Battle of Spercheios

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Battle of Spercheios
Part of the Byzantine-Bulgarian Wars
Skylitzes-Ouranos kills Bulgarians.jpg
Bulgars put to flight by Ouranos at the Spercheios River from the Chronicle of John Skylitzes
Date 16 July 997
Location Spercheios river, Greece
Result Byzantine victory
Bulgarian Empire Byzantine Empire
Commanders and leaders
Samuil of Bulgaria
Gavril Radomir
Nikephoros Ouranos
Unknown Unknown
Casualties and losses
~1,000 killed,
~12,000 captured

The Battle of Spercheios (Bulgarian: битка при Сперхей, Greek: Μάχη του Σπερχειού) took place in 997 AD, on the shores of the Spercheios river near the city of Lamia in central Greece. It was fought between a Bulgarian army led by Tsar Samuil, that in the previous year had penetrated far south into Greece, and a Byzantine army under the command of Nikephoros Ouranos.[1] The Byzantine victory virtually destroyed the Bulgarian army, and stemmed its raids in Macedonia and southern Greece, heralding a reversal of Byzantine fortunes in the prolonged conflict. The major historical source on the battle comes from Greek historian John Skylitzes whose Synopsis of Histories (Σύνοψις Ἱστοριῶν) contains a biography of the then reigning Byzantine Emperor, Basil II.

Origins of the conflict[edit]

After the major success of the Bulgarians in the Battle of the Gates of Trajan in 986, Byzantium descended into a civil war, further exacerbated by the conflict with the Fatimids in Syria. Tsar Samuil took advantage of the situation and conquered virtually the whole of the Balkan Peninsula, excluding the parts of Thrace closest to Constantinople, and southern Greece.[2] He managed to seize many castles in the surroundings of Byzantium's second largest city Thessalonica.[3] Every year he led campaigns against the Byzantines and plundered their territories. In 991 the Byzantines managed to capture the emperor Roman of Bulgaria but this did not stop Samuil who was now de facto the only emperor of Bulgaria. In 996 he ambushed and destroyed the forces of the strategos of Thessalonica and marched to the south, eventually threatening Corinth.[4]

The battle[edit]

On his way back he met a Byzantine army on the opposite side of the Spercheios river, led by the Domestic of the West, Nikephoros Ouranos. Basil II had appointed Ouranos commander of all Balkan territories of the Byzantine Empire and gave him a large army to cope with the Bulgarians. He followed the Bulgarian army and confronted it after the Bulgarians went through the Thermopylae pass on the river of Spercheios.[5]

Due to heavy rainfalls, the river had swollen and flooded a large area on both shores. The Bulgarians camped on the southern shore and the Byzantines on the northern, separated from each other by the river. The two armies remained thus encamped for several days. Samuil was confident that the Byzantines could not cross, and neglected taking measures to protect his camp. Ouranos however, sought and found a ford, leading his army across during the night, and attacking the Bulgarians at dawn. The Bulgarians were not able to put up effective resistance, and the larger part of their army was routed. Samuil himself was wounded and he and his son Gavril Radomir evaded capture by feigning death among the bodies of their slain soldiers while 12,000 of their men were said to be captured.[6] After nightfall they set off to Bulgaria and in the Pindus mountains gathered the remains of their army. Due to the difficult 400 km journey to Ochrid his arm healed at an angle of 140°. According to Yahya of Antioch, Nikephoros Ouranos returned to Constantinople with one thousand heads of Bulgarian soldiers and twelve thousand captives.[7][8]


The battle was the first major defeat of the Bulgarian army. At first Samuil showed readiness for negotiations but upon the news of the death of Bulgaria's Emperor Roman in prison, he was proclaimed Emperor[8][9] and continued the war. Although Samuil managed to recover and conquer Serbia, the Byzantines gradually took the lead in the war. In 1014 they decisively defeated the Bulgarians and four years later the Bulgarian threat to the Eastern Roman Empire had been neutralized. According to Skylitzes the victory was entirely Ouranos' achievement and Basil II is credited with little besides appointing him to the office of Domesticos.


  1. ^ Catherine Holmes, Basil II and the Governance of Empire (976-1025), Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-19-927968-3, pp. 163-165, 196
  2. ^ Стоименов, Д., Временна византийска военна администрация в българските земи 971-987/989 г., ГСУ НЦСВП, т. 82 (2), 1988, с. 41-43, 55-56
  3. ^ Ангелов, Д., Чолпанов, Б., Българска военна история през Средновековието (X-XV век), Издателство на БАН, София 1994, с. 45
  4. ^ Божилов, Ив., България в епохата на цар Самуил, с. 200, в: сп. Исторически преглед 1999, кн. 5-6
  5. ^ Златарски, В., История на българската държава през средните векове, том I, част 2, София 1971, с. 660-662 (взето на 1.2.2008)
  6. ^ Paul Stephenson, The Legend of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 052181530, p.17
  7. ^ Златарски, В., История на българската държава през средните векове, том I, част 2, София 1971, с. 662-663 (взето на 1.2.2008); Гръцки извори за българската история, том VI, с. 278-279 (взето на 31.1.2008)
  8. ^ a b Розен, В. Р., Император Василий Болгаробойца. Извлечения из летописи Яхъи Антиохийского, с. 34 (взето от "Библиотека Якова Кротова" на 1.2.2008)
  9. ^ Златарски, В., История на българската държава през средните векове, том I, част 2, София 1971, с. 663-665, 668-669 (взето на 1.2.2008)

Further reading[edit]

  • Йордан Андреев, Милчо Лалков, Българските ханове и царе, Велико Търново, 1996.
  • Ioannes Scylitzes, Synopsis Historion