Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria

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Ivan Asen II
Tsar of Bulgaria
G danchov ivan asen.jpg
Reign 1218 – 24 June 1241
Predecessor Boril
Successor Kaliman Asen I
Died (1241-06-24)24 June 1241
Spouse Anna (Anisia)
Anna Maria of Hungary
Eirene (Xene)
Issue see below
House Asen
Father Ivan Asen I
Mother Elena

Ivan Asen II (Bulgarian: Иван Асен II, pronounced [iˈvan ɐˈsɛn ˈftɔri]; also Йоан Асен II, Yoan Asen II;) in English sometimes known as John Asen II, ruled as Emperor (Tsar) of Bulgaria from 1218 to 1241, during the Second Bulgarian Empire.

Early life[edit]

Ivan Asen's father, Ivan Asen I, was one of the two leaders of the great uprising of the Bulgarians and Vlachs against the Byzantine Empire in 1185.[1] The nomadic Cumans, who dwelled in the Pontic steppes, supported the rebels, enabling them the restoration of the Bulgarian Empire,[1][2] the empire initially encompassed the Balkan Mountains and the plains to the north of the mountains as far as the Lower Danube.[1] Ivan Asen I was styled "basileus" (or emperor) of the Bulgarians from around 1187,[3] his son and namesake was born between 1192 and 1196.[3][4] The child's mother was called Elena, "the new and pious tsarina" (or empress), in the Synodikon of Tzar Boril.[5]

A boyar (or noble), Ivanko, killed Ivan Asen I in 1196,[6] the murdered emperor was succeeded by his younger brother, Kaloyan.[6] He entered into correspondence with Pope Innocent III and offered to acknowledge the popes' primacy in order to secure the support of the Holy See,[7][8] the Pope denied to elevate the head of the Bulgarian Church to the rank of patriarch, but he granted the inferior title of primate to the Bulgarian prelate.[9][10] The Pope did not acknowledge Kaloyan's claim to the title of emperor, but a papal legate crowned Kaloyan king in Tarnovo on 8 November 1204.[9] Kaloyan took advantage of the disintegration of the Byzantine Empire after the Fourth Crusade and expanded his authority over significant territories,[7] he was murdered while besieging Thessaloniki in October 1207.[7][11]

The teenager Ivan Asen had a strong claim to succeed his uncle, but Kaloyan's Cuman widow married Boril–the son of one of Kaloyan's sisters–who was proclaimed emperor,[4][12] the exact circumstances of Boril's ascension to the throne are unknown.[12] The 13th-century historian, George Akropolites, recorded that Ivan Asen soon fled from Bulgaria and settled in the "lands of the Russians" (in the Principality of Halych or Kiev).[13] According to a later source, Ephrem the Monk, Ivan Asen and his brother, Alexander, were taken to the Cumans by their tutor before they moved to the Rus' principalities.[14] Florin Curta and John V. A. Fine write that a group of boyars had tried to secure the throne to Ivan Asen after Kaloyan's death, but they were overcome by Boril's supporters, and Ivan Asen had to leave Bulgaria.[4][11] Historian Alexandru Madgearu proposes that primarily boyars who opposed the Cumans' growing influence had supported Ivan Asen.[12]

Boril's rule was always insecure,[15] his own relatives, Strez and Alexius Slav, denied to obey to him and he had to face frequent uprisings.[15] Ivan Asen stayed in Rus' "a considerable time", according to Akropolites, before he gathered about him "a certain of the Russian rabble" and returned to Bulgaria.[16] Madgearu says, Ivan Asen could hire soldiers most probably because Boril's opponents had sent money to him.[17] Historian István Vásáry associates Ivan Asen's "Russian rabble" with the semi-nomadic Brodnici,[18] he defeated Boril and seized "not a little land" (that Madgearu tentatively associates with Dobruja).[16]

Curta and Fine write that Ivan Asen returned to Bulgaria after Boril's ally, Andrew II of Hungary, had departed for the Fifth Crusade in 1217.[19][20] Boril withdrew to Tarnovo after his defeat, but Ivan Asen laid siege to the town.[17] Akropolites claimed that the siege lasted for seven years.[16][21] Most modern historians agree that Akropolites confused months for years, but Genoveva Cankova-Petkova accepts Akropolites' chronology,[16][21] she says that the three Cuman chieftains whom Andrew II's military commander, Joachim, Count of Hermannstadt, defeated near Vidin around 1210 had been hired by Ivan Asen, because he wanted to prevent Joachim from supporting Boril against the rebels who had seized the town.[22] Vásáry states that her theory is "far-fetched", lacking any solid evidence,[23] the townspeople of Tarnovo surrendered to Ivan Asen after the long siege.[19] He captured and blinded Boril, and "gained control of all the territory of the Bulgarians", according to Acropolites.[16][19]



The coat of arms of Ivan Asen II.

