A history of the First Bulgarian Empire

Steven Runciman





Barbarians in the Balkans



For centuries past, the Balkan peninsula had been the playground of barbarians, a land that the fierce tribes pillaged and destroyed and left deserted. But till the sixth century none of them made of it a lasting home. The Goths and Gepids, the Sarmatians and the Huns, had all passed through, trailing blood and fire, and moved on to seek richer countries. It was left for a gentler race, the Slavs, to inherit the Balkans.


Gentle is here a comparative term; but the Slav penetration was covert, an almost unnoticed work achieved under the shadow of more terrible and spectacular movements. In the fourth century the Slavs were still, it seems, hidden in their home, the forests of Western Russia; by the beginning of the sixth century, the world, having hitherto ignored them, was astonished to find that all over Central Europe, from the Elbe and the Alps to the Russian rivers, from the Baltic to the Save and the Danube, Slavs were thick upon the ground. The statesmen of the Empire, anxiously watching the Danube frontier, grew alarmed. The Slavs might be less savage than the Huns, but they were very numerous, and one of their tribes, the Antae, now by the mouth of the Danube, was renowned for its warlike qualities.


In the reign of the Emperor Justinian the storm broke— softly at first, in isolated raids. In 534 the Slavs made their first excursion across the river. In 545 and 549 they penetrated to Thrace, in 547 to Dyrrhachium; in 550 they threatened Adrianople and the great city for which they







had struggled so long, and still in vain, Thessalonica. [1] In 558 they followed in the train of the Gotrigurs, to the walls of Constantinople. [2]


As the century passed on, the Avars loomed larger in the background; and the Slavs decided to seek safer homes across the Danube. In 581, for the first time, they entered the Balkans and remained. [3] In the following years their settlements feverishly increased; between 584 and 589 there were no less than ten invasions of the Greek peninsula. [4] The Avars followed the Slav refugees, and the two would even combine against the Empire. In 597 Thessalonica suffered at their hands the first of its great sieges, when Saint Demetrius had to come to the rescue of his city. [5] In 601 the Emperor Maurice, victorious against the Avars, made a treaty in which the Imperial frontier was still placed at the Danube. [6] But it was an idle boast. During the next years the troubles of Phocas’s usurpation and the Persian war denuded the Balkans of Imperial troops; and the Slavs could do as they pleased. They overran Dalmatia, destroying Salona, the old metropolis, and spread eastward over the peninsula: till, by the fourth decade of the century, only the great maritime cities and the Albanian mountains were untainted; even the Peloponnese had its Slavic settlements. [7]


At the same time the Avars were growing in strength, even in the Balkans, to reach their high tide at the great siege of Constantinople in 626: in which the Slavs joined,



1. Procopius, Bello Gothico, pp. 329, 331, 441, 444, 592.


2. Agathias, p. 367: Theophanes, p. 360.


3. John of Ephesus (trans. Schönfelder), p. 8: Michel le Syrien, p. 347.


4. Michel le Syrien, p. 361: Evagrius, p. 228.


5. Sancti Demetrii Martyris Acta, pp. 1284 ff.


6. Theophylact Simocatta, pp. 250-60: Theophanes, p. 432 (he calls the Avars Bulgars, mixing them with their vassals).


7. Sancti Demetrii Martyris Acta, p. 1361: Niederle, Slovanské Starožitnosti, ii., p. 224. Thessalonica had twice again been nearly besieged (S. D. M. Acta, pp. 1336, 1341 ff.).





as their vassals. [1] After the failure of the siege the Avar power ebbed. In the distant north of their empire, King Samo freed the Czechs and the Moravians; farther to the south, the Balkan Slavs were strengthened by new invaders of their kindred, the Croats and the Serbs. As the Avar dominion receded, the Imperial dominion grew; and the Emperor Heraclius, victorious at last from the Persian and Avar wars, induced the Balkan Slavs to recognize his suzerainty. He even attempted to strengthen his hold by Christian missions; but, except along the Dalmatian coast, where local missionaries from the holy Latin cities aided the work, the evangelization had little result. [2]


From the Avar decline till Asperuch’s advance from the Danube delta, the peninsula enjoyed a few decades’ comparative quiet. The Empire had recovered a certain control. The coast cities had never passed into Slav hands—though Thessalonica’s escape had more than once been thought literally miraculous—and now with the peace were able to spread their commercial, and therefore political, influence over their neighbours. In the centre of the peninsula, Upper Macedonia, and the Morava plain, and in the Greek watershed, the Slavs were to all intents independent; but farther east, along the ranges of Haemus and Rhodope, the Empire kept a few inland garrison cities, to guard the roads to Constantinople— cities such as Adrianople, Philippopolis, and, far into the heart of the barbarians, Sardica (Sofia). [3] The Slavs by themselves did not constitute a great menace. They were brigands and pirates, but never systematic conquerors.



