Battle of Pliska

Drinking from the Skulls of Your Enemies: The Battle of Pliska

On 26 July 811, a massive Byzantine army was destroyed on the plains between the Danube and the Haemus Mountains. During the Battle of Pliska, the emperor Nicephorus I himself was killed—the first since Valens to die in battle in 378—and his head was turned into a silver-lined drinking gourd by the victorious Bulgarian khan. It was one of the worst humiliations Byzantium ever suffered.

Two things make the Battle of Pliska especially interesting. The first is how dramatic a reversal it was. The Byzantines were on the verge of recovering their lost provinces along the Danube, the frontier region which had fallen to the Bulgars by 680. After more than a century of warfare between the two, Nicephorus’ offensive succeeded in sacking the Bulgarian capital, appearing to eliminate their most dangerous rival in a stroke—all that remained was to mop up. Just a few days later, though, Byzantine forces were shattered; within a year the Bulgars were entrenched less than 150 miles from the walls of Constantinople. Bulgaria exploited this success and continued to grow at Byzantium’s expense over the next century, conquering nearly all of the Balkans and much of Greece.

The second interesting thing about the Battle of Pliska is how we know what we know about it. Our sources for the period are scant, and only two describe it any detail: the chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor and a short fragment, called the Chronicle of 811, of a now-lost work. The anonymous author of the Chronicle, writing at the end of the 9th century, was probably, like Theophanes, a cleric. Neither of them knew much about war, and both made obvious errors in recounting events. Intriguingly, though, their mistakes tell us much more about what really happened than such short narratives would otherwise convey. To see why, it is important to understand what led up to the Battle of Pliska.

The Rise of Bulgaria

The Byzantines’ adversaries at Pliska were the Bulgars, a Turkic people from the Pontic Steppe who began settling around the mouth of the Danube in the later 7th century. After crushing an army that Emperor Constantine IV sent to expel them, they overran all the lands between the Danube and the Haemus Mountains and subjected the Slavs living there to their authority. Soon they began crossing the mountains to raid Thrace, forcing Byzantium to buy peace in 680 with an annual tribute.

Relations with Bulgaria fluctuated wildly over the next few decades. Constantine’s son Justinian II renewed hostilities with Bulgaria in 688 in a brief war. Justinian was overthrown a few years later, but while in exile formed an alliance with the Bulgars, who provided him forces to march on Constantinople in return for generous gifts. Not long after regaining the throne, Justinian invaded his former allies but was badly beaten. He was soon after deposed a second time, followed by a succession of short-lived emperors. The third of these, Theodosius III, made a new treaty with Bulgaria in 716 when faced with an insurrection of his own: in return for peace on Byzantium’s western flank, the treaty conceded land in northeastern Thrace.

This was a remarkable concession for a sitting emperor. Although the Bulgarian heartland along the Danube had always been a heavily-contested frontier region, Thrace was part of Byzantium’s core territory. The new treaty brought the frontier to a line from the southeastward bend of the Maritsa River to the Bay of Burgas, about a week’s march from Constantinople. This concession did not save Theodosius—he was overthrown the following year by Leo III—but it did pay off for Byzantium. A massive Arab force soon appeared before Constantinople and settled into a yearlong siege, but a Bulgarian army attacked the Arabs from the rear, helping save Byzantium. Despite this act of apparent magnanimity, Bulgaria supported an insurrection against Leo soon after that. But when this failed, the Bulgarians shrugged their shoulders and went home—they were true opportunists.

Khan Krum

For the next hundred years, the Byzantines fought a series of sporadic wars with their northern neighbor. They appear to have pushed the Bulgarian border back to the Haemus Mountains, but Thrace remained a warzone. In the early years of the 9th century, a khan named Krum came to power in Bulgaria. Krum adopted a different strategy from his predecessors, preferring to expand to the west than continue the bruising fights for Thrace. In 809, Krum destroyed the city of Serdica, modern Sofia, in the northwestern reaches of Byzantine territory. Serdica occupied a strategic position, guarding the upper reaches of the Strymon valley, which led south into Macedonia, as well as the passes into western Thrace. The Byzantine emperor, Nicephorus I, immediately set out at the head of an army in response. He soon faced discontent among his troops, though, forcing him to turn back (this was not the first time he lost control his own army).

