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Byzantium’s Neighbours:
1. The Bulgarians
by Steven Lowe

The area which became Bulgaria took in the Roman provinces of Thrace and Moesia. Under the Eastern Romans it was a Christian region. After attacks in the 5th and 6th centuries by the Huns, Gepids and Avars broke down civilisation in the two provinces, an overwhelming invasion by Slavs inundated Thrace. At the end of the 6th century the Bulgars, a steppe race, invaded under their Khan Asparukh and conquered the Slavs, adopting a position similar to the Norman overlords in England. The native Thracians were driven into the mountains, to become known as the Vlach or Wallachians. Other racial groups in Bulgaria in Byzantine times included Armenians planted as colonists by the Byzantines, the Cumans (Polovtsians) and Pechenegs and or Patzinaks, both Turkic races. This combination became the nation of Bulgaria.

Bulgaria’s relations with Byzantium were often stormy, with Bulgarian armies several times reaching the walls of Constantinople and Byzantine armies sacking the Bulgarian capital. However, there were also protracted periods of (wary) peace and trade. In 712 Khan Tervel helped deposed Emperor Justinian II Rhinometos (so-called because his nose had been cut off) to regain his throne, though relations subsequently soured between the two.

Possibly the greatest Bulgarian Khan was Krum the Terrible, who nearly conquered the Byzantine Empire. He trapped and massacred their army in a mountain pass in 811, and had the skull of Emperor Nikephoros lined with silver to use as a drinking vessel. Krum conquered large areas of the Byzantine Empire and was preparing for a final, overwhelming assault when he burst a blood vessel and died.

Fig. 1: Bulgarian Zichniks (pagans) massacring Christian converts. From the Menologion of Basil II, early 11th century.

Despite strong opposition during Khan Omurtag’s reign Christianity grew in Bulgaria in the 9th century, ending with the conversion of Khan Boris, who changed his name to Michael I and adopted the title of Kijnaz (king) or Tsar. Both the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches wanted authority over Bulgarian Christians, but a combined council finally agreed they should come under the Patriarch of Constantinople. Boris-Michael abdicated to a monastery in 889, but after his son Vladimir Rasate renounced both Christianity and the Byzantine alliance in 893, he overthrew, blinded and imprisoned Vladimir, installing another son, the ex-monk Symeon in his place.

Under Symeon, who had been educated in Constantinople, the Bulgarian Empire’s power reached a new peak, rivalling the days of Khan Krum. But in 894 Symeon invaded Byzantium, beginning a series of wars which, though they included the Bulgarian army twice reaching the walls of Constantinople, exhausted Bulgaria. On Symeon’s death in 927 the weakling Peter ascended the throne, beginning a period of decline with attacks from Magyars and other invaders causing chaos in the country.

At this time the heresy known as Bogomilism (named after the monk who founded it) began. Briefly, its tenets were that Satan was the first born son of God the Father, Jesus the second, that matter was the creation of Satan and that obeying governments and kings was forbidden by God, as was the hierarchy of the Greek Orthodox church. (1)  With its strongly anti-authoritarian philosophy, it gained great popularity among the lower classes, and its influence lasted into the 15th century.

In the last years of his reign, Peter demanded tribute from Byzantium, provoking a Byzantine-financed invasion of Bulgaria by the Varangians of Russia. But the Russians went on to ravage the Empire itself, and Emperor Nikephoros Phokas, who had lost control of the situation, was murdered by his wife and her lover, General John Tzimiskes. Tzimiskes declared himself Emperor and led an army to Bulgaria. After a savage battle followed by a three month siege, he defeated the Russians and forced their submission in 971. The invaders were allowed free passage home, but were ambushed and massacred by Pechenegs en route.

Tzimiskes stripped the new Bulgarian Tsar Boris of the insignia of royalty and took him back to Constantinople, but gave him  the rank of Magister in the Byzantine hierarchy. He castrated Boris’ brother to ensure the Bulgarian monarchy was not revived. However, on Tzimiskes’ death there was a sudden resurgence of Bulgarian independence. Samuel Compipopulus and his three brothers raised a rebellion in Tsar Boris’ name. Boris escaped from Constantinople but was accidentally shot dead by a Bulgarian sentry when he tried to get home.

