811 the great expedition left Constantinople, led by the Emperor himself and his son, Stauracius.


At Marcellae, on the frontier, Nicephorus paused for reinforcements to join him. Krum was seriously frightened, and sent an embassy to Marcellae begging humbly for peace. The Emperor dismissed the Bulgar ambassadors; he was distrustful of Bulgar promises and confident of victory. But while he was still at Marcellae one of his household suddenly disappeared, with 100 lb. of gold



1. Theophanes, pp. 753 (he is here called Euthymius), 776.


2. Ibid., p. 755.





and part of the Imperial wardrobe; they soon heard that he had gone over to Krum. The omen was disquieting —were the rats leaving the sinking ship?


In July the Imperial armies entered Bulgaria and pushed straight on to Pliska. Krum fled before them, and on July 20 [1] they reached the Bulgar capital. Nicephorus was in a fierce mood, and devastated the whole city, massacring and burning, and even passed Bulgar babies through threshing-machines. The Palace of the Khans perished in the flames—it was probably a wooden affair—and on their treasury Nicephorus set the Imperial seal, intending avariciously to reserve the treasure for himself. Again Krum sent to plead for peace, saying: ‘Lo, thou hast conquered. Take what thou wilt and depart in peace.’ But the triumphant Emperor was proud and obdurate again.


Krum was in despair; but Nicephorus’s carelessness gave him another chance. The Bulgar forces fled to the mountains; and Nicephorus followed. On Thursday, July 24 the Imperial army was caught in a narrow mountain defile, and the Bulgars swiftly built wooden palisades at either end. Too late Nicephorus saw the trap into which he had fallen, and knew that destruction was certain. ‘Even were we birds,’ he said, ‘we could not hope to escape.’ On the Thursday and Friday the Bulgars worked hard at their fortifications. On Saturday they paused; perhaps they had decided to wait and starve the great army out. But their impatience overcame them; late that night, the 26th, they fell upon the enemy.


It was an unresisting butchery. The Imperial army, taken unawares, allowed itself to be massacred wholesale. The Emperor and almost all his generals and high



1. Theophanes said that Nicephorus only entered Bulgaria on July 20. But, as the great battle took place on the 26th/27th, he must surely have arrived at Pliska not later than the 20th, having journeyed some seventy miles of difficult country since crossing the frontier.





dignitaries perished—some killed in their tents, others burnt to death by the firing of the palisades. The Emperor’s son, Stauracius, was wounded, fatally wounded, though he lingered in agony for several months. With his brother-in-law, Michael Rhangabe, one of the few unhurt survivors, and the tiny remnant of the army, he fled headlong to the safety of Adrianople. Nicephorus’s head was exposed on a stake for several days, for the delectation of the Bulgars; then Krum hollowed it out and lined it with silver. It made him a fine goblet when he drank with his boyars, crying the Slav toast of’ Zdravitza.’ [1]


Relics of the battle lasted for many centuries. In 1683 a Serbian patriarch saw at Eskibaba, in Thrace, the tomb of a certain Nicholas who had gone with the army and dreamed a warning dream. The Turks had placed a turban on the head of the corpse. [2]


The news of the disaster came as an appalling shock to the whole Imperial world. Never since the days of Valens, on the field of Adrianople, had an Emperor fallen in battle. It was a stupendous blow to the Imperial prestige—to the legend of the Emperor’s sacrosanctity, so carefully fostered to impress the barbarians. Moreover, the Visigoths that slew Valens had been mere nomads, destined soon to pass away to other lands; the Bulgars were barbarians settled at the gate, and determined—more so now



1. Theophanes, pp. 761-5. He dates the battle July 25; but that was the Friday. The Saturday/Sunday night was the 26th/27th. It is impossible to discover exactly where the battle took place. Shkorpil (Aboba-Pliska, p. 564) suggests the Pass of Verbitza, and the defile locally known as the Greek Hollow, where tradition asserts that many Greeks once met their death; and Bury (op. cit., p. 344) follows him. This, I think, is the most convincing location. Jireček assumed that it was in the Pass of Veregava, on Nicephorus’s return home (Geschichte der Bulgaren, pp. 45-6, and Die Heerstrasse, p. 150). But it seems that he took a different route, pursuing Krum rather than retreating. Zlatarski (op. cit., pp. 408—12) does not commit himself definitely, but believes that it took place much nearer to Pliska. But, as he accepts Theophanes’s statement (see above) that Nicephorus only entered Bulgaria on July 20, he is very hard up for time, and cannot afford to let Nicephorus march the thirty miles from Pliska to the Pass of Verbitza.


