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

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Battle of the Gates of Trajan (986 AD)

9th Century Eastern Roman Troops.
On the right, Cavalryman of the Imperial Tagmata (elite central army based in Constantinople);  Akritoi frontier cavalryman of an Anatolian theme and light infantry archer.

The Battle of the Gates of Trajan was a battle between Eastern Roman Empire and Bulgarian forces in the year 986. It took place in the pass of the same name, modern Trayanovi Vrata, in Sofia Province, Bulgaria. It was the largest defeat of the Romans under Emperor Basil II.


The Bulgarian armies of Samuil had been attacking the European possessions of the Byzantine Empire. Samuil invaded not only Thrace and the area of Thessaloniki, but also Thessaly, Hellas and Peloponnese. Many Byzantine fortresses fell under Bulgarian rule.

Samuil wanted to seize the important fortress of Larissa, which controlled the key routes in Thessaly, and from 977 to 983, the town was blockaded. After starvation forced the Byzantines to surrender, the population was deported to the interior of Bulgaria and the males were forced to enlist in the Bulgarian army.

Roman Emperor Basil II

Although Basil II sent forces to the region, they were defeated, and the conquest of Larissa marked the loss of an important Byzantine stronghold in that part of the peninsula.

With this victory, Bulgaria had gained influence over most of the southwestern Balkans, although it did not occupy these territories. From Larissa, Samuel took the relics of Saint Achilleios, which were laid in a specially built church of the same name on an island in Lake Prespa.

The Bulgarian successes in the west raised fears in Constantinople, and after serious preparations, Basil II launched a campaign into the very center of the Bulgarian Empire to distract Samuel from southern Greece

Siege of Sredets

In 986, Basil II led the campaign personally with 30,000 soldiers.  This much larger than average Roman field army showed the importance the Emperor placed on the threat from Bulgaria. The commanders of the eastern armies did not take part in the campaign because they were fighting the Arabs.

The Byzantines marched from Odrin via Plovdiv to reach Sredets (Sofia). According to Leo Diaconus the objective of their Emperor was to subdue the Bulgarians with one strike. After the capture of Serdica which was a strategic fortress between the northeastern and southwestern Bulgarian lands Basil II intended to continue his campaign towards Samuil's main strongholds in Macedonia.

On his way to Serdica (the Byzantine name of Sredetz, today Sofia, the capital city of modern day Bulgaria), Basil II left a strong company under Leon Melissenos to guard the rear of the Byzantine army. When he finally reached the walls of the city, Basil II built a fortified camp and besieged the fortress.

The siege lasted for 20 days of fruitless assaults, until shortage of food occurred in the Byzantine army. Their attempts to find provisions in the surrounding country were stopped by the Bulgarians who burned crops and even took the cattle of the Byzantines. In the end, the city garrison broke out of the walls, killing many Roman soldiers and burning all of the siege equipment, which the inexperienced Roman generals had placed too close to the city walls

Basil II  vs Samuil of Bulgaria

The Battle

As a result of the successful Bulgarian actions the Byzantines were no longer capable of taking the city with a direct assault. They also could not exhaust the defenders with hunger because, after their supplies were cut, the Byzantines themselves had to deal with that problem.

In addition, an army led by Samuil marched into the mountains at the Byzantines' rear. In the meantime, instead of securing the way for retreat, Leon Melissenos pulled back to Plovdiv. That action was an additional reason for Basil II to lift the siege. The commander of the Western armies, Kontostephanos, persuaded him that Melissenos had set off to Constantinople to take his throne.

Elite Soldier of the Imperial Tagmata of
Excubita/Excubitores.  His armor has many
nomadic-Islamic elements combined with
the older Roman fashion style.

The Byzantine army retreated from the Sofia Valley towards Ihtiman where it stopped for the night.

The rumours that the Bulgarians had barred the nearby mountain routes stirred commotion among the soldiers and on the following day the retreat continued in growing disorder.

When the Bulgarians under Samuil saw that, they rushed to the enemy camp and the retreat turned to flight. The Byzantine advance guard managed to squeeze through slopes which were not yet taken by the Bulgarian attackers. The rest of the army was surrounded by the Bulgarians.

Only the elite Armenian unit from the infantry managed to break out with heavy casualties and to lead their Emperor to safety through secondary routes.

Enormous numbers of Byzantine soldiers perished in the battle; the rest were captured along with the Imperial insignia.

Byzantine Soldiers

Ruins of the fortress Gates of Trajan
It was named after Roman Emperor Trajan, on whose order a fortress by the name of Stipon was constructed on the hill over the pass, as a symbolic border between the provinces of Thrace and Macedonia.


The disaster of the campaign in Bulgaria in 986 was a blow to the consolidation of the monarchy of Basil II. Soon after the Battle of the Gates of Trajan, the nobility in Asia Minor, led by the general Bardas Phokas, rebelled against Basil II for three years.

Samuil of Bulgaria

According to the historian Petar Mutafchiev, after the battle Samuil was in control of the Balkans. According to some historians, the northeastern parts of the Bulgarian Empire were liberated in the years after the battle.

According to other sources, they were liberated ten years prior to the battle, in 976. The Bulgarians firmly took the initiative and launched continuous attacks towards Thessaloniki, Edessa, and the Adriatic coast.

The Serbs were also defeated and their state incorporated into Bulgaria. The Byzantines overcame the Bulgarian military ascendancy in the Battle of Spercheios in 996.

The Battle of the Gates of Trajan greatly angered Basil.  He made the destruction of the Bulgarian Empire a major part of his rule.  The Bulgarian victory only postponed the fall of Bulgaria, which occurred in 1018.

Roman ruins in Bulgaria
It is not in English but it is a good film.

Bulgaria in the years after the battle.

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