By Georgios Theotokis
When looking back at the history of warfare, one often comes across reports of atrocity and brutality. How true can these stories be? We can take a closer look at one such tale, dating back just over 1,000 years ago.
When Basil II rose to the throne of the Byzantine Empire in 976, at the age of eighteen, he was determined to reclaim for the empire the Balkan lands that had been lost to the Bulgarians since the seventh century. The so-called ‘Balkan Wars’ of the Byzantine Empire were fought against the Comitopouli, the powerful Bulgarian aristocratic family who rose to power out of the disorder that occurred in the Bulgarian Empire from 966 to 971, ruling over a territory corresponding to what is nowadays western Bulgaria, northern Macedonia, and part of Albania, for almost four decades.
During the bloody wars against Samuel, the tsar of the First Bulgarian Empire from 997 to 6 October 1014, Basil II employed a wide range of units, which included heavy cavalry and infantry, foreign mercenaries, thematic and tagmatic soldiers, and Imperial Guardsmen. The strategy he embarked upon was the launching of a series of campaigns of attrition over many years, aiming to gradually wear down the enemy, depriving him of territory and consolidating his gains before pushing forward again. Unable to prevent the gradual erosion of his territories by defeating Basil in open warfare, Samuel reverted to the defensive tactics of blocking the emperor’s access to his territory through the passes of the Thracian and Macedonian mountains with moats and walls.
Nevertheless, it was the tsar’s own tactics that were eventually turned against him when, on 29 July 1014, in the Battle of Kleidion, Emperor Basil and his general Nikephoros Xiphias outmaneuvered the Bulgarian army, which was defending one of the fortified passes in the modern Belasitsa Mountains, close to the village of Klyuch (modern south-west Bulgaria). We read about the bloody close of the battle in John Skylitzes’ account:
They say that the emperor blinded the prisoners, about 15,000 in number, with orders that one man for each hundred be left one eye so he could be their guide, then sent them back to Samuel. He, when he saw them arriving in such numbers and the state they were in, lacked the moral fortitude to endure the shock; fainting and darkness came upon him and he fell to the ground … He suffered a heart attack; two days later he died on 6 October .
Skylitzes’ figure of 15,000 casualties is echoed by a brief reference in another late eleventh-century Byzantine source, Kekaumenos’ Consilia et Narrationes. However, how far should we believe this story at all? Moreover, I will ask how popular the mutilation of prisoners of war was in the Byzantine world, as seen through the famous incident of Basil’s blinding of the Bulgarian captives in 1014.
A number of points deserve our immediate attention; first, Skylitzes was writing around the year 1090 and qualifies his own account with the verb φημί [ώς φασιν: ‘as they say’], which is an indication that the huge figure was subject to scrutiny even by contemporaries. Hence, the huge number of Bulgar victims of mutilation could have come from a popular story about the event that had entered popular imagination following the decisive Byzantine victory at Kleidion, and was repeated and exaggerated over the coming generations. We may surmise that the source was a victory bulletin dispatched to Constantinople by the emperor immediately after the victory, which would have included some exaggeration and rhetorical hyperbole about the magnitude of Basil’s victory.
Moreover, modern historians have highlighted Skylitzes’ own agenda in writing his history of the Byzantine past and, more specifically, his intention to instruct and promote unity amongst the Byzantine political and military elite during a crucial period of civil wars and retraction in the Balkans (second half of the eleventh century). It has also been suggested that Skylitzes’ exaggerated promotion of the glorious victories of past emperors such as Basil II would have served to rally the Byzantine aristocrats over to Alexius I Comnenus’ campaigns in the Balkans in the 1080s and 1090s, hence the ample references of praise to aristocrats of Basil’s era such as, for example, Xiphias. To put it in a nutshell, for Skylitzes Basil’s generals were the ancestors of Alexius’ nobles, and the latter might thereby be inspired to emulate the prolonged efforts of their forebears.
Furthermore, the story of the blinding of the captives of war at Kleidion mirrored and inverted familiar stories of past defeats and, especially, the Bulgar khan’s victory over Emperor Nicephorus I (r. 802–11) in 811. Widely known as the Battle of Pliska, it was the culmination of a series of imperial campaigns mounted by Nicephorus I after he became emperor in 802, which culminated in a pitched battle on 26 July 811 in some of the passes in the eastern part of the Balkans, most probably the Vărbitsa Pass. There, the Bulgarians used the tactics of ambush and surprise night attacks to effectively trap and immobilize the Byzantine forces, thus annihilating almost the whole army, including the emperor.
