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Why did Bulgaria lose the duel with Byzantium?


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Ivelin Ivanov

A brief annotation

At the beginning of the 11th century, after decades of almost incessant wars with the Byzantine Empire, the Bulgarian state lost its political independence. In many research works on the period in question there is emphasis put on the stabilization of the Empire at the end of the 10th and the beginning of the 11th century as a major factor or a reason for the loss of our political independence for a century and a half. Of course together with this also go the internal political state of the Bulgarian kingdom and the decline in its military power, which made it easier for Emperor Basil II to put pressure on the Bulgarians.

This article considers the issue of the reasons that caused the decline in the Bulgarian military power at the end of the 10th and the beginning of the 11th century, the changes in the military stratagems observed in the wars of tzar Samuil and his successors to the throne. Why did Samuil avoid major battles in the open? Why do the sources speak mostly about lightly-equipped Bulgarian armies? Why did the Bulgarians of this time take over fortresses after prolonged sieges and mainly through starvation and military stratagems?

The current article attempts to give an answer to these questions based on the written sources of the period and the works of historians.

The topic of the present article is represented in our historiography from the beginning of the XIX century to the modern days, whereas many and different answers of the given problem exist.1 From one side, as a reason for the fall of the Western Bulgarian tsardom, the might of Byzantium and the person of Basil II are being pointed out, i.e. the external factor for the collapse of the Bulgarian statehood, while Samuil's reign and his wars with Byzantium are shown as a heroic epic, as a huge military effort, which however doesn't succeed in stopping the Byzantine pressure. Truly the external factor or the military and political stabilization of Byzantium in the end of the X and the beginning of the XI century is a main factor for the outcome of the Bulgarian-Byzantine duel, but in a parallel with this and quite equally in value, as a reason for the defeat we could point out also the military weakness of the Western Bulgarian tsardom. Which are the main preconditions and displays of this military weakness?

The manner of warfare, the military strategy and the tactics of the Bulgarian forces in the period VII – the beginning of IX century are partly known from the sources and widely presented in the modern historiography. The biggest, decisive and victorious battles in the period VII – middle of X century were achieved in open battle, through wide use of stratagems and ambushes, sometimes in big night fights, but were almost always connected with the wide use of the cavalry, which was taking the main burden, inflicting the decisive strike and finishing the battle by undertaking a pursuit. The main prerequisites for accepting decisive fights were several. On first place, this was the mainly equestrain composition of the Bulgarian army, a part of which was armed with heavy defensive and offensive armament. We draw information about this from the armament inscriptions, which were preserved to these days, in which except for chain mails and helmets it's also mentioned about ring-mails for the horses, and this gives a basis for a presumption that a part of the Bulgar cavalry was entirely heavily armed and represented the main shock core, whose purpose was a powerful frontal or flanking strike against well armed infantry or cavalry in an open battle. Unfortunately we don't have precise written reports for the numbers of the heavily armed cavalry, except for one report from the sources that in the winter of 811-812 Khan Krum operated in Thrace with a cavalry of 30 000 men, all dressed in iron, i.e. heavily armed (Pseudo-Simeon 1964: 172).2

Based on the records from the preserved to our days armament inscriptions from the region of Pliska, Preslav, Madara, Shabla and other places in North-Eastern Bulgaria, we could make one generalized calculation for defensive armament, intended for 1 713 horsemen (Venedikov 1979: 53-54). If we accept conditionally that the preserved to our days inscriptions of this kind are not more than one tenth of the existing from that time, then we'll reach the number 17 130 horsemen and that only in the so called inner region. If we compare this with the report for the 30 000 strong army of Khan Krum, then we could accept that the numbers of the heavily armed cavalry in the Bulgarian army varied between 17-20 000 to 30 000, depending on the mobilization tension and the number of the allied or mercenary detachments. On the basis of the previously exposed arguments and on the statement that the maximal mobilization ability of the Bulgars was around 20%, we could assume that in the beginning of the IX century the numbers of the Bulgars was in the limits between 100 000 and 150 000 people (Ketskarov 1940: 81).3 [Tr.n.: Of course, all these calculations are mainly hypothetical and not absolute proofs]

