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May 24, 2022

Harald Hardrada: Against the Bulgarians

By James Turner

In this article, we look at Harald Hardrada’s rewarding service within the Varangian Guard, the Byzantine-Bulgarian conflict, and Harald’s role in defeating a Bulgarian revolt that broke out in 1040.

Much of Harald’s prestige and reputation amongst his fellow Varangians in Constantinople rested upon his pseudo royal status and close political ties with Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kyiv. Harald had adroitly and skilfully parleyed these connections alongside his own military talents and wit into a position of seniority and command amongst the many Varangian mercenaries employed by the Byzantine Empire. Years of imperial service had seen Harald rise yet further in the eyes of the broad and ragged brotherhood which was the Varangian Guard, having fought and commanded troops in multiple campaigns across the eastern and central Mediterranean. For an exiled princeling with plentiful enemies at home and virtually no hopes of an inheritance, seeking service with the Byzantines was a canny and rewarding course of action.

For all their prowess and pedigree within imperial service, the Varangians were mercenaries first and foremost. They were paid by an imperial centre which was becoming increasingly reliant on readily available cash to meet its military needs and provided them with ample opportunities to indulge in pillage and plunder on the empire’s behalf. As a direct continuation of the Roman Empire the masters of the Byzantine state were often able to mask their occasional bouts of military and strategic weakness by harnessing the prestige and ideology of the universal empire for diplomatic purposes. Yet gold and Constantinople’s position across two major trade routes were essential ingredients in these feats of geopolitical alchemy. Just how wealthy Harald became as a result of his time as a soldier of fortune is now impossible to determine.

In his saga of Harald’s life, the thirteenth-century Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson, reportedly drawing upon now lost or heavily fragmented sources, states that the wealth accumulated by Harald during his time in service to the Byzantines was immense. The notion presented within the saga that Harald protected and managed his great wealth by placing it in the care of his distant ally Yaroslav the Great is an intriguing one which if true speaks volumes about the active nature of the Varangian Guard’s continued affiliations with the great blended arc of Rus and Scandinavian society.  In support of his assertion that Harald’s hoard dwarfed the treasuries of the lords and kings of northern Europe, Snorri’s account cites the future participation in the practice of ‘place-plunder’.

Presented as a semi ritual act of armed robbery in which the Varangians of Constantinople took advantage of the power vacuum and chaos which so often followed the death of a reigning Emperor or Empress to make off with a substantial portion of the imperial treasury. The true form or even existence of the practice of ‘place-plunder’ is difficult to verify outside of the Scandinavian sagas. Snorri frames this impromptu re-distribution of funds as a right exclusively held by the Varangians of Constantinople and alludes to the idea that the custom received official recognition from the Byzantines. It is probable that this interpretation of events is a formalised gloss on the Varangian mercenary’s habitual avarice and opportunism, although obviously there also exists the strong possibility that the whole practice was a mere literary invention. Whatever the case regarding the authenticity and form of the custom, as we shall see imminently, the circumstances under which Harald left Byzantine Service and the role that he played in the overthrow of Emperor Michael V lends a certain immediacy and plausibility to the idea of him escaping with purloined imperial treasure.

Harald had tasted victory, smashing pirate fleets, marching triumphantly across the ancient paths and battlefields of Anatolia and the Levant. In his poem If, beloved by stuffy schoolmasters and public-school survivors the world over, Rudyard Kipling puts forward the idea that a signifier of maturity and character was grace in both victory and defeat. Harald for all his talent and good fortune had certainly seen his fair share of the latter. Setting aside the circumstances of his exile and the refusal of large sections of the Norwegian nobility to recognise Olaf’s authority, he had been part of a Byzantine army twice routed by the Normans of southern Italy and had seen their hard-won gains in Sicily crumble away to nothing.

Failure in both theatres of war was heavily abetted by factionalism and infighting within the Byzantine court which led to the appointment and removal of commanders for purely political reasons as well as the withholding of crucial resources. We can only speculate the impact these defeats, weighted down by the self-defeating machinations of the imperial court, had upon Harald although it is easy to imagine they did little to bolster his faith in his employers.

