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The Rise and Fall of the First Bulgarian Empire



The Bulgarians are first mentioned by name as tribes living northeast of the Danube, in 482 AD. They are believed to be related to the Huns and the Avars. They were organized on a clan system, worshipped the sun and moon, and performed human sacrifice. However, all of this changed in 584 AD, when they were united under the rule of khan Kubrat. After many years as nomads, the Bulgarians established themselves under a state. They had an outlined territory, administrative system, and laws. All of these were possible through Kubrat’s insights on a functioning state system, as well as his good relations with the Byzantine Empire. This newly formed state, or "Great Bulgaria," spread from the Kuban river in the east to the Donets and Dnieper rivers in the north and west and to the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea in the south. It is said that as he was dying, Kubrat called all five of his sons and asked them to break a bundle of sticks: none was successful. He then broke the sticks one by one and told his sons that their strength depended on their unity. His wish was for his sons to preserve the unity of Great Bulgaria, so that they would never become other peoples’ slaves. Despite this wish, his sons went their separate ways and Great Bulgaria gradually fell apart.

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Khan Kubrat

However, Kubrat’s fifth son, Aspruch, led one of the Bulgarian tribes west to the Danubian delta and laid the foundations for what was to become the First Bulgarian Empire. He united the Bulgars with the Slavic tribes and together, in 680 AD, they defeated the Byzantine army and moved into the Balkans. The First Bulgarian Empire was established in 681 AD, when the Byzantium was forced to sign a peace treaty with the Bulgarians. This Empire lasted until 1018 AD. Asparuch proved himself to be the perfect leader of an emerging state. His alliance with the Slavs was essential to the survival of the new state, and demonstrated his skill as a politician, statesman, diplomat, and warrior. He died in 700 AD during a battle defending his state.

The next great khan of Bulgaria was Krum, who was in power from 803 to 814 AD. His main accomplishment was the expansion of Bulgaria’s territory. He incorporated more Slavic tribes and eventually defeated the Byzantine army, nearly taking Constantinople. Under his rule, Bulgaria became an outstanding power not only in the Balkans, but also in all of Eastern and Central Europe. Another major contribution of his was the establishment of Bulgaria’s first written laws. These allowed him to unite Bulgarians and Slavs into a strong, integrated, and centralized state. No khan before him had contributed as much to the consolidation and expansion of the Bulgarian state.


Tsar Simeon

Bulgaria was next impacted by Boris I, who ruled from 852 to 889 AD. Through him, it became a Christian state. He was not an outstanding military leader and as a result, Bulgaria suffered defeat at the hands of its powerful enemies: Byzantium and the Serbs. The Byzantine emperor Michael III was pressuring Bulgaria and thus Boris I decided to convert to Christianity. He had all of his subjects baptized and those who refused were executed. From 893 to 927 AD, Bulgaria was under the rule of Boris’ second son, Simeon, who became the first Tsar. His rule was defined by two main goals: to break away from Byzantine political and religious influence and to turn Bulgaria into a powerful rival of the Byzantine Empire. Obsessed by his goals of domination, Simeon marched against Byzantium and destroyed many of its towns. The numerous wars waged by him turned Bulgaria into the most powerful Slavic state in Europe. In 925 AD, he proclaimed himself Emperor of the Romans and Bulgars. As a highly educated ruler, he became a patron of arts and letters. Under him, the Bulgarian creative spirit drew the best of the cultural heritage of the neighboring Byzantium. This flourishing of Bulgarian culture became known as the Golden Age. In addition, Old Bulgarian was firmly established as a language, contributing to the survival of the nation and the fame of Tsar Simeon, who is rightfully called Bulgaria’s Charles the Great.

The rulers following Simeon proved themselves to be poor leaders and Bulgaria suffered a number of defeats. In 997 AD, Samuil, who was not a member of a royal family, was crowned Tsar. He repulsed Byzantine attacks and persevered for a number of years. However, in 1001 AD, Byzantine Emperor Basil II raised an army and began a new campaign against Bulgaria. Samuil fought fiercely, but was forced to retreat and give away lands. Disunity gradually depleted his state. The fatal moment came in 1014 AD when the Bulgarian army suffered a crushing defeat. Upon victory, Basil II ordered the 14,000 Bulgarian prisoners to be blinded and left one of every one hundred men with one eye, so that he could lead the rest home. At the sight of his blinded soldiers, Samuil suffered a heart attack and died. The last Bulgarian Tsar was killed in a battle in 1018 AD, when nothing could stop the Byzantine Emperor. Bulgaria fell under Byzantine domination that would last over a century.


Curtis, Glenn E., editor. Bulgaria: a country study. Bernan Press, MD. 1993. pp. 4-7.

Hussey, J. M., editor. The Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. IV: The Byzantine Empire Part I. Cambridge University Press. 1996. pp. 483-546.

Langer, William, L., editor. An encyclopedia of World History, 4th ed. Houghton Mifflin Company. 1968. pp. 197-198.

Strayer, Joseph, editor. Dictionary of the Middle Ages. Vol. 2: Agustinus Triumphus to ByzantineLiterature. Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY. 1983. pp. 399-417.

Edited, Researched and Written by:
Maria Bachkova
13 October 1999

Text copyright 1996-2016 by ThenAgain. All rights reserved.


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