Bulgarian-Serbian Wars (medieval)

Bulgarian-Serbian Wars (medieval)

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict = Bulgarian-Serbian Wars

caption = Clockwise from top left: Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria; Stefan Dušan of Serbia; Boris I of Bulgaria; Stefan Dragutin of Serbia.
date = 839 - 1330
place = Western Balkans
territory = Serbia was conquered twice; both states had numerous territorial changes
result = Inconclusive
combatant1 =
combatant2 = Raska
Kingdom of Serbia
commander1 = Presian
Boris I
Theodore Sigritsa
Michael III Shishman
commander2 = Vlastimir
Časlav Klonimirović
Jovan Vladimir
Stefan Dečanski
strength1 =
strength2 =
casualties1 =
casualties2 =

The Bulgarian-Serbian wars were a series of conflicts which took place between the Bulgarian Empire and the medieval Serbian states of Raska, Duklja and the Kingdom of Serbia between the 9th and 14th centuries. The area of the conflict was the Western Balkans, more specifically western Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Up to the 12th century the Serbian states were dependent and strongly influenced by the dominant Balkan powers, the Bulgarian and Byzantine Empires. The rulers of both countries aimed at controlling of the Serb princes in order to use them as allies in the Byzantine-Bulgarian Wars. The first war between Bulgarians and Serbs occurred during the reign of Khan Presian between 839 and 842 and was caused by the Byzantine diplomacy. Later after series of campaigns the Bulgarian Emperor Simeon I destroyed the Serb state in 924. Peter I restored the independence of Serbia in 931 and appointed his protege Časlav Klonimirović as its ruler.They were again subjected by Emperor Samuil in 998.

In the 13th century Stefan Dragutin and his brother Stefan Milutin fought as Hungarian vassals against the Bulgarian governors of Belgrade and Branicevo, Darman and Kudelin and managed to defeat them. In 1327 the Emperors of Bulgaria and Byzantium signed an anti-Serbian alliance to stop Serbia's growing power but in 1330 Bulgarian Emperor Michael III Shishman was defeated by Stefan Dečanski in the battle of Velbazhd.

War of 839-842

The first war between Bulgarians and Serbs took place between 839 and 842. According to Byzantine sources both peoples co-existed peacefully up to that moment. ["De admin. imperio", ed. Bon., cap. 32, p. 154] The conflict was a result of the Byzantine policy to divert the Bulgarian expansion in their southern-western provinces. [Грот, К. Я. "Известия Константин Багрянородного о сербах и хорватах", Петроград, 1879, стр. 181] After the Bulgarians took western Macedonia the Serbs thought they were threated to be engulfed by the large Bulgarian Empire. Their Knyaz Vlastimir managed to unite several Serbian tribes [Л. Ковачевић и Л. Jовановић, "Историjа српскога народа", Београд, 1894, кн. 2, стр. 38—39] and the Byzantine Emperor Theophilos who was officially overlord of the Serbian tribes supported Vlastimir in his attempts for unification of the Serbs and probably granted them independence [Ст. Станоjевић, "Историjа српскога народа", Београд, 1910, стр. 46—47] aiming at creating a threat to the Bulgarians.

The Bulgarian Khan Presian decided to eliminate the growing Byzantine influence over the Serbs and attacked them in 839. The war lasted for three years and Presian did not achieve anything - he only lost part of his army. However, the Byzantines achieved their aim - the Bulgarian attention was diverted and they managed to cope with the Slavic rebellions in Pelopones. The war ended with the death of Theophanes in 832 which on one hand released Vlastimir from his obligations to the Emperor and on the other hand gave opportunity to the Bulgarians to attack the Byzantine Empire an annex the area of Ohrid, Bitola and Devol in 842-843. ["Известия за българите", стр. 42—43]

Campaign of Boris I

After the death of Vlastimir c.850 his state was divided between his sons Mutimir, Stroimir and Goinik and the new Bulgarian ruler Boris I attacked the Serbs. He wanted to use the Serbian weakness and impose Bulgarian influence instead of the Byzantine one. However, the campaign proved to be a disaster after the Serbs defeated the Bulgarian army and captured Boris I's son Vladimir Rasate and twelve great boils. [Грот, К. Я. "Известия Константин Багрянородного о сербах и хорватах", Петроград, 1879, стр. 183] To take back his son, Boris I concluded peace with the Serbs and both sides exchanged gifts. [Const. Porphyr., ibid., cap. 32, p. 154—155] There were no territorial changes but the Bulgarian ruler probably abandoned his ambitions to conquer the Serbs. However, the Bulgarians achieved part of their objectives - the Serbs rejected their alliance with Byzantium. Boris and Mutumir established friendly relations and the latter was backed by the Bulgarians in his struggle against his brothers and after Mutimir captured them they were sent to Bulgaria. [Const. Porphyr., ibid., cap. 32, p. 155]