Returning to our earlier Victorian poetry inspired musings, while Harald and his contemporaries may not necessarily have seen the virtue of magnanimity or grace in defeat, the extent of political fragmentation in eleventh-century Europe and the febrile pace of Scandinavian politics could present the tenacious with opportunities to reverse previous defeats and reclaim power. Yet before Harald became entangled in the web of vendetta and rivalry which characterized the centre of Byzantine government and returned to Norway to contest the throne, there was still time in 1041 for him to embark upon one last adventure in imperial service.

While perhaps a tad reductionist, it is indicative of the emerging cracks in the edifice of Byzantine power and the increasingly embattled nature of their recent and hard-won geopolitical resurgence that the campaigns Harald participated in changed from the offensive to the wholly defensive. In contrast to the revanchist wars in which Harald fought against the Fatimids and their former vassals to recapture long-lost Byzantine territory, the war in southern Italy had been the result of rebellious Lombard nobles and their Norman allies’ ambition to wrest the region free of imperial control. Likewise, the Bulgarian uprising launched that year by Peter Delyan represented a direct and severe threat to the integrity of the Empire’s borders.

For perfectly understandable reasons the various incarnations of the caliphate and the numerous dynasties of Arab elites that it composed or were allied with this vast theocratic hegemony have historically been viewed as the Byzantines’ primary opponents. After all, the Arabs’ initial and wholly unexpected military expansion brought about the rapid disintegration of the Empire’s eastern provinces, the results of which were several attempted sieges of Constantinople and a political crisis of confidence which soon collapsed into a deep spiritual malaise that permeated Byzantine culture. However, despite the centuries of periodic and bloody warfare that characterised the Byzantines’ relationship with their Arab neighbours for much of the long history of the second Rome, the most persistent and dire existential threat to the universal empire and Constantinople came from the Bulgarians.

Rise of the Bulgarians

The Bulgars were one of many confederations of largely culturally and ethnically Turkic nomadic or semi-nomadic people to emerge from the great, roiling melting point that was the Pontic–Caspian steppe. This region was but the most westwardly stretch of an enormous continent-spanning strip of steppe-land which ran from the western shores of the black sea to the far east where it flowed into and conjoined with its southern counterpart.  This expanse of steppe formed an enormous highway which allowed its nomadic inhabitants access to the length and breadth of Eurasia meaning that events that altered the balance of power on the high untrammelled steppe or upon its western or eastern hinterlands often rippled out to exert a profound effect on the status quo. While their origins are difficult to trace amongst the activity and furore of the steppe and are a subject of significant academic debate, there is some evidence to suggest that the group that become the Bulgars began emigrating westward in the mid to late fourth century, probably as a result of the heightening competition on the steppes.

The Bulgarians first emerged clearly into the historical narrative as an allied auxiliary force fielded by the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno against his Ostrogothic enemies in 480. A grand cultural collation of broadly Germanic peoples, the Ostrogoths were during this period politically divided into two principal factions; those Ostrogoths led by Theodoric Strabo who had settled in Thrace and the Ostrogoths of Moesia ruled by the future Theodoric the Great. In order to deal with the threat these two powerful and interconnected groups posed to the integrity of the Empire’s European holdings and the safety of Constantinople, Zeno’s moved to leverage the Empire’s considerable financial resources to divide and weaken potential threats. A strategy that would continue to serve many of his Byzantine successors exceedingly well down the centuries.

After initial attempts to drive a wedge between the two Theodorics by actively allying with one against the other met with only limited success, Zeno resolved to allow the Moesian Ostrogoths to raid and pillage unhindered drawing them away from Constantinople while he dealt with Theodoric Strabo and his followers. While rejecting Strabo’s demands to allow his followers to settle further into Greece, the Emperor sort of mollified him by awarding him the highly prestigious rank of magister militum, a senior post in the imperial military and the payment of a not inconsiderable cash bribe. Having lured Theodoric Strabo into a false sense of security, Zeno then prevailed upon the newly arrived Bulgars, presumably through the liberal distribution of treasure, to attack the eastern Ostrogoths. Strabo was ultimately able to repel the Bulgars, but the invasion exacerbated factional differences between his followers and prevented him for pressing his advantage against Constantinople. While far from a triumph, the Bulgars’ initial contact with the Romans would induct them into a centuries-long pattern in which the Romans alternately employed and attempted to undermine their neighbours in a helter-skelter game of political brinksmanship.

