Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
EMPEROR JOHN TZIMISKES (Circa 969-971 AD)
8. “A fool wert, Frodi, and frenzied of mind,
The time thou, men’s friend, us maidens didst buy;
for strength didst choose us and sturdy looks,
but didst not reck of what race we sprang.”
Anonymous; Grottasongr, Prose Edda (Hollander)
(969) When the Armenian General John Tzimiskes had heard that Prince Sveinald was soon to be crowned co-Emperor by his former general, Nikephoros Phokas, he knew it was time to act. He told his lover, Empress Theophano to talk Emperor Nikephoros into recalling him to Constantinople so they could begin an insurrection. Theophano persuaded her husband to recall General Tzimiskes to Constantinople so that he could find a new wife of noble lineage worthy of the nephew of the Emperor. His wife had just died of a diseases; Tzimiskes was a member of the Kourkouas family and his mother was the sister of Emperor Nikephoros.
On his arrival in Constantinople, he presented himself to the Emperor and was instructed to visit the palace daily. He then found ways to slip into her apartment through certain secret passages, shown him by the empress, and they had discussions on how and when to attack Emperor Nikephoros in the bedchambers of the palace. Soon he started sending her, at intervals, strong warriors, whom she received and kept in a secret room just off her dressing room. When they had assembled an attack force, John Tzimiskes summoned General Michael Bourtzes and Leo Pediasimos to his home and they began to plot the murder of Emperor Nikephoros. It was then the tenth day of the month of December.
It is said that during the evening, about the time of the vesper hymns, a certain priest of the imperial court handed the Emperor a note that said, ‘Let it be known to you, Οh Emperor, that a terrible death is being prepared for you tonight. Because this is true, order a search of the women’s quarters, where armed men will be apprehended who are planning to carry out your murder.’ After the Emperor read the note, he ordered his chamberlain Michael to make a careful search for the men. But either out of respect for the empress, or because he feared losing her, he left her private chambers unsearched. As night had already fallen, the empress, as was her custom, went in to the Emperor, and spoke of some maidens who had recently arrived in Constantinople, saying, “I am leaving to give some instructions for their care, and then I will come back here so, leave the bedchamber open and don’t lock it. I’ll lock it when I get back.”
But the empress did not leave the palace to run the errand. She remained in her private bedchamber and guarded the warriors in her dressing room and awaited the arrival of John Tzimiskes and his associates who had sailed to the Island of Princes to facilitate the escape of several imprisoned Armenian generals who were to take part in the murder. The conspirators were to all have an equal hand in the killing, a Death by Cuts, so they would all shoulder the blame equally.
While awaiting his empress, the Emperor made his usual prayers to God and devoted himself to the study of Holy Scriptures. When the need for sleep came upon him, he laid down on the floor, upon a leopard skin and a scarlet felt cloth, for he was an ascetic who often shunned his bed. Meanwhile Tzimiskes’ hidden warriors, came out from the secret chamber and waited in the empress’s dressing room, armed with swords, and were awaiting their general’s arrival, some watching closely from the terrace of the upper rooms of the palace. The water clock was just indicating the fifth hour of the night and a fierce north wind filled the air and snow was falling heavily.
General Tzimiskes arrived with his fellow conspirators, General John Kourkouas, Domestic Theophanes, General Michael Bourtzes and Leo Pediasimos, sailing along the shore in a light boat and disembarking on land in the place called Boukoleon and John whistled to his warriors, who were leaning out from the terrace above, and they let down a basket attached to ropes, and hauled up all the conspirators, one at a time, and then John himself. After ascending undetected, they entered the private bedchamber of Empress Theophano and hid in her dressing room while waiting for the appointed time of the murder. Theophano knew that there was a slight lapse in protection when the Emperor’s body guards did a shift change between the seventh and eighth hour of the night so, they had a bit of a wait.
John and Theophano laid back on her bed and relaxed while the rest of the conspirators waited in the dressing room. The room was cool and the two were soon under the covers and snuggling to keep warm and John began massaging her breasts to warm his hands. Sailing in the December night had been very cold and he had been chilled to the bone so he tore open her night robe and pulled her warm body atop his. She rubbed her body up and down along his and soon had him warmed up and ready to go. She slipped under the sheets and took his penis into her mouth to make sure it was sufficiently warm to insert within her and then she slid up his body and took his member inside herself and began sliding up and down his body slowly and when she began coming, she threw off the blankets and began riding him like a stallion. They tried keeping quiet but Theophano let out a few muffled moans into the cool night air and Michael Bourtzes heard a noise and opened the dressing room door a crack and watched the Empress fucking her general. The dressing room was warm and stuffy with all the warriors and conspirators hiding in it so, Michael watched as the cool air of the bedroom swept across his face. He watched Theophano’s beautiful breasts bounce as she rode her stallion and her beautiful face contorted a bit as she choked down her moans. She looked over at the dressing room door just as it closed and she rode her steed harder until he came hard and flowed within her, then she collapsed atop her general.
At the appointed time, Theophano went out into the palace hallway and saw that the one group of bodyguards had gone and the next had not shown up yet. She then went across the hall to Nikephoros’ master suite and made sure the door was still unlocked. She returned to her private bedroom and reminded John that he had ten minutes before the second set of guards would arrive. General Tzimiskes opened the door to her dressing room and let out his eleven suffocating conspirators and they all came out into the cool room and stretched themselves. They skulked across the hall and entered the Emperor’s great room and locked the door behind themselves and crept into the imperial bedchamber with swords drawn. When they reached the bed and found it empty with no one sleeping in it, they were petrified with terror and some tried to hurl themselves into the sea from the terrace of the room. But a eunuch from Theophano’s staff of the women’s quarters led them and pointed out the sleeping Emperor on the floor; they surrounded him and leapt at him and kicked him with their feet. When Nikephoros woke suddenly and sat up, Leo Balantes, struck him violently with his sword. The Emperor cried out in pain from the wound, for the sword struck his brow and eyelid, crushing the bone, but not injuring the brain, and he then cried out in a very loud voice, “Help me, Οh Mother of God!” and he was covered in his own blood and stained red with it. John, sitting on the imperial bed, ordered his men to drag the Emperor over to him and he was dragged over, prostrate and collapsing on the floor, not even able to rise to his knees, his great strength gone, sapped by the blow of the sword. John Tzimiskes questioned him in a threatening manner, saying, “Tell me, you most ungrateful and malicious tyrant, wasn’t it through me that you attained the Roman rule and received such power? Why then did you disregard such a good turn, and, driven by envy and evil frenzy, hesitated not, to remove me, your benefactor, from the command of the troops? Instead of rewarding me, you dismissed me to waste my time in the countryside with peasants, like some alien without any rights, even though I am braver and more vigorous than you; the armies of the enemy fear me, and there is no one now who can save you from my hands. Speak then if you have any grounds of defense remaining against these charges.” The Emperor, who was already growing faint and did not have anyone to defend him, kept calling on the Mother of God for assistance. But John grabbed hold of his beard and pulled it mercilessly, while his fellow conspirators cruelly and inhumanly smashed his jaws with their sword pommels so as to shake loose his teeth and knock them out of his jawbone. When they had their fill of tormenting him, John kicked him in the chest, raised up his sword, and drove it right through the middle of his brain, ordering the others to strike the man, too. They slashed at him mercilessly, and one of them hit him in the back with an akouphion, a long iron weapon that very much resembled a heron’s beak, and thrust it right through to the breast. Such was the end of the life of Emperor Nikephoros, who lived fifty-seven years, but held the imperial power for only six years and four months. He was a man who unquestionably surpassed every man of his generation in courage and physical strength, and was very experienced and energetic in warfare; unyielding in every kind of undertaking, not softened or spoiled by physical pleasures, a man of magnanimity and of genius in affairs of state, a most upright judge and steadfast legislator, inferior to none of those who spend all their lives on these matters. He was loyal to his allies and remained a true friend to Prince Svein and Princess Sviataslava to the very end, even when Empress Theophano woke up from her sleep one night and told him that she finally recognized and remembered who Svia actually was: a more beautiful younger cousin that she’d had shipped off to a nunnery to avoid having to compete with her in the royal bedchamber of the womanizer, Emperor Romanos.
When Nikephoros’ second bodyguards heard, too late, the racket emanating from his bedchamber, they rushed to defend him, in the belief that the man was still among the living, and they tried to force open the iron reinforced door with all their strength so, General Tzimiskes ordered that Nikephoros’ head be brought in and shown to his bodyguards through a window near the terrace. A man named Atzypotheodoros went and cut off the Emperor’s head and showed it to the enraged guards. When they saw the horrid and unbelievable sight, they let their swords fall from their hands, and with one voice proclaimed General John Tzimiskes as Emperor of the Romans. Nikephoros’ body lay outside on the terrace in the snow all day long (it was Saturday, the eleventh of December), until late in the evening when Tzimiskes ordered it carried off for funeral service. After it was placed in a hastily built wooden coffin in the middle of the night, they carried it secretly to the Holy Church of the Apostles, and buried it in one of the imperial sarcophagi in the hereon, where the body of the holy and celebrated Constantine is laid to rest. Only John Tzimiskes knew what had happened to his head.
News arrived from Constanza that the Emperor Nikephoros was dead, so Prince Svein sent a messenger to Tmutorokan with the news for his grandfather. He then sent a messenger to Constantinople with condolences for Empress Theophano but the messenger was turned away at the city gates. “It’s a good thing the Prince warned us to sit tight in Pereslavet,” Svein told Svia. “The new Emperor is General John Tzimiskes of the Kourkouas family, a nephew of John Kourkouas, an old general that had come up against my father, Ivar. I think they were hoping we would have arrived just after the murder, then they’d kill two birds with one stone.”
