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GOLDEN AGE OF MEDIEVAL BULGARIA: SIMEON THE GREAT /893-927/

Author: Ivan Bozhilov

Editor's Note: Professional bulgarian history stems from the works of M. Drinov, V. Zlatarski and varia of scholars centered in the bulgarian University and Academia at the end of 19th and beginning of 20th century. We have made different references on their work and literary activity; intermittently, this has proved to be a cumbersome task and moreover bulgarian sources on history has been exponentially growing with time. Up to the end of the 20th century, the workload of bulgarian historians has quadrupled /i.e., in terms of page volume and most consistently culminating in the "General History of Bulgaria" from the editors of BAS, in 7 vols., large octavo, 3000 pp./; however, quality of work has remained questionably poor. This is evident from the low impact factor of bulgarian authors and inadequate popularity of the Bulgaria theme, per se. So not being an escapist from the topic, we are trying to outline some perspective for the future development of bulgarian history and most notably its reference basis in international literature with common "lingua franca" in English. Thus our search for the past hundred or so years has delimited a work from Prof. S. Runciman, "History of the First Bulgarian Empire" /1930/.

 

ORIGINAL SOURCES FOR EARLY BULGARIAN HISTORY

The original sources for a history of the Bulgarian Empire do not, on the whole, present any great problems, except for their paucity, which obliges us to remember that we have only a one-sided account of almost every event, and that we must therefore use them cautiously, ready to discount prejudice and ignorance wherever our judgment raises our suspicions. The main sources are provided by the writers, chroniclers, hagiographers, and letter-writers of Constantinople and the Empire, writing for the most part (and after the seventh century entirely) in Greek.

Indeed, with the one important exception of the "Bulgarian Princes’ List", we are absolutely dependent on them until the ninth century. For the pre-Balkan history of the Bulgars we have occasional references in the rich crop of histories written during or shortly after the reign of Justinian I, such as those of Procopius, Agathias, Menander, Malalas, etc. As regards Bulgarian history these need no comment; the other problems that they raise are admirably summarized in Bury’s Appendix I to the fourth volume of his edition of Gibbon’s "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". From the middle of the seventh century onward till the ninth, we are almost entirely reduced to two Greek histories, those written by the Patriarch Nicephorus and Saint Theophanes, who both wrote in the early ninth century. For this period both seem to have used the same source or sources, now lost to us. This is the more unfortunate, in that both had the same strong anti-iconoclastic views.

Nicephorus’ history ends in the year 769; it is a poor piece of work, clearly written with the aim of pleasing the populace; and it is valuable only because of the general dearth of contemporary histories. Theophanes is a much abler writer; though the later part of his Chronography, which extends to 813, is so colored by his anti-iconoclastic opinions as to leave out events that reflected credit on his opponents. The extent of his high-minded dishonesty during these last years is equaled by that of a very valuable fragment known as "Scriptor Incertus de Leone Armenio", a work of additional importance to students of Bulgarian history in that it deals largely with Krum’s later campaigns. Theophanes’ dating also is unsatisfactory; he employs a system of mentioning the Annus Mundi, the Indiction year, and the regnal year of the Emperor and the Calif (earlier, that of the Persian King). As each year began on a different day, the results do not always coincide as well as they should.

With the ninth century our information becomes fuller, as both Latin and native Bulgarian records begin to be of value. Setting them aside for the moment, we must notice the increased activity of the Greek chroniclers towards the end of the ninth and beginning of the tenth centuries, who treated of the ninth century. The oldest is George the Monk, who based his work on Theophanes, but continued it to 842; but his ecclesiastical interests make him tend to ignore foreign politics. But the main sources for the century are two groups of chronicles, both written in the middle of the tenth century. The one consists of the history of Genesius, which extends to 886 — an important but prejudiced work, bearing the obvious marks of official patronage — and the work known as the Continuation of Theophanes, Books I.-V., also written at the behest of the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetus, who himself contributed a chapter on his grandfather, Basil I; the other consists of the synoptic chroniclers, based on the chronicle of the mysterious Logothete, who wrote a work reaching down to 948. This work is unpublished, but its Slavonic translation and the redactions of Leo Grammaticus and Theodosius of Melitene probably represent with fair accuracy its original form, and the Continuation of George the Monk is closely akin. Book VI. of the Continuation of Theophanes is, as far as the year 948, based on the Logothete, with a few current traditions added; from 948 to 961 it apparently depends on contemporary knowledge.

