Battle of Vӑrbitsa Pass: Bulgarians Annihilate Byzantine Invasion, Greek Emperor Loses His Head

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Battle of Vӑrbitsa Pass: Bulgarians Annihilate Byzantine Invasion, Greek Emperor Loses His Head

Bulgar Khan Krum defeats Byzantine Emperor Nikephorus I at the battle of Vӑrbitsa Pass
Illustration from the Constantine Manasses Chronicle, 14th century
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: July 26, AD 811

For this week's "Stroll Through Military History," we will highlight a military confrontation between the East Roman (Byzantine) and the Bulgarian empires. Though some Byzantine foes are much better known – the Vandals, Ostrogoths, Arabs, Sassanid Persians, Huns, and others – the Bulgars were the foe geographically closest to the East Roman capital of Constantinople. Between the late 7th century AD and the early 11th century AD, the Byzantine-Bulgarian wars were hotly contested, and the Bulgarians often came out on top.


The Danube Bulgars were originally part of a Bulgar khanate located in the Eurasian steppes, north and northeast of the Black Sea. They were enemies of the early Russian principalities, and oftentimes made alliances with the early East Romans. The Bulgar khanate broke up, and various tribal groups migrated to other areas. 

The First Bulgarian Empire was founded about AD 680, centered on the northwestern and western shores of the Black Sea and the delta of the Danube River. After the Bulgars defeated the Byzantines at the battle of Ongal, the Romans signed a humiliating peace treaty with the Bulgars. Among the provisions of the accord was one that required the Byzantines to pay tribute to the Bulgars. This would set the tone for Bulgar-Byzantine relations for many years to come.

First Bulgarian Empire c. AD 803
First Bulgarian Empire c. AD 803

Over the course of the 7th and 8th centuries, the Bulgars consolidated their position as the lords of the upper Balkan Peninsula. They subjugated the native Slavic tribes of the area, requiring the Slavs to pay tribute in kind and service in time of war. They also incorporated Avar, Hunnic, Pecheneg, and other local tribal groups into their federation. Keeping a close eye on their activities was the Byzantine Empire, which was looking for some way to eliminate the Bulgars as a threat since the Ongal treaty. The two empires campaigned against each other regularly, with mixed results. [One exception to these activities occurred in 718, as a Bulgarian army came to the relief of Constantinople when it was besieged by Arabs. The Bulgars drove the Arab army away, killing between 22,000-32,000 enemy soldiers.]

Prelude to the Battle

In 811, Byzantine Emperor Nikephorus I organized a campaign to conquer Bulgaria once and for all. This force entered Bulgarian territory in mid-July, and made surprisingly swift progress with almost no opposition from irregular Bulgarian forces. Arriving before the Bulgar capital city of Pliska on July 20, the Byzantines encountered a Bulgarian army of 12,000 men – likely the khan's heavy cavalry bodyguard unit. These defenders were driven from the field and slaughtered.

Shortly afterward, Khan Krum appeared with a hastily assembled army, probably consisting mostly of conscripted militia forces. [Byzantine chronicles say this force was 50,000 strong, but this is surely an exaggeration.] This Bulgar army suffered the same fate as the first one. Consequently, the Byzantines entered Pliska on July 23 and began looting the city. Nikephorus also opened up the wine cellars and shops, allowing his men to drink their fill.

Nikephorus installed himself in Khan Krum's residence, and seized the Bulgarian treasury, not allowing any of his soldiers close to it. The Byzantine soldiers looted and plundered; burnt down unharvested fields, cut the sinews of the oxen, slaughtered sheep and pigs, and committed assaults against the local Bulgar women.

Krum, realizing that the Romans had the upper hand, sought a peaceful end to the conflict. His message said, "Here you are, you have won. So take what you please and go with peace." Nikephorus was convinced Bulgaria was conquered. He planned to raze Pliska to the ground and build a new city on its ruins.

Bulgarian Army

Bulgarian armies were comprised of native Slavic infantry units. When an invasion or other crisis ensued, the Bulgar khan would issue orders for a general mobilization of the population. They were expected to provide their own arms, equipment, and provisions. These footmen generally were armed with swords, spears, bows, and wooden or leather shields. Bulgar nobles provided the heavy lance-armed cavalry. These elite fighters wore either chainmail or scale mail (small iron plates sewed to a leather backing). Their mounts were also barded. The heavy cavalry was armed with heavy spears, sabers, lassoes, and bows. Lesser Bulgar nobles usually sent horse archers, a throwback to their nomadic existence. It is estimated that the Bulgarian army opposing the Byzantine invasion numbered about 35,000 men.