“That’s why he was focking Empress Theophano!” Svia said. “That dirty little cunt was in on the plot! She’s going to marry John Tzimiskes!”
“I don’t think Tzimiskes wanted me to take over his troops in the Levant. I’m going to have to take Constantinople if I’m going to be co-Emperor. I’ll have to kill General Tzimiskes!”
“And I’ll kill Theophano!” Svia said.
“No. I’m going to marry Theophano,” Svein said. “She’s old, but she’s still pretty hot looking.” Svia punched him on the shoulder. “Okay,” he relented. “I’ll lock her up in a nunnery and make you empress instead,” and he rubbed his shoulder.
“I’ll kill Theophano,” Svia repeated, determinedly.
“Okay,” Svein said, trying to figure out what Svia had against the empress.
They spent the Yulefest in Tmutorokan, visiting with Svein’s family in Gardariki and Svein and Hraerik argued about launching a campaign against the Romans. “These Armenian generals are dangerous,” Hraerik argued. “You don’t want to fock around with them. They know what they’re doing and they cheat all the time. They don’t post hazel poles and fight fair. If they can ambush you they will. And they don’t even follow their own old Roman laws of conquest. They’re Christians now and can do anything they’re god tells them to do, which is pretty much anything they want to do.”
“I want what is rightfully mine and I want my mother to have what Emperor Constantine owes his wife. I was screwed out of being King of Denmark and I’m not going to be screwed out of being co-Emperor of Rome. I don’t even mind sharing the throne with my step-father Constantine’s grandsons, but John Tzimiskes has got to go. If I even threaten Constantinople, the mob will turn on Tzimiskes and kill him.”
“They’ll never let you become co-Emperor!” Hraerik repeated. “That’s what cost Nikephoros his life. He was going to keep his word and make you co-Emperor.”
“I’m a hero in Constantinople!” Svein said. “You should have seen the mob cheering for me when we had Tzar Peter’s head on a pike in front of the Milion!”
“Well, you aren’t anymore!” Hraerik told him. “Tzimiskes hasn’t put Nikephoros’ head on a pike, but my spies tell me he carries it in a chest and shows it to his supporters and shows it to his enemies before he has them exiled. He warns them they could be shortened like Nikephoros. My spies tell me that John says, ‘He used to be a head taller than me. Now he’s only a head tall!’ and he laughs in Phokas’ face.”
“Fock!” Svein said. “I was just getting to like Nikephoros. Now I’m going to have to kill Tzimiskes and his uncle, John Kourkouas, as well.”
“Don’t fock around with these Armenians!” Hraerik warned.
“Are you coming up to Kiev with me?” Svein asked. “I want to get the Kievan legion ready. And I want to visit my sons. Malfrieda’s supposed to pop in the new year. And I promised her I’d get you to visit with your Khazar princess, Serah, and your daughter.”
“It’s focking cold there!” Hraerik complained.
“What happened to your ‘world warming’ theory?”
“This is as warm as it gets. Five hundred years from now, it’ll be so cold that all the trade routes will be shut down again. No Dan’Way, no Nor’Way, no nothing.”
“You should come. Give those big Khazar breasts a kiss or two and spend some time with your baby girl. I have to coach Malfrieda along. I need a daughter for alliances and it’s like you said, ‘If I sneeze, I get her pregnant!”
Hraerik laughed and said he’d come. “Should we send messengers north beyond the Baltic and tell them we need Varangian warriors for your war?”
“No,” Svein said. “I’ve sent messengers to Count Vlad in Wallachia and Tzar Boris in Bulgaria and to Kagan Baitzas of our Pecheneg allies. I told them I needed troops, but I haven’t said what I needed them for.”
After the new year celebrations in Gardariki, Svein and Hraerik sailed across the Sea of Azov and went to Kiev by horse drawn sleighs, first through the lands of the Oster Goths and then up the frozen Dnieper, stopping to visit with the eight Pecheneg clans that lived on either side of the river. The Pechenegs agreed to support Prince Svein and promised Prince Hraerik their finest young warriors. They enjoyed the hospitality of the various clans as they progressed upriver and stayed in Gardar forts the rest of the way to Kiev. Then they were welcomed by family in King Frodi’s palace in Kiev and Hraerik slept with Serah in King Frodi’s suite and Svein slept with the very pregnant Malfrieda in his mother’s old suite. They spent time with Svein’s sons, Eyfur and Helgi and baby Valdamar, and with Hraerik’s new daughter, Serahtoo. Hraerik’s Khazar princess had been saddened by what Svein had done to her people so Hraerik asked her if she would like to try for a boy and she cheered up at this. So, for the correct three days they had sex without lambskin between them and they crossed their fingers.
Prince Svein and Malfrieda were both convinced that she would be having a girl so, Svein talked with the little girl as he focked Helga’s handmaiden. Some days the princes watched the First Kievan Legion in training and one day word came to them in the barracks that Malfrieda had gone into labour so, they both rushed off to be with her in the palace. A midwife and Serah were both with her when they arrived just in time to see a bald little head emerge into the world. “It’s a girl,” the midwife said as she guided the slippery baby out of the womb. “Use my knife,” Hraerik said, passing his seax to his grandson. “Welcome to the world, Helga!” Svein said, cutting the cord. He passed the girl up to Malfrieda who put Helga on her chest and snuggled her up to a breast. “She’s suckling already!” Hraerik said, amazed. “Her breasts are almost as big as yours, Serah,” he teased. “She’s a big one,” Serah replied. “She’ll need fine breasts.”
“Count Vlad will be glad you named your last boy Valdamar,” Hraerik said when they were heading back south by sleigh, “and Helga will be pleased you named your first daughter after her.”
“I hope he’s fully recovered by now,” Svein said. “And I hope you have too.”
“I still take my cabin boy, Shawn, to India with me,” Hraerik said.
“You’ll have to start wearing protection with your cabin ‘boy’ soon,” Svein reminded him.
“She’ll…he’ll be good for another year or two,” Hraerik said, and they both laughed. “How about your girl, Svia? Have you been wearing protection with her?”
“No,” Svein admitted. “I was hoping we’d have children by now. Svia was locked up in a nunnery when she was young. She was raped and abused by priests and bishops when she was just a girl. Perhaps that is why she hasn’t gotten pregnant.”
“Sinead was abused as well when she was a girl, but by her own brothers. Then her father sold her to one of our slavers as a wee wife. I wanted to get her out of that.”
“Sinead? That’s your Shawn?” Svein asked and Hraerik nodded. “How’s that working out?”
“We have helped each other,” Hraerik said. “I have found her a family in Tmutorokan, but she still wants to travel with me.”
“You should tell her to stay with her new family.”
“I have,” Hraerik agreed, “but we still need each other.”
“Those focking Impalers!” Svein shouted. “I still sleep inside Svia,” he admitted. “I don’t know what it is!”
“You know when men are dying on the battlefield and they cry out for their mothers?” Hraerik asked. “I think they want to return inside their mothers and it has something to do with that. Those Impalers played some powerful head games with us. I think part of us may have died inside. We sleep inside our women because we want to return to our mothers. All men want to have their mothers. We are born mother fockers.”
“Don’t say that,” Svein complained. “You are focking my mother.”
“Sorry,” Hraerik apologized. “She may be old, but she’s still pretty hot!” and they both laughed. They were in good spirits on the trip back, almost as though they knew things were going to be getting very bad very very soon. “Winters aren’t as cold as they were a hundred years ago!” Hraerik said, changing the subject.
General John Tzimiskes was in his forty-fifth year when he took the imperial rule. His appearance was as follows: he had a fair and healthy complexion, and blond hair that was thin at the forehead; his eyes were manly and bright, his nose narrow and well-proportioned; his upper facial hair was red, falling into an oblong shape, whereas his beard was of moderate length and appropriate size, with no bare spots. He was of average stature, with a broad chest and back. His strength was great, and there was great dexterity and might in his hands. He had a heroic spirit, fearless and imperturbable, which displayed supernatural courage in such a fine frame; for he was not afraid of attacking single-handed an entire enemy contingent, and after killing large numbers he would return again with great speed unscathed to his own close formation. He surpassed everyone of his generation in leaping, ball-playing, and throwing the javelin, and in drawing and shooting a bow. When he shot an arrow, he aimed so well at the target that he could make it pass through the hole in a ring; by so much he surpassed the islander celebrated by Homer, who shot the arrow through the axe-heads. He was more generous and bountiful than anyone; for no one who petitioned him ever went away disappointed of his hopes. John had the following fault, that sometimes he used to drink more than he should when he was carousing, and he was unable to resist physical pleasures. After thus gaining control in seven days over the state and acquiring the imperium for himself, as no one ever thought he would, he went to the holy and great church of the Wisdom of God to be crowned by the hierarch with the imperial diadem in the usual manner.· For it is customary for those who have newly embarked upon the Roman rule to ascend the ambo of the church to be blessed by the current patriarch and have the imperial crown placed on their heads. Since Polyeuktos, who occupied the patriarchal throne at that time, was a holy man with fervent spirit, although advanced in age, he declared to the emperor that he could not enter the church until he banished the empress from the palace, pointed out the murderer of the emperor Nikephoros, whoever he might be, and furthermore returned to the synod the powers that by decree Nikephoros had improperly revoked. For Nikephoros, wishing either to restore in the way he thought best ecclesiastical affairs that were disturbed by certain members of the clergy, or to have authority over ecclesiastical matters, too (which was a violation), had forced the prelates to draw up a decree that they would not take any action in church affairs without his approval. Polyeuktos proposed these conditions to the Emperor, for otherwise he could not allow him to enter the holy precincts. Upon receiving this ultimatum, he removed the empress from the palace and banished her to the Island of Princesses, returned Nikephoros’ decree to the synod, and pointed out Leo Balantes, affirming that he, and no other, was the perpetrator and planner of the murder of Nikephoros. Thus John was admitted into the holy church to be crowned by Polyeuktos, and then returned to the imperial palace, acclaimed by all the host of soldiers and the people. General Tzimiskes was crowned Emperor John on the twenty fifth of December, 969.
