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

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Battle of Versinikia, 813 AD

Bulgarian Warrior Reenactor

Bulgaria on the March

In 629 AD the Eastern Roman Empire has reached perhaps the peak of its power.  The ancient enemy of Rome, the Persian Empire, had been totally crushed and Roman rule was restored from the Pillars of Hercules to the Euphrates River.

It was not to last.  The year 629 saw the first invasions of militant Jihadist Arab armies that ultimately conquered the Roman Middle East, North Africa and besieged Constantinople itself.

While the Arabs were pressing Roman forces in the south, in 681 AD a new pagan enemy appeared - The Bulgarians.

Though Roman armies managed to win a number of victories, the Bulgarians steadily pressed beyond the Danube River frontier deeper and deeper into Roman territory.

The Bulgarians won a great victory over the Romans at the Battle of Pliska in 811.  The Roman Emperor Nikephoros I led the army into battle.  During Nikephoros' retreat, the Byzantine army was ambushed and destroyed in the mountain passes by Bulgarian Khan Krum. Nikephoros was killed in the battle, the second Eastern Emperor to suffer this fate since Valens in the Battle of Adrianople (August 9, 378). Krum is said to have made a drinking-cup of Nikephoros' skull.

The Bulgarian Kahn Krum is said to have made a drinking cup out
of the skull of Roman Emperor Nikephoros.

The Emperor is dead, long live . . . somebody?!?

Controlled anarchy.  That is as good a description as any of the Byzantine system of government.  Rule by thuggery if you will.  If you had enough troops then you too could be Emperor.  Watching your back was a full time occupation.

In the time period we are addressing, Byzantium had four Emperors in three years.  Paranoia in the ruling class would have been on hyperdrive.

  • (811 died) Nikephoros I, who became a drinking cup, was killed with almost his entire army a the Battle of Pliska.
  • (811) Nikephoros' son, Staurakios, served as Emperor for an entire two months.  Staurakios has been paralyzed by a sword wound near his neck at Pliska and was saved by the Imperial guard which retreated from the battlefield towards the safety of Adrianople.  There was also a popular rumor that Staurakios planned to abolish the Empire and re-establish a republic.  In any case, Staurakios retired to a monastery where he died from the effects of his wound on January 11, 812.
  • (811 - 813) Michael I Rangabe survived Nikephoros' disastrous campaign against Krum of Bulgaria, and was considered a more appropriate candidate for the throne than his severely injured brother-in-law Staurakios.  Michael went on to be defeated at the Battle of Versinikia.
  • (813) Leo V the Armenian assumed the throne. He ended the decade-long war with the Bulgars.

Michael I Rhangabe

Bulgaria, which also suffered heavy losses and great material damage during Nicephorus' campaign, had to reorganize its army and resources and was not able to advance until next year. The Bulgarian attacks were concentrated mainly in Thrace but also along the valley of Strymōn (Struma) river. Many towns were seized and their population was sent far to the north beyond the Danube. 

The attack created such panic among the Byzantine population that several towns were emptied even without being attacked by the Bulgarians. The attempts of Michael I to resist were fruitless - he organized an army but soon after he set off from Constantinople he had to go back due to a conspiracy.
In the meantime the Bulgarians continued to strike Thrace but in the autumn of 812 they were offered peace. The Bulgarian delegation was led by Dobromir but the Byzantine Emperor refused to conclude peace due to "his foul advisors' suggestions" as the historian Theophanes says. 

However the real reason was most probably Item 3 in the Byzantine–Bulgarian Treaty of 716 which stated that "The refugees [emigrants, deserters] from both sides shall be mutually surrendered, if they are plotting against the authorities." 

That item was important for the Byzantines during the 8th century because the authority of their Emperors was weakened but, after the crisis in Bulgaria in the mid 8th century, it became inconvenient for them. In response to the refusal the Bulgarians besieged Mesembria (Nessebar). They had excellent siege machines built by an Arab emigrant and soon captured the town where they found 36 copper siphons used to throw the famous Greek fire and a large quantity of gold and silver.