Fig. 4: Bulgaria about 1000 AD

Samuel went on to become Tsar in 993 after victories over the Byzantines. He was successful until 1001 when Emperor Basil II, fresh from victories in the Middle East, undertook a number of campaigns in which he conquered all of north-western Bulgaria. In 1014 the Byzantines surprised and routed the Bulgarian army in the Belassista mountains. Basil had all the prisoners blinded, except for one in every hundred who was left with one eye to lead the others home. Samuel is said to have died of shock on hearing the news. Thereafter, Basil was known as Bulgaroktonos - the Bulgar-slayer. In 1018 Basil made a triumphant entry to the capital and brought the first Bulgarian Empire to an end. The whole Balkan peninsula belonged to Byzantium for the first time since the Slavonic migrations almost five centuries before.

Fig. 5: Bulgarian forces besieging Thessaloniki. Their leader, Deljan, (reclining) wears a blue turban, while those of the other important figures are red. From the Byzantine Skylitzes Chronicle (late 12th century) Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid.

In 1096 the rapacious First Crusade passed through Bulgaria, now a Byzantine province, followed in 1147 by the Second Crusade. The crusaders looked on the Greek Orthodox Bulgarians as heretics and treated them with savagery.

In 1185 the Vlachs rose in revolt after two of their leaders, the brothers Peter and Assen, were humiliated at the Byzantine court. Emperor Isaac was forced to come to terms with them and effectively lost control of Bulgaria.

Fig. 6: Bulgaria in 1204 AD.

In 1197 a third brother, Kalojan, murdered Peter and Assen and declared himself Tsar of the second Bulgarian Empire. In 1204, Constantinople fell to the Fourth Crusade, and the crusaders’ arrogance caused Kalojan to side with the dispossessed Byzantines. He invaded Thrace and defeated the crusaders in 1205 near Adrianople, capturing crusader “Emperor” Baldwin. But despite further victories over the crusaders, Kalojan was killed by his own nobles. He was succeeded by his nephew, Boril the inept, who is chiefly known for having unsuccessfully tried to suppress the Bogomil heresy. In 1218 Boril was deposed by Ivan Assen who rapidly restored prosperity after Boril’s chaotic rule.

Figure 7: Bulgarian troops (right) behind a barricade. The Byzantines, under Emperor Michael IV, are on the left. Skylitzes Chronicle

After Ivan’s death, decline set in, aggravated by the effects of the Mongol invasions of neighbouring regions under Khan Nogai. A swineherd named Ivailo overthrew Tsar Constantine Assen Tikh with Mongol aid, but was then assassinated at Nogai’s order. The Mongol influence was overcome by Constantine’s nephew in the 1280’s, and stability restored.

In 1330 Tsar Michael Shishman was killed in a disastrous combined attack with Byzantium on Serbia. The Ottoman Turks took advantage of this conflict, invading the Balkans in the second half of the 14th century. Turkish power spread rapidly and in 1362 they took Adrianople, cutting the land route from Bulgaria to Constantinople.

Fig. 8: Mediaeval representations of Bulgarian helmets. Left From fresco at Dragalevtsi monastery, near Sofia. Right, from St Theodore's church, Boboshevo.

Thousands were carried off into slavery in Asia Minor. After a catastrophic Serbian campaign against the Turks more territory was lost and both the Byzantine Emperor and the Bulgarian Tsar were forced to acknowledge the overlordship of Sultan Murad. Tsar Michael sent his beautiful sister to the Sultan’s harem.

In the 1380s there were still flickers of Bulgarian resistance, but after a disastrous Hungarian crusade in 1396 to which Bulgaria had allowed free passage, the Turks completely took over and Bulgarian independence ceased to exist until 1877. Though there were sporadic attempts to liberate Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in the 15th century, a final Christian defeat in which King Vladislav of Hungary and Poland died sealed its fate. Bulgaria’s fall led to the isolation and final capture of Constantinople in 1453.

War gear and tactics

Though information on Bulgarian wargear is scarce and mostly later than the Varangian period, the Bulgarians seem to have been heavily influenced by their more powerful and sophisticated Byzantine neighbours.


Contemporary illustrations of Bulgarian armour are difficult to find, and many are from Byzantine sources, or later than our period, or so influenced by Byzantine artistic conventions that their value is doubtful.

Fig. 9: A 9th century rock inscription of a Bulgarian warrior, from a castle in Bulgaria.

Though the execution is crude, several important features can be made out, including a conical helmet with what appears to be an aventail. He bears a lance two-handed, with a three tailed banner on the end. The saddle and horse trappings can also be made out, and there is a sword hanging at his belt, similar in shape to a falchion, but this might simply be an error by the artist. There is a strange "crossover" feature at his shoulders, which might be extra armour, but is too vague to make out.