Byzantine Army

Byzantine cavalry, c. 9th century; Image courtesy of
Byzantine cavalry, c. 9th century
Image courtesy of

The East Roman army was gathered mainly from the Anatolian and Thracian territories, with their ranks supplemented by imperial bodyguard troops. They were joined by a number of irregular troops who expected a swift victory and plunder. The conquest was supposed to be easy, and many high-ranking officials and aristocrats accompanied Nikephorus, including his son and heir Stauracius and his brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe.

We do not know exactly how many soldiers or what types (horsemen vs. foot troops) were included in the Byzantine ranks. Their armies were still mainly cavalry forces – about 75 percent – but were beginning to employ larger numbers of infantry in supporting roles on the battlefield. The entire army likely consisted of around 35,000 soldiers.

Battle of Vӑrbitsa Pass

Soon after the looting of Pliska began, Byzantine scouts reported Bulgar military activity in the area of the capital. Nikephorus's supreme confidence began to splinter, and he ordered his army to return to Constantinople. Krum had begun organizing his forces – including women and Avar mercenaries – to prepare traps and ambushes to answer the Byzantine actions. The Roman army, rather than split up and take multiple routes back, chose only one route: Varbitsa Pass, one of the narrowest passes through the Balkan Mountains. The terrain on either side of the pass was heavily forested and very steep They left the burning ruins of Pliska on July 24.

Advance Byzantine scouts reported back to the emperor that there was trouble: Bulgarian forces had constructed a strong palisade across the exit of the pass, hoping to trap the Byzantines. They also reported that Bulgar light troops were deployed in the hills around the barrier, waiting for the Romans to approach. Confronted with all this bad news, Nikephorus did the one thing that an experienced commander should not do in the face of the enemy: he panicked, and ordered his army to make camp, and await the actions of the Bulgars.

Modern reconstruction of Bulgar palisade; Image courtesy of
Modern reconstruction of Bulgar palisade
Image courtesy of

The Byzantine army was frozen in place for three nights. During that time, scouts reported that the Bulgars had constructed a second palisade at the entrance of Vӑrbitsa Pass. The invaders were now effectively bottled up with no escape, now easy prey for the Bulgarian light troops.

Finally, on the third night of the Byzantines' entrapment, Khan Krum ordered his forces to attack the East Roman camp. Clouds of arrows and javelins showered down on the Romans, causing a panic. With their emperor paralyzed with fear, Roman discipline disintegrated. Some units tried attacking their Bulgar tormentors, while the vast majority galloped for the exit to the pass. Many soldiers tried to climb the palisade with a few succeeding. However, they faced another problem: the Bulgars had dug a deep moat on the opposite side. Many Byzantines fell into the moat and drowned, while others broke arms or legs. This latter group was then slaughtered by the Bulgars.

In desperation, the Byzantines set fire to the palisade. After a time, the ropes holding the palisade's logs together began to snap, causing portions of the wall to collapse. A number of Roman soldiers made their way through the barrier, but now had to brave the moat and the Bulgarian troops. During the rout, the Byzantines came to a deep river. The Romans threw themselves into the water, with many drowning. One chronicle stated so many Greeks bodies clogged the crossing, some retreating soldiers cross the river on the bodies of their comrades. Those who did not make the river were hunted down by Bulgar light cavalry and even civilians armed with little more than farming tools. By dawn, the East Roman army ceased to exist as a discipline force. The battle of Vӑrbitsa Pass was over…


The Byzantine invasion force was essentially wiped out; some chronicles state that a few soldiers made it back to Constantinople. Casualty counts for the Bulgars are unknown.

Khan Krum (l) feasting with his new skull goblet; Illustration from the Constantine Manasses Chronicle, 14th century
Khan Krum (l) feasting with his new skull goblet
Illustration from the Constantine Manasses Chronicle, 14th century

Footnote #1: In the aftermath of the battle, Khan Krum recovered the severed head of Nikephorus, and converted it into a silver-lined skull cup.

Footnote #2: Before launching his attack on Bulgaria, Nikephorus had the omens read – a tradition going back to the old West Roman Empire – and the signs were not favorable. Nikephorus ignored this news, and led his army into Bulgaria anyway.

Footnote #3: In 775 Bulgarian Khan Telerig contacted Roman Emperor Constantine V, telling him he was giving up his throne, and was seeking asylum in Constantinople. Telerig asked Constantine for a contact to make the necessary arrangements. Inadvertently, Constantine revealed to Telerig all of the Byzantine agents in Bulgaria, who were promptly rounded up and executed. In response, Constantine began preparations to invade Bulgar territory, but died before the invasion went forward.

Footnote #4: With the death of Nikephorus, his son Stauracius was crowned emperor. Unfortunately, he had been severely wounded at Varbitsa, and was paralyzed. He lived only another six months, and was succeeded by Michael I Rangabe.

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