A history of the First Bulgarian Empire

Steven Runciman




Appendix II

The Bulgarian Princes’ List



The Bulgarian Princes’ List is a document of such importance to early Bulgarian history that it demands separate notice. It exists in two practically identical manuscripts, one at Leningrad, one at Moscow, written in old Slavonic, and contains a list of the Bulgarian rulers from Avitokhol to Umor, with dates; but its great interest lies in that the entry clearly indicating the date of each accession is in an unknown language, which must be old





Bulgar. Translated into English, the List runs as follows:


‘Avitokhol lived 300 years, his race Dulo, and his years dilom tvirem:

Irnik lived 100 years and 5 years, his race Dulo, and his years dilom tuirem:

Gostun as regent 2 years, his race Ermi, and his years dokhs tvirem:

Kurt reigned 60 years, his race Dulo, and his years shegor vechem:

Bezmer 3 years, his race Dulo, and his years shegor vechem.

These 5 princes held their rule, with shorn heads, on the other side of the Danube for 515 years; and after, there came Prince Isperikh to this side of the Danube where they are now.

Isperikh, prince, 60 years and 1 year, his race Dulo, his years her enialem:

Tervel 21 years, his race Dulo, and his years tekuchitem tvirem:

. . .  28 years, his race Dulo, and his years dvansh ekhtem:

Sevar 15 years, [1] his race Dulo, and his years tokh altom:

Kormisosh 17 years, his race Vokil, and his years shegor tvirem: this prince changed the race of Dulo, that is to say Vikhtum [2]:

Vinekh 7 years, his race Ukil, and his years shegor alem:

Telets 3 years, his race Ugain, and his years somor altem, he too of another race:

Umor 40 days, his race Ukil, and his [years] dilom tutom.’


There is one obvious emendation to be made; to make the five first princes’ reigns add up to 515 we must alter the length of Irnik’s into 150 years. [3] But nothing else can be done until we discover the significance of the Bulgar words. As they stand, there is no means of finding out their meaning: though the Bulgarian, Tudor Doksov, writing early in the tenth century, apparently used the same system. But, though a few scholars [4] attempted to bring Turkish and Mongol philology to bear on the question, they could evolve no definite equation between this dating and any known dating. It was not till some thirty



1. From the photographs of both the MSS. I read here ‘ εί ’ which must be intended for 15; but Bury, Marquart, and Mikkola all take it to be 5.


2. This rendering is a little doubtful; after ‘Dulo’ the text goes ‘Vrekshevi Khtun.’


3. Jireček, Geschichte, pp. 127 ff.: Bury, however (op. cit. below), thinks the change unnecessary.


4. e.g. Kuun (Relationum Hungarorum) and Radloff (Die Alttürkischen Inschriften).





years ago, when Russian excavators discovered the Chatalar inscription, that a point of contact was found; Omortag’s foundation of Preslav was dated in the 15th Indiction (i.e. September 821-September 822), or the Bulgarian date σιγορελεμ, shegor alem.


It would take too long to give a detailed account of the results that savants have evolved from this additional evidence. I shall merely deal generally with the chief investigators and state which I follow. Bury was the first serious investigator. In 1910 he published a clue to the Bulgar words, [1] which, he declared, fitted all known facts, though he emended the text with regard to the later princes, to reconcile it better with the data of the Greek chroniclers. His theory demanded a cycle of 60 lunar years—a cycle not unfamilar among Oriental tribes—the first series of figures—e.g. dilom—represented the units, the second the decades. He claimed for this system that it was free from the dangerous trap of linguistic similarities. Unfortunately the dates that he thus evolved upset known history, as Marquart pointed out. [2] In particular, the Bulgars had to cross the Danube 20 years earlier.


Marquart’s criticisms were damaging, but not constructive. However, in 1914, Professor Mikkola of Helsingfors fell back on to the help of philology, and evolved a key, [3] which provided a twelve-year cycle, in which each year was given the name of some animal—the first Bulgar word being therefore a name, not a number—a suggestion that had already been tentatively put forward by Petrovski. Analogies with Turkish and Cuman words (e.g. dvansh = Turkish davšan, a hare; tokh = Cuman taok, a hen) and the order of the years in their cycles enabled Mikkola to translate these Bulgar names and fix their order in the cycle. The second Bulgar words he took to be the ordinal numbers of the months, and, on analogous linguistic comparisons, he arrived at an order for them.



