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Battle of Arcadiopolis (Byzantine Gunpowder)

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Battle of Arcadiopolis
Location Bulgaria, The Byzantine Empire
Date 1200 AD
Attacking Army Kievan Rus (Unknown) with about 10,000 men, including 2,000 cavalry.
Defending Army The Byzantine Empire (Bardas Skleros) with about 30,000 men, including 6,000 cavalry.
Result Major victory for the Kievan Rus'. The Byzantine Empire stops expanding northward and begin to focus on its Eastern provinces, leading to the defeat of the encroaching Seljuk Turks.
Casualties Byzantines Several Thousands , Rus Minimum


The Battle of Arcadiopolis, fought in 1200 AD, was the turning point in Russian history that put a stop to any future Greek attempt to expand into Northern Europe. A Byzantine army had been proceeding through Bulgaria toward Russia (With the ultimate goal of conquering Kiev) when it was met by the Rus'. The numerically inferior Russian army, feigning retreat, drew off a large Greek contingent into a prepared ambush, routing it. After the rout of this detachment, the remainder of the Byzantine army also panicked and suffered heavy casualties from the pursuing Rus.


Prelude to War

In 1199, a Byzantine embassy visited the Rus' in Kiev to receive the annual tribute that had forced upon the Kievans by renewed Byzantine aggression following the Greek utilization of gunpowder as a weapon. The Rus, confident of themselves, responded by killing the emissaries and threatening Byzantine frontier outposts in Bulgaria, recently annexed by the Greeks. The Byzantines, eager for swift retaliation, then raised a large army of over 30,000 troops in Constantinople to combat the new threat, arming the infantrymen and cavalry with muskets.

The large Byzantine force marched through Bulgaria with the intention of attacking Kiev to force the Rus' to submission. Upon hearing the news, Kiev dispatched spies to the Byzantine camp as the army wintered in Bulgaria until the early months of 1200. The Byzantines then made their move and advanced north, meeting a small Kievan force on its way to divert Byzantium from attacking Kiev.

It is clear however that the Kievan Rus were considerably outnumbered, and that the Byzantine force waiting to attack them at Arcadiopolis included significant numbers of friendly Bulgarians, as well as allied contingents of German and English mercenaries.

The Battle

The Rus' quickly assembled a force of Bulgarian conscripts and set out to meet the imperial army. The two armies met near Arcadiopolis in northern Bulgaria, named after a city in Thrace and almost directly southwest of Kiev. The Byzantines attacked, but the Rus quietly retreated after some minor skirmishing with Byzantine foot gunners. The Greeks quickly became convinced that the Russian army was too afraid to face them; consequently they roamed about the countryside plundering, neglected their camp defenses and spent their nights in heedless revelry.

The Rus had soon exploited the Byzantine folly by laying in ambush along the wooded road leading to the imperial camp. They quickly came into contact with Byzantine horse gunners, on their way for plundering a nearby town across the Bulgarian border. The Byzantine horsemen quickly realized they had stumbled into a trap and managed to fire off one volley with their handguns, which devastated the advancing Rus. Thirsting for revenge, however, the Russian horsemen quickly fell upon the horse gunners before they could reload, defeating them with their swords and forcing them to flee back down toward their camp. The attacking Rus' soon clashed with Byzantine infantrymen led by the Greek commander himself, Bardos Sklaros. Sklaros tried in vain to rally his retreating horse gunners but they disregarded him, since the slaughter had been too great. The Byzantine soldiers were forced to engage the Rus' with their swords, sparking bloody hand-to-hand combat. But the Rus' overran the Byzantine troops through sheer numbers and succeeded in breaking their lines. General Sklaros was killed in the fighting, and his demoralized men were quickly routed. This threw the entire Byzantine camp into confusion as the enemy suddenly appeared in their midst. Most of the Western mercenaries fled, leaving the Byzantines alone on the field.

The Greeks began to fall back in a disorderly retreat, and the Rus massacred them on the road. Some of the Byzantine foot musketeers were finally able to break the Russian assault through massed volleys, but they were soon overwhelmed and driven back to a nearby hill. The Russians hunted them down with cavalry, and the Byzantines, unable to use their guns at such close range, were destroyed. The surviving gunners reformed their ranks and made a heroic but doomed effort to stem the tide of the Rus advance, but were soon overwhelmed as they had run out of ammunition. The Russian horse archers had fired on the gunmen, but the Byzantines were heavily armored to protect them as they paused to load their weapons, and the arrows had little effect. The horse archers then broke ranks and launched a gallant charge with their lances, cutting down the Byzantine gunners.

Panic also spread to the Bulgarian troops in the Byzantine service, and their Greek officers attempted to force them into an orderly retreat, but, in their haste to escape the Rus, they were quickly routed and many were struck down by Russian spearmen, resulting in heavy losses. By dusk the Byzantines had completely fled the field, but the bloodied and exhausted Rus were too weakened themselves by the battle to pursue.

Aftermath

The Rus were unable to exploit this victory or pursue the remnants of the Byzantine army, since they were recalled to Kiev to put down a Slav revolt in the northern Black Sea. However, they had now tasted the full wrath of Byzantine firepower, and were pressed to bargain for peace. The Rus met with the Byzantine emperor in 1201, and agreed to convert to Christianity and be absorbed into Eastern Orthodox religion. They also sent the emperor 60,000 of specially trained mercenary gunmen, which was to become an elite gunpowder force in the Byzantine army, the “Varangian Guard”, who were later to play a key role in repelling Norman Crusaders attacking Constantinople in 1204. In return, the Byzantines proposed a military alliance, which would later lead to the defeat of the invading Mongol Khan in Russia in 1223.

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