July – August 1014

Two battles fought in the space of a few days in the summer of 1014 between the Byzantine emperor Basil II and the Tsar of the First Bulgarian Empire, Samuel, were won by the use of deception. The first, near the village of Kleidion (Klyuch in modern Bulgaria), resulted in a Byzantine victory; the second a few days later gave the Bulgarians revenge in the Battle of Strumitsa, thought to have been fought in the Kosturino gorge south of the town. In both cases surprise was the key that unlocked a military situation which otherwise seemed difficult to overcome, and in both cases concealment resulted in an annihilating victory.

A detail from Synopsis of Histories, a manuscript created by John Skyllitzes in Sicily in the twelfth century to illustrate the history of the Byzantine emperors. It shows the ambush by Bulgarian warriors of the Byzantine forces led by Theophylactus Botanietes, governor of Thessaloniki, in August 1014.

War between the two empires had been persistent ever since the establishment of a Bulgarian Empire in the Balkan Peninsula in the seventh century. But under Byzantine emperor Basil II, who came to the throne in Constantinople in 976, the destruction of the Bulgarian state became a central ambition, even an obsession. By 1004, the eastern half of the Bulgarian Empire was lost to Byzantium. For the next decade, Basil campaigned in the Balkans each year, pillaging and burning the countryside and destroying one Bulgarian outpost after another. The Bulgarians’ strategy against their powerful neighbour was to rely on ambushes and raids, avoiding pitched battles, but in 1014 Samuel, whose empire was now confined to the mountains of Macedonia and Albania, decided to confront the next Byzantine invasion. Basil usually followed a route through the Kleidion Pass, which runs between the Belasitsa and Ograzhden mountains to the upper valley of the River Struma. Here Samuel set up palisades and earthworks to block Basil’s path.

The details of the battle that followed are only known in outline. The Bulgarians fielded perhaps 15–20,000; the size and composition of the Byzantine force is unknown, though it would have included armoured cavalry. Samuel sent south one of his commanders, Nestoritsa, to threaten the Byzantine city of Thessaloniki and compel Basil to turn back, but the Bulgarian raid was defeated by the governor of the city, Theophylactus Botanietes, a close companion of the emperor, who then brought his army to join Basil at Kleidion. Fruitless assaults on the wooden fortifications strung across the Struma Valley persuaded Basil to find an alternative. One of his generals, Nicephorus Xiphias, suggested a deception: while the army hammered away at the palisade, he would lead a force across the forested mountainside of Belasitsa to circle the Bulgarian army and attack it from the rear. The ruse worked. On 29 July, Basil attacked the Bulgarian defences while Xiphias, safely and secretly through the forest, attacked the enemy from the rear. The result was a devastating defeat for Samuel, who narrowly escaped with his life, fleeing on horseback to the castle at Strumitsa. Early Byzantine chronicles claimed that 14–15,000 were taken prisoner, but a late-medieval Bulgarian account suggests little more than half this figure.The defeat was heavy but not, despite the later Byzantine accounts, comprehensive. Basil moved on to invest Strumitsa. Further south, he found that the road to Thessaloniki was also blocked by ramparts set up by his enemy. While he surrounded the town, Basil sent Botaniates to open the road, but this time the Bulgarians, by no means completely routed, deceived Basil.

On his return from clearing the road, Botaniates and his army were ambushed in a gorge, probably at Kosturino, and slaughtered to a man by a hail of boulders and arrows. Botaniates himself is said to have been speared by Samuel’s son, Gavril Radomir. When Basil heard the news of the death of his favourite, he raised the siege on Strumitsa and returned towards Constantinople. At some time after the battle, Basil ordered the Bulgarian prisoners to be blinded and sent back to their tsar, a punishment, it was said, for the death of his beloved Botaniates. Out of every hundred men, one was blinded in only one eye, so that he could lead the others back to Bulgaria. The number mutilated was almost certainly smaller than the 15,000 claimed by Byzantine accounts, but the sorrowful trail of blinded men was too much for Samuel. When they arrived in early October, the shock is said to have killed the Bulgarian emperor, already lying ill in the city of Prespa. Samuel had an apoplectic fit, revived briefly and then died on 6 October 1014.

The two battles in and around the Struma Valley each showed the merit of concealment and strategem in different ways. Ambushes were common devices used by irregular forces to offset the numerical or tactical advantages enjoyed by a stronger and well-organized enemy. The use of mountainous terrain to conceal an outflanking movement was as old as Thermopylae and probably older. The outcome of the two battles was nevertheless not a draw. The death of Samuel provoked confusion and conflict among the surviving Bulgarian commanders and within four years the whole Bulgarian Empire was defeated and occupied by Byzantium. The Byzantine Empire now extended its authority throughout the Balkan Peninsula, reaching the highpoint of its medieval revival. Basil II earned the nickname by which history has remembered him, Boulgaroktonos – the ‘Bulgar-slayer’.