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A.A. Vasiliev
History of the Byzantine empire

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Relations of the Byzantine Empire with the Bulgarians and Magyars.

            The relations with Bulgaria in the time of the Macedonian emperors were extremely significant for the Empire. Although in the time of King Simeon Bulgaria became a formidable enemy of the Byzantine Empire, threatening even the capital and the Emperor’s power, the rulers of the Macedonian dynasty completely subjected this kingdom and transformed it into a Byzantine province.

            During the reign of Basil I peaceful relations were maintained with Bulgaria. Immediately after the death of Michael III the negotiations concerning the restoration of the union between the Bulgarian and Greek churches came to a happy ending. King Boris went so far as to send his son, Simeon, to be educated in Constantinople. These friendly relations were very advantageous for both sides. Relieved of all anxiety about his northern borders, Basil could pour all his forces into the struggle with the eastern Arabs in the heart of Asia Minor and the western Muslims in Italy. Boris, in his turn, needed peace for the internal upbuilding of his kingdom, which had only recently adopted Christianity.

            After the accession of Leo VI (886), peace with Bulgaria was broken immediately because of some dispute regarding certain customs duties which were highly detrimental to Bulgarian trade. Bulgaria was ruled at this time by its very famous King Simeon, son of Boris. His “love of knowledge led him to reread the books of the ancients,”[41] and he rendered his kingdom great services in the realms of culture and education. His wide political schemes were to be realized at the expense of the Byzantine Empire. Leo VI, aware of the fact that he was unable to offer adequate resistance to Simeon because the Byzantine army was engaged in the Arabian campaigns, appealed for help to the wild Magyars. The latter agreed to make a sudden invasion of Bulgaria from the north in order to divert Simeon’s attention from the Byzantine borders.

            This was a very significant moment in the history of Europe. For the first time, at the end of the ninth century, a new people, the Magyars (Hungarians, Ugrians; Byzantine sources frequently call them Turks, and western sources sometimes refer to them as Avars),[42] became involved in the international relations of European states, or, as C. Grot put it, this was “the first appearance of the Magyars on the arena of European wars as an ally of one of the most civilized nations.”[43] Simeon was defeated by the Magyars in several early battles, but he showed much skill in handling the difficult situation, by trying to gain time in negotiations with the Byzantine Empire, during which he succeeded in winning over the Patzinaks. With their aid he defeated the Magyars and forced them to move north to the place of their future state in the valley of the Middle Danube. After this victory Simeon turned his attention to the Byzantine Empire. A decisive victory over the Greek troops brought him to the very walls of Constantinople. The defeated Emperor succeeded in negotiating a peace treaty according to which he bound himself to refrain from any hostile action against the Bulgarians and to send rich gifts to Simeon every year.

            After the Arabian siege and pillage of Thessalonica in the year 904, Simeon became very desirous of annexing this great city to his kingdom. Leo VI succeeded in preventing the realization of this scheme only by ceding to the Bulgarians other lands of the Empire. The boundary stone set up between Bulgaria and the Byzantine Empire in 904 still exists. It bears an interesting inscription concerning the agreement between the two powers,[44] about which the Bulgarian historian Zlatarsky commented: “According to this agreement all the Slavonic lands of contemporary southern Macedonia and southern Albania, which until this time belonged to the Byzantine Empire, now [in 904] became part of the Bulgarian Kingdom; in other words, by this treaty Simeon united under the Bulgarian sceptre all those Slavonic tribes of the Balkan peninsula which gave Bulgarian nationality its ultimate aspect.”[45] From the time of this treaty until the end of Leo’s rule no collisions occurred between Bulgaria and the Byzantine Empire.

            During the period which elapsed between the death of Leo VI and the death of Simeon the Bulgarian in 927 there was almost continuous warfare between the Empire and Bulgaria, and Simeon very definitely strove to conquer Constantinople. In vain did Patriarch Nicholas Mysticus send him abject epistles, written “not with ink, but with tears.”[46] At times the patriarch tried to abash Simeon and threatened that the Byzantine Empire would form an alliance with the Russians, the Patzinaks, the Alans, and the western Turks, i.e., the Magyars or Hungarians.[47] But Simeon was well aware that these projected alliances could not be realized, and hence the threats had no effect upon him. The Bulgarian army defeated the Greeks in several battles. Greek losses were especially severe in 917, when the Byzantine troops were annihilated at the river Achelous, close to Anchialus (in Thrace). The historian Leo the Deacon visited the site of the battle at the end of the tenth century and wrote: “Even now one can see heaps of bones close to Anchialus, where the Roman army, taking to flight, was ingloriously cut to pieces.”[48] After the battle of Achelous the way to Constantinople lay open to Simeon. But in 918 the Bulgarian armies were occupied in Serbia.[49] In 919 the clever and energetic admiral Romanus Lecapenus became emperor. Meanwhile the Bulgarians forged their way as far south as the Dardanelles,[50] and in 922 took Hadrianople (Odrin).

