Saturday 29 September 2018

Byzantine–Bulgarian Wars - Battle of Pliska

The Battle of Pliska was a series of battles between troops, gathered from all parts of the Byzantine Empire, led by the Emperor Nicephorus I Genik, and Bulgaria, governed by Khan Krum. The Byzantines plundered and burned the Bulgar capital Pliska which gave time for the Bulgarians to block passes in the Balkan Mountains that served as exits out of Bulgaria. The final battle took place on 26 July 811, in some of the passes in the eastern part of the Balkans.

Ruins of Pliska

When Nicephorus I became emperor in 802, he planned to reincorporate Bulgar-held territory back into the empire. In 807 he launched a campaign but only reached Odrin and achieved nothing because of a conspiracy in his capital. That attempted attack, however, gave reason for the Bulgar Khan Krum to undertake military operations against the Byzantine Empire. 

Nikephoros I, depicted in the 12th century Chronicle

In 803 a Bulgar army penetrated the Struma Valley and defeated the Byzantines. The Bulgar troops captured roughly 332 to 348 kilograms of gold and killed many enemy soldiers including all strategoi and most of the commanders. In 809 the Khan personally besieged the strong fortress of Serdica and seized the city, killing the whole garrison of 6,000.

A 14th century depiction of Krum

In 811, the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I 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). 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 whole army consisted of around 80,000 soldiers.

A coin minted for Staurakios

The Byzantine army gathered in May, and by 10 July had set up camp at the fortress of Marcelae (present-day Karnobat) near the Bulgarian frontier. On 20 July Emperor Nicephorus divided the army into three columns, each marching by a different route towards Pliska. He met little resistance and after three days he reached the capital where the Byzantines met an army of 12,000 elite soldiers who guarded the stronghold.

Gate to the castle of Pliska

On 23 July the Byzantines quickly captured the defenseless capital of Bulgaria. The city was sacked and the countryside destroyed. Khan Krum attempted once more to negotiate for peace. Emperor Nicephorus, overconfident from his success, ignored him. The Byzantine soldiers looted and plundered; burnt down the unharvested fields, cut the tendons of the oxen, slaughtered sheep and pigs. The Emperor took over Krum's treasury, locked it and did not allow his troops to reach it.

Ruins of the royal palace of Pliska

While Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus and his army were busy plundering the Bulgarian capital, Krum mobilized his people to set traps and ambushes in the mountain passes. On 25 July his army entered the Varbica Pass but before they could retreat, the Bulgars blocked the valley entrance too. They were then attacked by Bulgars on from all sides. The emperor was slain in battle and according to tradition, Krum had the Emperor's head on a spike, then lined his skull with silver and used it as a drinking cup.

Khan Krum feasts while a servant brings the
skull of Nikephoros I fashioned into a drinking cup

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