Before the second war, my father, then age twenty, was third mate on an American ship that sailed to the Black Sea and back. Among the souvenirs of that time were some Bulgarian coins dated 1930 on the obverse of which is a man on plow horse for which he is clearly over-sized, apparently skewering some kind of half-sized lion while a dog carries up the rear.
It says simply, Krum, 814.
Clearly some kind of serious hero to get on both the five and the ten leva coin, and as he is obviously a household name in Bulgaria, it’s a little shameful that as an American I’d not heard of him before. And what of 814?
We are into the time and place of Byzantine politics, ill recorded and shadowy at the best of times. What we have are Byzantine emperor Nikephoros (ruled 802 to 811), a man of war who brushed with greatness by refusing to acknowledge Charlemagne and refusing to pay tribute to Harun al-Rashid, both of which actions eventually led to wars. Once those matters were settled (not to his advantage, by the way – Harun al Rashid got his gold tribute), he turned his attention to Bulgaria
It was not the first time the two countries had had troubles. Krum succeeded his uncle in 803 and had proved himself anything but a quiet neighbor. Within two years, he had pushed his countries borders as far west as the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne. In 807 his soldiers defeated a Byzantine army in the Struma valley, a grave humiliation for Byzantium. In 809 Krum took the city of Serdica (modern Sofia).
It was too much for Nikephoros. In May of 811, Nikephoros gathered 80,000 men and brought them to the Bulgarian frontier. The show of force was impressive enough that Krum immediately sued for peace.
He didn’t get it. Nikephoros had his blood up and despite the urgings of his lieutenants, he was going to finish the Bulgarian problem once and for all. In June, the order was given that the army was to cross the border and head towards the Bulgarian capital of Pliska. It took three days of steady marching, and when they reached the city, they were met by 12,000 Bulgarian soldiers who were quickly annihilated. Krum somehow cobbled together a second force of some 50,000 men who were also wiped out.
Krum invited the emperor to take what he pleased and to leave. Again, not acceptable. Nikephoros sealed the treasury for himself, but Pliska was turned over to the army. Houses were sacked (wooden structures, easy to burn), livestock mutilated or killed, crops burned, women and children violated. Part one of the emperor’s plan to wipe out all Bulgarians was all but complete.
Part two, whatever it may have been, never quite got off the ground. Days passed, the ruins of Pliska smoked and smoldered, and the Byzantines remained. Nikephoros had begun to lose his reason. He retreated to his tent and would not come out. Senior lieutenants whispered among themselves, but were reluctant to deal with their commander face to face. Even his son was unable to get much sense out of Nikephorus.
Expeditions without movement inevitably fray at the edges. Byzantine mercenaries, who had gotten all they expected to out of the campaign, began to slip away to whatever unknown personal ends. Krum meanwhile made the rounds of neighboring Slavs and Avars, inspiring them to stand up against the now mad Nikephorus. The Byzantines would eventually be leaving, and there were only so many routes back to Constantinople. Krum worked with his amateur army to make the journey difficult.
Two weeks after Pliska had fallen, the Byzantine army, sated, moved out.
On July 25, the Byzantines reached the Varbica Pass. Cavalry scouts went a head and returned to Nikephoros with the bad news. The pass was now blocked by a log barricade, and watched from the hills by Krum’s men. Nikephoros was flummoxed. He pitched camp and waited for three days, waiting either for inspiration or a miracle. Krum’s soldiers, growing more confident, filled the pass with the cry of insults and the crashing of shields.
At dawn on the 28th, Krum ordered his men to sweep down on the Byzantine camp.
The campaign’s anonymous Byzantine chronicler writes of a the invaders coming up against a swamp. Unable to find a spot to ford the water, desperate Byzantines waded or rode in, only to find themselves caught in the submerged muck. Their companions pulling up the rear pushed the vanguard troops down and rode on top of and over them, creating a human bridge of dead and dying that finally reached the far side. Those who made it across imagined themselves safe until they realized that the human bridge could not easily be destroyed and that Krum and his soldiers were still following.
And then there was the matter of the wooden barricade.
The more fit were able to climb over; They reckoned without the ditch on the far side and broke bones in jumping. The more thoughtful set fire to the logs; They reckoned without the wood’s falling in the ditch and presenting them with an uncrossable burning trench.
No one died well in that fight, least of all Nikephoros, the second Roman emperor ever to die in battle. It was said that his body was found on a dung heap. His head taken off, and his skull, lined with silver plate, formed into a drinking goblet for Krum.
Krum remaining Khan for two years, time he spent in establishing a wider, secure border and coming to terms with his neighbors. It was uphill work. When he traveled to Constantinople to discuss terms, the then emperor tried to have him assassinated. It failed, and Krum was so angry that he attacked Adrianople and sent the defeated inhabitants north to populate Bulgaria.
He was planning a second campaign against Constantinople itself when he died of hemorrhage in 814 and was succeeded by Omurtag the Builder, a story for another day
Brutal times, the ninth century, and the Balkans are a hard part of the world. And for all his harshness, Krum was not, without his progressive side. As Khan, he established a welfare system for the indigent and dealt out harsh punishment for robbery and slander. Also, alas, for drinking.
Why the coin, then? Why, that is, in the 1930s?
After obtaining independence from Ottoman empire in 1908, Bulgaria needed to confirm its identity in the world. As late as the 1930s, Ottoman rule was something of living memory. If you’re going to instill local pride, coins are the way to go. This has been the case since the Greeks, and by the time my father was visiting the country, the locals needed all the national pride they could get.
Nor did they neglect the living. Before communism blighted the country, Bulgaria had coins for Tsar Ferdinand and his son Boris III (the only European leader, by the way, who defied Hitler to his face on the subject of deporting Jews (among other issues) and was possibly poisoned as a result).
After a hiatus, Krum is back on the small change in Bulgaria (NB – no name given- Bulgarians know who he was), but has yielded his place on the one Lev coin to Saint John of Rila, patron saint of Bulgaria and a contemporary of the horrible khan.
Quite right, too. Europe has had enough of war since 1939.
Runciman, Steven (1930). A History of the First Bulgarian Empire.
Norwich, John J. (1991). Byzantium: The Apogee.
The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, ed. by Alexander Kazhdan,
Bury, J.-B. (1912). A History of the Eastern Roman Empire from the fall of Irene to the accession of Basil I (802—867). Macmillan & Co., Ltd., London