            Thence their troops penetrated into Middle Greece on the one hand and on the other to the walls of Constantinople, which they threatened to occupy at any moment. The suburban palaces of the Emperor were put to the torch. Meanwhile, Simeon attempted to form an alliance with the African Arabs for a joint siege of the capital. All of Thrace and Macedonia, excepting Constantinople and Thessalonica, were in the hands of the Bulgarian forces. Excavations made by the Russian Archaeological Institute of Constantinople near Aboba in northeastern Bulgaria have revealed several columns intended for the great church near the king’s palace; their historical interest lies in their inscriptions, which list the names of the Byzantine cities Simeon occupied. It was partly on the possession of the larger part of Byzantine territory in the Balkan peninsula that Simeon based his right to call himself “emperor of the Bulgarians and Greeks.”

            In 923 or 924 the famous interview between Romanus Lecapenus and Simeon took place under the walls of Constantinople. The Emperor, who arrived first, came from his imperial yacht and Simeon from the land. The two monarchs greeted each other and conversed; Romanusspeech has been preserved.[51] Some sort of truce was arranged, with conditions comparatively not too harsh, though Romanus had to pay a yearly tribute to Simeon. Simeon, however, was now compelled to retreat from Constantinople because he anticipated great danger from the newly formed Serbian kingdom, which was carrying on negotiations with the Byzantine Empire, and also because he had not attained satisfactory results in his negotiations with the Arabs. He later began to organize a new campaign against Constantinople, but he died in the midst of his preparations (927).

            In the time of Simeon Bulgarian territory expanded enormously. It extended from the shores of the Black Sea to the Adriatic coast, and from the lower Danube to central Thrace and Macedonia, as far as Thessalonica. For these achievements, Simeon’s name is significant for the first attempt to replace Greek domination in the Balkan peninsula by Slavonic supremacy.

            Simeon was succeeded by the meek Peter, who by his marriage became related to the Byzantine Emperor. The peace treaty that was signed by the Empire recognized his royal title, as well as the Bulgarian patriarchate established by Simeon. This peace lasted for some forty years. After the long succession of brilliant Bulgar victories, the terms of this peace, very satisfactory to Byzantium, “scarcely disguised the fact that actually Bulgaria had collapsed.”[52] This treaty represented a real success of wise and energetic policy on the part of Romanus Lecapenus. “Great Bulgaria” of Simeon’s time was torn asunder by internal strife under Peter. In connection with the collapse of the political might of Bulgaria, the Magyars and the Patzinaks invaded Thrace in 934 and penetrated as far as Constantinople. In 943 they reappeared in Thrace. Romanus Lecapenus concluded with them a five yearspeace, which was renewed after his fall and lasted throughout the reign of Constantine Porphyrogenitus.[53] Later, in the second half of the tenth century, the Magyars invaded the Balkan peninsula several times. The decline of Bulgaria’s strength was very advantageous for the Byzantine Empire. Nicephorus Phocas and John Tzimisces continued to struggle persistently with the Bulgarians, and were aided by the Russian Prince Sviatoslav at the invitation of Nicephorus Phocas. When the success of Russian arms in Bulgaria brought Sviatoslav to the very borders of the Empire, however, the Emperor became greatly disturbed, and with reason, because the Russian troops later advanced so far on Byzantine territory that an early Russian chronicler reports that Sviatoslav “had almost reached the walls of Tzargrad (Constantinople).”[54] John Tzimisces directed his forces against the Russians under the pretext of defending Bulgaria from the onslaught of the new conquerors. He defeated Sviatoslav, conquered all of Eastern Bulgaria, and captured the entire Bulgarian dynasty. The annexation of eastern Bulgaria was thus definitely completed in the time of John Tzimisces.

            After his death the Bulgarians took advantage of the internal complications in the Empire and rebelled against Byzantine domination. The outstanding leader of this period was Samuel, the energetic ruler of western independent Bulgaria, and probably the founder of a new dynasty, “one of the most prominent rulers of the First Bulgarian Empire.”[55] For a long time the struggle of Basil II with Samuel went against the Byzantine Empire, chiefly because its forces were engaged in eastern wars. Samuel conquered many new districts and proclaimed himself king of Bulgaria. Only at the beginning of the eleventh century did fortune begin to smile upon Basil. So cruel was his fight with the Bulgarians that he was given the name of Bulgaroctonus (“Slayer of the Bulgarians”). When Samuel beheld 14,000 Bulgarians blinded by Basil II and sent back to their homeland, he died of shock received from this horrible sight. After his death in 1014, Bulgaria was too weak to resist the Greeks, and was soon conquered by the Byzantine Empire. In 1018 the first Bulgarian kingdom ceased to exist, for it was transformed into a Byzantine province ruled by an imperial governor. It preserved its internal autonomy to a certain extent, however.

            The Bulgarian rebellion, which broke out against the Empire in about the middle of the eleventh century under the leadership of Peter Delyan, was suppressed and resulted in the nullification of Bulgarian autonomy. During the period of Byzantine domination the districts populated by Bulgarians gradually were penetrated by Hellenic culture. The Bulgarian people, however, maintained their nationality, which reached particular strength when the Second Bulgarian Kingdom was formed in the twelfth century.

            According to an Austrian historian, “the downfall of the Bulgarian Kingdom in 1018 belongs among the most important and decisive events of the eleventh century, and of the Middle Ages in general. The Roman (Byzantine) Empire was again raised up and extended from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, from the Danube to the southern extremity of the Peloponnesus.”[56]


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