The image on this coin has been interpreted as meaning that the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II came to control the city of Thessaloniki (Salonica) through a vassal after the Battle of Klokotnitsa in 1230 AD. Photo: BGNES
Thessaloniki (also known in English as Salonica or Thessalonica), the second largest city in today’s Greece and the second most important city of the Byzantine Empire in the Middle Ages, may have come under the control of the Second Bulgarian Empire in the second quarter of the 13th century.
This hypothesis has been voiced by Bulgarian numismatic collector Tencho Popov based on a newly identified medieval coin, report the Trud daily and the BGNES news agency.
Later, his hypothesis has been supported by archaeologist Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, and by archaeologist and numismatist Assoc. Prof. Konstantin Dochev, who is the head of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the Institute, reports the Novinar daily.
Popov, a financier, has been a numismatic collector for over 40 years. He became publicly known in 2010 when, while serving as Chief Secretary of Bulgaria’s Finance Ministry, he was arrested on bribery chargers together with a former Defense Minister and an acting judge in a highly controversial police operation touted by the Bulgarian Cabinet at the time as a corruption crackdown. However, Popov and the other defendants were fully acquitted by the Sofia City Court in 2012, and again in 2015, by Bulgaria’s Supreme Court of Cassation.
Popov’s hypothesis about the medieval Bulgarian Empire gaining control over Byzantium’s second largest city refers to the period after the Battle of Klokotnitsa of 1230 in which Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD), ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), defeated the powerful Theodore Komnenos Doukas (Theodore Comnenus Ducas) (r. 1216-1230 AD), ruler of the Despotate of Epirus.
The Despotate of Epirus (together with the the Empire of Nicaea and the Empire of Trebizond) was one of the successor states of Byzantium after in 1204 AD, Constantinople was conquered by the Western European knights from the Fourth Crusade who established the so called Latin Empire (1204-1261). As of 1224, the Despotate of Epirus even became known as the so called Empire of Thessalonica (Thessaloniki) which proved short-lived as it was dealt a deadly blow by the Bulgarian Empire in 1230.
Tsar Ivan Asen II’s victory near Klokotnitsa (today near Asenovgrad in Southern Bulgaria), in which he prevailed with inferior forces over the Despot of Epirus and an aspirant for the Constantinople throne, ushered into the height of the Second Bulgarian Empire which at the time ruled territories from the Carpathian Mountains in the north to the Aegean and the Adriatic in the south, restoring most, if not all, of the territorial, military and economic might of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD).
Popov’s hypothesis supported also by archaeologists Dochev and Ovcharov deals with the fate of Thessaloniki after the Klokotnitsa Battle between Bulgaria and Epirus, and seeks to challenge the mainstream view that Epirus continued to exist as a despotate ruled by Theodore’s brother, Manuel Komnenos Doukas (Manuel Comnenus Ducas) (r. 1230-1237, 1239-1241). According to this view, Manuel Comenus received the title of despot from his brother.
However, Popov argues that a medieval coin he acquired recently actually disproves this mainstream view in the history of the Bulgarian and Byzantine empires.
Coin collector Tencho Popov showing the coin he interprets as valuable evidence about the 13th century history of Thessaloniki. Photo: BGNES
The coin depicts two figures in which “the senior figure crowns the junior figure". Next to the “senior figure", there is an inscription in Slavic (i.e. Bulgarian) letters interpreted as “Tsar Asen".
“The right-hand figure is Tsar [Ivan] Asen, and next to the other figure, there is an inscription reading “Manuel". This actually shows that Tsar Ivan Asen gave Manuel the title of despot, and Thessaloniki was part of the Bulgarian state," Popov is quoted as saying.
“Unfortunately, until now, this possibility has been dismissed by international scholars, and especially by the Greek historians in spite of the diverse evidence. This time the evidence will be supported by a source like this coin. It is an irrefutable proof about what happened with Thessaloniki after the battle in 1230," he elaborates.