Much like their origins, the Bulgars’ early activities in eastern Europe are difficult to trace for much the same reasons, such as their etymological similarity to a large number of related or contemporary groups and peoples. This difficulty is further compounded by the unfortunate habit of Roman writers and historians of conflating the Bulgars with a profusion of other steppes peoples and confederacies who they tended to refer to as Hunnic regardless of their origins. The most egregious manifestation of this tendency was the practice adopted by certain Roman writers in which they attempted to make sense of and codify the chaotic politics of eastern Europe and the Pontic–Caspian steppe by grafting on labels and identifying flexible groups and social structures to which they had very little if any meaning. This makes it extremely frustrating to draw any concrete lines of continuity between the group the eastern Romans identified as the Bulgars in the fifth century and the coalition that formed the polity often referred to as Old Great Bulgaria in the seventh century.

The nomadic empires and polities of the great steppe and its hinterlands tend to be formed from the coalitions and aggregates of various peoples of mixed origins that had been displaced by the emergence of a powerful group elsewhere on the steppe. Walter Pohl, one of the great historians of these migratory periods and migration in late antiquity, points out that the crucial step in this process of integration and reorganisation is the bringing of these loose collations together under the rule of a strong central figurehead, normally known by the Turkic derived title of Khagan. Pohl further suggests that this act of unification and the creation of a new central identity under a singular ruler was abetted by the adoption a name drawn from their shared history on the steppe. This name did not, so the theory runs, necessarily have to reflect direct or majority descent on the part of the new people and was first and foremost connected to its political institutions and leadership.

In the late sixth century, developments in imperial China and the expansion of the Tang dynasty brought about the weakening and destabilisation of the Western Turkic Khaganate which had come to dominate the steppe in the years that followed the tumult of the Huns migration. This led to a power vacuum on the western steppe which was filled by the Avar Khaganate, a powerful confederacy which came to dominate Pannonian and the Carpathian basin. Probably coalescing in opposition to the Avars’ attempts to dominate the ruins of the Western Turkic Khaganate in the seventh century, a group known as the Bulgarians, who may or may not have been descended to some degree from the Bulgars identified by the Romans, came to occupy the lower Volga in modern-day Ukraine, establishing the territory known as Old Great Bulgaria.

The leader of this emergent people, Kubrat, may have spent a considerable portion of his formative years within Constantinople. The Byzantine historian and near-contemporary of Kubrat’s, John of Nikiu, states that Kubrat, who he refers to as a chieftain amongst the Huns, was educated within the imperial household of Heraclius I and had a strong bond of personal affinity with the emperor and the imperial family. The Byzantines almost certainly cultivated this connection with the largely untapped military potential of one of the major western steppe collations as a means of alleviating the strategic threat that the Avars represented to the Empire’s northern borders. It seems highly likely then that Kubrat’s rise to power and his successful rebellion against the Avars was to some extent supported and abetted by the Byzantines.

In addition to his success in refuting the Avars’ attempts to exert hegemony over the wider region and establishing a powerbase for the newly untied or expanded Bulgarian confederacy, Kubrat also vied extensively with the Khazars, another semi-nomadic and culturally Turkic group established in the aftermath of the Western Turkic Khaganate collapse. Compared to the majority of their neighbours and contemporary steppe peoples the Khazars were unusually politically robust and centralised, their core identity centring less around collation and integration and more on a single ethnic-based warrior elite. In contrast, Old Great Bulgaria was not long to survive the death of its principal founder. Despite his many successes and extraordinary achievements, when Kubrat died sometime around the 660s, the Bulgarians’ political unity fragmented as it became apparent that they were no longer able to seriously challenge the Khazars for control of the western steppes. The result was the complete breakdown of Old Great Bulgaria as a polity and the abandoning of its territory as its people rallied around various leaders and struck out on their own in all directions.

Asparuh and Tervel

One of the largest of these groups and the one with which we will henceforth primary concern ourselves with was led by one of Kubrat’s sons, Asparuh, who moved his people westward into the territory of his father’s former allies, the Byzantines. The initial ingress of Asparuh and his people into the marcher regions of the Byzantine Empire in the mid to late 670s was largely unopposed since it coincided with the siege of Constantinople by the forces of the first Umayyad Caliph, Mu’awiya I. In the absence of significant imperial forces, the Bulgarians were able to form an alliance with neighbouring Slavic groups who had first moved into the region during the upheaval of the sixth century. The extant nature and parameters of these relationships is difficult to ascertain, and it is unclear if they were the result of some broad political concordant or the Bulgarians’ successful exertion of military hegemony upon the region. Certainly, in the proceeding century, as the Bulgarians power waxed and they became increasingly entrenched within the region, the polity would come to be dominated entirely by an ethnically Bulgarian martial elite that ruled over a majority Slavic population.

