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The Pechenegs

Steven Lowe and Dmitriy V. Ryaboy

“The Pechenegs are insatiable, fiercely covetous of those commodities that are rare among them, and shameless in their demands for generous presents . . . when the Imperial envoy enters their country, their first reaction is to ask for the Emperor’s gifts, and when the men have finally been satisfied they demand the same for their wives and parents.”
Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, De Administrando Imperio


Despite evidence of considerable sophistication in their handcrafts, the Pechenegs appear to have had no written culture, and all information we have of them comes from external commentators.

The Pechenegs (or Patzinaks) were a Turkic race, like many others who migrated west from the steppes. They seem to have consisted of 8 tribal groupings, with names based on horse-colours (like Qara-Bay, "the tribe of Bay with greyish horses"). Driven by the Oguz and then the Khazars, they collided with the civilisations of Russia and Byzantium. By the late ninth century CE, they controlled most of southern Russia and moved into the Crimean peninsula, raiding Cherson and other Byzantine territories there.

They were described thus by the Byzantine diplomat and scholar Michael Psellos in the 11th century: "They are more difficult to fight and harder to subdue than any other people . . .They wear no breastplates, greaves or helmets, and carry no shields or swords. Their only weapon and sole means of defence is the spear . . .They build no protective palisades or ditches around their camps. In one dense mass, encouraged by sheer desperation, they shout their thunderous war-cries and hurl themselves pell-mell upon their adversaries and push them back, pressing against themselves in solid blocks, like towers, then pursuing them and slaying them without mercy. If on the other hand the opposing force withstands their assault, they turn about and seek safety in flight (Norwich p. 335) . . ."

On the other hand, Psellos was a civil servant with no experience in battle, and would have relied on (probably highly coloured) accounts of their habits and culture, let alone the fact that those who informed him would have been seeing the Pechenegs through a veil of prejudice. It is more likely that the Pechenegs were armed and fought very much like other steppe races, with felt or leather lamellar armour, shooting the bow from horseback.

A helmet found in Hungary; though apparently of Byzantine manufacture, the decoration is thought to be of Pecheneg origin

Alliances and Trade

Byzantium made alliances with them, finding them useful in keeping the Magyars and Rus from encroaching on Byzantine territory. The first eight chapters of De Administrando Imperio, Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetos’ book of advice to his son on how to run the Empire, are devoted to the importance of the Pecheneg alliance:

. . if this alliance is kept, Byzantine Crimea is safe, trade with Russia can flourish, and the Empire’s potential enemies in the north, Bulgarians and Magyars and Russians, who tremble with fear before the Pechenegs, will not dare to attack.” (Obolensky p. 179)

…the Pechenegs, if they are leagued in friendship with the emperor and won over by him through letters and gifts, can easily come upon the country both of the Russians and of the Turks [Magyars], and enslave their women and children and ravage their country.” (De Administrando Imperio p. 51, 53)

However, Constantine stressed the importance of not allowing the Pechenegs to settle in Byzantine territory, lest they become impossible to remove. He also kept the Uzes, another Turkic steppe race “in reserve” in case the Pechenegs became too much of a threat.

The Uzes can attack the Pechenegs.” (ibid. p. 63)

One Pecheneg tribe had its territory near Cherson in the Crimea, and trade between the two was carried out on an individual, rather than a state, basis:

. . . another folk of these Pechenegs lies over against the district of Cherson; they trade with the Chersonites . . . . they receive from the Chersonites a prearranged remuneration in respect of this service proportionate to their labour and trouble, in the form of pieces of purple cloth, ribbons, woven cloths, gold brocade, pepper, scarlet or “Parthian” leather, and other commodities which they require, according to a contract which each Chersonite may make or agree to with an individual Pecheneg. For these Pechenegs are free men and, so to say, independent, and never perform a service without remuneration.” (ibid. p. 53)

Trade was carried on after first exchanging hostages and the giving of gifts to the Pechenegs. The Imperial agent from Cherson went into Pecheneg territory to do this.

The Russians also are much concerned to keep the peace with the Pechenegs. For they buy of them horned cattle and horses and sheep, whereby they live more easily and comfortably, since none of the aforesaid animals is found in Russia.” (ibid. p. 51)

Additionally, Imperial legates from the capital would travel up the Dniepr and Danube Rivers in warships and conduct negotiations with the Pecheneg tribe which dwelt there from the ships themselves, either for trade or alliances.