2. The Patriarch Arsen Cernovič, quoted by Bury (op. cit., p. 345).





than ever—to remain there. The Empire would never live down and forget its shame; and the Bulgars would ever be heartened by the memory of their triumph.


Krum had good reason to be exultant. The whole effect of Constantine Copronymus’s long campaigns had been wiped out all at one battle. He could face the Empire now in the position of conqueror of the Emperor, on equal terms, at a height never reached by Asperuch or Tervel. Henceforward he would not have to fight for the existence of his country, but he could fight for conquest and for annexation. Moreover, in his own country his position was assured; no one now would dare dispute the authority of the victorious Khan. He could not have done a more useful deed to strengthen the Bulgar crown. [1]


Sated by their victory, the Bulgars did not at once follow it up with an invasion. Constantinople was given a respite, while the dying Emperor Stauracius made way for his brother-in-law, Michael Rhangabe. [2] But late next spring (812) Krum attacked the Imperial fortress of Develtus, a busy city at the head of the Gulf of Burgas, commanding the coast road to the south. It could not hold out long against the Bulgars. Krum dismantled the fortress, as he had done at Sardica, and transported the inhabitants, with their bishop and all, away into the heart of his kingdom. In June the new Emperor Michael set out to meet the Bulgars; but the news that he was too late to save the city, together with a slight mutiny in his army, made him turn back while he was still in Thrace. [3]



1. The Kadi-Keui inscription given in Aboba-Pliska, pp. 228-30, belongs somewhere to Nicephorus’s war with Krum. It mentions Nicephorus, Marcellae, Adrianople, and a certain Bulgar called Ekusous ( Ἐκούσοος) or Ecosus (Ἠκόσος). The text is too badly mutilated for the sense to emerge. Probably it refers to Nicephorus’s first campaign, the abortive campaign that never went further than Adrianople. See Bury, op. cit., p. 343.


2. Michael the Syrian (pp. 25-6) pretends that Stauracius was wounded during a Bulgar invasion after Nicephorus’s death. He was clearly misinformed.


3. Theophanes, p. 772.





His inaction and the Bulgar victories terrified the inhabitants of the frontier cities. They saw the enemy overrunning all the surrounding country, and they determined to save themselves as best they could. The smaller frontier forts, Probatum and Thracian Nicaea, were abandoned by their population; even the population of Anchialus and Thracian Berrhoea, whose defences the Empress Irene had recently repaired, fled to districts out of reach of the heathen hordes. The infection spread to the great metropolis-fortress of Western Thrace, Philippopolis, which was left half-deserted, and thence to the Macedonian cities, Philippi and Strymon. In these last cities it was chiefly the Asiatics transported there by Nicephorus that fled, overjoyed at the opportunity of returning to their homes. [1]


But Krum did not take full advantage of all this. With a caution and forbearance rare in a barbarian conqueror, he sent instead to ask for peace; he wished, it seems, to consolidate carefully his every step. In September 812 his ambassador, Dargomer—the first unmistakably Slav name to appear in Bulgar official circles—came to the Emperor demanding a renewal of the treaty of 716, the treaty made between Tervel and Theodosius III. Bulgaria was to recover the Meleona frontier and the 30 lb. worth of skins and robes; prisoners and deserters were to be returned, and organized trade-intercourse to be reopened. [2] Krum, however, knew that he had the upper hand; he threatened that if the peace was not granted to him he would attack Mesembria. After some consultation the Emperor rejected the peace; he could not bear to give up the Bulgar deserters. It had always been a cardinal point



1. Theophanes, pp. 772-3.


2. See above, p. 33. As I said there, the name Cormesios is clearly a mistake of Theophanes. Krum would obviously want, and feel able, to return to the state of affairs before the disaster of the war with Copronymus. There had probably been some truce with Kormisosh that had distracted Theophanes.





in Byzantine diplomacy to collect and support foreign pretenders and refugee statesmen; and Michael probably hoped to have that clause withdrawn. But Krum was for everything or nothing. Faithful to his threat, he appeared in full force before Mesembria in the middle of October.


