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, August 1, 2015

The Sack of Pliska and the Massacre at Vărbitsa Pass

Bulgar warriors. Scene from reenactment of the battle,
26 July 2006. Photo credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis

The Bulgarian Empire on the March
An entire Roman army was ambushed and destroyed

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 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 Warrior Reenactor

Khan Krum the Fearsom

Krum the Fearsome was Khan of the Bulgarian Empire from sometime after 796 but before 803 until his death in 814. During his reign the Bulgarian territory doubled in size, spreading from the middle Danube to the Dnieper and from Odrin to the Tatra Mountains.

The Bulgars did not limit their wars only to Byzantium; they also waged wars in the west of the Balkan Peninsula, and those wars transformed from defensive to aggressive and invasive. During the first years of his rule, Krum had to attend to his north-west borders where at the beginning of the 9th century the political situation changed due to the expansion of the Frankish Empire in the Middle Danubian region and the repulsion of the weak remnants of the Avar Khaganate.
Khan Krum

In 805, the Bulgars killed and captured the remaining Avars, and annexed their lands in today's Eastern Hungary and Transylvania to Bulgaria. The Bulgars put the kagan to flight and captured a host of Avar soldiers; years later, the latter would serve in the Bulgars' wars against Byzantium. The Slav tribes that lived in those lands, after being freed from the Avar rule, recognized the power of the Bulgar Khan.

This victory resulted in the establishment of a common border between the Frankish Empire and Bulgaria.

Krum engaged in a policy of territorial expansion. In 807 Bulgarian forces defeated the Byzantine army in the Struma valley. In 809 Krum besieged and forced the surrender of Serdica (Sofia).  The Bulgar troops captured 1,100 litres of gold and killed many enemy soldiers including all strategos and most of the commanders. In 809 the Knyaz personally besieged the strong fortress of Serdica and seized the city, killing the whole garrison of 6,000.

This victory provoked Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I to settle Anatolian populations along the Balkan frontier to protect it and to attempt to retake and refortify Serdica, although this enterprise failed.

In 811, the Byzantine Emperor organised a large campaign to conquer Bulgaria once and for all. He gathered an enormous army from the Anatolian and European themata, and the imperial bodyguard (the tagmata); they were joined by a number of irregular troops who expected a swift victory and plunder. The conquest was supposed to be easy, and most of the high-ranking officials and aristocrats accompanied him, including his son Stauracius and his brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe. 

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

There was extensive campaigning and fighting between the Bulgarian
and Roman forces right up to the walls of Constantinople itself.

Forces Involved - The Romans

Traditionally both sides in war vastly inflate the numbers of troops involved.  That is certainly the case here with claims of some 80,000 Romans and 60,000 Bulgarians fighting.

The historian Warren Treadgold places the strength of the entire Roman Army at this point at 80,000.  So the idea of an 80,000 man army marching to meet the enemy is easily shot down.  You can apply the same logic to the Bulgarian side.

Since 681 AD the Romans had been fighting a brutal war with hordes of invading Bulgarians that involved an "ethnic cleansing" of the Empire's population.  Historians at the time all agreed that the Emperor Nikephoros responded to the Bulgarian threat with a major effort.

To try and end the Bulgarian threat the Emperor gathered regiments from Anatolia and Thrace.  Constantinople troops joined the force such as the Imperial Guard Excubitors (perhaps 4,000 cavalry) and the Imperial Vigla (tagma), the Watch, (perhaps as high as another 4,000 men).

Rounding off numbers:  The Emperor may have marched with 10,000 men from Constantinople, 15,000 from the Anatolian Themes and another 10,000 from the Balkans Themes.

The Emperor himself at the head of an army of about 35,000 works for me.  As to the mix of infantry and cavalry we do not know.

