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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Battle of Rusokastro - Bulgarians vs. Byzantines

14th Century Byzantine Troops

The Last Battle
Rusokastro was the last major battle in the 700 year
struggle between Bulgaria and Byzantium.

The Battle of Rusokastro occurred on July 18, 1332 near the village of Rusokastro, Bulgaria, between the armies of the Bulgarian Empire and Byzantine Empire. The result was a Bulgarian victory.

Origins of the Conflict

In 1328, the emperors of Bulgaria and Byzantium, Michael Asen III and Andronikos III Palaiologos, signed a secret treaty against Serbia. While Michael Asen III was fighting against the Serbs in 1330, the Byzantines invaded Thrace and captured the Bulgarian towns there.

Following the defeat of Bulgaria in the Battle of Velbazhd the Byzantines got a firm foothold in Thrace.


The Byzantines were not ready for war. Their Empire was rent with civil unrest and the army was fighting against the Turks in Asia Minor. In the Bulgarian Empire, there were internecine struggles as well but the new Emperor Ivan Alexander knew that the decisive confrontation with Byzantium was yet to come and decided to improve his relations with the Serbs.

In 1332, he concluded a peace treaty with them which lasted till his death. The treaty was secured with a marriage between the Serb king Stefan Dushan and the sister of the Emperor, Elena.

In the summer of 1332, the Byzantines gathered an army and without a declaration of war headed towards Bulgaria, looting and plundering the villages on their way.

Bulgarian Light Cavalry
From the 10th to 12th century period.
The Byzantines seized several castles because Ivan Alexander's attention was focused towards fighting the rebellion of his uncle Belaur in Vidin. He tried to negotiate with the Byzantines but ultimately failed. The Emperor decided to act swiftly during the course of five days whereby his cavalry covered 230 km to reach Aitos and face the invaders.

The Bulgarian Army

The country and the army declined after Ivan Asen II's death. His successors could not cope neither with the external nor with the internal problems. Mongol, Byzantine and Hungarian invasions were combined with separatism among the nobility and several civil wars. In 1277, a peasant named Ivailo rebelled against Emperor Constantine Tikh.

In the ensuing battle the Emperor was defeated and slain, and Ivailo proclaimed himself Emperor of Bulgaria in Tarnovo. Although he managed to defeat both the Mongols and the Byzantines, a plot among the nobility forced him to seek refuge among the Mongol Golden Horde, where he was killed in 1280.

The army now numbered less than 10,000 men — it is recorded that Ivailo defeated two Byzantine armies of 5,000 and 10,000 men, and that his troops were outnumbered in both cases.

After the end of the rebellion of Ivailo, the Bulgarians were no match for the Mongols who plundered the country undisturbed for 20 years. With the reign of Theodore Svetoslav (1300–1321), the situation of the army improved — in 1304 he defeated the Byzantines at Skafida. Under his successor the garrison of Plovdiv numbered 2,000 heavily armed footmen and 1,000 horsemen.

In 1330 Michael III Shishman raised a 15,000-strong army to face the Serbs but was defeated at the battle of Velbazhd. Two years later the Bulgarian army numbered 11,000 men.

Strategy & Tactics

The Bulgarian army employed various military tactics. It relied both on the experience of the soldiers and the peculiarities of the terrain. The Balkan mountains played a significant role in the military history of Bulgaria and facilitated the country's defense against the strong Byzantine army which conveyed the Roman military art in the Middle Ages.

Tsar Ivan Alexander
Ruled Bulgaria from 1331 to 1371.
He commanded his army at the 
Battle of Rusokastro.

Most of the nine campaigns of the ambitious Emperor Constantine V to eliminate the young Bulgarian state, which suffered political crisis, failed in the mountain passes of the Balkan. In 811 the whole Byzantine army was destroyed in the Varbitsa pass and in 12th-13th centuries several other Byzantine forces shared that doom.

The Bulgarians maintained many outposts and castles which guarded the passes and were able to locate an invading force and quickly inform the high command about any enemy moves.

Another widely used tactic was to make a false retreat and then suddenly attack the enemy — breaking the lines when in pursuit. This trick won many victories, most notably at the Battle of Adrianople in 1205 against the Crusaders.

Sometimes the Bulgarians left a strong cavalry force in reserve which attacked in the sublime moment and tipped the balance in Bulgarians' favour, for instance in the battle of Anchialus in 917. Ambush was another widely used and very successful strategy especially during the Cometopuli dynasty.

The Bulgarians usually avoided frontal assault and waited the enemy to attack first. After the opponent inevitably breaks his battle formation the Bulgarians would counter-attack with their heavy cavalry. In several battles the Bulgarian troops waited the Byzantines for days until the latter attack — for instance at the Second Battle of Marcellae (792) or Versinikia (813) - and scored decisive victories. In one of the rare occasions in which the army made a frontal attack on the enemy, the result was a defeat despite the heavy casualties the enemy suffered - battle of Anchialus (763).