The picture quality in figure 10 (a Bulgarian copy of the Manasses Codex dated 1345) is poor and the figures are difficult to make out. They do not appear to be wearing armour, except perhaps the archer on the left, whose garment shows patterns suggestive of scale or lamellar.

Other pictures from the same source


    Fig. 11a & b: From the Manasses Codex.

show figures with no armour visible. Their tunics are mostly blue, though their leader the Tsar is in red. All have broad bands on the sleeves, the same colour as the tunics, plus a broad band across the chest and another (possibly a belt) at the waist.However, there is considerable evidence that not only the contemporary Seljuk Turks, but also the Byzantines, wore magnificent clothes over their armour, and this may be the case here.

The Skylitzes Chronicle shows Bulgarians wearing identical lamellar to their Byzantine enemies. However, this may be due to carelessness or ignorance on the part of the Byzantine artist.


All the swords illustrated appear very similar to their Byzantine counterparts - straight and two-edged, with wide cross-guards. But while some swords

Fig. 2: St Theodore Tyro. Mural dated 1259 AD. Boyana, near Sofia

seem to have wheel or ball pommels (with a “button” on the end,

Fig. 3: Bulgarian Tsar and his warriors.

From a 14th century fresco in the chuch of St Peter and St Paul, Great Tarnavo.

St Theodore in Fig. 2 is wearing lamellar armour, while Figure 3 shows what may be a combination of lamellar and mail.

others, such as Fig. 1, show curved pommels or hilts (possibly like the pistol-grips on sabres used by contemporary Magyars and others). Some have tapered blades while others seem to have their edges parallel.

Fig. 10 shows a single sharply tapered sword, while another from the Manasses Codex

has a straight sword with a straight crossguard.


Figures 4-7 and 10-13 show simple spears, mostly with leaf-shaped blades, without the “wings” common on Frankish spears. Several bear square pennons, each with a triangualr tail at the bottom. Figure 4 also has what appears to be a halberd, but this dates from a time when the halberd was relatively commnon in the West as well. There is also what might be a ceremonial mace in Figure 4.


Tsar Boris was killed by an arrow from a Bulgarian sentry in the late 10th century. Figure 10 shows horse archers using recurve bows and one arrow seems to have a complex head, presumably to pierce armour. The bowman on the left has a quiver beside his saddle, tapering outward towards the bottom in steppe nomad style.


Figures 5-7, from the Skylitzes Chronicle show Bulgarians with kite-shaped shields identical to the Byzantines. Figures 9 and 13, showing both circular and kite shields, is from a Bulgarian source and should probably be regarded as more reliable.


Figures 4, 8 and 9-13 show Bulgarian helmets from Bulgarian sources. Note, however, that Figure 4 is from the 14th century and figures 8 and 9 are undated. All the figures from the Manasses Codex appear to be wearing coifs (mostly of mail, though some seem to be lamellar). Two figures have either ONLY coifs on their heads, or else a helmet under the coif. (This seems more likely, as the coifs are somewhat conical, and one has a crest of three plumes).  All but two of these helmets are conical – the others are hemispherical.

Several seem to have spikes, while others have crests – mostly triple plumes, though others are more elaborate. One conical helmet has a triple plumed crest and an Islamic-looking turban roll around the base. Most helmets are shown blue (presumably steel colour) as are the coifs, but a few combinations of helmet and coif are shown yellow, as though gilded.

The helmet above was found in 1946, in the ancient Bulgarian fortress of Asenova krepost. For more information on its construction, see here.


The original Bulgars were much feared cavalry, and judging by the illustrations they maintained this force (including horse archers). They also developed an effective infantry arm. A ninth century letter from Pope Nicholas  to the first Christian Tsar, Boris-Michael, criticises the Bulgarian war practice of using horsetail banners for the army, seeking auguries, performance of ceremonial dances before battle and taking of oaths on a sword. These presumably diminished as the Bulgars embraced Christianity.

There are two mentions of Bulgarians using palisades, both in offence (to trap the Byzantine army in a mountain pass in 811) and in defence (fig. 7)

More information

Further information kindly supplied by Stefan Popov in the USA, who has put much study into Bulgarian texts in the original language. He has alerted me to the website of the Bulgarian Museum of military history, where under "Weapons" there is a 14C sword and under "Equipment" there are two 13th century mail shirts.

He has sent more information based upon his studies, as follows:

First Empire

1.) The original Bulgars were far more organized and well equipped than is generally perceived. It seems that they had as much in common with the Sarmatians as with the Turks (The analysis of ancient Bulgar words reveals that the Bulgar language was much more of an Iranian language than a Turkish language. Also, architecture from the First Empire resembled that of Sassanid Persia more than anything else). As a side note- the Bulgar's favourite weapon was the sword.