The considerably small numbers of the equestrain Bulgarian army compared to the military contingents of Byzantium was compensated by its greater mobility, possibility for fast movement and the good armament. The Bulgarian military victories in the period VII - beginning of X century were due not to numerical superiority, but to good strategy and tactics of warfare. Despite this, after the great military successes of Tsar Simeon a stillness appeared, and later even a collapse of the Bulgarian military might. What were the main reasons for this change?

In the period of Tsar Petar's reign (927-969) the already begun devastating Magyar incursions were a clear indicator for a decline of its military might. As Emperor Leo VI Philosopher writes in his Tactics, the manner of warfare of the Magyars and the Bulgarians was close, so we have no reason to claim that the Magyars and their way of fighting wasn't familiar (Leo VI Philosopher 1961: 168). Because we have no concrete reports or descriptions of battles between Bulgarians and Magyars, we can only presume that the Magyar raids were fought back only with the military forces of the frontier governors, which proved insufficient. The next military trial was the invasion of the Varangians of Kniaz Svetoslav in 969, which was aimed against the best organized and battle-efficient territory - the inner region of the state and which confirmed the tendency of decline of the Bulgarian military might. The fights ended with a defeat for the Bulgarians, who didn't manage to resist the heavy Russian infantry (Leo VI Philosopher 1961: 171).4 If we trust the reports from the sources, Svetoslav conquered 80 fortresses along the Danube and this gives us an indirect information that the Bulgarians already relied not so much on the army and the open battles rather on the system of fortresses and the garrisons in them. Concerning the density of the castle network in the North-Eastern Bulgarian lands we can also judge from other written reports, because in 971, during the siege of Svetoslav in Drastar by John Tzimiskes, messengers from many Bulgarian fortresses arrived, which attested their allied relations and obedience (Skilitsa-Kedrin 1965: 268).

With the exception of the invasions of Magyars and Pechenegs, Tsar Petar led a continuous peaceful policy for four decades and without any doubt this prolonged period limited the military experience and hardness. Whatever the preconditions for the occured military weakness were, in the long run it proved to be the main reason for the occupation of Northern and North-Eastern Bulgaria by Emperor John Tzimiskes, who relied upon the fortress garrisons. (Bozhilov 1979: 122).5

The next period in our historical development brought at the front the sons of komit Nikola, which managed to keep the independence of the Western and South-Western Bulgarian lands, while the new conditions brought essential changes in the strategy and tactics of warfare of the Bulgarians. One of the main changes in the Bulgarian military mastery from the previous stage was the change in the sieging tactics of the Bulgarians. Indicative in this respect are several moments from Samuil's wars. In the siege of Larissa, which was of key importance for the rule of Tessaly and for penetration to the south into real Greece, Samuil lost three years and the fortress was taken not with an assault, but with a prolonged siege and starvation (Kekavmen 1968: 23; Angelov, Cholpanov 1994: 38). In the siege of the Servia fortress a stratagem was used again, with which this time the Bulgarians captured the commandant of Servia and thus the city was captured in 989 (Skilitsa-Kedrin 1965: 281). On the next place, in their campaing in 998 towards the Adriatic coast, despite of the many attempts, the Bulgarian forces managed to capture only the city of Kataro (Duklia presbyter 1967: 174). One of the most important and strategic castles in Western Bulgaria was Drach [Dyrrachion], but it also, according to the most of the historians, was captured not with assault and siege, but with a diplomatic way and thanks to the fact that the duke of the city - John Hrisilius, was father-in-law of Samuil (Zlatarski 1994: 680). Most probably, despite of some incomplete reports for the use of siege equipment, the komitopuls and concretely Samuil didn't have heavy siege equipment, without which the capturing of strong fortresses would be impossible. As a result for this absence the Bulgarian forces and Samuil developed and executed to perfection the tactics of surprise, starvation and ambushes in their attacks against strong castles. The information from the sources shows that Samuil applied tactics of sudden attacks and bringing the enemy out of the fortress walls, as the decisive battle was given in a previously chosen and prepared with ambuscades place (Skilitsa-Kedrin 1965: 278, 285, 288). We find here a second characteristical feature in the warfare tactics of the Bulgarians in this period. In a careful look into the reports of the written sources our attention stops on the frequent mentioning of the ambush or series of ambushes as a main feature of the tactics. Of course, the ambush was a characteristic part of the traditional Bulgarian tactic and was applied frequently in the wars from the period VII - beginning of X century, but after 971 it takes greater and greater place in the manner of fighting and appears most frequently to be the reason for the enemy's defeat. It was applied often in castle attacks, in pursuits and a search for general engagement and was the most used tactical manner in the period of defence from the beginning of XI century.

