Roman Empire fails to manipulate the Bulghars; from Boris I to Peter

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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“The Bulgarian ruler Boris ascended to the throne of Bulgaria in 852 AD, and quickly looked to form an alliance with the Eastern Frankish King Louis the German (r. 843-876). During this process, Boris had suggested to Louis that he desired to convert to Christianity. Hoping not only to gain favor with Rome but also an ally in the Balkans to help combat the Moravians, Louis offered to be Boris’ baptismal sponsor. While it looked at this point like the Bulgarians would be converting to a Christianity influenced by the West (and therefore under the authority of the Bishop of Rome), the Byzantines launched an offensive into Bulgarian territory, their first since the expiration of the thirty year peace treaty in 845 AD. This offensive caught the Bulgarians completely off guard, and in addition to recapturing territory once lost to the Bulgarians, the Byzantines forced Boris to be baptized under the Emperor Michael III, effectively placing the Bulgarians in the Eastern Christian tradition.

The conversion of Bulgaria also marks the creation of what became known as the ‘Law Code for the Common People.’ This law code, written in Bulgarian, traces its roots from a portion of the Byzantine Ecloga, which was written by the Emperors Leo III and Constantine V of Isauria in 726 AD. While the judicial segment of the Bulgarian version of the laws are heavily influenced by their Byzantine counterpart, there is an abundance of additional content that, in a way, modifies the laws. Specifically, there is an incredibly prevalent inclusion of religious punishments included in the ‘Law Code for the Common People.’ It is in this way that the Bulgarians were able to prevent themselves from assimilating into Byzantine culture: by using Christianity to bring unity to their nation, they were able to place a heavy emphasis on religious customs as they related to their society, creating a blend of legal and religious law unique from Byzantium.

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It is easy to see the profound influence that Byzantium had on the foundation and growth of not only the Bulgarian law system, but the Bulgarian government. The Bulgarians were able to adapt this Byzantine influence to suit their own needs, allowing their nation to flourish and grow. Even prior to Boris I’s conversion to Christianity, cultural diffusion had to have been taken place, and in any event the Byzantine efforts to manipulate Bulgaria prior to the country’s conversion had the effect of strengthening the fledging institutions of a newly formed nation, which would ultimately serve to provide Bulgaria with a sound foundation from which to assert its dominance over the Balkans and lay claim to Constantinople.

In any event, the conversion of the Bulgarians was not without turbulence, and it highlights the growing conflict between the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Bishop of Rome. For when Boris appealed to have his own autonomous Church under his control, the Patriarch of Constantinople declined Boris’ request. As a result, Boris sent out emissaries to Pope Nicholas I (856-867), who in return delivered a lengthy document which addressed Boris’ concerns point-by-point. Boris’ actions can be seen as an attempt by the Bulgarian ruler to escape the growing influence of the Byzantine Empire over Bulgaria in the form of Greek priests roaming his country, instilling the notion that the Bulgarians were subservient to the Empire. Nicholas I’s commentary on the authority of the Patriarchs proves to be a pivotal point in both East-West relations and in the amount of influence Byzantium held over the Bulgarian Church.

During Leo III’s reign, Rome was still under Byzantine control, as were other parts of Italy, including the Exarchate of Ravenna. However, the first cracks in Imperial control over the city were seen when Leo III had attempted to raise taxes in Italy in order to pay for his wars against the Arabs in Asia Minor. The Pope, Gregory II (715-731), refused to pay these taxes, and from that point on was nominally independent of the Empire due to Byzantine concentration on their Arab foes.

After Leo III renounced the veneration of icons, however, the ties were permanently severed. While the clergy in Greece, as well as the Patriarch of Constantinople himself, quietly opposed the ban of icons, it was Gregory II in Rome who was the most vocal opponent of the move, publically denouncing the Emperor’s action. Following this, the soldiers of the Exarchate revolted against their officers and stopped short of proclaiming their own Emperor only “because the Pope was opposed”. From this point on, Rome, and the Pope, were completely independent of the Byzantine Empire’s influence, and would go on to seek alliances with the Franks of Western Europe.

Boris kept regular correspondence with Rome, even after the events of the synod of Basil I that sought to reunify the Churches. During the synod, a Bulgarian delegation questioned whether they owed their allegiance to the Patriarch of Constantinople or the Pope in Rome. The Patriarch Ignatius appointed an archbishop to Bulgaria, amid protests from the Papal delegation, and the bishop Nicholas I had sent to Bulgaria was soon overthrown. It seemed that Byzantium was victorious in influencing Bulgaria and ‘winning’ the battle with Rome over who had dominance over the Bulgarian Church. However, the stipulation that the archbishop of Bulgaria would enjoy a great degree of autonomy would pave the way for Bulgaria to escape Byzantine influence in the coming centuries and would then seek to dominate the Empire.

