The Battles of Dorostolon 971

Varangian Guard 10th Century

Plan of the battle of Dorostolon.

Immediately following this victory the emperor ordered more units from the Asia Minor forces to cross into Thrace and prepare for the coming campaign. He also began to build up a strong siege train and amass supplies adequate for the powerful force he intended to assemble in order to drive the Rus’ forces from Bulgaria entirely. The expedition was to be accompanied by a powerful naval force which was to carry troops and supplies and be ready to harry the invader from the coast or support the imperial land forces once they had reached the Danube. For this was John’s intention, and his careful preparations make it clear that he was hoping to drive the Rus’ forces back across the mighty river. Diplomacy also played a key role, with the defeat near Arkadioupolis being used to persuade the Pechenegs to withdraw their support, and John claiming that his intention was to replace the deposed Boris on his throne.

In April 971 the emperor’s army – a reasonable estimate based on contemporary sources suggests it may have numbered as many as 30,000 – set off and passed through the Bulgarian frontier regions. The passes which had so often proved the site of Byzantine reverses were undefended – possibly because the Rus’ were engaged in suppressing Bulgarian rebellion to the north – and the army passed safely through, to issue onto the plain in which the Bulgarian capital, Preslav, was located. After a series of short but vicious encounters the Russian forces were defeated and driven off, and the city was recovered, along with the important political prize of the deposed Tsar himself. The Rus’ forces withdrew to the north and joined the remaining Rus’ troops under Svyatoslav himself, who had established his base in the fortress of Dorostolon (Dristra, modern Silistra) on the south bank of the Danube.

The campaign proceeded with the emperor’s march northward. As he went the Bulgarians began to slip away from Svyatoslav, which prompted the latter to execute a number of high-ranking Bulgars he had with him at Dorostolon and imprison many others. The emperor’s advance was virtually unopposed, and the army quickly took a series of smaller fortresses and strong-points defended nominally by Bulgarian troops who, however, offered no resistance when the emperor offered them terms. Only in the approach to Dorostolon itself was there some hostile action: a small Rus’ force had set an ambush in the dense woodland on the approaches to the fortress, and were able to surprise an advance party of imperial cavalry, sent ahead to scout the terrain and, possibly, locate a suitable site for the various divisions of the imperial army to set up camp. As the main body of the vanguard, together with the emperor, arrived to find the bodies of those who had been killed, troops from the imperial bodyguard were despatched to comb through the woods and eradicate the threat. A number of prisoners were taken and as a token of his policy to the enemy the emperor ordered them immediately put to the sword.

Once clear of the woodland, the imperial forces established a base camp where the baggage and siege trains were drawn up in a defensive position with a small detachment to guard them. Shortly afterwards the scouts returned to inform the emperor that the Russians were drawn up in battle order on open terrain before the fortress. Their formation was reported as a long, dense line bristling with weapons, awaiting the imperial assault and confident in their numbers. Although the figure of 60,000 given by one of the sources is an exaggeration (the area of the medieval fortifications within which the Rus’ forces were quartered shows that this figure is far too large), it is clear that the Russian army was considerable, and had been built up over the three years that Svyatoslav had been active in Bulgaria. The incremental addition of more soldiers – possibly including some from beyond the Rus’ lands themselves – had no doubt increased very considerably the original force that had accompanied Svyatoslav’s first campaign in 968.