1. Theophanes, p. 485.


2. See Appendix IV.


3. The extent of the destruction of the old city life can to some degree be gauged by the various lists of bishops and signatures to the Councils. These have been admirably analysed in Dvornik, Les Slaves, Byzance et Rome, p. 74 ff. I am inclined to think that the organized establishment of garrisons in the inland cities probably only dates from Constantine V’s campaigns; but presumably some defence was always maintained in towns like Adrianople or Sardica.





Of old, the Antae alone had achieved any sort of political organization; and though soon the Croats, and a little later the Serbs, were to feel their way out of chaos, as yet the Balkan Slavs were disunited and disorganized. They all spoke much the same language, and probably indulged in the same heathen religions. But there their unity ended. In other respects they were divided up into small tribes, each with its petty chieftain, [1] and inclined to be jealous of its neighbours: some of the tribes were purely predatory, but more, it seems, were peacefully inclined and pastoral. They were too prolific not to be restless; but once they had overrun the whole country there was no reason why they should not have settled down and, from their disorganized weakness, fallen gradually under the recovering power of the Emperors from Constantinople. In the past the Slavs had only been an aggressive menace when they had attacked in the train of the Cotrigurs or the Avars. If now no fresh invaders were allowed to enter in, the Slavs as a political force might fail, and the Balkans be saved to Byzantium.


But Asperuch the Bulgar came to the Danube, and crossed.



This first resting-place of Asperuch, after he left his home, has always been a puzzle. He crossed the Dnieper and the Dniester, and came at last to a place called Onglos or Oglos; but neither of our informants, Nicephorus and Theophanes, seems sure on which side of the Danube to situate it. Subsequent generations have remained in equal doubt, arguing each side in turn. The answer probably is both sides, but more particularly the middle of the river. Oglos was one of the islands of the Danube delta, probably



1. Called in the Sancti Demetrii Martyris Acta, ῥήγες. The accounts of the sieges of Thessalonica provide a good picture of the Slavs at that time. See references above.





Peuce. [1] The muddle is certainly helped by the fact that neither Theophanes nor Nicephorus, each deriving his matter from the same lost source, understood the situation, which was probably incompletely described in the source; and so each improved on it in his own way. Anyhow, it is useless to attempt great accuracy. Asperuch’s Bulgars were a numerous race. Oglos, or Peuce, was their temporary centre, but there was probably a vanguard in the Dobrudja and a rearguard in Bessarabia. All that we know is that it was a country difficult of access and full of natural fortresses, marshy and rocky—though the rocks may only be one of Nicephorus’s improvements. Such a description might well be applied to the Danube delta and the country surrounding it. [2]


Wherever it was, it was inconveniently close to the lands of the Empire, those difficult Balkan provinces where the Slavs were being gradually tamed. We cannot accurately tell the date of Asperuch’s move to Oglos. It must have been a gradual affair, taking place between the years 650 and 670. [3] During these years the Empire was occupied in a sanguinary war with the Arabs in Asia, and in Europe in the religious and diplomatic intricacies of the Monothelite controversy; and in 668 the murder of the West-loving Emperor Constans by a chamberlain with a soap-bowl was followed by a short rebellion. But by the year 679 the throne was secure and the Arab war was ending. The Emperor Constantine IV, Pogonatus, the Bearded, was alive to the danger of allowing new invaders into



1. Identified by Zlatarski (Istoriya, i., pp. 123 ff., 387 ff.), who discusses the question convincingly. Additional difficulties have been created by a persistent attempt of historians from Theophanes onward to derive Ὀγλος from the Slavonic âgul, ‘a corner’ (cf. the Greek ὀγλος , ‘an angle or corner’). Really it can be equally well derived from agul, ‘an enclosure.’


2. See Zlatarski, loc. cit.: Theophanes, pp. 546-9: Nicephorus, pp. 33-5. Bury (Eastern Roman Empire, p. 338) thinks that the earthworks of Preslav-on-the-Danube date from this occupation. He is probably right.


3. The outside dates are 643 and 679.





the Balkans, to disquieten or, worse, to organize the Slavs. Asperuch’s Bulgar hordes must be driven back or crushed.


And so the Imperial armies marched to the Danube; and there followed that campaign that was ruined by the Kmperor’s sore feet—a euphemism, probably, for gout. The result was very different from the Emperor’s hopes. The Bulgars, victoriously driving back the Imperial invaders, themselves invaded the Empire. Their hordes overran the country as far south as Varna, pillaging and making innumerable captives. And where they came they settled. They conquered the Slavs that inhabited the countryside, and threatened the Imperial cities. The Balkan world had been taken by surprise; it could effect no resistance. Thus, rapidly and unexpectedly, early in the year 680, Asperuch founded modern Bulgaria, Bulgaria south of the Danube.


