- James Houser
July 29, 1014 - Byzantine Emperor Basil II & the Battle of Kleidion
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
July 29, 1014. After almost three centuries of conflict, Byzantine Emperor Basil II inflicts a crippling defeat on the Bulgarian Empire of Tsar Samuel. This victory brings the Byzantine Empire to the height of its medieval renaissance, and in the long term allows it to survive the disasters to come. The Bulgarians aren’t the ones the Byzantines should be worried about…
I’ve explained a few times before, but for those who are just checking in for the first time in a while: the Byzantine Empire was that portion of the Roman Empire that survived the infamous “fall” in 476 AD. It was an Orthodox Christian, Greek-speaking state centered on Constantinople and ruled by military Emperors that faced simultaneous threats from Muslim empires to the east and barbarians to the north. “Byzantine” is a modern word. We historians use the “Byzantine” term (from Constantinople’s original name, “Byzantium”) to distinguish the later Greek Empire from the Roman Empire most people are more familiar with. The Byzantines would have called themselves, and thought of themselves, as Romans, and that was what their friends and enemies called them too. (Side note: the Crusaders tended to refer to them as the Empire of the Greeks for whatever reason.)
The Byzantine Empire had had its ups and downs. Its high point in territory and strength was in the 500s AD under the reign of Justinian, but after a series of terrible wars against Persia, and then the emergence of Islam, most of its eastern territories had been lost. Egypt, Palestine and Syria had all come under the control of the Muslim Caliphs, and the Empire had struggled to hold onto its homelands. Through trial and tribulation (of which I will have more to say later this year, it’s on the schedule), Byzantium had survived. It developed a vibrant, complex religious and political culture – and for centuries, it served as the shield of Europe from Islamic invasion. Future European kingdoms never knew how much they owed to the Byzantines.
We’re talking in centuries here. From about 640 to 1204, a period of almost 600 years, the Byzantine Empire was the most powerful and prestigious state in Europe. Its homelands were the Balkans and Greece to the west, and Asia – most of modern Turkey – to the east. Constant border wars with the Arabs and the countless steppe tribes of Russia kept the Byzantine military sharp, and the overwhelming status of Constantinople as one of the world’s greatest cities kept Byzantine culture and traditions at the forefront of Christendom.
The Imperial court was a lavish, mysterious and exotic place to most visitors, and the Emperors were both military autocrat and religious supremo. I may have a bit of an obsession with the Byzantine Empire, ok? There’s a reason I always play as them in Age of Empires. But I have an obsession with lots of things in history. (Don’t talk to me about World War I or Napoleon if you value your time.)
The Byzantine court was also the scene of so much palace intrigue, plotting, murder and scandal that the term “Byzantine” has come to mean intricate or complex. Palace infighting was ruthlessly meritocratic, so much so that anyone who managed to be Emperor for a long period of time pretty much deserved it, because it meant he was smart and had survival instincts. This was only accented by the ease with which a successful Byzantine general could become Emperor by just…knocking over anyone who was in his way. This meant that the Byzantine Empire was ruled by a series of successful military leaders, but this was not always a good foundation for political stability. It would be this constant infighting between generals and nobles that would, in the end, doom the Empire at Manzikert in 1071 and in the Fourth Crusade of 1204.
On the other end of the spectrum, there were the Macedonians. The Macedonian Dynasty is misnamed, because their emperors were of Armenian origin. The first Macedonian Emperor was Basil I, a man of peasant background who seized power after a series of intrigues in 866 and to everyone’s surprise was a very good emperor. Basil’s descendants would rule for the next 162 years as the Macedonian Dynasty, and this bloodline would produce some of Byzantium’s best emperors and generals. The Macedonian Emperors would lead the Empire to its greatest stability and military might since the days before the Muslim conquests.
Granted, there was still that whole “generals launching coups” thing. When Emperor Romanos II died in 963, his two sons Basil and Constantine were mere boys. The Byzantines didn’t go in for the whole boy-king thing. The Imperial title was not as legal or family-based as later European royal titles were; it didn’t automatically pass to the closest son or daughter upon an Emperor’s death. So instead of young Basil becoming Emperor when his father died, the throne was instead taken by the brilliant general Nikephoros Phokas, who became Nikephoros II. Nikephoros married Romanos’s widow Theophano, giving him a more credible claim on the throne. Nikephoros was later assassinated by his own subordinate, John Tzimiskes, who became Emperor in his place.