After a successful battle the Bulgarian would pursue the enemy in depth in order to eliminate as much soldiers as possible and not to allow him to reorganize his forces quickly and effectively. For instance after the victory at Ongal in 680 the Byzantines were chased for 150–200 km. After the success at Anchialus in 917 the Byzantines were not given time to prepare their resistance properly and the result was the annihilation of their last forces in the battle of Katasyrtai.

During war the Bulgarians usually sent light cavalry to devastate the enemy lands on a broad front pillaging villages and small towns, burning the crops and taking people and cattle. During the Second Empire that task was usually assigned to the Cumans. The Bulgarian army was very mobile — for instance prior to the battle of Klokotnitsa for four days it covered a distance three times longer than the Epirote army for a week; in 1332 it covered 230 km for five days.

Mongol Mercenary Cavalry
Re-enactment of a Mongol cavalry advance in 2006 on the 800th anniversary of Mongolian statehood.  The Bulgarians had a 3,000-strong Mongol cavalry detachment in their army.


During the Second Bulgarian Empire, foreign and mercenary soldiers became an important part of the Bulgarian army and its tactics. Since the very beginning of the rebellion of Asen and Peter, the light and mobile Cuman cavalry was effectively used against the Byzantines and later the Crusaders. For instance, fourteen thousand of them were used by Kaloyan in the battle of Adrianople. The Cuman leaders entered the ranks of Bulgarian nobility, and some of them received high military or administrative posts in the state.

During the 14th century the Bulgarian army increasingly relied on foreign mercenaries, which included Western knights, Mongols, Ossetians or came from vassal Wallachia. Both Michael III Shishman and Ivan Alexander had a 3,000-strong Mongol cavalry detachment in their armies.

In the 1350s, Emperor Ivan Alexander even hired Ottoman bands, as did the Byzantine Emperor.

The Eastern Roman Army

The Byzantine army continued to use the same military terms with regards to numbers of troops and officers as did the Komnenian army. However there were fewer territories to raise troops from. In Anatolia, the local support for the Ottoman conquerors grew daily, whilst in Greece the ravaging by the Crusaders states, by Serbia, by Bulgaria, and earlier on by the Angevin Empire ended the region's prominence as a of source of Byzantine levies.

After 1261, the central army consisted 6,000 men, while the number of total field troops never exceeded 10,000 men. The total number of troops under Michael VIII was about 20,000 men; the mobile force numbered 15,000 men, while the town garrisons totaled 5,000 men.

Andronikos III Palaiologos
Eastern Roman Emperor
Ruled from 1328 to 1341.
He commanded the Roman army
at the Battle of Rusokastro.
However, under Andronicus II the more professional elements of the army was demobilized in favor of poorly trained and cheaper militia soldiers. The Emperor decreased the entire army's strength to 4,000 men by 1320, and a year later the Empire's standing army dropped to only 3,000 men.
Even though the Empire had shrunk considerably by the time of Andronicus III's reign, he succeeded in assembling an army of 4,000 men for his campaign against the Ottomans.

By 1453, the Byzantine army had fallen to a regular garrison of 1,500 men in Constantinople.

Byzantine troops continued to consist of cavalry, infantry and archers. Since Trebizond had broken away, Cumans and Turks were used for cavalry and missile units. In the Palaiologan era, the main term for a standing regiment was the allagion.

Palace and imperial guard units included the Varangian Guard, the obscure Paramonai and the Vardariotai.


After Constantinople was retaken, Michael VIII army's continuous campaigning in Greece ensured that the Nicaean army, an offshoot of the expensive but effective Komnenian army remained in play.

Under Andronicus II however, the army was reduced to destructively low numbers - mercenary troops were disbanded to save money and to lower taxes upon the disgruntled population. Instead the use of poorly equipped and ill-disciplined militia soldiers saw the replacement of the vitally important expert soldiers. The results were obvious; Byzantine losses in Asia Minor occurred primarily under Andronicus II.

In 1302 the center of military expenditure shifted back again towards mercenaries, notably the Catalan Company, but after their leader was murdered the company returned to Thrace and Greece were they overthrew the Crusader Duchy of Athens and seriously undermined Greek rule so that on both sides of the Bosporus the Empire suffered. Even so, mercenaries continued to be used after Andronicus II's reign. Ironically Andronicus' successor's policy of using many foreign fighters worsened Byzantium's fortunes in the same way that Andronicus had done so with their disbandment.