The Emperor bowed to fate. Shocked at the numbers of captives from his people, he hastened to make peace. All the land beyond the northern slopes of Haemus as far as the Danube and the Avar frontier (an unknown distance) was ceded to the Bulgar monarch; and he was further promised a yearly tribute if he abstained from raiding the Empire—a humiliating concession, but one according to the canons of Byzantine economy, which found tributes less expensive, on the whole, than wars. [1]


The exact extent of Asperuch’s new kingdom is impossible to discover. South of the Danube its eastern boundary was the Black Sea, its southern the Haemus (Balkan) range, and its western probably the River Isker; but there was also considerable territory on the northern bank, including Bessarabia as far as the River Dniester, and probably the bulk of the Wallachian plain. Along



1. Theophanes and Nicephorus, loc. cit.





this vague northern line it abutted on to the Avar empire. [1] But it was to the south of the Danube that Asperuch now transferred the seat of his government. Asperuch was not only a conqueror, but also a statesman. From the first he saw that the success of his kingdom depended on the Slav population. The Slavs of the north-east Balkans, haunted by the memory of the Avars and a fear of the Imperial restoration, had submitted to Asperuch with a good grace, almost welcoming him as a leader against the dangers. Asperuch made use of their compliance to organize them, placing them in tribes along his various frontiers and controlling them from the centre, where he built his palace of Pliska and held his Court.


Pliska was no more than a fortified camp, a collection of tents or rude habitations surrounded with great earthworks. It was situated on the low, rolling hills that lie inland from Varna and join the Dobrudja plain with the heights of Haemus. This district was the nucleus of the new kingdom. It was probably cleared of the Slavs; their business was to provide padding along the frontier. The relations between the Bulgars and their subject Slavs are difficult to decipher clearly. It is highly unlikely that they blended all at once, as some Slavophil Bulgar historians have maintained. It is also unlikely that the Bulgar invaders were the mere handful that they are usually depicted to be. The tribe that settled at Oglos and so easily defeated a large, well-trained Imperial army must have been, to judge from the Imperial historians’ accounts, a tribe of considerable dimensions. It is impossible to lay down a dogma on the subject; but it seems that round the edge of the Bulgar kingdom there were these Slav tribes, which kept their old chieftains—we soon find a Slav aristocratic element at the Bulgar Court—but



1. See Zlatarski, Istoriya i., I, pp. 151 ff. I do not think that Asperuch extended his power as far west as the Isker till after the 689 war.





were controlled by Bulgar commissioners: while in the centre was the Bulgar king, the Sublime Khan, and his Bulgar officials and Bulgar armies. During the next century the Imperial historians, when talking of the Bulgar wars, usually call the enemy the ‘Bulgars and Slavs,’ implying an alliance, but not a fusion; and at the end of the century we find Slavs fleeing to the Empire for refuge against the Bulgars [1] — a movement that suggests that the Bulgars were not yet a predominantly Slav nation.


Of the organization of the Bulgars themselves we are better informed. Like all the Finno-Turkish tribes they had a clan system; and the Sublime Khan was actually only the most exalted of the Khans, the chiefs of the clans. At present the house of Dulo, with its high Hunnish past, was firmly established in the supremacy; but later, when the dynasty faded out, the dangers of the clan system made themselves apparent. The two chief Ministers were called the kanarti (possibly the same as the kavkan) and the tarkan; the latter, it seems, was in charge of the provincial administration. The nobles were divided into two classes: the superior consisted of the boliars or boyars—in the tenth century there were six boyars, but before Boris’s day they were probably more numerous; the lower of the bagaïns. There were also other titles, such as the bagatur or the koulourat; but their functions are unknown. During the ninth century the title of Khan was changed to that of Knyaz, the Slavonic ‘prince’; but the other old Bulgar titles lasted till the fall of the Bulgar Empire, and one even longer—the title boyar appears throughout the Slavonic world. [2]


Asperuch lived on for more than twenty years after the invasion, organizing his realm. He was not left entirely in peace. In 685 there succeeded to the Imperial throne a



1. During Constantine V’s Bulgar wars (see below).


2. I discuss the Bulgar titles in Appendix V.





fierce, restless youth, Justinian II. Annoyed at paying a tribute to the barbarians, he soon broke the peace of 680, and in 689 invaded Bulgar territory—a land now called by the Imperial chronicler ‘ Sclavinia and Bulgaria,’ the Bulgar kingdom and its Slav fringe. The Bulgars fled before Justinian, and he turned and came down the centre of the peninsula to Thessalonica, bringing great numbers of Slavs in his train, some of them captives, others gladly escaping from Bulgar domination. All these he sent across to Asia to settle in the Opsician theme. A few years later thirty thousand of them went out under his banners to fight the Saracens. Satisfied with his good work, Justinian marched back through enemy country; but on the way the Bulgars ambushed him. His army was routed, and he himself barely escaped alive back to Constantinople. And so the Bulgars were left in peace. [1]


