Short History of the First Bulgarian Empire

Learning about the First Bulgarian Empire can be a perplexing experience. A country founded on the fringes of the Eastern Roman Empire, Bulgaria's was also the child of the earlier Old Great Bulgaria, located in today's Ukraine and Russia. The Slavic and Balkan identity the country is known for today was yet to form from a mix of cultures of the Bulgars, Slavs, Thracians, and the lasting legacy of the Roman Empire.


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How Did the First Bulgarian Empire Begin?

The question is quite difficult to answer. In the most literal sense,  Bulgaria was born in the mid-to-late 7th century AD. The troops of Asparuh settled the lands around the delta of Danube River in today's Northern Bulgaria and South-Eastern Romania. Asparuh is speculated to have carried the title of Han or Khan similar to his father, Kubrat, ruler of Old Great Bulgaria. The Bulgar origins are mysterious, but the most common theory is that they were a Turkic peoples hailing from the Asian steppe. They numbered several tens of thousands. The lands Asparuh settled were part of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Byzantines weren't happy about losing land, but the Bulgarian armies made the Roman Empire secede and even pay tribute. That's why Asparuh is often considered to be the founder of Bulgaria.

Prior to these events, Slavic tribes invaded the Balkans and settled many lands in the Eastern Roman Empire. These Slavs were decentralized and often disorganized, but they changed the fate of South-Eastern Europe forever. It's unknown what Asparuh's relations with the tribes were, but one thing is certain - he found himself ruling a country with a large quantity of them. This group had a massive effect on Bulgaria's future demographic and the whole Slavic and European world.

Little by little, the First Bulgarian Empire became more and more Slavicized, but the language and religious divide between Bulgar and Slav remained. The adoption of Christianity was a way to overcome this divide by making all Bulgarians practice the same religion and use the same language.

The Third Rome

Many empires claimed descent from the Roman Empire. Some of them literally, others spiritually. Bulgaria was the first country outside of Rome to be recognized as having a Caesar, the title of the Roman emperors. In 705, the Bulgarian ruler Tervel, son of Asparuh, was recognized as being a Caesar by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian II after the former assisted the latter in gaining the throne of the empire.

Bulgaria was instrumental in the formation and spread of many ideas we think of when we mention Eastern Europe and the Slavs. Bulgarians were the first majority-Slavs to adopt Orthodox Christianity. The first to have the title we now call "tsar" which is derived from Caesar. The creators of the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russia, today's Bulgaria, Serbia, Ukraine, Belarus, and many other countries, was created in the First Bulgarian Empire.

Most of that began in the capital of Preslav, the Bulgarian Rome. From here, the Bulgarian Tsars ruled and made decisions that would have consequences shaping the fate of the world for the future. On such decision was to assist Byzantium during the Siege of Constantinople in 717-718. The city was attacked by Arab Muslim forces. Tervel helped break the siege and saved the city from being overrun. If he hadn't, the future of Europe may have been a lot different.

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The end of the First Bulgarian Empire

The Eastern Roman Empire and Bulgaria had a complex relationship that included centuries of cooperation, war, uneasy alliences, and cultural exchange. The 10th century marked internal strife within the two neighbors that shifted the balance of power. The Byzantine Emperor Basil II wanted to establish total control over the Balkan peninsula that the Eastern Roman Empire enjoyed prior to the arrival of the Slavs and Bulgars. He succeeded in that goal, retaking all the lands Bulgaria conquered in the past centuries and earning the nickname "Bulgarian slayer". Basil II took control over Bulgaria in 1018.

Bulgaria was under complete Byzantine control, but that doesn't mean this was the end of the country. More than a century later, in 1185, Bulgaria rebelled and managed to regain its independence. This marks the start of the Second Bulgarian Empire. But that's a topic for another time.

Alex Dimchev

Alex Dimchev is a writer, editor, and weapons master for

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