Asens’ Uprising (1185–1189)
PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Bulgars and Vlachs vs. the
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Thrace and Macedonia
DECLARATION: None recorded
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Bulgars sought
independence from the Byzantine Empire.
OUTCOME: Bulgaria won its freedom in a tenuous
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS:
TREATIES: A truce was agreed to in 1189.
Late in the 12th century the Byzantine Empire controlled
most of southeastern Europe, a situation many, trapped
by the Byzantine juggernaut, found odious. In 1185 two
brothers, lords from Turnovo, rose up in Bulgaria to
throw off the Byzantine yoke and establish an independent
state. After attracting a substantial following of both
Bulgars and Vlachs, John (d. 1196) and Peter Asen (d.
1197) boldly declared Bulgaria independent, and John
was crowned King John Asen I at Turnovo in the fall of
1185. The Byzantine emperor, Isaac II Angelus (d. 1204),
quickly led his army into Bulgaria and crushed the rebels
Thinking he had successfully stamped out the insurrection,
Isaac returned to Constantinople. However, the
Asens had fled to the Cumans, a clan of nomadic Turks,
and successfully gained their support. With the aid of the
Cumans, the Asens launched devastating guerrilla incursions
into the border region of Thrace and Macedonia.
Isaac led his army back into the field but was unable to
stop, much less defeat, the raiders. Meanwhile, the Asens
continued to curry support in Europe by appealing for help
against the infidel to Frederick Barbarossa (c. 1123–90)
and the other leaders of the Third CRUSADE. Their solicitations,
however, yielded no results, and they continued to
fight aided only by the Cumans.
Finally, Isaac was able to draw the Bulgars into open
battle at Berrhoe in 1189—much to his regret, as it turned
out. Isaac and the Byzantines were soundly defeated, and
the ensuing truce granted limited autonomy to a Bulgarian
state between the Balkan mountain range and the Danube
River. Bulgarian independence remained tenuous, especially
after Isaac again led an army into the region, this
time successfully defeating the Bulgarians at the Battle of
Arcadiopolis in 1194. When Isaac proved unable to consolidate
his victory, however, the Bulgarians were able to
hang on to their hard-won freedom.
See also BULGARIAN-BYZANTINE WAR (1261–1265).
Further reading: Cyril A. Mango, ed., The Oxford History
of Byzantium (New York: Oxford University Press,
2003); John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Apogee (New
York: Knopf, 1992).