In 701, Asperuch died, fifty-eight years since his separation from his brothers. His successor was Tervel, of the house of Dulo, his son, or perhaps his grandson. Tervel continued in Asperuch’s path, quietly consolidating his kingdom: till once again, in 705, the sinister figure of the Emperor Justinian II, an outlaw now, with his nose and his tongue slit, entered into Bulgar history. The ex-Emperor, since his deposition in 695, had been living in exile at Cherson, and latterly at the Court of the Khan of the Khazars, whose daughter he had married. But the Khan turned against him and he had to flee for his life. Angrier and more determined than ever, he came to Tervel and asked for help. Tervel was delighted; the troubled waters were admirable for an ambitious angler. He placed his army of Bulgars and Slav vassals at Justinian’s disposal, and the two monarchs marched on Constantinople. The walls of the city baffled them, and



1. Theophanes, p. 557: Nicephorus, p. 36.





the citizens within mocked at the ex-Emperor. But, after three days, Justinian crept in along an aqueduct. His sudden appearance suggested treachery, or magic, or the undermining of the walls. The city was seized with panic. The Emperor Tiberius fled; and Justinian was quickly established in the palace and on the throne. He remembered his Bulgar benefactor; Tervel was invited into the city, and, seated at the Emperor’s side, was given the title of Caesar.


The title is significant; but it is probable that the Emperor and the Khan interpreted it differently. Caesar was the second rank in the Imperial hierarchy; but it was in the Imperial hierarchy, under the Emperor. Tervel, in accepting the title, might seem to be acknowledging himself as being under the suzerainty of the Emperor, almost the Imperial viceroy in Bulgaria. But certainly Tervel intended no such thing. He was not versed in Byzantine history and etiquette. He merely saw that the Emperor was willing—was almost obliged—to give him a high-sounding title and a seat at his side; and he accepted it as a tribute to his power, that would raise his prestige in his own country and over the whole world. His view of the transaction was strengthened by the fact that Justinian gave him an immense amount of presents and ceded to his realm the small but valuable district known in Slavonic as Zagoria, ‘Beyond the Mountains,’ the district that slopes from the eastern end of the Haemus range down to the Gulf of Burgas. The towns on the Gulf, however—Mesembria, Anchialus, and Develtus—remained in Imperial hands. Tervel had also been promised the hand of the Emperor’s daughter; but she was still a little child, and the marriage never took place. Bulgaria had to wait two more centuries for its first foreign queen. [1]



1. Theophanes, p. 572-3: Nicephorus, p. 41-2: Georgius Hamartolus, ii., p. 622. See also Zlatarski, Istoriya, i., pp. 163 ff.





Meanwhile the Byzantine enjoyed the interesting spectacle of the Bulgar Khan distributing largesse to his soldiers, and measuring the gifts of the Emperor with his barbaric whip. [1]


The peace was of short duration. Justinian, who never forgot his injuries, soon forgot his benefits. In 708, no doubt because Tervel demanded more presents or tribute, Justinian prepared to invade Bulgaria. His army encamped by Anchialus, where his fleet rode in the harbour. The troops felt secure, and their discipline was slack: so that a surprise attack from the Bulgars utterly routed them. Justinian himself took refuge in the citadel; after three days’ siege he escaped to his ships and returned in disgrace to Constantinople. But Tervel seems to have won no material benefit by his victory. Moreover, he showed a strangely forgiving nature; he sent three thousand of his Bulgars to accompany Justinian in his flight to Bithynia in 711. They stayed with him till his cause was desperate, and left him then to his death. [2]


Imperial troubles during the next few years gave Tervel fresh opportunities for interference. In 712, as though to avenge his friend Justinian, he invaded Thrace, ravaging as far as the Golden Gate of Constantinople itself, and retiring laden with booty and unhurt. [3] In 716, when an Arab invasion was imminent, the ephemeral Emperor Theodosius III sought to consolidate his position by making a treaty with Tervel, the first Bulgarian treaty the terms of which we know. These terms first fixed the frontier: which was to pass by Meleona—an unknown place that must be some peak on the great Monastery range, such as the heights of Bakadzhik. Probably the frontier now followed the line later fortified by the Bulgars



1. Suidas, Lexicon, p. 761.


2. Theophanes, pp. 575-6: Nicephorus, pp. 43-4, 47.


3. Theophanes, pp. 586-7: Nicephorus, pp. 48-9.





and known as the Great Fence of Thrace—a line running roughly for some miles from the northern shore of the Gulf of Burgas in a west-south-west direction, through Bakadzhik to the Maritsa. Farther west the country was too unsettled for a definite frontier to be drawn. The second article of the treaty provided for a yearly payment by the Imperial Court to the Khan of robes and skins to the value of 30 lb. of gold (about £1,350). The third provided for an exchange of prisoners and the return of refugees, even refugees who were hostile to the present Governments—the Imperial civil wars must have obliged many intriguers from the Empire to take refuge in Bulgaria. The fourth article stipulated the free intercourse of merchants and merchandise between the two countries, provided that the merchants had passports and seals; those without passports were to have their goods confiscated. [1]


