History of War
Basil the Bulgar Slayer
Basil II waged total war against rival Tsar Samuel of the Bulgarians whose aggression posed a mortal threat to the Byzantine Empire
How this Byzantine emperor became feared during his conquests of the Balkans
“THE BULGAR STREAMED DOWN FROM THE HILLTOPS ON BOTH SIDES OF THE DEFILE. THE ROUT WAS SWIFT AND COMPLETE; HOWEVER BASIL ESCAPED ON HORSEBACK. BACK IN CONSTANTINOPLE, HE VOWED TO GET REVENGE AGAINST SAMUEL”
Hundreds of brawny Varangians surged against the camp of the Byzantine pretender Bardas Phokas the Younger at Chrysopolis on the Asian shore of the Bosphorous – it was first light in late February, 989CE.
Led by 30-year-old Emperor Basil II, the Vikings had slipped across the strait under the cover of darkness the previous night. Before the rebels could form up, the bloodthirsty Varangians waded into the disordered mob swinging their swords and battleaxes.
After butchering the rebels, the Varangians presented Basil with three captured leaders. Basil then ordered the three men to be hanged, impaled, and crucified.
The massacre at Chrysopolis was a key episode in the second civil war that occurred during Basil’s reign. Phokas, who was not present at Chrysopolis, had more rebels a short distance south at Abydos on the Hellespont. This meant Basil and his Varangians had more work to do to crush the rebellion.
Basil was crowned emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, at the age of 18 upon the death of John I Tzimiskes in January 976.
Despite his shortness in stature, the young emperor had a robust constitution that would serve him well in the long campaigns he would undertake in his prime years.
As a result of the impressive conquests of his two predecessors, Nikephoros II Phokas and Tzimiskes, Basil inherited a realm more powerful than its rivals. Basil initially was unable to expand upon its gains because for the first 13 years of his reign he was bogged down defending his throne against the attacks by two former generals, each of whom believed he would make a better emperor. These two magnates, Phokas and Bardas Sclerus, derived their wealth from their vast estates in Anatolia.
The first civil war erupted in 976 when Sclerus was removed from command of Byzantine forces on the eastern frontier.
Upset at being dismissed, Sclerus declared himself emperor in 976. It took three years to stamp out his rebellion.
While the bulk of Byzantine forces were bogged down fighting Sclerus’s rebels, self-proclaimed Western Bulgarian Tsar Samuel Cometopulos took advantage of the situation by invading the Byzantine Theme (district) of Thessaly. Samuel had risen to power in the vacuum created by the Byzantine defeat of the Danube Bulgars during the reign of John I Tzimiskes. Samuel’s capital was situated on Lake Prespa in Macedonia.
Samuel besieged the Thessalian capital of Larissa in 985, and it fell to his forces the following year. He drafted the hardiest men into his army and sold the rest of the inhabitants into slavery. He then raided deep into the Byzantine themes of Hellas and the Peloponnesus in search of plunder.
Basil mobilised his forces for an expedition into Bulgaria. He planned to lead the invasion in person to further his military experience.
A bitter lesson
Basil would wage war intermittently over the course of three decades against Tsar Samuel. His first incursion into Bulgaria occurred in
July 986. Basil’s initial objective was the town of Sardica (Sofia) in Eastern Bulgaria. From Adrianople, the Byzantine army marched west along the Maritsa River and then turned north, crossing the Sredna Gora Mountains by way of Trajan’s Gate. Basil besieged Sardica on 26 July.
The Byzantine emperor soon realised that his army lacked sufficient provisions for a
lengthy siege and that his artillery corps was incompetent. Basil raised the siege on 15 August and then withdrew along the same route by which he had arrived.
While the siege was under way, Samuel’s army had arrived by forced marches from Thessaly. As the Byzantines began their withdrawal, Samuel laid an ambush at Trajan’s Gate.
When the Byzantine army entered the pass on 17 August, the Bulgar streamed down from the hilltops on both sides of the defile. The rout was swift and complete; however Basil escaped on horseback. Back in Constantinople, Basil vowed to get revenge against Samuel.
“IN RETURN FOR THE TROOPS HE WANTED BASIL’S SISTER, PRINCESS ANNA, AS HIS BRIDE. BASIL AGREED”
Second civil war
Phokas, who was the nephew of an earlier Byzantine emperor, Nicephorous II, had a burning desire to be emperor. He proclaimed himself emperor in 987 and marched on Constantinople.
Basil was reluctant to recall his troops from Thrace where they were attempting to contain Bulgar expansion eastward. He decided to ask Prince Vladimir of Kiev for military assistance. The prince had recently visited Constantinople, and he was favourably disposed towards the Byzantines.
Envoys from Constantinople travelled to the Byzantine colony of Cherson on the Dnieper
River. Vladimir, who met with them in that location, offered to send 6,000 Varangians. In return for the troops he wanted Basil’s sister, Princess Anna, as his bride. Basil agreed.
The Varangians set sail from Cherson in December 988, and before the end of the month they had weighed anchor in the Golden Horn.
After the loss of his detachment at Chrysopolis, Phokas besieged the town of Abydos with his remaining troops. He hoped to find enough boats at that location to ferry his troops across the Sea of Marmara for an attack on Constantinople.
Basil had no intention of allowing Abydos to fall. In late March he led the Varangians across the straits a second time. They landed a few miles north of Abydos at Lampascus.
Phokas fell dead from a stroke in the midst of a battle fought on 13 April. His death ended the second civil war.
