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edieval warfare was brutal. With no unified code of how prisoners and battles should be conducted, generals and armies would do anything in their power to beat their opponents or just make them weaker. The morale of a country’s troops is always central to their success, as such ways to crush morale were often used to weaken the opposing side. Although some very brutal ways have been used to hurt an enemy’s morale, one general went above and beyond in his search to make sure the enemy never dared to attack him again. This general, also the ruler of the Byzantine Empire, employed a tactic of fear which put him in the history books.

The rise of the Phoenix

The Byzantine double-headed eagle. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The history of the Byzantine empire is one of constant warfare. The prodigy of the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, took it upon themselves to spread orthodoxy across the east.

During their millennia of reign across parts of east and south Europe, the empire contracted and expanded, only being toppled in 1453 after its capital, Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, fell to the forces of the Ottoman empire.

Throughout this long reign of the eastern and southern parts of Europe, the country of Byzantium partook in some very grisly wars, particularly in the Balkans. Subjugating this region has always been a dangerous feat for any nation that wished to gain control over the area.

To make sure that they had unquestionable control over the Balkans, the Byzantines used some very gruesome shock tactics to placate the morale of the people who lived there.

One of the facets of this tactic of shock was the harsh punishment of prisoners of war. Unlike modern-day warfare back in the time of the Byzantines, there were no rules on how prisoners of war should be treated. As such, the poor souls caught by the enemy were often either captured and held for ransom, disfigured in some form and sent back to portray a message, or killed at the scene of the battle. Today we will explore the second option of the ones listed above, a tactic that Basil the Bulgar-Killer employed so well it resulted in his nickname.

Byzantine–Bulgarian wars

In a bid to consolidate their power across the Balkans, the Byzantines started a campaign against the Bulgarian empire who wielded much influence across the region. Although the conflict technically lasted just over 675 years, today we will focus on the later stages of the conflict, where the Byzantines had the obvious upper hand over the weakening Bulgar empire.

A picture from a manuscript about the battle of Kleidion. The top shows the Byzantines defeating the Bulgarian army. The bottom shows Emperor Samuel dying of a heart attack after seeing his blinded soldiers. Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of the most significant battles of this conflict was the Battle of Kleidion. During this battle, the then leader of the Byzantines, Basil II, faced off against Tsar Samuel of Bulgaria. The Tsar entered the battle with around 15,000 troops against Basil’s estimated 45,000+.

It is safe to say that the battle was a massacre for the Bulgarians. Nearly the entirety of Samuel’s army was captured by the Byzantines. The punishment the prisoners received is what got Basil his name of the “Bulgar-Killer”.

After the battle, Basil ordered all of the prisoners to be gathered and split up into groups of 100. Out of the group, 99 of the prisoners would be blinded, leaving one to guide the rest back home.

This was done to the entire 15,000 Bulgar soldiers captured by the Byzantines. After this, the soldiers were allowed to go home, being led by the lucky few who escaped the barbaric punishment. Their return to Bulgaria was a grisly sight to behold.

The above-mentioned battle was the beginning of the end of the Bulgarian Empire. With morale at an all-time low due to the punishment received by the troops and much of the army being incapacitated, the empire was unable to hold back the Byzantine forces.

After Samuel II’s death, the entire country of the Bulgars fell to the Byzantine wrath in 1018, marking the end of the hegemony held over the Balkans by the Bulgars.

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