Though they clung to the name of the Roman Empire, the Byzantines never achieved the glory of their predecessors. Theirs was an empire in slow retreat and stagnation, they were not dynamic conquerors like the Romans. But even by their standards, the Battle of Pliska in 811 was a humiliating disaster.
Following the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, its eastern half lived on for another millennium. Though we now refer to them as the Byzantine Empire, the Byzantines thought of themselves as Roman and even used that name in reference to themselves, long after the fall of Rome.
Like the original Romans, their history was one of repeated border wars. As they tried to retain power over the wide region left to them, they were forced to fight against new enemies constantly, who came out of Arabia, northern Europe and the Asian steppes, to attack the empire. One of these tribes was the Bulgars.
In the early 9th century, the Bulgars were the biggest thorn in Byzantium’s side. Under the Khan Krum, the gathered Bulgar tribes launched regular raids into Byzantine territory, not to conquer but to extract wealth.
As long as the Bulgars remained unchecked, the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I faced resentment from the people whose lands he was not protecting. The risk that they would leave the empire grew with each raid. And so, in 811, he gathered an army of 70,000 men and headed out to face the Bulgars.
The Bulgars Retreat
The Byzantines might not be the greatest fighting force the region had ever seen, but this was still an intimidating army. Faced with its advance, Krum asked for peace.
A negotiated settlement would not bring what Nicephorus needed. There was no guarantee that the Bulgars would not begin raiding again as soon as his back was turned. Gathering a large army was a difficult and costly undertaking, which he could not afford to do every time they attacked. And without a victory, he stood less chance of reassuring his nervous subjects.
Nicephorus needed to push for victory while he had the forces to win it. There would be no negotiation. And so, as the Byzantines advanced, Krum withdrew his forces north, abandoning his capital of Pliska.
Into the Valley
The Byzantines seized Pliska, and with it great heaps of loot. But they could not stop there and celebrate – Nicephorus needed to break the Bulgar army.
That army was growing. In the hills north of Pliska, Krum was hiring Avar mercenaries and recruiting more warriors from his own population. But his forces would still be no match for the Byzantines in the open – they were raiders, not line fighters.
To gain the vital edge, Krum decided to make use of the terrain. As the Byzantines advanced, weighed down with spoils confident of their certain victory, he drew them into a steep-sided valley north of his capital.
The Byzantines obligingly advanced, right up until the vanguard found the far end of the valley blocked with a wooden palisade held by Bulgars. Before Nicephorus could order his army to pull back, word came from the rear guard – Bulgar troops had emerged in their rear and held the Byzantines off long enough to build another palisade. Both ends of the valley were blocked by Bulgar fortifications.
The Byzantines were trapped.
If the test of a commander is how he copes with a crisis, then Nicephorus was no commander at all. Faced with the Bulgar ruse, he failed to act. The Byzantine heavy cavalry, so effective in open battle, would be no use here. The sides of the valley were too steep to get out that way. Escaping from either end would mean accepting heavy casualties in an assault on a palisade. Rather than accept the inevitable and try and rescue the situation, Nicephorus avoided making a decision. Instead, he made camp.
For two days the Byzantines camped in the valley, ’s commanders, including his son Stauricius, begged him to act. But he had lost the will to act and his destiny slipped from his hands. The emperor waited to see what would happen next.
The Bulgars Attack
On the third night, Krum had his men bang on their shields and shout down at their trapped enemies from the valley sides. Having shaken their foes, the Bulgars swept down into the valley. Their surprise attack targeted Nicephorus’s own tents and those of his toughest troops, overwhelming them before they could organise and resist. Nicephorus was killed – the first Roman Emperor to die in battle for over 400 years.
Other Byzantines were driven toward the riverbed at the bottom of the valley, where hundreds were cut down or drowned in the marshes.
The Romans Routed
Those who remained tried to flee, many crossing the river and swamps on the bodies of their dead comrades. Running into the Bulgar palisade, some climbed over, only to die when they fell into the deep ditch on the far side. Others fell into the ditch after setting fire to the logs and rushing through the flames.
The broken remnants of Nicephorus’s mighty army eventually forced their way out of the valley. Among them was the emperor’s son Stauricius who had fought his way clear alongside his bodyguards. Though he inherited the crown it did him little good, and he died of the after-effects of his wounds six months later.
Doubling Down on Defeat
The following year, the Byzantine Emperor Michael tried to make up for the disaster at Pliska by launching another attack on the Bulgars. It was another disaster. Faced with Krum’s forces, Michael lost his nerve, just as Nicephorus had. The Emperor failed to advance, leaving one of his commanders, John Aplaces, to lead the left wind forward alone. John’s troops were encircled and slaughtered while Michael fled.
The remnants of Rome had proved themselves unworthy of that proud name. However, Basil II was later to retrieve the situation and inflicted a devastating defeat on the Bulgars and helped to prolong the life of the Byzantine Empire.
Geoffrey Regan (1991), The Guinness Book of Military Blunders.