Политическа география на средновековната българска държава. Част I. От 681 до 1018 г.

Петър Коледаров




Peter Koledarov




The wide variety of material used (along with written documents, also archaeological, epigraphic, linguistic, and ethnographic data) and the comprehensive method applied in the investigations throw abundant light and explain in a comprehensive manner the questions about the nature, structure and territorial set up of the Bulgarian state in the period embracing the time of its establishment up to its fall under Byzantine yoke.


In 681 Byzantium recognized de jure the existence of a new state formation along the Lower Danube and in the Northwestern part of the Black Sea area. This formation united the Onougondours, headed by Khan Asparukh with their kindred Proto-Bulgarian tribal groups in the steppes between the Danube Estuary and the lower reaches of the Dnieper with some of the Sclavinian tribes on the Balkan peninsula. The Proto-Bulgarians emerged as the natural allies of the Sclavinians and formed a united front with them against the Byzantine Empire and the Avar Khaganate. However, the reasons for this were not only the threat by the common enemy and the combat cooperation uniting them in the not so distant past.


The state, set up with Khan Asparukh at its head, retained the traditions and possessed the features of the preceding polyethnic tribal alliances of the Inner Asian (Altaic) peoples: complete observance of religious tolerance, the way of life and customs of the diverse ethnic groups in view of their tribal structure and self-government, rejection of the slavehood institution, etc. The newly-established state formation acquired even more democratic traits, because these basic principles were further developed in harmony with the freedom-loving spirit and customs of the Sclavinians. Thus, the latter had a large share in the very foundation of the state and in the perfection of its methods of government. Under this state of affairs, its establishment could take place only by virtue of the complete agreement reached and with the conclusion of a treaty, international in its nature, on the allocation of the rights and obligations of each of the ethnical groups taking part in it, and, above all, on the basis of mutual benefit and necessity.


Asparukh, the Khan of the Onougondours, was recognized as the supreme ruler who settled the questions about peace and war as the commander-in-chief and bearer of its international sovereignty. Initially, he ruled and governed wholly and directly only in the vicinity of the state centre — the locality of Pliska — which was situated between the Danube Estuary, the Black Sea and the Western Moesian and Danube riparian ditches. Inhabited by Asparukh's Proto-Bulgarians, this area was secured in all directions by a triple defensive system of earth fortifications and was called the “Inner” Area, because it was surrounded by vast territories, populated by allied tribes of the two main ethnic components of the future Bulgarian nationality: the Sclavinians (i. с. the South-Eastern group of Slavs) and the Proto-Bulgarians of the various tribes that took part in ti e no longer existing Koubrat's Greater and Ancient Bulgaria. These Proto-Bulgarians settled in the North-Western parts*of the Black Sea, to the west of the lower reaches of the Dnieper River.


The “External” regions were governed by Sclavinian princes and Proto-Bulgarian chieftains. The latter were obliged to provide military, political and possibly any other assistance to the khans and were directly subordinate to the central government within the framework of the obligations to the constitutional agreement. The main task cf the nobles in time of war was to command the voluntary forces called under the colours by them, and in peace time to take care of the boundary and frontier areas with a view to the invasions by neighbouring states.


In return for these duties, the tribal groups enjoyed above all a general security and considerable self-government in the internal arrangement of the land they inhabited outside of the Central (Inner) area. Yet, the “external” territories were also under the sovereignty of the Bulgarian ruler and constituted an unseparable part of the state which he governed. Relationships, settled by the constitutional agreement, rested on a complete understanding and mutual trust. Otherwise, it can not be explained why the central government entrusted the alien tribal groups, which preserved their structure, from the very beginning with the responsible task of guarding the state frontiers and core.