Nicephorus, alarmed both by Krum’s aggression and the unreadiness of Byzantine forces, spent the following year putting the empire on a war footing. He was neither a good general nor an effective leader of men, but he was an excellent organizer—he had been finance minister before becoming emperor. Nicephorus took several drastic but necessary steps to meet the new threat: he imposed a number of new taxes, he required every village in the empire to provide and equip one soldier, and he resettled large numbers of people from Anatolia along the Bulgarian border in order to bolster the depleted frontier towns.

In the spring 811, the emperor felt ready to undertake a new offensive and ordered the troops from Anatolia to cross into Thrace and assemble with the rest of the army. There is no telling the number of troops involved, but it was probably several tens of thousands—the majority of troops in the empire. Nicephorus also brought along the teenage sons of all the army’s officers, assembled into a unit called the Hikanatoi, meaning Worthies, commanded by his own son Stauracius. This was probably a way both to blood the youths and to encourage their fathers to remain loyal.

In May, the expedition marched north to Marcellae, an oft-contested fortress near the southern slopes of the Haemus Mountains. Krum had drawn up his army here, but sued for peace at the approach of the massive Byzantine force. Nicephorus, though, was determined to gain something more than a favorable treaty that would inevitably be broken—the destruction of Sardica had convinced him that Krum needed to be dealt with more permanently. He pressed on, and the frightened Bulgarians fled into the mountains.

View of the Haemus (Balkan) Mountains from the Thracian plain.

The Byzantines pressed through the mountains and soon reached the Bulgarian capital of Pliska, where they defeated the 12,000 men guarding the city and an army of 50,000 in the field. The occupation was fairly orderly, as Nicephorus distributed the spoils among his units and broke out the wine from Krum’s personal collection to share with his men. There was good reason to celebrate: the Bulgarian army had been beaten and their capital seized. To all appearances, the Byzantines had restored the ancient Roman limes along the Danube. It was just then that things started to go wrong.

Past the Peak and Over the Precipice

Exhilarated by this easy success, Nicephorus lost his head. He ordered savage reprisals against the local populace and began soon punishing his own men for minor slights. An embassy from Krum arrived, begging Nicephorus to take his spoils and leave, but the emperor haughtily sent it away. He wanted to press on to Serdica, and saw no reason to return home on the brink of total victory. But after setting off from the smoking ruins of Pliska, Nicephorus completely neglected his duties as commander of the army. Left to fend for themselves, the common soldiers took to pillaging the countryside in a gruesome manner. According to the Chronicle:

Inebriated by his arrogance, [Nicephorus] did not go out of his tent, did not give any explanation, or order, and when some men reproached him and sent his son to talk to him to go out of there [of Bulgaria], he did not listen to him but even humiliated his son, and wanted to beat him. Hence, his army used every occasion to rob mercilessly, burn unharvested fields, cut the sinews of oxen and hide their flanks to make ropes while the animals bellowed loudly and died, slaughtered sheep and pigs, and did other reprehensible deeds.

Compare this to the altogether more successful Basil II, who conquered Bulgaria two centuries later (from Michael Psellos’ Chronographia):

Once he had made contact with the enemy, a regular military liaison was established between the different formations of the Roman army. The whole force was formed up like a solid tower, headquarters being in touch with the cavalry squadrons, who were themselves kept in communication with the light infantry, and these again with the various units of heavy-armed foot. When all was ready, strict orders were given that no soldier should advance in front of the line or break rank under any circumstance. If these orders were disobeyed, and if some of the most valiant or daring soldiers did ride out well in front of the rest, even in cases where they engaged the enemy successfully, they could expect no medals or rewards for valour when they returned. On the contrary, Basil promptly discharged them from the army, and they were punished on the same level as common criminals. The decisive factor in the achievement of victory was, in his opinion, the massing of troops in one coherent body, and for this reason alone he believed the Roman armies to be invincible.

Unlike Basil’s tightly-disciplined formations, Nicephorus’ mob scattered across the plains to pillage, many of them deserting the army entirely and slipping back over the mountain passes. Krum was meanwhile reassembling his army. He gathered reinforcements from the neighboring Avars and Slavs as his men built palisades from tree trunks to block the passes over the mountains. When the Byzantines learned of this, it sent a wave of panic through the already hopelessly disorganized army. Nicephorus lost what little bit of composure he had left, exclaiming, “Even if we grew wings, no-one could hope to escape ruin.”

