{E2 GUIDE TO BULGARIA}

BULGARIA - A PREDOMINANT POWER IN THE EUROPEAN EAST 893-967 AD

In 889 AD, after too long a life and reign Boris, the Baptist of the Bulgarian people, renounced the throne of his own will, gave it to his son Vladimir-Rassate (889-893) and retired to a monastery in the vicinity of the capital. The new Bulgarian ruler made some attempts in favor of paganism. Boris, however, relying on his policy-supporting Bulgarian aristocracy, deposed his son and blinded him. Subsequently, his younger son, Simeon (893-927) ascended to the Bulgarian throne.

According to Byzantine chroniclers, Tsar Simeon was a 'child of peace', for he was born after the conversion of Bulgaria to Christianity. Boris had earlier made plans for him to take the helm of the Bulgarian church. He sent still immature Simeon to the Magnaura school in Constantinople, it being the only university in Europe at that time, considering the curriculum and the level of its presentation. The young Bulgarian manifested rare gifts and graduated from Magnaura with flying colors. Because of his proficiency in ancient culture, his contemporaries used to call him 'demi-Greek'. It is worth reminding that in those days the Byzantines used to call themselves 'Romei', that is Romans, and the name 'Greek' was used to refer to the Hellenians, i.e. the ancient Greeks. Such was the situation that Simeon's headdress was not the tiara of an archbishop as Boris had intended, but the crown of the Bulgarian head of state.

The new Bulgarian ruler had been only a few days in power when his abilities and determination were 'tested' by the Byzantine emperor. He decreed that the Bulgarian merchants' trading depot be transferred from Constantinople to Thessalonica which eventually led to considerable economic losses. Simeon tried to seek solution to the problem through diplomatic channels, but to no avail. Reading the emperor's act as casus belli, Simeon declared war on Byzantium in 924 AD. The Bulgarian army invaded Thrace and struck several heavy blows on the Byzantine troops. That was the beginning of decades long Bulgarian-Byzantine mutual defiance that lasted up till the very end of Simeon's reign.

The cause for the conflict was obviously neither the place of the trade depot nor the insult on the Bulgarian state prestige. It was not the wounded self-esteem of the Bulgarian ruler either. This time the reasons did not relate to the disputed possession of one region or another. The roots of the crisis lay in the inevitable collision of two mutually incompatible state and political conceptions. The Byzantine one, ideologically based on the idea of Christian Universalism, maintained that the projection of God's kingdom of Heaven on the earth should be a world empire, more specifically, the empire of Rome, as it unites under one sceptre all peoples on the earth practicing the Christian faith in one language and sharing a uniform imperial culture, a uniform economy, one political organization and the same destiny. This conception denied the legitimate existence of all the other states in Europe which had been founded on the ruins of the Roman empire at the end of the antiquity. And, if Byzantium and the Holy Roman Empire in Western Europe, with their politicians professing the same state ideology, had to come into contact with any of the existing European countries, this act was, as a rule, considered a tactical step aiming at earning time until the day, when the empire would have mastered enough strength to take them all in.

The Bulgarian state conception held that each people on the earth had the right to independent political, economic and cultural development. This ideology, which served as the basis of the modern European civilization, had been accepted only by the Bulgarian state of that time.

Until the Bulgarian conversion to Christianity, the instances of military confrontation between Bulgaria and Byzantium had invariably ended with the former's victory. Without any prospects for an imminent military success, Byzantium saw in the Christianization of Bulgaria a golden chance to turn the barbarian state formation first into its spiritual province and then, by using its levers already introduced there - language, clergy, church institutions, etc. - to gradually decompose the Bulgarian state and social structures, and to Byzantinize, or render Byzantine, the obvious leaders of the people (the aristocracy, the clergy and the intelligentzia). In the long run, the plan was to annex the Bulgarian territory to the empire at a time convenient, and ultimately, to do away with its independence.

Tsar Boris's political foresight, incredible for that time, helped him destroy one after the other the levers of the Byzantine mechanism employed to erode Bulgaria from within, which had seemed an inevitable consequence of its conversion to Christianity. The Greek language was banned and the Byzantine clergy expelled from the Bulgarian church and state. This was the last blow dealt by tsar Boris on the Byzantine penetration plan. Once again, the only way of stamping out Bulgaria - a dangerous example of national survival and resilience to the European political minds looking for alternatives to the existing political universalism, was to resort to the well-tried expedient of military confrontation.