In 680, having broken the siege of Constantinople and reconstructed a measure of imperial authority, Emperor Constantine IV was at last ready to challenge the Bulgarians and their new Slavic allies. Constantine led a considerable army along the shore of the Black Sea, confronting the Bulgarians at their fortified camp located somewhere in the Danube delta. Unfortunately for the Byzantines, the chronically ill Constantine was compelled to leave the army on the eve of battle by a medical emergency, this caused a panic amongst the army who believed that the emperor had abandoned them to save himself and the so-called Battle of Ongal turned into a complete rout for the Byzantines. The result of this ignominious defeat was the Byzantines were forced to recognise the Bulgarian’s conquest of Moesia and pay them regular tribute.

In 705, Aspharuh’s son and successor, Tervel, barged his way into the heart of Byzantine politics when he threw his support and formidable military resources behind the exiled eastern Roman emperor Justinian II. With the help of Tervel’s combined Bulgarian and Slavic army, Justinian was swiftly able to reclaim the imperial capital, executing a large number of his rivals and political opponents. In exchange for his support, Tervel received significant financial remunerations, territory on the Thracian border and use of the honorific title of Caesar. The granting of this title which had traditionally been reserved for junior co-emperors was immensely prestigious and in theory at least meant that Tervel, the first-ever foreign ruler to be granted the title, was the second highest-ranking individual within the Byzantine Empire. Despite the scandal it caused within contemporary Byzantine society and the sheer unprecedented loftiness of the title, this is in many ways the classic example of the Byzantine’s often visited strategy of leveraging the great mystique and legitimacy of the empire’s history and ideology to compensate for periods of temporary military weakness.

Perhaps unwisely, rather than trust in the dazzling power of the imperial cult and regular payments of tribute to forestall Bulgarian aggression, Justinian having re-established his grip on power, opted to betray Tervel and attempted to reclaim the territory lost to the Bulgarians a generation ago by military means. The result was a humiliating imperial defeat at the Battle of Anchialus in 708 and the removal of all but the most cursory Bulgarian support for Justinian’s regime which precipitated his overthrow and death at the hands of a rival imperial candidate in 711.  Despite this betrayal, the financial and political rewards of alignment with the Romans remained tempting and Tervel was once again prevailed upon to enter into an alliance with subsequent Byzantine emperors and played a pivotal role in the defeat of the second Arab siege of Constantinople in 718.

Bulgarian military supremacy in the region, however, did not go long unchallenged. Capitalising on a succession crisis and period of political fragmentation that followed the death of Khan Sevar in 753, Emperor Constantine V launched a decade-spanning series of campaigns to curb Bulgarian power and drive them from the Balkans. Despite the initial success of his earliest expeditions which penetrated deep into Bulgarian territory, the war eventually devolved into a ruinously bloody stalemate with the remainder of the emperor’s gains eventually being squandered by his successor Constantine VI who suffered repeated defeats at the hands of the rapidly reunifying Bulgarians which led to the resumption of payments of tribute in 792.

In 805, Khan Krum led the Bulgarians in a decisive victory against the Avars who were still recovering from a spectacularly successful invasion launched by Charlemagne, King of the Franks, in 788. Krum’s victory against his people’s ancestral foes led to the dramatic expansion of Bulgarian territory around the Black Sea. Possibly emboldened by these successes, Krum began raiding Byzantine territory in the latter half of the century’s opening decade, sacking towns and capturing the payroll of the imperial army in 807. These acts of aggression soon provoked a forceful response from Emperor Nikephoros I in 811 who defeated two Bulgarian armies and captured their capital Pliska in short order, looting its treasury and putting its population to the sword. However, Krum who had avoided being penned within his capital fell upon the now unwary and increasingly lackadaisically organised Byzantine army as it retreated to imperial territory, inflicting heavy casualties upon it and killing Emperor Nikephoros. Krum continued the war inflicting substantial defeats on the next two Byzantine Emperors only for his own successor,  Omurtag, to impose a rather one-sided peace treaty upon the Byzantines in 815 in order to concentrate on the emerging threats posed to Bulgarian hegemony by the Franks and Slavic rebels.