2.) The strict military institutions obviously declined with the death of paganism and Introduction of Christianity. Pagan Bulgars were punished with death for negligence towards weapons and armor or riding a war-horse in peacetime.

3.) The Bulgarian armies from the time of Krum to the death of Simeon were very well equipped (which is documented in various source texts) and were not afraid to take on the Byzantines (or anybody else) in the open field. In fact, it seems the Bulgars preferred open battles.

4.) Svyatoslav decimated the Bulgarian aristocracy in Moesia and unsurprisingly the Bulgarian armies of Samuel's time could not carry on the sophisticated and expensive Bulgar military structures characterizing the Bulgarian State during Krum's dynasty. All Bulgarian political structures were retained yet at that point in time Bulgarian armies started using tactics typical for somebody outmatched militarily.

Second Empire:

12-13th centuries

1.) It is doubtful that the Tsars in the first years of the state had much control over many of their auxiliaries (Cumans for example).

2.) During Kaloyan's time mercenaries and auxiliaries were heavily recruited (Russians, Alans, Cumans, Vlahs and even Greeks). Kaloyan was the first Bulgarian ruler to mint coins, coins which he needed to pay them.

3.) Bulgarian armies were of enormous size. At Adrianople Kaloyan had 14 000 Cuman auxiliaries alone. The historians of the Fourth Crusade often speak of Kaloyan's innumerable armies. Kaloyan's successor Boril despite losing control of 2/3 of the country to rebels still led an army of 33 000 men to oppose Emperor Henry in Thrace.

4.) By the time of Ivan (John) Asen II the Bulgarian army seemed to have become more regular. John Asen left regular Bulgarian troops and tax collectors in all places he conquered after the battle of Klokotniza. In that battle the small Bulgarian army after a forced march crushed the much more numerous Epirotes of Theodore Comnenus. 14th century:

5.) In the first half 14th century Bulgarian armies were virtually identical to Byzantine armies (except for stylistic differences like decorations of helmets).

6.) Bulgarian armies fought in Western European style yet using Eastern equipment. Horse-archery was obviously always in the hands of mercenaries/auxiliaries from the steppes (Cumans, Alans, Mongols).

7.) The Bulgarian Tsar had a central standing army which is first recorded during the reign of Tsar Constantine Tih (the Tsar murdered by the rebel Ivailo). Although there are indirect references to "chosen warriors" as early as the reigns of Asen I and Kaloyan, it is not certain whether those were a standing unit. Later we hear of elite cavalry units during the time of Teodor Svetoslav and Michael Shishman. Pictorial evidence and an account of the Plovdiv garrison in 1322CE suggest that Bulgarian armies emphasized heavy infantry and heavy cavalry tactics.

8.) Bulgarian professional armies were invariably small (The largest ones we know of were 15 000 during the time of Michael Shishman and 11 000 during the time of Ivan (John) Alexander). Against the Turks such forces no matter their quality were clearly insufficient. It is not widely known but John Alexander's both eldest sons were killed in campaigns against the Turks in the 1350's. So, contrary to general knowledge, the Bulgarians did try to fight the Turks yet were unsuccessful, a trend that brought the rapid decline of the State.


Figures 2 and 5, both from Byzantine sources, show Bulgarian dress. Figure 2 is self-explanatory, but figure 5, again from the Skylitzes Chronicle, shows identical dress to the Byzantines, with the addition of turbans.

The Skylitzes Chronicle shows a Bulgarian Tsar in a short tunic with frogging, of similar style to dress in Fig. 1. Note also the scale and lamellar armours worn by the two military figures in the picture. The same caution needs to be exercised as with other representations from Byzantine sources. The Menologion of Basil II has in a well known portrait of Basil in gold lamellar armour, pictures Bulgarians in dress identical to Byzantine clothing.

This figure shows 14th century Bulgarian royalty – Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-1371) with Tsaritsa Theodora and sons Ivan Assen and Ivan Shishman – in court dress, from the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (1356) - British Museum.


Lang, D.M., The Bulgarians from Pagan Times to the Ottoman Conquest, Thames & Hudson, Southampton, 1976.

1. Bogomilism probably owed its origins to Armenians transplanted to the region by Byzantium, who were devotees of the Paulician sect, a group with markedly similar beliefs. Bogomilism probably also spread to Italy and France, influencing or even bringing into being the Cathar or Albigensian heresy.

This page was last updated on the 14th Dec 2002

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Copyright © Steven Lowe 2001 - 2002