(The battle of Versinikia from the 14th century Bulgarian copy of the Manasses Chronicle, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
How the Bulgarian Khan Krum defeated a powerful Byzantine army by doing almost nothing at all
In the early 9th century, multiple Byzantine emperors warred with Bulgaria. The Bulgarian khan of the time, named Krum, faced an invasion from Emperor Nicephorus I (also spelled Nikephoros) into Bulgarian territory. By 811, the Emperor and his son were leading their army into Bulgaria. Their campaign, however, did not go as planned—Emperor Nicephorus I died in battle on Bulgarian soil and his son was mortally wounded.
The imperial throne passed over the dying son of the emperor and was bestowed upon a reluctant Michael Rangabe (Emperor Michael I), who was related to the former emperor by marriage. Michael I had very little time to settle into his new position as emperor, for Krum and the Bulgarians knew that imperial successions could leave the Byzantine Empire in a tumultuous and unstable state, ripe for invasion.
Khan Krum moved into the Byzantine-controlled regions of Thrace and Macedonia in 812, occupying cities such as Develtus and Mesembria. With the Byzantine cities in his possession, Krum had the captured occupants shackled and sent back to Bulgaria to be forced into servitude. The khan sent an invitation to the Byzantine Emperor to begin a negotiation for peace, but the emperor, understandably, refused to consider an end to the war—after all, he was in the midst of gathering a massive army from the far reaches of his empire.
By 813, the Byzantine army had grown enough for the emperor and his generals to confidently march against the Bulgarian forces. Michael I led his troops toward the Bulgarian front and camped his men at Versinikia, near Adrianople. Krum and the Bulgarians arrived at Versinikia soon after Michael I, and camped across from the Byzantines. For around two weeks, the Byzantine and Bulgarian forces held defensive postures, with no aggression or movement to be seen on either side. Despite having a much larger force than Krum, Michael refused to attack—a decision that made Byzantine soldiers, both officers and fresh recruits, disgruntled, anxious and mutinous.
Eventually, Michael I lost control of the situation. His troops no longer wanted to wait. John Haldon, a Princeton professor of history, claims that one Byzantine general, named Aplakes, who controlled an entire wing of Michael’s army, decided to charge the Bulgarian forces against the wishes of his emperor. Michael I, furious at his disobedient general, had the rest of the army continue to hold its position. Unaided by the other Byzantine troops, Aplakes and his men were cut down in what many call a massacre while the rest of the army was ordered to do no more than watch.
This event triggered something in Leo the Armenian, commander of the other Byzantine wing. With either disgust for the emperor’s actions, or a treacherous eye for the emperor’s throne, Leo gathered his men and withdrew from the battlefield. The men in the Byzantine middle, commanded by Emperor Michael, were in a terrifying situation—one wing of the army was massacred and the other had abandoned the emperor. With their fellow countrymen either dead or fleeing, Michael’s own troops lost the will to fight and fled from the battle.
On the other side of the battle, the Bulgarians were likely just now looking up from the corpses left behind from the fruitless Byzantine charge. Krum’s men must have expected to be encircled by the remainder of the Byzantine army, or at least involved in a second engagement. When their eyes focused on the other Byzantine divisions, however, they were astonished to find the large army of Michael I fleeing from the scene. Krum and the Bulgarians were so surprised by this sight, that they expected the retreat to be a clever ploy to pull the Bulgarian forces into a trap. Krum, however, soon realized the retreat was genuine and eagerly sent his cavalry to run down the Byzantine soldiers who were still in range.
Though the Battle of Versinikia, itself, was tragic and humiliating for Emperor Michael I, there was more yet to come. Leo, who had withdrawn from the fight, did not stop at abandoning his emperor in the midst of a battle. No, he used his troops to occupy the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. He also used the example of the Battle of Versinikia to spread rumors of Emperor Michael I’s military incompetence.
By the time Michael made his way back to Constantinople, Leo had gained significant admiration and support from the Byzantine people. Michael still had a formidable force of loyal soldiers, but he refused to begin a civil war. Michael, who was reluctant to even take the throne only two years previously, decided to peacefully abdicate the throne to Leo, who became Emperor Leo V in 813.
Michael and his family were spared from the political assassinations and murders that plagued the monarchal shifts in power throughout much of history. That does not mean, however, that Michael and his family were treated well. Michael was separated from his family and forced to spend the rest of his life in a monastery located on the island of Prote, and at least one of his sons (the eldest) was ordered by Emperor Leo V to be castrated.
The Battle of Versinikia was certainly a strange battle. Emperor Michael and the Bulgarian Khan Krum both used the same tactic—waiting. For Michael, this led to a humiliating defeat and the end of his dynasty. For Krum, however, doing nearly nothing at all during the Battle of Versinikia allowed him to defeat a much larger Byzantine army and begin events leading to another imperial succession that resulted in the downfall of Michael I and the rise of Leo V.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- John Skylitzes. A Synopsis of Byzantine History (811-1057) translated by John Wortley. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
- John Haldon. The Byzantine Wars. Gloucesterchire: The History Press, 2008.