The first decade of Ivan Asen's rule is purely documented.[19] Andrew II of Hungary reached Bulgaria during his return from the Fifth Crusade in late 1218.[24][25] Ivan Asen did not allow the king to cross the country until Andrew promised to give his daughter, Maria, in marriage to him.[24] Maria's dowry included the region of Belgrade and Braničevo, the possession of which had been disputed by the Hungarian and Bulgarian rulers for decades.[24]

When Robert of Courtenay, the newly elected Latin Emperor, was marching from France towards Constantinople in 1221,[26] Ivan Asen accompanied him across Bulgaria,[17] he also supplied the emperor's retinue with food and fodder.[17] The relationship between Bulgaria and the Latin Empire remained peaceful during the reign of Robert.[27] Ivan Asen also made peace with the ruler of Epirus, Theodore Komnenos Doukas, who was one of the principal enemies of the Latin Empire.[28] Theodore's brother, Manuel Doukas, married Ivan Asen's illegitimate[citation needed] daughter, Mary, in 1225.[29][30] Theodore who regarded himself the lawful successor of the Byzantine emperors was crowned emperor around 1226.[28][31]

The Latin Emperor Robert was succeeded by his 11-year-old brother, Baldwin II, in January 1228.[27][29] Ivan Asen proposed to marry off his daughter, Helen, to the young emperor, because he wanted to lay claim to the regency,[29][32] he also promised to unite his troops with the Latins to reconquer the territories that they had lost to Theodore Komnenos Doukas.[32] Although the Latin lords did not want to accept his offer, they started negotiations about it, because they tried to avoid a military conflict with him.[29] Simultaneously, they offered the regency to the former king of Jerusalem, John of Brienne, who agreed to leave Italy for Constantinople, but they kept their agreement in secret for years.[33] Only Venetian authors who compiled their chronicles decades after the events–Marino Sanudo, Andrea Dandolo and Lorenzo de Monacis–recorded Ivan Asen's offer to the Latins, but the reliability of their report is widely accepted by modern historians.[32]

Relationship between Bulgaria and Hungary deteriorated in the late 1220s.[34] Shortly after the Mongols inflicted a serious defeat on the united armies of the Rus' princes and Cuman chieftains in the Battle of the Kalka River in 1223, a leader of a western Cuman tribe, Boricius, converted to Catholicism in the presence of Andrew II's heir, Béla IV.[35] Pope Gregory IX stated in a letter that those who had attacked the converted Cumans were also the enemies of the Roman Catholic Church, possibly in reference to a previous attack by Ivan Asen, according to Madgearu.[32] Hungarian troops may have tried to capture Vidin already in 1228, but the dating of the siege is uncertain, and it may have occurred only in 1232.[25][27]


Theodore Komnenos Doukas unexpectedly invaded Bulgaria along the river Maritsa in early 1230,[30] the Epirote and Bulgarian armies clashed at Klokotnitsa in March or April.[19][21] Ivan Asen personally commanded the reserve troops, including 1,000 Cuman mounted archers,[30] their sudden attack against the Epirotes secured his victory.[21][30] The Bulgarians captured Theodore and his principal officials and seized much booty, but Ivan Asen released the common soldiers,[30] after Theodore tried to hatch a plot against Ivan Asen, he had the captured emperor blinded.[30] A Spanish rabbi, Jacob Arophe, was informed that Ivan Asen first ordered two Jews to blind Theodore, because he knew that the emperor had persecuted the Jews in his empire, but they refuted, for which they were thrown down from a cliff.[36][37]

Ivan Asen's troops swept into Theodore's lands and conquered dozens of Epirote towns,[38] they captured Ohrid, Prilep and Serres in Macedonia, Adrianople, Demotika and Plovdiv in Thrace and also occupied Great Vlachia in Thessaly.[38][36] Ivan Asen also annexed Alexius Slav's realm in the Rhodope Mountains,[39] his son-in-law, Manuel Doukas, took control of the Empire of Thessaloniki.[36] Ivan Asen's conquests secured him the control of the Via Egnatia (the important trade route between Thessaloniki and Durazzo),[39] the Bulgarian troops also made a plundering raid against Serbia, because Stefan Radoslav, King of Serbia, had supported Theodore against Bulgaria.[36]

An inscription in the Church of the Holy Forty Martyrs in Tarnovo commemorated Ivan Asen's victories.[36] The inscription referred to him as the "tsar of the Bulgarians, Greeks and other countries", implying that he was planning to revive the Byzantine Empire under his rule,[40] he also styled himself emperor in his letters of grant to the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos and to the merchants from the Republic of Ragusa.[41] One of his seals portrayed him wearing imperial insignia, also revealing his imperial ambitions.[42]

Further south Epirus proper and the region of Thessalonica were left to Ivan Asen II's son-in-law Manuel, who governed from Thessalonica with the title of despot, the success of Ivan Asen II was due as much to his effective defeat of Theodore's army as to his humane treatment of the prisoners of war (recorded by the Byzantine historians), whom he released and allowed to return home unharmed. This restraint made it possible to readily obtain the submission of most of Theodore's fortresses.