The territorial expansion and the advancement of social and economic relations led, however, to an important shift in the administrative setup of the Bulgarian state. The first half of the ninth century marked the transitional period from tribal selfgovernment and anthonomy towards a gradual strengthening of the central power of the government. Yet, even when the power was concentrated in the capital of Pliska, along with the regional rulers appointed by the khan, also certain dependent local princes preserved their power for a long while, such as Ratimir in Pannonia, the chieftains in Transylvania and the Tisza valley, and most probably, also a part of the Sclavinian princes.


In the middle of the ninth century it seems that a fuller centralization of power was introduced in all parts of the Bulgarian state, as they were arranged into three divisions or zemli (lands) and several commitats. Irrespective of this fact, the Inner Area continued to exist until the very fall of Bulgaria under Byzantine yoke.


The state frontier system, in territorial and juridical respect, likewise did not relinquish its comprehensive nature, even though with significant alterations. And at this stage also, the tract of division with the other countries and peoples should not be conceived as the outline of a delienation, but as a strip formed by a territory, external in relation to the central area and its surrounding commitats.


In the earliest period, these zones embraced the land of the allied “Surrounding Sclavinias” and that of the Proto-Bulgarian tribal groups, kindred to Asparukh's Onougondours in the North-Western area of the Black Sea. After the change in the military and administrative setup, the country proceeded to secure its defence with the aid of protective equipment. However, at this time the latter constituted a system of fortresses and ditches with the same assignment as the Roman limeses, towards the most threatened directions, as for instance, in the land tracts between the Dniester and Prut rivers, and the Middle Danube and Tisza rivers, as well as along the upper reaches of Tisza





and the hilly zone of the Balkan—Strandja—Rhodope mountain ranges and in certain other localities.


Outside of the defensive systems and the military and administrative units, yet always within the domains of the state, almost uninhabited spaces stretched. Such was an ancient and established practice among the peoples of Inner Asia. The following may be cited as examples: the land gyepüelve in the Hungarians, the land outside of the hrings in the Avars, or the distance measured by “days of travel” thus described by Constantine Porphyrogenitus and other writers to give an idea about the distance separating the Patzinaks from their surrounding countries and peoples. Examples of such distances may be quoted about Bulgaria for the period under review, as is evident in a number of written sources of Byzantine, Western and Eastern origins.


Such “waste” outlying parts of various areas there were in Bulgaria to the South — towards Byzantium, to the NorthWest — towards Greater Moravia and the German Kingdom, and to the South-East — towards the Eurasian gate. In present-day Hungary this space was waste and for this reason even to this day it has been retained as a regional name: “Pusta” (derived from the Bulgarian, or to put it more precisely, from the Sclavinian word with a meaning of “waste land”). However, such territories in the North-Western Black area and in Thrace which were sparcely populated were very limited as far as their expanse was concerned.


The population living along the frontiers, of a kindred and occasionally of a more distant ethnical origin, were charged with the task to inflict the first losses to the enemy and to pester it with attacks even on enemy land. In the tenth century, the defence of the state in a north-western direction was entrusted to the allied Patzinak tribes. In return for this duty, the nomads had access to pastures of vital importance to them in “a part of Bulgaria” (in the expression of Constantine Porphyrogenitus). Similar functions in the North-West were performed by the Proto-Bulgarians and Inner-Asian tribes, kindred to them in origin (Huns, Avars, Hovaresms, etc.).


Throughout the whole Early Middle Ages Bulgaria's frontiers actually constituted zones (whole regions frequently), more limited or more spacious in their scope. Thus, the frontier line in point of fact was a strip of a buffer and protective designation towards a given country or enemy. Since this land embraced an inseparable part of Bulgaria's territory and was under its supreme power, in determining the territorial scope of the state in the epoch examined, their outer outlines should be taken into account, too. It goes without saying that in such a case again an imaginary line would be obtained, whose precision in marking it would be related to actual information at our disposal. The conditional nature of this marking is of importance for its graphical presentation in historical-geographic maps. Irrespective of this, however, Bulgaria's true frontier should be understood not as a mere line, but as a structure, complicated in its territorial and legal aspects.




