Ivan Asen I of Bulgaria

Ivan Asen I, also known as Asen I or John Asen I (Bulgarian: Иван Асен I) was emperor (or tsar) of Bulgaria from 1187 or 1188 to 1196 as the co-ruler of his elder brother, Peter II. He was the son of a wealthy shepherd from the mountains of the Byzantine theme (or district) of Paristrion. All contempraneous chronicles described him and his brothers as Vlachs.

Asen and Peter (who was still known as Theodor at that time) went to see the Byzantine Emperor, Isaac II Angelos, in Thrace in 1185, demanding an estate in the Balkan Mountains. After the emperor refused them, the brothers persuaded their compatriots to rise up against the Byzantine Empire. Peter was crowned emperor before the end of the year. After Isaac II defeated them in early 1186, Asen and Peter fled over the Danube, but they returned in the autumn, accompanied by Cuman reinforcements. They captured Paristrion and started pillaging the nearby Byzantine territories.

Asen became his brother's co-ruler in 1187 or 1188. Peter made a peace with the Byzantines, but Asen continued the fight. They divided their realm, with Asen receiving Tarnovo and its region. Asen made a series of raids against Byzantine territories and expanded his rule over the lands along the Struma River in the early 1190s. A boyar, Ivanko, stabbed him in 1196.

Ivan Asen I
Иван Асен І
N pavlovic assen
Lithograph by Nikolai Pavlovich
PredecessorPeter II of Bulgaria
IssueIvan Asen II
HouseAsen dynasty

Early life

The career of Asen and his brother, Theodor, suggests that they were descended from a prominent family,[note 1] according to historian Alicia Simpson.[1] Historian Alexandru Madgearu says, their father was most probably a wealthy man who owned herds in the Balkan Mountains.[2] The date of Asen's birth is unknown.[3]

The Synodikon of Tzar Boril calls him "Ioan Asen Belgun".[3][4] One of the Lives of Ivan of Rila confirms that Ivan (or Ioan) was his baptismal name.[3] The other two names are of Turkic origin: Asen came from a Turkic word meaning "sound, safe, healthy", Belgun from a word for "wise".[5] The ethnic background of Asen and his brothers is still a source of controversy among historians.[6] Chronicles written in the late 12th and early 13th centuries unanimously described them as Vlachs.[7] Their close relationship with the Cumans and the Turkic etymology of Asan's names imply that they were of Cuman or Pecheneg stock.[8][9] The multiethnic character of their homeland, the Byzantine theme (or district) of Paristrion, makes it probable that Vlachs, Bulgarians and Cumans were among their ancestors, according to a scholarly theory.[10]

Robert of Clari, the author of a chronicle about the early history of the Latin Empire of Constantinople,[11] stated that Asen (whom Clari confused with his younger brother, Kaloyan) had been "once a sergeant of the emperor, having charge of one of the emperor's horse farms",[12] adding that Asen was obliged to send sixty to one hundred horses to the imperial army at the emperor's order.[13][14] Clari's report may only show that Asen was not a landowner, but a pastoralist, according to Simpson.[13]

In the autumn of 1185, the Byzantine Emperor Isaac II Angelos encamped at Kypsela in Thrace (now İpsala in Turkey) during his campaign against the Normans of Sicily, who had invaded the Byzantine Empire.[15][16] Theodor and Asen came to the camp to meet with the emperor.[17] The Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates accuses them of having only come to give grounds for their uprising.[1] Clari says, Asen, as the manager of an imperial horse farm, was to come to the imperial court "once a year".[12][18]

Theodor and Asen requested a grant from the emperor, but its nature is uncertain.[1][19] The words of Choniates, who recorded the events, suggest that they applied for a pronoia (revenues of an imperial estate).[1][19] On the other hand, a pronoia of little value was seldom granted personally by the monarch, implying that the brothers demanded something more, such as the governorship of a district,[17] or the administration of a semi-independent territory, according to modern scholarly theories.[20] The emperor rebuffed the brothers' request, but they dared to argue against his decision.[1][21] Asen (whom Choniates characterized as the "more insolent and savage of the two" was especially impertinent), for which he was "struck across the face and rebuked for impudence"[22] at the command of Isaac II's uncle, John Doukas.[17][21] However, they were not captured and could freely leave the emperor's camp.[17]