Bulgarian Warrior Reenactor

The Growing Bulgarian Empire
The Eastern Romans did not have enough on their hands with the Muslim Arab invasions of the Middle East, Africa and two massive sieges of Constantinople itself.  Staring in 681 AD the pagan Bulgarian tribes appeared on the norther Danube frontier and aggressively pushed deeper and deeper into Roman territory.

Bulgarian armies were marching up to the
gates of Constantinople itself.

Preparations for Battle

The 811 Battle of Pliska was one of the worst defeats in Byzantine history.  An huge army of perhaps 60,000 troops has been gathered for the attack on the Bulgarians.  Based on past Byzantine campaigns I think that the number of troops is too high.  But virtually the entire royal family joined in on the march so maybe the number is not inflated too much.

More important is virtually the entire Byzantine army was slaughtered.  That massive defeat deterred Byzantine rulers from sending their troops north of the Balkans for more than 150 years afterwards, which increased the influence and spread of the Bulgarians to the west and south of the Balkan Peninsula, resulting in a great territorial enlargement of the First Bulgarian Empire.

Despite the loss of land and soldiers to the Bulgars, the Byzantines were unwilling to settle peace. During the winter of 812 - 813 Khan Krum started intense preparations for an attack against Byzantium and Michael I was preparing for defense. In February 813 Bulgarian forces made several investigation raids in Thrace but quickly pulled back after several clashes with the Byzantines. The retreat was considered by the Byzantine Emperor as a victory "according to God's providence" and encouraged him to counter-attack.

The Byzantines again summoned an enormous army gathered from all themes of their Empire including the guards of the Syrian passes.  These kleisourai from Syria were called Lykoanians, Cilicians, Isuarians, Cappadocians and Galatians.

The battle of Versinikia from the 14th century Bulgarian 
copy of the Manasses Chronicle.

That the Emperor had to strip troops from the far away Syrian front is not good.  On the plus side, the Arab Caliphate was in the middle of a civil war.  In 812 Baghdad was being besieged by one Arab faction allowing the Emperor to transfer large thematic contingents from Asia Minor to the Balkans.  The levy of troops from the themes included recent recruits.  They were ordered to march into Thrace before spring.  

The Byzantines had some recent successes against the Arabs. It was hoped that the higher morale among the Asian troops would swing the psychological advantage back to the Byzantines.

Whatever morale advantage the Asian troops brought might have been offset by being so far away from home and all the tales being told of the 811 slaughter of the Byzantine army.  Add in that many of these soldiers were part-time.  They would have been worried about missing the spring crop planting season back home.

It was reported that the Armeniacs and the Cappadocians openly expressed their resentments to the Emperor.

The Emperor pulling troops from far away sounds like a thoughtless campaign of revenge or panic or both.  The new Emperor may have felt the political need to prove himself to the ruling class and military or risk being murdered and replaced by someone willing to fight.

As it is there was unrest in the army, and the campaign was delayed. But the troops finally set off from Constantinople in May. The departure was a celebration and the population of the city including the Empress accompanied the troops outside the city wall. They even gave presents to the military commanders and invoked them to guard the Emperor and fight for the Christians.

The fact that "presents" were given to the commanders to do what they were supposed to be doing anyway says a lot about the political situation. 

Byzantine infantry reenactor

The Battle

The front lines of the Bulgarian wars kept getting closer and closer to Constantinople.  The battle at Versinikia took place in Thrace perhaps 147 miles from the capitol.  When Emperor Michael I Rangabe marched his army out of Constantinople it was almost a leisurely stroll through the countryside to find the Bulgars.

Perhaps because of fear or their smaller size, the Byzantine army did not appear to be in a hurry.  They  marched to the north but did not take any actions to take back Mesembria. 

On 4 May there was a solar eclipse which frightened the Byzantine soldiers and lowered their morale. They encamped in the vicinity of Adrianople where the army looted and robbed its own country.  That action says much about the quality of the troops and discipline.