Similar analysis had undoubtedly been made in the Bulgarian capital, too. With good reason, instead of taking adequate measures to retaliate the shift of the trade depot - this minor, though rancorous gesture on the part of Byzantium, then still unprepared for a military confrontation with Bulgaria, the fearless Bulgarian ruler preferred to settle the impending conflict on the battle field without delay.

In order to drive off the Bulgarian troops from the avenues of approach to Constantinople, Byzantium sent for the militant Magyars, then dwelling in the lands of the present-day steppes of the Russian Black Sea littoral. Their invincible cavalry raids were known to have passed like a dark cloud all over Europe from the Don to the Atlantic.

The Magyar incursion on the north Bulgarian lands forced Simeon to abandon Thrace and to hurry the better part of his army northwards. It did not succeed in winning the field and Simeon even had to encamp his troops behind the walls of the big Bulgarian forts along the bank of the Danube. The Magyars advanced on Preslav, the new Bulgarian capital, and besieged it.

The situation in Bulgaria was full of drama. With the Bulgarian elite troopers confined to the castles by the Danube, Preslav was left to the weak and unfit for action volunteer forces consisting of adolescents, old men and women. To the south, Byzantium was preparing an offensive by an enormous army that could hardly be stopped by the meagre Bulgarian troops left back in Thrace. The Bulgarian capital was obviously the target of a most ferocious warfare The voluntary forces had hard times driving back a series of attacks on the fortress, with their strength wearing thin and their water and food supplies running low. The Magyars were preparing themselves for the zero-hour assault.

At this juncture, as reported by West European chroniclers, Boris I cast off his monastic cassock to head the troops. The appearance of the 90-year old man in full armour, flourishing a sword in front of the voluntary forces defending the capital, revived the general public enthusiasm which, at times, verged on religious ecstasy. The young saw him as a saintly man who had just come back to life (Boris was canonized after his death but to many he had been a saint while still living). The elderly perceived him as a relic of their heroic military past. So inspired, the volunteers did not even wait for the actual assault to start but left the capital walls into the fields encompassing them and threw themselves into a fight against the Magyars. The battle was ruthlessly fierce. The Magyar crack besiege army was destroyed to the last man. The siege of the Bulgarian capital was raised. Boris was still putting back on his monastic cassock when the Bulgarian crack regiments left the Danube fortifications and took the offensive. Having driven the remains of the Magyar troops out of Bulgaria, Simeon made his way into the territories occupied by the Magyars. The enraged Bulgarians destroyed everything that crossed their path. The Magyars were forced to abandon for good the Black Sea littoral steppes and to settle in the heart of Europe, where they founded their own state.

Then Tsar Simeon was off against Byzantium again. In a crucial battle which took place near Bulgarophigon, not far from Constantinople, the Byzantine army was utterly defeated. The Byzantines fled for their life to Constantinople which was immune against attack by land. Having no battle-fleet, Simeon directed his armies to the western part of the Balkan Peninsula. The Bulgarians occupied the territories of present-day Albania and Northern Greece. The peace treaty, signed in 904 AD, endorsed all territorial gains of Bulgaria. Weary Byzantium with its Asian territories suffering another Arab invasion, succumbed to the decision to cede to Bulgaria its role of a dominant power in European East. Bulgaria's awe-stricken neighbors had to relinquish for long any plans for going counter Bulgaria. Peace enabled the Bulgarian people to direct its energies to impressive building and cultural activities. Tsar Simeon was obviously well aware that as long as Byzantium existed, there would exist the universal state and the political idea denying the right to existence of the state he was ruling. Thus, his future foreign policy scheme included a plan to have the two states merge into one united Slavo-Byzantine empire with the Bulgarian ruler on the emperor's throne. His attempt to fulfil this plan by peaceful means, i.e., through a diplomatic matrimony in 912-914 AD, failed. Bulgaria and Byzantium found themselves involved in a vigorous conflict once again. The Bulgarians invaded on a large front and conquered most of the Byzantine domains in Europe.