As for Prince Svein, the leader of the Hraes’ army, he decided to negotiate with him; and he sent ambassadors to tell him that he should take the pay promised by the emperor Nikephoros for attacking the Bulgars, and should return to his own territory of Gardar and the Cimmerian Bosporos, the Kerch peninsula, abandoning Bulgaria, since it had belonged to the Romans and was a part of old Macedonia. After moving there, the Bulgars constantly waged wars against the Roman Empire and took many Romans prisoner, always anxious to make war and raid the Thracian regions. When the Romans went out to oppose them, the Bulgars always withdrew to densely thicketed areas so as to fight them in difficult terrain. Thus in that earlier time many wars broke out, brave generals were slain, and the first Emperor Nikephoros, the elder, was killed in battle by the Bulgars and his skull was turned into a drinking cup by their Kagan Krum.
When Prince Svein heard Emperor John’s offer, he took two of his three mobile legions from Pereslavet, a legion he had raised in Wallachia and a Bulgarian legion as well as twenty thousand Pecheneg mounted warriors and he rode south through Bulgaria and attacked Roman Thrace and moving against Constantinople by land. The Roman navy was back from the Levant and they had three hundred fire breathing trireme dromons so, a naval assault was out of the question. He attacked the city of Philippopolis by storm, but then he received news from Tmutorokan that his mother, Empress Helga, had suffered a stroke and was near death. Prince Svein left Captain Biorn in charge of the army and took Princess Svia and one legion with him to Gardariki to attend to his mother. Prince Hraerik and Queen Silkisif were there with her, as the merchant fleet had not yet left for Baghdad, and they all took turns caring for Helga at her bedside as she quickly slipped away to meet her King Ivar and Emperor Constantine in the Christian heaven.
News had come to Captain Biorn that a Roman army was approaching from the south so, he took his mobile legion and his twenty thousand Pecheneg mounted warriors and they rode south to meet it, leaving Count Vladimir and his Wallachian legion in control of Philippopolis. The Hraes’ army came up against the Roman army at a narrow defile north of Arcadiopolis and the battle there was documented by the Roman historian Leo ‘the Deacon’:
Emperor John chose Magistros Bardas Skleros, the brother of his deceased wife Maria, an energetic and extremely powerful man, and he chose Patrikios Peter, who had been appointed Stratopedarches by the former Emperor Nikephoros because of his inherent valor and heroic feats in battle, to lead the army of the Romans against the Hraes’ invading forces. As soon as Magistros Bardas learned of their approach, since he was an extremely brave and active man, and at that time was incited by anger and a surge of strength, he assembled the picked men with him, and urged them to engage the enemy. He summoned John Alakas and sent him out as a scout to observe the Hraes’ and Scythians, estimate the size of the host, and see where they were camped and what they were doing. He was then to send him a full report as quickly as possible, so that he might prepare and deploy the army for battle. Taking the picked men who were following him, John rode off quickly toward the Scythians; and the next day he sent a message to the magistros, urging him to come with the army, for the Scythians were encamped, not far away, but very nearby. When Bardas Skleros heard the message, he deployed the army in three sections, ordering one to follow him in the van, the others to lie in wait in the thickets on either side. They were to sally forth from their places of ambush only once they’d heard the trumpet sound the call to battle. After giving these orders to the captains, he marched straight against the Scythians, fighting valiantly. The enemy army had superior numbers, over thirty thousand, while the men following the magistros, including those lying in ambush, did not come to more than ten thousand. When the battle began, the mightiest men fell on both sides. It is said that here one of the Scythians, who boasted of his courage and the size of his body, drew ahead of his unit, rode out and attacked Bardas in the van, striking him with his sword on the helmet; but the sword blow was in vain since the blade was deflected by the helmet, glancing off to the side as a result of its resistance. Then Patrikios Constantine, Bardas’s brother, whose face was just sprouting its first growth of down, but who had an enormous body, with irresistible and invincible strength, drew his sword and went to strike the Scythian. The latter, however, perceived his assault, and avoided the blow by bending back toward the haunches of his horse. The horse received the blow on its neck, which was cut through; and the Scythian tumbled down together with his horse and was slain by Constantine.
Captain Biorn had halted his Hraes’ legion before it entered the valley, sensing a trap, but he could not stop the Pechenegs, who, upon seeing the Roman cavalry, rushed forward to attack. But Biorn could see that the Roman force was a legion of cataphracts, that were heavily armed and armoured and he knew that the light horse of the Pechenegs could not stand up to a frontal assault by such heavy horse. The Pechenegs were skirmishers who won by encircling and attacking enemy weak points. Biorn wanted to lead his Hraes’ legion to help them, but most of his force of ten thousand were foot soldiers on horseback and only a minor portion were experienced heavy cavalry so, he set up his foot across the small valley in three ranks behind their kite shields wielding long lances that kept any cavalry at bay and he kept his heavy cavalry and spare horses at the ready behind them.
As the course of the battle was turning this way and that, with frequent and indecisive shifts of the scale in both directions (here the Romans feigned retreats to draw the Pechenegs further into the narrow valley), Bardas ordered the call to battle to sound, and the drums to roll continuously. At the signal the army (hidden cataphracts) sallied forth from the places of ambush, and appeared to the rear of the Scythians, who were struck with terror and turned to flight. The rout had not fully developed, when one of the prominent Scythians, distinguished from the others by the size of his body and the gleam of his armor, went around the battlefield, encouraging his companions to fight bravely. Bardas Skleros rode out on his horse and struck him on the head. The sword went right through to his waist-guard, neither his helmet nor his breastplate being strong enough to withstand the strength of his arm or the slash of his sword. When he was cut in two and dashed to the ground, the Romans shouted for joy and were encouraged to brave deeds, while the Scythians, terrified by the novel and extraordinary blow, broke their close formation with lamentation, and turned to flight. The Romans pursued them until late in the evening, slaughtering them mercilessly. Fifty-five Romans are said to have died in this battle, many were wounded, and most of the horses were slain, while more than twenty thousand Scythians were killed. This was the final outcome of the Romans’ struggle with the Scythians at that time.
When Prince Svein returned to Bulgaria from Tmutorokan, he learned that his Pecheneg allies had been slaughtered by the Romans, but Captain Biorn had held his ground against the cataphracts and they had no choice but to return to Constantinople. And when he returned to Philippopolis he learned that Count Vladimir had impaled twenty thousand Roman citizens of the city in retaliation for the slaughter of the twenty thousand Pechenegs by cowardly ambuscade. The Roman Princess Sviataslava threatened to kill the count herself and Prince Svein had to hold her back from doing just that so, Count Vladimir of Wallachia took his ten thousand foot soldiers and marched them all the way back to Ramnic after telling Svein that if he fought the Romans using Roman tactics, he would lose.
Prince Svein and Princess Sviataslava and their one Bulgarian and two Hraes’ legions spent the summer ravaging Thrace and Macedonia, collecting slaves for Baghdad and booty for an attack upon Constantinople, but without the Pechenegs and the Wallachians they did not have enough of an army to threaten the city of the Romans. In the fall they returned to Bulgaria to overwinter in Pereslavet. Slave knars came to Bulgaria to take away the Roman slaves for training in Kiev and Tmutorokan.
From the History of Leo the Deacon:
Emperor John ordered the troops from Asia to cross over to Europe by way of the Hellespont, to spend the winter in the region of Thrace and Macedonia, drill daily with their weapons (so that they would not be out of training at the campaign season and be unfit for battle with the enemy), and wait for springtime. For when spring began to emerge from the gloom of winter and brought the state of the world into steady fair weather, then the Emperor would come to them, leading his own troops, in order to attack the Tauroscythians (Hraes’) with all his forces.
Emperor John sent a message to Prince Svein saying, if you do not leave the land, then willing or not you will be driven from it by us. For I think you are well aware of the mistake of your father Igor (Ivar), who, making light of the sworn treaties, sailed against the imperial city with a large force and thousands of light boats, but returned to the Cimmerian Bosporos with scarcely ten boats, himself the messenger of the disaster that had befallen him. I will pass over the wretched fate that befell him later, on his campaign against the Germans, when he was captured by them, tied to tree trunks, and torn in two (the Roman version of Ivar’s death). And I think that you too will fail to return to your own country, if you force the Roman army to march against you, but you will be killed there with all your troops, so that not even a fire-bearing priest will return to Scythia, to announce the dreadful fate that overtook you.” Sphendosthlavos (Svein ‘the Old’) became furious at this response, and, carried away by barbarian frenzy and rage, made the following reply: “I see no urgent need for the Emperor of the Romans to come to us. Therefore let him not tire himself out by coming to this land; for we will soon pitch our tents before the gates of Constantinople, will surround this city with a mighty palisade, and will meet him bravely when he sallies forth, if he should dare to undertake such a great struggle. We will teach him with very deeds that we are not mere manual laborers who live by the work of our hands, but bloodthirsty warriors who fight our foes with weapons, although the Emperor believes in ignorance that Rus’ soldiers are like pampered women, and tries to frighten us with these threats, as if we were suckling infants to be frightened by hobgoblins.”