Byzantine Macedonia 1045CE
The Byzantine themes (or districts) of Bulgaria and Paristrion

A special tax, levied to finance the emperor's marriage to Margaret of Hungary had brought the Bulgarian and Vlach population to the edge of an uprising already before the public humiliation of Asen and his brother at the imperial camp.[17][23] In spite of the general discontent, the brothers were initially unable to stir up a rebellion, because their compatriots did not believe that they had any chance against the imperial troops.[24] Theodor and Asen took advantage of the sack of Thessaloniki by the Normans, during which icons of Demetrius of Thessaloniki, the patron saint of the town, were taken to Bulgaria.[25] They built a "house of prayer"[26] and summoned Bulgarian and Vlach shamans to the site.[21][25] The brothers instructed these "demoniacs", as Choniates mentioned them, to declare before the mob that God "had consented to their freedom" and Saint Demetrius would "come over to them" from Thessaloniki "to be their helper and assistant"[26] against the Byzantines.[27][28]

Theodor was crowned and assumed the name Peter, thus adopting the name of a 10th-century tzar (or emperor) of Bulgaria.[29][30] Both the coronation and Theodor's new name evidence, the brothers wanted to demonstrate from the beginning that they established a state which was the political successor of the First Bulgarian Empire.[31] They laid siege to Preslav, the old capital of the Bulgarian Empire, but they could not capture it.[29][32] During the first months of 1186, the brothers made plundering raids against Thrace, seizing captives and cattle.[28][32] Isaac II led a counter-offensive against the rebels in person, but they resisted the invaders at "inaccessible places"[33] in the mountains.[28] It was only the solar eclipse of 21 April 1186 which enabled the imperial troops to mount an unexpected attack and defeat the rioters.[28] Peter and Asen fled from their homeland and crossed the Lower Danube, searching military assistance from the Cumans.[28]

Isaac II thought that his victory was decisive and returned to Constantinople without securing the defense of Paristrion.[34] However, Peter and Asen made an alliance with some Cuman chieftains who assisted them to return to the Byzantine Empire in the autumn.[34][31][35] Choniates wrote controversial reports about the negotiations between the brothers and the Cumans.[31] In a formal speech, he attributed the alliance to Peter's efforts; in his chronicle, he emphasized Asen's role.[31] Shortly after their return, the brothers took control of Paristrion and started to launch plundering expedition against Thrace.[36] Asen's military tactics—the application of sudden raids and quick withdrawals—prevented the imperial troops from making successful counter-attacks.[37] Choniates underlined, the brothers were not any more content to seize "Mysia" (or Paristrion), but they decided to "unite the political power of Mysia and Bulgaria into one empire as of old",[38] referring to their attempt to restore the First Bulgarian Empire.[34]


Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1196)
Second Bulgarian Empire from 1185 to 1196, according to a Bulgarian historical atlas. The theory that Bulgaria included Oltenia and Muntenia, as it is presented in the map, is not universally accepted by historians.[39]

Seals bearing the inscription Ivan "basileus" (or emperor) of the Bulgarians were found in Constantinople and other places.[40] According to George Akropolites, "Asen ruled over the Bulgarian race as emperor for nine years" before he died in 1196,[41] suggesting that Asen became his brother's co-ruler in 1187 or 1188.[42][43] The Byzantines launched a series unsuccessful campaigns against the rebellious Bulgarians and Vlachs, but they could not prevent Peter and Asen to secure their rule in Paristrion.[44] Isaac II personally led his troops against the brothers' realm and laid siege to Lovech in the spring of 1188.[45] Although he could not occupy the fortress, the Byzantines captured Asen's wife, Helen, and his younger brother, Kaloyan.[46][47] Kaloyan was held as a hostage in Constantinople for years.[46]