The reasons for these changes in the manner of warfare were undoubtedly connected with the objective conditions and the changed situation after the occupation of Northern and North-Eastern Bulgaria and more precisely and most probably with the character and composition of the Bulgarian forces. For the description of Samuil's warriors the sources sometimes mention horsemen and equestrain detachments, but the question is what was this cavalry and did it compose a major or large part of the forces? I think that we could search for a satisfying answer only on the basis of indirect reports.

In the period from 971 to the end of X century the sources speak for active military actions and quick raids of the Bulgarian forces in Tessaly, towards Solun [Thessaloniki] and in real Greece. For one of these campaigns - the one in Tessaly from 978, we have concrete information for the use of cavalry and infantry, as we presume that the cavalry was lightly armed (Zlatarski 1994: 660). In the pursuit from the retreating from Sredets Basil II in 986 the Bulgarian forces managed to move very fast and to await the Byzantine army in an ambush (Leo Deacon 1964: 275-276; Balaschev 1929: 66). This, in line with the fact that the Armenian guard of the emperor, undoubtedly heavily armed, managed to break their way through the Bulgarians and to come out in an open field, gives reasons to presume that the Bulgarian forces, which crushed Basil II in 986, consisted mainly of lightly armed infantry and supposedly also of the same cavalry. In the same time we do not deny the existence also of heavily armed units in the Bulgarian army from this time, but their numbers were obviously very limited. Some reports from the sources speak directly for the participation of such in one battle from 1017, when the Byzantines took captive 200 heavily armed warriors (maybe horsemen), but these heavily armed contingents, as we could suggest from the last number, were a small part of the whole army, which in its mass was lightly armed and exactly this imposed changes in the tactics of warfare (Skilitsa-Kedrin 1965: 290).

But let us go back again to the end of X century, when after the defeat near the Sparhei River, despite of the successful campaign along the Dalmatian coast and against the Serbs and of his coronation as tsar in 997, Samuil dealt harder and harder with the increasing Byzantine pressure. When in 997 magister Nikifor Uranus entered the Bulgarian realms and started plundering them, the Bulgarians didn't oppose him, but relying on their strong fortresses, awaited the turn of even (Skilitsa-Kedrin 1965: 283). One of the reasons for this were probably the consequences of the defeat at Sparhei, but many of the historians believe that it didn't have a fatal reflection on the Bulgarian military might and I'm prone to support this opinion. The campaign of Samuil to the west and north-west in 998 proved that he still has enough numbers of forces, but the campaign of Nikifor Uranus in the previous 997 was indicative in another relation: although enough in numbers, the mass of the Bulgarian army could not resist the well trained and armed Byzantine infantry and cavalry. I think that Samuil realized this and expecting the heavy fight, hurried to strenghten his rear.

