Battle of Pliska

The Battle of Pliska or Battle of Vărbitsa Pass was a series of battles between troops, gathered from all parts of the Byzantine Empire, led by the Emperor Nicephorus I Genik, and Bulgaria, governed by Khan Krum. The Byzantines plundered and burned the Bulgar capital Pliska which gave time for the Bulgarians to block passes in the Balkan Mountains that served as exits out of Bulgaria. The final battle took place on 26 July 811, in some of the passes in the eastern part of the Balkans, most probably the Vărbitsa Pass. There, the Bulgarians used the tactics of ambush and surprise night attacks to effectively trap and immobilize the Byzantine forces, thus annihilating almost the whole army, including the Emperor. After the battle, Krum encased Nicephorus's skull in silver, and used it as a cup for wine-drinking. This is one of the best documented instances of the custom of the skull cup.

The Battle of Pliska was one of the worst defeats in Byzantine history. It deterred Byzantine rulers from sending their troops north of the Balkans for more than 150 years afterwards, which increased the influence and spread of the Bulgarians to the west and south of the Balkan Peninsula, resulting in a great territorial enlargement of the First Bulgarian Empire.

Battle of Pliska
Part of the Byzantine–Bulgarian Wars
The Great Basilica Klearchos 2

Ruins of Pliska
Date26 July 811
Pliska and Vărbitsa Pass
Result Decisive Bulgarian victory
Bulgarian Empire Byzantine Empire
Commanders and leaders
Krum Nikephoros I 
62,000[1] (uncertain) 60,000–80,000 (estimated)[2][3]
Casualties and losses
Unknown almost the whole army, including the emperor

Initial campaigns

When Nicephorus I became emperor in 802, he planned to reincorporate Bulgar-held territory back into the empire. In 807 he launched a campaign but only reached Odrin and achieved nothing because of a conspiracy in his capital.[4] That attempted attack, however, gave reason for the Bulgar Khan Krum to undertake military operations against the Byzantine Empire. The main objective was an extension to the south and south-west. In the next year a Bulgar army penetrated the Struma Valley and defeated the Byzantines. The Bulgar troops captured 1,100 litres (roughly 332 to 348 kilograms)[5] of gold and killed many enemy soldiers including all strategoi and most of the commanders.[6] In 809 the Khan personally besieged the strong fortress of Serdica and seized the city, killing the whole garrison of 6,000.[7]

Preparation for an invasion

In 811, the Byzantine Emperor organised a large campaign to conquer Bulgaria once and for all. He gathered an enormous army from the Anatolian and European themata, and the imperial bodyguard (the tagmata); they were joined by a number of irregular troops who expected a swift victory and plunder. The conquest was supposed to be easy, and most of the high-ranking officials and aristocrats accompanied him, including his son Stauracius and his brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe.[8] The whole army consisted of around 80,000 soldiers.

Sack of Pliska

The army gathered in May, and by 10 July had set up camp at the fortress of Marcelae (present-day Karnobat) near the Bulgarian frontier. Nicephorus intended to confuse them and over the next ten days launched several supposed attacks, which were immediately called back. Krum assessed the situation and estimated that he could not repulse the enemy and offered peace, which Nicephorus haughtily rejected. Theophanes wrote that the Emperor, "was deterred from his own ill thoughts and the suggestions of his advisors who were thinking like him".[9] Some of his military chiefs considered the invasion of Bulgaria to be imprudent and too risky, but Nicephorus was convinced of his ultimate success.

In June he invaded the Bulgarian lands and marched through the Balkan passes towards the capital of Pliska. On 20 July Nicephorus divided the army into three columns, each marching by a different route towards Pliska. He met little resistance[10] and after three days he reached the capital where the Byzantines met an army of 12,000 elite soldiers who guarded the stronghold. The Bulgarians were defeated and most of them perished. Another hastily assembled army of 50,000 soldiers had a similar fate.[11] On 23 July the Byzantines quickly captured the defenseless capital. The city was sacked and the countryside destroyed.[12][13] Khan Krum attempted once more to negotiate for peace. According to the historian Theophanes, Krum’s proclamation stated, "Here you are, you have won. So take what you please and go with peace." Nicephorus, overconfident from his success, ignored him. He believed that Bulgaria was thoroughly conquered.