To oppose the long, dense line of the Rus’, John drew up his force in three divisions over the same front. Both wings were reinforced by a reserve of heavy cataphract cavalry; and in a second line behind the first he placed infantry archers and slingers, who were instructed to maintain a constant hail of missiles on the enemy forces as long as they were in range. By shortly after midday the two forces were drawn up opposite one another. The Russians did not await the Roman attack, but with a long drawn-out battle roar advanced to meet the imperial forces. At the initial clash the Romans were able to halt the Rus’ advance and at one or two points break through the densely packed mass of warriors; but the latter were quickly able to regroup and re-establish the shield-wall with which they now opposed the Roman thrusts. The battle lines moved back and forth for more than an hour until both sides fell back and regrouped preparatory to a fresh assault. Again the Byzantine forces halted the Russian charge, and were even able to push their line back some distance, but it could not be broken. A contemporary eye-witness, Leo the Deacon, who accompanied the imperial high command on the expedition, remarks on the Russian refusal to concede defeat when they had a reputation for invincibility to maintain, as well as their personal honour as warriors; the Roman forces, unwilling to accept defeat at the hands of a barbarian nation who, to paraphrase Leo, could not even ride, were equally unwilling to give up. By late afternoon the battle appeared to have reached a stalemate, and it was at this point that the emperor gave the command to commit the heavy cavalry on both wings. Supported by a renewed push from the heavy infantry in the centre, the wedges of heavily armoured horsemen now advanced against the enemy wings, and with a concerted war-cry from the whole Roman front the imperial forces charged into the Russian lines, the cavalry crashing through the shield-wall with irresistible force, driving the Russian wings back towards their centre. Within a few minutes the Rus’ front collapsed, imperial units had penetrated the enemy line, and the Russians began to break and stream back towards the fortress for refuge. The rout was complete, and many were killed as they tried desperately to enter the fortress before the Romans caught up or the gates were shut on them.

The emperor recalled his troops, and as they began to return to their base camp, preparatory to establishing a siege of Dorostolon, Leo records that the soldiers sang a victory song. The emperor had selected for the imperial encampment a low eminence at some distance from the fortress. This was fortified by a ditch with the earth piled inside, upon which the troops were ordered to set their spears and lances and, propped against them in an unbroken wall, their shields. Leo the Deacon notes that this was the usual arrangement for a Roman encampment in hostile country.

The following day the imperial troops approached the fortress and launched attacks against various points around the defences, but were met with a hail of arrows and stones. Although they replied in kind, neither side seems to have suffered particularly badly from this exchange and, after being unable to make any headway against the defenders, the army was withdrawn to its camp, although the fortress was kept under constant surveillance. Towards evening the Rus’ made a sortie from the fortress and sent a mounted detachment to harry the Roman pickets. Leo notes that this was the first time they had seen the enemy on horseback. It soon became obvious that their lack of experience in mounted fighting would tell against them, and a detachment of Roman cavalry rapidly broke their formation and sent them helter-skelter back to Dorostolon.

The emperor seems at this stage to have decided not to press the fortress too closely but rather to try to tempt the Russian forces out to meet his own army in open battle, where victory might be had much more readily and quickly than through either a direct attack against the well-defended walls and towers of Dorostolon or a prolonged siege. But he had prepared for all eventualities, and it was at this point, about the third day after the Roman forces reached the fortress, that the fleet arrived, a fleet which included both supplies and reinforcements, as well as a number of warships equipped with liquid fire projectors. This weapon – a type of medieval napalm projected from tubes mounted on the bows of the vessels in question – was already known to the Rus’, for the warships of Svyatoslav’s father, Igor, had been destroyed by the very same weapon some thirty years earlier. The arrival of the fleet, which now sealed the Russians on the southern bank of the Danube and removed any chance they might have had to escape, was a great boost to Roman morale but must have seriously eroded the confidence of the Rus’ forces bottled up in Dorostolon.

The day after the arrival of the fleet, Svyatoslav led his forces out once again in an effort to draw the Roman forces into battle, hoping to defeating them and relieve the siege. As before, however, the two armies were evenly matched until the Roman heavy cavalry with their fearful iron maces once more drove the Russian line in on itself. Again the enemy fell back, at first in some order, then dissolving into rout and fleeing back inside the defences.

The emperor now set up his siege weapons around the fortress and began to attack both the walls and the troops within by a constant shower of missiles. In an effort to rid themselves of this annoyance, which was causing casualties and affecting morale, the Rus’ mounted a series of sorties with the aim of burning the Roman siege engines and other equipment. In one such incident the detachment guarding one of the emplacements was taken almost by surprise and its leader, a certain Kourkouas, who is reported to have been slightly drunk following his midday meal, was killed. Kourkouas was renowned for his luxurious and conspicuous outfit, and the Rus’ who killed him, thinking he was the emperor himself, hefted his head on a spear and mocked the Romans, though without the effect for which they had hoped. The siege machinery that they attacked remained undamaged, and the siege continued.