The arrival of the crusader army of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, to the Balkan Peninsula in July 1189 enabled Peter and Asen to occupy new territories from the Byzantine Empires.[48][49] One of the chronicles of Barbarossa's crusade, The History of the Expedition of the Emperor Frederick, explicitly mentioned that they seized "the region where the Danube flows into the sea"[50] (present-day Dobruja) and parts of Thrace.[51] When writing of the negotiations between Barbarossa and the brothers' envoys during the march of the crusaders across the Balkans, all primary source mentioned only Peter, showing that Peter was regarded as the senior ruler of Bulgaria.[52] The crusaders left the Balkans for Asia Minor in March 1190.[53]

Shortly after the crusaders' departure, Isaac II Angelos broke into the lands under the rule of Peter and Asen.[53][54] However, he could not defeat the Vlachs and Bulgarians who avoided a pitched battle, forcing the emperor to start to retreat.[55] The imperial army was ambushed and defeated at a mountain pass.[56] The victorious Vlachs and Bulgarians, along with their Cuman allies, made new raids against Thrace, pillaging Anchialos (now Pomorie in Bulgaria) and other towns.[57] Isaac II inflicted a defeat on the Cumans near Adrianople (now Edirne in Turkey) in April 1191.[58] Thereafter his cousin, Constantine Doukas Angelos, routed the troops of Peter and Asen in a series of battles.[59]

A eulogy delivered in praise of Isaac II in 1193 referred to Asen as a "reckless and obdurate rebel", surrounded by "imperial traps", while describing Peter as a "stumbling block" and "adverse wind" to his brother.[60][61] The speech shows, Byzantine intrigues stirred up a conflict between the brothers in 1192.[62] Madgearu says, Peter was allegedly willing to make a peace with the Byzantines, but Asen wanted to continue the war.[62] Akropolites knew that Peter moved from Tarnovo to Preslav at an unspecified date, and the region of Preslav was known as "Peter's land"[41] even in the 13th century.[62] Historians Madgearu[62] and Paul Stephenson[60] agree, the sources evidence that the brothers divided their realm around 1192, with Asen retaining Tarnovo and its region.

After Constantine Doukas Angelos was blinded because of their rebellion against Isaac II, the Vlachs and the Bulgarians resumed their attacks against the Byzantine Empire.[63][64] The emperor dispatched Alexios Gidos and Basil Vatatzes to wage war against the invaders, but their united armies was almost annihilated in the Battle of Arcadiopolis.[64] Peter and Asen conquered new territories in Thrace, including Plovdiv.[65]

Isaac II decided to personally launch a new campaign to recover Thrace.[65] However, while he was mustering his troops at Kypsela, his brother, Alexios, captured and blinded him on 8 April 1195.[66] Alexios III sent envoys to Peter and Asen, proposing to make peace with them.[66] The brothers refused the new emperor's proposal.[66] Asen broke into Byzantine territory and defeated Alexios Aspietes.[66] He captured the Byzantine fortresses along the river Struma and left Vlach and Bulgarian troops to garrison them.[66][67]

A new Byzantine army, which was under the command of the emperor's son-in-law, Isaac Komnenos, launched a counter-invasion.[66][68] However, the Asen's Vlach, Bulgarian and Cuman troops surrounded the invaders and defeated them near Serres.[67] Komnenos was captured by a Cuman warrior who tried to secretly keep him to ask for a huge ransom from the emperor, but Asen was informed about the events and ordered the Cuman to hand over his captive.[68]


A boyar Ivanko stabbed Asen in 1196, but the motivation behind Ivanko's act is uncertain.[66] Choniates, who narrated the events, recorded two versions.[66] According to one account, the captive Isaac Komnenos persuaded Ivanko to kill the tsar, promising to give his daughter to marriage to him.[69] The second version claims, Ivanko had "clandestine sexual relations with the sister of Asen's wife",[70] but their affair was revealed to Asen.[67][71] Asen decided to have his sister-in-law executed for the illicit love affair which insulted his family, but his wife persuaded him to punish Ivanko instead of her sister.[71] Asen ordered Ivanko to come to his tent in late night, but Ivanko was informed about the tsar's decision and came with a sword hiden under his garments.[71][67] Ivanko killed Asen during the meeting.[71]

