Your RDA of Irony

On This Day in 1014

July 29th

You probably have never heard of the battle of Kleidion, but you may know of its aftermath. The Byzantines generally hated war: it was costly, unpredictable and vulgar. They preferred to charm, bribe or undermine their opponents. Give the semi-barbaric kinglet a tour of the splendors of Constantinople, present him with a few bolts of silk and the overawed warlord usually would behave himself. (At the same time, encourage his ambitious younger brother.) The Byzantines also used Christianity as a form of diplomacy. Converting to the Orthodox Creed was a submission to the spiritual leadership of the Patriarch of Constantinople–and guess who controlled him. (No, not Jesus.)

But Byzantine subtlety was lost on the Bulgarians. Since the Bulgarians had first crossed the Danube in the 7th century and made the once Greek Thrace irretrievably Slavic, they had been at odds with the Byzantines: sometimes a danger, always a threat. At times, the Bulgarians controlled more of Greece than the Byzantines did. The street signs of Athens could have been in Cyrillic. Forced to fight, the Byzantines experienced all the vagaries of war. The skull of one Emperor became a drinking goblet for the Bulgar king. That particular king was a pagan; Christianity may have improved the table manners of Bulgarian royalty but not their aggressiveness. The wars continued. However, Constantinople was impregnable, the Byzantine navy was unchallenged, and the Empire’s Asian provinces had the wealth and manpower to equip more armies that would eventually push the Bulgarians back.

At the beginning of the 11th century, the Byzantines were led by one of the greatest warriors of his time: Basil II. Indeed, he was such a committed soldier that he never bothered to marry. Ahem. Basil had decided to destroy the Bulgarian Empire, and he had the ability and resources to do it. On this day in 1014, the invading Byzantines outflanked the Bulgarian army, capturing almost the entire force.

Basil had 15,000 prisoners and a pointed message for the Bulgarian king. The captives were blinded. Out of every hundred men, one would be spared (only losing one eye) to guide his blind comrades back home. So, through the Balkans staggered this horrid procession, one blind soldier clutching the shoulder of the blind man ahead him, with an one-eyed man leading them. It took this blind army two months to reach the Bulgarian capital. At this wretched sight, the Bulgarian Tsar died of a heart attack.

Bulgaria would soon be part of the Byzantine Empire. Basil certainly earned the epithet “the Bulgar-Slayer.” Ironically, history looks at the Emperor with a certain respect and even approval. After all, the Byzantines were more erudite and sophisticated than the Bulgarians. The more civilized are always the good guys.

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