His name was Krum the Fearsome, or Krum the Horrible, or Krum the Merciless, or Krum the Don’t Fuck With, or basically just Krum. Needless to say his enemies were in for a fairly Krummy time, and if you thought I’d go this whole piece without using that pun then you haven’t been paying much attention so far.
Concrete information regarding Krum’s upbringing is understandably hard to find, but we do know that he became leader of the Bulgars in 803 and he was what you would describe as an ‘adventurous’ leader. His route to power didn’t involve much in the way of gladhanding and kissing babies, focusing more on murder and pillage. He took reign and proceeded to violently destroy all before him, building an empire from Budapest to the Ukraine and making inroads into Byzantine lands.
During Krum’s 11 year reign the Bulgarian state doubled in size, and became the first Slavic state on the Balkan peninsula worthy of the name. He instituted the first written Bulgarian code of law and brought order to his lands. The code was strict, but it can be argued that its intentions were good, aiming to bring legal protection for Bulgarians of all social status, from the rich to the poor and everyone in between. Robbery was punished with both ankles of the perpetrator being broken. If one refused the pleas of a beggar one would have all of their riches taken from them so that they could be made oh so very aware of what it was like to have nothing. He tried to ban alcohol, but not even the Mighty Krum could make that happen.
Of course, if all Krum did was enforce some kinda harsh laws he probably wouldn’t be worthy of mention, as ‘enforce some kinda harsh laws’ was the only criteria for Bulgarian leaders of the 20th century. Nope, our dear Krum the Shitkicker had a few slightly more ‘shit mate’ tricks up his sleeve worthy of mention, that range from the ‘typical 9th century hilarity’ to ‘Jesus Christ’ to ‘drinking wine from the skull of his victims’.
His greatest rival was the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I, and it was from this feud that the legend of Krum the Badass would be born. The relationship of the Byzantines and the Bulgarians up until this point had been fairly love/hate, with the Bulgarians providing some handy muscle whenever the Byzantines wanted to murder some opponents. Nikephoros wasn’t too keen on Krum organising his people though, so he decided on a surprise raid of Bulgarian lands. Foreign mercenaries bulked his huge Byzantine force up and Krum was defeated on his home turf. Nicky marched his men into Krum’s capital and turned it to shit, murdering civilians and looting wherever they went. Nick also raided Krum’s mansion, stealing his cellar of super rare and expensive wines in the process.
It is important here to make clear just how cruel the Byzantines were during this time. Sure, it was the 9th century and everyone was shitty, but for the purposes of the story I feel we should make a few things clear. Nicky wanted nothing left of the Buglarians, and any attempt at diplomacy from our Krum was rejected. Nikephoros famously ordered all the Bulgarian children of a town to be tied down and have their skulls stoved in with rocks, a sentence that I can’t even begin to fathom or make fun of. Once Nick had his fill of violence and holy-shittery, he marched his long column back home and everything ended fine.
Except it didn’t.
Krum the Don’t Fuck With Me obviously wasn’t going to take this lying down, and he took to the land gathering every able-bodied man, woman, child, goat, toy soldier, fictional character and who knows what else. If you were Bulgarian and not dead you were about to go into battle. As Nikephoros and his men continued their leisurely ride back home, things were about to get a little less leisurely. They realised that they were trapped in the mountains, which must have been a pretty shitty moment for all involved. The Bulgarians rode down the hills and proceeded to lay the shit to the Byzantines.
Of course, Krum wasn’t going to let Nikephoros get away. He was killed in battle, becoming the first Byzantine emperor to perish in a fight for 500 years. He was dragged to Krum’s tent, where our hero chopped off his head, lined it with silver and used it as a cup for drinking. He turned the Byzantine Emperor’s skull into a cup.
Go back and read that sentence again.
If that weren’t enough, whenever future Byzantine diplomats would come to negotiate with Krum he would force them to drink from Nikephoros’ skull. Yep.
His Byzantine Emperor humiliating would continue. Nikephoros’ son took over, but he was wounded in the previous battle and was paralysed from the neck down, which wasn’t ideal for a ruler in the 9th century. He soon perished from his wounds. Michael, Nikephoros’ son-in-law, took over the empire. He soon made the mistake of disagreeing with Krum during some peace negotiations and battle resumed. Michael lost, obviously, and he lost so badly that he resigned on the spot and went off to become a monk. This might have been the most intelligent decision made by any Byzantine ruler during Krum’s time. He also became the third Byzantine emperor defeated by Krum in as many years.
Leo V (known as ‘The Armenian’) was the next in line, and he wasn’t about to find his name scratched onto’s Krum’s bedpost just yet. Negotiations were the way forward, and Krum was invited to Constantinople. That crafty Leon had little interest in negotiating however, hoping more to be able to off Krum with an assassination and then set about cleaning up the mess the Bulgar had left. Would he succeed?
In a word, sweet lord of course not. The journey to the Byzantine capital was almost over, and Krum decided a rest was in order. He dismounted his horse and had a little sit on the ground, passing his horse onto his son-in-law. At this point one of his charge, a low-life traitor, removed his helmet, this being the pre-arranged signal to begin the ambush. The Byzantines weren’t aware that uncovering one’s head in the presence of the Khan was considered immensely disrespectful. Being a man nicknamed ‘The Terrible’, Krum was instantly insulted and immediately made for his horse. This gave him vital seconds in his getaway, and his ambushers were only able to kill an official and capture his son. Krum wasn’t physically hurt, but his pride was damaged. The would-be killer’s main achievement was royally pissing off a man called Krum the Fearsome.
Understandably, the negotiations were crossed off of Krum’s calendar. The Bulgar leader went on a rampage the likes of which only he could dream of, destroying anything and everything in sight. Everyone was killed, until he grew tired of all the killing and decided to send women, children and livestock back to Bulgaria. Krum and his men began to resemble a bull in a china shop, albeit a drunken bull in a china shop entirely made out of china. A Bulgar in a china shop, if you will.
Krum plundered the coast, Krum plundered the inland, heck, Krum probably plundered himself without realising it. All the while Leo the Armenian hid in the walls of Constantinople like a frightened child waiting for his drunken father to stop shouting. Krum would have plundered Leo’s physical existence too, but a sudden cerebral haemorrhage put an end to The Fearsome one in 814. Blood came out of his ears, his nose and his mouth, with blood probably coming out of his soul and his memories too. Krum the Fearsome had finally become Krum the Dead.
How would Krum the Emperor Hunter be remembered? We remember him as an incredibly violent man who defeated three Byzantine emperors in three years of course, and as the man who made a mug out of a ruler’s skull. Much like Genghis Khan, Krum’s eulogy will be forever written as an accolade of respect, adoration and awe, as he doubled the size of the Bulgarian lands and did it like a total badass.
Of course, had he performed any of these actions any time after the 18th century, he would be remembered as a disgraceful evil man who took things far too far. History is a funny thing.