After 961 the chroniclers again become fewer. For the reigns of Nicephorus Phocas, John Tzimisces, and the early years of Basil II we have the valuable testimony of a contemporary, Leo Diaconus. Otherwise, for Samuel’s reign and Basil II’s Bulgarian war, we are dependent solely on the chronicle written by John Scylitzes in the middle of the eleventh century, dealing with the period 811 to 1079. He derived his material from all the previous chronicles that covered the period, but claimed to have seen through their prejudices — that is to say, he introduced fresh prejudices. He also made use of one or more sources now lost to us. His work (as far as 1057) was copied out word for word (about the year 1100) by Cedrenus in an otherwise unimportant compilation, and is most easily accessible in that form. But there is also a MS. of Scylitzes copied by the Bulgarian bishop, Michael of Devol, who inserted various addenda, such as names and dates, all of great importance to Bulgarian historians, of which we would otherwise be ignorant. The remaining Greek chroniclers that cover the period of the Bulgarian Empire, epitomes such as Zonaras, Manasses, Glycas, &c, are of no great importance to us here.

Besides the chronicles, there are throughout the period various Greek hagiographical biographies. By far the most important are the works of Theophylact, Greek Archbishop of Ochrida in the late eleventh century. Theophylact wrote a work on the early Bulgarian martyrs, and edited the life of Saint Clement, the famous apostle of Cyril and Methodius. For both of these he must have drawn on local Bulgarian traditions, and possibly written sources; and they, therefore, must rank as the first native examples of Bulgarian historical literature. There are other purely Imperial works, which by casual references throw very valuable sidelights on Bulgarian history — lives of Patriarchs such as the Vita Nicephori by Ignatius, the Vita Ignatii by Nicetas, or the very important anonymous Vita Euthymii, or of local saints such as the Vita S. Lucae Junioris, the Vita S. Niconis Metanoeite, the Vita S. Mariae Novae, &c. The incidental nature of their evidence makes it all the more reliable, though all the local biographers are sparing in their use of dates.

Even more important, though few in number, are the collections of letters written by various Greek ecclesiastics and statesmen — the letters of the Patriarchs Photius and Nicholas Mysticus (the latter of immense importance for Symeon’s career) and Theophylact, of the Emperor Romanus Lecapenus, and, most interesting of all, the correspondence of the Imperial ambassador Leo the Magister, which includes some of Symeon of Bulgaria’s replies. With regard to these letters, it must all the while be remembered that their authors were engaged in politics and held strong views and desired definite results; their evidence is therefore highly partial. This is particularly true of the great Patriarchs. With these hagiographical writings must be included the List of Bulgarian Archbishops (quoted in Ducange) and the ordinances of Basil II about the Bulgarian Church after his conquest of the country. Finally, there are various Greek treatises, of which the best known and most important are the works of the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetus, especially that strange compendium of history, ethnography, and diplomatic advice known as the "De Administrando Imperio". Unfortunately and curiously, Constantine never deals directly with Bulgaria, a subject on which he must have had copious information. Almost as important, in that they deal with the obscure period of Samuel’s reign, are the two treatises joined together under the name of the "Strategicon" of Cecaumenus, one by Cecaumenus and the other by a relative of his, probably surnamed Niculitzes. Of the authors we know little, except that their relatives played considerable parts in Basil II’s Bulgarian wars. The treatises contain a number of general precepts, with frequent citations of historical examples and precedents. There are also references to the Bulgarians in the curious "Lexicon" compiled in the tenth century by Suidas.