Choniates stated, Ivanko wanted to rule "more justly and equitably" than Asan who had "governed everything by the sword".[72][73] Stephenson concludes, Choniates' words show that Asen had introduced a "reign of terror", intimidating his subjects with the assistance of Cuman mercenaries.[73] On the other hand, Vásáry says, Ivanko was encouraged by Byzantines to kill Asen.[74] Ivanko attempted to assume control in Tarnovo with Byzantine support, but Peter forced him to flee to the Byzantine Empire.[74] Peter charged Kaloyan with the government of Asen's realm.[74]


Asen fathered at least two sons, Ivan Asen and Alexander.[75] Ivan Asen, who was born around 1193, became the emperor of Bulgaria in 1218.[75] His younger brother, Alexander, bore the title sebastokrator during Ivan Asen II's reign.[76]

See also


  1. ^ They could directly approach the monarch and mobilize their compatriots (Simpson 2016, pp. 6–7.).


  1. ^ a b c d e Simpson 2016, p. 6.
  2. ^ Madgearu 2017, p. 53.
  3. ^ a b c Madgearu 2017, p. 64.
  4. ^ Petkov 2008, p. 254.
  5. ^ Vásáry 2005, pp. 39–40.
  6. ^ Vásáry 2005, p. 33.
  7. ^ Vásáry 2005, pp. 36–37.
  8. ^ Dall'Aglio 2013, p. 308.
  9. ^ Vásáry 2005, pp. 39–41.
  10. ^ Madgearu 2017, pp. 62–63.
  11. ^ Madgearu 2017, p. 6.
  12. ^ a b The Conquest of Constantinople: Robert of Clari (ch. 64.), p. 63.
  13. ^ a b Simpson 2016, p. 18 (note 25).
  14. ^ Madgearu 2017, p. 40.
  15. ^ Fine 1994, pp. 9–10.
  16. ^ Madgearu 2017, p. 35.
  17. ^ a b c d e Fine 1994, p. 10.
  18. ^ Madgearu 2017, pp. 40–41.
  19. ^ a b Madgearu 2017, pp. 41–42.
  20. ^ Madgearu 2017, p. 42.
  21. ^ a b c Vásáry 2005, p. 16.
  22. ^ O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates (5.1.369), p. 204.
  23. ^ Curta 2006, p. 358.
  24. ^ Madgearu 2017, p. 43.
  25. ^ a b Fine 1994, p. 11.
  26. ^ a b O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates (5.1.371), p. 205.
  27. ^ Curta 2006, p. 359.
  28. ^ a b c d e Stephenson 2000, p. 290.
  29. ^ a b Vásáry 2005, p. 17.
  30. ^ Simpson 2016, p. 5.
  31. ^ a b c d Dall'Aglio 2013, p. 307.
  32. ^ a b Curta 2006, p. 360.
  33. ^ O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates (5.1.372), p. 205.
  34. ^ a b c Stephenson 2000, p. 291.
  35. ^ Vásáry 2005, p. 42.
  36. ^ Fine 1994, p. 15.
  37. ^ Curta 2006, p. 361.
  38. ^ O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates (5.1.374), p. 206.
  39. ^ Madgearu 2017, p. 133.
  40. ^ Madgearu 2017, pp. 76–77.
  41. ^ a b George Akropolites: The History (ch. 12.), p. 137.
  42. ^ Chary 2011, p. 18.
  43. ^ Madgearu 2017, p. 77.
  44. ^ Stephenson 2000, p. 293.
  45. ^ Madgearu 2017, p. 80.
  46. ^ a b Madgearu 2017, p. 81.
  47. ^ Treadgold 1997, pp. 657–658.
  48. ^ Fine 1994, pp. 23–25.
  49. ^ Madgearu 2017, p. 84.
  50. ^ The History of the Expedition of the Emperor Frederick, p. 64.
  51. ^ Madgearu 2017, pp. 88–89.
  52. ^ Fine 1994, p. 24.
  53. ^ a b Stephenson 2000, p. 298.
  54. ^ Treadgold 1997, p. 658.
  55. ^ Stephenson 2000, p. 300.
  56. ^ Stephenson 2000, pp. 300–301.
  57. ^ Stephenson 2000, p. 301.
  58. ^ Madgearu 2017, p. 104.
  59. ^ Madgearu 2017, pp. 104–105.
  60. ^ a b Stephenson 2000, p. 302.
  61. ^ Madgearu 2017, pp. 105–107.
  62. ^ a b c d Madgearu 2017, p. 107.
  63. ^ Treadgold 1997, p. 659.
  64. ^ a b Stephenson 2000, p. 303.
  65. ^ a b Madgearu 2017, p. 108.
  66. ^ a b c d e f g h Stephenson 2000, p. 304.
  67. ^ a b c d Madgearu 2017, p. 109.
  68. ^ a b Vásáry 2005, p. 46.
  69. ^ Madgearu 2017, p. 111.
  70. ^ O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates (6.1.469), p. 257.
  71. ^ a b c d Fine 1994, p. 28.
  72. ^ O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates (6.1.470), p. 258.
  73. ^ a b Stephenson 2000, p. 305.
  74. ^ a b c Vásáry 2005, p. 47.
  75. ^ a b Madgearu 2017, p. 175.
  76. ^ Madgearu 2017, pp. 175, 197.