Michael the Syrian, patriarch of the Syrian Jacobites in the twelfth century, described in his Chronicle the brutalities and atrocities of Nicephorus's troops: "Nicephorus, emperor of the Romans, walked in Bulgarians land: he was victorious and killed a great number of them. He reached their capital, took it over and devastated it. His savagery went to such a point that he ordered to bring their small children, got them tied down on earth and made thresh grain stones to smash them." The Byzantine soldiers looted and plundered; burnt down the unharvested fields, cut the tendons of the oxen, slaughtered sheep and pigs."[14] The Emperor took over Krum's treasury, locked it and did not allow his troops to reach it.[15]


While Nicephorus and his army were busy plundering the Bulgarian capital, Krum mobilized his people (including women and Avar mercenaries[16]) to set traps and ambushes in the mountain passes.[17] Initially Nicephorus intended to march through Moesia and reach Serdica before returning to Constantinople but the news of these preparations for a battle changed his decision and he chose the shortest way to his capital.[18] The overconfident Emperor neglected to scout ahead. On 25 July his army entered the Varbica Pass but his cavalry told him the road was barred with thick wooden walls and Krum's detachments watched from the heights around.[19] The Emperor became panicked by the situation and repeatedly stated to his companions "Even if we have had wings we could not have escaped from peril."[20] Before they could retreat, the Bulgars blocked the valley entrance too.

Nicephorus, unable to face attacking one of the palisades, simply set up camp, despite his generals' misgivings. By the third night Byzantine morale was shattered, while Bulgar troops banged their shields and taunted them.

On that night the Bulgarians gathered their troops and tightened the belt around the trapped enemy. At dawn they rushed down and started to kill the panicked and totally confused Byzantines. The tagmata were the first to be attacked. The Byzantines fruitlessly resisted for a short time and perished. Upon seeing their comrades' fate, the next units immediately ran away.

On their way south the Byzantine forces hit a muddy river which was difficult to cross. As they could not find a ford quickly enough, many Byzantines fell into the river. The first stalled in the mud with their horses and were trampled by those who came next. The river was filled with so many dead that the chasing Bulgarians easily passed over them and continued the pursuit. Those who passed through the river reached the wooden wall which was high and thick. The Byzantines left their horses and began climbing the wall with hands and legs and hung over the other side. The Bulgarians had dug a deep moat from the inner side and when the Byzantine soldiers were getting across the ramparts, they fell from the high wall, breaking their limbs. Some of them died instantly, others hobbled some time before falling to the ground and dying from thirst and hunger. The Byzantine troops burned the wall at several places but as they were rushing to get across it, they too fell into the moat along with the burning parts of the palisade. Almost everyone perished; some were killed by the sword, others drowned in the river or were mortally injured after falling from the wall and some of them died in the fire. Among the nobles killed were the patricians Theodosios Salibaras and Sisinnios Triphyllios; the strategos of the Anatolics Romanos and the strategos of Thrace; as well as the commanders of the Excubitors and Vigla tagmata.

Bulgarian Khan Krum the Fearsome feasts with his nobles as a servant (right) brings the skull of Nikephoros I, fashioned into a drinking cup, full of wine.

Reportedly, only a few survived the defeat. The most notable person to be killed, however, was Emperor Nicephorus, who according to historians died on a dunghill on the day of the battle.[21] Nicephorus's son, Stauracius, was carried to safety by the Imperial bodyguard after receiving a paralyzing wound to his neck.[20][22] Six months later, his wounds finally killed him. According to tradition, Krum had the Emperor's head on a spike, then lined his skull with silver and used it as a drinking cup.


