Tsar Simeon the Great

Portrait of Tsar Simeon the Great, artist Dimitar Gyudzhenov
Photo: Архив

This year Bulgaria marks 1,120 years after the reign of famous Bulgarian monarch Simeon I. In Bulgarian patriotic tradition he is popular for his successful wars against Byzantium. But it should be noted that he himself was Byzantine graduate, familiar with the achievements of the Eastern Roman Empire and its culture. Therefore, Tsar Simeon I set ambitious targets for progress and development of Bulgaria.

Simeon was the son of Knyaz Boris I, who introduced Christianity as official religion to the country. He was born probably in the year 864 in the then capital of Bulgaria - Pliska. In 878he was sent to study in Constantinople, where he graduated fromthe prestigious school of Magnaura.Simeon mastered to perfection the Greek language and the art of diplomacy. He also took a monk’s oath.Hestudied arithmetics, astronomy and music. Byzantine chroniclers mention his erudition and call him "emiargos" / half-Greek/ - the highest praise for a foreigner. In 886, at the invitation of Knyaz Boris of Bulgaria the students of Slavic educators St. Cyril and Methodius were welcomed to Bulgaria. Boris also called Simeon back to Bulgaria to help with spreading the word of god. But fate decided otherwise. Boris retired to a monastery and the throne was taken by Simeon’s elder brother Vladimir Rasate. Under his rule Bulgaria began to return to the pagan gods. This made Boris leave the monastery.He blinded Vladimir and put him in a dungeon for the rest of his life. Then Simeon abandoned his vow to become a monk and Boris made him the next Bulgarian Knyaz.

The beginning of his reign was accompanied by many difficulties. In 894 a war with Byzantiumbegan. The reason was purely economic - moving the venue for Bulgarian goods from Constantinople to Thessaloniki and the increase of their duties. Another important reason, however, was the growing independence of the church in Bulgaria, where services were held in Bulgarian language. Byzantines attacked southern Bulgaria, but without success. Soon, however, Magyars who received rich gifts from Constantinople began ruinous raids in northern Bulgaria. Simeon, however, was able to apply what he learned in Byzantium. He in turn imitated negotiations with the Byzantines, while assembling a powerful army meanwhile and defeating the Magyars. Then in 896 he attacked the Byzantines and brought them to defeat nearBulgarophygon /today’s town of Babaeski, situated in Turkey/. The territory of Bulgaria significantly expanded after the victory.

New war with Byzantium began after the death of Emperor Leo VI. His brother Alexander, took the thronebut refused to pay the annual tribute to Bulgaria. In 913 Simeon’s troops stood before the walls of Constantinople. The Bulgarian ruler, however, did not have a navy and did not want to attack the fortified city on land only. He began negotiations which proved successful. Byzantine Patriarch Nicholas the Mysticpersonally gave Simeon the title Tsar.  That was how Simeon received recognition as a ruler of powerful country spreading from the Black Sea to the Adriatic and from the Mediterranean to the Carpathians. Soon, however, Nicholas the Mystic, virtually ruler of the Byzantine Empire, was deposed by Empress Zoe, who sought revenge and war resumed. The decisive battle took place near the Aheloi River, north of present-day Bulgarian city of Burgas, in 917. At the time about 120,000 soldiers fought in the great battle. The Bulgarian army was largely conscript army comprised of free peasants. According to Byzantine chroniclers, Simeon won a great victory - the army of Commander Leo Phocas was surrounded and almost completely destroyed.

Despite a series of wars under the rule of Simeon Bulgaria also experienced an economic and cultural boom. His reign is justly called the "Golden Age". Simeon the Great spent 28 years to build a new Bulgarian capital city – Great Preslav. One can see similarities with the way Constantinople emerged as a new capital of the Roman Empire, the Second Rome. Contemporaries described with admiration Veliki Preslav. A modern archaeological research also shows the size and beauty of the buildings. Preslav also became an importantliterary center. The King himself participated in translating the books of Christian wisdom. Simeon was the center of an intellectual circle of writers and educators. The works created by this circle are essential for the development of Slavic literature as a whole and are of world significance.

Simeon died in 927 after an unsuccessful war against Croats. His successor, King Peter soon began negotiations and managed to achieve peace with both the Byzantine Empire and the other Bulgarian neighbors, keeping most of the previous conquests of his father. Assessment of the rule of Tsar Simeon cannotbe one-sided. Undoubtedly his wars were exhausting for the Bulgarian people. He paid for them with taxes and with many casualties. The vast territory conquered by Simeon could not be retained in full. However, he gave successors vast lands in which Bulgarian language, culture and literature flourished for centuries. Bulgaria also gained its independent church.

In the nineteenth century, in the last decades of Ottoman rule in the Bulgarian lands, the rule of Simeon became very popular. The great Tsar became an inspiring example for the leaders during the Bulgarian Revival period.

English version: Alexander Markov

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