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Book Review: Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831

Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831 (Brill, 2011)

By Panos Sophoulis

Reviewed by Chris Deliso

Byzantium’s chronically turbulent relationship with the Turkic Bulgar khanate in the late eighth and early ninth centuries is the subject of this groundbreaking new synthetic political study. In Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831 specialist scholars and general Balkan-interest readers alike are treated to the first modern English-language monograph on this relatively obscure but crucial period in the evolution of both states.

This timely work replaces outdated studies (most, from the early twentieth century), and takes into account a wealth of new evidence gleaned from recent archaeological excavations. Measured analysis of this material record provides a useful supplement to the well-known Byzantine historiographical and hagiographical sources (as well as Syriac, Arabic, Armenian and Frankish texts). These key sources all receive a fresh and thorough critical re-evaluation from the author, University of Athens Lecturer in History Panos Sophoulis, who developed the book out of doctoral thesis research conducted at Oxford University.

While the structure of the book thus generally follows the thrust of Sophoulis’ thesis, two of the most important chapters are completely new; these are chapter three (about Bulgaria’s northern, western and eastern borders and neighbors from the seventh to the ninth century) and the eighth and final chapter, which discusses the reign of Khan Omurtag (815-831), a ruler who oversaw growth, prosperity and a new centralisation of power, all leading to the expansion of the Bulgar khanate.

Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831 begins with a thorough overview of the contemporary written sources dealing with Byzantium and Bulgaria during the period. The author takes care to point out the relative strengths and shortcomings of each, the factors that influenced their composition, points of divergence and so on. This mastery of the sources not only allows for the most comprehensive and detailed narrative yet of political and military affairs during the period, but also helps readers appreciate the various prejudices under which Byzantine writers laboured (for example, an iconophile chronicler attributing an emperor’s defeat at the hands of the Bulgars to his iconoclastic impiety, decidedly displeasing to God).

The monograph’s long second chapter, perhaps the one that is most interesting to the general reader, discusses Bulgaria’s strategic geography, new archaeological evidence, and the structures, institutions and cultural life of the Bulgars. The survey of the terrain informs the reader as to where the options lay for the Byzantines and Bulgars- whether for settlements, points of attack or trade and communications routes. Sophoulis also makes several important, but not immediately apparent points: for example, the relatively small size of available pasturage (in comparison to the Mongols or Central Asian Turks, with their vast steppes) limited the capabilities of this semi-nomadic equestrian society to develop a large cavalry, and thus its ability to impact its neighbors.

Regarding archaeology, the author makes full use of the new wealth of evidence gathered from recent excavation programmes in Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Greece and Turkey. This new data sheds considerable light on social and economic conditions, defensive structures, commercial centers and specific sites (such as recent work done at the Bulgar capital of Pliska, which gets a detailed discussion).

The author’s critical assessment of factors shaping scholarly use of the material record is just as insightful as is his commentary on the written one. For example, he notes the “conflicting presuppositions” of Romanian and Bulgarian archaeologists, with the former tending to look for continuity from a ‘proto-Romanian’ civilization in assessing digs from the period, and the latter’s tendency to conversely ignore or minimise evidence of a pre-existing society with sub-Roman and Christian elements. Since decisions taken (or not taken) in this light can colour our understanding of history by restricting what may actually be a more complete record, it is to the author’s credit that he is sensitive to such factors and points them out.

Sophoulis also notes types of dwellings and burial practices in coming to understandings of the Bulgar culture and differences with other neighbouring ones, such as the Slavs. Later in the chapter the author gives an extraordinary view into the pagan Bulgars’ view of the afterlife and religion. Like other Turkic steppe nomads, they seem to have understood religion in terms of ritual rather than dogma-as evidenced by correspondence between the Bulgar khan and the Pope after the eventual conversion to Christianity in 866. The khan’s questions reveal the fear of typical pagan steppe nomads- that great harm could befall “neophyte practitioners” if rituals were performed incorrectly, thus angering the new god.

Just as marvelous a concern was the Bulgars’ hesitancy about having to give up their tradition of ancestor worship as part of membership in the new religion. Even before conversion, the evidence suggests that the Bulgars did believe in an afterlife, as well as practice shamanism, like other Eurasian steppe nomads. And here again Sophoulis takes care to point out the need to keep in mind distinctions between what this practice might have meant to that people, in light of the cumulative connotations that have been given it over the last two centuries of popular interest in the topic worldwide. It is this sort of observation again that demonstrates the author’s critical vigilance in assessing his topic.

Next follows the third chapter, which takes a short detour north to the Carpathian basin and the steppes. Here is discussed the wider context of Bulgaria’s northern neighbours from the seventh to the ninth centuries. It allows the author to present Bulgar society and political developments in the context of the (non-Byzantine) factors that affected them, such as the Khazar conquest of the southern Russian steppes and Khan Asparukh’s migration to the Balkans. The chapter’s discussion of the significance of Crimea to the Bulgars and Byzantines, supplemented by evidence from new archaeological findings, also indicates how the greater Black Sea area played a vital role in the affairs of both societies.

The central chapters of Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831 are devoted to fleshing out the political and military history of the period. The narrative begins in the context of Emperor Constantine V’s successful wars against the khanate, which was near collapse at his death in 775. However, the Byzantines were less successful thereafter, and the Bulgars became a chronically vexing enemy. The sixth chapter, for example, concludes with a vivid and harrowing account of how the armies of Khan Krum, who had been rather disrespected by the Byzantines, ran roughshod around Constantinople and its environs, in vintage steppe nomad fashion. Indeed, for anyone familiar with modern Istanbul, the spectacle of Bulgar hordes pillaging Besiktas would seem altogether remarkable, but apparently that is what happened.

The author informs the fast-paced narrative with reference to the effect of these events on social and political trends. For example, he shows how Leo V’s re-establishment of iconoclasm in April 815 was strongly influenced by the pious Byzantines’ perception that the Bulgars’ pattern of military victories attested to divine displeasure with their society (this point on mediaeval understandings of causality has been made by other modern historians, such as Mark Whittow in The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600-1025, in reference to the early Muslim armies’ victories against the empire).

The concluding chapter of the book gives an account of what the author calls a “turning point” in the history of the Bulgarian state- the reign of Omurtag. It explains how he kept the warrior aristocracy in check, while attempting to mold a group identity for his ethnically diverse subjects and expanding the khanate’s territory. This would create the basis for an enduring state that preserved elements of the steppe nomad tradition, along with the trappings of Byzantine ‘high society’ and, after 866, Christian practice and an ecclesiastical structure that looked to Constantinople, and not Rome for guidance.

It is thus shown how not only war but also cultural and political interaction with Byzantium created the conditions for a (Christian) Bulgarian empire that would emerge later when the capital had been moved to the Prespa and then Ohrid lake region in Macedonia under the tsars- a period that has tended to be much more popular for researchers. Yet for that society to emerge, and for it to once again vie with the Byzantines well into the eleventh century, was something only made possible by the successes and sacrifices of the khans and their subjects. And this is the untold story that Byzantium and Bulgaria, 775-831 tells so well.

*Note: This book review was originally published in the 2012 edition of the Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies’ journal, the British Bulletin of Byzantine Studies. Readers can also buy it directly from the publisher, Brill. Those in the UK can also find it here on

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