The few Oriental sources must be taken in connection with the Greek. The Arab geographers took little interest in Balkan Bulgaria; and the Arab and Armenian chroniclers only repeat, very occasionally, items that trickled through to them from the Empire: though the Armenians took a flickering and unreliable interest in the adventures of Armenian soldiers in Basil II’s Bulgarian wars. Only two of the Oriental chroniclers were really interested in Balkan affairs. Eutychius, the Patriarch of Alexandria, as a Christian, kept watch on events at the Imperial Court. His chronicle ends at the year 937, and he died in 940. His continuator, Yachya of Antioch, who died in 1040, is more important. When he wrote, Antioch was a Christian city under the Empire; he therefore was in touch with all the contemporary history of the Empire. He makes frequent and important references to Basil II’s Bulgarian wars; but their importance has been exaggerated. Our anxiety for additional evidence for this dark period should not blind us to the fact that Yachya is undeniably muddle-headed about Bulgarian affairs, e.g. on the relations between the Comitopuli and the sons of Peter, of which he obviously had no clear idea himself; his information probably came from hearsay and underwent alterations before it reached Antioch. Yachya’s great value lies in his accuracy on Basil’s eastern campaigns, his clear dating of which enables us to amend the dating of the Bulgarian campaigns.

Latin sources are non-existent till the ninth century, except for those early Imperial historians — e.g. Ennodius or the Goth Jordanes — who occasionally mention the pre-Balkan Bulgars. In the ninth century the westward expansion of Bulgaria resulted in connections with the Western Empire. The Carolingian chroniclers begin to make simple, but well-dated, references to Bulgarian wars and embassies. After the coming of the Hungarians at the end of the century these references practically cease. However, the conversion of Bulgaria and Boris’s ecclesiastical policy brought the country into close relations with Rome, and for a while Papal correspondence lights up Bulgarian history. Most important among these is the long letter written by Nicholas I to answer Boris’s questions as to the desirability of various Bulgarian habits and customs. At the same time, Bulgarian affairs are recorded in the official lives of the Popes.

After Boris reverted to the Eastern Church these Papal sources soon cease, but occasional mention is still made of the Bulgarians in Italian chroniclers, e.g. Lupus
Protospatharius, who wrote at the Imperial city of Ban, and in Venetian and Dalmatian writers, especially when, in Samuel’s reign, Bulgarian influences extended up the Adriatic, and later, retrospectively, by the first Hungarian historians. Besides these chroniclers and ecclesiastical writers, there is one Latin author who, from his personal experience of politics in the East, deserves special mention, Liudprand, Bishop of Cremona, whose relatives and who himself went often on embassies to
Constantinople. Liudprand was a gossipy and unreliable historian with a taste for sensational rumors; but he was a contemporary, he liked vivid details, and, until his second embassy, he was interested and unprejudiced. He therefore ranks among the most important authorities.

The Slavonic sources are few, but most of them are of great importance. I deal with the Princes’ List below; apart from it we have no Slavonic evidence on Bulgarian history till the Conversion. The literature of the Conversion of Moravia, the lives of Cyril and of Methodius, touch on Bulgarian affairs, and are the beginnings of a stream of Slavonic hagiographical writings, all of considerable importance. For the First Empire I would cite particularly the "Life of Saint Nahum", and, to a less degree, "The Miracles of Saint George".

The birth of Bulgarian literature naturally introduces a valuable new element, though most of the works were merely translations from the Greek. But prefaces and epilogues supply, not only an occasional date, but also a picture of the civilization at the time; there are also original works of great significance, such as Khrabr’s and Kozma’s. In addition to these sources there is the important Russian chronicle known, certainly wrongly, as "The Chronicle of Nestor". It is derived partly from a Bulgarian translation of George the Monk and his continuator, partly from various Greek and Slavonic religious writings, partly from oral information and native Russian records. Where it touches on Bulgarian history its value is obvious; but it also requires notice with regard to its dating, which I discuss in connection with the Princes’ List. The native writings of the Bogomils, though for the most part they belong to a later date, are important for the light that they throw on the political situation of the sect.

Besides the literary sources, there are various archaeological sources. By these I mean the excavations that have been undertaken at various important old Bulgarian sites. Those at Preslav-on-the-Danube have produced little results, but at Pliska the work has thrown great light on the civilization of the ninth-century Khans. The work at Great Preslav has not yet produced results of the value that had been hoped. I also include in these sources the inscriptions written in crude Greek by which the ninth-century Khans recorded on columns or stones various events of importance. The significance of these sources is obvious. It is always possible that new excavations and the discovery of more inscriptions may necessitate considerable emendations in our present knowledge of early Bulgarian history.