The situation culminated in its outcome in August 917 AD. All Byzantine troops available were made into an army which set out towards Bulgaria. In the meantime, Byzantine diplomatic envoys busily engaged in organizing a strong anti-Bulgarian coalition, Inculcating Hungary, Serbia and the Pecheneg tribes from the steppes which had this time been persuaded to invade Bulgaria concomitantly with Byzantium.

Tsar Simeon also called his armies into a striking force and set out against his most dreaded foe - Byzantium. The armies met near the river of Acheloi, not far from the famous present-day Bulgarian resort of Sunny Beach. There, on 19 August 917 AD a battle, one of the biggest in human history, took place. The two sides sent a total of troops nearly 150,000-strong. The Bulgarian ruler, a recognized authority on ancient literature, resorted to a maneuvers attributed to Hannibal in the battle at Cannae. The Byzantine army, similarly to the Roman army at Cannae, was surrounded near Acheloi and defeated to the last man. The battle was exceptionally furious, indeed. At one stage even the special regiment of the tsar's guards, led by Simeon himself, had to join in the fight. The Bulgarian ruler was only slightly wounded, but lost his horse therein.

The anti-Bulgarian coalition disintegrated at the news of the decisive defeat of Byzantium. The Hungarians and the Pechenegs refused to invade the Bulgarian possessions. Serbia was crushed by the Bulgarian troops and its territory annexed to Bulgaria.

After the battle at Acheloi, tsar Simeon proclaimed the Bulgarian church a patriarchate and himself an emperor and autocrat of the Romans. He effectively possessed the power over the European Southeast with the exception of Constantinople, still remaining unconquered. All attempts of the Bulgarian ruler to take the capital of the Romans were in vain. On 27 May 927 AD, tsar Simeon the Great died of heart failure. His successor, tsar Peter signed a peace treaty with enervated Byzantium. By this act the empire recognized not only Bulgaria's territorial acquisitions but also the king's title of the Bulgarian ruler (equal to that of the emperor) and the independence of the Bulgarian patriarchate. Thus, the two states enjoyed full parity in both state and political aspects. In its essence this meant abandonment of the idea of one unified state. The foreign political goals of Bulgaria and its ruler had been achieved although Byzantium continued to exist. The time of tsar Simeon's rule was, without any doubt, a pinnacle in the Bulgarian political might and main in the European East. Its attainment had naturally and to a large extent been in the making of a pleiad of Bulgarian politicians who were capable of ruling Bulgaria well from the beginning of the 9th century up till the start of tsar Simeon's rule. The obvious merits of the Bulgarian ruler, however, should not be neglected. He was unusually talented a politician, a warrior and a man of letters. Tsar Simeon's versatile activities set an example which was followed not only by the Bulgarian but also by other Slav rulers and politicians between the 10th and the 14th centuries. The value of his deeds was stressed by all medieval researchers who had studied those times in their work. Perhaps the most precise of all assessments was the one made by the famous French historian Alfred Rambaud who wrote: 'King Simeon was the Bulgarian Charlemagne, but he was better educated than our Charles the Great and much greater than him for, he laid down the foundations of literature that belonged to the people'.

Tsar Simeon the Great was succeeded by his second son, tsar Peter (927-968). His 42-year long rule is the longest one-man reign ever in Bulgarian history. Forty of those years had passed in undisturbed peace and quiet with all neighbors. With the exception of the Serbian lands dropping out (that seems to have happened with the approval of Preslav), Bulgaria had not lost a single square meter of its territory. An experienced diplomat, tsar Peter deftly avoided the ripening confrontations with the Russians, the Magyars and the Byzantines, sometimes turning the one enemy against the other. Those forty peaceful years were, beyond doubt, extremely important for the recoupment of the demographic and economic losses of Simeon's wars. The lasting peace helped finalize without cataclysms the process of consolidating further the united Bulgarian nation, strengthening the position of Christianity, disseminating once and for all, the Old Bulgarian alphabet and literature and establishing firmly Christian state and religious structures.