Seriously, I’m skimming over a lot to get to Basil’s rule, there is a ton of intrigue going on here, Church complications, murder, plots, I’m not going to get too deep into it.
Basil II finally became Emperor in 976, when he was all of 18 years old. His military predecessors, Nikephoros and John Tzimiskes, had been brilliant generals but had left the throne in kind of a shitty position administratively and financially. Worse, they had left young Basil II with a serious problem, since two of the great military commanders in Asia Minor – Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas – figured the teenage Emperor would be a pushover and they could take over. They looked at what Nikephoros and John had done, and figured “I can do that too.”
In the next decade, Basil surprised everyone with his decisiveness and leadership ability by defeating both nobles in their rebellions. There was some of that old scheming Macedonian bloodline left in him after all. These revolts, however, had a profound effect on Emperor Basil II. He became suspicious, untrusting, cold and calculating. It also gave him a certain level of ruthlessness that would come to full flower in the Battle of Kleidion. Basil’s thoughts could be best summarized as “The best time to kick your enemy is when he’s down. And kick hard.”
Basil II was not just a great soldier, but a brilliant administrator and diplomat as well. When the Russian Prince Vladimir posed a threat to his trade outposts in the Crimea, Basil saw an opportunity in this crisis. He proposed an alliance with the barbarian Russians, offering to marry his sister Anna to Vladimir – but this could only happen, you see, if Vladimir agreed to convert to Christianity. Vladimir said sure, this wasn’t a big decision or anything. But this was literally the introduction of Orthodox Christianity to Russia, which to the present day is Russia’s majority Christian denomination and would shape the history of Eastern Europe for centuries. So a win-win-win for Basil: he converted a powerful prince to his own religion, he secured safety for his trade ports, and his sister was annoying and now she lived in Kiev.
Basil was not idle with his enemies to the east – especially the decaying Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. Over the last century, the once-mighty Caliphs had lost control over most of the Muslim lands in the Middle East, and Basil, like his predecessors Nikephoros and John Tzimiskes, was happy to take advantage of this fact. He waged multiple wars to secure his frontier against the Abbasids in Iraq and the Fatimids in Egypt, and also conquered the border states of Georgia and Armenia to secure a fortified frontier against further Muslim invasion. Basil was just knocking heads everywhere he went.
The heads he was most worried about knocking, however, lay to the west.
In the 600s AD, when Byzantium was at one of its weakest points, it had been invaded by a new set of enemies from the Russian steppes. The Bulgars, a tribal people from the Ural Mountains, had built up a major realm along the Danube River – that is, modern-day Bulgaria. This kingdom was not just unfriendly to the Byzantines, but turned out to be a major opponent. The ruler of the Bulgarians began calling himself the “Tsar”, a Slavic version of the word “Caesar” – placing himself in direct contrast to the Byzantine Emperor. The greatest Tsar of the Bulgars, Simeon I, had been a mortal threat to the Macedonian Dynasty, inflicting enormous defeats on Byzantine armies and even marching to the gates of Constantinople.
The problem with the Bulgars was that they weren’t far away like the Arabs, Egyptians, or Russians – they were a week’s march away from Constantinople. They were a threat that could not be ignored. Basil II’s predecessor, John Tzimiskes, had taken some big chunks out of Bulgar territory in the 970s, and had even forced the Bulgarian rulers to stop calling themselves Tsars. (Yeah, the Byzantines really weren’t big fans of people stealing their titles. No one tell them that the Russians started doing that later.)
When Basil II ascended to the throne, the Bulgars were still a big problem, so the young Emperor figured he’d go take them on. He greatly underestimated his opponents. King Samuel of Bulgaria was a cunning and dangerous foe. When Basil tried to capture the Bulgarian capital of Sofia in 986, he was soon confronted by a larger Bulgarian army that threatened to surround him. Basil tried to lead his forces in a retreat back to Greece, but was surrounded by Samuel in the Balkan Mountains. In the Battle of the Gates of Trajan, August 17, 986 AD, the Byzantine army was annihilated. Basil was forced to flee for his life and leave his army dead on the field. It was this disaster that led to the uprising of Bardas Phokas that same year.
