|Battle of Pliska|
|Part of the Byzantine–Bulgarian Wars|
Ruins of Pliska
|First Bulgarian Empire||Byzantine Empire|
|Commanders and leaders|
Nikephoros I †|
|Casualties and losses|
|Unknown, presumably minimal||Most of the army|
The Battle of Pliska or Battle of Vărbitsa Pass was a series of battles between troops, gathered from all parts of the Byzantine Empire, led by the Emperor Nicephorus I, and the First Bulgarian Empire, governed by Khan Krum. The Byzantines plundered and burned the Bulgar capital Pliska which gave time for the Bulgarians to block passes in the Balkan Mountains that served as exits out of Bulgaria. The final battle took place on 26 July 811, in some of the passes in the eastern part of the Balkans, most probably the Vărbitsa Pass. There, the Bulgarians used the tactics of ambush and surprise night attacks to effectively trap and immobilize the Byzantine army, thus annihilating almost the whole army, including the Emperor. After the battle, Krum encased Nicephorus's skull in silver, and used it as a cup for wine-drinking. This is one of the best documented instances of the custom of the skull cup.
The Battle of Pliska was one of the worst defeats in Byzantine history. It deterred Byzantine rulers from sending their troops north of the Balkans for more than 150 years afterwards, which increased the influence and spread of the Bulgarians to the west and south of the Balkan Peninsula, resulting in a great territorial enlargement of the First Bulgarian Empire.
When Nicephorus I became emperor in 802, he planned to reincorporate Bulgar-held territory back into the empire. In 807 he launched a campaign but only reached Adrianople and achieved nothing because of a conspiracy in his capital. That attempted attack, however, gave reason for the Bulgar Khan Krum to undertake military operations against the Byzantine Empire. The main objective was an extension to the south and south-west. In the next year a Bulgar army penetrated the Struma Valley and defeated the Byzantines. The Bulgar troops captured 1,100 litres (roughly 332 to 348 kilograms) of gold and killed many enemy soldiers including all strategoi and most of the commanders. In 809 the Khan personally besieged the strong fortress of Serdica and seized the city, killing the whole garrison of 6,000.
In 811, the Byzantine Emperor organised a large campaign to conquer Bulgaria once and for all. He gathered an enormous army from the Anatolian and European themata, and the imperial bodyguard (the tagmata); they were joined by a number of irregular troops who expected a swift victory and plunder. The conquest was supposed to be easy, and most of the high-ranking officials and aristocrats accompanied him, including his son Stauracius and his brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe. The whole army consisted of around 60,000 to 80,000 soldiers.
The army gathered in May, and by 10 July had set up camp at the fortress of Marcelae (present-day Karnobat) near the Bulgarian frontier. Nicephorus intended to confuse the Bulgarians, and over the next ten days, made several feigned attacks. Krum assessed the situation, estimated that he could not repulse the enemy, and offered peace, which Nicephorus haughtily rejected. Theophanes wrote that the Emperor "was deterred from his own ill thoughts and the suggestions of his advisors who were thinking like him." Some of his military chiefs considered the invasion of Bulgaria to be imprudent, but Nicephorus was confident of his ultimate success.
He then he invaded the Bulgarian lands and marched through the Balkan passes towards the capital of Pliska. On 20 July Nicephorus divided the army into three columns, each marching by a different route towards Pliska. They met little resistance. After three days the Byzantines reached Pliska, defended by 12,000 elite soldiers. The Bulgarians were defeated and most of them perished. Another hastily assembled army of 15,000 soldiers had a similar fate. On 23 July, the Byzantines quickly captured the defenseless capital. The city was sacked and the countryside destroyed. Khan Krum attempted once more to negotiate for peace. According to the historian Theophanes, Krum's proclamation stated, "Here you are, you have won. So take what you please and go with peace." Nicephorus, overconfident from his success, ignored him. He believed that Bulgaria was thoroughly conquered.
Michael the Syrian, patriarch of the Syrian Jacobites in the twelfth century, described in his Chronicle the brutalities and atrocities of Nicephorus's troops: "Nicephorus, emperor of the Romans, walked in the Bulgarians' land: he was victorious and killed a great number of them. He reached their capital, took it over, and devastated it. His savagery went to such a point that he had their small children brought out, tied to the ground, and crushed with millstones. The Byzantine soldiers looted and plundered; burnt down the unharvested fields, cut the tendons of the oxen, slaughtered sheep and pigs." The Emperor took over Krum's treasury, locked it and did not allow his troops to reach it.
While Nicephorus and his army were busy plundering the Bulgarian capital, Krum mobilized his people (including women and Avar mercenaries) to set traps and ambushes in the mountain passes. Initially Nicephorus intended to march through Moesia and reach Serdica before returning to Constantinople but the news of these preparations for a battle changed his decision and he chose the shortest way to his capital. The overconfident Emperor neglected to scout ahead. On 25 July his army entered the Varbica Pass but his cavalry told him the road was barred with thick wooden walls and Krum's detachments watched from the heights around. The Emperor became panicked by the situation and repeatedly stated to his companions "Even if we have had wings we could not have escaped from peril." Before they could retreat, the Bulgars blocked the valley entrance too.
Nicephorus, unable to face attacking one of the palisades, simply set up camp, despite his generals' misgivings. By the third night Byzantine morale was shattered, while Bulgar troops banged their shields and taunted them.
On that night the Bulgarians gathered their troops and tightened the belt around the trapped enemy. At dawn they rushed down and started to kill the panicked and totally confused Byzantines. The tagmata were the first to be attacked. The Byzantines fruitlessly resisted for a short time and perished. Upon seeing their comrades' fate, the next units immediately ran away.
On their way south the Byzantine forces hit a muddy river which was difficult to cross. As they could not find a ford quickly enough, many Byzantines fell into the river. The first stalled in the mud with their horses and were trampled by those who came next. The river was filled with so many dead that the chasing Bulgarians easily passed over them and continued the pursuit. Those who passed through the river reached the wooden wall which was high and thick. The Byzantines left their horses and began climbing the wall with hands and legs and hung over the other side. The Bulgarians had dug a deep moat from the inner side and when the Byzantine soldiers were getting across the ramparts, they fell from the high wall, breaking their limbs. Some of them died instantly, others hobbled some time before falling to the ground and dying from thirst and hunger. The Byzantine troops burned the wall at several places but as they were rushing to get across it, they too fell into the moat along with the burning parts of the palisade. Almost everyone perished; some were killed by the sword, others drowned in the river or were mortally injured after falling from the wall and some of them died in the fire. Among the nobles killed were the patricians Theodosios Salibaras and Sisinnios Triphyllios; the strategos of the Anatolics Romanos and the strategos of Thrace; as well as the commanders of the Excubitors and Vigla tagmata.
Reportedly, only a few survived the defeat. The most notable person to be killed, however, was Emperor Nicephorus, who according to historians died on a dunghill on the day of the battle. Nicephorus's son, Stauracius, was carried to safety by the Imperial bodyguard after receiving a paralyzing wound to his neck. Six months later, his wounds finally killed him. According to tradition, Krum had the Emperor's head on a spike, then lined his skull with silver and used it as a drinking cup.