Episode 115 – The Rise of Bulgaria

Bulgarian Empire c900 AD (from Runciman - First Bulgarian Empire)

Bulgarian Empire c900 AD (from Runciman – First Bulgarian Empire)

The 9th century was a period of amazing social and political change in the Balkans. We follow the Khans as they plot a path toward recognition of their right to exist.

Period: 802-912

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Categories: Podcast | 13 Comments

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13 thoughts on “Episode 115 – The Rise of Bulgaria

  1. Pingback: Episode 115 – The Rise of Bulgaria – Making It Up As I Go Along – Trying To Think It Through

  2. I’ve been waiting for this one. An excellent episode!

  3. When the ruler of Bulgaria asked for advice on how a Christian monarch should rule in certain situations, did he get those answers in writing? I’d love to read the responses he received.

  4. Konstantinos

    I think I have heard in the podcast that the Macedonian language was formed at that time.
    There is no Macedonian language but Bulgarian language.
    This is completely historically wrong and misconceived.
    The mixed people of the Bulgarian empire at that time they did not identify themselves with anything like Macedonian.
    Besides this it was also mentioned that the people of the Balkans they would never be Roman again.
    This is also wrong because not all of today’s Greece was conquered and Greece is also part of the Balkan peninsula.

  5. Hi Robin,
    Firstly I want to thank you for all the hard work you’ve put into the podcast, I’ve really learned a lot from you. This was another really good episode, but what I’m just not understanding is why the Bulgar Khans are so keen on ensuring permanent independence. A lot of these policies seem directed towards long-term political sovereignty rather than short-term security. You mentioned in an earlier episode that nationalist sentiment is a more modern phenomenon, so I’m just baffled to understand what could be motivating this. Did Boris, Simeon etc. just not understand that integration with, rather than antagonisation of, their powerful, imperialistic neighbour represented a far more viable path to peace and prosperity? Given the events of the next century, I can’t help but feel that this desire came at the price of an enormous, and utterly unnecessary, loss of life. Clearly, this desire was a very strong one — and yet I am at a loss to explain what motivated it. If you can help me to understand it I’d be very grateful.
    Kind regards,
    A thankful listener.

    • Very interesting question. I think if there was a path to Roman citizenship, the way there had been in the past then various Khan’s might have considered it. But the Bulgar experience between the 680s and the 760s was that the Romans would try to wipe them out. So that created a highly antagonistic stance which was difficult to overcome.

      The idea that the Bulgar leadership would say “please annex us” is not very realistic. Even without a sense of a Bulgarian nation, the elite would still have seen themselves as different to the Romans. They had a semi-Steppe lifestyle, their own language and customs. To submit to Rome would necessarily require the abandonment of all of this. Again, earlier Rome would have offered a polytheist tolerance of their ways. But orthodox Byzantium demanded conformity. There aren’t many groups across history who have said “our culture isn’t worth preserving, please let us have yours.”

      And I know you weren’t necessarily advocating that. But I don’t think any gentle client status was on offer. The Bulgars knew that the Romans would always try and wipe them out. Even if they were being peaceful. Because each new regime at Constantinople had to establish its legitimacy. The best way to do that was to win a military victory and since the Arabs can’t usually be beaten – it has to be the Bulgars.

      It was a pretty sad trap that the two sides found themselves in. So the Bulgars sought peace through strength. And they got it in 926 and it lasted for decades.

  6. Thanks Robin, I think you’ve pointed out a crucial factor that should have been pretty obvious – and yet somehow escaped my awareness – in comparing the antagonistic approach of the Byzantines to the integrative one of the earlier Romans. What I still find odd is that the Bulgar leadership (or, at least, Boris) doesn’t seem to be trying their culture – and certainly not a semi-Steppe lifestyle – so much as to forge a new one, while ensuring that the new culture remains distinct from Byzantine culture. I can certainly understand the desire not to be immediately annexed, if for nothing more than the selfish desire to retain one’s own power. But the adoption of a highly Byzantinised religion doesn’t seem like something that would really increase the risk of that. What does seem likely is that relations between the two states would improve, and the residents of both empires would become increasingly receptive to influence from one another – perhaps a Bulgar could even become basileus. The only way that this approach seems to increase the risk of annexation is to minimise future Bulgarian resentment at Byzantine domination (or, speaking without the benefit of hindsight, vice-versa), and I’m just not sure how this could possibly be seen as a bad thing.

    • Can I clarify – you can’t see why being absorbed by Byzantium would be a bad thing?

      • Not in the long term, I can see why Boris wants to maintain his own empire, but I can’t see why he wants it to remain a politically and culturally distinct one long after he is gone.

  7. Well I think that’s an acknowledgement of human nature. Why doesn’t Canada want to become part of the USA? Because they like their independence. They take pride in their differences. And, rather like the Bulgars, ambitious individuals can always cross the border to seek glory in Hollywood/Constantinople.

    • For better or worse, I think you are right – but to me that seems almost like the definition I have in mind for the word ‘nationalism’. When you say that it’s a modern phenomenon, are you using it in a more precise sense?

      • Yes they are very similar. But in Boris’ time the Bulgarian realm was home to a huge number of different tribes. Some with a Steppe origin, many Slavic, some Roman and some even pre-Roman or non-conformists who had lived through the Roman era and maintained a distinct local identity.

        They all wanted to maintain their independence. They did not have a national Bulgarian identity yet. Nor would they for a long time to come. But Boris was attempting to create one. If we all speak Slavic and go to church that will give us the basis for a “nation” – though again I don’t think he’d have thought about it in those terms.

        So what I want to avoid is projecting into the past ideas we have today. If I say that Bulgarian nationalism prevented them from being absorbed by Byzantium I think that is a misleading statement even though it reflects something of the spirit of what was going on.

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