A history of the First Bulgarian Empire

Steven Runciman





In the Balkan Peninsula memories linger long. The centuries of Turkish rule have passed like a single night, and the previous ages have kept all the living passions of a yesterday. In a land where races have perpetually overlapped and where frontiers have been seldom natural and never permanently just, a spirit of rivalry and bitterness has inevitably permeated international politics and their records far back into the past. Inevitably, Balkan historians have succumbed to this spirit. All too sensible of the support that a kindly history can bring to their countries, they cannot restrain themselves from ensuring the kindliness, from painting history in a light that is favourable to them. It is natural enough, but a mistaken policy. Not only does it often inherently defeat its ends—as when the Slav writers in unison pour contempt on the East Roman Empire, because it was chiefly Greek, quite forgetting that to belittle your enemies is the least effective way of magnifying yourself—but also it has long since ceased to achieve its object abroad. In Western Europe, where national rivalries are less unendingly acute, and so learning has freed itself from patriotism, the words of Balkan historians no longer carry conviction.


It is a pity; for there are many passages in Balkan history interesting and important enough to deserve recording. But few have been recorded satisfactorily. In Eastern Europe there has been too much passion; while Western Europe has adopted the attitude that nothing of consequence happened in Eastern Europe till the growth of the so-called Eastern Question in the course of the eighteenth century. Thus the First Bulgarian Empire has remained a vague and ill-known period, whose very name falls as a







surprise on most Western ears. But its story deserves attention, both for its significance in the history of Europe, and also for its own qualities and the study of the great men that were its rulers. It is in the hope of winning for it some of this attention that I have written this book. Following the rule that it is not for the historian to meddle in modern politics, I have restricted myself here to the history of the First Bulgarian Empire and no more. But, if its history can arouse any interest in and sympathy with the country that is its modern heir, I shall be well pleased; for that result is, I think, within the legitimate aspirations of the historian.


The First Bulgarian Empire presents one great initial difficulty for historians. We know its history almost exclusively from external sources. Except for a valuable but meagre dated list of the early monarchs, a few hagiographical writings, and a few inscriptions, mostly of recent discovery, we only possess the evidence provided for us by chroniclers of the East Roman Empire, with occasional sidelights from Western Europe. I deal more fully with the original sources elsewhere; but, all the while, it is necessary to remember that there are inevitable gaps in our information, particularly with regard to the internal history and the history of the frontiers on the side away from the civilized world. Such lacunae are excellent playgrounds for the Chauvinists, where their imaginations can play the most riotous games; but for the serious historian they are highly discouraging, forcing him to advance with a timorousness or a confession of ignorance that is most distasteful to his pride. It is possible that more evidence may arise—that more inscriptions may be found to throw light in many places; but that only deters the historian the more; he can never hope to say the last word on early Bulgarian history.


Consequently, few historians have attempted to deal





with the First Empire as a whole. In Western Europe it has only been treated in one or two chapters in histories that deal with the whole history of the Balkans or Bulgaria; and the most important of these, Jireček’s Geschichte der Bulgaren, excellent in its day, is now out of date. The others are of little value. In England, however, there is also a chapter, readable but necessarily superficial, in the Cambridge Mediaeval History, vol. iv. It is only in books dealing with various periods of the history of Constantinople that early Bulgaria has received concentrated attention from Western writers, and then only in patches. But some of these works are of great importance, as, for example, Bury’s History of the Eastern Roman Empire, 802–67 (his Later Roman Empire, 395-800, was written too long ago to be of much use to-day), Rambaud’s Empire Grec au Xme Siècle, and Schlumberger’s great monographs on the Emperors of the later Macedonian period. The careers of Cyril and Methodius have given rise to a large crop of literature, dealing largely with Bulgaria, and remarkable chiefly for its various religious prejudices. The most temperate of these books is Dvornik’s admirable Les Slaves, Byzance et Rome. In addition, writers such as Bury, Jireček, Marquart, and others have written articles and monographs on various questions affecting Bulgarian history; I cite them in my bibliography, and, where they are relevant, in my footnotes. I myself, in my Emperor Romanus Lecapenus, have given a detailed account of Symeon’s later wars.


