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986 Battle of Trajan’s Gate  (Trayanovi Vrata) ★ ★ ★ ★
Outcome: A Bulgarian victory which triggered rebellion in the Byzantine army 17 August 986
War  &  Enemy: Enemy:
Conquest of Bulgaria
Battle Type:
The Battlefield Trajan’s Gate Location:
The Trayanovi Vrata pass near modern Ihtiman, Bulgaria
Modern Country:
  The Byzantines(emperor:  Basil II Bulgaroktonos) The Enemies
Commander: Emperor Basil II Tsar Samouil
Forces: 30,000 Unknown
Losses: Heavy Light
Background story: In 971, the Byzantine emperor John Tzimiskes declared Bulgaria annexed. The Byzantines had occupied the eastern parts of Bulgaria, but to the west, the four sons of the count of Sredets (Sofia) David, Moses, Samuil and Aron continued to resist. In 476, they started to attack Byzantine territories.
For one decade in offensive after 976 the Bulgarians achieved major successes and Samouil had managed to liberate north-eastern Bulgaria. Between 982 and 986 the Bulgarians occupied Larissa, in Thessaly (in modern Greece). The constant Bulgarian attacks forced Basil II to take serious actions.
In 986, Basil II led a campaign with 30,000 soldiers against the Bulgarians with the objective to capture first the fortress of Serdica or Sredets (Sofia). The commanders of the eastern armies did not take part in the campaign because they were fighting with the Arabs.
On his way to Serdica, Basil II left a strong company under Leon Melissenos to guard the rear of the Byzantine army. When he finally reached the walls of the city, Basil II built a fortified camp and besieged the fortress. The siege lasted for 20 days of fruitless assaults, until shortage of food occurred in the Byzantine army. Their attempts to find provisions in the surrounding country were blocked by the Bulgarians who burned crops and even took the cattle of the Byzantines. In the end, the city garrison broke out of the walls, killing many and burning all of the siege equipment, which the inexperienced Byzantine generals had placed too close to the city walls.
The Battle:
Trajan’s Gate
It became obvious that the Byzantines were not in position to take the city of Serdica. They also could not exhaust the defenders with hunger because, after their supplies were cut, the Byzantines themselves had to deal with that problem. In addition, an army led by Samouil marched into the mountains at the Byzantines' rear. In the meantime, instead of securing the way for retreat, Leon Melissenos pulled back to Plovdiv. That action was an additional reason for Basil II to lift the siege.
The Byzantine army retreated from the Sofia Valley towards Ihtiman through a passage known as Gates of Trajan, where it stopped for the night. The rumors that the Bulgarians had barred the nearby mountain routes stirred commotion among the soldiers and on the following day the retreat continued in growing disorder. When the Bulgarians under Samouil saw that, they rushed to the enemy camp and the retreat turned to flight. The Byzantine advance guard managed to squeeze through slopes which were not yet taken by the Bulgarian attackers. The rest of the army was surrounded by the Bulgarians. Only the elite Varangian Guard managed to break out with heavy casualties and to lead their Emperor to safety through secondary routes. Many Byzantine soldiers perished in the battle; the rest were captured along with the Imperial insignia.
Aftermath: The defeat was a blow to the consolidation of the monarchy of Basil II. Soon after this battle, the nobility in Asia Minor, led by the general Bardas Phocas, rebelled against Basil II for 3 years. Samouil was now in control of the Balkans.