Upon hearing these insane words of the Scythian, the Emperor decided not to delay, but to prepare for war with utmost zeal, so that he might anticipate the Scythian’s attack against him, and check his assault against the imperial city. Thus he immediately selected a squadron of brave and vigorous men, calling them “Immortals,” whom he bade remain at his side. The Emperor ordered these generals (General John Kourkouas and Peter the Eunuch) to take his troops and march to the region that adjoins and borders Bulgaria; to spend the winter there, drill the army, and watch over the region vigilantly, so that it would not suffer any damage from Scythian raids; and to send bilingual men, clothed in Scythian garb, to the camps and abodes of the enemy, to learn their plans, and communicate them to the Emperor. After receiving these orders from the Emperor, they crossed over to Europe.
In 970 Duke Bardas Phokas, in Caesaria in Cappadocia rebelled against Emperor John so John sent Bardas Skleros against him, so he organized the army into squadrons of cavalry and cohorts of infantry. He then went after Bardas Phokas and got him to surrender peacefully. For when the Scythians heard about the departure from Europe of the supreme commander Bardas Skleros, when he was sent to Asia by the Emperor on account of the rebellion recently kindled by Bardas Phokas, as I have already related, they began to harass the Romans terribly; they made sudden incursions, plundering and ravaging Macedonia unsparingly, since the Magistros John Kourkouas, who was entrusted with the command of the army there, had turned to immoderate indolence and drink, and handled the situation in an inexperienced and stupid manner; therefore the spirits of the Rhos’ were raised to insolence and boldness. Because the Emperor could not endure their overweening insolence and downright arrogance, he was anxious to curtail and break it with all his might by fighting them in close combat. Thus he ordered that the fire-bearing triremes be steadied with ballast, and that a large quantity of grain, fodder for the beasts of burden, and sufficient weapons for the army be transported to Adrianople in supply ships, so that the Romans would not run short of any of these while they were engaged in war. While these preparations were being made, John accepted in marriage Theodora, the daughter of Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetos, who was not exceptionally distinguished for her beauty and physical grace, but indisputably surpassed all other women in prudence and in every kind of virtue (and carried the blood of the Caesars in her veins). But the proposed wedding celebration was to take place in the month of November, in the second year of his reign. The people were overcome with tremendous rejoicing because the Emperor governed his subjects with a gracious disposition and equitable manner; he was especially admired because, even though he was distinguished and possessed the temperament of a ruler, he also revealed himself as gentle and reasonable toward his subjects, and readily granted mercy to those who asked for it. Then he entertained the people with largesse and contests in the Hippodrome, and spent the winter in Constantinople, awaiting the spring season, drilling his select troops daily in whirling about in both directions while fully armed, and in every military skill that had been devised for warfare by the most valiant of men.
(Anno 971) As soon as the gloom of winter changed to the fair weather of springtime, the Emperor raised the standard of the cross and prepared to march against the Tauroscythians (Rhos’). He went to the Golden Horn to survey the fire-bearing triremes that were riding at anchor in orderly fashion in the inlet of the Bosporos of which there were over three hundred, together with swift and light vessels, which are colloquially called galleys and patrol boats. Then he sent them to the Danube to guard its passageway, so that the Scythians would not be able to sail away to their own country and the Cimmerian Bosporos (Kerch), if they should turn to flight. After Emperor John departed from Byzantium, he arrived with all his army at Adrianople. He learned from scouts that the difficult and narrow paths leading to Bulgaria (which they call kleisourai because they are so closed in) were not guarded by the Scythians; and he assembled the captains and taxiarchs and spoke as follows: “My fellow soldiers, I thought that the Scythians, who have been expecting our arrival in their land for a long time, would have with all their might closed off the most strategic and narrow and inaccessible portions of the paths with walls and stockades, so that we could not easily proceed further. But the approach of Holy Easter has deterred them from securing the roads and preventing our passage, since they do not believe that we would give up the ceremonies attendant on the great festival, the splendid attire and processions and luxuries and spectacles, and become involved in the toils and tribulations of warfare. Thus I think the best course of action is to seize the opportunity immediately, and, equipping ourselves as quickly as possible, proceed along the narrow path before the Tauroscythians become aware of our approach and rush in force to the rough terrain. For if we manage to pass through the dangerous ground first and attack them unexpectedly, I think that, with the aid of God, let it be said, we will capture at the first assault the city of Preslav itself, where the Bulgars have their royal palace; and setting forth from there, we will very easily subdue the insolent Rhos’.”
This was the advice of the Emperor, but to the commanders and taxiarchs at any rate these words seemed to be ill-timed recklessness and purposeless rashness verging on senseless insanity, to recommend thoughtlessly that the Roman forces proceed into foreign territory by a precipitous path full of cavernous hiding places. Therefore, since they remained silent for quite a long time, the Emperor again resumed speaking, swollen with rage: “Since I have engaged from my youth in warfare, and, as you know, have crowned myself with many triumphs and victories, I myself am well aware that to go into battle without due deliberation, but in a bold and arrogant manner, is particularly likely to result in danger and ruinous destruction. On the other hand, when the situation is, as it were, on a razor’s edge, and does not give an opportunity to act according to one’s wishes, then I think you too will agree with me that it is necessary to seize first this moment, seize this day, and take good care of our own affairs, since you have acquired great experience of the varying and shifting fortunes of battles. If then you will heed me as I counsel a better course of action, while the Scythians have lapsed into indolence, as yet unaware of our approach, let us seize the opportunity and victory will follow upon our passage through the gorge. For if they should perceive us when we were about to pass through, and should deploy themselves into ranks to oppose us in the narrow defile, the situation would not turn out well for us, but would lead to dire straits and difficulties. Therefore pluck up your courage, and, remembering that you are Romans, who have overwhelmed all your enemies by force of arms in the past, follow as quickly as possible, displaying your valor by means of your deeds.”
After making this speech and putting on shining armor, he mounted a proud and mettlesome horse and shouldered a very long spear, and set off on the road, having in the van the company of so called “Immortals,” suitably sheathed in armor. He was followed by fifteen thousand of the most valiant heavy-armed infantry, and by thirteen thousand cavalrymen; the rest of the soldiers and the service unit, who were transporting the siege machinery and all kinds of siege engines, followed slowly behind with Proedros Basil, to whom the Emperor entrusted responsibility for these machines. After he marched them through dangerous and precipitous areas without anyone taking notice, he checked the intense pace of the march, and allowed the cavalry and infantry to rest on a secure hill that had a river flowing past on both sides, promising an abundance of water. As soon as full light dawned, he roused the soldiers and deployed them into deep formations, and advanced on Preslav, ordering the trumpets to sound the call to battle frequently, and the cymbals to clash and the drums to roll. And thus an indescribable clamor burst forth, as the mountains there echoed the drums, and the weapons clanked in response, and the horses whinnied, and the men shouted and encouraged each other for the battle, as was fitting.
The Tauroscythians, on the other hand, when they saw the approach of the disciplined army towards them, were seized with panic and terror, in their astonishment at the unexpected turn of events. But they quickly seized their weapons and shouldered their shields (these were very strong, and made so that they reached to their feet, for greater protection), and drew up into a strong close formation and advanced against the Romans on the plain before the town (which is suitable for cavalry), roaring like wild beasts and uttering strange and weird howls. The Romans came to blows with them, and fought stoutly and accomplished worthy feats of warfare. When the battle was evenly balanced on both sides, at this point the Emperor ordered the Immortals to attack the left wing of the Scythians with a charge. So they held their spears before them and violently spurred on their horses, and advanced against them. Since the Scythians were on foot (for they are not accustomed to fight from horseback, since they are not trained for this), they were not able to withstand the spears of the Romans, but turned to flight and shut themselves up within the walls of the town of Preslav; the Romans pursued them and killed them mercilessly. For they say that in this attack eight thousand five hundred Scythians were killed. The survivors shut themselves up in the town, and vigorously hurled missiles from the battlements above. It is said that at that time the Patrikios Kalokyras was staying at Preslav, the man who, as I have already related, previously incited the Rhos’ army against the Mysians (Bulgarians); and that when he heard about the arrival of the Emperor (for it was impossible for him to miss it, since the bright gold of the imperial insignia was gleaming incredibly), he secretly slipped out of the town in the middle of the night and went to Sphendosthlavos (Prince Svein ‘the Old’), who was staying with all his army somewhere near Dorostolon (which is now called Dristra). So Kalokyras escaped in this way, and oncoming darkness made the Romans desist from battle. The next day, when the rest of the army came up with the siege machines (the day was the so-called Holy Thursday), Emperor John rose early, and organized the units into unbroken close formations, and, after ordering the trumpets to sound the charge, he attacked the fortified wall in the hope of capturing the city at the first assault. As for the Rhos’, after they were encouraged by their general (this was Sphengelos [Svein ‘the Old’], who ranked third among the Scythians after Sphendosthlavos [Svein ‘the Slav’], for the latter ruled over everyone), they resisted from the battlements and warded off the attacking Romans as best they could, hurling javelins and missiles and fist-sized stones from above. The Romans, shooting constantly from below with bows and stone-throwing devices, and with slings and javelins, forced the Scythians back, by pressing hard and not allowing them to lean out from the battlements with impunity. And the Emperor shouted in quite a loud voice and ordered them to set ladders against the circuit wall, and gave new vigor to the siege with his shouting; and everyone fought bravely under the gaze of the Emperor, and hoped soon to receive from him rewards commensurate to their labors.