Theodosius barely outlasted the treaty; but his successor, Leo the Isaurian, apparently confirmed it, through his ambassador, Sisinnius Rendacius. In 717, when the Arabs made their second great siege of Constantinople, Tervel helped the Imperial defenders by making a raid, considerably to his profit, on the Arab encampment. [2] But next year, after the Arabs had fled in rout, Tervel grew less well-disposed towards the Emperor Leo, and even involved himself in an intrigue in favour of the ex-Emperor, that emanated from Thessalonica and was supported by Sisinnius. However, the affair amounted to nothing, and shortly afterwards Tervel died, in May 718. [3]



1. Theophanes, p. 775. He only refers to it retrospectively, when dealing with Krum’s wars, a century later. He says it was made between Theodosius and the Patriarch Germanus, and Cormesius (Kormisosh) of Bulgaria. Clearly Tervel is meant. With regard to the Great Fence, which some historians think dates from this time, see Appendix VI.


2. Theophanes, p. 611: Cedrenus, p. 790: Zonaras, p. 726.


3. Theophanes, p. 615: Nicephorus, p. 55. The date of Tervel’s death is given in the List.





Tervel’s reign had been restless, and his policy variable and perverse. He was justified by his achievements. His readiness to interfere helpfully in the internal troubles of the Empire, in spite of the Emperors’ breaches of the peace, made him too valuable a figure in Imperial politics. In those difficult years no Emperor could afford to embark on the natural course of stamping out the aggressive barbarians. Justinian II, who alone made one short and disastrous attempt to do so, did not dare to repeat the experiment, lest it might be successful and he lose his best support. Meanwhile the indispensable Tervel improved his own position. His frontier was pushed farther south over the Haemus to embrace Zagoria and to stretch even to the mountains of Rhodope. How far west it ran we do not know; Sardica and Philippopolis were both Imperial fortresses, but Bulgar influence was spreading; it was alarming that Thessalonican intriguers should be in close touch with the Khan. But more alarming was the firmness with which the Bulgars were now established in their home. The newly come nomads of thirty years before now ruled a kingdom from beyond the Danube into Thrace, and ruled it in sufficient tranquillity to enjoy the blessings of commerce. They were still distinct from the Slavs; and, except round their centre—which, it seems, was more purely Bulgar—they were only the landowning, organizing aristocracy, similar no doubt to the Normans that three centuries later were to order the backward Anglo-Saxons. But a certain blending between the races was inevitable; though there yet remained many Slavs to resent the Bulgar intrusion.


Of the details of this consolidation we are necessarily ignorant, but that it certainly existed was proved by the story of the next half-century. For thirty-seven years after Tervel’s last intrigue the Imperial chroniclers have nothing to tell of the Bulgars. Even the Bulgar List





cannot give us the name of his successor, who reigned for six years, till 724. There then followed the Khan Sevar, till 739; but of him we know nothing, save that, like his predecessors, he was of the family of Dulo. In him this great house, the House of Attila, died out. [1]


The end of the old reverend dynasty meant an era of civil wars. The Bulgar lords and boyars were too jealous of each other to submit long to the rule of any one of their number. Moreover, they were splitting into two factions. The one, misunderstanding Tervel’s policy, were all for concord with the Empire and eyed longingly the comforts of Byzantine civilization. The other hated the seductive luxuries and Imperial conceptions of Byzantium, and were determined on war. The successor of the last Dulo was a boyar named Kormisosh, of the family of Vokil or Ukil. Kormisosh belonged, it seems, to the Byzantine faction; for sixteen years, by maintaining peace, he maintained himself on the throne, till, in 755, circumstances forced him into war.


Under the great Isaurians, Leo III and Constantine V, the Empire had been undergoing religious schism but political re-organization, and the latter Emperor was now in a position from which he could strike at his neighbours. The common people of Byzantium might mourn for their lost images and surname their persecutor Copronymus, the Dung-named, but the army was devoted to him; and he had made the army supreme in the State. In the year 755, Constantine had transported large numbers of Armenians from Theodosiopolis and Syrians from Melitene to the Thracian frontier, where he constructed fortresses for them, to be their homes and their defence. The Bulgars demanded tribute and an indemnity on account of these new fortresses; their construction was probably a breach



1. The dates and dynasties are to be found in the List (see Appendix II.).





of the Theodosian peace. [1] But Constantine dismissed the Bulgar ambassadors with contumely, and so Kormisosh had to yield to the pressure of his war party, and invaded the Empire.