“I would like to present this coin to them so that the truth about Thessaloniki can be made part of [the official] history," he explains.
The collector has also revealed that he acquired the medieval coin in question, which according to his interpretation appears to have been minted by the Second Bulgarian Empire, at an auction house in the USA for the price of only USD 25.
He adds that the coin had been “wrongly defined" as a Byzantine coin of Emperor Alexius III Angelus (Alexios III Angelos) (r. 1195-1203) which is why its price had been set so low.
“Some collectors didn’t have a proper look at the coin, and didn’t read the inscription correctly. But this kind of thing happens often in the collecting of coins," he claims.
Popov’s hypothesis about the fate of Thessaloniki after the Battle of Klokotnitsa in 1230 based on the coin in question has been fully supported by archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov.
“The coin proves that back then Bulgaria ruled over almost the entire Balkan Peninsula," he says, as quoted by the Novinar daily.
Ovcharov cautions, however, that the Bulgarian emperor, Tsar Ivan Asen II, did not enter Thessaloniki as a triumphant conqueror but instead made Manuel Comnenus his vassal who ruled over the second most important Byzantine city on his behalf.
Without elaborating in detail, he adds that four other coins which are part of the collection of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History, are also seen as evidence supporting the hypothesis that the Second Bulgarian Empire came to control Thessaloniki after 1230.
The First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) never conquered Thessaloniki although a 904 AD treaty set its border with Byzantium right to the north of the city.
The Battle of Klokotnitsa occurred on March 9, 1230 AD, near the town of Klokotnitsa (in today’s Haskovo District in Southern Bulgaria). In the Battle of Klokotnitsa, the inferior forces of Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD), ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), soundly defeated the armies of Theodore Komnenos Doukas (r. 1216-1230 AD), ruler of the Despotate of Epirus, one of the three Byzantine Greek successor states formed after Western European crusaders from the Fourth Crusade conquered Constantinople in 1204 AD, and set up the so called Latin Empire (1204-1261 AD). The Battle of Klokotnitsa is considered one of the most important military victories in the 1400 years of Bulgarian history.
Around 1221–1222, the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II signed an alliance treaty with Despot Theodore Komnenos Doukas from the Epirus Despotate which allowed Theodore Komnenos to focus on expanding against the Latin Empire by conquering Thessaloniki but also by capturing some Bulgarian territories such as Ohrid in the region of Macedonia. After the death of Latin Emperor Robert of Courtenay (r. 1221-1228 AD), his successor to the throne of the Latin Empire, Emperor Baldwin II was just 11 years old, and the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II appeared as the most likely choice of a regent for him. As a result, he and the Bulgarian Empire were considered an obstacle by Theodore Komnenos who was aspiring to the throne of Constantinople in order to resurrect the Byzantine Empire. Thus, in early March 1230 AD, Theodore Komnenos invaded Bulgaria with a large army in violation of his alliance with Tsar Ivan Asen II, and without a declaration of war. The Bulgarian Tsar, with a smaller army, marched to meet him surprisingly quickly. On March 9 (March 22), 1230, the their armies met near the town of Klokotnitsa. Tsar Ivan Asen II had the broken alliance treaty to be pierced on his spear and used as a flag. In a battle that lasted till sunset, the Epirotians were completely defeated, and only a small force under the despot’s brother, Manuel Komnenos Doukas, managed to escape. The rest were killed in the battle or captured, including the entire royal court of Epirus and Theodore Komnenos himself.
After the Battle of Klokotnitsa, the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II released the captured soldiers without any conditions, while the nobles were taken to the Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo). His fame for being a merciful and just ruler went ahead of his march to the lands of Theodore Komnenos, and they were regained to Bulgaria without resistance. These included the territories between the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Adriatic Sea. The captured Despot Theodore Komnenos was kept as a prisoner in Tarnovgrad for seven years; he was blinded after his involvement in a conspiracy there. He was released in 1237, after the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II married his daughter Irene, and returned to Epirus where he died in 1253.