According to tradition, Krum had the Emperor’s head set on a spike, then lined his skull with silver and used it as a drinking cup. At Skylitzes’ account of Kleidion, the imperial troops faced Samuel’s forces who, rather than fight to the death, surrendered to Basil’s troops and were blinded. Rather than die with his men, Samuel chose to flee, only to die of a stroke later upon seeing his mutilated men – a disgraceful and pitiful end for a great enemy of Basil. Perhaps Skylitzes’ account was also an allusion to the famous stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae against the millions of invading Persians, a historical and geo-political reference that any well-educated Byzantine aristocrat would have made in his mind while reading Skylitzes’ work.
Nevertheless, we should be careful not to dismiss Skylitzes’ account of Kleidion in its entirety. Basil’s track record suggests that he had been known to treat prisoners of war with brutality; we have reports many years before Kleidion of the emperor ordering the blinding of prisoners of war in the operational theatres of Bulgaria and Georgia, while in northern Syria he had ordered the cutting off of the hands of Bedouin prisoners.
However, before we rush to accuse Basil of savagery and barbarism, we have to consider the following: with the conquest of Bulgaria being a costly and protracted operation that required several (although not annual, as suggested by Skylitzes) invasions of Samuel’s territories in Macedonia between 1001 and 1014 – and even then it took Basil another four years of military operations and diplomatic negotiations to achieve the conquest of Bulgaria – exemplary brutality mixed with concessions and negotiations was a necessary blend for Byzantine success against the Empire’s multiple enemies in Asia and the Balkans.
Moreover, although philanthropy was a guiding principle of the Byzantines as a Christian nation, many of the Byzantine emperors and leaders took a more pragmatic approach. The chronicler Theophanes attests that, in the early ninth century, the emperor Constantine V publicly beheaded a number of Bulgar captives taken during his victorious campaign in 761/2; on two occasions Basil I gave orders to kill prisoners of war, who were proving to be a considerable burden to his army during its homeward march through the mountains; Alexios I refused to execute the large number of prisoners his forces had recently taken, which were presented as a major threat to his army’s security. The mid-tenth century military treatise On Skirmishing recommends that military prisoners either be sent on ahead or, if circumstances are difficult, slaughtered outright, to avoid burdening the army unduly.
A longstanding punishment
One last point has to be made about the significance of the chosen mutilation of the Bulgarian captives. Blinding as a punishment for political rivals and as a recognized penalty for treachery was established in 705, although Emperor Flavius Phocas (r. 602–10) used it earlier during his rule as well, with it becoming common practice from Heraclius (r. 610–41) onwards. As the swift and sweeping military successes of the emperor John I Tzimiskes (r. 969–76 against the Rus and the conquest of Bulgaria culminated in the ritual humiliation of Tsar Boris II in Constantinople in 971, his authority and the symbols of it were absorbed within the imperial hierarchy, and the independent realm of Bulgaria was absorbed into the Byzantine domain.
Therefore, the blinding of Samuel’s troops after Kleidion finds an explanation in the centuries-old punishment of rebels in Byzantium, although Basil’s action could also have meant that he wished to neutralize enemy soldiers without actually taking Christian lives. Although the mentioning of 15,000 blind soldiers is, certainly, an exaggeration that aimed to intimidate the enemies of the empire and enhance Basil’s fierce reputation as a leader and a soldier (even though his famous sobriquet ‘Bulgar-slayer’ is not attested until three centuries after his victory over Samuel in the early fourteenth century), his pragmatic and uncompromising approach to warfare required the use of brutality as a weapon of spreading terror in order to make the benefits of peaceful surrender more attractive to his enemies.
Georgios Theotokis: Ph.D History (2010, University of Glasgow), specializes in the military history of the Eastern Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. He has published numerous articles and books on the history of conflict and warfare in Europe and the Mediterranean in the Medieval and Early Modern periods. His latest book is Twenty Battles That Shaped Medieval Europe. He has taught in Turkish and Greek Universities; he is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Byzantine Studies Research Centre, Bosphorus University, Istanbul.
This article was first published in Medieval Warfare magazine, issue X:1 – Click here to buy this issue.
Top Image: The Byzantines defeat the Bulgarians at the Battle of Kleidion, as depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes. Wikimedia Commons