While the Romans were pressing hard and setting the ladders up against the walls, at this point a brave young man, whose face had just begun to be downy with reddish fuzz, a native of the Anatolic theme whose name was Theodosios, with the surname Mesonyktes, drew his sword with one hand and with the left raised his shield over his head, so that he would not be hit from above by the Scythians, and climbed up the ladder. When he got near the battlements, he aimed at the Scythian who was leaning out and defending himself against Mesonyktes with his spear, and struck him in the neck tendon; his head was swept off together with his helmet and rolled to the ground outside the walls. The Romans cheered loudly at the novel deed, and many of them ran up the ladders, emulating the courage of the man who had climbed up first. When Mesonyktes got up on the wall and gained control of the battlement, he smote great numbers of the defending Rhos’ on all sides and threw them headlong from the walls. And after many men quickly climbed up the circuit walls everywhere, and cut down the enemy with all their might, the Scythians abandoned the battlements and ignobly rushed into the stoutly walled royal palace, where the Mysians’ treasure was stored, but inadvertently left a gate open.
While this was happening, the host of the Romans, attacking from outside the walls, broke through and smashed the pivots and bolts of the gates, and entered within the town, inflicting incredible slaughter upon the Scythians. And it is said that then Boris, the king of the Mysians, whose face was thickly covered with reddish hair, was captured with his wife and two infant children, and brought before the Emperor. The latter received him and treated him honorably, calling him ruler of the Bulgarians, and saying that he came to avenge the Mysians, who had suffered terribly at the hands of the Scythians.
As soon as the Romans got inside the town, they spread through the streets, slaying the enemy and carrying off loot. Then they attacked the royal palace, where the host of the Rhos’ was crowded together. But the Scythians inside resisted mightily and slew them as they slipped in through the gate, and killed up to a hundred and fifty vigorous men. When the Emperor learned of this disaster, he quickly rode out on his horse, and urged his followers to throw themselves into the battle with all their strength. But since he was not able to achieve any glorious result (for the Tauroscythians were waiting for those who entered through the narrow gate, and easily killed most of them with their swords), he restrained the senseless headlong onslaught of the Romans, and ordered them to set fire to the palace on all sides with flaming arrows.
Since the fire was burning fiercely and quickly reducing the underlying structures to ashes, the Rhos’, more than seven thousand in number, came out of the buildings and crowded together in the open courtyard, and prepared to defend themselves against their assailants. Against them the Emperor deployed the Magistros Bardas Skleros with a vigorous company of men; Skleros surrounded them with the unit of most valiant men who were following him and set to work. Once the struggle began, the Rhos’ fought bravely, not turning their backs to the enemy, but the Romans shot them all down by virtue of their valor and experience of warfare, and most of the Mysians also fell in this battle; for they joined with the Scythians, and were hostile to the Romans, because they were the cause of the Scythians’ coming to them. Sphengelos escaped to Sphendosthlavos, finding safety in flight together with a few men; but then he was killed, as I will soon recount. Thus Preslav was captured in two days and made subject to the Romans.
The Emperor John rewarded the army, as was fitting, and let them rest, and celebrated there the Holy Resurrection of the Savior. Then he selected some of the Tauroscythian prisoners, and sent them to Sphendosthlavos to announce to him the capture of the city and the slaughter of his comrades, and to tell him not to hesitate, but to choose immediately one of two options: either to lay down his weapons and yield to a stronger force and beg forgiveness for his rash deeds, and to depart immediately from the land of the Mysians; or, if he was unwilling to do this, but was inclined rather to his customary insolence, then he should defend himself with all his might against the advancing Roman forces. He ordered them to make these declarations to Sphendosthlavos; and then, after spending a few days in the city and restoring the damaged fortifications and leaving behind a sufficient garrison, and calling it Johannoupolis after his own name, he went off with all his army to Dorostolon. Along the way the Emperor captured the city called Pliskova (the first capital of Bulgaria) and Dineia and many of the cities that rebelled against the Scythians and came over to the Romans.
When he saw that the Mysians were rebelling against their alliance with him, and going over to the Emperor, he deliberated at length and reflected that, if the Mysians sided with the Romans, affairs would not turn out well for him. So he selected three hundred of the Mysians who were of distinguished ancestry and power, and devised a cruel and inhuman fate for them: for he had all their throats cut and killed them; and he put the rest in chains and confined them in prison. Then he mustered the Tauroscythian army, which came to sixty thousand men, and deployed it against the Romans. And while the Emperor was approaching them at a deliberate pace, certain bold souls, spurred on by reckless courage, separated off from the Rhos’ army, set up an ambush, and then attacked some of the advance scouts from their hiding place and killed them. When the Emperor saw their bodies tossed alongside the path, he reined in his horse, and in anger at the death of fellow countrymen ordered that the perpetrators of this deed be tracked down. After the foot soldiers zealously searched the copses and thickets and captured those attackers, and led them in chains into the presence of the Emperor, he ordered that they be put to the sword immediately. And they did not hesitate at all, but cut them completely to pieces with their swords.
As soon as the troops assembled in the area before Dorystolon, which they were accustomed to call Dristra, the Tauroscythians closed their ranks with spears and shields and, as it were, made them into a tower[shield wall], and awaited the enemy on the battlefield. After the Emperor deployed the Romans in the van and placed ironclad horsemen on both wings, and assigned the archers and slingers to the rear and ordered them to keep up steady fire, he led out the army.
As soon as the troops came to grips with each other, the battle broke out fiercely, and during the first assault the contest was equal on both sides for a while. For the Rhos’ fought furiously, considering it a terrible and shocking thing, if, when they had the reputation with neighboring peoples of always prevailing over their enemies in battle, they were now to be shamefully defeated by the Romans and lose this reputation. The Romans, on the other hand, were overcome by shame and anger, lest they, who prevailed over every enemy by force of arms and their own valor, should now have to withdraw, as if inexperienced in battle, overwhelmed by a people who fought on foot, and knew nothing of riding on horseback, and lest their great glory should vanish in a moment. So the soldiers fought valiantly, nourishing in their hearts such concerns for their reputation. The Rhos’, who were directed by their habitual ferocity and passion, attacked the Romans with a charge, bellowing as if possessed, but the Romans rushed to meet them with discipline and practical skill; and many men fell on both sides. Until late afternoon victory appeared to be in the balance, as the course of battle swayed this way and that. The sun was already setting, when the Emperor threw the cavalry against them in force, and bolstered the men’s spirits, shouting that, since they were Romans, they should display their prowess by means of their deeds. So they pressed forward with an extraordinary assault and the trumpeters sounded the call to battle, and a shout arose from the Romans in a body. And the Scythians were not able to withstand their attack, and turned to flight and rushed to the fortifications, losing many of their men in this battle. The Romans chanted the songs of victory, and acclaimed the Emperor, and he then rewarded them with awards of dignities and with banquets, and made them even more zealous for battle.
(Anno 971) As soon as day broke, the emperor fortified the camp with a secure palisade in the following manner. A low hill rises from the plain some distance from Dorostolon. He had the army pitch its tents there and ordered them to dig a trench all round. They were to carry the dirt to the edge of the ditch that encircled the camp and deposit it, and when the dirt was piled up to a sufficient height, they were to plant spears firmly on top, and to lean against them shields touching each other, so that the army could use the ditch and heaped-up dirt as a wall, and the enemy would be unable to get inside, but their attack would be thwarted when they approached the trench. And it was customary for the Romans to set up their camp in this way in enemy territory. After strengthening the palisade in this manner, the next day he drew up the army in battle order and began attacking the wall. The Scythians leaned over the towers and hurled missiles and stones and other far-darting weapons against the Roman army; and they in turn defended themselves from below against the Scythians with slings and arrows, and the fighting on both sides consisted of this sort of skirmishing. Then the Romans went to their palisaded camp for their evening meal; but the Scythians, as the day was coming to a close, emerged from the fortress on horseback, making at that time their first appearance riding on horses. For they had always been accustomed to advance into battle without cavalry since they were untrained in mounting on horses and fighting the enemy. The Romans quickly protected themselves with armor and mounted their horses, and after snatching up lances (they use very long ones in battle), they rode out against them with a vigorous and mighty charge. And since the Scythians did not even know how to guide their horses with reins, they were cut down by the Romans, and turned to flight and shut themselves up inside the walls.
Then the Romans’ fire-bearing triremes and the grain transports appeared sailing up the Istros (Danube); and when the Romans saw them, they were filled with unspeakable joy, but the Scythians were seized with fear, since they were afraid of the “liquid fire” that they transported. For they had heard from the elders of their people how the immense army of Igor [Ivar], the father of Sphendosthlavos, had been reduced to ashes by the Romans in the Euxine [Black Sea] by means of this Median fire [Greek-fire]. Therefore they quickly collected their own light boats, and dragged them in front of the town wall, where the Istros as it flows by washes one side of Dorostolon. The fire-ships surrounded them and kept watch so that the Scythians would not be able to embark on them and escape to their own land.