But it is only when we come to Slavonic writers that we find a fitting interest taken in early Bulgarian history. For some time now Russian historians—such as Palauzov, Drinov, Golubinski, Uspenski, and Vasilievski—have written on various aspects and periods of early Bulgarian history and have undertaken excavations and unearthed inscriptions of very great value. Of recent years the





Bulgarians themselves have turned to its study. Particularly I must cite Ivanov, to whose book on Bogomil literature I am deeply indebted, and, most important of all the historians of early Bulgaria, Professor Zlatarski. Zlatarski, besides having written many very useful short articles and monographs, is the only historian to have attempted a full-length history of the period; his great history of his own country has been brought so far, in two thick volumes, down to the close of the First Empire. It is a work packed with learning and ingenuity, and is absolutely essential for any student of early Bulgarian history. [1] I have ventured to disagree with Professor Zlatarski on various points of judgement and interpretation; but his writings, together with the personal help that he has given me, put me under an obligation to him that it is difficult adequately to acknowledge.


An explanation is needed for the method of transliterating that I employ. With Greek names I have adopted the traditional Latin transliteration; with Cyrillic the problem is more difficult. I have not attempted to alter forms that are time-honoured and well-known—I write Sofia rather than Sofiya; as for the rest, I follow, with one or two modifications, the rules approved by the British Academy, [2] rather than the forms employed by the European Slavists, whose ornamental additions to ordinary letters look unfamiliar to English eyes and some of whose usages, such as ‘c’ for ‘ts,’ definitely invite error among the unwary. Proper names provide a further difficulty. With



1. Its only great defect is an absence of any maps.


2. Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. viii. (1917-18), p. 529. I transliterate the Russian ‘e’ after a softened consonant as ‘ie’ rather than ‘ ̉ e,’ and I render the letter ‘yat’ as ‘ie‘ rather than ‘ê.’ Apostrophes and accents, though necessary for minute phonetic accuracy, serve only to make restless the average eye. I transliterate the nasal ‘a’ which Bulgarian has inherited from old Slavonic as ‘â.’ I also divide the strings of consonants which Bulgarian joins together with only a hard sign with a ‘u,’ as in the name Bulgaria itself. The hard sign in Bulgarian has more of the quality of a vowel than in Russian.





regard to the persons whose Christian names have English equivalents, I have used these equivalents. It would be pedantic to write of Tsar Petr or the Empress Aecaterine, or even Pope Johannes. But many of the Bulgarian proper names are only known to us through alien, principally Greek, versions. Where guidance has been given as to the names of the early Khans in the Old Bulgar List, I have followed such guidance, save only that I have preserved the Greek form Asperuch rather than Isperikh. [1] When the List ends, difficulties arise. Occasional inscriptions help; but my rule, on the whole, has been to use the original Bulgar or Slavonic name where it is obvious, but in doubtful cases to transliterate the Greek. [2] I adopt the same rule with regard to Slavonic place-names. With Imperial place-names I have, except for obvious exceptions such as Adrianople, transliterated the Greek form then current. In one case I have been deliberately inconsistent; in the earlier parts of the history I call the city now known as Sofia by its Imperial name, Sardica; but after the ninth century I call it Sofia. Actually in the tenth and eleventh centuries it was known in Greek as Triaditza, or in Slavonic as Sredetsa; but as the name did not survive I considered it merely confusing to employ it.


I have drawn a distinction between the words Bulgar and Bulgarian. The former I use to mean the race of Hunnish invaders that formed the nucleus of Bulgaria, the latter the nation composed by the amalgamation of the Bulgars and the Slavs. The terms the Empire, the Emperor, and Imperial all refer to the East Roman Empire,



1. I have acted illogically with the name Kubrat—in Greek, Crubatus or Crobatus; in Bulgar, Kurt. The form Kubrat has no better justification save that it is now generally employed. I use Asperuch’s Greek form because he is best known from the story of the Greek chroniclers.


2. In the discovery of the Slav original forms I have relied very largely on Professor Zlatarski’s judgement. In most cases it is easy; ᾽Ιβάτζης clearly was Ivatsa to his people.





misleadingly known as Byzantine. [1] To the contemporary world this Empire was simply the Empire, and the Emperor was the Basileus that reigned at Constantinople; and to the East, at any rate, the situation was not altered by the appearance of rival Emperors in Germany.


I give a brief discussion of the original sources in Appendix I; and I have appended at the close of the volume a full bibliography. The page-references in the footnotes of the text refer to the editions that I have cited there.


In conclusion I wish to thank very warmly my Bulgarian friends who have been of great assistance to me, not only on my visits to Bulgaria, but also in supplying me with maps. My one regret is that I have been unable to visit in person the splendid examples of old Bulgarian architecture at Prespa and Ochrida, now under Jugoslavian dominion. I wish also to thank Miss R. F. Forbes for her help over the proofs.



1. The term Byzantium is, I think, legitimate for describing the civilization of the Empire, but the Empire itself was consciously the heir of the universal Roman Empire, and in no way local.


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