The battle of Pliska was one of the worst defeats in Byzantine history. It deterred Byzantine rulers from sending their troops north of the Balkans for more than 150 years afterwards, which increased the influence and spread of the Bulgars/Bulgarians to the west and south of the Balkan Peninsula, resulting in a great territorial enlargement of the First Bulgarian Empire.
In parallel with his policies to the north west, Krum also paid attention to the events in Byzantium. The political struggle of the Slavs inside Byzantium who tried to free themselves from Byzantine rule, that began during the co-reign of Constantin VI and his mother Empress Irene, was put down by the strategos Stauricius in 783-784; he succeeded in reestablishing the Emperor's power over the Slavs. When Nicephorus I became emperor in 802, Slavs renewed the struggle for independence. Taking advantage of the difficulties of Byzantium because of the unsuccessful wars with the Arabs (Saracens), on the one hand, and the general discontent in the Empire due to the ill-timed financial reforms of the Emperor, on the other, the Slavs started a revolt with the same goal as 20 years previously: to secede from Byzantium.
One of the main episodes in this struggle was the uprising of the Pellopones Slavs in 805 (or 807) who plundered and devastated the neighbouring villages, occupied the outskirts of the town of Patri, and besieged the town, in alliance with the Arabs. However, the siege was unsuccessful and the Slavs were defeated. The Byzantines thought that their victory was entirely due to the blessing of the Apostle Saint Andreas, the patron of the town of Patri. When Nicephorus learned about this, he decided that, because the victory was achieved thanks to St. Andreas, all the trophies, taken from the Slavs belonged to him, the Emperor. After that, he ordered that all Slavs who besieged Patri, together with their families, kins, and possessions, be bound to the soil of the church St. Andreas in the Patri Mitropoly. From then on, the Slavs belonging to this mitropoly were obliged to pay the expenses of the strategos, archons, patricians, and all dignitaries, sent by the Emperor to the church land. The fate of the Pellopones Slavs signalled to the other Slavs in the Empire, that a similar fate could be expected by them if they did not immediately receive help from the outside. Such help they could receive only from the Bulgars who were already a force to be reckoned with on the peninsula. On their side, the Bulgars did not miss an occasion to show their readiness to help, especially towards the Macedonian Slavs.
Such relations between Macedonian Slavs and Bulgars can be surmised from the expedition of Nicephorus against the Bulgars in 807. He only reached Adrianopolis (today Edirne), a Byzantine town close to the Constantinopolis, returned back to the capital, and cancelled the campaign after learning of a conspiracy by the courtiers and military against him there. The chronicist presents this expedition as senseless; however, the reason can easily be found in the relations between the Macedonian Slavs and Bulgars. That abortive attack, however, gave reason for the Bulgarian Khan Krum to undertake military operations against the Byzantine Empire. The main objective was an extension to the south and south-west. In the next year a Bulgarian army penetrated the Struma valley and defeated the Byzantines. The Bulgarian troops captured 1,100 litres (360 kg) of gold, earmarked for soldiers' pay, and killed many enemy soldiers including all strategos and most of the commanders because they were gathered to receive their pay. It is scarcely possible that this surprising attack had been undertaken only for robbing gold; on the contrary, as with the similar attack of 789, one can see a systematic effort by the Bulgars to penetrate towards the Aegean Sea and detach the western regions of Byzantium. Therefore, the Bulgars wanted to weaken this military centre, which is supported by the fact the in the spring of the following year, Krum undertook a serious military expedition in the same direction. Just before Easter in 809 the Khan besieged the strong fortress of Serdica (today Sofia) and seized the city, killing the whole garrison of 6,000.
In 811, the Byzantine Emperor organised a large campaign to conquer Bulgaria once and for all. His preparations were long and careful; troops were collected from throughout the Empire. There was no danger from the Saracens at the moment; so he gathered an enormous army from the Anatolian and European themata with their strategi, and the imperial bodyguard (the tagmata). The troops of the Asiatic themes had been transported from beyond the Bosphorus; Romanus, general of the Anatolians, and Leo, general of the Armenians, were summoned to attack the Bulgars, as their presence was no longer required in Asia to repel the Saracens. They were joined by a number of irregular troops, armed with slings and clubs, who expected a swift victory and plunder. The conquest was supposed to be easy, and most of the high-ranking officials and aristocrats accompanied Nicephorus, including his son Stauracius and his brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe, all patricians, commanders, officials, all divisions, and commanders' sons who were above 15 years of age of which last he composed a division of his son, and called them Worthies (Hikanatoi). The whole Byzantine army is estimated to have been up to 60,000 or 80,000 soldiers.