In the region of Bulgaria also is settled a folk of the Pechenegs, toward the region of the Dnieper and the Dniester and the other rivers of those parts. And when an Imperial agent is dispatched from here [Constantinople] with ships of war, he may, without going to Cherson, shortly and swiftly find these same Pechenegs here . . . and when the Pechenegs have taken their oaths to the imperial agent according to their “zakana” , he presents them with the imperial gifts . . . (ibid. p. 55)

Constantine Porphyrogennetos describes the rich trade route of the Viking Rus down the Russian rivers to Constantinople. The Dniepr River had nine sets of rapids to be negotiated. The need to guard against Pecheneg attack is not mentioned until the fourth rapid, known as Aeifor. At this point the ships had to be bodily hauled out of the water and ships and goods laboriously carried six miles around the rapid.

At the seventh rapid, Stroukhoun, at the ford of Vrar, “where the Chersonites cross over from Russia and the Pechenegs to Cherson . . . the Pechenegs attack the Russian traders.” (ibid. p. 61)

[The Russians] again set out and come to the Selinas, the so-called branch of the Danube River. And until they are past the river Selinas, the Pechenegs keep pace with them. . . But after the Selinas they fear nobody, but, entering into the territory of Bulgaria, they come to the mouth of the Danube.” (ibid. p. 63)

History and Warfare

In the late 9th century, the two “super-powers” of the Balkan region were Byzantium and Bulgaria. In 894, a huge Bulgarian army invaded the Byzantine province of Thrace. Byzantium’s forces were already stretched to the limit, involved in southern Italy and in the east against the Arabs. While a hastily assembled Imperial army was put into the field, Emperor Leo VI (the Wise) bribed the Magyars, a steppe tribe, to attack the Bulgarians. Symeon, the Bulgarian Tsar, took a leaf out of Byzantium’s book and hired another steppe nation, who dwelt in Southern Russia, the Pechenegs, to attack the Magyars. They were so effective in this that the Magyars fled west into Pannonia, which they took for their own, and which became Hungary, the land of the Magyars. (Norwich, p.108-9)

In 917 in the reign of Empress Zoe, Tsar Symeon sent another army to ravage Thrace. A combined force was sent to deal with it. While the Byzantine army moved up from the south, the fleet was to ferry the Pechenegs across the Danube to attack them from the north. What happened next is somewhat confused. According to Norwich, a fierce disagreement erupted between the general who had led the Pechenegs to the Danube, and the admiral in charge of the fleet, who refused to transport them across; the Pechenegs got sick of waiting and left. Obolensky, however, does not mention any argument, simply stating that the Pechenegs refused to cross. Shortly afterward, the Byzantine army was caught in its encampment by the Bulgarians and massacred. (Norwich. P. 132, Obolensky p. 110)

Some time after 927, an embassy was sent to the Magyars, commanding them, as erstwhile Imperial auxiliaries, to conquer the lands of the Pechenegs on the Emperor’s behalf. The Magyars refused, regarding the Pechenegs as too difficult an enemy to attack - “a bad lot” is how they described them to the Imperial emissary. (Obolensky p. 155)

The Rus (Russian Vikings) also strove to ally themselves with the Pechenegs:
. . the Russians, both to avoid being harmed by them and because of the strength of that nation, are the more concerned always to be in alliance with them and to have them for support, so as both to be rid of their enmity and to enjoy the advantage of their assistance.” (De Administrando Imperio p. 51)

In 944 the Pechenegs allied with the Rus to invade Byzantium, but both armies were bought off with rich bribes. The Russians went home, and the Pechenegs were persuaded to ravage Bulgaria instead. (Norwich. P. 153)

In 965, Emperor Nikephoros Phokas went to war with Bulgaria. However, since the bulk of his army was occupied on the eastern frontier, he paid Sviatoslav, the Prince of Kiev, to invade on his behalf. Sviatoslav was shatteringly successful against the Bulgars.

However, Sviatoslav was forced to return home in 968-9 by the news that the Pechenegs were besieging Kiev - perhaps they had been put up to it by either the Byzantines or the Bulgarians. He was able to beat off their attack, and was even able to recruit them to join his next attack on Bulgaria.

In 969, with an army many thousands strong, and numbering Pechenegs among its ranks along with the Russians and Magyars, he captured Preslav and when Philippopolis fell after a heroic resistance, he impaled 20,000 of its citizens. By the beginning of 970 he was now able to turn his attention to Byzantium itself.

In a move which probably saved the Empire, Nikephoros was assassinated by general John Tzimiskes, who took his throne. In 970 the Byzantine army, vastly outnumbered, but superbly trained and equipped, advanced into Thrace against Sviatoslav’s army, then slowly withdrew, drawing the enemy behind them.