The next period, spanning from 1000 till 1018, clearly shows the consequences of the fundamental changes in the military tactics of the Bulgarians and its infelicity against the pressure from the regular Byzantine units. The main conclusion, which Basil II made from the military actions against the Bulgarians was that they can't be broken with only one powerful and decisive campaign and that he should apply against Samuil a methodic and constant pressure with gradual gaining of control over key places and fortresses. The first step in applying this strategy was the conquering of Northern Bulgaria and of the strategic fortresses Serdica, Bdin and Skopie. Realizing these main goals in his campaigns in 1000-1003, Basil II managed to concentrate his forces to the west, against Samuil. With these successes the strategic initiative went to the side of Byzantium and in this second stage the Bulgarians were forces to turn to active defence, because accepting a general battle on an open field was a certain suicide. Samuil relied on the tenacious defence of fortresses and surprizing raids deep into Byzantine territory, like the one against Odrin [Adrianople] in 1002, but the unfavourable progress of the military actions soon forced a change in this strategy (Angelov, Cholpanov 1994: 52). The key Bulgarian strongholds, although heavily fortified, hardly resisted to prolonged sieges and in one relatively short period Basil II succeeded in capturing Bdin, Skopie, Sredets and the big fortresses in Northern Bulgaria. Samuil couldn't unblock these important for him castles and the reasons for this were most probably the numbers of his forces, as well as their lighter armament, while the Byzantine emperor never again repeated his mistake from 986 (Angelov, Cholpanov 1994: 52). Due to the fact that the Byzantine forces had surrounded his realms in an arc from the south-east, east and north-east and ravaged the heart of Western Bulgaria, the Bulgarian tsar decided to pull out his defence and, as the Byzantine chroniclers say, started blocking key places and passages, through which the Romean forces invaded (Angelov, Cholpanov 1994: 54-55). Unfortunately, these actions were doomed to failure and the defeat at Kliuch is quite indicative. The big numbers of captives, which according to the sources are 14 000 or 15 000, suggest that the rout was quick and the surrender to captivity - massive, and from here we could suggest that these forces were without enough battle experience or with weak armament.

The applied by the next Tsar Gavril Radomir (1014-1015) strategy and tactics reminds of Samuil's one and was based mainly on guerilla warfare and defence of key fortresses. In his short reign the son of Tsar Samuil didn't manage to turn the process of military decline and was forced to follow the pressing actions of fortification and defence. The next ruler Tsar Ivan Vladislav (1015-1018) was obviously an active and warlike person, but despite of the efforts to draw the Pechenegs and for combined actions with Krakra, Basil II continued his successful invading policy (Skilitsa-Kedrin 1965: 288-289). Tsar Ivan Vladislav tried to realize a strategic change by forcing the Romeans to fight on two fronts and attempted to draw the Pechenegs, and on second place he tried to fill the dangerous gap in the rear, which was done with the turn over of the Drach [Dyrrachion] fortress by Samuil's son-in-law - Ashot, to the Byzantines (Skilitsa-Kedrin 1965: 279). The tsar died in the siege of this city and with his death the beginning of the full military and political end of the First Bulgarian Tsardom started.