Both the structure of the frontier and the territory of the Bulgarian state developed and underwent a number of alterations from its initial scope since 681, the year when it was founded. At that time its territory was confined between natural boundaries: the Carpathian mountain range and the confines of the woody and woody-steppe regions of the North-Western Black Sea areas to the North, the Balkan mountain range and the Black Sea coast to the South and the South-East. In a western direction the Bulgarian state spread as far as the Iron Gates on the Danube and the water shed between the Morava and Timok rivers, and in an eastern direction to the lower reaches of the Dnieper River.


After securing these natural frontiers with protective structures and their pacification, Tervel, the heir of Khan Asparukh, achieved the first territorial expansion in Thrace (populated by numerous Sclavinians) which along with the interior of the whole Peninsula escaped from the control of the Byzantine imperial power, after the loss of Lower Moesia and Scythia Minor in 681 A. D. On ceding the Zagoriya region (present-day Yambol, Stara Zagora and Chirpan districts) in 705, Constantinople was forced by virtue of a new treaty to renounce its historical “rights” over yet another of its former provinces. This marked the beginning of the irreversible policy of the new state: unification under its auspices of the Sclavinians and the Proto-Bulgarians in South-Eastern and Central Europe.


Bulgaria's territorial expansion in the ninth and tenth centuries was directly related with this main target. It was being successfully achieved in almost all directions. Unification was not achieved only with the Sclavinians in Peloponnesus, the inhabitants of the same tribal origin of the town of Thessalonike and its immediate environment and the land along both shores of the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles, populated also by considerable Sclavinian masses. In a relatively short time this was achieved for Dyrrachion and the coastal area of the Ionian Sea. Central Greece and the Aegean Sea coast, as far as the Adrianople area. The other land's in the interior of the Balkans remained within Bulgarian domains for centuries.


As of the first years of the ninth century, the following territories were added to Bulgaria after the Avar Khaganate was destroyed: the north-westernmost parts, inhabited by Sclavinian population — present-day Eastern Slovakia and Sub-Carpathian Ukraine (Ruthenia) as far as the Hron (Haram or Gran) River and the Middle Danube, and the wooded Carpathians and Tatras as well as the land located to the East and South-East of them — Transylvania, Banat and present-day Eastern Hungary (where a considerable Sclavinian and Proto-Bulgarian population had settled in earlier centuries). During the reign of Khan Kroum, who achieved the unification of these areas, Bulgarian rule was established also in the area of Sofia, possibly with the areas of Upper and Middle Strouma River, and along the South-Western Black Sea coastal line, in Northern and South-Eastern Thrace and other outlying parts.


However, outstanding frontier questions were settled with recognition by virtue of treaties by Khan Kroum's son, Omourtag. This was effected with Byzantium by means the Thirty-Year Peace after 814-815. One may judge about the line of the southern Bulgarian frontier at that time by the inscription in the village of Sechishte (District of Shoumen) and other additional data, while about the scope of Bulgarian domains in Central Europe, by a whole series of Western written sources: the Bavarian geographer, the Einhard and Fulden chronicles, the works by Saxo, Alfred the Great, Kosma of Prague, the anonymous “Gesta Hungarorum”, etc. They confirm this by linguistic, archaeological, ethnographic and other data. Analysing and comparing them it is obvious that the whole of the Tisza River basin, i. с. the land lying to the North-West of the Hron River and the large bend of the Middle Danube (when its starts to flow southwards), the Srem Area (i. с. the lands between the lower reaches of the Sava and Drava rivers), the Belgrade and Branichevo areas — as far as the Koloubara River and the Roudnik Mountain — territories populated also by Sclavinians at that time, were parts of Bulgaria. Some of the princes of the southwestern Slav tribes, as for example Ratimir of Lower Pannonia, recognized Bulgaria's sovereignty.


