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Tsar Samuil

"Perched in his royal seat high over the city of Ohrid, Tsar Samuil fought the Byzantine invaders who frequently tried to take over Macedonia. A ruler as well as a warrior, he led a brave and loyal army who would follow him to the grave."

Tsar Samuil established the first Macedonian state in 976 A.D. lasting until 1018, following the defeat at the hands of the Byzantines. Samuil's Empire consisted of the entire region of Macedonia, as well as Thessaly, Epirus, Albania, Serbia, Duklja, Travina, Zahumlje, Neretva, and a considerable part of Bulgaria. In this empire the majority of the population were Macedonians, followed by Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats, Romaioi (Byzantines), Albanians, and Vlachs. The official language of the empire was Macedonian.

Tsar Samuil's Fortress

Tsar Samuil's Fortress - Ohrid, Macedonia

The Archbishopric of Ohrid was established with Ohrid becoming the religious centre and capital of the Empire. Following the defeat of Samuil's Empire by the Byzantine Empire in 1018, the Macedonians were dealt with harshly.

  • "The Byzantine Empire also placed the Archbishopric of Ohrid under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the Greek hierarchs started suppressing Slavonic written documents, Slav hagiographies, etc. It was considered, that with the eradication of the Archbishopric of Ohrid the traditions cherished by the Macedonian people will also be eradicated. Yet Slavonic literacy could not be eradicated." 1

The work of Sts. Cyril and Methody was already well-established. In addition to creating the first Slavonic alphabet, translating religious books into Macedonian, they also expanded their activity among other Macedonians.

Clement and Naum continued the mission of the two brothers.

  • "In Ohrid, during his activity of 20 years, Clement instructed about 3,500 teachers and priests in the Slavonic alphabet and introduced the Slavonic language in religious service. He was the first original Slav and Macedonian writer. The Ohrid Literary School, being the first Slav university, has left deep traces and has been the basis for Macedonian cultural identity." 2

The Empire of Samuil - Summary (from Mi-An Publishing)

At the end of January 969, immediately after the death of Tsar Petar, the four sons of the Komitadji Nikola-David, Moysey, Aron and Samuil-began an uprising against Bulgarian authorities. Taking advantage of a Russian invasion by Prince Svyatoslav which preoccupied the Byzantines and Bulgarians, they quickly succeeded in overwhelming all opposition in the region. The young Komitadjis, whose territory was far distant from the Russo-Byzantine conflict, remained neutral despite attempts by both sides to sway them. In the summer of 971 near the Danube River, Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimisces delivered a decisive blow to Svyatoslav, and incorporated the Bulgarian empire into Byzantium following the victory.

For two years the Macedonian state of the four brothers had been independent of Byzantium. With the Tzimisces' victory over Svyatoslav and the extension of Byzantine borders as far as Dalmatia, the Macedonian state could be subordinated to the supreme authority of Constantinople in 971, and Bulgaria and Serbia were transformed into Byzantine provinces. By 976, the Komitopulis made several attempts to gain international recognition; there is record of a visit paid by two of them to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I in 973, with the intention of contacting European rulers gathered in Otto's capital at Kwedlinburg. In January 976, immediately after the death of Tzimisces, the komitopulis rose in revolt: some historians consider this to be a second, new uprising by the four brothers, while others argue that it was a continuation of their first uprising of 969.

"The first date, the year 969," writes Styepan Antolyak, "marks the beginning of the formation of a state core in Macedonia under the leadership of the komitopulis, who, after their liberation from the authority of the Bulgarian church began to extend [the borders of] their still small state in the shadow of nominal Byzantine supremacy. The year 976 marked the beginning of strong development of the state community, the borders of which soon extended from the Black Sea to the middle part of the Adriatic and to the Sava, Drava and Danube Rivers."

In the newly-established state, completely independent of Byzantium, the brothers ruled jointly. This joint rule lasted for a very short time: "Of the four brothers, David was soon killed in the area between Prespa and Kostur by some Vlach travelers, while Moysey was slain by a stone thrown from the ramparts during the siege of Serres. According to the records, Aron, either because he supported the Romaeans or because he sought to grasp power for himself, was killed together with his family by his brother Samuil. Only [his son] Ivan was saved by Radomir Roman, Samuil's son. Thus, Samuil became the sole ruler of Bulgaria: a militant man who was never at peace." Such were the circumstances in which the life of the new empire began. The ambitions of Samuil, called "a brilliant commander" even by Byzantine chroniclers, lay in the west: he attacked Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaloniki, Thessaly, Greece and Peloponnesus. By the 10th century, he succeeded in incorporating the entire territory of Macedonia (without Thessaloniki), most of the former Bulgarian Empire, part of Greece, a large part of Albania, Dioclea, Serbia, Bosnia and a part of Dalmatia within his Macedonian Empire. At the close of the 9th century, Pope Gregory V heralded and blessed Samuil as a king, and the empire of the youngest son of the Komitadji Nikola acquired international recognition and character.

