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7-08-2015, 23:39

Basil i i ’s bulgarian wars

As the ruler of a greatly enlarged empire, Basil became his own general, thereby dispensing with the military ‘establishment’ which had been the mainstay of governance in the first years his reign. Basil’s intimate knowledge of the characters of individual soldiers and his supervision of promotions reduced the risk of plots and coups. He maintained the strictest military discipline. Basil’s martinet-like stance probably sprang from a mixture of personal proclivity and political calculation. He had, in any case, little choice but to take up the challenge which Samuel of Bulgaria was posing. On 14 June 987 or 988 Samuel had his own brother Aaron and most of his family put to death, becoming in effect sole ruler. He was determined to found a new dynasty based in the Macedonian highlands, forswearing Symeon’s Preslav. The gain of Dyrrachium – apparently without violence – relieved him of the danger of surprise attacks from the west, and Samuel married Agatha, daughter of Dyrrachium’s ‘leading man’ John Chryselios,81 who presumably swung the townbehind him. Samuel also aspired to control Thessaloniki, the counterpart of Dyrrachium; they stood at opposite ends of the EgnatianWay, where it reached the Aegean and Adriatic seas. There were already a number of significant towns in the massif traversed by the EgnatianWay, comprising bishoprics and monastic centres; these stood to benefit from the grain grown in the plains of northern Greece, an area that Samuel was set to dominate. Byzantine and Armenian captives were settled by him in areas adjoining the Egnatian Way and so, probably, were the deportees from Larissa. Samuel made an island on Lake Prespa his principal residence, building an immense cathedral, some forty-four metres long, and also a palace. He installed in the church the relics of St Achilleus, removed from Larissa in 985 or 986. He was thus acquiring for his seat not merely supernatural protection but also legitimacy, for the erstwhile patron and guardian of Larissa would not have allowed an impious usurper to abduct his remains. Samuel could hope to gain through such imperial measures acceptance and even allegiance from his motley assemblage of subjects: Bulgarians, Vlachs, Albanians, Armenians and Greeks. Samuel’s dispositions give no hint of designs upon the Byzantine throne. Nonetheless, an upstart astride the Balkans menacing the emperor’s revenues from the fertile Thessalian plain would have been unpalatable even to rulers less martially-minded than Basil, and by about 990 the lower Danube was under Samuel’s sway. Basil turned to the Bulgarian problem once he considered the eastern provinces to be quiescent, in early spring 991. Four years of campaigning brought the recapture of Berrhoia, some 60 kilometres south-west of Thessaloniki. Basil had Berrhoia and several other recaptured fortresses demolished, evidently assuming that they could not be held indefinitely against Samuel. In 995, while Basil was away on the eastern front, Samuel counter-attacked, sending patrols up to the walls of Thessaloniki itself. In one clash the doux of Thessaloniki himself was killed, and Samuel’s raids ranged further south. His incursions were interrupted in the autumn of 997 or the spring of 998, when his army was surprised during withdrawal from a raid on the Peloponnese. Many Bulgarians were butchered in their sleep and Samuel and his son Gabriel-Radomir were seriously wounded. The general responsible for the victory on the Spercheios, Nikephoros Ouranos, could now undertake bolder forays into enemy territory. Basil himself moved to the eastern borders, taking advantage of the death of David of Tao. David had lent troops to the rebels in 987–9 and had subsequently been overawed into bequeathing his principality to the empire (see above, p. 358). The cavalrymenwhomBasil nowtransplanted fromTaowere very probably of assistance to him on his subsequent campaigns. Byzantine authority was reimposed on north-east Bulgaria, and around 1002 Basil exploited his new-found control of the lowerDanube to advance upstream. He besieged Vidin, which capitulated after eight months; Basil strengthened the fortifications, clearly intending to establish an outpost to Samuel’s north-west. He was allied with a local Hungarian magnate, Ahtum-Ajtony, who is said to have ‘received power from the Greeks’ and to have been baptised.82 Basil then drove far to the south and received the surrender of Skopje. Basil’s spectacular circumscription of Bulgaria tipped the strategic balance in Byzantium’s favour, but neither side could deliver a knock-out blow. In fact, the gains made by Basil’s long march were fleeting: Skopje was back in Bulgarian hands by the time of their final surrender in 1018. Dyrrachium’s leading family did transfer its loyalties back to the emperor, John Chryselios’ two sons each receiving the title of patrikios and an imperial official being admitted to the city. But the date of Dyrrachium’s return to Basil’s authority is uncertain, and in any case Dyrrachium remained isolated and in 1018 was still open