The Rise and Fall of the Mighty Bulgars and the First Bulgarian Empire
In the annals of history, the First Bulgarian Empire emerges as a captivating tale of rise, conquest and eventual decline. Founded by Khan Asparuh in the late 7th century, one of the early leaders of the Bulgars, it flourished into a powerful state that challenged the Byzantine Empire's authority and became one of the strongest Medieval powers in Europe.
Led by remarkable rulers like Krum and Simeon I, the empire experienced golden eras of cultural, political and military achievements. However, internal strife, external pressures and territorial losses eventually led to its downfall. Despite its ultimate decline, the First Bulgarian Empire remains a captivating chapter, highlighting the resilience and rich heritage of the Bulgarian people.
The Bulgars: From Nomads to Empire Builders
The Bulgars were Turkic semi-nomadic warrior tribes that some believe can be traced back to Central Asia. Their first written mention dates back to 480 AD when they allied themselves with Byzantine emperor, Zeno. This was the beginning of a complicated relationship that lasted hundreds of years.
The Bulgars were made up of three main tribes, the Onogurs, Utigurs and Kutrigurs, as well as other smaller tribes. Up until the 600s, these tribes often acted separately and had mixed fortunes. In particular, the Kutrigurs were subjugated by the Avar Khaganate, and the Utigurs were taken over by the Western Turkic Khaganate of Eurasia.
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The main Bulgar tribes were first united under one ruler, Khan Kubrat of the Dulo clan, between 630 and 635 AD. This alliance became known as the Old Great Bulgaria or Patria Onoguri. They allied themselves with the Byzantines and remained on good terms until Kubrat’s death sometime between 650 and 665 AD.
Not long after his death, Old Great Bulgaria began to fall apart, while Kubrat’s five sons separated and settled in various parts of Europe. The eldest son, Batbayan, remained in his homeland and ultimately became a vassal of the rival Khazar tribes. The second son, Kotrag, migrated to Volga (part of Russia) and founded his own country, Volga Bulgaria. Most importantly for us, the third brother, Asparuh, led his people west to the lower Danube. It was he who founded the First Bulgarian Empire.
Statue of Khan Asparuh, an early leader of the Bulgars who founded the First Bulgarian Empire. (Иван / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Tracing the Early Days of the First Bulgarian Empire
The early days of the First Bulgarian Empire were marked by near-constant warfare. In the late 7th century, led by Khan Asparuh, the Bulgars migrated across the Danube River into the Balkan peninsula, marking the beginning of their migration and the foundation of the empire.
Using their military might they first moved into what is modern Wallachia, establishing themselves in the Danube Delta. They then crossed the Danube and in the 670s took Scythia Minor, a Byzantine province. This area was known for its grasslands and pastures which the Bulgars used to bolster their large herd stocks.
Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well with the Byzantine Empire. In 680 AD their emperor, Constantine IV, fresh from defeating the Arabs in the first Siege of Constantinople, moved against the Bulgars in the hopes of driving them off.
It didn’t go to plan. Despite his numerical advantage, Constantine was defeated by Asparuh at the Battle of Onglos, a swampy region near the Danube Delta where the Bulgars had set up a heavily fortified camp. Taking advantage, the Bulgars then headed south, crossing the Balkan Mountains and invading Thrace.
In 681 AD the humbled Byzantine Emperor was forced to sign a peace treaty with the Bulgars that acknowledged Bulgaria as an independent state, handed over huge chunks of territory to the Bulgars, and stated he would pay them an annual tribute. As such most contemporary historians stated that the First Bulgarian Empire was officially founded in 680 AD with the signing of this treaty.
Every empire needs a capital city and so after his successful military campaigns, Asparuh established his capital at Pliska, strategically located in northeastern Bulgaria. It became the center of political, cultural, and economic activities for the fledgling empire.
The Empire hit its first setback in 701 AD when Asparuh died fighting the Khazars in the northeast. This setback was brief, however. In 705 AD his successor, Khan Tervel, allied himself with the deposed Byzantine Emperor Justinian II and aided him in retaking the throne.
As a reward, the Bulgars were given the Zagore region, part of northern Thrace. Tervel was also given the title of Caesar as well as numerous gifts. This peace between the two powers was short-lived, however.
Justinian proved he couldn’t be trusted when three years later he tried to take back by force what he had given to Tervel. Tervel defeated the Byzantine army at Anchialus (part of modern-day Bulgaria) in 708 AD. The result of this was the signing of another agreement that officially defined Bulgaria’s borders and called for more Byzantine tributes.
The two were once again allies and when the Arabs attacked Constantinople between 717 and 718 AD, Tervel sent his army to help the city. His men slaughtered between 22,000 and 30,000 Arabs, forcing them to abandon their siege.