Data are not available on any serious war-time clashes in the course of the inclusion of the Sclavinias in Western, Southwestern and Southern directions into the Bulgarian State. Thus, it may be concluded that their unification took place by peaceful means and on a voluntary basis. In the area of Plovdiv it was achieved under Khan Malamir, while the inhabitants of the same tribe in the valleys of the Bulgarian (present-day Southern) Morava River, the Nishava and Cherni and Beli Drin rivers and along the Upper and Middle Vardar River and Middle and Lower Strouma River, along with the land to the north of the Shar Mountain, i. e. present-day Kossovo Polje and Metochia, joined Bulgaria during the reign of Khan Pressian. This process continued also under Prince Boris I, when the Slavs in present-day Western Macedonia and Southern Albania — the Koutmichevitsa area or the Devol Commitat — united with their compatriots in Bulgaria.


These aquisitions were confirmed and recognized by Byzantium with the treaties of 853 and 856. The frontier between the two states was finally determined with the “Profound Peace”, however, which followed the adoption of Christianity as an official religion by the Bulgarians. Then the Byzantine Empire made corrections in its favour along the southern Black Sea area in other parts of Thrace, as well as in South-Western Macedonia with a view to secure for itself communications by land between Constantinople and Thessalonike across the Aegean Sea area and also the Rhodope Mountains, which protected this route. But the Constantinople rulers ceded to Bulgaria another area called





Zagoriya — confined between the Belassitsa, Ossogovo and Pirin mountains and the river gorges of Kresna, Klyuch and Roupel. There were no changes in the other frontiers: towards the German Kingdom, the newly-formed Slav states (the Blatno, Greater Moravia and Croatia principalities) and towards the Serb tribes.


In 896 Byzantium was routed near Bulgarophygon (present-day Babaeski) and was again forced to recognize Bulgaria's rule over land formerly in the Empire's domains, populated by Sclavinians and Proto-Bulgarians, which were added to the former in the course of several centuries.


In 904 when the Arabs captured Thessalonike, the Constantinople government was compelled to cede new land to Bulgaria as a compensation for not taking the town, second in size and significance in the Empire. Bulgaria's boundaries came as near as only twenty kilometres from it and also from Dyrrachion, reaching almost the Aegean Sea coast near the fortresses of Serre, Christopolis (present-day Kavala), Verea (Ber) and Servia, the low eastern branches of the Rhodope close to Adrianople and the Black Sea near Visa and Midia. Conversely to these frontiers, war-time limits occupied by Bulgarian soldiers in 913 and 927, during the Bulgarian-Byzantine duel for supremacy on the Balkans, they were not recognized by virtue of treaties on the part of the Empire. It is then that Bulgarian rule was temporarily established almost as far as the fortress walls of Constantinople, the Dardanelles, the Corinth Isthmus, Attica and Dalmatia, along the Adriatic and Ionian sea shores, but without Nicopolis and Dyrrachion with their closest environs. Bulgaria set a firm foot also on the Aegean Sea coast, where Byzantium was able to retain only Thessalonike and Christopolis. To the West, the landmark with the Croatians was the water shed of the Bosna and Drina rivers, while with the Hungarians it was the Danube midstream.


Towards the end of Tsar Simeon's rule Bulgaria attained its widest territorial expansion because, contrary to assumptions in modern scientific literature, its domains across the Danube remained intact. This is evident from the analysis and comparison of the information, supplied by Constantine Porphyrogenitus in “De administrando imperio” the anonymous “Gesta Hungarorum”, data supplied by Ibrahim Ibn Yacub and other sources.