The Bulgars raided triumphantly as far as the Long Walls; but suddenly Constantine fell on them and routed them utterly. Even during their headlong flight the Emperor inflicted heavy losses on them. [2] The story of the ensuing campaign is a little hard to decipher; our two informants, Theophanes and Nicephorus, disagree, the former’s account merely mentioning a terrible victory of the Bulgars at Veregava in 759, the latter’s, the more detailed but less dated, telling of a considerable campaign that followed on the 755 raid but was over by 762, culminating in an Imperial victory at Marcellae. Neither chronicler appears to have heard of the other’s battle. Nicephorus is the more convincing; it is necessary to follow his accounts interspersing dates and a disaster at Veregava as best we may. It seems, then, that Constantine determined to follow up his victory. Soon afterwards he took an army by sea to the mouth of the Danube, and, landing there, marched down victoriously through Bulgaria, pillaging and making captives as he came, and finally routed the Bulgar army near a fort called Marcellae, close to the Imperial frontier. [3] This must have occurred during the years 756 or 757. In 758, as we know from Theophanes,



1. Both Nicephorus, p. 66, and Theophanes, p. 662, say that the Bulgars claimed tribute at the sight of the new fortresses, Theophanes adding, ‘according to the πάκτα.’ I do not think it is necessary to give as complicated an explanation as Lombard (Constantin V, Empereur des Romains, p. 43) gives. It simply was a breach of the treaty, entitling the other party to compensation. I believe that neither side was to fortify the frontier; and that is why the Fence was not built by the Bulgars as yet.


2. Theophanes, p. 662, says that the Bulgar raid was successful, using almost the identical words which he used to tell of the successful Bulgar raid of 712. Here he must be wrong; Nicephorus is too positive.


3. Identified by Bury (Eastern Roman Empire, p. 339) as Karnobad. Zlatarski places it at Bakadzhik (pp. 204-5).





Constantine was busy subduing the Slavs of the Thracian and Macedonian frontiers—they had no doubt taken advantage of the war between their two overlords to aim at independence. Constantine firmly reduced them to obedience. In 759 it is quite possible that Theophanes’s battle of Veregava took place. Probably Constantine himself was not present, and that is why Nicephorus ignores it. Nicephorus implies that Constantine had conquered a large number of the tribes in Bulgaria; but by the end of the campaign it is clear that he did not still hold them. It is, therefore, likely that he left behind an army of occupation, which, however, was heavily defeated by the Bulgars as it passed through the defiles of Veregava, on the Diampolis-Pliska road, and forced to evacuate the country. Among the dead were the strategus of the Thracesian regiment, and many other distinguished soldiers. But, in spite of this reverse, whose importance Theophanes probably exaggerated, the campaign had been highly favourable to the Emperor, and the Bulgars were anxious to sue for peace, possibly forfeiting their tribute, and certainly providing hostages. [1]


During these troubles, Kormisosh had died, in September 756, soon after the first defeat. It was his successor, Vinekh (of the same family, probably his son) who had to bear the brunt of the war. Its disasters were his undoing. His subjects supported him through it all, but the humiliating peace exasperated them. At the close of 761 they rose up against him, and massacred him and all the representatives of the house of Ukil; and in their place the throne was given to a sinister boyar of the house of Ugain, called Telets, the leader of the war party. [2]



1. Theophanes, pp. 662-5: Nicephorus, pp. 66-7: see Lombard, op. cit., pp. 43 ff.


2. Dates given in the List: Theophanes, p. 667: Nicephorus, p. 69, also his Antirrhetici, p. 508.





Telets (whose age, we are told, was thirty) at once embarked on a vigorous policy, and forcibly levied troops from among his subjects. This was not altogether agreeable to the Slavs, and in consequence a horde of some 208,000 of them left Bulgaria to seek an asylum in the Empire. The Emperors had always been glad to mix up populations so as to break down nationalism; and Constantine received them gladly, allotting them a home in Bithynia, by the River Artanas.


The Khan began the war with an invasion of Thrace, during which he even captured some of the frontier fortresses. Then, knowing that he would have to face reprisals, he took the precaution, rare among the barbarians, of fortifying his frontier, and waited behind in a strong position with a great army, to which he had added no less than 20,000 auxiliaries, chiefly Slav. But Constantine was equally impressed by the seriousness of the war, and the Empire could command better organized resources. First he dispatched an expedition by sea to the mouth of the Danube (as he had done on his first campaign)— mainly a cavalry force, each boat carrying twelve horses. Then, as his horsemen rode down through the Dobrudja, he marched up through Thrace, and in June 763 [1] the armies met and encamped by Anchialus, the great Imperial city at the head of the Gulf of Burgas. Telets attacked them there, on June 30, and a terrible battle raged from daybreak to nightfall. The carnage was immense, but in the end the Bulgars were routed. The



1. I agree with Zlatarski (Istoriya, i., 1, p. 213) in dating the battle of Anchialus 763 rather than 762, which Theophanes gives and which Lombard (op. cit., pp. 47-8) accepts. Theophanes dates Telets’s revolution and the battle before the great winter of 762-3; Nicephorus dates them both after; the natural deduction seems to me to be that the revolution, Telets’s first expedition (which Theophanes does not mention), and the Slav emigration occurred in 762, but Constantine had to wait till after the winter (which was severe enough to freeze the shores of the Black Sea) to start his punitive campaign. Telets, as we know from the List, did not fall till the close of 764.