Mesembria was one of the wealthiest and most important cities in all South-Eastern Europe. It was not only a salubrious spa, but also a great commercial centre, both as port of embarkation for the produce of Eastern Bulgaria and also as the port of call for all vessels bound from Constantinople to the Danube and the northern shores of the Black Sea. In addition, nature and art alike had made it a magnificent fortress. It occupied a small peninsula, at the northern entrance of the Gulf of Burgas, joined to the mainland only by an isthmus about a quarter of a mile in length, so low and narrow that in storms none of it was out of reach of the foam. [1] This natural stronghold had been further strengthened by huge fortifications.


A vigorous defence could have saved the city. Krum had no ships; he could only attack along the isthmus. The Imperial navy could have poured in reinforcements and food in spite of all the Bulgars. But the Isaurian Emperors had economized on naval armaments; there was now hardly any Imperial navy. The garrison, caught unprepared, had to shift for itself; the Emperor did not even attempt to revictual the city. Krum, on the other hand, was helped by the engineering skill of the deserter Eumathius.


Krum’s prompt fulfilment of his threat had alarmed the government at Constantinople. On November 1, Michael summoned a council. He himself was in favour now of peace, but was not strong enough to impose his will on his counsellors: these were sharply divided into two



1. Nowadays the whole isthmus is covered by the waves during bad storms, but then there was probably an efficient causeway.





parties, led, as was characteristic of the times, by clerics —Theodore, Abbot of Studium, favouring war, and the Patriarch Nicephorus, the historian, eager for peace. The war party won, on the same clause about deserters, supporting their policy by talking of the fundamental principles of Christian hospitality, and mocking at the peace party’s readiness to pay tribute. Four days later, their victory was clinched; news came through of the fall of Mesembria.


Krum found his capture highly profitable. Not only was Mesembria well stocked with luxuries and large quantities of gold and silver, but also the Bulgars discovered some of the most precious and secret of all Byzantine inventions, the liquid ‘Greek Fire,’ and thirty-six syphons from which to fire it. Krum removed his spoils, then, following his usual course, he dismantled the fortifications and retired to his home. [1]


The Emperor was now obliged to plan an expedition to avenge the disgraceful calamity. Next February two Christians, who had escaped from Bulgaria, told him that Krum was making ready to invade Thrace. Michael busily collected troops from all over his Empire; in May he set out, with a huge army, chiefly Asiatic. The Empress Procopia saw the army off, with encouraging messages, from the aqueduct near Heraclea. But the Empress’s send-off was of little avail. For a month Michael dallied in Thrace, never attempting to recover and repair Mesembria, while the Asiatic troops grew increasingly restive. Early in June, Krum crossed the frontier, and the two armies came face to face at Versinicia. At this spot Kardam had hidden in the woods from Constantine VI; but Krum was bolder, and prepared for a pitched battle. For fifteen hot summer days each army waited for the other to move; at last the general in charge of the Thracian and



1. Theophanes, pp. 775-8: Theophanes Continuatus, pp. 12-13.





Macedonian troops on the left wing of the Imperial army, John Aplaces, begged to be allowed to attack. The Imperial army outnumbered the Bulgars by ten to one; and Imperial troops notoriously could deal with barbarians when it came to an open fight. Michael gave him permission, and on June 22 John Aplaces began the battle. The Bulgars fell back in confusion before his attack: when suddenly he found that he was fighting alone—the rest of the army had fled in inexplicable panic, led by Anatolic troops on the right wing. Krum, we are told, was too astounded and suspicious to pursue at once; but he soon found that the flight was genuine. After annihilating the brave, deserted troops of Aplaces, he followed the fugitives as they ran headlong all the way back to their capital. It was an amazing battle: the only explanation was treachery in the Imperial forces—in the Anatolic regiments. The general of the Anatolic regiments was Leo the Armenian, and it was Leo that gained most by the battle: Michael gave up the crown, and it passed to Leo. Under the circumstances Leo was inevitably suspected, though nothing definite could be proved—he was playing his cards too cunningly. But Krum also was privy to the plot. He had taken the risk of a pitched battle against vastly superior forces in open ground—a risk taken by no Bulgarian before or after for centuries; it is incredible that on this unique occasion he should have been so rash and foolish—should have put himself into a position where only a miracle could save him, had he not been certain that the miracle would occur. And it was by arrangement rather than from surprise that he did not at once pursue the fugitives. [1]



1. Theophanes, pp. 780-3: Scriptor Incertus, pp. 337 ff. Bury (op. cit., pp. 351-2) fully discusses Leo’s treachery. His conclusion, that Leo was guilty but too clever to be definitely compromised, is, I think, absolutely convincing. But it seems to me that, to make the story credible, Krum must be implicated in the plot.