 

MODERN AUTHORS ON BULGARIAN HISTORY

In the Balkan Peninsula memories linger long. The centuries of Turkish rule have passed like a single night, and the previous ages have kept all the living passions of a yesterday. In a land where races have perpetually overlapped and where frontiers have been seldom natural and never permanently just, a spirit of rivalry and bitterness has inevitably permeated international politics and their records far back into the past. Inevitably, Balkan historians have succumbed to this spirit. All too sensible of the support that a kindly history can bring to their countries, they cannot restrain themselves from ensuring the kindliness, from painting history in a light that is favorable to them. It is natural enough, but a mistaken policy. Not only does it often inherently defeat its ends — as when the Slav writers in unison pour contempt on the East Roman Empire, because it was chiefly Greek, quite forgetting that to belittle your enemies is the least effective way of magnifying yourself — but also it has long since ceased to achieve its object abroad. In Western Europe, where national rivalries are less unendingly acute, and so learning has freed itself from patriotism, the words of Balkan historians no longer carry conviction.

The Medieval Bulgarian Empire presents one great initial difficulty for historians. We know its history almost exclusively from external sources. Except for a valuable but meager dated list of the early monarchs, a few hagiographical writings, and a few inscriptions, mostly of recent discovery, we only possess the evidence provided for us by chroniclers of the East Roman Empire, with occasional sidelights from Western Europe. I deal more fully with the original sources elsewhere; but, all the while, it is necessary to remember that there are inevitable gaps in our information, particularly with regard to the internal history and the history of the frontiers on the side away from the civilized world. Such lacunae are excellent playgrounds for the Chauvinists, where their imaginations can play the most riotous games; but for the serious historian they are highly discouraging, forcing him to advance with a timorousness or a confession of ignorance that is most distasteful to his pride. It is possible that more evidence may arise — that more inscriptions may be found to throw light in many places; but that only deters the historian the more; he can never hope to say the last word on early Bulgarian history.

Consequently, few historians have attempted to deal with the Bulgarian Empire as a whole. In Western Europe it has only been treated in one or two chapters in histories that deal with the whole history of the Balkans or Bulgaria; and the most important of these, Jirecek’s "Geschichte der Bulgaren", excellent in its day, is now out of date. The others are of little value. In England, however, there is also a chapter, readable but necessarily superficial, in the "Cambridge Mediaeval History, vol. IV". It is only in books dealing with various periods of the history of Constantinople that early Bulgaria has received concentrated attention from Western writers, and then only in patches. But some of these works are of great importance, as, for example, Bury’s "History of the Eastern Roman Empire, 802-67" (his "Later Roman Empire, 395-800", was written too long ago to be of much use to-day), Rambaud’s "Empire Grec au Xme Siècle", and Schlumberger’s great monographs on the Emperors of the later Macedonian period. The careers of Cyril and Methodius have given rise to a large crop of literature, dealing largely with Bulgaria, and remarkable chiefly for its various religious prejudices. The most temperate of these books is Dvornik’s admirable "Les Slaves, Byzance et Rome". In addition, writers such as Bury, Jirecek, Marquart, and others have written articles and monographs on various questions affecting Bulgarian history; I cite them in my bibliography, and, where they are relevant, in my footnotes. I myself, in my "Emperor Romanus Lecapenus", have given a detailed account of Symeon’s later wars.

But it is only when we come to Slavonic writers that we find a fitting interest taken in early Bulgarian history. For some time now Russian historians — such as Palauzov, Drinov, Golubinski, Uspenski, and Vasilievski — have written on various aspects and periods of early Bulgarian history and have undertaken excavations and unearthed inscriptions of very great value. Of recent years the Bulgarians themselves have turned to its study. Particularly I must cite Y. Ivanov, to whose book on Bogomil literature I am deeply indebted, and, most important of all the historians of early Bulgaria, Professor V. Zlatarski. The latter, besides having written many very useful short articles and monographs, is the only historian to have attempted a full-length history of the period; his great history of his own country has been brought so far, in two thick volumes, down to the close of the First Empire. It is a work packed with learning and ingenuity, and is absolutely essential for any student of early Bulgarian history. I have ventured to disagree with Professor Zlatarski on various points of judgment and interpretation; but his writings, together with the personal help that he has given me, put me under an obligation to him that it is difficult adequately to acknowledge.

