East Rome and Bulgaria: The Empire creates its greatest threat

Here we present selected parts of the very informative paper titled “Byzantium and Bulgaria: How an Empire Created its Greatest Threat“, by Conor Roan

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“While Byzantium fought for control of Anatolia and Syria with the Caliphates, they battled for their continued existence far closer to the center of the Empire against the Bulgarians, facing numerous sieges of Constantinople, the seat of the Empire. Upon review and analysis of Byzantine texts such as the Theophanes Continuatus, as well as a comparison to the Bulgarian Common Law and the Byzantine Ecloga, it will become clear that, although Byzantium sought to create a satellite in the Balkans to serve as a buffer against further nomadic incursions into Imperial territory, they failed in their efforts. Furthermore, despite using practices that had long sustained the Empire against prior enemies, such as diplomatic manipulation, and new practices, like religious assimilation, Byzantium failed to solidify its hold over the Bulgarian state. Instead, Bulgarian rulers were able to take these efforts of diplomatic and religious manipulation and adapt to them, allowing Bulgaria to dominate the Balkans and challenge Byzantium for the title of Roman Emperor.

The Tsardom of Bulgaria, established around 681 AD, would prove to be substantial menace to the Byzantine Empire – not because of its differences, but rather because of how similar the two nations grew to become. Historians such as George Ostrogorsky, John Julius Norwich, and Warren Treadgold have discussed the growth of Bulgarian power in the Balkans and subsequent conflict with the Byzantines as a matter of proximity; that is, the Bulgarians were bound to come into conflict with the Empire due to competition for the same resources based upon how close the two nations were geographically. However, other historians, like Edward N. Luttwak and Collin Wells, have asserted that it was in fact the Byzantines themselves who set into motion the events that allowed the Bulgarians to settle south of the Danube. This, coupled with the influence the Empire attempted to exert over Bulgaria, provided Bulgaria with the means to forge a national identity independent of Byzantium, as well as challenge the Empire for dominance in the region. Thus, despite the fact that these two states were at odds with each other for the better part of three hundred years, the Byzantine Empire’s desire to spread its culture and religion played a major role in the formation and expansion of the Tsardom of Bulgaria.

Following a failed military expedition led by the Emperor himself, the Byzantine Empire was forced to recognize the existence of the Bulgarian kingdom, and was forced, in addition, to pay an annual tribute, to ensure that the kingdom would not threaten to push further into Byzantine territory. However, due to the fact that the Bulgarians were, in effect, living on land that the Byzantines still considered to be theirs, the Byzantines would stage numerous efforts to reconquer their lost territory, beginning under Justinian II in 688.

The lack of Imperial administration and authority in the Balkans grew so severe that, in order to combat the slavicisation of the Balkan Peninsula, particularly in the thema of Hellas, the Emperor Nikephoros I (802-811) enacted a resettlement of the province by Greek speakers from across the Empire.

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Although initially successful in pushing the Bulgarians back across the Danube, the Byzantines gave chase. Once a stalemate had developed beyond the Danube, the Byzantines were then forced to turn back, and during the retreat came under heavy attack from the Bulgarians. As Constantine IV fled back into Byzantine territory, the Bulgarians followed, and it became clear that only a full-scale campaign outside imperial territory could dislodge them. He was thus forced to make peace with the Bulgarians, in which he agreed to pay them tribute. In addition, he was forced to recognize the land the Bulgarians had occupied as an independent Bulgarian realm. However, by 713 AD, the Bulgarians were raiding as far south as Thrace, and even threatening Constantinople itself.

Following Constantine IV’s concessions to Bulgaria, the two states were bound to come into conflict, simply because they would be competing for resources in the area. With the Danube serving as a natural border, there was no better place for the Bulgarians to advance than southward, where they would meet little resistance due to the breakdown of Imperial administration under pressure from the Slavic migrations into the Balkans.

Whilst the Avars were laying siege to Constantinople in 626 AD, the Byzantines bribed a tribe of Turks residing just west of the Volga River to migrate westward and attack the Avars. This Turkic tribe, known as the Bulghars, eventually succeeded in defeating the Avars, and in the power vacuum that followed, the Bulghars rose to prominence. The Byzantines would continue to try and manipulate the Bulgarians to meet their own needs, even after Constantine IV’s defeat at the hands of Bulgaria in 679 AD. Justinian II, after being deposed, fled to the Bulghars and sought their help in restoring him to the Imperial throne. In return, he promised the Bulghars more land to the south of Moesia, by this time the center of their growing kingdom. However, after reclaiming his throne, Justinian II reneged on this earlier promise and marched against the Bulghars. Thus, the Byzantines tried their very best to diplomatically manipulate the Bulgarians to suit their needs. However, Byzantium was woefully unsuccessful in these attempts, and instead helped to foster a nation which would challenge them for dominance in the Balkans.

Having failed to successfully manipulate the Bulgarians via their diplomacy, the Byzantines then turned to another method of exerting some sort of influence over their western neighbors. Under the Patriarch Photius, the Byzantine Empire sought to convert the Bulgarians to Orthodox Christianity, in an attempt to create an Orthodox Christian ally in the Balkans, where Byzantine influence and military strength was weak. This was in part due to the realization by the Byzantines that a buffer state was needed in the region in order to fend of the growing threat of the Russians. The Byzantines also sought to stymie the influence of the Western Church, and they saw the potential for an Orthodox Slavic region that could, in theory, serve as a buffer to Papal encroachment in the region. However, the Bulgarian archon, Boris I, was shrewd, and used the Byzantine efforts to convert Bulgaria to his own advantage. He was able to both begin the process of creating a national identity and solidify his position as his country’s ruler, which would ultimately help the Bulgarians resist Byzantium and even aid the newly Christian country in occupying more land nominally held by the Empire.

The Byzantine Empire, which relied so heavily on diplomatic influence to manipulate other nations into doing its bidding, attempted to do just the same with the Bulgarians. When that tactic did not work, the Byzantines then chose to manipulate their neighbors in a different way, by converting them to Christianity. In doing so, the Byzantines created an entity that was so similar to themselves that it was able to challenge them not just for the Balkans, but for the Byzantine throne.”

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Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus

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