In May 811, the great expedition left Constantinople, led by the Emperor himself and his son, Stauracius, and set up camp at the fortress of Marcelae (present-day Karnobat) near the Bulgarian frontier where it stopped to gather the various detachments coming from the different parts of the Empire. The period of stay at Marcelae is not known: estimates range from several days to several weeks. Judging from the fact that the Byzantine Empire was very large and time was needed especially for troops from Asia (e.g. the Armenians), it is safer to take the higher estimate, which supposes that the stay at Marcelae took the better part of June and/or early July. This is confirmed by the events that happened at Marcelae. After learning that such a large army was gathering at his border, Krum assessed the situation, estimated that he could not repulse the enemy, and sent ambassadors to Marcelae begging humbly for peace which Nicephorus haughtily rejected; he was distrustful of Bulgar promises and confident of victory. Theophanes disapprovingly writes that the Emperor was deterred by his own "ill thoughts" and the suggestions of those of his advisors who were thinking like him. Some of his military chiefs considered the invasion of Bulgaria to be imprudent and too risky but Nicephorus was convinced of his ultimate success, counting mainly on the luck and wisdom of his son Stauracius. At this time, a courtier close to Nicephorus, by the name of Byzantios, escaped from Marcelae for unknown reasons and went to Krum, taking with him the Imperial apparel and 100 litres (about 33 kg) of gold; many considered this as a bad omen for Nicephorus. Nicephorus intended to confuse the Bulgars, and over the next ten days launched several feigned attacks, which were immediately called back.
The expedition of Nicephorus coincided with the heliacal rising of Sirius, the Dog Star; this occurs in the period of the year when Sirius first becomes visible above the eastern horizon at dawn, after a period when it was hidden below the horizon or when it was just above the horizon but hidden by the brightness of the sun. The period of the heliacal rising of the Dog Star determines the Dog Days, or as the Romans called them, caniculares dies (days of the dogs). For the ancient Egyptians, Sirius appeared just before the season of the Nile's flooding, so they used the star as a "watchdog" for that event on which they based the Egyptian calendar. For the ancient Greeks, the appearance of Sirius heralded the hot and dry summer. Due to its brightness, Sirius would have been noted to twinkle more in the unsettled weather conditions of early summer. To Greek observers, this signified certain emanations which caused its malign influence. People suffering its effects were said to be 'star-struck' (astroboletos). This popular belief carried on to the Middle Ages, when the Dog Days were considered to be an evil time "when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies" The traditional ancient timing of the Dog Days is the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending August 11; however, at present, due to the precession of the equinoxes, the heliacal rising of Sirius has shifted with 37 days towards the end of the year so that it begins on August 9 and ends on September 17.
Like most medieval writers, Theophanes was a highly superstitious and religious person, and he invoked heavenly mystic phenomena to explain and predict important events. Thus, upon mentioning the date July 20, Theophanes implies that the star configuration on this date was very unfavorable for Nicephorus, as if it was a bad omen signifying a great misfortune. Such is the most probable interpretation of his words "it was the devastating rising of the Dog" that caused "reckless bravery of the impertinent coward [Nicephorus]" and made him behave like a madman, frequently shouting challenges and then realizing that some supernatural power, "God or his enemy" (that is, the devil), pulled him against his will.
At the time of the battle, the Bulgarian border was situated to the south of the Balkan Mountains, and Krum controlled important towns and garrisons on the southern side, including some that were very close to Marcelae. It is probable that by "Bulgarian territory" Theophanes means the lands north of the Balkan, since it is hard to imagine that a Byzantine historian would acknowledge a barbaric tribe owning land that has always been considered part of Byzantium. During the first millennium, the territory of northern Bulgaria (Moesia) was covered with an unbroken forest, known in Europe as Magna Silva Bulgarica. The forest was especially dense and impassable in the discussed region: Veregava and the plains and valleys at its foothills. It further slowed the march: the large army moved in columns along the narrow forest paths, the cavalry frequently dismounting at the steep slopes. Because this was a hostile territory, light cavalry scouts were sent ahead to spy out the army's line of march, the position of enemy forces and fortifications, the availability of wood and water, fodder and food, and were responsible for providing the commanders of the Byzantine forces with sufficient information for them to plan their route and the marching camps.
