(Battle of Kleidion and death of Samuel in work of John Skylitzes (lived 1040-1101), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
This is how Basil II became known as the ‘Bulgar-Slayer’
Emperor Basil II (976 – 1025) of Constantinople is not remembered by most historians as a particularly cruel or ruthless leader. Actually, he is generally well received. He was a very successful emperor in many respects. After putting down a civil war with the help of his Rus neighbors, Basil II expanded his imperial territory outward from the Byzantine heartland in modern Greece and Turkey to push into Italy and the Middle East. During his rule, the Empire of Constantinople (otherwise known as the Byzantine Empire) was stable and ordered.
Do not let the praises bestowed on Basil II sugarcoat his more questionable deeds—he had his fair share of brutal moments. One in particular stands out. This event occurred in the middle of Basil’s reign and would lead to Emperor Basil gaining the title of ‘Bulgar-Slayer’ (spelled Voulgaroktonos or Bulgaroktonos).
Basil likely gained this title posthumously, for he was rarely, if ever, referred to by that name during his lifetime. After his death, when the Bulgarians began to cause trouble for later emperors of Constantinople, the legend of Basil II (with the added ‘Bulgar-Slayer’ title) was encouraged to inspire the imperial troops and, possibly, to frighten the Bulgarians.
The exact date that Basil II became labeled as ‘the Bulgar-slayer’ does not really matter, at least not for this article. What does matter is why he received the title—the answer is the 1014 Battle of Kleidion, where Basil faced off against Tsar Samuel of Bulgaria.
Tsar Samuel was no pushover. He was an emperor, in his own right. Samuel, along with his brothers, had seceded from the Byzantine Empire during the rule of Basil’s predecessor, John Tzimiskes. They also successfully pulled Macedonia out of the Byzantine Empire, and were able to expand their control throughout all of modern Bulgaria. Feeling strong and confident, Tsar Samuel launched attacks against the Byzantine Empire in the mid 980s. In this early period of the war, while Basil’s attention was focused elsewhere, Samuel did quite well—he captured cities and created a strong foothold in the Byzantine Empire.
Only around the 990s, did Basil have enough free time to task his generals to strike at Samuel. Though still distracted by other regions of his sprawling empire, Basil was able to keep pressure on Tsar Samuel. In multiple situations, his generals were able to intercept Samuel and inflict heavy damage to the Bulgarian army, especially in the 996 Battle of Spercheios, and the 1004 Battle of Skopje. Samuel, originally the aggressor, had to plan his actions in a more defensive mindset.
The skirmishes and battles continued until Basil, now the victor of a civil war and leader of a more stable empire, was able to devote more time to dealing with Tsar Samuel and the Bulgarians. By 1007, Basil had pressed deep into Samuel’s territory, basically dividing the Bulgarian lands in two. For the next 7 years, Basil’s forces pursued Samuel, trying to pull the Bulgarian forces into one last decisive battle.
The moment Basil was waiting for arrived in 1014, when Tsar Samuel decided to camp in a mountainous region near the modern village of Kljuc or Klyuch—back then it was called Kleidion. The encampment was along a natural bottleneck pass. Samuel used this to his advantage and had his men cut down trees from the nearby forests to block the road.
When Basil and the Byzantines arrived, their path was firmly blocked. The Bulgarians were still waiting on the other side of the wall, ready to attack anyone who attempted to climb, or dismantle, the obstacle.
With no way to proceed further up the blocked pass, Basil had to try something new. If you cannot go straight forward, you can always go around. Basil, and the bulk of his army remained parked in front of the fallen tree fortification, playing the part of a threatening and ominous distraction. While Basil’s main camp had a staring match with the Bulgarian defenders, one of Basil’s generals, named Nikephoros Xiphias, covertly slipped away from the rest of the Byzantine army. He and his men moved into the forested mountainside and searched for an alternate route into the Bulgarian camp. As usually happens in these types of battles, the Byzantine commandos found a path that lead them right behind the enemy lines. Xiphias’ men were able to successfully catch the Bulgarians off guard, which caused enough chaos to allow Basil’s main force to tear down the blockage in the road and smash into the panicked Bulgarian force. Suffice it to say, Tsar Samuel’s force was utterly crushed. Samuel, however, was able to evade capture.
It was an impressive victory despite the formidable obstacles (literally) in Basil’s path. Still, you may wonder what makes the battle truly legendary. Surprisingly, the main legend of the Battle of Kleidion occurred after the battle was over and Tsar Samuel had fled the field. Legend claims that Basil’s forces captured around 15,000 Bulgarian prisoners. The 11th century, like many periods from ancient and medieval history, was not a good time to be captured in a war. Brutality and mutilation against prisoners of war were fairly common back in those days. So, Basil II fell right into the macabre norm of the age when he reportedly had most of the 15,000 prisoners blinded. He only allowed 1 out of every 100 to keep a single eye—meaning only 150 Bulgarian prisoners left the Byzantine camp with a semblance of vision.
The legend goes further to claim that the 150 Bulgarians with semi-intact eyeballs were able to lead the rest of the 15,000 defeated soldiers back to where Tsar Samuel was hiding. Samuel, former Tsar of a powerful Bulgarian Empire, now Tsar of a defeated and crumbling land, evidently could not process the sight. Shortly after the Battle of Kleidion, Samuel suffered a sudden death. The Byzantine legend claims that his death was due to the shock of seeing so many of his men blinded—causing a heart attack or a fatal stroke. Either way, Samuel died mere days after the battle, leaving his successors to fight against the Byzantines for 4 more years until Bulgaria was completely absorbed into Basil’s empire.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- John Haldon. The Byzantine Wars. Gloucestershire: The History Press. 2008.