Imperial army was too heavily reduced to follow up the victory; so Constantine returned to his capital, to hold triumphal games in the Circus and to slaughter ceremoniously his thousands of captives. [1]


The disaster had crippled the Bulgars, but it did not break their spirit. Telets’s government lingered on for a year discredited. It failed to repair the position, so eventually Telets was murdered with the nobles of his party by his angry subjects. The throne was now given back as nearly as possible to the annihilated dynasty of Ukil; Sabin, a son-in-law of Kormisosh, became Khan. Sabin at once tried to negotiate with Constantine; but a peace was not at all to the temper of the Bulgars. Accused of handing over the country to the Empire, he found it a necessary precaution to flee to the Imperial city of Mesembria, where he threw himself on the protection of the Emperor. In his place the Bulgars appointed a Khan called Pagan. [2]


Constantine received Sabin gladly, and even sent for his wives and relations from Bulgaria, thus collecting the whole Bulgar Royal family at Constantinople. Meanwhile Pagan realized that further war was impossible, and sent an embassy to the Imperial court. It was not received. Instead, Constantine prepared a new expedition. Pagan was desperate; with his boyars he came in person to Constantine to beg for clemency. Constantine received them with the ex-Khan Sabin seated by his side, and harangued them sternly as rebels against their legitimate sovereign; but making it quite clear that he considered their sovereign as his vassal. Peace was made, but, it seems, at the price of Pagan’s deposition. We do not know if Sabin returned to Bulgaria, or if he appointed



1. Theophanes, pp. 667-9: Nicephorus, pp. 69-70.


2. For the chronology of this period and for the sequence of the Bulgar Khans see Appendix II. I believe that both Theophanes and Nicephorus (who disagree between themselves) are wrong, and that Theophanes’s Paganus and Nicephorus’s Campaganus (Khan Pagan) are one person, and Nicephorus’s Baianus quite separate.





a viceroy. According to the List, he died in 766, and was succeeded by his relation, Umar. Meanwhile the Emperor was able to reduce the Slav brigands that had taken advantage of the wars to frequent the Thracian frontier. [1]


Again the peace was of short duration. Umar’s reign only lasted a few months; before the end of 766 he was deposed by a certain Tokt, who, we are told, was the brother of Baian and a Bulgarian. The latter epithet seems superfluous; probably it means that Tokt belonged to the nationalist war party, as opposed to the pro-Greek house of Ukil. Constantine answered the revolution with a fresh expedition, which found the frontier fortresses deserted, and over-ran the whole country. The Bulgars that could escape fled to the forests of the Danube. Tokt and his brother Baian were captured and put to death; the ex-Khan Pagan was killed by his slaves as he attempted to escape to Varna.


For the next few years there was anarchy in Bulgaria; but the Bulgars nevertheless still resisted the Emperor. His next campaign was apparently fruitless; he advanced, ravaging, only as far as the River Tundzha, very close to the frontier, and then was obliged to retire, probably owing to trouble at home. But he persevered, determined to administer the coup de grâce. Accordingly (probably in 767) he set out again with vast preparations, and penetrated as far as the Pass of Veregava. But the expedition was not as final as he had hoped; 2,600 transports that set out along the Black Sea to bring additional troops to Mesembria were driven by the north wind on to the coast of the Gulf of Burgas, and totally destroyed. Still, the Bulgars were glad to sue for peace, and hostilities ceased for some five years. [2]



1. Theophanes, pp. 660, 673-4: Nicephorus, p. 70.


2. Nicephorus, pp. 70-3: Theophanes (p. 674), following his habit of recording for preference Constantine’s unsuccessful actions, only tells of the Tundzha campaign. But there is no need, therefore, to assume with Lombard (op. cit., p. 51) that he is lying; the second campaign mentioned by Nicephorus (p. 71) was apparently abortive, and clearly Theophanes alludes to it, not the previous campaign.





