Episode 156 – The Half Blind Leading the Blind

Reconstruction of Samuil of Bulgaria

Reconstruction of Samuil of Bulgaria

We discuss campaigning in the Balkans, the end of the Bulgarian war and the legend of the Bulgar Slayer.

Period: 1004-1019

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Basil II at the walls of Ohrid (pinterest)

Basil II at the walls of Ohrid (pinterest)

Categories: Podcast | 12 Comments

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12 thoughts on “Episode 156 – The Half Blind Leading the Blind

  1. As we move towards another end of the century podcast, I have to ask, to what extent were the Byzantines aware of the Seljuks at this point? Did they have any interactions with them?

  2. Also, how robust was the Byzantine crown’s intelligence services? Did their record match their reputation?

    • I agree–I’d REALLY like to hear more about Byzantine spies! I know Robin brought this up a couple dozen podcasts ago, in response to some listener questions, but he himself brings it up now in response to Basil’s potential inducement to get Bulgar soldiers to become spies. @Robin, is this just conjecture on your part, based on recommendations from the manual? Or do we have sources that claim Basil II and others used spies to spread dissent and fear among the ranks of the Byzantines’ enemies?

  3. Mystikos

    I have to confess, the myth-busting on the half-blind leading the blind is a bit of a let-down, though of course truth is better than legend.

    But isn’t there also a similar story from maybe the Ancient Greek-Persian Wars era of a mass of blinded prisoners? I can’t find it now, but I swear this is not the only instance in history I’ve heard about this – and that would lend credence to the apocryphal nature of the story, since it would be a callback to an earlier time.

  4. Vanco.Ar

    Hello Robin, I’m a great fan of Byzantine history and the podcast and was eagerly expecting this part of the narrative as it covers an important part of my people’s history. I’m from the Republic of Macedonia, where the seat of Samuel’s state was and I’m sure you are very familiar with the controversies over his and his state’s nationality and you handled it with class, covering all the sides and theories but not allowing yourself to get bogged down in projecting modern nations and their biased historical views (I’m not sparing my country’s view here either) on the past which just leads to huge divisions among today’s Balkan nations and believe me you don’t want to take any part in that.

    Anyway I loved your objective research and assessment of the facts especially around the myths of the battle of Kleidion and the realistic approach to the legend of the mass blinding of the captured soldiers, I agree that the number of captives is probably greatly exaggerated.

    However, it has remained deeply impressed in the consciousness of the local population. As an example there are some toponyms here that are connected to the legend – an old village named Vodocha near the site of the battle (which sounds similar to “blinding”, or “taking eyes out” – there is a theory that that is the place where the prisoners were blinded), and several old villages in the central parts of what is today Republic of Macedonia named Slepche (meaning ‘Blind one’, the theory being that this areas is where great part of the blinded captives were from). And today, here Basill II is the most infamous and only Byzantine emperor that the common people know about thanks to his cruelty. Here the Byzantines, or Romans, have always been perceived as aggressors and invaders who came to take the native land and the legacy of the antagonisms between the Bulgarian Empire and the Slavs on one and the Byzantines (and their cultural successors the Greeks) on the other side sadly still remains to this day.

  5. Vancho A.

    By the way, listening to your narrative and seeing how the army played such a big role in Byzantine society of the period I just wanted to post an end of the century question:

    – How did the actual recruitment system in Byzantium in this period work. Specifically did they have like drafters that went from settlement to settlement like in modern times, and how long was the soldiers term. What did the logistics system look like, the army must have been sustained by a great number of cooks for example, I find this very curious as it has never been in the focus of historians nor you can see it in the movies but it’s an essential part of keeping an army in the field. Come to think of it, this required great organization and could explain Basil’s constant absence from the capital and presence in the army headquarters, as it seems that he was he was involved in the micromanagement of the army.

    Also what was the soldiers everyday life and duties like, (I loved your episode of a soldiers life on the eastern frontier during the Arabs raids.) if you can shed some light on this I would be very grateful.

    My complements and keep up the good work 👍

    • I don’t know about how the cataphracts ate dinner, but the Invicta YouTube channel made a great video about how the soldiers of Rome ate in antiquity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-l_EbXE3LU

      They also have some pretty great videos about Roman army field logistics, and I’m sure many of the things mentioned in their videos, including how foraging worked and how siege equipment was used, were still applicable a thousand years later (though Robin hasn’t mentioned “garum” in any podcasts that I’m aware of, so I assume that by the days of Basil II, soldiers weren’t jumping up and down like idiots for their favorite brand of fermented fish sauce).

      While I’m already promoting YouTube channels, I also really like the Kings and Generals documentary series. They’ve covered play-by-play accounts of Roman and Byzantine battles, as well as Arab-Persian battles during the rise of Islam, etc. They’ve got a great-looking one about the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, but I haven’t watched it yet because, you know, I’m still on Basil II and I don’t want any spoilers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn85RHrShrI&list=PLaBYW76inbX6txuHFvGAs2XdK2vqY75CQ&index=33

    • One thing I am VERY curious about, though, is how Byzantine armies survived in the mountains and river valleys with no TENTS–which, according to that field manual, they would have done in Macedonia while fighting the Bulgars, in order to bring their food with them. I mean, I reckon it does rain, and even snow sometimes, up in them there hills. @Robin, what is the name of the anonymous manual, and does it say anything about the proper way to make igloos from mud, or any other tricks for roughing it with an army of thousands who can’t even take shelter under the trees, because there might be Bulgars hiding in the forest?

      • Thank you for the video recommendations. I don’t think there would have been an expectation to spend too long without tents. As for spies – it always depends on your definition. What we hear all the time in military manuals is that you should suborn anyone you can when dealing with the enemy. e.g. tradesmen, local farmers, slaves, deserters. Anyone who could plausibly be paid or threatened to give you or get you intel. There is also mention of sending your own men in to do a similar job. Send them in pretending to be a deserter or just pretending to be a local. But these are all ad hoc arrangements. I haven’t seen a mention of a trained spy whose profession is espionage. Nor of someone who was sent in to ferment revolution or betray their own people by leading them to disaster. But I suppose, on that latter point, if it did happen it was unlikely to make it into the histories.

  6. dustz92

    Being from Barcelona, I had heard this same story about the half blind leading the blind but from the battle of les Formigues (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Les_Formigues) during the war of the Sicilian vespers in 1285. In this case the Aragonese fleet sunk the French fleet and all but one of the captured sailors were blinded. In this case it looks more believable, as there were supposed to be only 300 of them.

    However if you dive a bit into it it starts to fall apart too. This information comes mostly from the chronicle of Ramon Muntaner, who after the war would join the Catalan Company during its “merry” adventures in Byzantium (I guess we will see them in about 100 episodes) So it’s quite likely that he heard Basil’s story during his stay in the empire and copied it for his chronicle.

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