When Basil tried to avoid sending his sister to become Vladimir’s bride, the Kievan prince took possession of Cherson. When Basil finally sent his sister to Kiev, Vladimir withdrew his troops from Cherson.
After the conclusion of the second civil war in 989, Basil once again turned his attention to the Bulgars. He spent nearly two years overhauling his army. His commanders drilled his men and he inspected them regularly to monitor their progress.
Once these tasks were completed the Byzantine emperor led his troops in spring 991 into Thessaly. One of his top priorities was to recover the Byzantine towns in Thessaly. One by one he liberated them. Those towns that showed themselves favourable to returning to the Byzantine fold he garrisoned, but if the inhabitants of a town resisted the Byzantines, he razed the town leaving it a smoking ruin.
Basil knew the campaign of reconquest would be a long one, but he resolved to proceed slowly and methodically. He intended to maintain steady pressure on Tsar Samuel, therefore forcing him to fall back in the face of the larger Byzantine army.
Crisis in Syria
While campaigning against Samuel, Basil received an urgent message in 995 from the Emir of Aleppo who was a Byzantine vassal. The emir said that his city was besieged by an Egyptian Fatimid army. He informed Basil that if help did not arrive soon, it would fall to the Egyptians.
Basil faced a quandary. If his army marched overland on foot, Aleppo might fall before it arrived. In a stroke of pure genius he decided to mount his entire army so that it might move swiftly to the rescue of Aleppo and also prevent the Egyptians from threatening Byzantine Antioch as well. Basil gave every infantryman two mules, one to ride and one to carry his equipment.
Basil then led his 17,000-man force on a forced march to Syria. The Byzantine troops arrived in April 995 after covering 600 miles in 26 days. After saving Aleppo and recovering northern Syria, Basil chased the retreating Egyptians as far south as Tripoli before breaking off his pursuit. As a result Aleppo remained in Byzantine hands.
While Basil was engaged in the east, the Byzantine general had won a key victory over Tsar Samuel on the Spercheios River in Greece that put an end to Bulgar raids into both Hellas and the Peloponnesus.
Basil returned to the battlefront in Bulgaria in 1000. Over the course of the next four years he conquered Eastern Bulgaria and garrisoned its towns. Afterwards, Basil fought his way to Skopje in northern Macedonia. When Basil reached Skopje the two opposing armies faced each other across the Vardar River which flowed through the town. In a well-executed sneak attack the Byzantine army forded the river under cover of night. The Byzantines fell upon the Bulgarians at first light and routed them.
By 1014 Basil had secured northern, central, and eastern Bulgaria. However he still needed a decisive victory that would result in the capture or death of Samuel. That year Basil marched against Western Bulgaria from the south.
The Byzantine advance ground to a halt when they encountered the Bulgarian army in a blocking position in the primary mountain pass leading through the Belasitsa Mountains
near Kleidion. Basil instructed his secondin-command, General Nicephorus Xiphias, to march half of the army around the Bulgarian flank in order to strike the Bulgarians in the rear. Basil would remain facing the Bulgarians to prevent them from escaping to the south. Xiphias’s attack on 29 July took the Bulgarians by surprise. In the rout that unfolded at the Battle of Kleidion, 15,000 Bulgarians were slain and 15,000 captured.
Basil then ordered his troops to blind each one of the captured soldiers. Specifically, he ordered the eyes of 99 of every 100 men to be blinded. He left the remaining soldier in each group of 100 with one eye in order to lead his fellows back to their tsar.
The blinded men made slow and solemn progress in their gloomy march back to their master. In early October they arrived at Samuel’s castle to show him the fate that had befallen them.
Samuel was already ill at the time, and the spectacle of his loyal troops horribly mutilated proved too much for him in his feeble condition. He died on 6 October. For his brutal conquest of Samuel’s empire in which many Bulgars perished, Basil was given the designation ‘Bulgar Slayer’.
The Byzantines spent the next four years mopping up the remaining resistance in Bulgaria. Through his overwhelming victory over the Bulgarians Basil was able to expand further north in the Balkans. The Byzantines acquired all of the land south of the middle and lower Danube, including the principalities of Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia.
Expansion in the east
After the war in the west was over, Basil had a pressing score to settle with King Giorgi I of the Caucasian Christian kingdom of Georgia. Giorgi had invaded, with the aid of the Armenians, the Byzantine-controlled principalities of Tao and Phasiane. The Byzantines valued these lands from an economic standpoint because key trade routes passed thorough them.
In 1021 Basil embarked on what would be his last expedition to the east to compel Giorgi to relinquish these lands. He led his armies as far as Iberia in the Caucasus region. Basil preferred to use diplomacy to settle matters with the Georgians and Armenians. Realising that Basil was stronger than he was, Giorgi capitulated. While he was in the region, Basil persuaded King John Smbat III of Bagratuni Armenia to bequeath his entire kingdom to the Byzantines upon his death.
From the lands acquired from these agreements, Basil then established eight new themes for the empire. These provinces stretched in a swooping arc from Antioch in the south to the Caucasus further north-east.
After he returned from the east, Basil turned his attention to the Byzantine Catepanate of Italy. The 69-year-old emperor was in the process of making plans to invade Arabcontrolled Sicily when he died on 15 December 1025 in Constantinople.
Basil had ruled the empire for nearly half a century. At the time of his death, the Byzantine Empire stretched from the Upper Mesopotamia to Italy. The Byzantine Empire would never again reach so high a pinnacle.