  1. ^ Scriptor Incertus, pp. 148–49
  2. ^ Ivanov, Ivo (June 2007). "The Address of a Victory". Bulgarian Soldier. 6: Online Edition (in Bulgarian).
  3. ^ Military history of Bulgaria
  4. ^ Theophanes Confessor. Chronographia, p. 482–84
  5. ^
  6. ^ Theophanes Confessor. Chronographia, pp. 484–86
  7. ^ Theophanes Confessor. Chronographia, p. 485
  8. ^ Anonymus Vaticanus, p.148
  9. ^ Theophanes Confessor. Chronographia, p.486
  10. ^ Chronique de Michel le Syrien, p.17
  11. ^ Anonymus Vaticanus, pp. 148–49
  12. ^ Ioannes Zonaras. Epistome historiatus, pp. 372–73
  13. ^ Georgius Monachus. Chroniconq, p. 774
  14. ^ Anonymus Vaticanus, p. 150
  15. ^ Anastasius Bibliothecarius. Chronographia tripertita, p.329
  16. ^ Regan, Geoffrey. Military Blunders. p. 74.
  17. ^ Theophanes Confessor. Chronographia, p.430
  18. ^ Anonymus Vaticanus, p.152
  19. ^ Theophanes Confessor. Chronographia, pp. 490–91
  20. ^ a b Theophanes Confessor. Chronographia, pp. 489–92
  21. ^ Anonymus Vaticanus, p.153
  22. ^ Ioannes Zonaras. Epistome historiatus, p.373


Primary sources

  • Theophanes the Confessor, Chronographia, Ed. Carl de Boor, vol. I, 1883, vol. II, 1885, Leipzig.
  • Scriptor Incertus. Anonymous Vatican Narration (Narratio anonyma e codice Vaticano), In: Codice Vaticano graeca 2014 (XII s.) ff. 119–22; Ivan Duychev (1936) New Biographic Data on the Bulgarian Expedition of Nicephorus I in 811, Proc. Bulg. Acad. Sci. 54:147–88 (in Bulgarian); H. Grégoire (1936) Un nouveau fragment du "Scriptor incertus de Leone Armenio", Byzantion, 11:417–27; Beshevliev, V (1936) The New Source About the Defeat of Nicephorus I in Bulgaria in 811, Sofia University Annual Reviews, 33:2 (In Bulgarian).Wikisource-logo.svg Scriptor Incertus in Scriptor Incertus.
  • Mannases Chronicle, 1335–1340. Apostolic Library. The Vatican.
  • Michael the Syrian, Chronique de Michel le Syrien, Patriarche Jacobite d'Antioche (1166–1199), published by Jean Baptiste Chabot (in French). 1st Ed. Paris : Ernest Leroux, 1899–1910, OCLC 39485852; 2nd Ed. Bruxelles: Culture et Civilisation, 1963, OCLC 4321714
  • B. Flusin (trans.), J.-C. Cheynet (ed.), Jean Skylitzès: Empereurs de Constantinople, Ed. Lethielleux, 2004, ISBN 2-283-60459-1.
  • Joannes Zonaras. Epitome historiarum, ed. L. Dindorfii, 6 vol., Lipsiae (BT), 1858–75. Wikisource-logo.svg Epitomae Historiarum/Chapter 24 in Epitomae Historiarum by Ioannis Zonarae.

Secondary sources


Year 811 (DCCCXI) was a common year starting on Wednesday (link will display the full calendar) of the Julian calendar.


The Ichirgu-boila or Chargobilya (Old Bulgarian чрьгѹбылꙗ, Bulgarian: Ичиргу боила) was a high-ranking official in the First Bulgarian Empire. He was the commander of the garrison of the capital and was the third most important person in the state after the ruler and the Kavkhan. In peace-time the ichirgu-boila had diplomatic functions. According to some data the ichirgu-boila personally commanded a squad of 400 heavy cavalrymen.

Index of Bulgarian Empire-related articles

This is a list of people, places, and events related to the medieval Bulgarian Empires — the First Bulgarian Empire (681–1018), and the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185–1396).


Feel free to add more, and create missing pages. For further information on that era, see the Index of Byzantine Empire-related articles.

People are listed by first name. Events, monuments and institutions like "Battle/Siege/Council/Church/Duchy/etc. of NNN" are listed by the location/name.


Kanasubigi, possibly read as Kanas Ubigi or Kanas U Bigi was a title of the early rulers of the Bulgars.

