On July 26, 811 (A.D.), exactly 1,202 years ago today, a great but very little-known battle occurred at a place called Verbitsa (or Varbitsa) Pass, which is now in Bulgaria. A great Byzantine army, personally commanded by Emperor Nicephorus I, was trapped in a small narrow canyon by the forces of the Bulgarians and their Khan, known as Krum. One of the most brutal slaughters in all of medieval history ensued. The Bulgarians set upon their enemies and slaughtered thousands of Byzantine troops, nearly wiping out the entire army. Nicephorus was killed, some say by Krum himself. In the battle’s most famous coda, Nicephorus was beheaded and Krum had his skull mounted in silver and turned into a beer mug.
This battle has fascinated me since I first read about it years ago. It’s the most epic defeat the Byzantine Empire had suffered up until that time in its history, and was arguably outdone only by the disastrous Battle of Manzikert (1071) and the two sacks of Constantinople itself (1204 and 1453). The battle ended a dynasty and set the Empire reeling on a downward spiral that would eventually lead, ten years later, to the first Byzantine civil war. Although Nicephorus’s son Stauracius, then 18, survived the battle–albeit with a terrible wound in his neck–and supposedly became Emperor, no one paid him much attention, and the throne eventually went to Michael I. A chimpanzee could have done a better job ruling the Empire than Michael did.
The Battle of Verbitsa was a huge boon to Krum, who only three years later drew his army up against the walls of Constantinople and prepared to besiege it. He possibly might have succeeded, except that he died at an inopportune moment and the Bulgarians lost heart.
What happened to Nicephorus’s head? What few historical sources we have refer to Krum keeping it and drinking out of it for the rest of his life. With as much as he hated Byzantium–the army destroyed at Verbitsa had just recently sacked Pliska, the Bulgars’ capital–surely the head of his arch-enemy would have been his most prized possession. (Some historians call the battle of July 26, 811 the “Battle of Pliska,” although technically it did not take place there). It would certainly be a cool artifact to find, but if it still existed after more than 1,000 years somebody probably would have found it by now.
I don’t know for sure, but I believe J.K. Rowling named the character Krum, the Bulgarian Quiddich champion in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, after this ruler.
I very nearly set my novel Zombies of Byzantium against the backdrop of this period, and the battle at Verbitsa Pass would have been the climax. Alas, I decided the siege of 717-18 was more appropriate and fit better with how I wanted to do the zombies.
(Image courtesy of Lyudmil Antonov)