A history of the First Bulgarian Empire

Steven Runciman





The Bulgarian Empire was ended. Worn out by its weakness within and by the everlasting, ever-reviving strength of Imperial Rome, it had finally succumbed; and for nearly 170 years Bulgaria would be numbered among the Imperial provinces. Of its history during those years we know little, nor does it concern us here. The Emperor Basil, with the wise moderation that characterized the great statesmen of Byzantium, who preferred when they could to respect local customs and institutions, made few changes that would affect the common Bulgarian people. The country was divided into two themes, Bulgaria and Paristrium. The former contained the bulk of Samuel’s empire, the latter the Danubian province and the older capitals; probably the former frontier fortresses, such as Philippopolis, had already been included in existing Imperial themes. The governor of the Bulgarian theme enjoyed the title of Pronoëtes and was apparently one of the governors who found their salaries out of the local taxes. Basil, however, ordained that Samuel’s system of taxation—payment in kind—should be maintained; and, though later governors were to provoke revolt by attempting to alter the system, it actually endured throughout the period of Imperial rule. With regard to the Church, Bulgaria was granted by Basil concessions unknown in any other of his provinces. The whole ecclesiastical organization was revised, and the patriarchate abolished. But the Archbishop of Bulgaria, installed at Ochrida in the Patriarch’s place, only owed a faint allegiance to the Patriarch of Constantinople; and the thirty Bulgarian bishops and the 685 ecclesiastics obeyed him alone. We do not know how far these thirty







bishoprics instituted by Basil corresponded with the old bishoprics of the Bulgarian Empire; but their seats had all been Bulgarian towns in Samuel’s heyday. Basil so far relied on the loyalty of the Bulgarian Church to the new Government that in several dioceses he increased its jurisdiction at the expense of the dioceses of former Imperial provinces, no doubt in districts chiefly inhabited by Slavs, who would appreciate the Slavonic liturgy. How far he proposed controlling the Church himself, or through the Patriarch of Constantinople, we do not know. He kept on the Bulgarian Patriarch David as Archbishop of Bulgaria; but on David’s death the Imperial Government adopted the custom of appointing Greeks to the Archbishopric—save once when they appointed a converted Jew—thus keeping the whole fabric in close connection with Constantinople. Among the Archbishops thus appointed was Theophylact of Euboea, who occupied his time in that wild country in writing the lives of its martyrs and of its great saint, Clement. [1]


Bulgaria, on the whole, acquiesced in its annexation. The aristocracy, worn out by its resistance, was glad to sink into the luxurious service of the Empire. The merchant classes, such as they were, welcomed peace. Those of the peasantry that held political views were almost all of the Bogomil heresy, equally but passively opposed to all Governments. Twice during the next sixty years the misgovernment of Imperial officials was to provoke the Bulgarians into serious revolt; but both rebellions were soon put down; and, so long as the Government remained competent, Bulgaria was content to rest in peace: till, at the close of the twelfth century, the whole Empire fell into



1. The ecclesiastical settlement is given in Basil’s ordinances, published by Gelzer, in vol i., pp. 245 ff., and vol. ii., pp. 2 ff. of the Byzantinische Zeitschrift. The best complete account of the reorganization of Bulgaria under Basil is given in Schlumberger’s Epopée Byzantine, vol. ii., pp. 418-32, where the meagre information is fully summarized and discussed.





chaos under the rule of the feeble house of Angelus, with Western Europe stabbing it in the back.