After shadowing the Byzantine force for several days, Krum struck. In the predawn hours on July 26th, he attacked the emperor’s encampment by the bank of a river, isolated from the rest of the army. The bodyguard rose to defend Nicephorus, but most of the other troops were too far away too even realize what was happening. As panic set in within the camp, men tried to escape over the river, where many got stuck in the marshy ground and were trampled by their own comrades or cut down by the pursuing Bulgarians. Those who escaped slaughter at the river made a beeline south to the mountain passes, where they soon ran into Krum’s palisades blocking the way. Abandoning their horses, they scrambled up the ramparts, only to plummet a long distance down the far side—there was a deep moat below. These men, many of them Hikanatoi, broke their limbs and were left to starve. Elsewhere, soldiers set the palisades on fire. As soon as they came crashing down, the desperate crowd surged forth and tumbled into another moat, dying a horrible death in the burning wreckage. Nicephorus’ son Stauracius was one of the few to escape. He was badly injured, but managed to make it back to Constantinople alive, where he died two months later from his wounds.

Back in the Byzantine camp, Nicephorus lay dead. Krum’s men decapitated the emperor and brought the head back to their khan. Krum stripped the skin from his skull, lined it with silver, and turned it into a drinking gourd, which he used to toast his great victory. The future would give him several more such occasions.

What Really Happened at the Battle of Pliska?

Neither Theophanes nor the Chronicle devote more than a few paragraphs to the Battle of Pliska, but the bare cause of the disaster is clear enough. After winning a tremendous victory, Nicephorus allowed his army to lose all discipline. They got drunk, looted, and spread out across the countryside terrorizing the populace. Seeing this, the Bulgarians blocked the mountain passes then set upon the scattered Byzantines, slaughtering a great many.

Ditches and palisades were a simple and effective type of fortification.

But there are several details that do not make sense. First, we learn that the fleeing troops scaled the barriers in some places and burned through them, then fell into a ditch that the Bulgarians had dug behind the rampart. This is the exact opposite of what a defender would do: a ditch should be placed in front of a palisade to make the barrier that much taller. Placing it behind the rampart in the hope of killing or maiming a few dozen soldiers unlucky enough to fall from the top would be a huge waste of effort.

Second, the Chronicle tells us that the men who had made it to the palisade believed they had escaped death, implying there were no Bulgarian troops nearby. But obstacles are useless unless defended. If Krum was following age-old practice for mountain ambushes, he would have positioned troops near the palisades in order to slaughter the trapped Byzantines—this most definitely did not happen.

To understand what was happening, first we have to consider who reported these facts. The Chronicle of 811 tells us of the disaster:

Thus perished the commanders’ sons both of the old and of the young ones who were a whole multitude, in the blossom of their youth, and they had beautiful bodies that shined with whiteness, with golden hairs and beards, with handsome faces. Some of them had just been engaged to women, distinguished with nobility and beauty. All perished there: some brought down by sword, others drowned in the river, third fell from the rampart, and still others burned in the moat. Only a few of them escaped but even they, after they arrived in their homes, almost all of them died.

Theophanes never mentions the Hikanatoi as such, but, never missing an opportunity to slander the late emperor, refers to Nicephorus’ young male lovers who died by fire at the palisade. Both chronicles give outsized importance to this incident which could not have been very large, meaning some of their sources must have been among the Hikanatoi themselves—young men with no military experience, in other words.

Understanding this, it becomes possible to make sense of earlier passages that do not quite make sense. First, Theophanes states that “Krum feared [the Byzantines’] numbers, and when they came to Marcellai he asked for peace.” The Chronicle adds:

As [Nicephorus] entered the gorges [of Bulgaria], the Bulgars learned about the multitudinous army which he led, and, of course, because they could not oppose him, they left everything that they had, and ran to the mountains.

The Vitinya Pass in eastern Bulgaria, a fairly typical pass through the mountains.

The first quote assures us that the Byzantine army was large indeed, while the second seems to imply that the Bulgarians left the passes wide open. Theophanes adds another detail: “After many detours through difficult country, the brave coward [Nicephorus] recklessly invaded Bulgaria on July 20.” It is hard to explain why Nicephorus would take difficult paths through the mountains if the main roads—none of which are particularly difficult—were clear. The Chronicle goes on to say that after entering Bulgaria, the Byzantines defeated 12,000 men guarding Pliska and another 50,000 in the field. These are obviously inflated numbers, but seem to signify a substantial Bulgarian force (Theophanes, more elusive, refers just to “initial engagements” before the sack of Pliska). Such a large force could only refer to the men who had supposedly fled into the mountains, rushing down to the plains in a desperate attempt to save their capital.