The historian Panos Sophoulis leans to a Roman army of 15,000 to 20,000.  He bases his numbers on the logistics needed to supply an army for weeks of campaigning far from Constantinople.  As true as his numbers might be, the fact is far larger armies had campaigned over the centuries and supplied themselves.  He neglects the ability of an advancing army to save on supplies by living off the farms and stored foods of a defeated enemy.  The Romans could have also pre-positioned supplies at towns along the way for use by the army during their return trip.

A 35,000 man army would leave about 45,000 troops left to protect the Empire's lands in Italy, the Dalmatian coast, the Greek islands and Anatolia.  There was constant danger on the southern and eastern fronts from Muslim Arab Jihads.  The Emperor could only send limited numbers of troops.

Byzantine reenactors

The Bulgarians

The permanent Bulgarian army consisted of the khan's guard of select warriors, while the campaign army consisted practically of the entire nation, assembled by clans. In the field, the army was divided into right and left wings.  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.

The Bulgarian army was well armed according to the Avar model: the soldiers had a sabre 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.  The heavy cavalry was supplied with metal armor and helmets. The horses were also armored.

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.

The Byzantine historian Pseudo-Simeon stated that Krum sent a 30,000 strong cavalry, "the whole armored with iron", which devastated Thrace.

Based on research it can be assumed that the heavy cavalry component of the Bulgarian army numbered between 17-20,000 and 30,000 men, depending on the level of mobilization.  Added to that number would be assorted assembled militia/tribal units of infantry and cavalry called into temporary service.

A Bulgarian army of 35,000 permanent and militia units is not a bad guess.

Ruins of Pliska

The Sack of Pliska

Historical accounts are few and often biased.  For example, the historian and clergyman Theophanes hated the Emperor.  He accused the Emperor of witchcraft, sacrificing an ox, homosexuality and worst of all, increasing taxes on the clergy!  The horror!  So we have to read between the lines of recorded history and draw our on conclusions on events.

The army gathered in May, and by 10 July had set up camp at the fortress of Marcelae (present-day Karnobat) near the Bulgarian frontier. Nicephorus intended to confuse them and over the next ten days launched several supposed attacks, which were immediately called back. Krum assessed the situation and estimated that he could not repulse the enemy and offered peace, which Nicephorus haughtily rejected. Theophanes wrote that the Emperor, "was deterred from his own ill thoughts and the suggestions of his advisors who were thinking like him".

The Emperor invaded the Bulgarian lands and marched through the Balkan passes towards the capital of Pliska
Gold coin of the Emperor
Nikephoros I, 802-811,
Athens, Numismatic Museum.

The geography itself was as much of an enemy as the Bulgarians.  During the first millennium, the territory of northern Bulgaria (Moesia) was covered with an unbroken forest, known in Europe as Magna Silva Bulgarica. The forest was especially dense and impassable in the region: Veregava and the plains and valleys at its foothills. It further slowed the march: the large army moved in columns along the narrow forest paths, the cavalry frequently dismounting at the steep slopes. 

Because this was a hostile territory, light cavalry scouts were sent ahead to spy out the army's line of march, the position of enemy forces and fortifications, the availability of wood and water, fodder and food, and were responsible for providing the commanders of the Byzantine forces with sufficient information for them to plan their route and the marching camps.

The Emperor divided the army each of which marched across the frontier by different routes,  One column moved through the mountains and the other near the coast.  The mountain column may have subdivided with multiple units marching through different passes.  

The Bulgars did not have the man power to defend multiple entry points and retreated.  It is possible that the Bulgars deliberately pulled back to conserve their strength.

The Romans met little resistance. When they reached the capital the Byzantines met an army of 12,000 elite, well armed Bulgarian soldiers who guarded the stronghold. The Bulgarians were defeated and most of them perished.
Elite Soldier of the Imperial Tagmata
of Excubita/Excubitores.

The Kahn Krum hastily gathered together another army of 50,000.  This number is grossly inflated.  But we can assume these follow up troops were more militia then regular soldiers.  The two forces met on the plains of Pliska where the better organized Romans on flat ground soundly defeated the second Bulgarian force.

