This is one of several translated excerpts from Byzantine sources produced and mounted with historical introduction and commentary by Paul Stephenson.
CHRONICLE OF 811
Ed. I. Dujcev, Travaux et Mémoires
1 (1965), 205-54 at 210-16.
About the Emperor Nikephoros and how he leaves his
bones in Bulgaria
[p. 210] In the ninth year of the reign of Emperor Nikephoros, the Emperor Nikephoros himself invaded Bulgaria, wanting to obliterate it, so he expected. He took with him his son Staurakios and his son-in-law Michael, whose surname was Rangabe, as well as all the patricians and commanders (archontes) and dignitaries, all the regiments (tagmata), and also the sons of the commanders (archontes) who were aged fifteen or above, whom he formed into a retinue for his son which he gave the name “Worthies” (Hikanatoi).(1) When he had entered the defiles the Bulgars learned of the size of the army he brought with him, and since apparently they were unable to resist, they abandoned everything they had with them and fled into the mountains. Then he [Nikephoros] entered and encamped in the palace of the first man (protos) of Bulgaria, named Krum, and finding there an army of hand-picked and armed Bulgars who had been left behind to guard the place, up to 12,000, he engaged battle with them and killed them all. Next in similar fashion he faced another 50,000 in battle, and having clashed with them, destroyed them all. Consequently the wretched man’s spirit and heart were engorged with pride [p. 212] because thus far he had achieved this by his own righteous deeds ? as he said to those accompanying him “Behold”, he said “what righteous accomplishments”. Thus entering Krum’s palace, he searched for his treasuries and found great spoils which he commanded be distributed among his army as per the troop roster, that is copper [coins] and clothes and various other items. (2). When he opened the storehouses of his [Krum’s] wine he distributed it so that everyone could drink his fill. Strolling up the paths of the palace [complex] and walking on the terraces (hêliaka) of the houses, he exalted and exclaimed “Behold, God has given me all this, and I want to found here a city which bears my name so that I am renowned in all succeeding generations”. Having spent several days there, he [Nikephoros] left impious Krum’s palace, and on his departure burnt all the buildings and the surrounding wall, which were built of wood. Next, not concerned with a swift departure, he marched through the midst of Bulgaria, wanting to reach Sardika, for he thought that he had destroyed all of Bulgaria. After he had spent fifteen days entirely neglecting his affairs, and his wits and judgment had departed him, he was no longer himself, but was completely confused. Seized by the torpor of false pretension, he no longer left his tent nor gave anyone an instruction or order. Some men inveighed against him and sent his son to talk to him about leaving there, but he took no heed at all and instead insulted his son and wanted to hit him. The army, therefore, seizing the opportunity, plundered unsparingly, burning fields that were not harvested. They hamstrung cows and ripped the tendons from their loins as the animals wailed loudly and struggled convulsively. They slaughtered sheep and pigs, and committed impermissible acts. Next, those who observed Nikephoros’ disorder and incoherence, and that nobody dared speak to him, began little by little to desert and make off by ruses.
The Bulgars had constructed a fearsome and impenetrable fence out of tree trunks, in the manner of a wall. Therefore, the Bulgars seized their opportunity, observing from the mountains that those who had deserted [Nikephoros’ army] were wandering. They hired the Avars and neighbouring Slav tribes (Sklavênias),(3) arming even the women like men, and on the fifteenth day since their [the Byzantines’] invasion, as Saturday dawned on the 23rd July, they fell on those [Byzantine soldiers] [p. 214] still half asleep, who arose and, arming themselves, in haste, joined battle. But since the regiments were encamped a great distance from one another, they did not know immediately what was happening. For they [the Bulgars and their allies] fell only upon the imperial encampment, which began to be cut to pieces. When few resisted, and none strongly, but many were slaughtered, the rest who saw it gave themselves to flight
At this same place there was also a river that was very swampy and difficult to cross. When they did not immediately find a ford to cross the river, pursued by the enemy, they [the Byzantines] threw themselves into the river. Entering with their horses and not being able to get out, they sank into the swamp, and were trampled by those coming from behind. And some men fell on the others, so that the river was so full of men and horses that the enemies crossed on top of them unharmed and pursued the rest who – as was reasonable – thought they had come through safely. Here, therefore, all the patricians and other commanders fell. Those who thought they had escaped from the carnage of the river came up against the fence that the Bulgars had constructed, which was strong and exceedingly difficult to cross. Since they were not able to break through it with their horses, they abandoned their horses and, having climbed up with their own hands and feet, hurled themselves headlong on the other side. But there was a deep excavated trench on the other side, so that those who hurled themselves from the top broke their limbs. Some of them died immediately, while the others progressed a short distance, but did not have the strength to walk, but fell to the ground and died tormented by hunger and thirst. In other places, men set fire to the fence, and when the bonds [which held the logs together] burned through and the fence collapsed above the trench, those fleeing were unexpectedly thrown down and fell into the pit of the trench of fire, both themselves and their horses. This was a worse misfortune than the peril of the river.