It is very important to note which church recognized Samuil. Some Bulgarian historians have asserted that Samuil's empire was a continuation of the First Bulgarian Empire-recognized by Constantinople and the Orthodox Church. But Samuil's empire was recognized by the Catholic Roman Curia. In addition, Samuil represented a new imperial dynasty, the empire was founded on a new state and legal basis, with new twin capitals at Prespa and Ohrid, and with a precisely defined core centered around Macedonia and the Macedonian Slavs as the fundamental element of the new empire. All of this points to the fact that Samuil's empire was not merely a continuation of the First Bulgarian Empire recently shattered by Byzantium, but a new political entity which emerged independently. The first capital of Samuil was Prespa, later transferred to Ohrid. At that time, the latter was a strongly fortified town and well-suited to forestall Byzantine reconquest. In Ohrid Samuil built imperial palaces and a church to be the seat of the Macedonian church. It is also significant to note that, throughout the existence of the Macedonian Empire, the capital was situated within Macedonia-a confirmation of the essentially Macedonian character of this medieval Balkan state.

As recorded in Byzantine chronicles, Basil II, the new Byzantine emperor, invaded Macedonia almost "every year" and gradually succeeded in capturing and destroying a number of strongholds. The fall of Durres and of the fortified towns on the other side of the Maritsa River and the submission of Greater and Lesser Preslav, Pliska, Veria, Servia, Voden, Vidin, Edirne and Skopje considerably eroded Samuil's power. The decisive battle between Samuil and Basil II took place at the foot of Mt. Belasitsa on July 29, 1014.

"The emperor had given up hope that he would be able to pass, when Nicephorus Sciphianus, appointed by him as strategist of Philippopolis, bade him stay there and assault the barriers [before the battle of Belasitsa Samuil had blocked the road where Basil II sought to enter Macedonia by barriers and trenches], while he would attempt a rescue action. And he took his soldiers and, unexpectedly, with shouts and great noise, appeared on the hill behind their backs. Frightened by the unexpected appearance of enemy soldiers, the army [of Samuil] started to run away. The emperor pulled down the barriers and began to chase them. Many of them were killed, and even more were taken captive. Samuil narrowly escaped death with the help of his son, who bravely fought against the attackers. He put his father on a horse and took him to the fortress called Prilep. The emperor blinded captives-about 15,000 of them, they say-and ordering afterwards that every hundred of them be led by a one-eyed soldier, he sent them thus to Samuil. The latter was so shaken by the sight of them walking in rows of equal numbers that he felt sick. Everything went black in front of his eyes and he fell on the ground. Those present, who tried hard to restore his breathing with water and herbs, succeeded to bring him back to consciousness for a few minutes. When he revived he asked for cold water; however, when he began to drink, he suffered a heart attack and two days later he died." This is the 12th century account of the Byzantine historian Skylitzes about the defeat of Samuil by Basil II. There is no definite proof where Samuil died-in Prilep, as claimed by Skylitzes, or in Prespa, as stated by Michael Attaliot. But the date of Samuil's death is placed at October 6, 1014.

The death of Samuil did not mean disintegration of his empire. His successor to the throne was his son Gavril Radomir, who continued the war with Byzantium and raided as far as Constantinople. The Byzantines intrigued to achieve what they could not win on the battlefield: they persuaded Ivan Vladislav, the son of Aron-alive only thanks to Gavril Radomir's intervention with Samuil-to kill Radomir. Promised "gold and silver to his heart's content" and even Samuil's empire, Vladislav agreed and in August or September 1015, Gavril Radomir was killed by Ivan Vladislav while hunting near the town of Ostrovo. Regardless of the fact that he took an oath of loyalty to Basil II, Ivan Vladislav continued to fight Constantinople. But after a series of dramatic battles, devastating campaigns and acts of treason throughout Samuil's empire, the last faithful commanders of Samuil, Ivec and Nikolica, were defeated in the summer of 1018 and Ohrid taken. Basil II could now boast that he had crushed and conquered Samuil's state. The territory of Macedonia was divided into a number of administrative regions, called themes. Consequently, the chances for Macedonians to unite and renew the uprising were reduced to the absolute minimum.


  1. Makedonski Icelenuchki Almanac '95, Matitsa na Icelenitsite od Makedonija; Skopje: 1995; p.36
  2. Ibid; p.37

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