Campaigns of Simeon I

In 917 the Byzantines managed to bribe the Serbian Prince Petar Gojniković who was an ally of Simeon I. After the Byzantine army was annihilated in the battle of Anchialus on 20 August that year, the Bulgarian Emperor had to delay his march to Constantinople in order to secure his western borders. In the autumn of 917 Simeon sent an army under the generals Theodore Sigritsa and Marmais to invade Serbia and punish Gojniković for his treason. They convinced Petar Gojniković to meet them but when the Serbian Prince came he was captured and taken to Preslav where he died in prison. The Bulgarians installed Petar's cousin Pavle Branović who was under the wing of Simeon on his place. [Const. Porphyr., ibid., cap. 32, p. 155] [Грот, К. Я. "Известия Константин Багрянородного о сербах и хорватах", Петроград, 1879, стр. 186-187] In 921 when the Bulgarians controlled almost every Byzantine possessions on the Balkans, the latter tried once again to turn the Serbs against Bulgaria. Romanos Lekapenos sent Zaharije Pribisavljević against Pavle who was loyal to Simeon but he was defeated and sent to Bulgaria. However, the Byzantine managed to bribe Pavle Branović and while the Bulgarians were besieging Adrianople, the Serbs started hostilities against Bulgaria but this time Simeon easily fought them out - he sent Zaharije with an army in Serbia. Pavle was defeated and his throne taken by Zaharije.Const. Porphyr., ibid., cap. 32, p. 157]

However, the Byzantine historians wrote that Zaharije "after he recalled the beneficence of the Byzantine Emperor, immediately rebelled against the Bulgarians because he did not not want to submit to them but preferred to be a subject of the Byzantine Emperor."Const. Porphyr., ibid., cap. 32, p. 157] Angered with his betrayal, Simeon sent an army led by Theodore Sigritsa and Marmais to crush the Serbs but the Bulgarians were ambushed and defeated and the heads of their commanders sent to Constantinople. [Const. Porphyr., ibid., cap. 32, p. 157-158] Simeon pretended that he was ready to conclude peace with the Byzantine Empire and in the meantime summoned a large army against the Serbs under the generals Knin, Imnik and Itsvoklius along with the new pretender of the Serbian throne Časlav Klonimirović. When the news of those preparations reached Zaharije, he immediately fled to Croatia. However, this time the Bulgarians to fully conquer the Serbian principality. The Serbian nobles were persuaded to meet Časlav and were captured and taken to Preslav. The Bulgarian army devastated Serbia and moved the population to Bulgaria while some escaped to Croatia and Byzantium. [Const. Porphyr., ibid., p. 158] Serbia was included in the borders of the Bulgarian Empire. [Zlatarski, V. " [http://www.promacedonia.org/vz1a/vz1a_b1_2.html History of the Bulgarian state in the Middle Ages] ", Sofia, 1971, p. 214 ]

Campaigns of Samuil

After the defeat at Spercheios in 996 against the Byzantines, the Bulgarian Emperor Samuil turned his attention to the Serbian and Croatian principalities to the northwest where the Byzantine influence was very strong. [Šišič, F., "Geschichte der Kroaten", S. 188—189]

In 998 he invaded the Serbian principality of Duklja which was ruled by Prince Jovan Vladimir. The Serbs were unable to resist the Bulgarian army and Jovan Vladimir fled with his people in the Oblica mountain. [К. Jireček, "Studien zur Geschichte und Geographie Albaniens im Mittelalter" (S.—Ab. aus dem 1 Bd. der “Illyrisch-Albanischen Forschungen”, zusammengestellt von Ludwic v. Thalloczy, S. 63—187), Budapest, 1916, S. 56—57 - According to Constantine Jireček that mountain is Tarabosh (572 m) located to the south-western corner of Lake Škodra] When Samuil arrived he left part of his army to bar the Serbs and with the rest of his troops he besieged the coastal fortress of Ulcinj. To avoid further bloodshed the Bulgarians offered Jovan Vladimir to surrender and after he initially refused but after it became clear that his nobles were ready to betray him, he finally surrendered to Samuil. Jovan Vladimir was exiled to Samuil's palaces in Prespa. [Šišić, p. 331] Then the Bulgarians seized Kotor and set off for Dubrovnik and Dalmatia.