After all this logically comes the question of what are the main reasons for the changes in the strategy and tactics of the military actions of the Bulgarians in the events after 971. According to some authors, the main reason for Byzantium's successes are based on the fact that the komitopuls didn't manage to restore the attacking equestrain detachment, which the Bulgarian khans and later Tsar Simeon had.6 They believe that the Bulgarians lost their heavily armed cavalry and infantry as a result of Svetoslav's campaigns and mostly after the slaughter of 300 Bulgarian bolyars [Tr.n.: nobles] by the Russes in Drastar, in whose hands at this time was the military organization of the Bulgarian state. According to Balaschev the armament and the manner of warfare of Samuil's forces was purely South-Slavic and this was the main difference from the previous period (Balaschev 1929:15-16,67). I think that these reasonings are right only partially and that not the slaughter of the 300 bolyars, not the human losses in Svetoslav's campaigns, but the occupation of Eastern Bulgaria and the inner region by Byzantium and the transfer of the political centre to the West led to fundamental changes in the military art of the Bulgarians. Analysing archaeological and written records, we could accept that the main, heavily-armed power of the Bulgarian army was being drawn exactly from the territories of the inner region or North-Eastern Bulgaria, where the stores with the heavy defensive armament were concentrated, and their loss played a fatal role in the following fate of the Bulgarian state (Bertin annals 1960: 287; Venedikov 1979: 52-55). The military-strategic importance of the eastern Bulgarian lands is confirmed also by the actions of Basil II in the very beginning of the XI century. The new capturing of Northern and North-Eastern Bulgaria after 1000-1001 predetermined the result of the Bulgarian-Byzantine duel. Probably these processes and events coincided with the decline of the traditional military-mobilization system of the Bulgarians, as this process most probably passed with a special intensity during the reign of Tsar Petar and was a direct result of the processes of feudalization and increasing social stratification, but this requires additional research on the complex changes in the Bulgarians society, which started already by Khan Krum and passed with accelerated temps after the conversion to Christianity.


1. The period after the fall of Eastern Bulgaria under Byzantine rule in 971 and the reasons for the fall under Byzantine rule are thoroughly examined in the following works: Златарски, В. История на българската държава през средните векове. Т. 1. Ч. 2. София, 1994. [Zlatarski, V. "History of the Bulgarian state in the middle ages", vol.1, Part 2, Sofia, 1994]; Баласчевь, Г. Българить презъ последнить десетгодишнини на десетия вькъ. Ч. 2. София, 1929. [balaschev, G. "The Bulgarians in the last decades of the tenth century", Part 2, Sofia, 1929]; Кецкаров, В. Войни на българить въ Тракия 689-972. София, 1940 [Ketskarov, V. "Wars of the Bulgarians in Thrace 689-972", Sofia, 1940]; Ангелов, Д., Чолпанов, Д. Българска военна история през Средновековието (X-XV век). София, 1994 [Angelov, D., Cholpanov, D. "Bulgarian military history in the middle ages (X-XV century)”, Sofia, 1994]; Венедиков, И. Военното и административното устройство на България през IX и X век. София, 1979 [Venedikov, I. “The military and administrative organization of Bulgaria during IX and X century”, Sofia, 1979]; Божилов, И. Анонимът на Хазе. България и Византия на долни Дунав в края на X век. София, 1979 [bozhilov, I. “The anonym of Haze. Bulgaria and Byzantium on the lower Danube in the end of X century”, Sofia, 1979] and others.

2. In the source the following is mentioned: “...By the way, when good days came in the winter and the rivers hadn’t much water, the Bulgarians came out with a 30 000 strong army, all dressed in iron...”

3. The author suggests that the mobilization capability of the Bulgarians during IX-X century was around 15-20% and on the basis of this and of the information, which Venedikov gives, I base my assumptions for the numbers of the Bulgars.

4. In his Tactics Leo VI Philosopher notes that especially effective against the barbarian cavalry is the heavy infantry and gives advices for the use of well trained infantry against the Magyar horsemen. Obviously in the same logic the well trained and heavily armed with chain mails, helmets, swords and battle axes Russian infantry proved to be an irresistible barrier against the Bulgarian cavalry and infantry.

5. The author believes that the Byzantine power on the lower Danube was thrown off not later than the summer of 990 and the Bulgarian rule there was restored until the campaing of Emperor Basil II in 1000.

6. This opinion is supported by Balaschev and many other authors, which believe that exactly the lack of heavy cavalry led to the fall of the Western Bulgarian Tsardom under Byzantine rule.


Ангелов, Чолпанов 1994: Ангелов, Д., Чолпанов, Д. Българска военна история през Средновековието (X-XV век). София, 1994.

