Simeon, King of Bulgaria

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Simeon, King of Bulgaria

Simeon I the Great (c. 864-927) ruled Bulgaria from 893 to his death in 927, a period that saw a significant enlargement of the kingdom to encompass much of the Balkan peninsula and Bulgaria's corresponding rise to become a cultural center of southeastern Europe. Simeon went to war several times against the mighty Byzantine Empire and closer to home lavished resources on helping the Orthodox Church flourish in his land. His rule ushered in a period of greatness for the Bulgarian Empire over the next two centuries that would never be repeated, and for these achievements he is often called Simeon the Great.

The Bulgars were likely a Turkic people who were originally from Central Asia and came westward on horseback with the Huns, whose hordes swept through Europe in the mid-fifth century under the leadership of Attila (406–453). The Bulgars intermarried with Slavic tribes in the area of southeastern Europe where they eventually settled, and by the start of the eighth century were active traders with the powerful Byzantine Empire to the east. Boris, Simeon's father, was an heir to the Krum dynasty, which ruled Bulgaria after 800, and Boris laid the groundwork for the expansion of the Bulgarian Empire when he ordered his people to abandon their pagan religion and convert to Christianity.

Spent Teen Years in Constantinople

This event of conversion for expansion of the Empire occurred in 865, when Simeon was either an infant or about to be born; the exact date of his birth is unknown. It is known that he was Boris's third son, and his father probably intended for him to enter the priesthood, because he was sent to Constantinople, the Byzantine capital and holy city of the Eastern Orthodox Church, for an education around 878, when he was 13 or 14 years old. While there he became fluent in Greek, the language of religious scholarship in this part of the world at the time, and showed a deep interest in the translation of sacred church texts from Greek into a relatively new written language being used in Bulgaria at the time, known as Old Church Slavonic.

Simeon returned to Bulgaria around 888, and entered a royal monastery in Preslav, a city located in northeastern Bulgaria near the present-day town of Shumen. Preslav was emerging as a great center of learning in southeastern Europe thanks to several new churches built since the Bulgarians' conversion to Christianity, and was home to monasteries where monks copied and translated sacred texts. Simeon joined their ranks, translating works from Greek into Old Church Slavonic, which was the first written language in the Slavic lands, and these were disseminated widely and even reached Russia in the period before Slavs there converted to Christianity. The texts included the gospels as well as the writings of such early church fathers and noted theologians as Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 293–373), who would later become Pope Athanasius I, and John Chrysostom (349–407), the archbishop of Constantinople.

Simeon's brother Vladimir assumed the Bulgarian throne when Boris entered a monastery in 889, but the new king then conspired with nobles in the capital, Pliska, to renounce Christianity and return to paganism. When Boris learned of the scheme, he dethroned his son and installed Simeon instead in 893. The coronation took place in Preslav, which Simeon then decided to make the new capital—a form of rebuke to the treacherous Pliska nobles. Historians are unsure of why the line of succession skipped Boris's second son, Gavril, in favor of Simeon.

Invaded Neighboring Byzantium

Almost immediately Simeon was faced with a major crisis: the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI (866–912), under pressure from his Greek wife Zoe, rescinded the Bulgarians' trading rights in Constantinople and ordered them to conduct their business in the Greek city of Thessaloniki instead. Bulgarian merchants were outraged, for in Thessaloniki they were forced to pay much higher tariffs, and when an effort to resolve the crisis with Leo through diplomacy failed, Simeon went to war. His troops invaded Byzantium in 894, an act sometimes referred to as Europe's first war over trade.

Byzantium and its capital, Constantinople, were not far from Preslav. Simeon's kingdom sat on the tail end of the European continent, where the Balkan peninsula descended into the kingdom of Thrace, later known as Macedonia, and then farther southward to Greece. Bulgaria possessed valuable access to the Black Sea, and south along that coastline led to the isthmus that connected the European and Asian continents, where Constantinople was located. Simeon's armies initially faced little resistance, because the vast Byzantine Empire was battling back a threat from Arabic invaders on its other side. A third party, the Magyars, then became involved in the conflict. These were a nomadic people who had come from either Central Asia or the Siberian steppes centuries earlier and settled on the steppes of southern Ukraine. The Magyars struck a deal with Byzantium to attack Bulgarian lands while Simeon and his army were away.