This merit of tsar Peter's rule had been noted as early as the Middle Ages. Besides his admission to the Bulgarian church canon of saints, some folk chronicles containing idealistic accounts of his reign, can be used as sources of information about his vast popularity. It is of some interest to be known that the leaders of all Bulgarian uprisings at the time of the Byzantine domination over the Bulgarian lands during the Ilth-l2th centuries were named Peter upon their ascension to the throne, regardless of their real name by birth. This was obviously done in order to draw wider strata of the population into the movement for the Bulgarian liberation cause.

Negative trends could be noticed quite distinctly in the development of Bulgaria during the last few years of tsar Peter's reign. The process of feudalization had drawn a clear demarcating line between the secular and the religious ruling crust on the one side, and the exploited rural population burdened by ever-growing taxes and obligational duties, on the other. The social contradictions were inevitably intensified by the oncoming depravity and corruption among top state officialdom and clergy. Perhaps the negative phenomena were also a typical consequence of all gerontocracy-stricken totalitarian societies and of their adverse effect on the social life as a whole. During the last years of his rule tsar Peter was clearly a weakling.

The clash between the ruling class and the oppressed part of the society manifested itself in the way which was typical for the Middle Ages. In the middle of the 10th century the teaching of a lower clergyman, Bogomil the Priest, began to spread like an avalanche all over Bulgaria. It was called Bogomilism after the name of its originator.

Bogomilism had its ideological roots in the system of views of two earlier heretic philosophies which had penetrated Bulgaria via Byzantium - those of the Paulicians and the Manichaeans. The Bogomils preached faith in the existence and operation of two forces - the Good (embodied in God) and the Evil (embodied in the Devil). The whole visible or material world and man were a creation of Satan, while the human soul was a creation of God. It was quite clear that such a philosophy would rate the state and the official church, together with their institutions and servants, as well as all structures of the society - the legislature and the like, as the work of Satan. Furthermore, since the Bogomils held that there was war between Good and Evil and that this war would inevitably end with the victory of the Good, they sounded the reveille for struggle against the whole of the existing socio-political establishment. The aggressiveness of this heresy could not but frighten both the state and the official church authorities. Anti-Bogomil struggle was waged to which the heretics responded by concealing their organizations.

Bogomilism crossed the Bulgarian borders and in the next few centuries enjoyed large-scale diffusion in the Balkan countries, Russia and Western Europe. In Italy the Bogomil offshoots were known as Cathars and in France, as Bougreans or Albigensians. The Bogomil organizations (communities or lodges) throughout Europe kept in close contact with each other. They exchanged people and literature and, in all spiritual affairs, recognized the supremacy of the main fraternity back in Bulgaria.

Bogomilism was undoubtedly a clear expression of the vehement social protest against the feudal oppression. In this context, it can be viewed as an interesting phenomenon on the Bulgarian social and political scene in the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, it will be an overstatement if this heresy is adorned with attributes like 'social' and 'revolutionary', or is declared an early portent of the Reformation movement in Europe. It is all too obvious that its philosophy was lacking in progressive alternatives and some of its conceptions were demonstratively reactionary, even anti-humanist. This second point can be illustrated by only two of the postulates in the rigorous ethic of the Bogomils, prescribing for the babies and young children to be subjected to maltreatment because they are His Satanic Majesty's spawn and for the adepts and, possibly, all disciples to give a wide berth to matrimony and to celibate instead.

The interests of any nation are fully incompatible with any ambition aimed at undermining and demolishing its state. This is particularly relevant to that remote epoch in which the state was the only surety for the nation's survival, existence and development. Therefore, it is not fortuitous that the initial enthusiasm with which the Bulgarians met Bogomilism and then helped disseminate it in Bulgaria, had been replaced by only limited interest on the part of both the white and the black lower clergy. Evidently the Bulgarian, mundane and practical as he had always been, utterly rejected the idea that, for the sake of saving his soul, he ought to stop making love to the wife he loved or to begin maltreating the children he adored.


- Translated from the book "Bulgaria Illustrated History" by Maria Nikolotva
- Bulgarian text by Bojidar Dimitrov, PhD.
- Published by BORIANA Publishing House, Sofia, Bulgaria

text used here with permission from translator, save modifications for noding

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