The title khan for early Bulgar rulers is an assumed one, as only the form kanasubigi or "kanasybigi" is attested in stone inscriptions. Historians presume that it includes the title khan in its archaic form kana, and there is a presumptive evidence suggesting that the latter title was indeed used in Bulgaria, e.g. the name of one of the Bulgars rulers Pagan occurs in Patriarch Nicephorus's so-called breviarium as Καμπαγάνος (Kampaganos), likely an erroneous rendition of the phrase "Kan Pagan". Among the proposed translations for the phrase kanasubigi as a whole are lord of the army, from the reconstructed Turkic phrase *sü begi, paralleling the attested Old Turkic sü baši, and, more recently, "(ruler) from God", from the Indo-European *su- and baga-, i.e. *su-baga (an equivallent of the Greek phrase ὁ ἐκ Θεοῦ ἄρχων, ho ek Theou archon, which is common in Bulgar inscriptions). This titulature presumably persisted until the Bulgars adopted Christianity. Some Bulgar inscriptions written in Greek and later in Slavonic refer to the Bulgarian ruler respectively with the Greek title archon or the Slavic title knyaz.

Medieval Bulgarian army

The medieval Bulgarian army was the primary military body of the First and the Second Bulgarian Empires. During the first decades after the foundation of the country, the army consisted of a Bulgar cavalry and a Slavic infantry. The core of the Bulgarian army was the heavy cavalry, which consisted of 12,000–30,000 heavily armed riders. At its height in the 9th and 10th centuries, it was one of the most formidable military forces in Europe and was feared by its enemies. There are several documented cases of Byzantine commanders abandoning an invasion because of a reluctance to confront the Bulgarian army on its home territory.The army was intrinsically linked to the very existence of the Bulgarian state. Its success under Tsar Simeon I marked the creation of a wide-ranging empire, and its defeat in a prolonged war of attrition in the early 11th century meant the end of Bulgarian independence. When the Bulgarian state was reestablished in 1185, a series of capable emperors achieved a remarkable string of victories over the Byzantines and the Western Crusaders, but as the state and its army fragmented in the 13th and 14th centuries, it proved unable to halt the Ottoman advance, which resulted in the conquest of all of Bulgaria by 1422. It would not be until 1878, with the Liberation of Bulgaria, that a Bulgarian military would be restored.

Nikephoros I

Nikephoros I, or Nicephorus I (Greek: Νικηφόρος Α΄, Nikēphoros I; died July 26, 811), was Byzantine Emperor from 802 to 811, when he was killed in the Battle of Pliska. Prior to his accession, he had served as genikos logothetēs, whence he is sometimes surnamed "the Logothete" (ὁ Λογοθέτης) and "Genikos" or "Genicus" (ὁ Γενικός).

Ohrid Literary School

The Ohrid Literary School was one of the two major cultural centres of the First Bulgarian Empire, along with the Preslav Literary School (Pliska Literary School). The school was established in Ohrid (in what is now North Macedonia) in 886 by Saint Clement of Ohrid on the order of Boris I of Bulgaria simultaneously or shortly after the establishment of the Preslav Literary School. After Clement was ordained bishop of Drembica, (Velika (bishopric) in 893, the position of head of the school was assumed by Naum of Preslav. The Ohrid Literary School used the Glagolitic alphabet from its establishment until the 12th century and Cyrillic from the end of the 9th century onwards.

Preslav Literary School

The Preslav Literary School (Bulgarian: Преславска книжовна школа), also known as the Pliska Literary School, was the first literary school in the medieval Bulgarian Empire. It was established by Boris I in 885 or 886 in Bulgaria's capital, Pliska. In 893, Simeon I moved the seat of the school from Pliska to the new capital, Preslav. Preslav was captured and burnt by the Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimisces in the year 972 in the aftermath of Sviatoslav's invasion of Bulgaria.


Prokopia (Greek: Προκοπία; c. 770 – after 813) was the Empress consort of Michael I Rhangabe of the Eastern Roman Empire. She was a daughter of Nikephoros I. The name of her mother is not known. Her only known sibling is Staurakios.

Scriptor Incertus

The Scriptor Incertus de Leone Armenio ("Unknown writer on Leo the Armenian") is the Latin title given to an anonymous 9th-century Byzantine historical work, of which only two fragments survive.