The victory might be an arranged affair; but Krum had no qualms about following it up. Thrace was denuded of troops, and his progress was easy. Leaving his brother to besiege Adrianople on the way, he pushed on with his army, aiming at nothing else than the Imperial capital itself. On July 17 his army arrived at the city walls.


The huge fortifications daunted him; instead of ordering an assault, he resorted to spectacular displays of his might. Curious and horrified citizens on the walls could watch men and animals being sacrificed on heathen altars, they could see the Sublime Khan washing his feet in the waves of the sea and ceremoniously sprinkling his soldiers, or moving in state through rows of adoring concubines, to the raucous acclamation of his hordes. Having indulged in sufficient barbaric pageantry, he sent to the Emperor demanding to be allowed to affix his lance to the Golden Gate, in token of his triumph. The Emperor, the ambitious traitor Leo the Armenian, refused the insulting request; so Krum set to work more practically. Fortifying his camp with a rampart, he plundered the countryside for several days. Then he sent again to the Emperor, offering peace, probably on the basis of the famous peace of Tervel, but insisting specially on a large tribute of gold and of robes and a selection of young maidens for his personal use. Leo now saw an opportunity for a solution of his troubles.


The episode that followed is deeply distressing to our modern sense of honour, and patriotic Balkan writers have long seen in it an example of the perfidy and degradation of Byzantium. But we live now in a godless age. In the ninth century every true and devoted Christian regarded the heathen either as animals or as devils, according to their capacity for inflicting evil on the faithful. According to diese standards Krum, ‘the new Sennacherib,’ [1]



1. Theophanes, p. 785.





was a very arch-devil; any means of ridding the Christian world of such a monstrous persecutor would be highly justified. We should remember, too, that Krum himself did not disdain to use guile on more than one occasion; only we have been spared the exact details.


Leo answered Krum’s overtures by suggesting a meeting between the two monarchs on the shore of the Golden Horn, just outside the walls; Krum would come by land and Leo by boat, each with a few unarmed followers. Krum accepted, and next morning rode down to the spot, accompanied by his treasurer, by his brother-in-law, a Greek deserter called Constantine Patzicus, and by his nephew, Constantine’s son. Leo and his friends arrived in the Imperial barge, and the conversation began, presumably with Constantine as interpreter. Suddenly an Imperial official, Hexabulius, covered his face with his hands. Krum was offended and alarmed, and leapt on to his horse. At that moment three armed men burst out from a neighbouring house and attacked the little group of Bulgars. Krum’s followers were on foot; pressing round to defend their master and escape themselves, they were easily disposed of. The treasurer was slain and the two Patzici captured. But Krum, the main object of the stratagem, escaped. Darts were fired at him as he galloped away, but only wounded him lightly. He reached his camp in safety, vowing destruction. The pious citizens of Constantinople were bitterly disappointed. The failure was due to their sins, they said.


The next few days were spent in Krum’s fiery vengeance. All the suburbs of the city, not only those close outside the walls, but also the rich towns and villages on the far side of the Golden Horn and up the European shore of the Bosphorus, studded with churches and monasteries and sumptuous villas, all were committed to the flames. The Palace of Saint Mamas, one of the finest of the





suburban homes of the Emperor, was utterly destroyed; its ornamented capitals and sculptured animals were packed up in wagons to decorate the Khan’s palace at Pliska. Every living creature that they found the Bulgars slew. The devastation spread wider as the Khan began his journey homeward. On the road to Selymbria every town and hamlet was destroyed; Selymbria itself was razed. The dreadful destroyer moved on. Heraclea was saved by its strong walls, but everything outside them perished. The Bulgars had levelled the fort of Daonin; they went on to level the forts of Rhaedestus and Aprus. There they rested ten days, then went south to the hills of Ganus. The miserable inhabitants of the countryside had fled there for refuge; they had to be hunted out, the men to be butchered, the women and children and beasts to be sent to captivity in Bulgaria. Then, after a short destructive excursion to the Hellespont, Krum turned north to Adrianople. The great fortress was still holding out against the Khan’s brother. But Krum brought with him machines to apply against the walls. The garrison was starving; it knew that no relief would come now. From necessity it surrendered. The city was destroyed and deserted. All the inhabitants, to the number, it was said, of 10,000, were transported away to the northern shore of the Danube. There they lived in captivity; and Manuel, their Archbishop, and the most steadfast of his flock met with martyrs’ crowns. The Imperial government regretted now its obduracy and tricks. It begged the Khan for peace; but Krum was implacable. He had too much to forgive. [1]