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After a period of instability following the retirement of Boris and the ascension of his son Vladimir, who attempted to reintroduce paganism to Bulgaria, Vladimir’s brother and Boris’ younger son Symeon took the Bulgarian throne. Symeon had been sent to Constantinople in his youth to study under the theologians of the time and was ultimately supposed to become a prominent figure in the Bulgarian church. However, his rule would usher in a golden age for Bulgaria, seeing his land expand deep into Byzantine territory and even threaten Constantinople itself. Although he had been raised and educated in Constantinople, he was by no means sympathetic toward Byzantium. In fact, he was an adamant proponent of an independent Bulgarian Church, and even went so far as to appoint native Bulgarian clergy as well as replaced Greek with Slavonic as the official language of both the Bulgarian State and Church. Up until that point, Greek had been the language of the Bulgarian Church, providing Byzantium with a form of influence over the nation. However, Symeon’s change helped to further instill a sense of Bulgarian identity separate from Byzantium.

In 913 AD, Symeon had launched an invasion into Byzantine territory, showing up at the gates of Constantinople with an army that was prepared to lay siege to the great city. This was in retaliation for the Byzantines refusing to pay Bulgaria the yearly tribute they were promised in 897 AD. According to the Theophanes Continuatus, Symeon is referred to as “archon”. This distinction in his title will have increased significance in later writings from the Theophanes Continuatus. Symeon demands an audience with the Emperor, but since Constantine VII was but a small child, the Patriarch Nicholas (901-907, 912-925), the boy-Emperor’s regent, was left to deal with the situation. Thus, it was the Patriarch who, in order to come to an agreement for the resumption of payment of the tribute, went out to negotiate with Symeon. The Theophanes Continuatus makes mention that the Patriarch went out to meet with Symeon and “placed his own epirrhiptarion instead of the crown (stemma)…on Symeon’s head”. The text makes a clear distinction between the epirrhiptarion and the crown, which could imply that this was done for symbolic but also for manipulative reasons. To the Byzantines, it was a validation to Symeon that, as a Christian who followed the Eastern tradition, he derived all power to rule from the Patriarch of Constantinople, and was thus subservient to the Byzantine Empire. However, this was not how Symeon interpreted it, and upon his return to Bulgaria, he began to style himself as the Emperor (Greek basileus) of Bulgaria. Symeon’s aspirations did not cease there, however.

The Bulgarian Tsar Symeon amended his title upon returning to Bulgaria, styling himself as “Emperor of the Bulgarians and Romans”. The language used in the text is tricky: it could very well be claimed that by styling himself in such a way, Symeon was trying to further legitimize his claims to lands that had previously belonged to the Byzantines in an attempt to appease the large Byzantine population under Bulgarian rule. However, the term in the text used to identify the people Symeon claimed power over, “Christianoi,” refers strictly to the term Romaioi, which is the term that the Byzantines used to refer to themselves (since the term “Byzantine Empire” is a modern creation used to describe the Eastern Roman Empire). Indeed, it has been asserted that Symeon laid claims to the Byzantine throne when he first attempted to lay siege to Constantinople in 913. After adopting these titles, Symeon then proceeded to launch an invasion into Byzantine territory, seeking to besiege Constantinople once again.

Symeon drove further southward, toward Constantinople, intent on laying siege to the city and claiming Byzantium for himself. At the very least, he demanded that his daughter be married to the young Emperor Constantine VII, who by this time was still not ready to rule on his own. The Empress Zoe, who had assumed power over the Patriarch Nicholas in a coup in 914, refused Symeon’s demands, and so the Bulgarian ruler proceeded to attempt to lay siege to Constantinople. He was, however, briefly preoccupied with the Serbs who, at Byzantium’s insistence, attacked Bulgaria. As a result, he was forced to divert his attention from attempting to capture Constantinople until he could first topple the Serbian kingdom. Nevertheless, the implications of Symeon’s expedition and his ability to so thoroughly manhandle the Byzantine armies thrown at him would ultimately set the stage for a confrontation between Symeon and the soon-to-be crowned, extremely capable Byzantine Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos.

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In the fall of 920 AD, Romanos Lekapenos had Constantine VII and the Patriarch Nicholas proclaim him Emperor, effectively usurping power from the legitimate Emperor.

By this time, the self-titled Bulgarian basileus Symeon had completed his incursion into Serbia, establishing a pro-Bulgarian puppet on the Serbian throne. Upon returning to Bulgaria, he received word that Romanos I Lekapenos had married his daughter Helen to Constantine VII and flew into a rage, believing that he had been denied his rightful position of basilepator. He was further enraged that another had risen to the rank of Emperor of the Romans, a title he also claimed. Thus, Symeon amassed a force of Bulgarians and marched on Constantinople, intent on taking the city and having himself crowned as basileus. Acting with great haste and urgency, Romanos I once again stirred up a revolt in Serbia, forcing the Bulgarian basileus to once more turn his attention away from his ultimate goal, for the time being. This brought Romanos only a limited amount of time, however, as by 922 AD Symeon was back in Byzantine territory, as far south as the Hellespont. The Bulgarian basileus went on to defeat a large Byzantine army near Stenum (modern-day Istinye), and proceeded to ravage the entire surrounding countryside. Then, in 923 AD, he recaptured Adrianople, and tortured the city’s governor to death. It seemed that once more, Symeon would be marching his soldiers to the Theodosian Walls, seeking to capture what had so far eluded him. For his part, the Emperor Romanos I had done everything in his power to secure peace with Symeon since the former had ascended to the throne in 920 AD. However, any negotiation that the Emperor would bring to Symeon would be rejected, and any negotiation that Symeon would bring to the Emperor began and ended with Romanos I’s abdication of the Byzantine throne. Thus, as these talks broke down, Symeon gathered the largest force he possibly could, and in 924 AD, embarked on one final, epic siege of Constantinople.