War raged for the next two years until Simeon repelled the Magyars at the Battle of Southern Buh in 896. The Bulgarian victory resulted in the forced westward migration of the Magyars, who moved into present-day Hungary and established a kingdom there that also flourished after it converted to Christianity a century later. Simeon then won a victory over the Byzantine army at Battle of Bulgarophygon later in 896, and moved on to lay siege to Constantinople. Finally, Leo agreed to the terms of Simeon's peace treaty, which included the concession of territory between the Black Sea and Strandzha mountain range, return of trading privileges in Constantinople, and an annual tribute, and either a sum of money or goods, payable to Bulgaria from Constantinople.

Conquered Albania and Serbia

Simeon became determined to diminish the power of the Byzantines from the region, and even began to have designs on the throne himself. In 904, he violated the terms of his own peace agreement when a mercenary force he hired captured the Greek city of Thessaloniki. Simeon planned to rid it of its Greek citizens and instead populate the ancient and strategic port with Bulgarians. Leo agreed to further concessions to prevent this from happening, and after this point Simeon's empire expanded to include a large part of Macedonia and the territory of Albania, the latter situated on the coastline of the Adriatic Sea. North of Albania laid the kingdom of Serbia, and here, too, Simeon imposed Bulgarian rule. This period witnessed the most significant expansion of the Bulgarian kingdom since its founding by the Krum dynasty.

After the death of Leo in 912, Simeon renewed his efforts to conquer Constantinople when Leo's successor refused to pay the annual tribute. A crisis of succession occurred following the new Byzantine emperor's sudden death in 913, and with the Byzantines under the rule of a council of regents headed by the Nicholas Mystikos, the patriarch of Constantinople—an ecclesiastical office similar to that of archbishop—Simeon's armies attacked Constantinople in the summer of 913. Their success forced the patriarch to grant Simeon formal recognition as “Emperor of the Bulgarians.” Included in the new treaty was an arrangement for Simeon's daughter to marry the new Byzantine ruler, Constantine VII, son of Leo. When Zoe—Constantine's mother and Leo's widow—heard of the plot to unite Byzantium with Bulgaria through this match, she returned to Constantinople and in a palace coup ousted her own son.

These events resulted in yet another renewal of hostilities between the Bulgarians and the Byzantine Empire, this time in 917 when the Byzantine army attacked Bulgarian defenses in alliance with both the Magyars and the Serbs, who had chafed under Bulgarian rule. Byzantium possessed one of the most formidable navies in the known world at the time, and deployed it on the Black Sea in August of 917 at the Battle of Anchialos, one of the largest sea battles of the medieval period. Through a combination of strategy and good fortune, Simeon's forces beat back the flotilla from the hills. He then turned to address the treachery of his erstwhile ally, the Serbian prince, Petar Gojniković, sending envoys who tricked Petar into agreeing to meeting, then seized him and took him as a hostage back to Bulgaria, where he died in a dungeon.

Tried to Borrow Arab Navy

Simeon went to war again against Byzantium in 920, this time in a two-year conflict. When tensions flared yet again in 924, he conspired to hire the navy belonging to the Arab Fatimid Empire, based in Cairo, to capture the well-defended Byzantine capital. The founder of the Fatimid caliphate, Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi Billah (birth and death dates unknown), agreed to help, but the envoys sent to arrange the navy were captured in the southern Italian region of Calabria by Byzantine spies, and the plan was foiled. Simeon traveled to Constantinople in the summer of 924 to meet with the new co-emperor, a former admiral named Romanos Lekapenos, and arrange terms of a new peace treaty.

Simeon also began corresponding with Pope John X (died 928) in Rome, who appears to have to seconded Simeon's claim as “Emperor of the Romans,” which made him equal in status to the ruler of Byzantium. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church was also elevated to the status of patriarchate, which gave it equal status to the other leading cities of the Orthodox Church—Constantinople, Alexandra, Antioch, and Jerusalem. In the final year of his life Simeon invaded Croatia and made plans to attack Constantinople again, but died of heart failure in his palace in Preslav on May 27, 927. His underage son, Peter I (died 970) succeeded him, with Peter's maternal uncle, George Sursuvul, acting as regent. In a peace treaty concluded in October of 927, Peter was betrothed to Maria, the granddaughter of Romanos, who then took the name Eirene (“peace”) after the November wedding.

Simeon left his new capital city, Preslav, an impressive showplace for his empire. More than 20 churches were constructed, with the unique Orthodox-style domes, but none of the towers survived Preslav's decline, which began in the 960s when Kievan Rus invaded, followed by the Byzantines determined to avenge Simeon's years of harassment. The empire was subsumed into the Byzantine Empire completely by 1018.


Crampton, R. J., A Concise History of Bulgaria, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Forbes, Nevill et al., The Balkans: A History of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, Rumania, Turkey, originally published by Clarendon Press, 1915, Digital Antiquaria, 2004.