Bulgarian History

The infamous battle of Kleidion, 29 July 1014

Chronicle of John Skylitzes in the BibliotÚca Našional, Madrid
(second half of the 12th century C.E.)

John Skylitzes, Synopsis Historion

Basil and Constantine, c. 35 (ed. Thurn, pp. 348-9)

The emperor [Basil II] did not relent, but every year he marched into Bulgaria and laid waste and ravaged all before him. 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 [the plain] known as Campu Lungu and [the pass known as] Kleidion ('the key'), he undertook to fortify the difficult terrain to deny the emperor access. A wall was built across the whole width [of the pass] 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.


As Skylitzes has written, until 1014 Basil II had not ceased his annual invasions into Bulgaria and the pillaging of towns and villages. Bulgarian king Samuel's turned down the open battles against the reinvigorated Roman empire and decided to obstruct Byzantine incursions into Bulgaria by means of meticulously designed ditches and trenches. Knowing that the Byzantine emperor would be approaching through the Kleidion pass, Samuel reinforced them with a wide trench and blocked them off with towers, which he secured by the presence of a strong and well-armed garrison. Having thus closed Basil's access by the construction of this wide fortification and the deployment of guards, he was prepared to await the emperor's arrival. Facing the usual Roman invasion against Bulgaria, Samuel did not relent but decided to wage war on two fronts simultaneously, aiming at dividing and thereby weakening the forces of his enemy. Therefore, he took the ultimate risk and dispatched David Nestoritsa, one of the most influential Bulgarian notables, together with a mighty host to attack the town of Solun.

When Basil reached the ravines, intending to pass through them, Samuel's troops fell upon them from the surrounding hills. Bulgarian soldiers raided the attackers from their positions above, killing and wounding great numbers of enemies. The emperor Basil II was contemplating his retreat and his next move, when the strategos of Philipopolis (Plovdiv), Nikephoros Xiphias, fighting alongside the emperor, advised him to remain in place and to continue attacking the fortification. In the meantime, as skilfully as possible, the strategos would position himself on the other side of the Bulgarians. Leading his troops, Xiphias crossed over the high mountain Belasitsa south of Kleidion. Roman troops passed through the town of Petrich, the Rupel pass, the road south of Belasitsa mountain, and the village Dolni Poroy to. On the 29 July (12 indiction), having crossed “abrupt and impassable places“, Roman troops bolted from the blue Bulgarians attacking them at the rear.

John Skylitzes, Synopsis Historion

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 group of one 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.


As Samuel's soldiers were completely surprised by this appearance, they were seized by fear and began to flee. The emperor then passed through the abandoned fortifications in pursuit of the enemy and engaged in a battle, where many soldiers lost their lives, and a greater number of prisoners fell. Samuel himself, being at the village of Makrievo (some 10 km from Kledion), immediately went out to help his retreating soldiers. The spontaneous and unprepared action of Bulgarian king would lead to the defeat. He barely escaped the danger of being imprisoned only due to the help of his son Gavril Radomir, who bravely fought off the Byzantine attackers, while mounting his father on a horse and taking him to the fortress of Prilep. This Byzantine victory represented such a decisive defeat that Samuel was never able to recover, thus indicating the end of Bulgarian state.

Not only did Basil achieve a great victory over Samuel, but he also took an enormous number of Samuel's troops (an estimated 15,000) as prisoners of war. The emperor Basil II became one of the world's most infamous war criminals when he issued a command that these prisoners have their eyes gouged out, and at the head of every 100 of these pitiful soldiers, he placed one man with only a single eye. Led in this manner, Basil sent all of Samuel's men back to him. When Bulgarian king saw them approaching in such numbers and in such a formation, he could not bear the sight neither bravely nor quietly and fell to the ground in an ill faint. His comrades soon revived him with water and smelling salts, from which he somewhat recovered. As soon as Samuel had collected himself sufficiently, he requested a swallow of cold water. However, immediately upon drinking it, he suffered a heart attack, and two days later he was dead. Such is Skylitzes description of that tragic scene, which took place on 6 October 1014.
After the infamous battle of Kleidion, Samuel’s son - Gavril Radomir took the commandment of Bulgarian army. Together with the troops of David Nestoritsa, he completely routed the Byzantine army of the strategos Botaniates, the successor of David Aryanites, Duke of Solun. The strategos himself was killed in the battle south of Belasitsa mountain. Informed about the defeat of the Byzantine army and pursued by the scene of war crimes he committed, Basil II decided immediately to stop the invasion and to went back to Mosinopol.
John Skylitzes Chronicle is a uniquely illustrated Byzantine chronicle. It is the only surviving illustrated Byzantine chronicle, held in Madrid (Bibl. Nac. vitr. 26-2). The Madrid Skylitzes contains 574 miniatures; probably 100 fewer than in its original form. The pictures, which adhere closely to the narrative text, are rendered in a variety of styles concurrently practised in twelfth-century Norman Sicily. The manuscript is a unique source for our visualization of imperial ceremonial (triumphal processions, receptions, embassies), costume, weaponry and even technology (for example the illustration of the use of "Greek Fire"). We are also offered rare illustrations of other peoples: Byzantium's enemies, allies, mercenaries such as the Varangians, as well as Bulgarians and Arabs.

The chronicle was not published in full until 1973 with its editor, the late Hans Thurn, providing also a German translation in 1983. Skylitzes’ chronicle was copied slavishly by the 12th-century chronicler Kedrenos whose work has had to be used as a substitute for Skylitzes until Thurn’s recent edition, even though Kedrenos also has only been available in a poor quality 19th. century edition with no translation or commentary.

A far better idea of the range and nature of illustrated manuscripts can be had from browsing through The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, ed. A. Kazhdan et al. Oxford 1991. Many more and far better illustrations can be found in the beautifully produced catalogue of the 1997 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC: The Glory of Byzantium, eds. H. Evans and W. Wixom, New York 1997.

Large collection of ancient maps at euratlas

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