Krum would be foolish to fight a superior force in open country rather than oppose the Byzantines as they passed through the mountain defiles. Krum was obviously no fool, suggesting a completely different explanation: he did try to block the passes, but Nicephorus’ scouts discovered the ambush positions and suggested more difficult side-paths instead—exactly the sort of details that would be lost on the callow Hikanatoi along for their first military excursion. This explains why, when the Byzantine army was put to rout, they were surprised to find ditches on the far side of the palisades: these were built to keep the Byzantines out, not trap them inside.

Not that this would have been obvious at the time. A large part of the army was composed of poor men with no military experience, recruited for specifically for the invasion, who were likely among the first to desert in the wake of Nicephorus’ breakdown. When they reached the palisades, they must have thought they had stumbled into a trap, and hurried back to their comrades. The anxious and directionless troops must have received this news with a great sense of foreboding. Theophanes should have known better than to credulously accept these reports at face value—in nearly every other Byzantine invasions of Bulgaria, he tells how the Bulgarians blocked the passes. Nicephorus, for all his flaws, had at least learned enough from his predecessors to bypass these Bulgarian stratagems entirely.

With this picture of a confused and scared headquarters camp, we can make sense of some of the other details in the narrative. The Chronicle relates that Krum “hired for pay Avars and the surrounding Slavic tribes, armed their women like men, and…..attacked the Byzantines while they were still sleeping.” As the misunderstanding around the palisades shows, the young Hikanatoi did not really understand what was happening around them. It is extremely unlikely that Krum would have used women for a pre-dawn raid; much more likely, the local Slavs—men and women alike—ambushed isolated soldiers to desperately defend themselves from the rapine and slaughter. Reports of this filtered back to the emperor’s camp, creating the impression of a massive, organized resistance.

A detail in Theophanes reinforces this picture. He mentions that when the Bulgars fell upon the emperor’s tents, they killed most of the army’s senior leadership along with him. The army was dispersed over a wide area at that point, which means those commanders were not with their troops. If villagers were able to kill small groups of soldiers, the looting must have become completely chaotic and was therefore probably truly horrific, confirming the graphic descriptions in both Theophanes and the Chronicle.

We do not know the fate of the rest of Nicephorus’ army, whether Krum hunted down and destroyed the scattered elements or whether most of them escaped. Our sources certainly make it sound like a complete slaughter, but their perspective is skewed by the catastrophe in the emperor’s camp. Whatever the case, nearly all the army’s senior leadership—those few dozen officers who could make a mass of soldiers into an effective fighting force—and the elite units of the imperial guard were massacred.

Khan Krum did not let his magnificent victory go to waste. He stormed into Thrace the following year and began seizing fortresses. A year later, he inflicted a major defeat on a Byzantine army near Adrianople and pressed on to the walls of Constantinople itself. This alone suggests that, however many troops were killed at Pliska, the army was suffering from the loss of so many commanders. Krum died a year after that, in the midst of assembling an army to besiege Constantinople. He was succeeded by his less warlike son Omurtag, who soon concluded a treaty with Byzantium that reestablished the border in northern Thrace, where it had been under Theodosius III.

Surviving parts of the Erkesiya.

Omurtag entrenched his father’s gains by beginning the construction of a massive 140-km berm and moat that stretched from the Maritsa River to the Black Sea. The Erkesiya, as it was called, made it much easier for the Bulgarians to defend against invading armies, proving a solid border for the next century and a half. The Bulgarians began shifting their energies to the west after this point, gobbling up lands in Macedonia and Pannonia. By the end of the century, they controlled most of the Balkans south of the lower Danube. These lands, like their heartland north of the Haemus, were heavily settled by Slavs who had invaded over the past few centuries. They, along with the Slavs already under Bulgarian rule, were the nucleus of an emerging nation.

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Two centuries before the Battle of Pliska, the emperor Maurice described the tactics favored by the Slavs living near the Danube in his military manual Strategikon (quotes from the George T. Dennis translation):

They live like bandits and love to carry out attacks against their enemies in densely wooded, narrow, and steep places. They make effective use of ambushes, sudden attacks, and raids, devising many different methods by night and by day.