The first fragment, preserved in the 13th-century Vat. gr. 2014 manuscript (interposed into descriptions of the Avaro-Persian siege of Constantinople and the Second Arab Siege of Constantinople, as well as hagiographical texts) in the Vatican Library, deals with the 811 campaign of Emperor Nikephoros I (r. 802–811) against the Bulgars, which ended in the disastrous Battle of Pliska. Discovered and published in 1936 by I. Dujčev, it is also known as the Chronicle of 811, or the Dujčev Fragment.The second, which is preserved in the early 11th-century B.N. gr. 1711 manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris along with the chronicle of the so-called "Leo Grammaticus", deals with the reigns of Michael I Rhangabe (r. 811–813) and Leo V the Armenian (r. 813–820) that followed after Nikephoros I. The date of authorship is disputed, but the vividness of the narrative suggests that it was written by a contemporary of the events described.The two fragments were identified as forming part of the same work by Henri Grégoire based on similarities in style. Although generally an unreliable indicator, this hypothesis has since been commonly accepted. Both fragments provide information not included in the contemporary histories of Theophanes the Confessor and Theophanes Continuatus, and Grégoire hypothesized, again based on style, that the Scriptor Incertus was a continuation of the work of the 6th-century historian John Malalas. The second fragment was known to, and used by, the late 10th-century Pseudo-Symeon Magister, but he does not appear to have used it for the sections of his history before Michael I.

Siege of Zadar (998)

The Siege of Zadar in 998 was part of the third Croatian–Bulgarian war and one of the last military conflicts between Croatian forces of king Svetoslav Suronja (r. 997–1000), supported by Venice and the Byzantine Empire, and the army of emperor Samuil (r. 997–1014), who launched a large-scale Bulgarian military campaign against the Kingdom of Croatia.

Samuil's army besieged the fortified city of Zadar in order to aid the king's rebel brothers Krešimir and Gojslav, who asked Samuil to come and help them to remove Svetoslav Suronja from the Croatian throne. The siege was unsuccessful and Samuil's forces withdrew in the direction of Croatian hinterland and Bosnia, finally tracing their way back home.

Sisinnios Triphyllios

Sisinnios Triphyllios (Greek: Σισίννιος Τριφύλλιος, died 26 July 811) was one of the senior dignitaries of the Roman Empire during the reign of Empress Irene of Athens (797–802) and her successor Emperor Nikephoros I (802–811).

Sisinnios first appears in Irene's unique triumphal procession on Easter Monday, 1 April 799, through the imperial capital, Constantinople. At the time, he held the post of strategos (military governor) of Thrace, the theme closest to Constantinople, and holder of the supreme dignity of patrikios. He was one of the four patrikioi (along with Bardanes Tourkos, Constantine Boilas, and Sisinnios' brother Niketas) leading the four white horses which drew the imperial carriage, a role which marked these men out as the most prominent of Irene's supporters among the high dignitaries of the state.Despite their earlier support of Irene, the Triphyllioi brothers opposed the rising influence of the eunuch Aetios (who replaced Sisinnios as strategos of Thrace with his own brother Leo sometime in 801/802) and the fiscal policies adopted by Irene over the next years. They were thus among the leaders of her overthrow by the General Logothete, Nikephoros I, on 31 October 802. As a patrikios, Sisinnios remained influential under Nikephoros, but is not recorded as having held any specific post. The death of his brother on 30 April 803 is rumoured by some Eastern Roman chroniclers to have been ordered by Nikephoros, but given Sisinnios' close relations with the emperor throughout the latter's reign, this is unlikely. Sisinnios was among the magnates who accompanied Nikephoros on his campaign against the Bulgars in spring-summer 811, and was among those slain in the disastrous Battle of Pliska on 26 July.


Staurakios or Stauracius (Greek: Σταυράκιος; After 778 – 11 January 812 AD) was Byzantine Emperor from 26 July to 2 October 811. He was born some time after 778 AD, to Nikephoros I and an unknown woman. Nikephoros seized the throne of the Byzantine Empire from Irene of Athens in 802, and elevated Staurakios to co-emperor in December 803. After Nikephoros fell in the Battle of Pliska on 26 July 811, Staurakios was declared emperor, despite his severe injuries. However, due to these injuries his reign was short, he was usurped by his brother-in-law, Michael I Rangabe, on 2 October 811, after which he was sent to live in a monastery, where he stayed until he died of gangrene on 11 January 812.

