Bulgarian Epic Endeavours for Independence (968-1018)

At long last, approaching danger sobered up some of the political circles in the Bulgarian capital. In 965 AD agreements of alliance with the Hungarians and the German emperor Otho I were concluded. These put an end to the country's foreign political immobilism and self-isolation from active international life.

Crisis in the Bulgarian state was gaining momentum and this, by some tragic coincidence, concurred with a continued period of stabilization for the Byzantine empire. By the end of the 60s it had beaten off the Arab aggression and was able to converge all its might against Bulgaria. In the beginning of 966 AD emperor Nicephorus II Phocas undertook a campaign against Bulgaria, but the imperial troops refused to cross the border for, the memory of the Bulgarian landslide victories in the past was still fresh. This, though, did not make Byzantium give up its plan of military confrontation, but this time it had decided to make a cat's paw of other forces. In 968 AD Svyatoslav, the prince of Kiev, was hired for enormous sums of money to raid the northeastern Bulgarian lands with an army 60,000-strong. At the cost of great effort and losses he cut it really fine to change the course of the battle in favor of the Russians and, eventually, routed the 30,000-strong Bulgarian troops, occupied the castle of Preslavets (Little Preslav) and decided to found his own state in the newly seized north Bulgarian lands.

Scared by the loss of the northern territories, the Bulgarian palace aristocracy overthrew incapacitated Tsar Peter, sent him to a monastery and gave the throne to his son Boris II. Possessing none of his great grandfather's makings the new Bulgarian tsar failed to lean on and to organize the powerful potential of the Bulgarian people in the struggle against the Russian aggression, and entered into an alliance with Bulgaria's sworn enemy, Byzantium, instead. The latter did not naturally send him any reinforcements during the subsequent Russian aggression in 969 AD. The Russians again, conquered and besieged the capital city of Great Preslav. Instead of continuing the war with the Russians (three quarters of the Bulgarian territory were still free with all military potential intact), Boris II concluded an anti-Byzantine treaty with Svyatoslav and made him a commander-in-chief of the joint Russo-Bulgarian troops. The power of Boris II was formal - the uneducated Russian prince had the whole of the country in his full disposition.

In the summer of 970 AD Svyatoslav got into the saddle and, at the head of a huge army of Russians, Bulgarians, Pechenegs and Hungarians invaded Byzantium. It was his dream to found upon the ruins of Bulgaria and Byzantium an enormous barbarian state, stretching from Kiev to Constantinople. The military commanding abilities of the barbarian were not consistent with his ambitions. The united troops were beaten by the Byzantines who, in 971 AD took the offensive and, after fierce fighting, seized the Bulgarian capital of Preslav. Svyatoslav was driven out of the Balkans. On his way back to Kiev he was ambushed and slain by the Pechenegs.

The prince's death coincided with the end of the independence of Bulgaria, at least in terms of the medieval practices. The capital was in Byzantine hands and the tsar captured and stripped of the insignia of royalty at an official ceremony in Constantinople. Exhausted by the battles, the Byzantine troops returned to their capital without formally establishing the emperor's power in the western lands of Bulgaria. These were expected, without hindrance, to be annexed to and ruled by the sceptre of Rome Reborn.

The district governors in western Bulgaria, however, refused to submit to Constantinople. Samuel, the governor of Sredets (modern Sofia) raised the standard of revolt against Byzantium. An efficient leader and a superb commander Samuel struck heavy blows on the Byzantine troops and was successful in freeing in 976 AD the occupied territories. Byzantium, as could be expected, was irreconcilable. A cruel war of attrition, a war to the knife, broke out and neither of the belligerents was ready to succumb.

In 978 AD tsar Boris II somehow managed to escape from captivity. With his brother Romanus he made his way to the Bulgarian border but was accidentally shot dead by a Bulgarian sentry. Romanus could not ascend to the throne as he had been castrated by the Byzantines and thus, doomed to leave no issue. This and other accidents left Samuel unravelled contender for the throne and he became tsar of the new Bulgarian empire (978-1014).

In 986 AD the Byzantine emperor Basil II undertook a build-up campaign against Sredets with all Byzantine armies converging on it. The chief Bulgarian troops were decoyed far into the south, in the vicinity of Thessalonica. However, Sredets stood a several-week state of siege. At the news of the Bulgarian troops approaching Sredets (Samuel had already brought his troops back from Thessalonica at the price of unbelievably tough daily marches), Basil II made haste on a return march. On August 17, 986 AD he encountered Samuel at the Traianus Gateway on the trans-European route to Asia. There, on that day, the Bulgarian army gained one of its most brilliant victories in all history. The Byzantine troops suffered utter defeat. Escorted by a small contingent the emperor had a miraculously narrow escape through a passage left unprotected for reasons unknown.

Thereafter, until the beginning of the second millennium AD, the Bulgarians had been unravelled masters of the Balkans. The Bulgarian armies struck severe blows on Byzantium in Thrace, Beotia, Thessaly, Attica and the Peloponnese. Byzantium's allies, the Serbian principalities, were swept away and so were the Hungarians. Tsar Simeon the Great's once advanced main policy of no compromise against Byzantium seemed to have come to life again.

During the first years of the second millennium AD Byzantium restored the balance of power. The Bulgarian blow was followed by severe counter-blows. The alliance with Hungary ensured for Byzantium the division of the Bulgarian territory into two parts bridged by no obvious connection. The eastern part was soon subjected to Byzantine rule. Even so, the fighting in the western Bulgarian territories continued.

This situation drew to an end in 1014. In a battle near the village of Klyuch, Basil II captured the Bulgarian army 15,000-strong. Having spurred inadvertently his corps d'elite through to the important fortress of Strumitsa, he was defeated at its walls by the regiment of Gavrail Radomir, heir to the Bulgarian throne. Forced to withdraw and thus, venomed to the utmost limit, Basil II ordered for the 15,000 Bulgarian warriors taken prisoner after the previous battle, to be blinded and sent back to Samuel. At the terrible sight of his blind warriors' procession the Bulgarian tsar had a heart attack and died, winning a moral victory over his ruthless foe.

Tsar Samuel's death marked the beginning of the end. Feuds started flaring up in the Bulgarian aristocracy circles. The new Bulgarian tsar Gavrail Radomir (1014-1015) was murdered by his cousin Ivan Vladislav (1015-1018) who genuinely made serious efforts to save the country. At that time, though, geographically the strength of Bulgaria lay in its only surviving territory - the region of Macedonia. In a recklessly desperate attempt to keep it and, obviously wanting to leave a memorable legacy to posterity, the Bulgarian tsar threw himself to the front lines. He perished in a fierce man-to-man fighting for the Adriatic town of Dyrrachium. In the spring of 1018, the Byzantine troops made a ceremonial entry into the then Bulgarian capital, Ohrida. Some Bulgarian forts did not give up resistance up till the winter of 1019.

The death duellum of independent Bulgaria, which had gone on for nearly half a century, was brought to an end. The two sides involved in it, Bulgaria and Byzantium, overtaxed their potentialities to the utmost limit. Strongly impressed leading French medievalist Leon Gustave Schlumberger called it 'Byzantine epic'. Other European historians had no lesser reasons to call it 'Bulgarian epic'. For, in that fight Bulgaria and the Bulgarian people defended their state independence, not some abstract idea for a world-embracing empire.

- Translated from the book "Bulgaria Illustrated History" by Maria Nikolotva
- Bulgarian text by Bojidar Dimitrov, PhD.
- Published by BORIANA Publishing House, Sofia, Bulgaria

text used here with permission from translator, save modifications for noding

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