In 855 Boris I of Bulgaria was already stretched militarily, simultaneously faced with an uprising of the Croatians in the Balkans and an invasion by the Franks on his northern border. The Byzantine Emperor Michael III cannily, if opportunistically, took advantage of this situation to invade Bulgarian territory, reversing their steady incursion into Thrace.  In 863, the Byzantines got wind of Boris’ interest in converting to western-style Christianity and entering into an alliance with his old Frankish enemies. In response, the Byzantines invaded Bulgaria while Boris and the majority of his forces were campaigning in Great Moravia. Faced with such a threat, Boris was compelled to break off this campaign and convert to Orthodox Christianity.

At first glance, the Bulgarian conversion to Orthodoxy appears quite the coup. It could theoretically allow the Byzantines to exert an increased influence on Bulgarian politics and culture through the Church. Just as importantly it would make Bulgarian rulers spiritually and ideologically subordinate to the Patriarch of Constantinople and his master the Byzantine Emperor, enshrining the supremacy of the Byzantines as a religious principle. However, as we have seen in our earlier discussion of Scandinavia’s piecemeal conversion, the adoption of Christianity afforded rulers certain advantages that made it easier for them to exert authority within their domains as well as increase the centralisation and power of their polities. Boris was aware of these advantages, having been on the verge of converting to the Latin variant of Christianity, and understood that his conversion to Orthodoxy, forcible as it may have been, presented many of the same opportunities and could prove to be a double-edged sword for the Byzantines.

As previously stated, during this period Bulgarian society was divided between an ethnically Bulgarian martial elite who in terms of religion tended to follow Tengrism and a majority Slavic subject population who followed their own polytheistic faith. Conversion to Christianity and the establishment of a singular shared faith helped to lessen tensions created by this divide, providing the Bulgarians and their subjects with a sense of shared identity. Related to this, the adoption of Christianity gave Boris and his successors a heightened degree of ideological and political legitimacy. By placing kings and rulers within a grand cosmic order, located but a step or two below the numinous, their relationship with the Bulgarian aristocracy was subtly shifted. They were, on a strictly ideological level at least, no longer wholly beholden to the acclaim or acknowledgement of their peers, their reign taking on sacral connotations.

Just as importantly, the Church was early medieval Europe’s major reservoir of learning and literate individuals necessary for the efficient administration of the Bulgarians’ developing polity. The Church’s emphasis on hierarchy and established a template of grassroots social organisation allowed rulers, willing to cooperate with its institutions, to better project royal authority within the localities of their realm and mobilise its financial resources. These steps towards creating a powerful and centralised royal government for the Bulgarians were eagerly and adroitly capitalised upon by Boris’ son and eventual successor Simeon.

Simeon I of Bulgaria (893 – 927)

The fateful clash that would propel Simeon to imperial status began with an attempt by a prominent faction within the Byzantine court to exclude the Bulgarians from access to the economic bounty of the empire. In response to the banning of Bulgarian merchants from the markets of Constantinople and the levelling of heavy levies on trade, Simeon invaded Byzantine territory in 894. With the majority of Byzantine military assets engaged in repelling the Abbasid Caliphate, Simeon easily mashed the ad hoc Byzantine army hastily arrayed against him. In response to this crisis the well-oiled wheel of Byzantine diplomacy began to turn, prevailing upon the Magyars, an Urgic-speaking people recently descended from the steppes, to divert the Bulgarians by attacking their eastern borders. While succeeding in giving the Bulgarians a bloody nose, Simeon was eventually able to repel the Magyar invasion by enlisting the help of another newly arrived steppe collation, the culturally Turkic Pechenegs. With the defeat of their Magyar allies, the Byzantines sued for peace in 896, restoring access to the markets of Constantinople and agreeing to resume the practice of paying tribute to the Bulgarians.

