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, September 1, 2018

Battle of Tryavna Pass (1190 AD)

Eastern Roman Varangian Guard
A Hungarian reenactor's armor and comments
"The kit is mainly based on the Alexiad, most notably on the comments of Anna Komnena about the Varangian Guard. This character is of Scandinavian origin, in service of the Byzantine army, rather than the eastern rus contingent of 6000 warriors who formed the core of the Guard later in 988, if I recall correctly. Therefore I based most of the armour and clothing on the Gjermundbu, Birka and Valsgärde finds, with exception of the leather vest. It has a debated origin that byzantine troops used this type of vests along scale and lamellar armour. I refrained to acquire a lamellar armor as the Wisby find turned out to be a "hoax", well not a hoax, only it was originated centuries later. I also looked up on a large number of byzantine manuscripts about guardsmen, but they weren't really helpful aside from the clothing.
The kit is still incomplete, as I still miss a shield, a proper shoes (will be also based on Birka) and an authentic belt, but I'll have them as well soon enough..
A limb guards were based on the first misinterpreted Valsgärde find, it's not a complicated design, as you can see..
The gloves, well, those are of course a hoax as we don't have a find or manuscritp up to date about protective gloves from this era. But I'm not too keen to lose a finger or two, or my hand entirely, so I gotta wear something. Yeah, I too think the pale leather stands out, and I'm about to dye it darker if I'll have the time and proper materials for it.

Bulgaria vs Constantinople

Origins of the War

Since 680 AD the Eastern Roman Empire had faced and endless wave of invasions by Bulgarian tribes. At his point that make 510 years of wars, sieges, invasions, counter invasions and slaughter.

In 1190, on paper at least, the Eastern Empire "ruled" from the Danube down to Greece. But huge areas had been re-populated with less than loyal barbarian tribes and had been burned over producing modest to little tax income for Constantinople.

In 1185 we saw the Uprising of Asen and Peter the theme of Paristrion.  

Eastern Roman Emperor Isaac II Angelus, in order to raise money for his wedding with the daughter of King Béla III of Hungary, levied a new tax which fell heavily on the population of the Haemus Mountains. They sent two leaders (Peter and Asen) to negotiate with the emperor. They asked to be added to the roll of the Byzantine army and to be granted land near Haemus to provide the monetary income needed to pay the tax. This was refused, and Peter and Asen were treated roughly. Their response was to threaten revolt.

In the spring of 1187, Isaac attacked the fortress of Lovech, but failed to capture it after a three-month siege. The lands between the Haemus and the Danube were now lost for the Byzantine Empire, leading to the signing of a truce, thus de facto recognising the rule of the Asen and Peter over the territory, leading to the creation of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

The Tarnovo Campaign
 The Bulgarian Army is in red and Byzantines in blue.
The Emperor marched the Roman Army north along the coast while the Roman fleet held his right flank just off the coast.
 The Byzantines made a bluff indicating that they would pass near the sea by Pomorie, but instead headed west and passed through the Rishki Pass to Preslav. The Byzantine army next marched westwards to besiege the capital at Tarnovo. At the same time, the Byzantine fleet reached the Danube in order to bar the way of Cuman auxiliaries from the northern Bulgarian territories.

Medieval Tarnovo
On high ground and surrounded by the Yantra River the Bulgarian capital of Tarnovo was an almost impossible military objective for the Byzantines.

The Tarnovo Fortress
Who thought this was a good idea?
The Roman Emperor Isaac II Angelos marches deep into enemy territory to attack the Bulgarian capital that is surrounded by the Yantra River.  To capture the city Roman troops would have to cross the river and attack up hill to reach the Bulgarian fortifications.

The newly restored Trapesitsa Fortress in Bulgaria's Veliko Tarnovo is now open for tourists.

Forces Involved

Because of the lack of property histories once again we have next to zero real knowledge of the forces involved in this battle and the massive amount of details about the combat that took place.

Bulgarian Army

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.