In May Khan Krum also headed to Adrianople.  In June both armies set their camps close to each other near the small fortress Versinikia to the north of Adrianople.

A historical account from the 11th century historian John Skylitzes stated that the Byzantine army was 10 times bigger than the Bulgarian hosts. That is the usual ridiculous inflation of forces involved in battles.  The Romans may have had 26,000 troops and the Bulgars maybe 12,000.
Bulgarian Warrior Reenactor
(Screenshot HunHorda)

But undoubtedly the Byzantine army was to some degree larger than the Bulgarian. Therefore, the Bulgarians were kept on a defensive position. 

Despite the numerical, logistic and strategic superiority the Byzantine army did not confront the Bulgars.  The Emperor and his generals mush have been frightened of the Bulgars, frightened of the "quality" of their own troops or unsure of their generalship. So both armies got tense and anxious waiting in full armor for 13 days in the hot summer of Thrace. 

Any experienced commander would have understood that leaving the army inactive under poor conditions would undermine battlefield effectiveness.  But Michael and his generals appeared to be paralyzed with inaction, perhaps frightened to attack the Bulgars.  

On the other hand, the Bulgars were in no hurry to attack and seemed content to raid Byzantine supply lines, skirmish and conduct long distance shooting. 

The Byzantine commanders failed the test of nerve and stamina. Some of them were eager to attack and on 22 June the strategos of Macedonia John Aplakes addressed Emperor Michael and said: "How much are we going to wait and die? I will attack first in the name of God and you will follow me bravely. And victory shall be ours because we are ten times more than them [the Bulgarians]."

The battle was short: in the morning of the same day the Byzantines attacked and the division of John Aplakes engaged the Bulgarians first.  They launched the initial assault down the slopes of a ridge driving back the Slav infantry.

At this point the rest of the Byzantine army was to join the Thracian and Macedonian contingents to prevent the Bulgars from regrouping and then defeat them.  That never happened.  Michael may have never given the order or the timid Byzantine troops failed to move.

The uncommitted Bulgar heavy cavalry in the center rallied to support the troops in the front and counter charged the Byzantines.  Seeing this, the Bulgar mobile cavalry on both wings swept into Aplakes' rear completing an encircling movement.
Gold solidus of
Leo the Armenian

Surrounded and outnumbered the Byzantines began to fall back and were cut to pieces.  Aplakes himself was among the fallen, although some of his men were able to escape.

These developments caused the rest of the army to lose heart.  The troops were watching the massacre of Aplakes' men right in front of them while the Emperor stood by hesitating to act.  The Anatolikon units broke ranks and fled.

Seeing what was happening on his left, Leo the Armenian ordered his own panicking troops on the right to withdraw.  We can guess that Leo wanted to keep his own troops together and organized against any Bulgar attack.

But that was not the case with the thematic contingents in the center where all semblance of cohesion was lost.  Even the Emperor and his elite guards retreated in confusion.

Kahn Krum at first thought the Byzantines had feigned retreat, in classic steppe warfare style, in order to draw the Bulgars into a trap.  But when he saw the retreat was real he ordered the pursuit.

One ancient account tells a graphic tale of Byzantine panic.  It speaks of fleeing Byzantines trampling each other.  Every time they heard hooves or feet behind them they would run even faster.  Horses weak from lack of water falling dead.  Soldiers casting aside arms and armor that was collected by the Bulgarians.

The Bulgarians did not advance much beyond the Imperial encampment.  There they looted the Byzantine baggage train.

The actual Byzantine casualties were on the lighter side.  The Thracian and Macedonian contingents under Aplakes were hit hard and may have lost 2,000 to 3,000 men.  But the Emperor's guard escaped and the division under Leo the Armenian marched back to Constantinople in good order.  A number of Byzantine infantry units that were separated from their cavalry support hid in different fortresses which were taken by the Bulgarians one by one.  The remaining infantry managed to find their way back to Constantinople.

