The Bulgarians

The foundation of the Bulgarian state on the territories inhabited by numerous tribes speaking different languages, is definitely connected with the Bulgarians. It is purely for reasons of convenience and as a mark of distinguishing them from the Bulgarian nation formed during the 9th-10th c. on the Slav language basis, that contemporary historians call them proto-Bulgarians, ante-Bulgarians, Turko-Bulgarians or other similar names. They used to call themselves Bulgarians and so did the Byzantines and all other peoples who had known of them in those days. It is, therefore, more than appropriate that when referring to them, the narrative herein-after should use only the name Bulgarians. The Franks who had founded the France of the antiquity are, in fact, Germans, and the population there consists mainly of Gallo-Romans whose language is still the language spoken by the French. Nevertheless, French historians have never called them 'proto-Frenchthe like. The same is true for Russia where the tribe of Norman Russians,nothing in common with Slavdom, is rarely, if ever, referred to in the Russian history as 'proto-Russians'.


The origin and the homeland of the Bulgarian tribes have been an object of both past and present study and research. They have generated and are still generating many hypotheses and violent disputes. This is most likely to continue for a long time to come. The scarcity of clear and reliable sources could hardly be expected to be made up for. There is still one fool-proof fact which is that the Bulgarians' land of origin was in the highland regions of AItai in Siberia. Their language is related to the so-called Turko-Altai group. In other words, the Bulgarians belong to the same ethnolingual group as the Huns, the Avars, the Pechenegs and the Cumans, i.e., the peoples, parts of which are to flow into the Bulgarian nation between the 7th and 14th centuries.

The Bulgarian tribes seem to have been numerous enough, for large congregations of them started drifting towards Europe between the 2nd and the 6th centuries AD. The surges of migration worth noting are three. The Bulgarians were to suffer serious losses during the so-called barbaric raids against the Roman possessions on the Old Continent and in the inter-tribal feuds. Nevertheless,their demographic resources were sufficient to last them out in founding two powerful states, the one near the Volga and the other near the Danube, as well as to inhabit whole areas in other states, too.

As early as the 2nd century AD some Bulgarian tribes came down to the European continent, settling in the plains between the Caspian and the Black seas. In 354 AD they were noticed there for the first time by an European chronicler. In the so-called Anonymous Roman Chronograph, their border in the south was marked along the Caucasian ridge.

The snow-covered crags of the Caucasus were no deterrent for them. According to the Armenian historian Moses of khorene, between 351 and 389 AD Bulgarian tribes headed by their chieftain Vund, crossed the Caucasus and migrated to Armenia. Toponymic data testify to the fact that they had remained there for ever and that, centuries later, they had been assimilated by the Armenians.

Swept by the Hunnish wave heading towards Europe at the beginning of the 4th century AD, other numerous Bulgarian tribes broke loose from their settlements in eastern Khazahstan to migrate to the fertile lands along the lower valleys of the Donets and the Don rivers and the Azov littoral assimilating, in their turn, what was left of the ancient tribe of the Sarmatians. Some of those tribes remained for centuries in their new settlements, whereas others moved on, together with the Huns, towards Central Europe and eventually made their homes in Pannonia and in the plains around the Carpathians.

The Hunnish-Bulgarian association existed throughout the period between 377-453 AD - the time of the Hunnish hegemony in Central Europe. It is true that their name was rarely mentioned by the European authors of those times. The invaders, spreading like a dark cloud over Europe are identified with the collective notion 'Huns', but serious modern researchers are probably right in saying that Attila's combat power came chiefly from the mounted troops of the Bulgarians. It is not fortuitous that when tracing back khan Kubrat's dynasty of statesmen, the ancient Bulgarians always put at the top of his genealogy Avitokhol and Erink, obviously identifying them with the famous Hun leader Attila and his son Ernakh.

Indeed, some West-European authors mention the Bulgarians even during that epoch. These were mainly accounts of battles describing them or their participation. We could only guess as to why did the Pannonian and the Carpathian Bulgarians not come to terms with the Longobards but the frequent wars between them are a fact. It is thanks to them that we know of the battle in which the Bulgarians had cruelly defeated the Longobards, slayed their king Agelmundi and took his daughter captive. Then Lamissio, the new king of the Longobards, hit back and defeated the Bulgarians.

