For centuries Byzantium’s influence over the Croats waxed and waned, first beginning in the early seventh century. Heraclius was the first emperor to enlist the aid of the Croats, to oust the troublesome Avars from Illyricum. Subsequently, the Croats were rewarded for expelling the Avars and settled by order of Heraclius into these lands (Illyricum). In time, the Croats would increasingly look to the Pope and steer away from Byzantium’s influence.
During the turn of the millennium 1000 AD, the Kingdom of Croatia co-existed between 3 European powers, the Holy Roman Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary (Magyars) and the Byzantine Empire. Croatia’s reign as a sovereign state during this period lasted nearly two centuries. It was, in fact, one of the most powerful kingdoms in the Balkans, a testimony of its existence amongst three empires.
Interestingly, despite the fact that most of its history would be politically ruled by others, no one could begrudge them of their will for self termination and independence. 1000 AD Croatia shared fairly good relations with the Pope and the Byzantine Emperor Basil II and later Constantine VIII. However, by 1102 AD Croatia’s crown would pass into the hands of the Hungarian dynasty. Its dream of full independence wouldn’t be realised again until the twentieth century.
Though, if we look back to the year 926AD, at a time when the age of empire attempted to dominate many different ethnic and national groups, the newly recognised Kingdom of Croatia flourished for a while under its first king Tomislav, but faced possibly its greatest threat very early on in its Kingdom. This threat came in the form of a Bulgarian Tsar and this is the story I would like to briefly focus on.
Simeon I of Bulgaria 893-927 AD.
The Bulgarian Usurper Tsar Simeon had dominated the Balkans regions around his homeland through many successful campaigns during his reign (893-927 AD). In doing so, he had completely destroyed Serbia, pushing expelled Serbs into Croatia, but more importantly also sort to humiliate and destroy the Byzantine Empire and make himself the new Emperor. In his last years though, as hard as he tried militarily and politically, he couldn’t get the Byzantine to recognise or elevate him as their new heir, it simply just wasn’t going to happen. Frustrated, he shifted his attention to expanding his stranglehold of the Balkans in the west. He push as far as the borders of Croatia. If he could defeat the militarist kingdom of Croatia, he could then possibly try one more time before his death to conquer the Byzantines. By knocking out the Croatians, whom were on friendly terms with the Byzantines, he wouldn’t have to fight two running battles?
While Simeon was still alive and ruler of the Bulgars, the Byzantines would always have grave fear about Simeon’s imperial and territorial ambitions. This was despite the fact that they promised to continue to pay a handsome annual subsidy to him, and a vow from Simeon that he would withdraw from Imperial territory in 925. With this in mind, the Byzantines sort the help of King Tomislav, the first Croatian king, as part of a ‘get out of trouble’ clause. In previous campaign, the Croats were more than willing to help the Byzantine emperor by sending troops to Italy to expel Muslims from the Byzantine held city of Sipontus, in the Byzantine province of Langobardia. The Byzantine emperor Romanus Lecapenus , who had won Tomislav’s friendship in the 920’s was pleased to have the Croats behind him. Their loyalty may have been one of many reasons why Romanus had handed Tomislav Byzantine dalmatia and recognising him as King. (There is some conjecture about who recognised Tomislav first, was it Pope John X in 925 or Romanus?).
King Tomislav of Croatia 925-928.
When Simeon found out that he had been undermined by the Croats (for their determined insistence in protecting the Serbs), and fearing an attack from an alliance between the Byzantine Emperor and Tomislav, he angrily decided to attack the Kingdom of Croatia in a pitched battle to teach them a lesson.
This pitched battle was fought in the Bosnian highlands in 926, with strength numbers on both sides disputed, possibly estimated in the tens of thousands. As the battle began to unfold, Tomislav had strategically chosen the mountainous battlefield of the highlands to work to his favor, leaving Simeon unaware of the strength of the Croats (and their skill in battle). In the ensuing confrontation the Croats utterly crushed the Bulgarians with their field army and cavalry. Simeon would subsequently never recover from this blow and would die a year later from a heart attack. It would take Bulgaria 50 years to recover from the humiliating defeat and Simeon’s death would readdress the balance of power in the Balkans peninsula.
The Croats would eventually abandon their alliance with Byzantium, for fear of retaliation from the Bulgars. They likely believed it was their best bet for survival in helping them retain their independence and sovereignty? Whatever the reason, the Croats would remain fiercely independently as a nation for almost the next two hundred years, until its union with Hungary in 1102 AD.
The Kingdom of Croatia, above, nestled amongst three great European powers.
The header images is the Crowning of Croatia’s first king Tomislav 925-928 AD.
Notes and Further Reading:
Dimitri Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe 500-1453, Phoenix Press, 1971.
Marcus Tanner, Croatia: A Nation Forged in War, Yale University Press, 2010.
Branka Magas, Croatia Through History, SAQI Books, 2008.