Very similar, in other words, to the tactics used by Krum. Fifteen years before Pliska, another Byzantine emperor at the head of a massive army faced a Bulgarian khan in Thrace. Theophanes relates:

The Emperor [Constantine VI] sent messages to the thematic forces of the opposite shore, assembled his forces, and advanced to Bersinikia. Kardamos [the Bulgarian khan] came as far as the woods of Abroleba; then, because he grew fearful, he stayed in the woods. The Emperor encouraged his army and advanced to the unwooded parts of Abroleba. He summoned Kardamos for seventeen days, but the Bulgar did not endure; he fled back to his own country.

Reading between the lines, Kardam was trying to bait the Byzantines into an ambush in the wooded Tundzha valley, much as his successor did in the passes through the Haemus. This closely fits another passage from the Strategikon:

They are also not prepared to fight a battle standing in close order, or to present themselves on open and level ground. If they do get up enough courage when the time comes to attack, they shout all together and move forward a short distance. If their opponents begin to give way at the noise, they attack violently; if not, they themselves turn around, not being anxious to experience the strength of the enemy at close range. They then run for the woods, where they have a great advantage because of their skill in fighting in such cramped quarters.

Often too when they are carrying booty they will abandon it in a feigned panic and run for the woods. When their assailants disperse after the plunder, they calmly come back and cause them injury. They are ready to do this sort of thing to bait their adversaries eagerly and in a variety of ways.

The Bulgarian Empire at its height around 900.

The Bulgar military aristocracy, the nomads who had crossed the Danube little more than a century before, was gradually adapting to the sedentary life. They seem to have enthusiastically adopted the infantry tactics of their Slavic subjects, even as they elsewhere fought as their ancestors did. Theophanes wrote of Bulgars and Slavs as two distinct peoples; rulers and ruled had not yet been fused into a single nation. This would change over the next century as the Bulgar elite continued to adopt the language and culture of their Slavic subjects. This would accelerate in 864 when the khan Boris I accepted conversion from the church of Constantinople, creating a common Christian Bulgarian identity for all his subjects. This fusion was only possible because of the prosperity and prestige the expanding Bulgarian state had won following Pliska.

The Battle of Pliska was therefore the last, best chance for Byzantium to end Bulgaria as a threat. It would take the Byzantines 150 years before they began to turn the tide against the Bulgarians, and another fifty before Basil II finally subdued them completely in 1018. Yet Basil only managed to destroy their state, not their nation. There were several Bulgarian uprisings over the next two centuries, the last of which established a renewed Bulgarian Empire in 1185—the Bulgarian identity had become too strong by Basil’s time to uproot by mere conquest.

The Battle of Pliska is not remembered as a calamity on the scale of the later Battle of Manzikert or the sack of Constantinople in 1204 because, unlike those disasters, it did not mark a period of obvious decline. Rather, it occurred during a time of overall good fortune, when Byzantium slowly if unsteadily recovered from the Arab invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries. Taking the long view, however, the battle cannot be counted as anything short of a complete disaster. It probably delayed the recovery in the east by well over a century, and it certainly prevented Byzantium from reestablishing the Roman institutions in the Balkans—by the time Byzantium eventually recovered those lands, they had been too long out of Constantinople’s orbit to ever become truly Byzantine. And when the Bulgarian state was eventually revived in 1185, it came at the worst possible moment, with the Turks already in control of most of Anatolia and tensions with the West about to explode.

In a certain sense, Byzantium’s ultimate fall was caused by the accumulation of too many moderate but persistent problems. The Venetians gained naval dominance during the 11th and 12th centuries, depriving the empire of commercial revenue and of seapower; the Turks becoming entrenched on the Anatolian plateau during that same period, making travel across the empire hazardous; even the loss of southern Italy to the Normans in the 11th century, far away though it was, exposed the Balkans to invasions by various Western powers. No single one of these was fatal, but they were hard problems to solve and always prone to flare up at the worst moment.

The rise of Bulgaria was the earliest of these enduring problems. Although was never strong enough to destroy Byzantium even at its 10th-century peak, it always threatened the security of the empire, right up to the Ottoman expansion into Europe. Basil II’s great triumph was, in hindsight, a brief reprieve from the long series of wars that often weakened the empire at critical moments. Nothing is truly inevitable in human affairs, but the long road to 1453 seems to pass through Pliska. The silvered skull of Nicephorus stands as the ultimate memento mori.