The utter defeat of the Huns in the fields of Chalonssur-Marne led to the dissolution of the Hun-Bulgarian alliance and to new, though individual, activities of the Bulgarians on the international arena. In 480 AD Byzantium signed its first agreement with Bulgarians, hoping to use them as allies in its onerous war against Ostrogothic invaders. The respect the Bulgarian troops enjoyed in those days can be felt in the enthusiastic eulogy by the Ostrogothic poet Enodius. It is about an Ostrogothic leader who was only slightly wounded by a Bulgarian commander in a battle. This laudation describes the Bulgarians as supermen and as invincible in war.

In 488 AD the Goths were forced by the Byzantines and the Bulgarians to move away from the Balkan Penninsula for good. The bad days for Byzantium, however, were still to come. During the 8-year-long campaign against the Goths, the Bulgarians being Byzantium allies, had been eligible to walking freely across Moesia Thrace and Macedonia and they had evidently grown to like these lands.

There started the era of the Bulgarian incursions on the European possessions of the empire.

Only five years after the Goths had been driven out, the Bulgarian troops invaded Thrace, defeated the Byzantine army and killed their leader, Julian. Byzantium could sense the new frightful danger and emperor Anastasius I manifested unprecedented activity in the construction of fortresses. But in 499 AD a new attack of the Bulgarians led up to another humiliating rout - the whole Illyrian army perished in the battle by the river Zurta. In 502 AD the Bulgarians conquered and plundered all of Thrace. From 513 AD onwards the Bulgarian raids against the European possessions of the empire became annual, but from 540 AD a basically new feature became apparent: the Bulgarians were no longer satisfied whit only looking and taking away the population from the rural areas, but adopted besiege techniques and started conquering the forts, too. Thus, only during year quoted, in the region of Illyricum alone, they managed to seize 32 of these forts and to carry away their population together with abundant loot.

It had become too obvious that if things went on like this Illyricum, Moesia, Thrace and Macedonia would soon be devastated and depopulated lands and, even before the turn of the 6th century AD, they would be inhabited by the Bulgarians instead. Byzantium was fortunate that its diplomacy had managed to instigate internecine wars between the two most powerful Bulgarian tribal branches, the Kutrigurs and the Utigurs. This temporarily stopped the Bulgarian incursions against Byzantium. The last one mentioned by the chroniclers was dated 562 AD. During the next five or six decades, the Slav tribes were to be the lucky ones to inhabit the lands of present-day Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian tribes' involvement in joint operations with other peoples would eventually disperse a great many of those who inhabited Central Europe. Thus in 568-569 AD, when the Longobardic king Alboin conquered three big areas in northern Italy - Liguria, Lombardy and Etruria, the population that the king sent there did not consist of Longobardic tribes only, but also of Bulgarian allied tribes from Pannonia. The numerous Italian family names such as Bulgari and Bulgarini extant in northern Italy, have remained as a memento of the Bulgarians brought by Alboin and later assimilated into the Italian people.

Other Bulgarian tribes in the Avar khanate also took part in the Avar campaigns against Byzantium. In 631-632 AD they launched fierce battles to take over the supreme power in the khanate, but were defeated and 9000 of them left Pannonia and withdrew to Bavaria under the Frankish king Dagobert. It is not known why Dagobert welcomed them but later gave orders for them to be killed overnight. The survivinq 700 families succeeded in escaping in battle, crossing the Alps and arriving in Longobardy, where many of their compatriots had already been living. At long last they were well received and offered their first accommodation in the region of Venice but after the year 668 AD they had to move to the deserted coast of Ravena, an exarchate in present-day Italian region of Campobasso. Two hundred years later an ancient writer, Paulus Diaconus, visited them and heard them speak Latin and Bulgarian. Naturally, as the years went by they had also been assimilated into the Italian people. Even today some regions in Rimini and Osimo are called 'the Bulgarian parts', 'the Bulgarian land', 'the land of the Bulgarian Baron.

The Bulgarians living in the plains between the Caucasus, the Black and the Caspian seas preserved intact and even increased their human, economic and military potential. Despite the vicissitudes of fate, they were predestined to found the Bulgarian state.



Bojidar Dimitrov


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