to Bulgarian attack. Furthermore, the ruler of Duklja, the Slav principality north of the city, was endowed by Samuel with ‘all the land of the people of Dyrrachium’.83 The prince, John Vladimir, had been forced to submit to Samuel; but after a spell in detention at Prespa, he had been married to the daughter of a relative of Samuel, one Theodorites. Thus Samuel seems to have felt sufficiently in control of Dyrrachium’s hinterland to entrust it to a local prince linked to his own family. Basil’s annual razzias in the period following his long march were carefully organised. His insistence on tight formations, ‘making his army into a kind of tower’,84 assured it invincibility in open countryside and enabled it to brave mountain passes. But the absence of any known victories between the opening years of the century and 1014 throws into doubt their effectiveness. Basil’s adversary did not merely rely on natural defences. He was ‘most expert in strategy’,85 and was ultimately responsible for the numerous fortifications which guarded the passes. The large earthwork at Kleidion comprised three lines of ramparts and two ditches aligned with the terrain, and it protected the local population very effectively from Basil’s incursions. Until the end of his reign Samuel was able to deploy large armies, ‘the numberless Bulgarian phalanx’.86 There is no sign that the war effort overstrained either the Bulgarians’ manpower reserves or loyalty to their new tsar. Samuel presided over various ecclesiastical building works. At Ohrid a large basilica was apparently built or refurbished, and the head of the Bulgarian church installed there. Samuel’s relocation of the patriarchal see from Prespa to a place famed for its associations with Sts Clement and Naum reflected his rising confidence that Ohrid was reasonably secure, even though it lay on the Egnatian Way. He made Ohrid his own principal residence and the location of his treasury. Reportedly, ‘much money’ and 10,000 pounds of ‘stamped gold’,87 as well as imperial crowns, were kept in the heavily fortified and extensive citadel. Samuel gained an aura of legitimacy, being called rex by a contemporary Italian chronicle,88 and his descendants enjoyed imperial status in eleventh-century Byzantium. Samuel’s treasury maywell have been filled with regular revenues fromhis southern towns, as well as spoils of war.However, the reconstituted political structure was inevitably shaken by his death on 6 October 1014. Byzantine writers maintain that he was overcome by the spectacle of 14,000 or 15,000 men marching back, most of them blinded, from Byzantine captivity.89 Undoubtedly, he had suffered a humiliating defeat: an army guarding the Kleidion pass had been surprised and routed by a Byzantine unit, and Samuel himself only just escaped. But it was his demise, not the debacle at Kleidion, that tipped the scales in Byzantium’s favour. Samuel’s son, Gabriel-Radomir, was bellicose and forceful, but lacked his political skills. Gabriel’s first cousin, John Vladislav, begrudged his succession, and on 15 September 1015 he had him assassinated. John became the new Bulgarian tsar. Basil II tried hard to exploit the rivalries of the ruling family, seizing the town of Edessa in Thessaly. He sacked several Bulgarian royal residences and the town – though not the citadel – ofOhrid.However, John Vladislav was able to renovate and strengthen the fortifications of an alternative base, Bitola, commemorating the work with an elaborate inscription (see above, fig. 20 on p. 331). Moreover, Basil’s eighty-eight-day siege of Pernik ended in failure and heavy losses, while his siege of Kastoria, in late spring or summer 1017, was also unsuccessful. He seems still to have been unsure of Edessa’s loyalty, seeing that he had to ‘set everything in order there’ on his way back to Constantinople.90 The ambivalence of the Edessans was prudent. John Vladislav was still capable of attacking even the hardest targets. After Basil’s withdrawal, he resumed personal command at Dyrrachium. In February 1018 a pitched battle was fought before the city walls. John Vladislav was, ‘like another Goliath’, ‘invincible’, engaged in single combat when two footsoldiers managed to deal fatal blows to his stomach.91 This changed everything, as Basil realised. He ‘immediately’ set forth for Adrianople,92 but no forcible entry into Bulgaria was necessary. John had not designated an heir and there were tensions between his widow and Samuel’s descendants. So the prospects of an agreed succession looked faint. Krakras, the magnate who had defended Pernik for eighty-eight days, now surrendered not only Pernik but also the thirty-five other forts forming an elaborate system round it.Other warlords and community leaders saw that the game was up and, as Basil advanced along the Egnatian Way, their envoys brought offers of surrender. Basil responded with honours, senior court titles and other blandishments, making Krakras, for example, a patrikios. Contemporary historians in Armenia and the west show awareness that Basil’s triumph owed little to pitched battles.

 

 

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