As for the actors of the final scenes, the princes and princesses of Bulgaria and the great generals, they were merged into the functionaries of Byzantium. They walked before the Emperor on his triumphal entry into Constantinople; then the men were given Imperial posts and titles and the women husbands from among the aristocracy. Of the fate of Tsar Samuel’s few surviving descendants nothing is told; but many of John-Vladislav’s family enjoyed a certain eminence. Of his sons, Prusian, the eldest, created a Magister on his surrender, became the strategus of the important Bucellarian theme, till he quarrelled with his colleagues so badly that he had to be exiled. Aaron, as Catepan of Vaspurakan, later played a prominent part in the Armenian campaigns of the Empire. Of Trajan, Radomir, and the youngest son of all we have no information; but Alusian, the second son, after being made a Patrician (on his surrender to Basil) and, later, strategus of the theme of Theodosiopolis, involved himself disgracefully in the Bulgarian rebellion of 1048—the rebellion kindled by an impostor who claimed to be Peter Delean, son of Tsar Gabriel-Radomir and the Princess of Hungary. Alusian first betrayed the Emperor for him, and then betrayed him to the Emperor. Of John-Vladislav’s six daughters, one married Romanus Curcuas, who was involved in Prusian’s quarrels and was blinded; another, the Princess Catherine, sat for a while on the Imperial throne itself, as the wife of the nervous Emperor, Isaac Comnenus. Of the next generation, Alusian’s son, the Vestarch Samuel-Alusian, fought with distinction in the desperate Manzikert campaign of Romanus Diogenes, while his daughter was the first wife of that unhappy Emperor. Aaron’s son, Theodore, became strategus of the theme of Taron in Armenia; while Trajan’s daughter,





Maria, married Andronicus Ducas. One of their daughters, Irene Ducaena, became the wife of the Emperor Alexius Comnenus and the ancestress of that great dynasty. And so, after long journeying, through the Angeli and the Hohenstaufen and the houses of Castile, of Hapsburg and of Bourbon, the blood of the last Tsar of the first Bulgarian Empire flows in the veins of the first Tsar of modern Bulgaria and his present successor. [1]


The First Bulgarian Empire was ended. Its end was not inevitable nor foredoomed—unless it be that everything is foredoomed. But history is so full of accidents improvised by a whimsical providence that it is idle to explore the roads of what might have been. Nevertheless, the First Bulgarian Empire was planned by fate in its grandest, most sweeping scale. There is the small beginning, the nomads entering the Balkan peninsula, and gradually, by the ability of the Khans of the House of Dulo, establishing themselves there with increasing strength: so that even the chaos and disasters that followed the dynasty’s extinction could not remove them thence. Then we come to Kardam and the swift revival, and the greatness of Krum and his successors, when Bulgaria was numbered among the great Powers of Europe, and wooed and feared by the East and the West, and so to Boris, the Christian Prince, the greatest of them all, who outwitted



1. The fate of John-Vladislav’s descendants can be found in various passages of Cedrenus—ii., pp. 469, 483, 487, 497 (for Prusian), 469, 470, 531 (Alusian), 469, 573-4 (Aaron), 469—and Prokič—pp. 34 (Trajan and Radomir), 678 (Samuel-Alusian), 483 (the wife of Romanus Curcuas), 628, 650 (the Empress Catherine). Psellus, p. 63-4, calls Alusian brother, not son, of John-Vladislav, but we know that John had no surviving brothers. Bryennius (p. 19) calls Catherine Samuel’s daughter, but dates make it unlikely, and Cedrenus provides circumstantial evidence. See also Prokič, p. 36. Bryennius also (pp. 106-7) tells of Trajan’s daughter Maria’s marriage, calling Trajan Samuel’s son. But Prokič, p. 34, shows this to be wrong. Bryennius probably had only heard of Samuel, and not of John-Vladislav. Aaron’s son, Theodore, is identified by evidence given in Skabalonovitch, Vizantinskoe Gosudarstvo, p. 198. Attaliates (p. 123) mentions Samuel-Alusian.