Under Tsar Peter Bulgaria had to renounce the territories acquired with arms in the 913—917 period and to content itself with the boundaries recognized by Constantinople towards the year 904. Most probably, then the land between the Hron River and the Middle Tisza River were ceded to the Hungarians, this being the price of purchasing their promise not to loot Bulgarian domains during incursions in a direction towards Byzantium. This is evident from the data in “Gesta Hungarorum” at the tracing out of the frontiers at that time between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox dioceses in the basin of the Tisza River and the Middle Danube as well as on the basis of other information. The conclusion drawn is that up to the last years -of Tsar Peter's rule, up to the crucial point — the 969—970 period — Bulgaria preserved (with minor losses) almost its entire territory of the time of its greatest might and over which it enjoyed already recognized authority. It reached as far as the Lower Dnieper, the woody-steppe boundary of the North-Western area of the Black Sea, the Northern Carpathian Mountains, the middle reaches of the Danube and Tisza rivers, as far as Fruzhka Gora and the Koloubara River. Bulgaria included within its domains also the basins of the whole of the Morava River with all its tributaries and those of Bulgarian (present-day Southern) and Serbian (present-day Western) Morava river, the Cherni (Black) and Beli (White) Drina River as far as the towns of Chernik (in present-day Chermerinka), Rassa (present-day Novi Pazar) and Liplyan included, the whole of Southern Albania and almost the whole of Epyrus with the valley of Upper Peneos in Thessaly. A confirmation to the scope of the Western and South-Western confines of Bulgaria at that time may be found in the Second and Third Charters of Emperor Bazil II Bulgaroctonus related to the boundaries of the dioceses of the Ohrid Bulgarian Archbishopric.


A decline and loss of territories which had been for ages under a recognized Bulgarian power, started with the conquest of Thrace by the Byzantines and the temporary occupation of the Lower Moesian lands by them in 972. In spite of the fact that the territories to the North of the Balkan mountains were recaptured and areas inhabited by Sclavinians (the Dyrrachion Theme, Thessaly and Southern Epirus) and lands then inhabited by non-Bulgarian population, such as Rascia, Zeta (Podgorié), Trebini and Zahumljé were included in the domains of the Bulgarian rulers. Byzantium got the upper hand in the duel, started again by the kommitopuls, for supremacy in South-Eastern Europe, which continued for another half century.


The acquisitions listed above were also war-time victories and were not recognized in treaties. In the charters mentioned above to define the scope of the Ohrid Bulgarian Archibishopric, the Larissa, Dyrrachion and other dioceses, annexed under the rule of Tsar Samouil, were not included in it. but only dioceses which were parts of the Bulgarian state during the reign of Tsar Peter.


The year 1000 was marked by a decisive supremacy in favour of Byzantium and the beginnings of Bulgaria's actual decline. In the first decades of the eleventh century Bulgaria lost its territories and independence, because it was unable to wage a successful struggle on two fronts. Circa 1000 A. D. Basil II and the first Hungarian King Istvan I became allies and commenced joint activities against Bulgaria. By dividing its forces, they broke down its resistance and divided almost all the conquered territories: Byzantium took the land to the south of the Danube, while Hungary took those lying to the North of the Carpathians. To the east of this mountain range, in the lowland along the left bank of the Danube, i. e. in Wallachia, Moldavia and in the North-Eastern areas of the Black Sea, ruled the Patzinak local chieftains.


It is seen from data contained in Hungarian sources, and from Haase's Anonym that until the state centre — Ohrid — fell under Byzantine rule, Bulgaria had not lost its positions not only to the South but also to the North of the Danube. This was the result of its still considerable might, influence and prestige in the whole world at that time.




The fact that Bulgaria succeeded in the course of only one and a half century after its formation to be established firmly and to stretch out its domains from the Lower Dnieper to the Middle Danube and the Hron River, from the Tatras and the Northern Carpathians to Olympus, and from the Adriatic and Ionian seas as far as the coast of the Black Sea, cannot be explained merely by its considerable military might. This was the result of the particular features of its state structure and due to the following reasons:


(1) The state formation rested from its very beginning on the basis of mutual benefit and necessity and was created on traditions that were democratic and of long-standing among the polyethnic Inner-Asian state formations, and on the freedom-loving Slav customs and way of life.


(2) Bulgarian rulers in the Early Middle Ages had as their major and inalienable political goal to include and keep within their state domains above all and wholly the lands of South-Eastern Europe that were inhabited by Sclavinians and Proto-Bulgarians.