An additional impediment to the march in the form of a natural barrier was the Balkan, a 550 km long mountain chain running from Timok River in the west to the Black Sea in the east, which forms the central backbone of modern Bulgaria, and divides it into Northern and Southern parts. Known in various times as Haimos (Greek, derived from Thracian word "saimon" meaning 'mountain range'), Haemus (Latin, with the meaning 'bloody'), Balkan (Turkish, 'mountain'), Stara Planina (Bulgarian, 'old mountain'), this mountain has a great geographic and historic significance. The Zlatitsa and Vratnik passes divide the Balkan in three parts: Western, Middle, and Eastern. The lower, Eastern part, known in the 6-11 centuries as Veregava (Bulgar, 'the chain'), or Matori Gori (Slavic, 'mother mountains') stood between the meeting place of the Byzantine troops (Marcelae) and the Bulgar capital Pliska. The only way to cross the mountains is to move along the narrow passes closest to Marcelae. There are four possible routes: Rish, Vărbitsa, and Kotel passes, and the region between the confluence of the rivers Luda Kamchia and Ticha (Big Kamchia), some 20 km east of Luda Kamchia Gorge. It is known that Vărbitsa Pass was opened in 8 century, or early 9 century, at the latest . For crossing this part of the Balkan, Byzantine commanders generally preferred the then called "Veregava Pass" which is identified with Vărbitsa or Rish Passes.
|Rish Pass||Vărbitsa Pass||Kotel Pass||Luda Kamchia|
|Total distance (km)||91.66||117.18||145.12||98.75|
|Distance in pass (km)||12.91||25.85||25.01||0|
The march towards the Bulgarian capital Pliska is not well described. Traditional historical treatments follow Theophanes who records that Byzantines penetrated Bulgarian territory on July 20 . They met little resistance and in three days he reached the capital, where the Byzantines met a 12,000 army of elite soldiers who guarded the stronghold. The Bulgars were defeated and most of them perished. Another hastily assembled army of 50,000 soldiers had a similar fate. On 23 July the Byzantines quickly captured the defenseless capital. The city was sacked and the countryside destroyed. Khan Krum attempted once more to negotiate for peace: Nicephorus, overconfident after his success, ignored him. He believed that Bulgaria was thoroughly defeated and conquered. Michael the Syrian, patriarch of the Syrians Jacobites in XIIth century described in his Chronicle the brutalities and atrocities of the Byzantine Emperor: “Nicephorus, emperor of the Romans, walked in Bulgars land: he was victorious and killed a great number of them. He reached their capital, took it over and devastated it. His savagery went to such a point that he ordered to bring their small children, got them tied down on earth and made thresh grain stones to smash them.” The Byzantine soldiers looted and plundered; burnt down the unharvested fields, cut the sinews 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 at the same time cutting noses and other appendages of soldiers who touched the trophies. . At the end, Nicephorus ordered his troops to burn down Krum's residence.
While Nicephorus I and his army were busy plundering the Bulgarian capital, Krum mobilized his people (including the women) to set traps and ambushes in the mountain passes. Initially Nicephorus intended to march through Moesia and reach Serdica (today Sofia) before returning to Constantinople, but the news of these preparations for a battle changed his decision and he chose the shortest way back to his capital. On 25 July his army entered the Vărbitsa Pass but the road was barred with thick wooden walls and Krum's detachments watched from the heights around. The emperor became panicked by the situation and repeatedly told his companions that they were trapped and imminent death awaited them. It must be noted that nights in this period were dark and moonless, with the moon late in the fourth or early in the first quarter, having entered the -13,746 lunation on July 24, 07:17 local time. For several nights, in which they could not see even the shadows of the Bulgars that were following and surrounding them, a noise of troop movements and clang of arms kept Nicephorus and his companions in a feverish restlessness and brought them to an utter exhaustion. On July 26, Saturday , the Bulgars gathered their troops and tightened the noose around the trapped enemy. At dawn, they rushed down and started to kill the panicked and totally confused Byzantines, who fruitlessly resisted for a short time before perishing. Upon seeing their comrades' fate, the next units immediately ran away.