Theoktistos (magistros)

Theoktistos (Greek: Θεόκτιστος; fl. 802–821) was a senior Byzantine official who played an important role under the Nikephorian dynasty (802–813).

Theoktistos is first mentioned in 802, when he held the rank of patrikios and the post of quaestor. From this post he supported the deposition of Empress Irene of Athens (ruled 797–802) and her replacement by Nikephoros I (r. 802–811). He remained active in Nikephoros' administration, and by the time of the Emperor's death in the Battle of Pliska in 811 he had advanced to the rank of magistros. He was among those who agreed to the accession of Nikephoros' son Staurakios to the imperial throne. Staurakios, however, had himself been grievously wounded in the battle, and Theoktistos, along with the Domestic of the Schools Stephen and the Patriarch Nikephoros, pushed through his replacement by his brother-in–law, the kouropalates Michael I Rangabe (r. 811–813)—although, if the narrative of Theophanes the Confessor, an admittedly hostile source, is to be believed, the decision was also influenced by the insulting manner in which Staurakios treated the senior officials, Theoktistos included. Throughout his brief reign, Michael Rangabe was completely dependent on the senior officials who had raised him to the throne. In 813, Theoktistos was a member of the group of officials which successfully advocated a war with Bulgaria. Theoktistos accompanied the army, but the campaign ended in a heavy defeat at the Battle of Versinikia. With a few other officials, Theoktistos was able to escape the disaster.Some time after that he withdrew to a monastery under the famed Theodore Stoudites, with whom he had corresponded. His retirement was possibly related to the abdication of Michael I and the accession of Leo V the Armenian (r. 813–820). Theoktistos is still recorded as being alive and in the monastery in 821.

Theophylact (son of Michael I)

Theophylact or Theophylaktos (Greek: Θεοφύλακτος; c. 793 – 15 January 849) was the eldest son of the Byzantine emperor Michael I Rhangabe (r. 811–813) and grandson, on his mother's side, of Nikephoros I (r. 802–811). He was junior co-emperor alongside his father for the duration of the latter's reign, and was tonsured, castrated, and exiled to Plate Island after his overthrow, under the monastic name Eustratius.

Tsardom of Vidin

The Tsardom of Vidin (Bulgarian: Видинско царство, Vidinsko Tsarstvo) was a medieval Bulgarian state centred in the city of Vidin.


Varbitsa (Върбица, "little willow") may refer to:

Varbitsa (town), a town in Shumen Province, Bulgaria

Varbitsa Municipality

Varbitsa Pass in the Balkan Mountains, site of the Battle of Pliska in 811

Varbitsa, Haskovo Province, Bulgaria

Varbitsa, Pleven Province, Bulgaria

Varbitsa, Veliko Tarnovo Province, Gorna Oryahovitsa Municipality, Bulgaria

Varbitsa (river), a river in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria

Varbitsa (town)

Varbitsa (Bulgarian: Върбица [vərbit͡sə]; "little willow", from varba, "willow"; also transliterated Vǎrbica) is a town in eastern Bulgaria, part of Shumen Province. It is the administrative centre of Varbitsa Municipality, which lies in the southwestern part of Shumen Province. As of December 2009, the town has a population of 3,585 inhabitants.Varbitsa is located in the southeastern Danubian Plain, at the foot of the eastern Balkan Mountains, on both banks of the Gerila river. The area was populated in Antiquity by the Thracians and Romans, while the Slavs and Bulgars arrived in the Early Middle Ages. It is thought that the first ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire, Asparuh, settled the Severians in the region of the Varbitsa Pass in order to guard it in the 7th century. The pass was the site of the Battle of Pliska on 26 July 811, during which Krum of Bulgaria's forces routed the Byzantine army, killing and beheading Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I.

Varbitsa Pass

Varbitsa Pass is a mountain pass in the Balkan Mountains (Stara Planina) in Bulgaria. It connects Shumen and Petolachka crossroads.

The famous Battle of Pliska was fought in the pass on July 26, 811 between the armies of Bulgarian Empire led by Khan Krum and the Byzantine Empire under Nicephorus I which ended with a decisive Bulgarian victory and the death of the Byzantine Emperor.

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