General Bardas Sclerus sent a detachment of cavalry out under John Alakas;

Sviatoslav’s army marched in three main divisions: the first was made up of Russians and Bulgars, the second of Hungarians and other Magyar tribes, the third of Pechenegs. It was the last whom Alakas engaged and they pursued him eagerly, confident of being able quickly to catch up with him and his men, looking forward to killing them and robbing them of horses, armour, weapons and all they possessed. Suddenly, as they entered a shallow valley, the Byzantine army scattered; their pursuers did likewise, and Sclerus struck. Surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered, the Pechenegs perished almost to a man. (Norwich p. 216)

This was followed by an enormous pitched battle outside Arcadiopolis, in which the Byzantines were overwhelmingly victorious. Sviatoslav retired to Bulgaria to lick his wounds.

In 972, after building up and training a vast army, Tzimiskes advanced into Bulgaria, capturing Preslav by storm after a furious battle before its walls, then marching to Dristra, where Sviatoslav had made his headquarters. After a gruelling three-month siege, the Russian Prince surrendered. Tzimiskes released a defeated Sviatoslav, promising him safe conduct. But on his return trip to Russia, as he was passing the Dniepr rapids, Sviatoslav was ambushed and killed by the Pechenegs, for not paying them their agreed share of loot. His skull was made into a drinking vessel.

Serious warfare did not break out between the Pechenegs and the Rus until much later, when the Pechenegs and Knyaz Vladimir went at it in earnest in 988, hostilities continuing on and off for years and only dying down in the early 11th century, around 1006-7. Upon Vladimir's death the Pechenegs were used in the succession struggle, which culminated in the defeat of their forces and those of their employer Sviatopolk by Yaroslav.

The Oguz were pushing from the other side again, themselves being pushed by what would be the next Big Thing in the history of Eurasian Nomads, the Cumans/Kipchaks, and in 1027 the Pechenegs crossed the Danube River, but were repulsed by Byzantium. Raiding into Russia followed, but all attempts to re-establish their former domain were crushed by Yaroslav in 1036.

They began instead to attack the Balkans, reaching deep into Thrace and even ravaging the suburbs of Constantinople. The Byzantines, attempting to take advantage of strife between Pecheneg leaders, offered land and fortresses to one of them on the south bank of the Danube in return for defence of the frontier. Later the other major leader was also offered land in the Balkans, and both were converted to Christianity (Obolensky p. 213).

But some time later these Pechenegs rebelled, successfully, and the defeat of Greek forces in 1052 led an establishment of an independent polity within the empire. They were beaten off by Emperor Isaac Komnenos in 1059, but were soon back on the attack (Norwich p. 334-5)

A new threat arose 1064; the Uzes, another Turkic tribe, raided through Bulgaria and Thrace, even reaching into Greece. It was not the Byzantine army which removed this threat, but a virulent plague. The survivors were absorbed into the Empire as auxiliaries.

From 1086, the Pecheneg attacks resumed, and in 1090, they reached the walls of Constantinople. Emperor Alexios Komnenos enlisted the Cumans, yet another Turkic tribe from the steppes, to rid the Empire of the threat. At the battle of Levounion in 1091, a combined Byzantine and Cuman force destroyed the Pecheneg army. The Pechenegs were fragmented, weakened, and ceased to exist as a significant force. They were never a problem to the Empire again, and the remnants were hired as "policemen" by the Empire over the following decades, during which time they served faithfully and received casualties trying to control the rabble of the First Crusade as they moved through Bulgaria on their way to Constantinople and the Holy Land.

Fragments of the Pechenegs that had remained in Russia were joined with the no-less fragmented Oguz and the Torks into a confederacy called The Black Hats (Chenrye Klobuki), and settled on Russian borders, mainly in the area of Chernigov, to serve as a buffer against the ever-increasing strength of the Cumans/Kipchaks.


Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos De Administrando Imperio ed. Gy Moravcsik, Trans. R.J.H. Jenkins. Dumbarton Oaks 1967

Dimitry V. Ryaboy, The Red Kaganate.

Golden, P. An introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples. Otto Harrassowitz Wiesbaden, 1992 ISBN 3-447-03274-X A good general overview, mainly concerned with questions of linguistics, but has lots of other info as well. Only a few pages (264-270) cover the Pechenegs.

Horvath A.P., (trans.) Wilkinson, T. Pechenegs, Cumans, Iasians: Steppe peoples in medieval Hungary. Corvina, Budapest 1989. ISBN 963-13-2740-X.

Obolensky, D. The Byzantine Commonwealth Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1971

Tolochko, P. Nomadic peoples of the steppes and Kievian Rus' (Kochevye narody stepey i Kievskaya Rus'). Abris, Kiev 1999 ISBN 966-531-064-X Another general intro book, some good parts, some bad.

See also a Byzantine Auxiliary Light Cavalryman in Armies of the Dark Ages 600-1066 by Ian Heath
Index of Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers

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