Where guidance has been given as to the names of the early Khans in the Old Bulgar List, I have followed such guidance, save only that I have preserved the Greek form Asperuch rather than Isperikh. When the List ends, difficulties arise. Occasional inscriptions help; but my rule, on the whole, has been to use the original Bulgar or Slavonic name where it is obvious, but in doubtful cases to transliterate the Greek. I adopt the same rule with regard to Slavonic place-names. With Imperial place-names I have, except for obvious exceptions such as Adrianople, transliterated the Greek form then current. In one case I have been deliberately inconsistent; in the earlier parts of the history I call the city now known as Sofia by its Imperial name, Sardica; but after the ninth century I call it Sofia. Actually in the tenth and eleventh centuries it was known in Greek as Triaditza, or in Slavonic as Sredets; but as the name did not survive I considered it merely confusing to employ it.

I have drawn a distinction between the words Bulgar and Bulgarian. The former I use to mean the race of Hunnish invaders that formed the nucleus of Bulgaria, the latter the nation composed by the amalgamation of the Bulgars and the Slavs. The terms the Empire, the Emperor, and Imperial all refer to the East Roman Empire,
misleadingly known as Byzantine. To the contemporary world this Empire was simply the Empire, and the Emperor was the Basileus that reigned at Constantinople; and to the East, at any rate, the situation was not altered by the appearance of rival Emperors in Germany.

I have appended at the close of the volume a full bibliography. I wish to thank very warmly my Bulgarian friends who have been of great assistance to me, not only on my visits to Bulgaria, but also in supplying me with maps. My one regret is that I have been unable to visit in person the splendid examples of old Bulgarian architecture at Prespa and Ochrida, now under Jugoslavian dominion. I wish also to thank Miss R. F. Forbes for her help over the proofs.

***

 


Picture 1 & 2: We have tried to give some appreciation on Steven Runciman /1903-2000/. He appears to be one of the greatest Medievalist writers of the 20th century and continuator of such names as J. B. Bury. His book on Bulgaria is one of his early works, but undeniably bears the mark of great scholarship.

(i). Prof. Steven Runciman /1903-2000/

 

(ii). "History of the First Bulgarian Empire. London: G. Bell & Sons Ltd., 1930".

 

Addendum: We should try to expand our sources on the origins and history of the Bulgarians. Emphasis should be accentuated on the issue of Medieval Bulgarian State at the Balkan Peninsula. Argumentations for the existence of a Feudal Society with Bulgarian genesis would be debated. Finally, points should be made on the rejection of ephemeral Medievistics on the side of the Bulgarians.

Our approach should depend on the principal tools of Historical Geography — viz., 1) descriptive texts with proven validity; and 2) geographical maps with commentaries. Thus a demarcation zone becomes apparent for the existence of Bulgarian Ethnos on the Balkans from IX and X centuries. However, does this ethnos fulfill the criteria for civilization realm as defined by Arnold Toynbee. The answers are unequivocal in terms of philosophy, architecture and to a lesser extent religion, painting, etc.

What made the others to recognize Bulgarians as an existing entity and record them in their annals? Otherwise, the Bulgarians themselves didn't have much indigenous culture and relied entirely on the heritage of the lands conquered by them; at least, not before the XIV century when the Ottomans flooded the whole region and extinct the 1000 years old greek civilization of Byzantium. Thus the extent, smaller as it is, that differentiated Bulgarians from the main empire builders in the East was confiscated for the benefit of prophet Mohamed and Islamization.

Let us concentrate on the sources and comment separately on the evidence the way it exist today:

Firstly, Bulgarians as a drifting military aristocracy were good masons themselves. The main exponent of masonry in the Middle Ages was building military fortifications and the Bulgarians did that well. To a lesser extent comes the construction of secondary edifice — viz., monasteries, churches and dwelling premises for the gentiles. The latter instances are termed to be auxiliary because as far as their existence is concerned and they are fully dependant on the edict of the landlord. Thus, the Bulgarians left some good specimens of architectural craftsmanship which is exemplified by the old capitals of their realm. At least four medieval cities bear insignia for Bulgarian masonry on extensive scale, Pliska/Preslav, Ohrid/Prespa, Tarnovo, Vidin, etc. Other smaller fortifications are build but they are insignificant in comparison to the capital ones.