What about Leo? 

Later Byzantine historians Genesius and Theophanes Continuatus accused Leo the Armenian (the next Emperor) as primarily responsible for the defeat, claiming that he deliberately ordered the flight of the units that were still not engaged in the battle. This view is accepted by a large number of scholars, while others reject Leo's responsibility.

I would say that most Roman generals would never let opportunity pass them by.  The new Emperor Michael was obviously weak.  Opportunity was knocking on Leo's door.  

The Roman army was collapsing on its own right in front of Leo.  With his own troops wavering it is doubtful that Leo could have saved the rest of the army from defeat all by himself.  What he could do is save his own division from slaughter in order to fight another day.

It was a long march back to Constantinople, and Leo had the only organized armed force in the area.  I don't believe Leo planned in advance to lose the battle, but he must have thought deeply about the danger the empire was in under Michael's weak leadership.

The contemporary account Scriptor incertus de Leone says the Emperor Michael blamed himself for the defeat and blamed the troops who refused to fight.

Bulgarian Cavalry Reenactors

The Aftermath

The defeat sealed the fate of Emperor Michael I Rangabe.

With conspiracy in the air, Michael preempted events by abdicating in favor of the general Leo the Armenian and becoming a monk (under the name Athanasios). His sons were castrated and relegated into monasteries, one of them, Niketas (renamed Ignatios), eventually becoming Patriarch of Constantinople. Michael died peacefully on 11 January 844.

The victory at Versinikia further worsened the grim situation of Byzantium and gave the Bulgarian Khan an opportunity to launch attacks in the vicinity of Constantinople itself.

The way to Constantionople was clear and the Bulgarian army headed straight to the city without facing any resistance. There were still several fortresses in Thrace which remained in Byzantine hands, particularly Adrianople which was besieged by Krum's brother. 

On 17 July 813 Krum himself reached the walls of Constantinople and set his camp without hindrance. Within the sight of the citizens of Constantinople, Krum who was also the high priest made a sacrifice to the Bulgar god Tangra, performed some pagan rituals, then the Bulgarians built trenches along the whole length of the city's walls and then suddenly Krum offered peace.

Leo V agreed to negotiations but he intended to treacherously kill Khan Krum and eliminate the threat over the Byzantine Empire. During the negotiations, the Byzantines fired arrows on the Bulgarian delegation killing some of them, including the kavkhan or other high official, but Krum himself remained intact.

Infuriated by the treachery of the Byzantines, Krum ordered all churches, monasteries and palaces outside Constantinople to be destroyed, the captured Byzantines were slain and the riches from the palaces were sent to Bulgaria on carts. After that all enemy fortresses in the surroundings of Constantinople and Marmara Sea were seized and razed to the ground. The castles and settlements in the interior of Eastern Thrace were looted and the whole region devastated. Then Krum returned to Adrianople and strengthened the besieging forces. With the help of mangonels and battering rams he forced the city to surrender. 

The Bulgarians captured 10,000 people who were resettled in Bulgaria across the Danube. Further 50,000 from other settlements in Thrace were deported there. During the winter Krum returned to Bulgaria and launched serious preparation for the final assault on Constantinople. The siege machines had to be transported to Constantinople by 5,000 iron-covered carts hauled by 10,000 oxen. However, he died during the height of the preparations on 13 April 814.

Bulgarian Warrior Reenactors
(Screenshot HunHorda)

(youtube.com)        (Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831 By Panos Sophoulis)

(Warfare, State And Society In The Byzantine World 560-1204 By John Haldon)


(Battle of Versinikia)        (Battle_of_Versinikia)


Phil said...

An excellent post, as always...very interesting!

Gary said...

Kind words.

I am a minimum wage historian who does the best he can with the very limited info available.

You look at the MOUNTAINS of information available for WWII or the US Civil War and then see how we know almost nothing detailed on ancient events. Such a loss.

Anonymous said...

As in the east , that defeat in the west came to made another blow on the empire .