The use of Serbs, Bulgarians and Turks of Aydin and of the Ottomans opened Byzantium up to more foreign incursions. The deployment of up to 20,000 Turkish soldiers from the Ottoman realm to assist her nominal Greek ally only eased future conquests of the area.

Since Byzantium became increasingly incapable in raising a "loyal" Greek army, foreigners such as the Knights of Rhodes, Venetians, Genoans and Italians were added to Byzantium's fighting forces. Since the Imperial treasury was bankrupt after c 1350, these foreign fighters fought only for political reasons and often in civil wars, rather than to strengthen Byzantium's position.

Mercenary Catalan Troops.
Some 6,500 men went to fight for the Eastern Empire in 1303.  Mercenaries were used because the Byzantines became increasingly incapable in raising a "loyal" Greek army.

Strategy & Tactics

The Byzantine Empire's main strategy aimed to make maximum use of an often outnumbered army. The key behind this approach was the use of border fortifications that would impede an invading force long enough for the main Imperial army to march in to its relief.

Reconnaissance and ambushing enemy columns remained a favorite Byzantine tactic. At the Battle of Pelekanos, the Ottomans were successfully spied upon by the opposing Byzantine troops.

More serious shortcomings in Byzantine strategy occurred in Asia Minor, particularly against the Ottoman Turks who would raid Byzantine lands and then retreat before any serious resistance could counter. The local population endured heavy burdens in providing officials with food and matériel, but such burdens were to difficult to take as the ravages of warfare were brought home by the Ottomans and their ghazi followers.

After the Imperial army suffered defeat in Asia Minor, Andronikos III saw Anatolia as a lost cause and began reorganizing the Byzantine fleet; as a result the Aegean remained an effective defense against Turkish incursions until Gallipoli was at last captured by the Turks in 1354. From then on, the Byzantine military engaged in small scale warfare against her weak Crusader opponents, mixing in diplomacy and subterfuge, often exploiting civil conflict amongst their Ottoman opponents.

The Battle

The Byzantine Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos advanced into Bulgaria in the summer of 1332 to reclaim former lands of the Empire.  The invasion protracted Bulgarian military operations against rebel forces in their country.

The Byzantines overran Bulgarian-controlled northeastern Thrace, but Ivan Alexander rushed southward with a small army and swiftly caught up with Andronikos III at Rusokastro

Ivan Alexander had troops of 8,000 while the Byzantines were only 3,000.  Though he outnumbered the Byzantines, Alexander did not immediatly attack.  As a brand new ruler already dealing with civil war, Alexander may have been unsure of his ability and position.

There were negotiations between the two rulers, but the Bulgarian Emperor deliberately prolonged them because he was awaiting reinforcements.

In the night of July 17 they finally arrived in his camp (3,000 cavalrymen) and he decided to attack the Byzantines the next day.  Now facing a Bulgarian force of 11,000 men, the greatly outnumbered Andronikos III had no choice but to accept the fight.

The Byzantine army consisted of 16 squads and six of them made up the first column.

The right wing was commanded by the protostrator, the left wing was under the megas papias Alexios Tzamplakon, and the center was commanded personally by the emperor. The army formed a wide front in two lines with the flanks positioned behind the center forming a crescent.

The battle began at six in the morning and continued for three hours.

The Byzantines tried to prevent the Bulgarian cavalry from surrounding them, but their manoeuvre failed. The cavalry moved round the first Byzantine line leaving it for the infantry and charged the rear of their flanks. After a fierce fight the Byzantines were defeated, ran away from the battlefield and hid in Rusokastro.

The Bulgarian army surrounded the fortress and at noon on the same day Ivan Alexander sent envoys to continue the negotiations.

Bulgarians killing Byzantines. 
The Holy Coronas are there to imply that the Byzantine men being slaughtered are martyrs for the Christian faith. 


The Bulgarians had returned to them their lost lands in Thrace and strengthened the positions of their empire. The eight-year old son and successor of the Bulgarian emperor Michael Asen was married to the daughter of Andronikos, Maria, confirming the peace between the two countries.

This battle was considered by the medieval Bulgarian historians as a great triumph of Emperor Ivan Alexander. That was the last major battle between Bulgaria and Byzantium as their seven-century rivalry for domination on the Balkan peninsula was soon to come to an end after the fall of the two Empires under Ottoman domination.

Rusokastro Rock at the north entrance to McFarlane Strait in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica is named after “the settlement and medieval fortress of Rusokastro in Southeastern Bulgaria.”

Monument for the Battle of Rusokastro.
The Byzantine Empire in the early 1300s.

(Palaiologan Byzantine Army)      (Byzantine Army)      (Medieval Bulgarian Army)

(Byzantine - Bulgarian Wars)      (Second Bulgarian Empire)      (wikipedia.org)

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