Pleased with this apparent success, however, the Russian army issued forth again the next day, and the emperor permitted them to draw up their line of battle. Once again the battle was joined, with the Roman forces drawn up in a single deep phalanx, the cavalry partly concealed behind the extremities on each wing and the missile troops behind the heavy infantry in the centre. On this occasion, a sharp charge by a Rus’ contingent succeeded in pushing deep into the Roman line, inflicting heavy casualties. But a counter-charge by the supporting cavalry, including units of the imperial guards, thrust it back, with the loss of its leader, Svyatoslav’s second-in-command, at the hand of Anemas, a member of the emperor’s own bodyguard. The Romans were immediately ordered to advance and push back the demoralized Rus’ line, which broke and ran, retreating once more in disorder to the safety of the fortress.

That night the Rus’ soldiers and their families opened the gates and came out onto the field of battle to search for their dead, for whom they then built funeral pyres and, having carried out the appropriate rites, committed their bodies to the flames. Whether the Roman forces watching the fortress were ordered not to interfere, or whether they allowed this activity to take place without consultation, is not stated. But Svyatoslav now summoned a meeting of the leading warriors to seek counsel. Some advised an attempt to break out by boat, across the Danube, braving the Roman warships which were on constant patrol; others advised opening negotiations with the emperor in an effort to save as many lives as possible – for, as one of the Rus’ leaders put it, ‘we are not accustomed to facing heavily armoured cavalry, especially after the loss of so many of our foremost warriors, upon whom the men depend for their courage and leadership’.

Svyatoslav was unwilling to follow either of these courses of action, however, and with the support, apparently, of the majority, voted to fight it out to the bitter end. The Rus’, he said, are not accustomed to give in, but would rather die in battle and go to Valhalla. And, as Leo the Deacon adds in his account, a Rus’ soldier has never been known to fall living into the hands of their enemies.

The same night, therefore, in a desperate attempt to obtain supplies, a Rus’ detachment of some 2,000 men left the fortress in small boats, and at some distance along the southern bank of the river crept ashore to begin their search for provisions. The naval detachments guarding the river should have detected this move, for the emperor had ordered that no Russian should be allowed to get out of the fortress. Instead, having succeeded in collecting some food for their beleaguered comrades, the Russian force made its way back by a different route from that which it had followed on the way from its boats, and stumbled by accident upon a small group of Byzantine cavalry soldiers sent out to water their horses and collect wood. Heavily outnumbered, the unsuspecting Roman troops were quickly put to the sword, and although the alarm was quickly raised, the Russians managed to get back with their supplies before they could be intercepted. The emperor was furious at this lapse in naval discipline, which had caused an entirely unnecessary loss of life and allowed the enemy, who were clearly in increasingly short supply, to replenish their stores. The naval commanders were threatened with execution if such a lapse recurred.

The next day was Friday 24 July, and having spent the day preparing for the battle, the whole Rus’ army sallied out towards late afternoon before the fortress. They formed up in a deep, solid phalanx protected by a solid shield-wall bristling with spears. The Roman forces were drawn up in the usual three divisions with the heavy cavalry behind the wings and with the emperor himself in the centre leading his own cavalry as a reserve. The location of the conflict was slightly nearer the fortress than hitherto, however, with the result that both forces were crowded together on a narrower front, with woodland on one flank and the marshy regions stretching back from the river on the other. The Russians, in order to counter the effect of the heavy cavalry on the Roman side, placed their archers on the wings where they could do most damage should the Roman cavalry attack them there. Led now by Svyatoslav himself, the desperate Rus’ warriors hurled themselves with fury against the Roman line, and soon began to push the centre back. Many cavalry mounts were injured or killed by the unusually heavy Rus’ archery. The emperor, observing that while his men were holding the line they were also rapidly tiring in the heat of the day, ordered the issue of water mixed with wine to the ranks, presumably on a rotational basis so as to leave the battle-lines undisturbed, a move which refreshed the imperial troops and enabled them to withstand the constant Rus’ charges.