While Jovan Vladimir was in Bulgarian captivity, one of the daughters of Samuil Theodora Kosara fell in love with the young Serbian Prince and Samuil approved their marriage. Jovan Vladimir was allowed to return to his lands as a Bulgarian official, supervised by a trusted man of the Bulgarian Emperor, Dragomir. [Šišić, p. 334] However, in 1016 he was killed by the new Bulgarian Emperor Ivan Vladislav who was suspicions of Vladimir who could be a potential candidate for the throne.cite web
last = Stephenson
first = Paul
title = Partial Translation of Chronicle of the Priest of Duklja
publisher = .Mac
date = November 2006
url = http://homepage.mac.com/paulstephenson/trans/lpd2.html
accessdate =2007-12-03

Conflicts in the 13th century

The first clashes between the reborn Bulgarian Empire and the Serbs who acted as Hungarian vassals appeared in 1202. Emeric of Hungary took advantage of the campaigns of the Bulgarian Emperor Kaloyan and took the Bulgarian cities Belgrade, Branicevo and Niš. The latter was given to his vassal, the Serbian zhupan Valkan. However, on the next year the Bulgarian army pushed the Serbs out of Niš and defeated the Hungarians in the battle of Morava. [Andreev, J. "The Bulgarian Khans and Tsars" ("Balgarskite hanove i tsare", "Българските ханове и царе"), Veliko Tarnovo, 1996, p. 162 ISBN 954-427-216-X]

In 1289 the Hungarians asked their vassal Stefan Dragutin to attack the Bulgarian nobles Darman and Kudelin, rulers of the Branicevo province, who had previously defeated the Hungarians. In 1290 Dragutin invaded the province but was defeated by Darman and Kudelin who on their turn attacked his lands. Dragutin had to ask his brother Stefan Milutin, the King of Serbia to help him. In the next year they defeated the Bulgarians who fled to Vidin. The despot of Vidin also fought against the Serbs but the war was unsuccessful and Bulgaria lost the Belgrade and Branicevo provinces forever.

War of 1330

After 1291 both states maintained friendly relations. In 1296 the Bulgarian Emperor Smilets married his daughter Theodora to the future Serbian King Stefan Uroš III Dečanski. The sister of Dečanski Anna Neda was married to the Bulgarian Emperor Michael III Shishman. However, the growth of the Serbian Kingdom in the late 13th and early 14th century raised serious concern in the royal courts in Tarnovo and Constantinople - while both Empires had numerous external and internal problems, the Serbs expanded their state in northern Macedonia.

On 13 May 1327 Michael III Shishman and Andronikos III Palaiologos signed a treaty against Serbia and agreed to launch joined campaign. [Nicephori Gregoras. Historiae byzantinae ed. Schopen, I, Bonnae, 1829, I, 391, 394;] The campaign began in July 1330 when the Byzantine invaded Serbia from the south but after they seized several fortresses their campaign was halted by orders of Andronikos III. In the meantime the Bulgarian army which numbered around 15,000 men attacked from the east. On 24 July the armies of Bulgaria and Serbia (which numbered approximately 18,000 men [ [http://ald-bg.narod.ru/materiali/Velbajd.htm The battle of Velbazhd] ] ) met near the town of Velbazhd (Kyustendil). Despite the one-day truce agreed by the two rulers, the Serbs broke their word and attacked the Bulgarians while the latter were scattered to search for provisions. [Архиепископ Данило. Животи краљева, с. 183] Caught by surprise and immensely outnumbered, the Bulgarians tried to organize resistance but were defeated and the wounded Emperor Michael III Shishman was captured by the victors and died four days later. [Шишмановци, 54-55]

Despite their victory, the Serbs were unable to continue their campaign in Bulgaria - Stefan Dečanski did not risk to confront the Bulgarian reserves led by the Emperor's brother and despot of Vidin Belaur and the despot of Lovech Ivan Alexander. After short negotiations near the castle of Izvor Belaur and Dečanski concluded a peace treaty according to which the Bulgarian throne was inherited by Michael III Shishman's and Anna Neda's son Ivan Stefan. Bulgaria did not lose territory but was unable to stop the Serbian expansion in the largely Bulgarian-populated Macedonia.


The battle of Velbazhd opened a period of 20 years in which for the first time Serbia became the dominant power of the Balkans. Their new King Stefan Dušan who killed his father in 1331 conquered Macedonia, Epiros and Thessaly and in 1346 was crowned Emperor with the help of the Bulgarians. After his death in 1355 his state was divided into several independent states as did Bulgaria after the death of Ivan Alexander in 1371. In the 15th century both states were destroyed by the Ottoman Turks.

See also


*bg icon Zlatarski, V. " [http://www.promacedonia.org/vz1a/index.html History of the Bulgarian state in the Middle Ages: Part 1] ", IInd edition Sofia, 1971
*bg icon Zlatarski, V. " [http://www.promacedonia.org/vz1b/index.html History of the Bulgarian state in the Middle Ages: Part 2] ", IInd edition Sofia, 1971
*en icon Runciman, S. [http://www.promacedonia.org/en/sr/index.html A history of the First Bulgarian Empire] , G. Bell & Sons, London 1930
*bg icon Andreev, J. The Bulgarian Khans and Tsars (Balgarskite hanove i tsare, Българските ханове и царе), Veliko Tarnovo, 1996 ISBN 954-427-216-X
*bg icon "История на България.Том ІІІ - Втора българска държава" - Издателство на БАН, 1982 г.


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