Angelov, Chopanov 1994: Angelov, D., Cholpanov, D. “Bulgarian military history in the middle ages (X-XV century)”, Sofia, 1994

Баласчев 1929: Баласчевь, Г. Българить презъ последнить десетгодишнини на десетия вькъ. Ч. 2. София, 1929.

Balaschev 1929: Balaschev, G. “The Bulgarians in the last decades of the tenth century”, Part 2, Sofia, 1929

Бертински анали 1960: Бертински анали. // Латински извори за българската история (ЛИБИ). Т. 2. София,1960.

Bertin annals 1960: Bertin annals. // Latin sources for the Bulgarian history (LSBH), vol. 2, Sofia 1960

Бешевлиев 1987: Бешевлиев, В. Прабългарските надписи. София, 1987.

Beshevliev 1987: Beshevliev, V. “The Bulgar inscriptions”, Sofia, 1987

Божилов 1979: Божилов, И. Анонимът на Хазе. България и Византия на долни Дунав в края на X век. София, 1979.

Bozhilov 1979: Bozhilov, I. “The anonym of Haze. Bulgaria and Byzantium on the lower Danube in the end of X century”, Sofia, 1979

Венедиков 1979: Венедиков, И. Военното и административното устройство на България през IX и X век. София, 1979.

Venedikov 1979: Venedikov, I. “The military and administrative organization of Bulgaria during IX and X century”, Sofia, 1979

Дуклянски презвитер 1967: Дуклянски презвитер. // Латински извори за българската история (ЛИБИ), T. 3. София, 1967

Duklian presbyter 1967: Duklian presbyter. // Latin sources for the Bulgarian history (LSBH), vol. 3, Sofia, 1967

Златарски 1994: Златарски, В. История на българската държава през средните векове. Т. 1. Ч. 2. София, 1994.

Zlatarski 1994: Zlatarski, V. “History of the Bulgarian state in the middle ages”, vol. 1, Part 2, Sofia, 1994

Кекавмен 1968: Стратегикон от Кекавмен. // Гръцки извори за българската история (ГИБИ). Т. 7. София, 1968

Kekavmen 1968: Strategikon from Kekavmen. // Greek sources for the Bulgarian history (GSBH). vol. 7, Sofia, 1968

Кецкаров 1940: Кецкаров, В. Войни на българить въ Тракия 689-972. София, 1940.

Ketskarov 1940: Ketskarov, V. “Wars of the Bulgarian in Thrace 689-972”, Sofia, 1940

Лъв Дякон 1964: Лъв Дякон. История. // Гръцки извори за българската история (ГИБИ). Т. 5. София, 1964

Leo Deacon 1964: Leo Deacon. History. // Greek sources for the Bulgarian history (GSBH), vol. 5, Sofia, 1964

Лъв VI Философ 1961: Лъв VI Философ. Тактика. // Гръцки извори за българската история (ГИБИ). Т. 4 . София, 1961.

Leo VI Philosopher 1961: Leo VI Philosopher. Tactics. // Greek sources for the Bulgarian history (GSBH), vol. 4, Sofia, 1961

Псевдо-Симеон 1964: Хронография на Псевдо-Симеон. // Гръцки извори за българската история (ГИБИ). T. 5. София,1964.

Pseudo-Simeon 1964: Chronography of Pseudo-Simeon. // Greek sources for the Bulgarian history (GSBH), vol. 5, Sofia, 1964

Скилица-Кедрин 1965: Скилица-Кедрин. История. // Гръцки извори за българската история (ГИБИ). Т. 6. София, 1965.

Skilitsa-Kedrin 1965: Skilitsa-Kedrin. History. // Greek sources for the Bulgarian history (GSBH), vol. 6, Sofia, 1965

(с) Ivelin Ivanov


(с) Electronic magazine LiterNet, 03.06.2004, № 6 (55)

Other publications:

History, 2002, № 4-5.

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