(Battle of Arcadiopolis by John Skylitzes c. 11th century, via Creative Commons)
The Byzantine Battle of Arcadiopolis
The Byzantines were not prepared for this invasion. Only a year earlier, in 969, a Byzantine emperor was assassinated. The new emperor, John Tzimiskes, was in the midst of reasserting his empire’s stability when Svyatoslav, and his large coalition army, invaded the Byzantine Empire’s western front. Even worse for the Byzantines, most of the imperial forces were in the Middle East, a long march away from the threatened capital of Constantinople.
With Svyatoslav’s coalition approaching steadily toward the capital, Emperor John Tzimiskes scrambled to muster a force capable of harrying and halting the 30,000 man-strong enemy force. The area around Constantinople and Thrace was able to scrounge together a force of around 10,000 to 12,000 soldiers. This was only 1/3 of the approaching combatants, but this small contingent of men was made of disciplined veterans. Emperor Tzimiskes gave the command of this emergency force to Bardas Skleros (the emperor’s brother-in-law) and Peter Phocas.
The Byzantine defenders and Svyatoslav’s coalition army clashed near Arcadiopolis (modern city of Luleburgaz, Turkey). The battle that occurred there would take the name of the region—the 970 Battle of Arcadiopolis. The region of the battle is west of modern-day Istanbul, and is almost exactly in the center of the Turkish land holdings west of the Bosphorus Strait. At the time of the battle, the land was covered with substantial forest and brush. It was in this landscape Bardas Skleros found Svyatoslav’s coalition encamped.
The different groups making up Svyatoslav’s expansive army seemed to camp independently of each other. The camps were far enough apart to give a semblance of isolation, but close enough to allow the rest of Svyatoslav’s army to respond to threats. For a reason unknown to historians, Bardas Skleros chose to target the Pecheneg camp for the Battle of Arcadiopolis.
If you were Bardas Skleros in 970, what you do next? The Byzantines were heavily outnumbered. Perhaps, you would find a more defendable choke point where Svyatoslav’s number advantage could be negated. Not Bardas Skleros—he did the opposite.
Skleros decided to divide his already outnumbered force into three divisions. Bardas Skleros commanded the smallest section, a maximum 3,000 men. The two other divisions, probably around 4,500 men each, hid themselves in the forests to the left and right of Skleros’ personally-led force. With his small command in tow, Bardas Skleros crept toward Svyatoslav’s encampment—which, mind you, may have numbered up to 30,000 soldiers.
Understandably, when the Pecheneg camp saw Skleros and his small troop of men, they immediately moved to engage the Byzantines—without waiting for the Rus or the Bulgarians to provide reinforcements. The Pechenegs relentlessly attacked the 3,000 Byzantine soldiers. Bardas Skleros repeatedly ordered disciplined withdrawals, only to have his men charge back at the pursuing Pecheneg soldiers. Skleros’ 3,000 kept from being overwhelmed, but the Pecheneg pressure was strong enough to keep pushing the Byzantine line ever backward. Unbeknownst to the Pecheneg mercenaries, however, the battle had shifted away from Svyatoslav’s camp and into the area in-between the nearby forests. It was too late for the Pechenegs when Bardas Skleros signaled his hidden divisions, and a total of approximately 9,000 Byzantine soldiers poured out of the surrounding forests.
The surprised Pecheneg mercenaries lost heart and fled the battlefield. The Rus and Bulgarian reinforcements from Svyatoslav’s camp arrived just in time to be swept up by the river of fleeing Pecheneg soldiers—fear is contagious, and these reinforcements, too, began to flee from the field.
With only a fraction of his enemy’s numbers, Bardas Skleros repelled Svyatoslav’s coalition, ending the immediate threat to the capital of Constantinople, and allowing time for Byzantine reinforcements to arrive from the Middle East. Some sources state Svyatoslav’s losses from the Battle of Arcadiopolis to be as large as 20,000 men, though this is clearly inflated. Miraculously, Byzantine deaths in the battle may have been as low as 550, though there would have been many more wounded. Nevertheless, the Battle of Arcadioplolis was a spectacular victory for the Byzantine Empire.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- John Haldon. The Byzantine Wars. Gloucestershire: The History Press. 2008.