There have been many Byzantine Emperors who had died in battle – Emperors Julian, Valens and famously Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last emperor who couldn’t hold back the might of the Ottomans in 1453. But not many are familiar with the story relating to the death of Emperor Nikephoros I and the desecration of his dead body by the Khan of Bulgaria, Krum in 811CE.
The story of Emperor Nikephoros rise and fall begins in 802, when he deposed Empress Irene with the explicit aim of restoring the Byzantine Empire to its former glory. Once he was rid of Irene, he immediately set to work on resolving the dilemma surrounding the recognition of Charlemagne as Western emperor. He tacitly acknowledged Charlemagne as Western emperor, probably only so that he could concentrate on the grave condition of the empire’s treasury, and the growing concern of the expansion of Bulgarian territories, that had encroached upon on Byzantine sovereignty, north of Constantinople. Nikephoros’ biggest adversary at the time was Krum, the Khan of Bulgaria, who willingly dared to test the resolve of the emperor by sacking the Byzantine city of Serdica in 808.
When news filtered back to the capital (Constantinople) of the sack of the city of Serdica and the massacre of the garrison stationed there, Nickephoros’ was forced to act against Krum’s brazen act of barbarism. And so, spurred on by his angry subjects, Nikephoros with his army marched straight for Krum’s capital of Pliska (which was practically undefended) sacking and destroying it in retaliation. (They say Nikephoros even had time to pause and rebuild Serdica without further exerting himself.) However, Nikephoros wasn’t entirely satisfied, especially because Krum had managed to stay clear of the Byzantines. In his hubris Nikephoros planned to one day return to finally crush Krum.
In early July 811, Nikephoros with an enormous army, marched out again for Krum’s capital. Once in the capital (Pliska), in his determination to finally crush Krum, Nikephoros complete lost his cool and ordered everyone in the city to be be slain without mercy. With the Byzantines gaining the upper hand, Krum had no choice but to sue for peace. But the emperor refused to listen and instead doggedly pursued his adversary into the high mountain, where Krum with the remainder of his army had set up a trap for the Emperor. (In another account, Nikephoros is said to be not in pursuit of Krum, but on his way back to Constantinople via Serdica, seemingly smug and triumphant and is caught by surprise by Krum’s forces because he failed to properly survey a safe route.) To their astonishment the blindsided Byzantines soon realised that Krum’s soldiers had built a wooden wall across the mountain pass at each end. With escape impossible, the Byzantines were left to ponder their fate, as Krum continued to reinforce his fortifications with huge ditches on the other side of the walls with burning logs.
It was in the early morning of the 26th July 811, that the Bulgars finally struck. Nikephoros was apparently heard crying out, “Even if we were birds, we could not hope to escape”. In short, the slaughter was horrible and it continued throughout the day and into the night, as the Byzantines tried in vain to escape by climbing over the wooden wall.
The Battle of Varbitsa Pass (also often referred to as Battle of Pliska) was one of the worst defeats in Byzantine history with casualties and losses of almost the entire army including its emperor. Krum turned out to be no more merciful in victory than the emperor. He ordered that the dead body of the emperor be brought before him, where he next beheaded the emperor and stuck the head on a spike. Legend has it that once the flesh had rotted off, he had it fashioned into a drinking goblet lined with silver. He apparently drank from it until the day he died.