During these years—we do not know exactly when, for the List stops with Umar—a new, abler Khan mounted the Bulgar throne, a certain Telerig, of unknown birth. By May 773 Telerig was well enough established to alarm the Emperor. Constantine adopted his usual tactics. A fleet of 2,000 ships was sent to the Danube, where the Emperor disembarked, while the generals of the themes invaded Bulgaria by land. When the Emperor in his southward march reached Varna, the Bulgars in terror asked for peace. Constantine agreed, and returned to Constantinople, where the boyar Tsigat came to discuss terms. But in October, while the negotiations were still going on, Constantine was informed by his spies that Telerig was preparing an expedition of 12,000 soldiers under a boyar against the Berzetian Slavs, who lived in Thessaly, intending to deport them into Bulgaria—probably the Bulgars were anxious to increase their population, depleted by the war, and the Berzetians, kindred to their own Slav subjects, seemed the most amenable tribe. But Constantine was too quick for them. Deceiving the Bulgar ambassador by pretending that he was arming against the Arabs, he invaded Bulgaria with forced marches and, with an army 80,000 strong, fell on the Bulgars at Lithosoria, [1] and put them to flight without the loss of a single man. His return to Constantinople was celebrated in a triumph, and the campaign was surnamed the Noble War. [2]


The Noble War no doubt accelerated the peace. We



1. Probably the Blue Rock in the Balkan Mountains by the River Sliven (Zlatarski, Istoriya, i., 1, p. 232).


2. Theophanes, pp. 691-2. His chronology is obscure. The May campaign is given as being in Ind. XII, and the Noble War which follows it in the text in October, Ind. XI. It does not seem necessary to transpose the campaigns as Lombard does (op. cit., pp. 53 ff.); we know that peace negotiations were proceeding at the time of the Noble War. It is simplest to assume that the Ind. XI is a mistake for Ind. XII. The whole chronology is complicated by the fact that Ind. XII was spread over two years, Sept. 772 to Sept. 774, so as to bring the Indictions into line with the A.M., a divergence having crept in in 726, probably because the Emperor Leo III wished to extort two years’ taxes during one year—see Bury, Appendix 10 to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, vol. v. pp. 524-5, and Hubert, La Chronologie de Théophane, B.Z., vol. vi., pp. 504 ft.—or because for this period Theophanes was simply muddled between his two distinct schemes of chronology. (Brooks, The Chronology of Theophanes, vol. viii., pp. 82 ff.) We no longer now have Nicephorus to provide confirmatory evidence.





do not know its terms save that Khan and Emperor undertook never to invade the other’s country. It was soon broken. Early in the next year (774) Constantine planned another combined land and sea campaign, this time accompanying the land forces. The expedition was apparently resultless; again the weather intervened and wrecked some of his ships: though Theophanes’s story of an almost universal disaster is too like the previous story of the Anchialus wrecks to be convincing. Theophanes was always impatiently eager to exaggerate the disasters of the heretic Emperor. [1]


Later in the year Telerig outwitted the Emperor. Theophanes says that the Khan sent to Constantine to tell him that he was likely to have to flee to Constantinople and to ask him who were his trustworthy friends in Bulgaria. Constantine was simple enough to send Telerig in reply a list of all his spies and agents in the country; and so Telerig was easily able to arrest and execute them all, and utterly upset the Imperial intelligence department. It is a little unlikely that an Emperor as invariably astute as Constantine Copronymus should play so naïve a rôle; but certainly somehow Telerig managed to acquire the list of Imperial agents, and acted on it, to his great advantage. [2]


The Emperor was furious, and once more roused himself to action. But, as he started out with his ninth expedition, a terrible fever took hold of him, and he died



1. Theophanes, pp. 692-3.


2. Ibid., p. 693.





in agony at the fort of Strongylus, on September 14, 775. [1]


Bulgaria had been saved again. Constantine’s campaigns had been a glorious chapter in the history of Byzantine arms, and they had reduced Bulgaria very low. Her army had again and again been routed, her population depleted; her Khans sat precariously on their throne. It surely seemed as though another Constantine, or even another campaign, would be the end of her. And yet the coup de grâce had so often been administered, and still the Bulgars lived on. Asperuch and Tervel had rooted I hem too firmly for them now to be dislodged. And the disasters had probably the result of binding them closer to the Slavs. We have seen how they forcibly sought to encourage Slav immigration; and there was gradually rising a Slav aristocracy, that first became evident early in the next century, and that must occasionally have inter married with the Bulgars. Misfortunes have a unifying effect.


But, though the Bulgars could not be dislodged, they had certainly been subdued; it might be possible to absorb them in the Empire, as so many other tribes had been absorbed. Even after Constantine’s death their troubles did not cease. In 777 Telerig himself was forced to fly from his country. He came to the court of the Emperor Leo IV, and there accepted baptism and was accorded the honour of a Greek bride, a cousin of the Empress. Had the Empire been inclined to intervene, then again Bulgaria might have been utterly reduced; but the Empire was weary and still torn between iconoclast and iconodule. Bulgaria was so obscure a state now—even Telerig’s successor is unknown—it would be safe to let her linger weakly till another opportunity arose. The barbarians might remain in the Balkans; they were negligible.



1. Theophanes, loc. cit.


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