Where Symeon had failed in the past, he sought to succeed in the present. In order to do so, he had to secure naval help to truly surround, and ultimately starve out, the city. It was for this reason that Symeon opened a dialogue with the Fatimid Caliph in North Africa. He hoped to make use of the Caliphate’s navy, for the reasons discussed above. Initially, the two sides seemed to be close to reaching an agreement, but when the Fatimid Caliph sent a delegation back to Symeon to further discuss the finer details of the two states’ accord, it was captured by the Byzantine navy. To ensure that the Fatimids would not be a future threat to the Empire, Emperor Romanos I sent them a hefty tribute, much larger than anything that Symeon could hope to provide, effectively buying their loyalty from the Bulgarians. By this point in time, Symeon had amassed a large force, and despite the setback, or perhaps even because of it, he moved his forces southward, to begin a siege of Constantinople once more.

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After laying waste to Macedonia and Thrace, Bulgarian basileus Symeon had settled in to his siege of Constantinople. According to the Theophanes Continuatus, the Byzantines sought to negotiate with Symeon, and sent the Patriarch Nicholas and several nobles out to discuss peace with the Bulgarian. Upon receiving the Byzantine delegates, however, Symeon sent them back to Constantinople, demanding an audience with Emperor Romanos I himself. Symeon’s demands signify the position of power that he held over the Byzantine Empire. As if to underscore his demand to negotiate only with Romanos I, Symeon razed the Church of the All-Holy Virgin, originally built by the Emperor Justinian I, to the ground, along with a palace at Pege, which was a supposed favorite of the Emperor. Eventually, an agreement was agreed upon that established a meeting time and place for the rulers to negotiate a peace treaty. Once the destination had been searched by the Bulgarians to ensure that there were no traps or ambushes, and the proper hostages had been exchanged by both sides, the two rulers, each with a contingency of soldiers, finally met on the 9th of November, 924 AD. Interestingly enough, and quite telling of the status of Bulgaria in relation to Byzantium, is the way in which the Byzantines addressed Symeon. “They acclaimed him emperor in the language of the Romans” says the Theophanes Continuatus; a dramatic shift from how the Bulgarian ruler had previous been styled by the Byzantines (as an archon, or ruler). What this tells us is that by this point in time, it had become apparent to the Byzantine Empire that Bulgaria was, at the very least, politically and militarily on par with the Empire.

The negotiations between Romanos I Lekapenos and Symeon culminated in the Byzantine Empire recognizing the independence of the Bulgarian Church from the yoke of the Patriarch of Constantinople, thus officially creating the autocephalous Patriarchy of Bulgaria. The Peace of 924 AD also saw the restoration of the Byzantine tribute to Bulgaria, which was more or less the same amount as the tribute of 897 AD. However, despite Romanos I and the rest of the Byzantines addressing Symeon as basileus at the onset of the negotiations, the Peace of 924 AD did not address the status of the Bulgarian ruler. Indeed, this question went unanswered until the death of Symeon in 927 AD, and his young son Peter ascended to the Bulgarian throne. Peter was, however, still too young to govern on his own, and so his uncle, George Sursuvul, was appointed as his regent. Sursuvul continued the anti-Byzantine policies that his brother-in-law had pursued. Under his authority, Bulgarian forces conducted raids of the Thracian and Macedonian themata. These forces even went so far as to raze several towns in Thrace to the ground. The raids apparently sent the Byzantine populace in and around Macedonia and Thrace into a panicked frenzy. Upon hearing the news of the Bulgarian raiders, Emperor Romanos I prepared to set out with an army to confront them. However, before he did so, George Sursuvul sent emissaries to Romanos, offering to negotiate a last peace treaty. Romanos, eager to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, agreed to meet with Sursuvul to discuss the possibility of peace.

The peace agreement that would eventually be agreed upon by the Emperor Romanos I and Bulgarian regent George Sursuvul would solidify once and for all the positon of Bulgaria as an equal of the Byzantine Empire. Sursuvul, having arrived in Constantinople to negotiate, demanded that the young Bulgarian ruler Peter be married to Maria Lekapene, the daughter of Romanos’ son and co-emperor Christopher. In addition, the Byzantine Empire would continue its payment of tribute to Bulgaria, once again along the lines of the tribute established in 897 AD. Futhermore, Peter would drop “Emperor of the Romans” from his title only if Romanos recognized him as Emperor of the Bulgarians. While Peter would be giving up his claim to the Empire, he would be gaining official recognition of his own. Romanos agreed to this peace treaty, and Sursuvul wrote to the young Peter, urging him to travel quickly to Constantinople, for the two nations had, it seemed, finally reached a peace agreement that appealed to both sides.”

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Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus

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