1. Theophanes, pp. 785-6. He closes his history with the capture of Adrianople: Scriptor Incertus, pp. 342-4, giving the most detailed account: Theophanes Continuatus, p. 24: Genesius, p. 13: Ignatius, Vita Nicephori, pp. 206-7. The captivity and martyrdom of the Adrianopolitans, is told in the Vita Basilii (Theophanes Continuatus, pp. 216-17), Menologium Basilii Imperatoris, pp. 276-7, and Georgius Monachus Continuatus, p. 765.





In these dark days men prayed and hoped in Constantinople that Constantine Copronymus would arise from the grave, to smite the Bulgars as he had been wont to smite them. The resurrection was denied them; but the Emperor Leo vowed to be a worthy substitute. He set out from Constantinople with his army soon after Krum retired, but did not attempt to follow him, taking instead the road along the Black Sea coast; his object was to rebuild Mesembria. Close to Mesembria he met the Bulgar forces—probably just a detachment of Krum’s army; Krum was not, apparently, there in person. The district had been frequently devastated of recent years, and the Bulgar army was hard up for supplies. Leo, on the other hand, being in touch with the sea and his ships, was amply provided for. Finding out the Bulgar difficulties, he resolved on a stratagem. He retired secretly with some picked troops on to a hill. The rest of the army suddenly saw that he had disappeared and began to be panic-stricken. The news spread to the Bulgars, who thereupon determined to attack. But Leo warned his army in time; so that they stood their ground when the Bulgars came. Leo was then able to swoop down from his hill and take the Bulgars in the rear. It was a triumph for the Imperial army; not a Bulgar escaped. Leo was able to advance into Bulgaria, and devastate the countryside, sparing adults, but, with sinister foresight, slaying the children, dashing them against the rocks. The Bulgars were deeply ashamed by their defeat. The hill where Leo lay in ambush was long called Leo’s hill, and Bulgars passing by would point at it and sadly shake their heads. [1]


But Leo’s success was of little value. During the following winter, which was unusually mild and dry, a



1. For discussion of this campaign, whose existence Zlatarski and others deny, see Appendix VII.





Bulgar army of 30,000 men crossed the low rivers and sacked Arcadiopolis (Lule Burgas). On their return they found that a week’s rain had flooded the River Ergenz, and they had to wait till the river subsided and then build a bridge. But during this delay Leo did nothing, so his critics said, to attack them. They returned safely to Bulgaria with their 50,000 captives and their wagon-loads of gold and apparel and Armenian carpets. [1]


Shortly afterwards worse news came to Constantinople. Krum was planning a far greater vengeance on the city that had treated him so treacherously. He was determined to destroy it, beginning his attack on the quarter of Blachernae, whence had been fired the darts that wounded him. The tales of his preparations caused men to gasp with horrified astonishment—tales of the hordes collected by the Khan, Slavs from ‘all the Slavonias,’ and Avars from the Pannonian plain; of the vast engines that the Khan was constructing, catapults of all sizes, and stones and fire to hurl in them, besides the tortoises and rams and ladders that featured in every big siege; of the thousand oxen feeding in the Khan’s great stables, and the five thousand iron-bound wagons waiting there. Leo hastened to put his capital in a fit state of defence, and set about building a new wall outside the Blachernae quarter, where the Bulgar assault was expected and the fortifications were weak. [2] He even sought diplomatic aid. It was perhaps the news that Krum was collecting troops even in Pannonia that reminded the Imperial statesmen that Bulgaria could be attacked in the rear from Germany. In the year 814 ambassadors from Constantinople set out for the court of the Western Emperor Louis, to ask for help against the barbarous Bulgars. They arrived before him in August; but it seems that they met



1. Scriptor Incertus, pp. 346-7.


2. Scriptor Incertus, p. 347.





with no response. Louis had his own barbarians to fight. [1]


But by then the danger was past. The hand of God had intervened. On Holy Thursday, the 13th of April, 814, Krum broke a blood-vessel in his head, and died. [2]



Krum had remade Bulgaria. Kardam had shown that the Bulgars had only been crippled, not conquered, by the wars of Copronymus; but Krum had altered the whole status of his country. His first achievement, of uniting the Pannonian with the Balkan Bulgars, had given both of them new life. And then he had embarked on a career of spectacular, terrible triumph. He had slain two Emperors in battle and caused the fall of a third. Of the great Imperial fortresses on the frontier he had captured and destroyed four and caused the inhabitants of the two others to flee in terror. [3] He had even seriously threatened the Imperial capital; and repeatedly he had beaten the best Imperial armies. Bulgaria, the dying state of half a century before, was now the greatest military power in Eastern Europe.