Bulgarian army used large numbers of Cuman cavalry which numbered between 10,000 and 30,000 riders, depending on the campaign. These were drawn from among the Cumans who inhabited Wallachia and Moldavia.

In the battle of Kleidion the Bulgarian army numbered around 20,000 soldiers. According some estimates the total number of the army including the squads of local militia reached a maximum level of 45,000.

To put it mildly, any Roman Emperor who invaded Bulgaria did so at his own risk. The Bulgarians would have the advantage of defending their own lands and fortified cities while their armies would be easily supported by local militias or allied forces from across the Danube.

I would make an educated guess the number of 30,000 Bulgarian soldiers (perhaps more) defending their country in this campaign. Add to that number thousands of allied Cuman cavalry attacking the Byzantines in the rear.

Eastern Roman Army Strength

The Roman Army

We have a little better idea of the size of the Eastern Roman Army.  In this period it is was roughly 50,000 men under arms.

These professional Tagmata troops would have been divided into assorted units. 

For example, the most famous of all tagmatic units, the 6,000-strong mercenary Varangian Guard, was established ca. 988 by Emperor Basil II (r. 976–1025).  There was the heavy cataphract corps called the Athanatoi (Ἀθάνατοι, the "Immortals") after the old Persian unit, which were revived in the late 11th century by Michael VII Doukas (r. 1071–1078). There were the Megathymoi of the 1040s or the Archontopoulai and Vestiaritai (Imperial Guard) of Alexios I.

The Emperor had these professional units to all upon for an invasion of Bulgaria. What units he selected or the total strength of the army we have no idea.

Using a 50,000 man army as a base number we need to subtract from there. Thousands of troops would have been needed to face the Muslim Turks in Asia Minor. Fortresses would need to be manned and standing mobile forces would be needed to defend the frontier.

Even more troops would be needed to protect Constantinople, the Greek islands, Greece itself and other Western Balkan outposts against Bulgarian invasion.

That 50,000 man army starts shrinking fast.

What we do have is the Emperor himself invading deep into Bulgaria. That means all available troops would be gathered under his command to protect the head of state. We can assume this was an all out campaign by the Byzantine State to crush the revived Bulgarian Empire.

If 30,000 troops are held in place to defend different frontiers that might give the Emperor a force of 20,000 men to invade Bulgaria.  Might give him . . . this is just an educated guess. His army could have been smaller.

The Bulgarians may have had an army of 30,000 waiting for the Emperor and another 10,000 or more Cuman allied cavalry.  That makes a 20,000 man invading Byzantine army look like fresh meat for a Bulgarian grinder.

Late medieval Bulgarian soldier

Invasion and Siege

In the late autumn of 1186, the Byzantine army marched northwards through Sredets (Sofia). The campaign was planned to surprise the Bulgarians. However, the harsh weather conditions and the early winter postponed the Byzantines and their army had to stay in Sredets during the whole winter.
In the spring on the following year, the campaign was resumed but the element of surprise was gone and the Bulgarians had taken measures to bar the way to their capital Tarnovo. Instead the Byzantines besieged the strong fortress of Lovech. The siege lasted for three month and was a complete failure.
Then the Byzantines dodged a bullet.  The soldiers of the Third Crusade with an army of 12,000–15,000 men, including 4,000 knights reached the Bulgarian lands. Asen and Peter offered to help the Emperor of the Holy Roman EmpireFrederick I Barbarosa, with a force of 40,000 against the Byzantines. But the Byzantines and Crusaders worked out their differences avoiding a major problem.

Emperor Isaac II wanted to end this Bulgarian threat once and for all and planned out a fairly good campaign using both the army and the navy. The problem was he lacked enough troops to pull it off.

The Byzantines marched north from Constantinople and made a bluff indicating that they would pass near the coastal city of Pomorie, but instead they headed west and passed through the Rishki Pass to Preslav.