Primary sources

  • George Akropolites: The History (Translated with and Introduction and Commentary by Ruth Macrides) (2007). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-921067-1.
  • O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniatēs (Translated by Harry J. Magoulias) (1984). Wayne State University Press. ISBN 978-0-8143-1764-8.
  • The Conquest of Constantinople: Robert of Clari (Translated with introduction and notes by Edgar Holmes McNeal) (1996). Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-8020-7823-0.
  • "The History of the Expedition of the Emperor Frederick". In The Crusade of Frederick Barbarossa: The History of the Expedition of the Emperor Frederick and Related Texts (Translated by G. A. Loud) (2013). Ashgate Publishing. pp. 33–134. ISBN 9781472413963.

Secondary sources

  • Chary, Frederick B. (2011). The History of Bulgaria. Greenwood. ISBN 978-0-313-38447-9.
  • Curta, Florin (2006). Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500–1250. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-85085-8.
  • Dall'Aglio, Francesco (2013). "The interaction between nomadic and sedentary peoples on the Lower Danube: the Cumans and the "Second Bulgarian Empire"". In Curta, Florin; Maleon, Bogdan–Petru. The Steppe Lands and the World Beyond Them: Studies in Honor of Victor Spinei on his 70th Birthday. Editura Universității "Alexandru Ian Cuza". pp. 299–313. ISBN 978-973-703-933-0.
  • Fine, John V. A. (1994). The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest. The University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-08260-4.
  • Madgearu, Alexandru (2017). The Asanids: The Political and Military History of the Second Bulgarian Empire, 1185–1280. BRILL. ISBN 978-9-004-32501-2.
  • Petkov, Kiril (2008). The Voices of Medieval Bulgaria, Seventh-Fifteenth Century: The Records of a Bygone Culture. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-16831-2.
  • Simpson, Alicia (2016). "Byzantium's Retreating Balkan Frontiers during the reign of the Angeloi (1185–1203): A Reconsideration". In Stanković, Vlada. The Balkans and the Byzantine World before and after the Captures of Constantinople, 1204 and 1453. Lexington Books. pp. 3–22. ISBN 9781498513258.
  • Stephenson, Paul (2000). Byzantium's Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900–1204. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-02756-4.
  • Treadgold, Warren (1997). A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-2630-2.
  • Vásáry, István (2005). Cumans and Tatars: Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans, 1185–1365. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-83756-1.

External links

Ivan Asen I of Bulgaria
 Died: 1196
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Peter II
Emperor of Bulgaria
with Peter II
Succeeded by

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