In their retreat, the Byzantine forces hit a swampy river which was difficult to cross. As they could not find a ford quickly enough, many Byzantines fell into the river. The first ones stalled in the mud with their horses and were trampled by those who came next. The river was filled with so many dead men and horses that the chasing Bulgars easily passed over them and continued the pursuit. Those who passed through the river reached a wooden wall which was high and thick. The Byzantines left their horses and began climbing the wall with hands and legs and hung over the other side. The Bulgars had dug a deep moat from the outer side and when the Byzantine soldiers were getting across the ramparts, they fell from the high wall, breaking their limbs. Some of them died instantly, others hobbled some time before falling to the ground and dying from thirst and hunger. The Byzantine troops burnt the wall at several places but as they were rushing to get across it, they too fell into the moat along with the burning parts of the palisade. The anonymous narrator laments on this event, in which, it seems, most of the Worthies (the youngest soldiers) were killed: Among those killed were the patricians Aecius, Peter, Sisnius, Tryphillios, Theodosius Salivaras (the patrician Eparchos [Prefect] of the capital), Romanus (the patrician and strategos of the theme Anatolic), and many protospatharios, spatharios, and archons of the tagmata, the domesticos of the Excubitors, the droungarios of the Imperial Watch, the strategos of the Thracian army, archons of themes together with innumerable soldiers. All arms and Imperial treasures were lost. Nicephorus' son Stauracius was carried to safety by the imperial bodyguard after receiving a paralyzing wound to his neck. . Only a few survived the defeat, one of them being Nicephorus' brother-in-law Michael Rangabe; the majority of those who survived died shortly after they arrived at their homes.
The most notable person to be killed, however, was Emperor Nicephorus. According to Christian historians, the Byzantine soldiers hated him so much that they killed him in some way or another: some say that the Christians (Byzantines) killed him with stones after he fell down while the eunuchs in his entourage (parakoimomenous) died either in the fire of the burning ramparts or were killed with swords; either the Byzantines killed him themselves or, when the barbarians started to kill him, the Byzantines finished the killing of the torturer; in any case, Nicephorus was killed by a Roman [Byzantine]. However, old Bulgarian sources say explicitly and unequivocally that Nicephorus was killed by the Bulgars, even by Krum himself.
Thus, in the old-Bulgarian translation of the Mannases Chronicle, writing in general about the Nicephorus catastrophe in 811, one reads: Further in this chronicle, under two miniatures, illustrating the above text, it is written that "Kniaz Krum" caught tsar Nicephorus and cut his head. In the Arabian Synaxarium (Prologue), that had copied the description of the said battle almost literally from the Greek Synaxarium, under the month of Temmus (July) day 23, there is the following synopsis: According to tradition, Krum had the Emperor's skull lined with silver and used it as a drinking cup. From the Byzantine (Christian) point of view, this act is an expression of the barbaric Bulgar customs, and is nothing more than sacrilege and a humiliation of Nicephorus. One must take into account, however, that according to the pagan religion of the Bulgars, the strength of the enemy, residing in his head, dissolves in the wine, and transfers to the blood of the person who drinks from the skull, making him invincible. The most powerful ruler of Europe had been vanquished, and Krum accepted his power by drinking from his skull. With this, he did not humiliate the Emperor; on the contrary, he acknowledged Nicephorus's power and wished it to be passed to himself by drinking from his skull. Evidently, Krum did not share Theophanes' opinion that Nicephorus was an incompetent commander leading a riff-raff army; quite on the contrary, Krum thought highly of the strength of the Byzantine army and the military ability of Nicephorus. As is seen by Krum's repeated humble peace proposals, he did not underestimate even for a moment Nicephorus as his adversary. There is no evidence for Krum making drinking cups from the heads of other commanders that he defeated: the Avar khagan and Michael Rangabe; probably he did not consider them great enough for these rites.
The following objections can be raised against the opinion that Kotel Pass was the location of the battle: First of all, it is too risky to rely on local legends for determining the location of historic events, if those are not supported, at least in part, by literature data. This precaution is necessary especially with the issue at hand, first, because such legends for Nicephorus' defeat exist in many places throughout Eastern Bulgaria (around Shumen and Preslav), not only among Bulgarian but also among the Turkish population there, and second, because those legends cannot be considered to go back to old times: they were created relatively recently, during Bulgarian Renaissance and rediscovery of Bulgarian history. This is best exemplified by the name "Greek Hollow". This name in the mouth of old Kotel citizens sounds "Grăshki" and according to some "Grishki" or "Grashki" (=Pea Hollow), or even as in Bury, "Groshki" (=Penny Hollow) so that etymology can have completely different meaning.