Realizing that the overall tactical situation did not favour the Roman dispositions, however, the emperor then ordered a general withdrawal, and with admirable discipline and order the whole Roman line was able to pull back some distance from the fortress onto a broader plain which offered much greater room for manoeuvre and for more effective use of the Roman heavy cavalry. During the withdrawal one Roman officer, a certain Theodore of Misthia, was cut off and isolated from his unit – suggestive of the closeness of the Russian pursuit – and a fierce mêlée developed around him. At one point he is reported to have used a Rus’ corpse, which he lifted before him by the belt, as a shield. He was eventually helped by his comrades who rushed his attackers and got him safely back to their own lines. Some time after this, Anemas, who had already distinguished himself, moved with his unit of guards (probably the Athanatoi, the Immortals, a unit created by the emperor John shortly after his accession in 969) to reinforce the line. Anemas himself came close enough to the Rus’ leader to attack him and knock him down, but Svyatoslav’s armour prevented serious injury and within seconds Anemas was himself cut down by the spears and axes of Svyatoslav’s men.

Heartened by this the Rus’ in the centre attacked with renewed force and the Roman line began to give way. Some of the cavalry in the rear of the line began to waver and turn, and at this crucial moment the emperor decided that he must commit his reserve, his own bodyguard, to the fray. The emperor’s units, with the emperor himself in the forefront, moved to join the fray, and this sight steadied the Roman centre and allowed them to stabilize their position once more. At this critical point a strong wind blew up, accompanied by a fierce thunderstorm – not untypical of midsummer weather conditions in the region – and the Rus’ had the misfortune to find the wind blowing directly in their faces. Eye witnesses reported seeing a rider on a white horse, who appeared in the centre of the Roman lines and led a charge which smashed through the Russian shield-wall. Later stories had it that this was in fact St Theodore, the emperor’s own patron and a leading soldier saint in the Byzantine Church. In fact, it was almost certainly the emperor himself and his elite guards who, in a final move to open up the Russian shield-wall, led a charge of the heavy cataphract cavalry. Either way, the move was successful. The Roman centre now began to push forward once more, and the Rus’ warriors themselves, partially blinded by the rain and dust, were unable to organize themselves against this new onslaught. At the same moment the Roman heavy cavalry on one wing (the reports do not specify which) under the general Bardas Skleros completed an encircling movement begun moments before, crashing into the flank of the Russian wing and driving it back onto the troops in the centre. With this sudden turn of events the Russian lines dissolved and began to flee once more towards the fortress. The slaughter was enormous as the victorious Roman cavalry fell on the routing troops. The Romans lost some 350 against over 15,000 Russian casualties, an improbable figure but indicative nevertheless of very heavy losses. Some 20,000 shields and innumerable swords were taken from the field by the Romans.

This battle marked the end of the Russian attempts to break the siege and drive the Romans off. They had lost too many men and were rapidly running out of provisions to continue the struggle. Despite his earlier refusal to contemplate asking for terms, Svyatoslav now so no other option before him. The emperor accepted the Rus’ proposals for a peaceful withdrawal and the handing over of Dorostolon undamaged, with all the prisoners and booty the Rus’ had taken, and agreed to permit the remnants of the Rus’ army to cross the Danube without being attacked by the warships with the liquid fire projectors, which the Russians greatly feared. Indeed, John even agreed to resume friendly commercial contacts with the Rus’, once Svyatoslav had reached home. In the event, the Russian prince was never to do so, dying in an ambush set at the mouth of the Dnieper by his erstwhile Pecheneg allies.

In a brilliant four-month campaign, carefully prepared and supported by a well-oiled logistical organization – one of the greatest strengths of eastern Roman military administration – the emperor John I had crushed and driven off one of the fiercest enemies the Romans had yet faced. Leaving a strong garrison in Dorostolon, he returned to Constantinople, where the great victory was celebrated with an imperial triumphal procession. The deposed Tsar Boris was asked to surrender his crown, and the eastern parts of Bulgaria were absorbed into the empire as a province. The Bulgarian campaign of 971 highlighted again the discipline, order and effectiveness of the imperial armies of the second half of the tenth century.

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