In 912, Simeon capitalised upon the most recent Byzantine succession crisis to invade Byzantine territory once again, swiftly placing Constantinople itself under siege.  For all the carefully cultivated premium that the Byzantines placed upon their status as the unbroken continuation of the Roman Empire, they may well been surprised that Simeon’s ambitions stretched beyond the extraction of mere loot. While, of course, attempting to once again compel the Byzantines to adhere to their promises of tribute, Simeon was intent on claiming the universal Empire’s most precious ideological resource. He demanded to be recognised as Emperor of the Romans and the master of what the Byzantines assiduously presented as the earthly reflection of the kingdom of heaven. Fudging and prevaricating for all he was worth, Patriarch Nicholas Mystikos agreed to confer an imperial title upon Simeon although Byzantine historians claimed that he was created Emperor of the Bulgarians rather than of the Romans. It seems probable that this process and the exact niceties of the Imperial title were the subjects of considerable backtracking and political obfuscation, with Simeon and his immediate successors continuing to refer to themselves as Emperor of the Bulgarians and Romans.

In early 914 Patriarch Nicholas was ousted from power in the Byzantine court with the infant Constantine VII’s mother, Zoe Karbonopsina, taking over as his regent. Now faced with a hostile Byzantine court intent upon refuting and disowning all the Patriarch’s concessions and agreements, Simeon was compelled to re-invade Thessaly in defence of his newly minted and still fragile Imperial dignity. To that end, he utterly crushed a massive Byzantine army at the Battle of Achelous in 917. He then began campaigning against the Serbians only to have his imperial ambitions once again undermined by the machinations of the Byzantine court when their senior military commander, Romanos Lekapenos, had himself crowned as Constantine’s co-Emperor. As a result, Simeon once again attacked the Byzantines, ransacking large sections of Thessaly and placing Constantinople under siege. Despite years of intensive raiding and intermittent attempts to besiege the city, including entering a prospective alliance with the newly established Fatimid Caliphate, Simeon was unable to capture Constantinople and settled for the levying of further tribute. While Simeon had succeeded in temporarily eclipsing the Byzantines as the major power within the region, he had failed to capture Constantinople or land a fatal blow against the Byzantines. A mistake which cost his descendants dearly.

As previously discussed, the tenth century was a time of major political and military resurgence for the Byzantines. Having successfully weathered the storm unleashed by Simeon, the Byzantines under a series of capable soldier emperors found themselves increasingly equal to the task of meeting the Bulgarian threat to their European territories. While Simeon’s son, Peter I, initially made considerable gains against the Byzantines, recapturing territory in Thessaly they had previously been compelled to surrender, he soon fell afoul of the Byzantines’ new secret weapon. The Byzantines had carefully been cultivating religious and economic ties with the emerging power that was the Kyivan Rus’ and Sviatoslav I of Kyiv. This new alliance, the very political association and cultural confluence which would in almost a centuries time see Harald Hardrada travel to Constantinople. On behalf of his Byzantine allies, and we can imagine spurred on by a considerable cash gift, Sviatoslav attacked the Bulgarians, devastating and occupying much of their northern border in 968. Disaster and possible the outright conquest of Bulgaria by the Kyivan Rus’ was only avoided because Emperor Peter was able to persuade his Pechneg allies to launch a grand raid on Kyiv itself, necessitating Svetoslav’s temporary withdrawal.

Byzantine domination

What followed was a classic display of Byzantine diplomacy honed by centuries of hard-won experience and utterly unburdened by principles. Wary of the power of his new Rus’ ally, John I Tzimiskes, the most senior of the Byzantines triumvirate of co-emperors entered an alliance with Peter against Sviatoslav taking the Bulgarian emperor’s sons as hostages. Having temporarily checked the expansion of the Kyivan Rus’ and with Peter forced to retire to a monastery due to ill health, the Byzantines suddenly found that they had the new Bulgarian Emperor Boris II and his younger brother Roman trapped helplessly in Constantinople. Seizing upon this advantage, the Byzantines began to occupy and annex sections of Bulgarian territory claiming they were acting in support of Boris II by fortifying Bulgaria against further attack by the Kyivan Rus’. When a faction of the Bulgarian aristocracy began to successfully resist this Byzantine encroachment, Boris and his brother were released from captivity in the hopes of igniting a civil war between the emperor and this emerging leadership cadre.