But Krum had not only asserted so alarmingly the independence of Bulgaria by force of arms; he was also, it seems, a great internal organizer. The details of his work are lost, but an echo has come down to us in a story given by the tenth-century encyclopaedist Suidas. Krum, he says, after conquering the Avars, asked his Avar captives the reason of their Empire’s fall. They answered that they had lost their best men through various causes, jealousy and accusations between one another, collusion between thieves and judges, drunkenness, bribery, and dishonesty in their commercial dealings, and a passion



1. Annales Laurissenses Minorts, p. 122: the arrival of the Greek embassy immediately follows an event dated August.


2. Scriptor Incertus, p. 348. Bury (op. cit.) dates it the 14th; but that was a Friday.


3. Sardica, Develtus, Mesembria, and Adrianople were destroyed, Anchialus and Philippopolis deserted.





for law-suits. Krum was profoundly impressed, and promptly issued laws to prevent such things in Bulgaria: first, when a man accused another of some crime, the accuser had to be well questioned before the trial took place, and, if he were shown to have invented the accusation, he was to be executed; secondly, hospitality to thieves was punishable by confiscation of all the host’s goods, while thieves were to have their bones broken; thirdly, all vines were to be rooted up; and finally men were to give sufficiently to the needy poor, under the penalty of the confiscation of their goods. [1] It is highly doubtful that Krum’s legislative activity was as simple as Suidas says; but obviously he introduced innovations along these lines. All these laws were simplifications of the paternalist legislation which the Emperor used to give to his people, and very different in their conception from the laws that would occur in an aristocratic state such as Bulgaria had been. Krum, modelling himself, like all progressive Bulgars, on the Empire, was aiming at an almost theocratic supremacy, such as the Emperor enjoyed among his subjects. Krum apparently furthered this policy by encouraging his Slav subjects as opposed to the Bulgars, the aristocracy. It has always been the habit of autocrats to divert their aristocracies from political into military positions; the Byzantine Emperors, when later an aristocracy arose in the Empire, followed that policy; in Western Europe in more modern times it was the policy of statesmen such as Richelieu. So the Bulgars had to confine themselves to the army or to military governorships in the outposts of Empire [2]; they were better fighters than the Slavs, and they were useful there. But for his political work and in the high positions at Court he employed Slavs. His only



1. Suidas, Lexicon, p. 762.


2. The soldiers whose deaths are commemorated in the tablets found by the Dnieper and the Theiss (see below, pp. 81, 83) have Bulgar names, Onegavon and Okorses.





ambassador whose name we know was a Slav, Dargamer; and the boyars with whom the Khan feasted drank to a Slav toast, ‘Zdravitza.’ [1]


Indeed, it was in this internal organization that Krum was of most service to his country. Contemporary and modern historians have been so dazzled by his startling military triumphs, that they have failed to realize his true significance. Krum’s wars were fought for a defensive aim. He was not an ambitious conqueror; in spite of his victories, he never asked for more than the Meleona frontier, the frontier that Tervel had enjoyed. There were tales of his ambitions in Macedonia, but they never amounted to anything. When he captured the great Imperial fortresses he never attempted to hold them; he merely destroyed them and retired. He knew that the Empire would always resent an independent kingdom in the Balkans; he therefore hoped to safeguard his independence by carrying the attack into Imperial territory. But, till his last year, when he was burning for vengeance, he would have welcomed a peace that recognized his freedom and gave him a small tribute (to help both his finances and his prestige) and left him time to organize his country. But in the treaty he must insist on being returned his deserter-subjects; he must have all the unruly elements under his power, so that he could crush them. Barbarian though he was, with his ostentation and craft and cruelty, his concubines, his human sacrifices, and his cup that was an Emperor’s head, the Sublime Khan Krum was a very great statesman; and his greatness lies, not in being the conqueror of Emperors, but in being the founder of the splendid Bulgarian autocracy. As it was, his wars distracted him; he did not quite have time enough. The khanate trembled a little and was troubled when the great Khan died.



1. See above, p. 57.


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