Following the victory the Bulgarian treasury was captured and the Emperor installed himself in Krum's residence.  The Emperor sent dispatches to Constantinople announcing the victory.  He said that he was planning to build a city named for himself on the site.

There then followed the rewarding of the Roman troops along with the destruction of the city.

The Chronicle reports a generous Emperor:

"(He) found great spoils which he commanded be distributed among his army as per the troop roster . . . When he opened the storehouses of (Krum's) wine he distributed it so everyone could drink his fill."

Obviously the Emperor felt his victory was so complete that drunken soldiers would not be an issue.

Michael the Syrian, patriarch of the Syrians Jacobites in XIIth century described in his Chronicle the brutalities and atrocities of the Byzantine Emperor: “Nicephorus, emperor of the Romans, walked in Bulgars land: he was victorious and killed a great number of them. He reached their capital, took it over and devastated it. His savagery went to such a point that he ordered to bring their small children, got them tied down on earth and made thresh grain stones to smash them.” 

The Byzantine soldiers looted and plundered; burnt down the unharvested fields, cut the sinews of the oxen, slaughtered sheep, pigs and committed rape. The Emperor took over Krum's treasury, locked it and did not allow his troops to reach it at the same time cutting noses and other appendages of soldiers who touched the trophies. At the end, Nicephorus ordered his troops to burn down Krum's residence.

According to the historian Theophanes, Krum’s proclamation stated, "Here you are, you have won. So take what you please and go with peace." Nicephorus, overconfident from his success, ignored him. He believed that Bulgaria was thoroughly conquered.

The Massacre of Vărbitsa Pass

The Emperor Nicephorus spent some time looting and leveling Pliska.  Whatever day dreams the Emperor may have had about restoring the province to Rome were shattered when scouts reported enemy activity in the surrounding areas.  The Emperor ordered the troops to march for home.

Kahn Krum had been busy gathering what forces he could.  He collected the surviving Bulgar warriors who had feld into the mountains and called up more of his soldiers.  He also hired what was left of the Avar warriors as well as neighboring Slav tribes (the Sklavinias).

As to numbers, we do not know how many troops Krum had available to him.  It is reasonable to assume he would have had at least 10,000 men and perhaps more.  Certainly he had enough troops available to confidently feel he could take on the entire Roman army that had just defeated him twice.

Initially Nicephorus intended to march through Moesia and reach Serdica (today Sofia) before returning to Constantinople, but the news of these preparations for a battle changed his decision and he chose the shortest way back to his capital . . . . through narrow mountain passes.  

This is never the best of choices for a commander.  Your troops are strung out over a long roads and unable to easily form up into compact units for attack or defense.  The smaller numbers of an enemy can take advantage and attack in multiple areas at the same time.

The Bulgarians built temporary log palisades in the narrow mountain
passes to block the Byzantine retreat.

The Bulgarians had been busy preparing a trap for the retreating Byzantines.  In a unique Bulgar technique, they rapidly assembled and placed rude wooden palisades of logs bound with twine across the narrow mountain valleys.  The Chronicle of 811 says they were:  "a fearsome and impenetrable fence out of tree trunks, in the manner of a wall."

These palisades were not fortifications that could resist a siege.  Rather they would provide the Bulgarians a measure of protection while they launched arrows and missiles.  Being able to fire through slits in the wall negated the archery power of the Byzantines.

The fault for the coming massacre is totally with an overconfident Emperor.  He had beaten the Bulgarians twice on open ground and burned their city.  But even with reports of gathering enemy forces he appears to have had a relaxed, out for a stroll in the countryside view of a march through enemy territory.

This is illustrated by the Chronicle of 811 which reports that the Emperor's camp was not fortified and the other Roman troops were spread out up and down the mountain road and unable to support each other.  One historian noted that nights in this period were dark and moonless.  Perfect for sneaking up to the Roman camp.