Unfortunately for the Byzantines, Boris appears to have died in rather murky circumstances shortly after his return to Bulgaria while Roman was deemed unsuitable to replace him due to the castration inflicted upon him by the Byzantines during his time in captivity. Instead, the Bulgarian nobility elected a new emperor, Samuel, from amongst their number in 997 who began to wage a tenacious guerrilla war against the advancing Byzantines. Samuel successfully held the Byzantines and their aggressive new Emperor Basil II at bay over the following two decades, even managing to score several notable victories, until Basil and his battle-hardened veteran army eventually succeeded in pinning Samuel’s forces and bringing them to the Battle of Kleidion in 1014.

The result was a major Byzantine victory. Bulgarian casualties were such that they dramatically compromised ongoing efforts to resist annexation. Basil, known in the annals of Byzantine history as the Bulgar Slayer, viciously drove home this message and the futility of further resistance by blinding thousands of Bulgarian prisoners. Samuel died shortly after this devastating defeat while his son, Gavril Radomir’s short reign ended a year later when he was murdered by his cousin Ivan Vladislav. Ivan attempted to rebuild Bulgarian defences and fortify the embattled empire’s heartland but was killed at the Battle of Dyrrhachium in 1019. Following his death, the remainder of the Bulgarian nobility and royal house was compelled to capitulate and Bulgaria was annexed by the resurgent Byzantine Empire which had for the first time in centuries succeeded in significantly expanding its European holdings.

By the time the exiled Harald Hardrada had grown rich and battle-scarred in service to the Byzantine Empire, Bulgaria had been under imperial occupation for a generation, having fallen from regional superpower to Byzantine buffer zone. In 1040, while Harald and the significant contingent of Varangians who owed loyalty to him were still engaged in fighting the Aghlabid and Zirid dynasty in Sicily, Bulgaria exploded in revolt. The immediate causes for the revolt were a ramping up in Byzantine efforts to exert greater levels of control and cultural influence upon the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the decision by the cash-strapped and fraying Byzantine imperial centre that taxes were to be paid in difficult to obtain hard currency.

Peter Delyan’s revolt

The origins of the revolt’s leader and figurehead, Peter Delyan, are somewhat ambiguous and the subject of some historiographical dispute. Peter Delyan claimed to be the son of Emperor Gavril Radomir and his wife Princess Margret of Hungary which would not only make him the legitimate and rightful Bulgarian emperor but also the grandson of that great totem of Bulgarian resistance to the Byzantines, Emperor Samuel. However, certain historians have argued that it is unlikely that a son of Gavril Radomir would have survived the purge of the royal house enacted by Ivan Vladislav and suggest that Peter was merely a regional Bulgarian aristocrat who sought to bolster his legitimacy and authority by appealing to a fictitious royal heritage.

Whatever the truth of Peter’s heritage, the most salient point was that the Bulgarians were willing to accept him as the man of the hour. The rebellion exploded out of the Morava Valley and quickly overran Belgrade where he was acclaimed Emperor by his followers who also began to trumpet his imperial lineage. As the rebellion gained further momentum, Peter ruthlessly moved to establish himself as the primary leader and focus of the Bulgarian independence movement, turning against and defeating fellow rebel and royal claimant Tihomir.

Having shored up his status as the rebellion’s figurehead, Peter began a push into Thessaly. There he moved to besiege the region’s capital, Thessalonica, possibly drawn by the presence of the Byzantine Emperor Michael IV. Compelled to confront the Bulgarians prematurely, Michael’s army was soundly defeated, and a significant portion of the imperial treasury and army payroll fell into Bulgarian hands. Bolstered by this success, the rebellion spread yet further, capturing much of Dyrrhachium and Macedonia threatening the empire’s heartlands, although they were unable to take the fortified walls of Thessalonica itself which became the sole remaining bastion of Byzantine strength within its northern provinces.

However, this was to prove the high point of the Bulgarian revolt which would soon succumb to the one-two punch of Byzantine diplomacy and military might. In another classic manifestation of the Byzantine strategy of exploiting its great wealth to sow division and factionalism amongst its enemies and neighbours, Emperor Peter was blinded in 1041 during a palace coup. This coup was launched by his possible cousin Alusian, the son of the equally treacherous Ivan Vladislav, and the general who had been defeated at the Siege of Thessalonica. Proclaimed Emperor of the Bulgarians by his confederates and co-conspirators, Alusian almost immediately surrendered to the Byzantines in exchange for a rich bounty in estates, treasure and the highly prestigious Byzantine title of Magister.