(3) Centralization of the military and administrative structure was introduced gradually, but firmly and consistently, by preserving the complex nature of the state frontier system. Thus, this system successfully and expediently secured peace and order in the country. External threats were done away within the frontier zones in almost all cases, thus not affecting adversely economic and political activities.


(4) The secured good and just government in the Inner Area and in the commitats populated by the main ethnic components (Sclavinians and Proto-Bulgarians) provided conditions for their relatively rapid and total fusion into a single nationality — the Bulgarian one. Along with this, the ethnic groups that were of a kindred origin, who were entrusted with the defence of the frontier zones, were under the strong impact of Bulgarian culture. In this manner they were affiliated to it and underwent the process of assimilation and unification with the Bulgarian nationality. This may explain the merger without any trace of the Thracian and other non-Hellenized population, of the Patzinaks, the Uses and the rest of the alien ethnic groups even during the Byzantine Yoke and the centuries after it.


Obviously, it is with its system of government and comparatively good conditions for living (reiterated even in Bogomil apocryphs of the eleventh century, The Saga of the Prophet Isaiah) that the Bulgarian state had some kind of special attraction





for the Sclavinians and other ethnic groups that had remained outside of its domains. The exclusive position which Bulgaria won for itself is further evidenced by the fact that the Sclavinian and Proto-Bulgarian populations in present-day Macedonia, the lands along the Middle Danube and in the North-Western parts of the Black Sea area and in other regions as well joined it willingly and peacefully at the first favourable opportunity, as is seen by a number of events and developments in the ninth and tenth centuries.


From what has been stated above, it may be judged that as of its earliest period, and even after the centralization of power introduced under the development of feudal relations and territorial expansion towards the middle of the tenth century, the Bulgarian State was a phenomenon that was unique for its time both by its complicated structure and the democratic methods of government. This has made more difficult the task not only of modern historians in determining its classification but also of its contemporary Einhard (circa 770—840 A. D.). In his “Annales”, the biographer of Charlemagne grasped best its specific nature, terming it a “Commonwealth of the Bulgarians” (societas bulgarorum). In this way he obviously endeavoured to express simultaneously the particular nature of the Bulgarian state and its uniqueness as a unit, built up not through conquest, but on the principles of voluntary agreement. And this cannot be anything else but the constituent treaty, as reported by Theophanus the Confessor.


The Slavs joined as an important component the Bulgarian state “commonwealth” which, in the initial period at least, if it should be compared to the modern forms of state formations know n to us. would have possessed many of the traits of a federation, before being gradually transformed into a centralized state. However, this should not mean that up to the middle of the ninth century the supreme power was not sufficiently strong to introduce a cohesion, strict order and legality in all its domains, with a strict observance of the principles of the constituent agreement: democracy and administrative dualism.


The Sclavinias carried out responsible functions in that state union, and gradually and finally their participation in the government grew in the course of time, and when their numerical superiority is taken into account in particular, lent a Slav image and nature to the Bulgarian state. And this is still another vivid proof for the markedly manifested democratic nature of the “Commonwealth” throughout its successful and thriving development. Its specific nature and its flexible structure in particular constituted the preconditions not only for the progressive features of one of the earliest national cultures on the Old Continent in the Middle Ages, created by it, but also for the very existence of Bulgaria to this day, along with its deeply rooted democratic traditions in general, and in particular the great spirit of tolerance towards aliens as one of the most typical traits preserved in Bulgarians so far.


The formation of Bulgaria as a state of a new and particular type, and especially its nature of a “commonwealth” towards the end of the seventh century was of a particularly great international significance. Bulgaria not only averted the conquest of the Southern Slavs by Byzantium and their efacement through Hellenization. but also contributed to the preservation of the other Slav peoples by developing the beginnings of a Slav civilization. Bulgaria, with its sound state organization, its developed economy and vast territorial scope, rose to be one of the decisive factors in Europe's South-East in the epoch under review.



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