Medieval Bulgarian warriors.
Khan Asparuh crosses the Danube in 680 AD.
Khan Asparuh crosses the Danube in 680 AD.
- “The Bulgarians are a huge, mighty and warlike people that have subdued all their neighboring nations. One horseman of theirs can face 100 or 200 horsemen of the infidels. When they go to war they form lines – in front are the archers with their bows, and behind are the women and children…”
Abu al-Hassan Ali ibn Hussein ibn Ali al-Massoudi, 10th Century AD
The greatest enemies of the Eastern Roman Empire were the Arabs, the Turks and the Bulgarians. This article deals with the early invasion and establishment of the Bulgarian Empire on Roman soil directly up against Constantinople itself.
The Romans and Bulgarians clashed at the Second Battle of Marcellae. It took place in 792 at Markeli, near the modern town of Karnobat in south eastern Bulgaria. It is not to be confused with the earlier battle at the same place.
In the last quarter of the 8th century Bulgaria overcame the internal political crisis after the end of the rule of the Dulo. The khans Telerig and Kardam managed to consolidate the central authority and put an end of the quarrels among the nobility.
|Roman Emperor Constantine VI (right of the cross) presiding over |
the Second Council of Nicaea.
The Bulgarians finally had the opportunity to intensify their campaigns in Macedonia and annex the region and its Slavic population to their state. In 789 they penetrated deep into the valley of the Struma river and heavily defeated the Byzantines, killing the strategos of Thrace Filites.
In order to distract the Bulgarian attention from Macedonia, the Byzantine emperor Constantine VI started a campaign in northern Thrace in April 791. The armies met near the fortress of Provat (20 km east of Odrin) and the Byzantines were forced to retreat but their defeat was not decisive and in the following year the campaign was renewed.
It is maddening for a historian to try and deal with so many of the Byzantine wars because there is so very little information on events that were often of major importance. In the Battle of Marcellae there is next to no information. So one must speculate.
ROMANS - At the head of his troops, the Emperor himself was marching directly into enemy held and fortified territory. It is fair to say that all available troops would be with the Emperor and this would be considered a major campaign.
Historians speculate that the Roman army would have numbered in the 80,000 to 90,000 range at this point. Most of the forces would be stationed along the frontiers facing the Arabs or Persia. Other troops would be in Greece, Italy, the Crimea and Balkan frontier posts. The Emperor might head an invading army of perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 men. That number was often considered a standard size for major operations.
The Roman force would have been a combination of infantry and cavalry units near Constantinople. The full-time units were the tagmata. They were the professional standing army of the Empire.
|Eastern Roman Infantry|
The tagmata were exclusively heavy cavalry units and formed the core of the imperial army on campaign, augmented by the provincial levies of thematic troops who were more concerned with local defense.
BULGARIANS - There is no way to know numbers, but it is very likely the Bulgarians would have fielded a force perhaps equal to the Romans.
The army consisted of a Bulgar cavalry and a Slavic infantry. The core of the Bulgarian army was the heavy cavalry, which consisted of 12,000–30,000 heavily armed riders. At its height in the 9th and 10th centuries, it was one of the most formidable military forces in Europe and was feared by its enemies. There are several documented cases of Byzantine commanders abandoning an invasion because of a reluctance to confront the Bulgarian army on its home territory.
The Bulgars were well versed in the use of stratagems. They often held a strong cavalry unit in reserve, which would attack the enemy at an opportune moment. They also sometimes concentrated their free horses behind their battle formation to avoid surprise attacks from the rear.They used ambushes and feigned retreats, during which they rode with their backs to the horse, firing clouds of arrows on the enemy. If the enemy pursued disorganized, they would turn back and fiercely attack them.
The Bulgarian army was well armed according to the Avar model: the soldiers had asabre or a sword, a long spear and a bow with an arrow-quiver on the back. On the saddle they hung a round shield, a mace and a lasso, which the Bulgarians calledarkani. On their decorated belts the soldiers carried the most necessary objects such as flints and steel, a knife, a cup and a needle case. The heavy cavalry was supplied with metal armour and helmets. The horses were also armoured. Armour was of two types — chain-mail and plate armour. The commanders had belts with golden or silver buckles which corresponded to their rank and title.
The infantry of the newly formed state was composed mainly of Slavs, who were generally lightly armed soldiers, although their chieftains usually had small cavalry retinues. The Slavic footmen were equipped with swords, spears, bows and wooden or leather shields. However, they were less disciplined and less effective than the Bulgar cavalry.
VIDEO - Troops of Eastern Roman Empire-681 AD. This clip is from a Bulgarian Movie made in 1981. No CG or special effects are used. These are real people marching. It helps bring alive what it must have been like to see a Byzantine army on the march.
In the summer of 792 Constantine VI led his army north and on 20 July was confronted by the Bulgarians under Khan Kardam near the border castle Marcelae.
The Khan had built ramparts blocking the roads to the Rish Pass and the capital Pliska. Rather than seeking out the Roman army the Khan awaited an attack in his fortified positions.
For several days the emperor did not dare to attack but by the end of July he was convinced by "false astrologists" (according to the Byzantine chronicler Theophanes the Confessor) that the stars boded victory. He attacked the Bulgarians in their prepared positions.
|Victorious Bulgar warrior with captive, |
featured on an ewer from the
Treasure of Nagyszentmiklos.
Before the beginning of the battle, while awaiting the Byzantine assault, the Bulgarian ruler secretly placed part of his cavalry behind the hills surrounding the battlefield.
The Byzantines, naturally, attacked in battle formation, but the uneven terrain led to a certain degree to its disruption, which was immediately used by Khan Kardam and the Bulgarian forces counter-attacked the enemy. The Bulgarian counterattack was a great success against the disorganized Romans.
The hidden Bulgarian cavalry went round the Byzantines and cut their way back to their fortified camp and the fortress of Marcellae. The Bulgarians took the supplies, the treasury and the tent of the emperor. They chased Constantine VI to Constantinople killing a great number of soldiers. Many Byzantine commanders and officers perished in the battle.
A weapon called arkani was used by the Bulgarians in this battle: the arkani consisted of a long pole with an attachment similar to a lasso at one end. It was an excellent weapon against cavalry as the rider could easily be pulled out of the saddle by a skilled warrior, armed with the arkani.
|Khans of the Bulgarian Empire.|
It was a total and humiliating defeat for the Romans. Constantine VI was forced to conclude peace with Kardam and had to pay tribute. Four years later (in 796) the emperor stopped the paying leading to a new war in Thrace which ended without a decisive battle. The hostilities between Bulgaria and Byzantium continued under Kardam's successor Krum.
The victory had great political significance. The decades of crisis were finally overcome, the Byzantines were forced once again to pay tribute to the Khans. Bulgaria entered the 9th century consolidated, stronger and united which was an important factor for the string of victories scored by Krum against the Byzantines.
VIDEO - 681 AD: The Glory of Khan (Bulgarian: 681 г.: Величието на хана) is an 1981 three-part Bulgarian historical action and drama film telling the story of khan Asparuh and the events around the founding of the medieval Bulgarian state in 681 AD. It was shot and released on the occasion of the 13-century anniversary of Bulgaria.
|The Bulgarians and Romans at 800 AD.|
The invasion of the Bulgarian people into the Eastern Roman Empire was one of
the greatest military challenges faced by any nation. The Byzantine-Bulgarian Wars
lasted for nearly 800 years.