The next day the Tauroscythians slipped out of the town and arrayed themselves on the plain, protecting themselves with shields that reached to their feet and chainmail breastplates; and the Romans also emerged from their camp completely sheathed in armor. Both sides fought valiantly, and it was unclear who would be victorious, as both sides pushed each other back in turn. But then one of the Romans broke away from the formation and struck down Sphengelos [Svein ‘the Old’ – Svein’s Norse name], a huge and vigorous man, who was ranked third after Sphendosthlavos [Svein ‘the Slav’ – Svein’s Slav name] by the Tauroscythians, and was fighting furiously at that time; and the Tauroscythians were thrown into disarray by his death, and gradually retreated from the plain and hastened back to the town. At that time, too, Theodore Lalakon, a man who was hard to withstand and invincible in the might and strength of his body, killed great numbers of the enemy with an iron mace; for he wielded it with such force in his arm that he would crush at the same time the helmet and the skull protected by it. Thus the Scythians then turned to flight and retreated to the town; and the Emperor ordered the signal for withdrawal to be sounded, and summoned the Romans back to camp, and rewarded them with gifts and drinking bouts, thus encouraging them to go into battle with robust spirits.
While the situation was still uncertain, the Rhos’ drew up in serried ranks, and marched out on the plain, endeavoring with all their might to burn the Romans’ siege machinery; for they were unable to withstand the whizzing missiles the latter discharged, and many of the Scythians were killed each day by the stones that were hurled. The Magistros John Kourkouas, who was related to the Emperor and was keeping guard over these machines, saw the bold attack of the enemy and, although he was drowsy from wine and nodding off (for it was after lunch), he mounted his horse and attacked them with picked followers. But his horse fell in a hole and threw the magistros off his back. When the Scythians caught sight of his gleaming armor and the horse’s cheek-pieces and other trappings, which were magnificently wrought (for they were lavishly gilded), they thought that he was the Emperor, and attacked him in a body with their weapons, and cruelly cut him to pieces with swords and axes; and they stuck his head on a spear and attached it to the towers, jeering at the Romans that they had butchered their Emperor like a sheep. To fall victim to the wrath of barbarians was the price that the Magistros John paid for his drunken violence against holy churches; for he is said to have plundered many of the churches in Mysia and to have refashioned their furnishings and holy vessels into personal valuables. [Here we have a hint that the Romans may have been confused by Svein’s two names, the Norse and Slav, and thought they had killed Svein, but had killed Captain Biorn instead].
Elated by this victory, the Rhos’ issued forth from the city the next day, and drew up their ranks on the battlefield; and the Romans also were arrayed in close order and in a deep formation and went to meet them. At this point Anemas, one of the imperial bodyguards and son of the leader of the Cretans, caught sight of Ikmor, second in command of the Scythian army after Sphendosthlavos and ranked immediately after him, a huge and vigorous man, who was frenziedly attacking with a company of infantry following him and killing large numbers of Romans; and Anemas was incited by his innate prowess, and drew the sword which was hanging at his side and turned his horse this way and that, and goaded it with his spurs, and headed toward Ikmor. And he overtook him and struck him in the neck; and the Scythian’s head and right arm were severed and dashed to the ground. As he fell, a cry mingled with lamentation arose from the Scythians; and the Romans attacked them. They could not withstand the enemy assault, but grievously distressed by the death of their general, raised their shields, covering their shoulders, and withdrew to the town; and the Romans pursued them and slaughtered them.
Then Sphendosthlavos assembled a council of nobles, called a komentoh in their language. When they were all gathered round him, and had been asked by him what the course of action should be, some advised that they should embark on their boats in the middle of the night and steal away by any means whatsoever; for they were not able to contend with ironclad horsemen, and besides, they had lost their best warriors, who had encouraged the army and sharpened their mettle. Others counseled, on the contrary, that they should come to terms with the Romans, and receive pledges in return, and thus save the remaining army. For they could not easily escape by ship, since the fireships were keeping watch over the transports on both sides of the Istros, so that they could immediately set fire to all of them if they attempted to sail out on the river. Sphendosthlavos groaned deeply and bitterly, and said: “If we now yield ignobly to the Romans, gone will be the glory that has attended upon the arms of the Rus’, as they have effortlessly overwhelmed neighboring peoples, and enslaved whole lands without bloodshed. Rather, let us again manifest the valor of our ancestors, and, remembering that up till now the might of the Rus’ has been unvanquished, let us fight ardently for our safety. For it is not our custom to return to our fatherland as fugitives, but either to be victorious and live, or to die gloriously, after displaying deeds worthy of brave men.” Such was the advice of Sphendosthlavos.
The next day, it was Friday, the twenty-fourth of July, and just before sunset, the Hraes’ emerged from the fortress with all their forces, and having decided to risk everything in one last great push, they drew up into a strong wedge formation, protected by their kite shields and long lances to protect themselves from Roman knights. The Emperor organized the Romans and led them out of their camp. When the battle commenced, the Hraes’ fiercely attacked the Romans, pelting them with javelins and striking their horses with arrows and dragging the knights from their faltering mounts to the ground. The Roman knight, Anemas, who had killed Ikmor the previous day, saw Prince Svein charging the Romans in a frenzy and leading his cohorts forward, so he spurred on his horse, as he was accustomed to do, having previously killed many Varangians in this manner, giving the horse free rein, and he rode up to him and struck him across the chest with his sword, and knocked him flat, but did not kill him because he was wearing the lamellar armour of a Greek-fire marine officer and then a kite shield which he pulled across his body. Anemas was then surrounded by Hraes’ troops and his horse was brought down by long-lance thrusts, he killed many of the Hraes’ about him, but Svein rose and struck him dead with a sword.
The Hraes’ rallied around Prince Svein when Anemas fell, and shouted loudly and fiercely, and drove the Romans back and they began to retreat to avoid the fierce assault of the Hraes’. Emperor Tzimiskes saw that the Roman army was giving way and he was afraid that a rout was starting so, he charged forth on his mighty stallion and his gold gilt armour caught the setting sun as he brandished his gilt spear and led a squadron of cavalry forward and advanced against the Varangians. Drums beat and trumpets sounded a call to battle and the retreating Romans were shamed by the Emperor’s assault, and wheeled round their horses, and fiercely attacked the Hraes’. At the same time a wind and rainstorm broke out, pouring down heavily from the sky and obscured the vision of the enemy. A man appeared on a white horse ahead of the Romans and encouraged them to advance against the Hraes’ and he broke through the enemy regiments in a wondrous fashion, and threw them into disarray and the Romans saw that it was the great martyr Saint Theodore, whom the Emperor had beseeched for help in battle, and to protect and preserve him together with all the army. It was later said that on the evening before the battle, in Constantinople, a virgin dedicated to God thought that she saw in a dream the Mother of God, escorted by men in the form of flames, and She said to them, “Summon for me the martyr Saint Theodore”, and immediately there appeared a brave young man in armor, and the Mother of God said to him, “Lord Theodore, your Emperor John, who is fighting the Pagans at Dorostolon, is now in very difficult straits so, make haste to help him, for if you are not in time, he will be in mortal danger.” He in turn replied that he was ready to obey the Mother of God his Lord; and after saying this he departed immediately, and thus sleep vanished from the eyes of the virgin and her dream of aid was fulfilled.
The Roman knights and foot soldiers, following Saint Theodore, who led the way, came to grips with the enemy and put aside all thoughts of flight. And when fierce fighting broke out, the Hraes’ could not withstand the assault of the shield wall and the cavalry, and they were surrounded by Magistros Bardas Skleros, who led a legion of cataphracts against them, that seemed to come out of nowhere, and the host of Hraes’ turned to flight and were trampled right up to the city wall and fell there, for there were no troops left in the fortress to protect the retreat with a hail of arrows. Prince Svein, himself, narrowly escaped capture and made it within the safety of the walls, having lost a lot of blood and been stricken by many arrows. He was saved by the approach of darkness. And it is said that in this battle fifteen thousand five hundred Scythians were killed, and that twenty thousand shields and a vast number of swords were captured; while three hundred fifty of the Romans were killed, and many wounded. Such was the victory that the Romans won in this battle. That is what the Romans saw of the miracle of Saint Theodore.
What the Hraes’ saw was somewhat different, for , to them, the Saint on the great white stallion had no lower legs. He rode out ahead of the retreating Roman formation and Prince Svein could see through the rage of battle that it was his father, Saint Ivar ‘the Boneless’, and he was waving the Hraes’ forces back. “It is a trap!” Svein shouted to his men and he ordered them to halt their charge and barked out orders to reverse their advance. They began charging backwards to the fortress for they had all been trained to charge forward or back with the same ease and speed by the legendary General Sun Wu. When Magistros Bardas Skleros and the legion of cataphracts appeared from behind the Roman siege engines and began a charge against the retreating Hraes’, long rocket propelled foot bow arrows flew forth from the fortress and exploded amongst the Roman cataphract formation and the horses panicked and charged this way and that in total disarray. Prince Svein looked up at the fortress walls and could see the Roman black armour of Count Vlad’s Wallachian troops and the Hraes’ archers that he had left in Ramnic. The Hrae’s legion withdrew into the city with few casualties.
