What does it take for one to become an emperor? For some it seems the key is self-belief and willpower, and when Peter II of Bulgaria’s plea to the Byzantine emperor was rejected something was stirred in him. Peter II would go on to thwart the faith of his people, and rise up to become a self-made emperor. How did he do it?
The Balkan Mountains, a central feature of the Byzantine Empire’s Paristrion province in the 12th century, was where brothers Asen I and Theodor-Peter II were raised. Although the nationality of their father, a wealthy mountain shepherd, was unknown, it is assumed that he was of mixed Vlach, Cuman, and Bulgarian descent.
Due to the inhabitants of the mountainous area, this was not unusual and supports the idea that the sons were local chiefs of the Balkan Mountains. Being from many backgrounds helped the brothers undoubtedly, since it meant that many of the local minorities felt represented.
An Uneasy Empire
So much for Peter, but what of Byzantium? Times were tough, and the empire endured a great deal of hardship by 1186 as a result of steadily rising taxes. According to reports, the soaring taxes were implemented to pay for the wedding of the Byzantine Emperor Isaac II Angelus.
This did not sit well with many of the denizens of the empire. In an effort to negotiate a reduction in the skyrocketing taxes, the brothers were dispatched to Thrace to visit the emperor.
Whilst visiting Peter II, who was described as “hateful and a renegade slave” requested that the brothers were allocated a sizeable estate in the Balkan Mountains, which they could use as a source of income which would allow them to manage the taxes. Not only did the emperor refuse the request, but it’s also reported that he violently humiliated them.
Outraged by the Emperor’s pomposity the brothers sought to use the emperor’s unpopularity to incite an uprising. The strategy was straightforward: rally the Vlach and Bulgar populations to revolt against the Byzantine Empire, claiming independence and establishing an independent state.
Due to widespread misconceptions that the impregnable Byzantine Empire could not be overthrown, it proved difficult to rally an army. But the brothers had a plan: the majority of Vlachs and Bulgarians were devoted followers of a cult whose martyr was Saint Demetrius of Thessalonica.
They could not possibly stand by if their martyr called for action, because he was seen as a vessel carrying God’s will. With this thought, the brothers devised a conspiracy to use the devotion of the populace to accomplish their own aspirations for political power. They first constructed a “house of prayer” where they invited Bulgarian and Vlach prophets and prophetesses to deliver sermons.
In response to the brothers’ instructions, the spiritual leaders persuaded their followers that God required them to take part in the rebellion and aid their compatriots in their quest for freedom. This historical ruse, of manipulating people’s perceptions of their own religious beliefs, was highly effective.
The Self-Proclaimed King of Bulgaria
Peter II started to make public appearances with what appeared to be a crown placed on his head and insignia on his clothing. The chieftain exuded confidence with his army of devotees at his back. Only those who would be proclaimed emperors were eligible to wear an emblem, and in doing so Peter openly defied Byzantium.
It was obvious that Peter II, known as “the first rebel against the emperor,” regarded himself as the imperial suzerain, with his own authority. According to Roman historian Alexandru Madgearu, he “bound his head with a gold chaplet and fashioned scarlet buskins to put on his feet”.
Some claimed that a priest by the name of Basil bestowed the insignia on Peter II. Soon after it was purported that Father Basil was made head of the newly restored Bulgarian Orthodox Church. It’s hard to ignore the probability that the priest was incentivized to crown the king.
But raising an army and wearing the right clothes was only the start for Peter. The brothers were successful in capturing northern Bulgaria after allying with other northern tribes including the Kumans, the indigenous nomadic people of Siberia.
With this victory the brothers split their power; Peter II took control of the eastern part of the Kingdom (the first Bulgarian empire), and his brother Asen I was named Ivan Asen I, the ruler of Tarnovo. However, they were still not satisfied and demanded complete independence from the Byzantine Empire.
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The brothers adopted a strategy in which they capitalized on the political unrest that was destabilizing the empire at the time. By 1190 Emperor Isaac II Angelus and the Holy Roman Empire were at constant war for power. As the Byzantine emperor was preoccupied the brothers set out waging endless campaigns raiding the lands near Byzantium.
The Byzantine armies were forced to meet the brothers in open combat, but were ultimately routed in Serre, in southern Bulgaria, in 1196. Ivan Asen I, who had won the fight, returned to Tarnovo, his capital, and promptly fell victim to a treacherous conspiracy and was killed by a Bulgarian boyar (aristocrat) Ivanko.
The assassin fled to the Byzantine Empire, where he was rewarded with the title of governor in acknowledgment of his efforts to preserve the Byzantine Empire. Ivan Asen I may have been lost, but his brother would now move to secure his emtire empire.
Peter II’s Bulgarian Empire.
When Peter II learned of his brother’s passing, he mounted his forces and went to Tarnovo, but Ivanko was long gone. He appointed his younger brother Kaloyan to rule Ivanko in lieu of his deceased brother and returned to Preslav.
Peter had won an empire, but he would not rule it for long. Just one year after his brother in 1197, Peter II was assassinated under “obscure circumstances.” According to historian and government official Niketas Choniates, the King was “run through by the sword of one of his countrymen.”
Others who were close to the suit claimed that he was killed in a riot planned to get rid of him because he posed a threat to other dynasties attempting to overthrow this reign. The involvement of Byzantium in his death also seems likely.
His reign may have been short-lived but for a brief time, Peter II succeeded in his mission when he became the first emperor (or tsar) of the restored Bulgarian Empire.
Top Image: Peter II rose from a mountain chieftain to defy the Byzantines and found the second Bulgarian Empire. Source: Serikbaib / Adobe Stock.
By Roisin Everard