Without doubt, however, the best evidence can be found in the chronological data in Theophanes' account. As we saw above, Nicephorus entered the Bulgar territory through the border fortress Marcelae on July 20. The first 3 days he spent on the move in skirmishes with the Bulgars, and when he entered the mountain pass, he chose steep paths, so that on the fourth day, July 23, he could enter into the residence of the Bulgar Khan. One cannot believe the words of Theophanes that Nicephores plundered and killed the population of the town, and then burned Krums' palaces only in one day, and immediately went back; because, as we saw, Krum, even after the plunder, negotiated for peace, probably to gain time while blocking the entrances and the exits of the pass, which happened on the 5th and the 6th day (Thursday and Friday) while Nicephorus was still in Pliska. Evidently, he left on the 6th day because on the 7th day (Saturday) on July 26 at dawn the Bulgars were already attacking Nicephorus' tent. It is hardly conceivable that in such a short time the Byzantians would reach the peaks Vetrila and Vid in the Kotel Pass and take good strategical positions, and Nicephorus make a military camp in the locality "Karenika" in the Kotel Pass. Moreover, Nicephorus learned about the Bulgar fortifications while he was on the move and was already inside the pass, and this happened in the night of the 7th day, because if he knew before that he wouldn't want "to have wings" but would seek another way to retreat. The confusion and panic in the Byzantine army show that it was attacked without warning, so that it is unconceivable that Nicephorus would have time to fortify and choose "important positions" and, in general, to prepare for battle. All this shows that the defeat of Nicephorus happened not far from Krum's residence and this can be in the Chalăka or the Vărbitsa Passes. It is hard to say which one; however, if we take into account that Nicephorus chose the shortest way for retreat, it is more probable that Nicephorus chose the Vărbitsa pass, through which he entered into Bulgaria.
For Bulgaria, this victory had tremendous importance: it not only saved it from the great threat from Byzantium and returned all the lands taken from them, but strengthened all Bulgar conquests in the West together with Serdika and secured them from future attacks by Byzantine emperors, for whom Bulgaria became a permanent threat. For a long time, until the reign of John I Tzimiskes (ca. 970), Byzantines were afraid to pass the Balkan Mountains. Krum had good reason to be exultant. The whole effect of Constantine Copronymus’ long campaigns had been wiped out in one battle. He could face the Empire now in the position of conqueror of the Emperor, on equal terms, at a height never reached by Isperih or Tervel. Henceforward he would not have to fight for the existence of his country; he could fight for conquest and for annexation. Moreover, in his own country his position was assured; no one now would dare dispute the authority of the victorious Khan. He could not have done a more useful deed to strengthen the Bulgar crown. Moreover, this victory elevated the image of the Bulgar Khan in the eyes of Macedonian Slavs and with this opened a way for extension of the Bulgar state to the Southwest. This pride of Krum is most clearly evident in the story about Nicephorus' head: " As he cut the head of Nicephorus, Krum put it on a stake for several days to show it to the tribes coming to him to our disgrace. After that he took it, plated it with silver from the outside and proudly made the Slav knyazes [princes] drink from it. Sated by their victory, the Bulgars did not at once follow it up with an invasion. But late next spring (812) Krum attacked the Imperial fortress of Develtus, a busy city at the head of the Gulf of Burgas, commanding the coast road to the south. It could not hold out long against the Bulgars. Krum dismantled the fortress, as he had done at Serdika, and transported the inhabitants, with their bishop and all, away into the heart of his kingdom. In June the new Emperor Michael set out to meet the Bulgars; but the news that he was too late to save the city, together with a slight mutiny in his army, made him turn back while he was still in Thrace. His inaction and the Bulgar victories terrified the inhabitants of the frontier cities. They saw the enemy overrunning all the surrounding country, and they determined to save themselves as best they could. The smaller frontier forts, Probatum and Thracian Nicaea, were abandoned by their population; even the population of Anchialus (today Pomorie) and Thracian Berrhoea (today Stara Zagora), whose defences Empress Irene had recently repaired, fled to districts out of reach of the heathen hordes. The infection spread to the great metropolis-fortress of Western Thrace, Philippopolis (today Plovdiv), which was left half-deserted, and thence to the Macedonian cities, Philippi and Strymon. In these last cities it was chiefly the Asiatics transported there by Nicephorus that fled, overjoyed at the opportunity of returning to their homes. Over the next two years, Krum was able to attack the empire in the vicinity of Constantinople itself, although he was never able to take the city. Michael attempted to recover from the loss, but was defeated in 813 at the Battle of Versinikia; the danger did not subside until Krum himself died in 814.