“Word travelled up the Danube that your forces were under heavy assault in Silistra,” Count Vlad told Svein, as he entered with his troops. “We gathered our forces in Ramnic and sailed here as fast as we could, but we saw the Roman fire-breathers on the river so, we had to wait until the setting sun obscured their vision so we could sail into the cover of the fortress walls. It’s a good thing they couldn’t see us because there was nobody in the fortress so provide covering fire. So we occupied the walls and we could see the Roman cataphracts behind their siege engines ready to spring a trap upon you.”
“I know,” Svein said, shaking the count’s hand in thanks. “My father, King Ivar, rode up ahead of us on his white stallion and waved us back from the attack.”
“There was no white horse on the field,” the count replied. “You must have seen something in that storm that erupted briefly.”
A Hraes’ marine officer came up to the two men and said, “Someone is coming up the Danube with a great fleet. The river has risen six inches in the last six hours.”
“Fock! More Romans!” Svein cursed. “The Danube rose a few inches when the fleet of fire breathers came up the Danube a few weeks ago and there’s three hundred of them,” Svein explained to the count. “Six inches! This fleet is at least twice as big!”
“Shall I send some twelve oared boats downriver tonight?” the marine officer asked. “They can see who is coming and send riders back to warn us.”
“Yes, see to it,” Svein ordered and he took the count by the arm and offered him a meal in the dining hall. “We don’t have much,” Svein apologized. “We’ve been rationing for the last month.”
“We brought ships full of food,” the count said. “We thought you might be running low. Why are the Roman dromons all sitting in the waters in front of Silistra and not upstream further as well?”
“They’re here to keep us from escaping back to Hraes’,” Svein explained. “I guess they didn’t think any aid would be coming from upriver.”
“Well, we unfooted our masts and approached with the setting sun at our backs, so I don’t think they know we are here and I brought the Wallachian legion and a Hraes regiment, twelve thousand fresh troops that they don’t know are here. We should keep it that way.”
Then Svein said, “Princess Sviataslava is here.”
“I know the drill,” Count Vlad replied.
The count was not allowed in the presence of the princess. He had done too much to her. If she knew he was there she would want to kill him or leave and they were under siege.
The next day, Prince Svein learned from his marines who was coming upriver and it was a total surprise. The full merchant fleet from Baghdad was coming, headed by thirty old bireme dromons that Princes Hraerik and Ivar had built to destroy the old fleet of fire breathers that Admiral Theophanes had destroyed Ivar’s treasure ships with and then left anchored in Messembria. Admiral Theophanes had only fifteen fire breathers back then, but he now commanded three hundred, but they were on the Danube River, not the Black Sea and they could only face Hraerik about a dozen wide at a time and Prince Hraerik’s dromons were fire breather killers. Each had dual trebuchets on deck and they slung tonstone shot that tore ships apart, plus they carried rocket propelled arrows that blew fire breathers apart if they landed in the bronze naphtha spewing tubes of the Greek-fire systems. John Tzimiskes had broken both General John Kourkouas and Admiral Theophanes out of prison on the Island of Princes so they could help him deal with the Hraes’ and General Kourkouas was dead and Admiral Theophanes was soon to be. But Prince Hraerik sent messengers to the Admiral requesting talks with Emperor John and Prince Svein. The admiral was relieved. He did not want to go up against Prince Hraerik again, either at sea or in the Law Courts of Constantinople.
“I have looked into the future and I have seen the final outcome of the Battle of Dorostolon,” Prince Hraerik told Emperor John and Prince Svein, as they sat at a negotiating table between the two armies. “And it is not pretty. Neither of you leaves this place alive. All your best men die here with you and only the cowards are left alive to tell the tale. So a mutually agreeable compromise must be reached.”
“I have sought nothing but peace with the Hraes’,” Emperor John claimed.
“I just want what is rightfully mine,” Prince Svein said. “I was promised a co-Emperorship for all the conquests I have made for Rome.”
“You were well paid in gold for your efforts,” Tzimiskes said.
“As the stepson of Constantine Porphyrogennetos, I have a legitimate claim to the throne of Rome,” Svein said, “unlike some at this table.”
“Ah yes,” Emperor John said, “Empress Helga. The beautiful Swedish princess that stole an Emperor’s heart. The people of Constantinople still rave about her beauty. And this is the beautiful Princess Sviataslava?” John asked, looking at the stunning young woman sitting next to Svein. Svia smiled at the Emperor.
“Good,” Hraerik said. “Something we can all agree upon. It’s progress. So, Svein has a valid claim and you Romans are against sharing it. Do you have any other outstanding claims, Svein?”
“The throne of Denmark is owed me as well, as you full know.”
“I’m asking so that the Emperor knows this as well. Will you have to fight for that throne too?”
“I don’t think that my nephew, Harold ‘Bluetooth’ is likely to give it up without a fight.”
“Would you, Emperor John,” Hraerik asked, “be willing to keep Prince Svein’s claim to a co-Emperorship open until he resolves this other claim first?”
“His claim is what it is. It will always be open as long as he is alive.”
“Good,” Hraerik said. “And would you, Svein, hold off on any claim to the Roman throne until you have gained your claim to the Danish throne?”
“It’ll take years,” Svein complained, “but I could be persuaded if I got enough gold to start that claim rolling. And the red gold of Byzantium would be a good place to start from, say twenty thousand pounds.”
“Ten thousand,” Emperor John countered.
“Split the difference?” Prince Hraerik suggested.
“Done!” they both said.
“I’ll draft up a contract in Latin this afternoon,” Prince Hraerik said, “then we’ll have a signing and a small exchange of gifts.”
“You have my word on this,” Emperor John said.
“Mine as well,” Prince Svein added.
The Emperor got up and shook hands and kissed Princess Svia’s hand, then left.
“Fock, these Emperors are hard to deal with,” Svein complained. “Svia and I are going to freshen up.”
Prince Hraerik was already drafting up the agreement. “Going someplace to fock is more likely,” he said and the young couple laughed as though it weren’t true.
“You read Latin, right?” Hraerik said to Svia as she was leaving.
“I learned it at the convent,” Svia said.
“Good,” Hraerik said. “Most Armenians can’t read Latin, so the Emperor may need a translator this afternoon.”
“Did you really see both our deaths in the future?” Svein asked.
“Come see me when you’re done and I’ll tell you about it.”
Svein came to see his grandfather an hour later.
“Emperor John passed Svia a note when he kissed her hand,” Hraerik told the young prince. “Could you get it from her and let’s see what it says?”
“Do you want to come with me?”
“I have to finish this contract,” Hraerik answered. “You read it and if it’s important bring her back here with you?” Servants were busy erecting a pavilion in the middle of the field for the signing. Prince Svein returned after another hour. “The Emperor wants to marry her!” Svein shouted. “She didn’t want to come out, she’s so embarrassed.”
Hraerik read the note. It was written in Greek, poorly written, but it was a proposal of marriage. “My spies in Constantinople told me that Emperor John had to give up Theophano to a convent on the Island of Princesses or the Patriarch wasn’t going to anoint him as Emperor. She’s quite a looker and now John has had a marriage arranged for him with a Theodora who definitely isn’t. He could be hoping to find himself a good looking Roman princess to marry before he has to marry Theodora or we could be missing something here. Have you noticed the resemblance between Theophano and Svia?” Hraerik asked.
“There’s a bit of resemblance,” Svein admitted, “but Theophano’s a looker and Svia’s knock down, drop dead gorgeous!”
“Perhaps too gorgeous,” Hraerik said. “Have you ever found out who she really is or what convent she was locked up at?”
“She said she has blocked out her past, but I think the convent was just outside Constantinople.”
“Just like the convent on the Island of Princesses?” Hraerik said.
“Do you think John would send Svia back to the convent for Theophano?”
“I think they’re sisters and this is their form of our own tradition of fratricide. Our princes have a terrible habit of killing off their younger brothers to ensure that only they can inherit a throne. Perhaps they use the Islands of Princes and Princesses for this as well.”
“Fratricide!” Svein spat. “It’s disgusting!”
“Says someone whose name is Swine and whose older brother was named Snake. They’re mortal enemies you know, the snake and the swine.”
“Yes,” Svein admitted. “But now I have a ‘Bluetooth’ to deal with. What’s the mortal enemy of a ‘Bluetooth?”
“A dental barber?” Hraerik said. “I noticed you’ve taken up shaving your head again.” Hraerik put down his quill and looked up at his grandson. He still had a long blonde shock of hair at the top of his head, but he had been growing his hair all around it and cutting it in the Roman fashion and now, at war with the Romans, he had reverted to the haircut Hraerik had thrust upon him before the Battle of the Impalers. “Anyway,” he started again, “if Svia and Theophano are sisters, then Svia is Armenian as well. There is more going on here than we can imagine. These Armenians stick together when they are not busy killing each other. I think Theophano finally recognized who Svia really was and she’s asked her Emperor John to return her to the convent so they can suffer together. But John is an Armenian who has gotten a taste for focking Armenian beauties and they don’t get more beautiful than Svia,” Hraerik admitted.
“So he’s going to keep her for himself after all?”
“My spies have told me that he has been putting off the marriage with Theodora while he has been shopping around. Why would he marry a plain jane Roman princess when he can marry a truly exotic Armenian beauty? That is not our John. He was dipping his quill in the Emperor’s ink behind Nikephoros’ back because he can’t resist Armenian beauties. All the intelligence I have tells me that he killed Nikephoros solely because he was being displaced by you. These Armenian generals truly hate the Hraes’. We are the only people on Earth that they fear. He would have been completely content serving the Emperor as his star general while focking his wife behind his back forever. He fears you more than anyone else in this world. And you should fear him. He is one mother-focking Armenian killer general, even better than General John Kourkouas.”
