Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Battle of Anchialus

The Bulgarian conquest of the Roman Balkans.

Battle of Anchialus  (708AD)


With the decisive Bulgarian victory Battle of Ongal in 680AD around the Danube delta area, the Eastern Roman Empire agreed to the creation of the First Bulgarian Empire on soil long controlled by Rome.

Justinian II came to the throne in 685 shortly after the defeat by the Bulgarians.  Justinian was keen to restore the greatness of the Empire.

After a preliminary strike against the Arabs in Armenia, Justinian managed to augment the sum paid by the Umayyad Caliphs as an annual tribute, and to regain control of part of Cyprus.

Justinian took advantage of the peace in the East to regain possession of the Balkans, which were before then almost totally under the heel of Slavic tribes.  In 687 Justinian transferred cavalry troops from Anatolia to Thrace. With a great military campaign in 688–689, Justinian defeated the Bulgars of Macedonia and was finally able to enter Thessalonica, the second most important Byzantine city in Europe.
Justinian II

Justinian strengthened the thematic military organization of the Empire.  As part of that plan the Emperor sought to protect the rights of peasant freeholders who served as the main recruitment pool for the armed forces of the Empire. There had been steady attempts by the aristocracy to acquire their land.  This action to improve the military also put him in direct conflict with some of the largest landholders in the Empire.

Justinian was deposed in 695.  His tongue was slit and his nose cut off.  He was exiled to Cherson in Byzantine Crimea.

Years later Justinian approached Kahn Tervel of Bulgaria. Trevel agreed to provide all the military assistance necessary for Justinian to regain his throne in exchange for financial considerations, lands located between Stara Zagora, Sliven and the Black Sea, the award of a Caesar's crown, and the hand of Justinian's daughter, Anastasia, in marriage.

In 705, with an army of 15,000 Bulgar and Slav horsemen Justinian appeared before the walls of Constantinople.  Unable to take the city by force, he and some companions entered through an unused water conduit under the walls of the city, roused their supporters, and seized control of the city in a midnight coup d'état.

The Bulgarian army returned home with their payment leaving Justinian to take a bloody revenge on his enemies.

The modern day town of Pomorie, Bulgaria sits on the old Roman city of Anchialus.

The Battle

It is a rule that no good deed goes unpunished.  After disagreements with the Bulgarian Kahn, Justinian attacked his ally.  Now that he was in a stronger position the Emperor wanted to re-take the lands lost by in his deal with Tervel.

There are no real numbers or even much detailed information on the campaign.  But this must have been a major effort because the Emperor himself led the troops into enemy controlled territory.  Tervel had shown up at Constantinople with 15,000 men to support Justinian's claim to the throne. We must assume that Justinian would invade Bulgaria with at least an army of that size and perhaps one even larger.

J.B. Bury says the Roman force moved to the fortress of Anchialus by both land and sea.  Most of the troops appear to have been cavalry.  There is no mention of a battle or enemy contact on the march to the Roman held fortress.

The Romans appear to have been lulled into a sense of safety.  Perhaps locals told them that there were no enemy troops in the area.  In any case, Justinian has to get full blame for a lack of proper scouting and for not building a proper fortified base camp.

While Justinian's soldiers were meandering about in disorder gathering food, Tervel and his cavalry charged the outermost Roman troops. At the same time the Bulgarian infantry attacked the camp. The Romans were surprised and confused; most of them perished in the battle or were captured as well as many horses and arms.

The Emperor fled to the fortress with what troops that were left.  He held out in the fortress for three days with his men.  Seeing no other solution, he had the horses disabled so they would be of no use to the Bulgarians and then boarded the Roman ships waiting offshore and returned to Constantinople.

It was a total Bulgarian victory.


Three years later in 711 the rebel Emperor Philippicus captured and executed Justinian.

The Bulgarian victory secured the new territorial gains for centuries.  In 717 Emperor Leo III made a plea to Tervel for help in the second Siege of Constantinople by the Arabs.  Relying on the treaty of 716 and Tervel agreed. The first clash between the Bulgarians and the Arabs ended with a Bulgarian victory.  The Bulgarians slaughtered some 22,000 Arabs in the battle and stopped the Muslim invasion of Europe. Khan Tervel was called the Savior of Europe by his contemporaries.

J.B Bury - History of the Later Roman Empire (1889)

(Battle of Anchialus)

No comments: