This is one of several translated excerpts from Byzantine sources produced and mounted with historical introduction and commentary by Paul Stephenson.


 

JOHN SKYLITZES, SYNOPSIS HISTORION

The Battle of Kleidion, 29 July 1014

Reigns of Basil and Constantine, c. 35 (ed. Thurn, pp. 348-9; tr. Wortley, pp. 330-1)

 

The emperor [Basil] did not relent, but every year he marched into Bulgaria and laid waste and ravaged all before him. [The Bulgarian ruler] Samuel was not able to resist openly, nor to face the emperor in open warfare, so, weakened from all sides, he came down from his lofty lair to fortify the entrance to Bulgaria with ditches and fences. Knowing that the emperor always made his incursions through so-called “Kiava Longos” 1 and [the pass known as] “Kleidion,” he undertook to fortify the difficult terrain to deny the emperor access. A very wide fence ( phragmon ) was built and worthy defenders were committed to it to stand against the emperor. When he arrived and made an attempt to enter [Bulgaria], the guards defended the wall manfully and bombarded and wounded the attackers from above. When the emperor had thus despaired of gaining passage, Nikephoros Xiphias, the strategos of Philippopolis, met with the emperor and urged him to stay put and continue to assault the wall, while, as he explained, he turned back with his men and, heading round to the south of Kleidion through rough and trackless country, crossed the very high mountain known as Belasica. On 29 July, in the twelfth indiction [1014, Xiphias and his men] descended suddenly on the Bulgarians, from behind and screaming battle cries. Panic stricken by the sudden assault [the Bulgarians] turned to flee, while the emperor broke through the abandoned wall. Many [Bulgarians] fell and many more were captured; Samuel barely escaped from danger with the aid of his son, who fought nobly against his attackers, placed him on a horse, and made for the fortress known as Prilep. The emperor blinded the Bulgarian captives -- around 15,000 they say -- and he ordered every hundred to be led back to Samuel by a one-eyed man. And when [Samuel] saw the equal and ordered detachments returning he could not bear it manfully nor with courage, but was himself struck blind and fell in a faint to the ground. His companions revived him for a short time with water and smelling salts, and somewhat recovered he asked for a sip of cold water. Taking a gulp he had a heart attack and died two days later on 6 October . 2

 

 


Commentary

Skylitzes was writing most probably between 1079 and 1096, thus already up to eighty years after the battle. His synoptic history does not present a full record of events in Basil’s reign, but rather is characterised by elaborate set pieces, largely military encounters, conjoined by short summarising sentences. It is, therefore, typical that Skylitzes should state that Basil invaded Bulgaria each year before 1014, but provide no further information to support this short sentence. And while he provides no details of any encounters between 1005 and 1014, Skylitzes’ testimony has been taken as proof that Basil fought an arduous and protracted war intending to conquer Bulgaria. Such a large number has to be questioned, although an independent   source of the same period, Kekaumenos, provides some corroboration. We know that the Bulgarians fought on for four more years, so their forces cannot have been so depleted. Moreover, Skylitzes qualifies his own account with the aside “they say” ( phasi ), which is an indication that the huge figure was the drawn from a popular story and was subject to scrutiny even by contemporaries. The figure also approximates the size of a field army, whereas Basil’s troops fell on a garrison guarding a pass, albeit one presently overseen by the tsar himself. It is conceivable then, that as news of Basil’s victory was circulated and enterered the popular imagination, “army” replaced “garrison,” and an approximate figure, fourteen or fifteen thousand, was added for clarification. It is likely, therefore, that Skylitzes was reporting a story which had remained in circulation since the episode, and which had been modified and exaggerated in the telling.

See now P. Stephenson, The legend of Basil the Bulgar-slayer (Cambridge, 2003), c.1; C. Holmes, Basil II and the Governance of Empire (976-1025) (Oxford, 2005), cc. 2-4, 7, 8.


Notes

1 Various readings have been advanced by those seeking to identify this location. Thurn’s critical edition of Skylitzes offers « dia tou legomenou Kiaba Loggou », where Kiaba is offered in recensions A, C, V, and B. Four alternative readings are: Kiamba (E); Kisba ( U ) ; Kimba (M, N, H) ; Kimbaloggou ( D ). The last two have often been favoured and translated into Latin as “campus longus,” and English as “long field” or “ long plain.” An alternative suggestion identifies in Kia(m)ba the latinate Vlach word kamba , which allows for the translation “long rock,” or by extension “long, rocky defile.” A summary of suggestions is provided by N. Moutsopoulos, “Le tombeau du Tsar Samuil dans la Basilique de Saint Achille à Prespa,” Études Balkaniques 3 (1984), 114-26 at 117.

2 The date is supplied in an interpolation by Michael of Devol.


Paul Stephenson, November 1998; revised December 2006, January 2010.