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811 Battle of Pliska  (Verbitza pass, Varbica pass) ★ ★ ★ ★
Outcome: The Bulgarians ambushed and inflicted a horrible defeat on the Byzantines 26 July 811
War  &  Enemy: Enemy:
Bulgarians
War:
Early Bulgarian Wars
Battle Type:
Ambush
The Battlefield Pliska Location:
Pliska, the old capital of Bulgaria, in the northeastern Bulgaria
Modern Country:
Bulgaria
  The Byzantines(emperor:  Nikephoros I) The Enemies
Commander: Emperor Nikephoros I Khan Krum (the Horrible)
Forces: 80,000 62,000 initially, a lot more later
Losses: All killed at least 62,000
Background story: When Nikephoros I became emperor in 802, he wanted to take Bulgar-held territory back into the empire. In 807 he launched a campaign, but without success because of a conspiracy back in Constantinople. Khan Krum counterattacked and in 809 captured Serdica. In 811, the Byzantine Emperor organized a new campaign gathering a big army from all parts of the Empire, including irregular troops who expected a swift victory and plunder. The Byzantines saw it as a pleasant field trip and most of the high-ranking officials and aristocrats accompanied the emperor, including his son Stauracius and brother-in-law Michael I Rangabe (both emperors later, for a while).
Krum offered piece but he was rejected. In June, Nikephoros crossed the borders and marched through the Balkan passes towards Pliska, the Bulgarian capital.
The Battle:
Pliska
Khan Krum the Horrible
It was a series of battles in two phases: Phase 1: capturing and destruction of Pliska by the Byzantines. Phase 2: Ambush and destruction of the Byzantine army by the Bulgarians.
The Byzantines met a 12,000 army of elite soldiers who tried to defend the capital and most of them perished. Another hastily assembled Bulgarian army of 50,000 soldiers had a similar fate. On 23 July the Byzantines captured the defenseless Pliska. The city was looted and destroyed.
While the Byzantine 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. Nikephoros, on his way back home, neglected warnings by his scouts and on 25 July his army entered the Varbica Pass but there the road was barred with thick wooden walls, while Krum's troops had taken positions in the heights around. Before they could retreat, the Bulgars blocked the valley entrance too. The Byzantines were trapped.
Nikephoros, unable to maneuver, simply set up camp, despite his generals' pleading. On the third night, the Bulgarians tightened the belt around the trapped enemy and at dawn rushed down and attacked the panicked and totally confused Byzantines.
It was a perfect disaster. Almost everybody in the Byzantine army was killed; some were killed by sword, others drowned in the muddy river trying to flee, others killed while climbing the wooden wall or were mortally injured after falling from the wall. Some of them died in the fire they set up to burn the wooden barriers. Emperor Nikephoros himself was killed.
Noteworthy: According to one of the best known legends from that period, Krum had the Emperor's head on a spike, then lined his skull with silver and used it as a drinking cup.
Aftermath: One of the worst and most horrible Byzantine defeats ever. The battle, however, was devastating for the Bulgarians too.