“I noticed what a killer he is as he directs his troops into the fray,” Svein said with contempt.
“He’s killed many men himself,” Hraerik said. “He’s just learned how to take care for himself, something I always had to remind your father to do. And I’ll take a moment to warn you as well. Soldiers fight and soldiers die, but the soldiers who survive retire to land that the state provides them. Princes are born and princes and can never retire. They risk fratricide from early on to regicide when they are faltering in old age. There are plenty of old soldiers, but there are very few old princes so, you must learn to take care for yourself and learn from Emperor John’s example.”
“Thank you for your words of wisdom,” Svein said. “I shall work on that. The fact that you are undoubtedly the world’s oldest surviving prince lends great weight to your words.”
“A few more words of wisdom,” Hraerik said, looking up towards the walls of Dorostal. “Take down that head of General John Kourkouas and show it some respect. Attach it back to his body and I’ll return it to the Romans before we have the signing. And put a subtle watch on your Armenian princess.”
Svein looked up towards the fortress wall and said, “We thought we had killed the Emperor! He had so much gold on his armour that we thought it was Tzimiskes!”
“That was Kourkouas all right!” Hraerik said and Svein started to leave him to finish the contracts then stopped.
“Did you really foresee our deaths?” Svein asked.
“I foresaw your death in battle at the hands of the Romans and I saw Emperor John’s death by these hands,” Hraerik said, the quill balanced in one open palm, “with a terrible stroke from Tyrfingr that cut his golden armour in two. But by then, thousands upon thousands were dead and the Danube was burning.”
“It sounds absolutely glorious!” Svein said.
“I know! You owe me one,” the Prince said. “Now fetch me my general.”
Over lunch a ship came up to the shore between the City of Silistra and the Fortress of Dorostal and two white horses were unloaded and a chariot was hauled out and hitched up to them. Lunch had been brought out to the pavilion because Prince Hraerik wanted to maintain a neutral position in the conflict even though he had foreseen fire ships burning on the Danube by his own hand if the peace failed. A wagon came out from the fortress after lunch, driven by medical alchemists who had used great care to stitch the Roman general, John Kourkouas, back together. Prince Hraerik had them load the stretcher across the back floor of his antique Roman chariot. He then boarded it, took up the reins and smacked the horses with them and they trotted across the battlefield towards the Roman camp. Prince Hraerik drove into the camp and the Roman troops marvelled at the beauty of the antique Roman set of wheels and the beautiful white stallions drawing it forward. The Prince stopped in front of the Imperial pavilion and Emperor John came out to meet him. “I’d heard you were a collector,” the Emperor said as he walked up to the chariot. “I am as well. Fourth century?”
“Fifth century, built in Rome, just before the fall. The peak of chariot technology,” Hraerik said.
The Emperor patted a horse as he studied the machine from draught pole to the bronze body panels to the spoked wheels. A bronze tag above the wheel said, ‘Body by Piscator’ in Latin. “The bronze panels are Etruscan,” Hraerik said.
“It is Achilles dragging the body of Hector,” the Emperor said. “And you are King Priam,” Tzimiskes said as he rushed to the side of General Kourkouas and stroked his bristled cheek. “He was a great warrior and general.”
“The only general I ever feared,” Prince Hraerik said, taking one end of the stretcher and lifting it effortlessly. Tzimiskes grunted as he took up the other end and they carried the stretcher into the pavilion and put the body on the dining table inside. “He feared you and King Ivar as well,” Emperor John said, “although he refused to admit it, unlike Admiral Theophanes. He still fears you. He’s out on the Danube right now shitting himself.”
“I saw Admiral Theophanes on his flagship,” Hraerik said. “Treat him well. He is the last of our breed.”
Emperor John marvelled at the vitality of Prince Hraerik. “It is said you personally knew Emperor Theophilos.”
“He entertained me as a guest in the dungeons of Constantinople,” Hraerik admitted. “He taught me to read and write Latin there.”
“So, the palace did have dungeons back then,” John said.
“My cell was fitting of a prince,” Hraerik continued, “and the Latin he taught me ended up saving my life so, I think only kind thoughts of him.”
“I shall see that the general gets a procession and fine burial in Constantinople,” the Emperor said.
“That pleases me,” Hraerik said. “The contracts are ready for your perusal and signing any time you are free, Emperor.” Hraerik jumped up onto his chariot and drove off to his pavilion as Roman officers watched and admired his carriage.
Mid-afternoon, the Emperor showed up for the signing and asked where Princess Sviataslava was. “Only those required for signing,” Hraerik said, “will be here for the signing.” Tzimiskes nodded and began perusing the agreement. All lands south of the Danube were to be turned over to the Romans and the lands north of the river were to remain in Hraes’ control and this ran all the way to the Black Sea so, Pereslavet, Prince Svein’s city of empire, would become a Roman possession. Peace was to prevail between the two Empires and Prince Svein promised not to attack the Eastern Roman Empire and not to press claims to the Roman throne until he had at least gained his entitlement to the throne of Denmark. Prisoners were to be exchanged and the Hraes’ were to be allowed to return home without fear of fireships and the Romans were to supply them with provisions, and to consider them as friends when they journeyed to Byzantium to trade, just as was their previous custom.
The Emperor John readily accepted the terms and signed the contracts with Admiral Theophanes as witness and Prince Svein signed for the Hraes’ with Prince Hraerik signing as witness. Then gifts were exchanged and Emperor John gave Prince Svein his personal sword and fifteen thousand pounds of gold and Princes Svein and Hraerik gave John Tzimiskes the antique Roman chariot with the matched set of white chargers.
The Hraes’ had agreed to leave the Fortress of Dorostal the next day so, they began packing that night and when Prince Svein and Princess Sviataslava went to sleep that night she told Svein that she was too tired to have sex. In the middle of the night she slipped out of Svein, crept out of their bed, got dressed and went out into the fortress, got herself a horse and rode out towards the Roman camp. She was trotting along slowly in the dark and when she trotted by the Roman siege engines a small squad of Hraes’ cavalry rode up to her and took her into custody. When Svein woke up the next morning he asked the captain of the guard where his wife was and was told that the intelligence officer who was given the task of watching the princess had intercepted her trying to defect to the Romans and was being held as instructed.
Svein met with his grandfather and they discussed the situation. Prince Hraerik said if she wants to go, let her go, but Svein was deeply hurt by her betrayal. “What if Emperor John just wants to return her to the convent with Theophano? She is still the mother of my sons, the first two at least.”
“We know that she is only officially their mother and she could remain that whether she comes with us or goes with the Romans.”
“I cannot allow her to do that to my sons,” Svein said. “She will return to Kiev with me and at least be a mother to my sons.”
The two princes had a meeting with Princess Svia and she confessed that she was Theophano’s cousin and that she had been placed in a convent by Theophano’s more powerful Armenian dynasty family. She told Svein that she no longer loved him and that she wanted to be Empress of Rome with John Tzimiskes. “Emperor John just wants to return you to the convent so that your cousin can continue to abuse you.”
“That is what my spies in Constantinople tell me as well,” Prince Hraerik lied and they convinced her it was true. Perhaps it was, perhaps not. Prince Svein no longer wanted her after her betrayal, but he wanted his sons to have their mother at least. So it was decided that Svia would come back to Kiev with Svein.
The next day, as Prince Svein and Princess Svia were rowing out in a boat to sail away, Emperor John asked to speak with the Prince and some of his men called him back to shore. The Emperor sat on horseback at the bank of the Danube, clad in armor ornamented with gold, accompanied by a vast squadron of armed horsemen adorned with gold. Svein had his men row back and he was grasping an oar and rowing with his companions as if he were one of them. His appearance was as follows: he was of moderate height, neither taller than average, nor particularly short; his eyebrows were thick; he had grey blue eyes and a small nose; his beard was clean-shaven, but he let the hair grow abundantly on his upper lip where it was bushy and long; and he shaved his head completely, except for a long lock of blonde hair that hung down on one side of his head, as a mark of the nobility of his ancestry; he was solid in the neck, broad in the chest and very well-articulated in the rest of his body; he had a rather angry and savage appearance; on one ear was fastened a gold earring, adorned with two pearls with a red gemstone between them; his clothing was white, no different from that of his companions except in cleanliness.
“Good morning Prince,” the Emperor said, “and good morning Princess Sviataslava,” he added. “I just wanted you both to know that you are welcome in Constantinople anytime.”
“We are both going to Kiev and will not likely be heading south for a very long time,” Svein apologized and Svia added, “My sons miss me and I must go back to Kiev.” She wasn’t going to risk being sent back to that focking convent for all the Roman thrones in the world. And her cousin Theophano concurred with her thinking after a few years there. Before she managed to escape, she gained an education about the sexual appetites of celibate bishops and priests.
“Have a good trip,” the Emperor said, “and if you change your mind, you are always welcome to stay with me. Also, watch out for Pechenegs on your way back. I have word that the Khazars have paid them gold to attack you north of your rapids.”
“You paid me to wipe out the Khazars and that’s what I did,” Prince Svein protested.
“You missed a few,” the Emperor said. “They came to Constantinople looking for donations. I didn’t know what they needed the donations for at the time, but I have since learned of their plans to support a Pecheneg attack against you on your way back.”
Svein began rowing away with his men and Svia waved bye as she departed sitting on the helmsman’s seat of the boat. Thus the war of the Romans with the Scythians came to an end.