1. In the Byzantinische Zeitschrift, vol. xix., pp. 127 ff.


2. Marquart, Die Altbulgarische Ausdrucke, pp. I ff.


3. Mikkola, Tyurksko-Bolgarskoe Lietochislenie, pp. 243 ff.





Mikkola’s philological arguments are convincing and have now generally been accepted. But his dates do not fit with the dates known from our Greek sources, particularly with regard to the Khans living in the time of Copronymus. To produce better results, Mikkola made one or two later emendations, but ineffectively. [1] The matter remained unsatisfactory till Professor Zlatarski set to work on it.


Zlatarski, who had first accepted a modified form of Bury’s theory, [2] now [3] followed Mikkola’s first key: i.e. somor = rat, the 1st year of the cycle, shegor = ox, the 2nd: beri = wolf, the 3rd; dvansh = hare, the 4th; dilom = snake, the 6th; tokh = hen, the 10th; etkh = dog, the 11th; dokhs = pig, the 12th. The months were alem, 1st; vechem, 2nd; tutom, 4th; altom, 6th; ekhtem, 8th; tvirem, 9th. These words involve one or two alterations in the text, all very plausible, e.g. tekuchitem is shortened to etkh. Tudor Doksov’s bekhti is taken to be the 5th month. But Zlatarski has two important emendations to make to Mikkola’s and previous theories. First, he reverts to a system of lunar years; secondly, he begins a new era in A.D. 680, when the Bulgars established themselves south of the Danube.


It would take too long to discuss his arguments in detail. I can only say here that they seem to me to be sound in themselves and justified by their results. Till A.D. 680 he accepts an era of cycles beginning at the year of the Incarnation: e.g. Avitokhol began to reign in the lunar year A.D. 150, which is the 6th year of a cycle. From John of Nikiou we can place Kubrat’s death about 642, i.e. 662 lunar. Therefore Bezmer ended in 665 lunar; and, if we subtract 515, for the length of the 5 reigns, we reach the year 150 lunar. The coincidence of the first year of a cycle with the birth of Christ seems to me arbitrary and may be quite fortuitous; though it is curious that A.D. 679 solar (the year of the Invasion) = A.D. 700 lunar—a mystic



1. Idem, Die Chronologie der Turkischen Donaubulgaren, p. 11.


2. Zlatarski, Imali li sa Bulgaritie sboe Lietobroenie.


3. Idem, Istoriya, i., 1, pp. 353-82, a full discussion of his views and arguments.





number that would certainly attract the attention of a Greek; and Zlatarski has shown convincingly that the List must have been written first in Greek, probably soon after Umor’s death, and so almost certainly by a Greek. Zlatarski also points out that the lengths of the reigns are calculated, not accurately, but from the cyclic years in which the accessions and deaths occurred. A difficulty arises over Isperikh’s accession. If Bezmer reigned 3 years with Isperikh as his successor, Isperikh’s reign would begin, not in the year beri, but in the 5th year. Zlatarski solves it by identifying Bezmer with Baian (Isperikh is beyond question Asperuch), and by making Isperikh break off from Bezmer 2 years before Bezmer’s death. This must be the approximate solution, though personally I prefer to keep Bezmer and Baian separate. Baian is a good Bulgar name, and is not very similar to Bezmer; moreover, the chronology seems to me to demand a generation between Kubrat and Asperuch.