Who on hearing these things will not weep? Who will not lament? For the children of the old and new commanders [i.e. the Hikanatoi], who were numerous and in the very flower of youth, with bodies of beautiful paleness and hair and beards of shimmering fairness, and a face with beautiful features, some of whom were recently married to women distinguished by nobility and beauty, they all died there. Some were killed by the sword, some drowned in the river, some hurled headlong from the fence, some burned by the fire in the trench, and of the few who survived, nearly all of them died after the journey home.
On that same day the Emperor Nikephoros was killed during the first assault, and nobody is able to relate the manner of his death.(4) Injured [p. 216] also was his son Staurakios, who suffered a moral wound to the spinal vertebrae from which he died after having ruled the Romans for two months.(5) Many of the surviving Romans, after the battle ended, were forced by the impious Bulgars, who had then not yet been baptized, to renounce Christ and embrace the error of the Scythian pagans. Those who were preserved by the power of Christ endured every outrage and by various torments earned the martyr’s crown.
In this way the Emperor Nikephoros, through thoughtlessness and false pretension, killed himself and the whole Roman army, having reigned eight years and seven months. He was a man of above average height, broad with a fat paunch, shaggy hair, prominent lips and a large face with a big graying beard. His body was stout, his thought extremely prudent, clever and astute, especially in affairs of state [or financial affairs]. He was also penurious and miserly to excess. Because of this he was condemned to eternal damnation. (6)
And so, brothers, let us remember our departed brothers and fathers, and supplicate our good and just God to protect us from such condemnation, and that we may through careful observance of the divine teachings of Christ attain the blessing promised to the righteous. Let him be praised and glorified forever and ever. Amen.
1. The tagma of the Hikanatoi
is described here for the first time. It appears to be a cadet
force, and so much is confirmed by a passage in the Vita
Ignatii by Niketas David Paphlagon (PG 105, 492) where it
is stated that the first commander (domestikos) of the
force was Niketas, Emperor Nikephoros' nephew, who was later to
become the Patriarch Ignatios. In the later eleventh century a
similar force, known as the Archontopouloi ("Sons of the
Commanders") was created by Alexios I Komnenos. It met a similar
2. The reference to "copper" is
open to a variety of translations, although coin would seem the
most natural, and also the easiest to distribute among an army.
But the question may be raised, why not gold coin in a treasury?
Dujcev address this issue in his commentary, and notes that the
presence of copper coin does not require that we posit the
existence of Bulgar currency in the early ninth century. The coin
could be Byzantine, taken in raids or paid in tribute. But again
the question arises, why not gold?
3. The necessity of hiring groups
of Avars, a people settled north of the Danube, and Slavs,
suggests that the first clashes had inflicted severe losses on the
Bulgars. Although it is usual to question such huge numbers as the
12,000 and 50,000 offered above, and although such numbers are
usually inflated, it is clear that Krum's forces were much
depleted. The use of the term Sklavinias is of interest
for the discussion of the "Slavicization" of the Turkic Bulgars,
and also for those fascinated by patterns of Slavic settlement. It
is also used in Theophanes in similar, earlier contexts.
4. Elsewhere we are offered a far more florid account of Nikephoros' demise, with his head being severed and turned into a drinking vessel for Krum. This legedary account presumably emerged swiftly, and draws on the account of such a Scythian practice offered by Herodotos. It crops up often later, for example in details of the death of the Kiev'an prince Sviatoslav, captured and beheaded by "Scythian" Pechenegs.
5. The following passage (two sentences) is clearly a later interpolation. Whereas the vivid description offered by the Scriptor suggests a contemporary writer, this passage would date the account to after the conversion of the Bulgars in 865. That this is not the case is further suggested by the use of the term Scythian, where elsewhere the Bulgars are always called by their contemporary name (Boulgaroi, alt. Boulgareis). There are reasons for this interpolation, which relate to the commemoration of the dead of 811 in the liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church, on 23rd and/or 26th July. The confusion of dates reflects the error in the Scriptor, above, since this Saturday in July 811 fell on the 26th, not the 23rd. The correct date is provided by Theophanes.
6. This last sentence (and the two which follow) would also appear to be a later interpolation, added to the end of a contemporary description of the Emperor Nikephoros. The Scriptor was not unique in providing such physical descriptions, but the practice was not too common. Thus, Grégoire was led to suggest that this text formed part of a continuation to John Malalas' world chronicle, where such vignettes are common.
Paul Stephenson, February 2003
Revised January 2012