The Bulgarians did not wait for the Romans to reach the log barriers.  The Chronicle of 811 says they attacked in the dead of night:

  • "They fell on (the Byzantine soldiers) still half asleep, who arose and, arming themselves, in haste, joined the battle.  But since (the forces) were encamped a great distance from one another, they did not know immediately what was happening.  For they (the Bulgars) fell only upon the Imperial encampment, which they began to cut to pieces.  When few resisted, and none strongly, but many were slaughtered, the rest who saw it gave themselves to flight.  At this same place there was also a river, . . . . they threw themselves into the river.  Entering with their horses and net being able to get out, they sank into the swamp, and were trampled by those coming from behind.  And some men fell on the others, so that the river was so full with men and horses that the enemies crossed on top of them unharmed and pursued the rest."

According to the Chronicle there was but one log palisade and it was unmanned.  That may or may not be correct.  Certainly the Bulgars put this one on what would be the main road out of the mountain pass.  If it was unmanned or lightly manned that speaks to the lack of available Bulgarian troops for this part of the campaign.  The Chronicle says:

  • "Those who thought they had escaped from the carnage of the river came up against the fence that the Bulgars has constructed, which was strong and exceedingly difficult to cross . . . . They abandoned their horses and, having climbed up with their hands and feet, hurled themselves headlong on the other side.  But there was a deep excavated trench on the other side, so that those who hurled themselves from the top broke their limbs.  Some of them died immediately, while the others progressed a short distance, but did not have the strength to walk. . . . . In other places, men set fire to the fence, and when the bonds (which held the logs together) burned through and the fence collapsed above the trench, those fleeing were unexpectedly thrown down and fell into the pit of the trench of the fire . . . . both themselves and their horses.  On that same day the Emperor Nikephoros was killed during the first assault, and nobody is able to relate the manner of his death.  Injured also was his son Staurakios, who suffered a mortal wound to the spinal vertebrae from which he died after having ruled the Romans for two months."

The entire slaughter taking place in a pitch black night must and been a nightmare.

Bulgarian Warrior Reenactors
(Screenshot HunHorda)

The Aftermath

After the battle, Kahn had the Emperor's head on a spike, then Krum encased Nicephorus's skull in silver, and used it as a cup for wine-drinking.

The defeat was the worst the empire had faced since the Battle of Adrianople over 400 years earlier, when the Eastern Roman forces were defeated by the Visigoths and Emperor Valens himself was killed. It was a stupendous blow to the Imperial prestige—to the legend of the Emperor’s sacrosanctity, so carefully fostered to impress the barbarians. 

Moreover, the Visigoths that slew Valens had been mere nomads, destined soon to pass away to other lands; the Bulgars were barbarians settled at the gate, and determined—more so now than ever—to remain there. The military might of the Empire was severely crippled.

Casualties  -  There are no firm numbers for casualties on either side.  Contemporary accounts agree that the battle was a slaughter.  But a complete annihilation of an army is rare in military history.  We can speculate that Roman casualties might have easily gone above 50%, 60% and perhaps much higher.

Among the nobles killed were the patricians Theodosios Salibaras and Sisinnios Triphyllios; the strategos of the Anatolics Romanos and the strategos of Thrace; as well as the commanders of the Excubitors and Vigla tagmata.  Nicephorus's son, Stauracius, was carried to safety by the Imperial bodyguard after receiving a paralyzing wound to his neck.  Six months later, his wounds finally killed him.

That the Imperial Guard took the Emperor's son to safety says there were large gaps in whatever the Bulgarian battle lines were.  If parts of the Guard escaped it is possible that other units managed to get themselves out of the trap.

The bottom line is this massacre was a massive blow to both Roman psychology and to the army itself with many prime military units being lost. 

Byzantine Soldier

Click to enlarge


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

(Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831)      (Medieval Bulgarian Army)

(Krum)      (lyudmilantonov.blogspot)      (Battle of Pliska)


Anonymous said...

Nice depiction . Reckless and violent manner made Nicephorus doom .

Д-р Младенов said...

- Bravo! A very competent analyze...