the Pope and used the Patriarch to secure his country the Church that he desired. After Boris was Symeon and the summit. For Symeon was the hero of a Greek tragedy, too prosperous, too triumphant, too defiant of Nemesis, wearing out Bulgaria with too many victories and dying in disappointment. The curve swerves downward, in the long afternoon of Peter’s reign: while Pope Bogomil gave form to the discontent of a disillusioned people. The first shadows of evening were terrible amid the Russian storms; but the sunset was lit with splendour before the night came at last. But the tragedy is not perfect. Bulgaria did not bear within herself all the seeds of her decline and fall. Bulgarian history must always be read with Constantinople in sight. It was Byzantium, the Empire, that decided its destiny. The Bulgars had come into the Balkans at a time when the Empire was weak, when the Roman world was still shaken by the first sudden blows of Islam; and they had established themselves there before the Empire had recovered. But since the middle of the eighth century the Empire had gradually been growing in power though the growth had been veiled by the development of Bulgaria and by periodical setbacks, usually more spectacular than really disastrous. It was at the climax of Symeon’s career and of the whole Bulgarian Empire, at Symeon’s interview with Romanus Lecapenus, that the truth was revealed. The Emperor, for all his armies’ defeats, was the victor. After that, the end was as inevitable as anything in this world can be; and, though much blood was shed before Bulgaria was extinguished, the length of the struggle was due rather to Samuel’s genius and Imperial dissensions than to uncertainty as to the ultimate result.


Nor need Bulgaria stand ashamed. It is a tribute rather to the greatness of her rulers that they could, as no other invaders had been able to do, build up a nation at the





very gates of the mightiest empire of Christendom. Not only was Byzantium supreme amongst her neighbours in material wealth and organization, but, as the heir of Rome, she held unbroken the conception and prestige of the Universal Empire; and her civilization was the highest of its hemisphere. Sooner or later she would surely absorb the close inhabitants of the Balkan peninsula, for all that a line of brilliant Khans had knit together Slav and Bulgar and all the remnants of races that lingered there into a nation. At times, indeed, great monarchs, lured by the siren call of Constantinople, would attempt to make the absorption of their doing, but in vain—and fortunately so; for that would be the wrong way round, as was proved by the greatest crime in history, the Crusaders’ sack of the Christian city in the year 1204.


And, indeed, the absorption was no bad thing for Bulgaria; for it did not happen too soon. The Bulgarian monarchs had had time to instil into their country a consciousness that was strong enough to survive. In the meantime, peace and the penetration of the Imperial civilization came as a boon to the weary country and taught the Bulgarians more than they could have learnt in a long struggle for independence. But now they had their memories and, still more, their Slavonic Church to remind them who they were; and not all Pope Bogomil’s teachings and his followers ever broke that down. And so, when the time came, and the Empire no longer was wise and beneficial, Bulgaria was ready to assemble again round an independent standard raised by the noble House of Asen at Tirnovo.


So it had been worth while—and worth while, too, to countries outside of Bulgaria. The Bulgars had brought order to the Slavs and had lifted them out of chaos, setting an example for the whole Slav world to follow. The Serbian tribes could profit by it; and, moreover, had not





Bulgaria lain between, they might never so have freed themselves from the influence of Constantinople, to form a proud nation, until it was too late: while, similarly, the same bulwark preserved the Empire from many harmful barbarous invasions. But the great gift of Bulgaria to Europe lay in her readiness to take over the legacy of Cyril and Methodius, so carelessly thrown away by the Moravians. This work had been initiated in Constantinople and greatly helped by the Patriarch Protius and the Emperor Basil, with that strange mixture of philanthropy and political cunning that characterized Byzantium. But it was Boris of Bulgaria that brought it to completion, and thus put all the Balkan peninsula and all the Russias into his debt. To his lead those countries owe their Churches, Churches well suited to them—Churches that kept their pride alive through all the dark days that they were to endure, at the hands of fierce and infidel barbarian invaders.


Though clouds pass at times over the face of Bulgaria, she may well be content with her history. The First Empire has left her memories rich in glory. It is a splendid procession that stretches backward into the far-off darkness, past Samuel and his passionate Court beside the high mountain-lakes of Macedonia; past Symeon on his golden throne, his silken raiment weighed down with studded pearls; past Boris, issuing from his aureoled palace with angels to escort him; past Krum, with bowing rows of concubines, crying ‘Sdravitsa’ to his boyars as he drank from an Emperor’s skull; past Tervel, riding in to Constantinople by the side of a slit-nosed Emperor; past Asperuch and his brothers, and his father, King Kubrat, and past the princes of the Huns, back through dim ages to that wild marriage from which her race was born, the marriage of the wandering Scythian witches to the demons of the sands of Turkestan.


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