A history of the First Bulgarian Empire

Steven Runciman




Appendix VI

The Great Fence of Thrace



The great line of earthworks [3] that stretches across the northern frontier of Thrace from Develtus to Macrolivada, and is still in the main discernible, provides a problem for historians as to the date of its construction.



3. Galled by the Greeks ‘ ἡ μεγάλη σούδα ’ (Cedrenus, ii., p. 372), and now known locally as the Erkesiya (jerkesen = a trench in Turkish).





That it was Bulgar work we know from tradition, archaeology, and historical probability, and we know that it must have been constructed some time between the Invasion of 679 and the Conversion of 865.


The line of the Fence runs roughly along what was known in Bulgaro-Imperial treaties as the Meleona frontier. This frontier was first given to Bulgaria by the treaty between Tervel and Theodosius III in 716; and it was probably confirmed in a treaty between Kormisosh and Constantine V. [1] Zlatarski assumes that the Fence was constructed at the time of Tervel’s treaty, [2] Shkorpil at the time of Kormisosh’s. [3] Both assumptions are plausible, but, as Bury has pointed out, [4] they leave unexplained a clause of the treaty between Omortag and Leo V in 815. The treaty, which is recorded in the Suleiman-Keni inscription, confirms the Meleona frontier-line (with possibly one or two emendations), and then in its second clause talks of some arrangement about various districts on the frontier line that is to be made ‘ ἕως ἐκει γέγονεν ἡ ὀροθεςία, ’ i.e. until the frontier delimination is completed. By supplying the words ‘ Ἁπολείψειν ’ and ‘ φρούρια ’ in two doubtful places—a reading which seems to me more convincing than Zlatarski’s [5] — Bury shows that the Imperial troops were to evacuate the frontier forts while the frontier-line was being made. This can only mean that actual constructive operations were going to be undertaken on the frontier—i.e. a rampart was to be built. This work would certainly need the passive co-operation of the



1. Theophanes (p. 775) calls the treaty one between Theodosius and Kormisosh (Cormesius). Probably there were two treaties (see above, pp. 32–3, 35–6).


2. Zlatarski, Istoriya, i., 1, pp. 179-80, 300.


3. Aboba-Pliska, p. 568.


4. Bury, The Bulgarian Treaty of 814, passim.


5. The two readings are as follows, beginning in the middle of line four:

Bury : . . . μέσον τν β’ [Απολείψειν τ] πολλά γε φρ[ούρια με]σον βαλζηνς κτλ.


Zlatarski : . . . μέσον τν β’ [ποταμων επι . . . μ?] λα γέφ[υρα και με]σον βαλζηνᾶς κτλ.


But β’ must refer to the second clause, as the first clause was undoubtedly introduced by α’. Zlatarski inserts β’ lower down, but it is foolish to reject this β’. I am also unconvinced by Zlatarski’s bridge.





Imperial frontier garrisons, who, if they chose, could interfere and wreck it all. Therefore they were for the time to be withdrawn.


The brilliant ingenuity of Bury’s argument is, I think, convincing. Nor does Zlatarski’s example of the word ‘ ροθεσία ’ being used in a different sense—‘ τν λ’ χρονων ροθεσία ’ in the letter of the Oriental Synods to Theophilus (p. 368) obviously meaning the frontier-line agreed upon for thirty years—necessarily affect the obvious use of ‘ ροθεσία ’ here. Indeed, I do not think the phrase in the treaty admits of any translation except Bury’s, and I therefore accept his conclusions.


It is certainly difficult to see when the Bulgarians would have had time to build so vast a work except after the guaranteed security of Omortag’s peace. Moreover, if the Meleona frontier was already guarded by earthworks, it is curious that in Omortag’s peace the line followed by the Fence should be so carefully stipulated as the frontier when the Fence already marked an old-established line. It is also curious (though to argue a silentio is notoriously dangerous) that we never hear of the Fence during Copronymus’s campaigns, if it already existed by then. Actually Greek historians do not mention it till Nicephorus Phocas’s reign; but, from the little evidence that we have, Imperial invaders in the late ninth and early tenth centuries seem to have kept to the coast-route.


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