When the Arabs attacked Constantinople, the Bulgars under Khan Tervel of Bulgaria forced them to abandon their siege. Scene from the Manasses Chronicle. (Public domain)
Setbacks in the History of the First Bulgarian Empire
The First Bulgarian Empire continued to consolidate itself and expand its borders for the next few decades. Things began to go wrong, however, following the death of Khan Sever in around 753 AD. Over the next fifteen years, the young country was ruled over by no less than 15 Khans, and all of them were murdered.
The only sources we have that cover this period are Byzantine, so we have to be careful of bias. They paint Bulgaria as being torn between two factions during this period. One wished for peaceful relations with the Byzantine Empire, the other wanted war.
The “peaceful” faction managed to hold on to power until 755 AD but then things went downhill fast. From 755 to 774 AD the Byzantine Empire, under the “soldier Emperor” Constantine V, launched nine massive campaigns in the hopes of eliminating Bulgaria and taking over its lands. The campaigns had mixed results.
Constantine enjoyed some big wins at Maelae in 756, Anchialus in 763 and Berzitia in 774, but also suffered a massive defeat at the Battle of the Rishki Pass in 759. Constantine hoped that his military successes would cause further internal strife within Bulgaria, which they did, for a time.
But unfortunately for him, at some point his campaigns began to have the opposite effect. Over time the Bulgars began to rally together, united by a common enemy. In 766 the nobility and the armed people worked together to denounce Khan Sabin whom they blamed for their military defeats.
In 775 AD Constantine fell in battle against Sabin’s successor, Khan Tereig. The Byzantine Empire had failed to defeat the Bulgarian Empire. The damage done by years of warfare had helped to unite the Slavs and Bulgars against their old enemy.
Hostilities finally ended in 792 when Khan Kardam defeated the Byzantines one last time. This marked the end of this tumultuous period, and the First Bulgarian Empire entered an era of rapid territorial expansion.
Depiction of Emperor Nikephoros I attacking Bulgaria but getting captured by the Bulgarians, from the Constantine Manasses Chronicle created in the 14th century. (Public domain)
Expansion Under Khan Krum, the Fearsome Chieftain of the Bulgars
Bulgarian expansion really went into high gear under Khan Krum who ruled from 803 to 814. Under his leadership the Bulgarian Empire experienced substantial growth, almost doubling in size, and became one of the biggest Medieval powers in Europe.
He began by pretty much wiping out the Avar Khaganate who were a shadow of their former selves after suffering a crushing blow at the hands of the Francs in 796 AD. This victory established a border with the Frankish Empire along the middle Danube.
Krum then turned his attention to Bulgaria’s old enemy, the Byzantine Empire, who appeared to be warming up for another fight with Bulgaria. Krum launched a series of successful offensives, capturing several key Byzantine strongholds and fortresses throughout Thrace, including Adrianople and Philippopolis. These wins both expanded Bulgaria’s territory even further and cemented him as a power in the region.
The wins kept coming as in 809 Krum captured the city of Serdica, a strategically important city known as Sofia today. The strategic location of Serdica allowed for better control over the region and facilitated further expansion. The fall of Serdica was followed by the burning of Serdica by Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I in 811.
Not long after the Pliska had bene burnt to the ground the Byzantine Empire was defeated at the Battle of the Varbitsa Pass. During this fight, Emperor Nicephorus I was killed, and his skull was taken as a trophy. The Bulgarians had it lined with silver, and it was turned into a drinking vessel.
Khan Krum defeats the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I in the battle of the Varbitsa Pass, from the Manasses Chronicle. (Public domain)
With the Byzantine Empire on the ropes, Krum sent his armies to Thrace and captured Messembria, a black seaport. He then defeated the Byzantine Empire yet again in 813 AD. Tiring of war, Krum offered the Byzantines a peace settlement following this late spate of victories. Things went sideways, however, when during peace negotiations they tried to have Krum assassinated. In response, Krum invaded Eastern Thrace and took the city of Adrianople.
Krum’s final move as Khan was to prepare for the capture of Constantinople. He had 5,000 iron-plated wagons built to carry his siege equipment and the terrified Byzantines were forced to turn to the Frankish Empire for help. They needn’t have worried, Krum died on 14 April 814 and the plans were canceled.
In addition to territorial gains, Krum implemented effective administrative policies to consolidate and govern the newly acquired territories. He established a system of local governance, appointing officials to oversee the conquered regions and maintain stability.
Krum’s successor, Khan Omurtag, put an end to the war and signed a 30-year peace treaty with the Byzantine Empire. Both powers were exhausted after ten years of constant warfare and needed time to restore their economies.
Over the next 60 years, Bulgaria continued expanding, especially to the south and south-west. The biggest gain during this period was that of most of Macedonia, which appears to have been mostly peaceful. Bulgaria tried to expand westward but was blocked by a new Slavic power, the Principality of Serbia, which was backed by the Byzantine Empire.