With the year 680 a new cycle begins. Here Zlatarski works back from the date of Telets’s succession, which we know from Theophanes to have been in A.D. 761—2. [1] Our interpretation of the List places it in November, A.D. 761. The first difficulty that arises is that, according to the List, the period between the Invasion and Telets’s succession is 23 [2] + 21 + 28 + 15 + 17 + 7 = in lunar years, which is far too many. We must, therefore, abandon as inaccurate some of the stated lengths of reigns. Moreover, as the List’s lengths contradict the List’s dates, as we interpret them, it seems only reasonable to amend the lengths where they disagree with the dates. Measuring the years by the List’s system, Zlatarski reduces Tervel’s reign to 17 years, the unknown’s to 6: Sevar’s is raised to 16, Kormisosh’s is unaltered, Vinekh’s reduced to 6. This adds up to 85 lunar years, i.e. about 82 solar years—679—761. After Telets, Zlatarski inserts the 2 years of Sabin, of the existence of which at that point we are informed by the



1. Theophanes, pp. 667-8.


2. The length of Isperikh’s reign after the Invasion.





Greeks; this makes Umor’s year dilom, as it is in the List. Without the insertion of Sabin’s reign it would be dvansh.


Zlatarski’s final results are, therefore, as follows:


Avitokhol        began to reign March A.D. 146 [1]

Irnik                                        March 437

Gostun                                    September 582

Kurt                                        February 584

Bezmer                                   April 642

Isperikh                                  February 643

His separation:                       January 645

The beginning of the Bulgar era:     January 680

Tervel              began to reign December 701

Unknown                                May 718

Sevar                                       January 724

Kormisosh                              October 739

Vinekh                                    September 756

Telets                                       November 761

(Sabin                                     October 764)

Umor                                      July 766


These results cannot naturally claim absolute certainty; but the arguments with which Zlatarski supports them seem to me to carry conviction.


Zlatarski goes on to show that Tudor Doksov and his contemporaries also calculated their otherwise inexplicable dates by means of the Bulgarian era. Placing the Creation in the year 5505 B.C., they began the Bulgarian era at A.M. 6185; but for their dates after that they used lunar years. Thus the Conversion of Bulgaria is dated in both A.M. 6376 and 6377, but Tudor Doksov calls the year on Etkh bekhti. Now, 6376 – 6185 = 191, which would give the 11th year of a 12-year cycle. Moreover, as Zlatarski’s arithmetic shows, the 5th month of the lunar year 191 = the solar year 184.62 to 184.71, which equals September



1. The months are naturally approximate, as lunar months do not coincide with solar.





865. Zlatarski also attempts to show that the Russian chronicler known as ‘Nestor’ dates Imperial events by the same system. It is inherently probable, in that ‘Nestor’ derived his information on the Empire from Bulgarian translations. But while Zlatarski makes clear the interesting fact the ‘Nestor’ was using here a system of lunar years, I do not think that it is possible to credit ‘Nestor’ with definitely taking over the system. Textual emendations are necessary to make several of the instances fit. I think that ‘Nestor’ was unaware of the intricacies of Bulgarian chronology, and simply was muddled. As evidence his dates are of little value.


There is one more point that merits elucidation. 515, the number of years that the five first Khans, Avitokhol to Bezmer, are said to have reigned, has always been taken simply to represent the traditional time spent by the Bulgars on the Steppes before Asperuch’s first migration. But it is highly unlikely that they remained in one place for roughly that period. The number 515 has another significance. According to the chronological system of Africanus, commonly used at Constantinople, A.D. 680, the first year of the Bulgarian era = A.M. 6180. But 6180 years represents 515 cycles of 12 years. A Greek, aware of the Bulgars’ system of 12-year cycles, but unaware of their use of a lunar year, might well inform the Bulgars that 515 cycles had passed before they crossed the Danube. The 515 cycles became corrupted into 515 years, which, again, for the sake of greater realism, were assigned to the five Bulgar Khans whose names were known; and the first two Khans received the well-rounded, but lengthy reigns of 300 and 150 years respectively, so that the number might be built up: though, as I show below, in the case of Irnik’s accession there was historical justification.


This emphasizes once more the great difficulty of the List, a difficulty that its every interpreter must bear in mind. It was almost certainly written for the Bulgars by Greek slaves, and combines an Oriental system of dating with ideas based by these ignorant Greeks on superstition





and an occasional coincidence. Thus no one simple theory of interpretation can suffice, and, for that reason alone, Bury’s gallant mental exercise was doomed to failure. [1]



1. In the Godishnik of the National Museum of Sofia, 1922–5, Feher has made a profound study of the Greek evidence revelant to the dating of the List. But his results do not, I think, seriously demand an alteration in the dating suggested above.


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