While Alusian’s abandonment of the rebellion created a power vacuum which allowed the blind Peter Delyan to return to power, Michael IV acted swiftly to take advantage of the confusion and disruption among the Bulgarians. Assembling a large army, including Harald and his now thoroughly battle-hardened warband, Michael and his senior commanders brought Peter and his faction to battle at Ostrovo. There the Byzantines scored a decisive victory which saw the death of Peter, the destruction of his army and the quashing of the Bulgarian rebellion. It would be another thirty years before another major rebellion, also destined for failure, the dream of an independent and once again imperial Bulgaria repulsed by Byzantine spears and Varangian axes.

Our old nemesis, thirteenth-century Icelandic saga traditions, returns at this point in the narrative of Harald’s life to insist that he cut down Emperor Peter II himself in the heart of the battle thus earning the epithet Bulgar Slayer. This claim should be treated with a modicum of skepticism because it is precisely the sort of exploit that would appeal to a thirteenth-century bard attempting to construct for their people a glorious and golden past populated by heroic kings. Although, of course, stopping to consider that Peter was blind at the time of the battle rather takes the sheen off the achievement of besting him in single combat.

The sobriquet of Bulgar Slayer is of considerable interest because Harald shared it with Emperor Basil II, the uncle of the reigning Empress Theodora and the last of the great line of soldier emperors who had masterminded and enacted the empire’s restoration. This allusion to Basil draws implicit parity of action between the late Emperor’s conquest of Bulgaria and Harald’s role in defeat the rebellion which seems calculated to enhance Harald’s status and dignity. Once again, however, it is frustratingly difficult to attempt to tease if this is a title grafted onto Harald by his thirteenth-century admirers who it is possible may have been familiar with Basil II and his reputation. On the other hand, it is possible that this epithet was used by Harald within his own lifetime and passed to the thirteenth poets through oral tradition.  If this is the case, it makes Harald’s use of the title an intriguing example of his capitalising upon his experiences and adventures as a mercenary to cultivate status and authority upon his return to Scandinavia.

In addition to the money Harald had gathered in Byzantine service, the exiled princeling was rewarded by his imperial employers with the granting of an official rank. The distribution of ranks was a vital tool of imperial government that allowed them to exert imperial authority by incentivizing and rewarding both foreign rulers and Byzantine officials to cooperate with the imperial centre. However, there were now a dizzying number of such ranks the precedents of which, alongside the responsibilities of their attached offices, were often ill-defined, overlapping and unclear. Well-meaning attempts by generations of reforming Emperors to simplify the system by grafting a fresh series of yet more nebulous positions onto the old system merely added to this tangle of confusion.

These deficiencies and occasional lack of clear definition present difficulties in assessing how high Harald had risen within the imperial court or the extent to which the Byzantines valued his service. Sometime around 1040 in the immediate aftermath of the campaign for Sicily, he was awarded the position of Manglabites denoting a position within the imperial bodyguard. Of course, by the mid-tenth century, this was merely an honorific, denoting his status as a valued and respected solider and Harald continued to lead his faction of the Varangian Guard rather than assume the everyday duties of a bodyguard. Following the campaign against the Bulgarian rebels, during which Michael was seriously ill and may have leaned heavily upon the senior commanders of his hastily assembled army, Harald was promoted to the rank of Spatharokandidatos, another position originally derived from attempts to establish an imperial bodyguard which had over the centuries come to denote instead a mid-ranking solider or court functionary.

Despite his crushing victory against the Bulgarians and the major boon it represented to his increasingly embattled reign, the rigours of the campaign had a deleterious effect on Emperor Michael IV’s already ill health. The emperor died in early December 1041 triggering an immediate power struggle amongst his relatives and the other factions of court. As one of the empire’s most celebrated and talented soldiers, not to mention a growing power amongst the near militarily vital corps of Varangians in imperial service, Harald would soon find himself drawn into the deadly power struggles of the imperial court’s shaded heart. The consequences of which would pit retainer and emperor against one another and see Harald leave the Mediterranean behind and set upon claiming the throne of Norway.

James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.

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If you are interested in reading more about this important figure, see also the new book The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada, by Don Holloway. You learn more about this book from the publisher’s site, or purchase this book on | |

Top Image: Illustration by Julia Lillo May 24, 2022 at 01:23AM

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