In 864 the Empire converted to Christianity under Khan Boris I who crushed a revolt of the nobility in 866 AD. In 893 AD he then moved the Empire’s capital to Preslav. During this time, he also established the Bulgarian Church in an attempt to avoid Byzantine meddling in internal Bulgarian affairs. Everything was in place for Bulgaria’s golden age.
The baptism of Boris I as depicted within the Manases Chronicle. (Public domain)
The Golden Era of the Bulgars
In 893 AD Simeon I, also known as Simeon the Great, came to power. Under the leadership of Tsar Simeon I, the First Bulgarian Empire experienced unprecedented cultural flourishing. Preslav, the capital of the empire, became a center of intellectual and artistic excellence.
The Preslav Literary School, established during this time, produced numerous works of literature and scholarships, including translations of classical texts and original compositions. The development of the Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets further promoted literacy and cultural growth.
In addition to cultural achievements, the First Bulgarian Empire expanded its influence and territory during this period. Tsar Simeon I pursued an ambitious military campaign that resulted in the conquest of vast regions in the Balkans. Bulgarian forces achieved significant victories over Byzantine armies, leading to the annexation of territories in Thrace, Macedonia, and parts of Greece.
The empire's political system also underwent significant advancements during the Golden Era. Simeon I enacted reforms to strengthen the central administration and consolidate his rule. He introduced a revised legal code and established an efficient bureaucracy to govern the vast empire.
Economically, the Golden Era saw increased trade and prosperity. Bulgarian merchants engaged in extensive commerce, connecting the empire to other trading centers in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. This economic growth fostered a prosperous society and supported the development of urban centers, as well as paying for yet more military campaigns.
The forces of Simeon I, defeating the Byzantines in Macedonia as depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes. (Public domain)
Decline and Fall of the First Bulgarian Empire
As any student of history will tell you, nothing lasts forever, and what goes up, must come down. The decline and fall of the First Bulgarian Empire began in the late 10th century and was characterized by internal instability, external pressures, and territorial losses.
One of the major factors contributing to the empire's decline was internal strife and power struggles among the ruling elite. Succession disputes and rivalries weakened the central authority, leading to political instability and fragmentation. This internal turmoil made the empire vulnerable to external threats.
The Byzantine Empire, the most significant external power in the region, took advantage of the internal divisions within Bulgaria. Byzantine emperors launched successful military campaigns; gradually reclaiming territories that had been lost to the Bulgarians in the previous centuries. The Byzantines exploited political alliances and used diplomatic tactics to further erode Bulgarian influence.
The religious divide between the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Orthodox Church also played a role in the empire's decline. The Byzantines sought to assert their religious authority over the Bulgarian Church, leading to tensions and conflicts that weakened the unity of the empire.
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In 1018, the Byzantine Emperor Basil II dealt a decisive blow to Bulgaria by capturing the capital city of Preslav. With this defeat, the First Bulgarian Empire was reduced to a vassal state of the Byzantine Empire. The subsequent years witnessed further territorial losses and a decline in Bulgarian autonomy.
By the end of the 14th century, the remnants of the First Bulgarian Empire were conquered by the Ottoman Turks, bringing an end to Bulgarian independence and the empire's existence. The decline and fall of the First Bulgarian Empire marked a significant period of political, cultural, and territorial loss. However, the Bulgarian people maintained their identity and cultural heritage, laying the groundwork for future revivals and the eventual re-establishment of an independent Bulgarian state.
The rise and fall of the First Bulgarian Empire stand as a testament to the ebb and flow of power throughout history. From its humble beginnings under Khan Asparuh to its golden age under leaders like Krum and Simeon I, the empire displayed the heights of Bulgarian culture, military prowess, and political influence.
Yet, internal divisions, external pressures, and the relentless march of time brought about its decline. While the empire eventually faded into history, its legacy endures in the spirit and identity of the Bulgarian people. The story of the First Bulgarian Empire remains a captivating saga of ambition, triumph, and the inevitable passage of empires.
Top image: Miniature in the 14th century Constantine Manasses Chronicle depicting the Bulgars led by Khan Krum pursuing the Byzantines during the Battle of Versinikia in 813. Source: Public domain
Fine. J. 1991. The Early Medieval Balkans, A Critical Survey from the Sixth to the Late Twelfth Century. The University of Michigan Press
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Runciman. S. 1930. “Book III: The Two Eagles” in A History of the First Bulgarian Empire. George Bell & Sons. Available here: http://www.promacedonia.org/en/sr/sr_3_1.htm
The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. 17 July 2023. “The First Bulgarian Empire” in Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Bulgaria/The-first-Bulgarian-empire