For years afterwards, the Bulgarians had the upper hand on the Byzantine Empire’s Balkan frontier. Samuel, calling himself Tsar of Bulgaria once again, retook all the previously conquered Bulgarian lands and more while Basil was distracted with rebellion and wars on his eastern frontier. The Bulgars occupied much of northern Greece, and launched raids all across the Greek and Black Sea coasts of the Empire.
Once Basil had settled accounts in the east, though, he began to launch campaign after campaign to avenge his defeat at the Gates of Trajan. From 1000 AD onward, he started a war of attrition against the Bulgars. Every year, he would lay siege to Bulgarian forts and pillage the countryside; whenever Samuel poked his head out from the mountains, Basil’s heavy cataphract cavalry and mailed infantry would whirl on them and smack them in the nose. Samuel could not stop the constant push of the Byzantine army or its dedicated, driven leader. Basil’s methodical scorched-earth tactics gradually deprived the Bulgars of their strongholds and weakened their army, and was soon punching into the Bulgarian heartland. Soon, Tsar Samuel decided that he had to make a stand.
For 1014, Samuel decided that he would catch Basil in one of the mountain passes, just as he had done in 986 at the Gates of Trajan. He fortified all the major passes along the border, especially the pass of Kleidion on the Struma River which Basil would need to pass through in order to reach the heart of Bulgaria. Soon the Kleidion Pass was packed with Bulgarian troops and fortified with earthworks and walls. Samuel’s decision to fight at Kleidion was not just a military one; much like Basil, he faced his own internal threats, especially from his nobles who were tired of being constantly ground down by the Byzantines.
Samuel amassed a truly enormous army for the Medieval era – 45,000 men – to hold the pass of Kleidion. Basil himself led a large army out from Constantinople that summer, with final vengeance on his mind. He would not just defeat the Bulgars and burn their fields this time – he was going to destroy them.
Basil’s army approached the mountain pass in July 1014, and the Emperor launched an immediate assault on the palisade to test the Bulgarian defenses. This failed with heavy losses, and Samuel figured that was that. He left to relax in his capital at Sofia. But Basil was not done. He dispatched one of his generals, Nikephoros Xiphias, to lead a large column of troops up the nearly impossible Belasitsa Mountain to the south. Xiphias’ troops climbed the steep path, revealed by local Greek goatherds, that took him around the peak of the mountain and into the rear of the Bulgarian position.
On July 29, 1014, Xiphias launched his downhill assault from the slopes of the mountain behind the Bulgarian palisade blocking the Kleidion Pass. The Bulgars had to turn around to confront this new threat – but Basil’s plan snapped into motion when his troops assaulted the palisade the second time, and this time were successful. Basil’s infantry overran and destroyed the palisade, allowing his heavy cataphract cavalry to cascade through the pass and drive the Bulgars into headlong retreat. Trapped and unable to escape between the hammer and the anvil, the Bulgars were destroyed. Over 15,000 prisoners fell into Byzantine hands.
What Basil did with the prisoners was the culmination of his ruthlessness and lack of mercy – traits he had learned the hard way in the backstabbing Byzantine court. He divided the Bulgar prisoners into groups of 100, and had 99 of each group blinded. The one man was left so he could lead the others home. This was done in retaliation for the massacre at the Gates of Trajan, as well as the death of one of Basil’s generals.
The historical sources record that when Samuel saw the masses of his blinded soldiers stumbling home to Sofia, screaming and shivering in pain, he suffered a massive heart attack from which he never recovered; whatever the reason for this, he died two months after the battle of Kleidion. With his death, the Bulgarian Empire collapsed in a matter of years under Basil’s hammering, and by 1018 the whole realm was permanently absorbed into the Byzantine Empire. After three centuries, the Bulgarian threat had been removed forever.
Basil II earned the nickname Boulgaroktonos – “Bulgar-Slayer” – for his grisly and decisive victory at Kleidion. As brutal and horrifying as it may have been, Basil’s efforts probably secured the Byzantine Empire another 400 years of life. When the Turks handed the Byzantines their own disastrous defeat at Manzikert sixty years later, the defeat of the Bulgarians and the newly annexed lands gave the future Byzantines something to fall back on in a moment of crisis. Had the Bulgarians still been around to present their usual threat to Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire might have collapsed much earlier.
To centuries of later Byzantines, it almost made that horrifying sight of 14,850 blinded soldiers staggering home in the heat and dust to shock their ruler into a life-ending heart attack worth it. Almost.