As the Byzantine army moved inland to the west the Byzantine fleet sailed on to the Danube in order to bar the way of Cuman auxiliaries from the northern Bulgarian territories.  The fleet alone might not have been enough to stop the Cuman cavalry. We can speculate the navy might have had a certain amount of infantry or cavalry with them to secure crossing points on the Danube.

The Byzantines managed to overcome the passes of the Balkan mountains and march on to the Bulgarian capital of Tarnovo.

The Byzantine siege of Tarnovo was unsuccessful. The city was well situated on higher ground and protected by the Yantra River (see photo above). The defense of the city was led by Asen himself and the morale of his troops was very high. They were behind solid walls and defending their nation and people.

The Byzantine morale, on the other hand, was quite low for several reasons: the lack of any military success, heavy casualties and particularly the fact that the soldiers' pay was in arrears.

Asen sent an agent in the guise of a deserter to the Byzantine camp. The man told Isaac II that, despite the efforts of the Byzantine navy, an enormous Cuman army had passed the river Danube and was heading towards Tarnovo to relive the siege. 

Rather than verify the Cuman movements with scouts and his his navy the Byzantine Emperor panicked and immediately called for a retreat through the nearest pass.

Battle of Tryavna Pass

From the frying pan into the fire.

The Byzantine Emperor's plan was bold. Have the navy on the Danube hold enemy reinforcements at bay while the army marched deep into central Bulgaria to capture their capital.  But bold as that plan was the idea of marching a smaller Byzantine army into Bulgaria to attack a powerful fortification while being surrounded by enemy forces was rather stupid and reckless.

Now add into the mix the panic of the Emperor when he was told by one planted soldier that the Cuman cavalry had crossed the Danube. Isaac II did not bother to confirm this single report. He simply decided to turn tale and run for home.

The Bulgarian Emperor deduced that his opponent would go through the Tryavna Pass in his attempt to get to Byzantine territory.

The Byzantine army slowly marched southwards, their troops and baggage train stretching for kilometers. The Bulgarians reached the pass before them and staged an ambush from the heights of a narrow gorge.

The Byzantine vanguard concentrated their attack on the center where the Bulgarian leaders were positioned, but once the two main forces met and hand-to-hand combat ensued, the Bulgarians stationed on the heights showered the Byzantine force below with rocks and arrows.

In panic, the Byzantines broke up and began a disorganized retreat, prompting a Bulgarian charge, which slaughtered everyone on their way.

Isaac II barely escaped; his guards had to cut a path through their own soldiers, enabling their commander's flight from the rout. The Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates wrote that only Isaac Angelos escaped and most of the others perished.

The battle was a major catastrophe for the Byzantines.

The Bulgarians captured the imperial treasure including the golden helmet of the Byzantine Emperors, the crown and the Imperial Cross which was considered the most valuable possession of the Byzantine rulers - a solid gold reliquary containing a piece of the Holy Cross. It was thrown in the river by a Byzantine cleric but was recovered by the Bulgarians. These trophies later became the pride of the Bulgarian Treasure and were carried around the capital, Tarnovo, during official occasions.

11th Century Eastern Roman military formation


Bulgaria was permanently lost to the Eastern Empire.  Tryavna Pass was but one of an endless stream of Bulgarian victories.

Up to that moment, the official Emperor was Peter IV, but, after the major successes of his younger brother, he was proclaimed Emperor later that year. Officially, Peter preserved his title and ruled from Preslav, but the state now governed by Ivan Asen I. In the next two years, he liberated many lands to the west and south-west including Sofia and Niš.

His troops looted Thrace and the Byzantines were powerless to resist the Bulgarian attacks.

 Eastern Roman infantry known as scutatii (Meaning ″shield men″) or skutatoi (on right).

The Empire before Bulgaria broke away.

(Medieval Bulgarian army)      (Second Bulgarian Empire)      (Tagmata)

(Third Crusade)      (Asen and Peter)      (Tryavna)       (pinterest)

(pinterest)      (Byzantine army)