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Dall’Aglio (2014 Congress)

Francesco Dall’Aglio
(Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Storici, Naples)
“Between Past Glory and Imperial Destiny:  The Ideological Use of the Past and of the Imperial Idea in Thirteenth-Century Bulgaria”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, May 2014)
Session on “A Neglected Empire:  Bulgaria between the Late Twelfth and Late Fourteenth Centuries”
Part I:  “Shaping, Defining, and Reshaping an Empire”

Co-sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence and the Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Florida
Organized by Florin Curta (University of Florida) and Mildred Budny (Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
2014 Congress Accomplished

[First published on our first website on 20 March 2014]

The birth of the so-called Second Bulgarian Empire in 1185-6, after a successful revolt against Byzantine domination, can hardly be interpreted as a ‘national’ resurgence, not only because an exclusive Bulgarian ethnic character did not exist.  It is, however, undeniable that the leaders of the revolt, who would soon rise to the position of tzars of the newly born, or restored, kingdom of Bulgaria, decided from the beginning of their political career to make use of the persuasive association with the old Bulgarian kingdom, by presenting themselves as its heirs and restorers.  Moreover, they rigorously related their power to the idea of a divine protection granted by God, thereby adding an unswerving religious element to their claims.

In doing so, they shaped a specific cultural and ideological interpretation not only of past Bulgarian history, but also of its future developments.  The idea of a restoration of the first Bulgarian empire, to be used as a rallying cry to gain the support of the population during the difficult time of the establishment of the new state, gradually shifted to a larger and more grandiose vision once the new kingdom became one of the most powerful states of South-Eastern Europe.  Its clash with the Latin Empire of Constantinople, far from being a mere fight for the control of Thrace and Macedonia, became a fight for the translatio of the Eastern Empire.

This process was not straightforward, nor had it been programmed from the start.  It underwent many adjustments and adaptations, but it can nonetheless be clearly discerned, at least in its general contours, from its precarious beginnings in 1185 to its apogee in the 1230s, by analyzing the ideological pretensions and representations of the first tzars of the Second Bulgarian empire.

During the joint rule of Asen and Petar (1185–1197), the first elements of this discourse began to surface, although not necessarily encased in a coherent structure.  The leaders focused on what could grant them the largest possible participation with their endeavor:  religion and vague allusions to past independence and to the ‘national’ character of the rebellion.  Their successor, Kalojan (1197–1207), who ruled over a well-established Bulgaria, exploited the Byzantine catastrophe of 1204 to make more ambitious claims.  He denied the Latins any legitimacy as rulers of the Empire:  in his correspondence with Innocent III he referred to them as usurpers, and referred to the tsars of the first Bulgarian kingdom by the more provocative term progenitores instead of the more neutral praedecessores.  Kalojan sought to acquire international legitimacy and to safeguard Bulgarian independence, rather than to be considered a potential candidate for the throne of Constantinople:  his inveterate hostility towards the Byzantines made such a proposition inconceivable.

Kalojan’s nephew Ivan Asen II (1218–1241), on the other hand, pursued quite different politics.  Not only did he continue the process of identification between the first and the second Bulgarian empires but, after the battle of Klokotniza in 1230, styled himself, in official documents, as the sole veritable emperor.  During his kingdom the idea of Tarnovo as a ‘second Constantinople’ was born, although he himself never used this term.  This was an idea that would reach its climax during the reign of Ivan Alexander (1331–1371), eventually to become the cornerstone of the Russian idea of Moscow as a ‘third Rome’.