Secondly, literary sources from Byzantium are the main register for descriptive narrative of the Bulgarians. If it weren't for the Byzantine, the Bulgarians wouldn't have their chronology and time element. The old Bulgarian calendar was pagan and relied on Chinese cyclical years. The same is with the Arab sources that re-calculated time from the day of Hegira (610 A.D.) So bluntly stated, Theophanes the Confessor (9th c.); Constantine Porphyrogennetus (10th c.); John Scylitzes (11th c.) are the principal sources for identification of Bulgaria as a state in the early Middle Age. A myriad of other authors mentioned the Bulgars as migratory people, but those are insignificant in comparison with the above three.

Thirdly, what the Arabs contributed to the medieval civilization was geographical maps. It is truly amazing their skill to reproduce the minutest landscape detail on a scaled level surface. The maps of the Arab geographers, although devoid of time component, describe people and places like no other measurement tool in the Dark Ages and before the beginning of the Renaissance. For the Balkan lands the Arabs left some indispensable sources of descriptive maps. This is at primary instance the omnibus "kitab" from al-Idrisi (12th c.), which recapitulated all knowledge on the region gathered by Arab travelers in the preceding centuries. The heritage of the Arabs was rediscovered for the Medievistics by learned European scholars in the XIX century. This is valid for the whole Eastern portion of the habitable world and Byzantium plus its themes included, too. The Bulgarians were known by the Arabs as the "Burdjans" — viz., an ethnonym that is translated as "wolf trap"; thus, people with Turkish extraction but different from the Asiatic Turks were referred by the Arabs to be wearing wolf tails on their heads.

Fourthly, the last but not least evidence for the Bulgarians come from the Catholic West. Schism within the Christian Church dissociated the two parts of the fallen Roman Empire. The raids of the Barbarians that flooded Europe from 3rd century on was fatal for the co-existence of major Empire structure as a whole. This created the Catholic Holy Roman Empire (West) and the Orthodox Byzantine Empire (East). By year 1000 A.D., the Eastern Empire was onslaught from the Seljuk Turks and after the battle of Manzikert (1080 A.D.) emperor Alexius Comnenus asked the Western Christendom for help. Thus the Crusades started and until the end of XIV century there was Latin presence on the Balkan Peninsula. The Bulgarians co-existed with Latins and Greeks during those late Medieval Ages. Their exploits were registered by some important extant narratives — viz., the "Alexiad" from Anna Comnenus (communicating the bulgarian king Mocrus, nee. Samuil); the "Chronicles of Geoffrey de Villehardouin" from 1204 A.D. (communicating the bulgarian king Johaniza, nee. Kaloyan). On the whole the catholic authors were parsimonious about the Bulgarians and seldom described their realm as something more than a theme of Byzantium. Something more, Bulgaria is non-existent on Catholic maps until the XIV century and even after that it wears intermittently the name Thracia, Moesia, and allied.

Concluding points: Though scholarship from Prof. Steven Runciman is enormous, we couldn't find anything originally written by him online. Instead we mustered up bona fide available fragments from John Bagnell Bury (1861 - 1927) — predecessor and founder of Modern Medievistics. His treatment on Bulgarian History is very loose and he mention Bulgarians only in several chapters from his enormous heritage. We should abstain from further commentaries and present those chapters from "History of the Later Roman Empire from Arcadius to Irene (395 A.D. to 800 A.D.), vols. I and II. London, 1889" and "History of the Eastern Roman Empire from the fall of Irene to the accession of Basil I. (802 - 867 A.D.). London, 1912",

https://archive.org/details/HistoryOfLaterRomanEmpireFromArcadiusToIrene395A.d.To800A.d.

https://archive.org/details/HistoryOfEasternRomanEmpireFromFallOfIreneToAccessionOfBasilI

 

 

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