Influence over Serbia and alliance with Nicaea[edit]

Elated by his success, Ivan Asen II caused a memorial inscription to be set up on a column in the Church of the Forty Martyrs in his capital Tărnovo, in which he boasted of defeating and capturing Theodore with the help of the martyrs, of conquering his lands, and of even acquiring the obedience of the Latins of Constantinople. But this optimism was rather hasty. By 1231 the Latin regency had finalized negotiations with John of Brienne, the former king of Jerusalem, who was invited to step in as the guardian and co-emperor of Baldwin II at Constantinople, this action led to the breach of the alliance between Bulgaria and the Latin Empire and the creation of an alternate alliance with the Empire of Nicaea.

In 1234 a Bulgarian-aided coup d'état in Serbia toppled Stefan Radoslav, a son-in-law of Theodore of Epirus, and replaced him with his brother Stefan Vladislav I, a son-in-law of Ivan Asen II. This has been seen as the extension of Bulgarian influence over Serbia, but the extent and nature of that relationship remains unclear, the two governments cooperated with each other, but Stefan Vladislav did not long survive his father-in-law's death, being overthrown by his younger brother Stefan Uroš I in 1242. In 1235 uncle of the Serbian king, the Archbishop of Serbia Saint Sava died in Tarnovo, and in 1237 Ivan Asen II allowed his nephew to transfer the prized body back to Serbia.

Hungarian invasions and Bulgarian intervention in the Latin Empire[edit]

The Bulgarian Empire during the reign of Ivan Asen II.

The alliance between Bulgaria and Nicaea, directed against the Latin Empire, provoked reprisals by the papacy and the kingdom of Hungary; in 1232 the Hungarians seized the Belgrade area and attacked Sredec (Sofia), but were defeated by Ivan Asen II's brother Alexander. In 1233, under the leadership of the future king Béla IV, the Hungarians invaded again, this time seizing Little or Western Wallachia (Oltenia) and setting up the banate of Severin, it is unclear how long the Hungarians were able to hold on to their conquests, but they had been recovered by Ivan Asen II before the Mongol invasion of 1240–1241. Both the Belgrade region and the banate of Severin were reconquered by Hungary in 1246.

The new pro-Nicaean alignment of Bulgaria culminated with the marriage between Elena of Bulgaria, Ivan Asen II's daughter, and the future Theodore II Laskaris, the son of Emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes of Nicaea. The dynastic union was celebrated in 1235 and coincided with the restoration of the Bulgarian patriarchate under Joachim I with the consent of the eastern patriarchs; in the aftermath Ivan Asen II and John III campaigned together against the Latin Empire in Europe, effectively dividing its territories in Thrace. The death of John of Brienne in 1237 gave Ivan Asen II new hopes of intervention in the Latin Empire, to the point of projecting the marriage of a daughter with Baldwin II and even abducting his own daughter Elena, whom he had married to the heir to Nicaea. However, this change of policy came to naught the same year, when, while besieging Nicaean Caenophrurion in alliance with the Latins, Ivan Asen II received news of the simultaneous deaths of his wife, one of his children, and the Patriarch of Tarnovo. Taking these events as signs of divine displeasure, Ivan Asen II broke off the siege and returned home, sending his daughter Elena back to her husband in Nicaea.

End of rule[edit]

The last years of Ivan Asen II's reign show unwillingness to fully commit on either side in the continued struggle between the Latin Empire and Nicaea, although the Nicaean alliance was renewed, Ivan Asen II allowed Cuman detachments and a 60-thousand strong western army to cross his lands and reinforce the Latin Empire in 1240.

Following the death of his wife Anna Maria of Hungary, Ivan Asen II married Eirene, the daughter of Theodore of Epirus, who had remained a prisoner in the Bulgarian court since his capture in 1230, and had been blinded for conspiracy. According to a Byzantine author, Ivan Asen II loved Eirene "no less than Antony loved Cleopatra", and she may have been his mistress for some years before their marriage in 1237. Marrying Eirene, Ivan Asen II would have broken church canons, as his daughter from a previous marriage was married to Eirene's uncle Manuel of Thessalonica. There is moot evidence that the Bulgarian church opposed the marriage and that a patriarch (called either Spiridon or Vissarion) was deposed or executed by the irate tsar,[43][44] the marriage resulted in the release of Theodore, who returned to Thessalonica, chased out his brother Manuel (who retained control of Thessaly), and imposed his own son John as despot.

The last recorded action of Ivan Asen II is his defeat of a column of the Mongol army of Batu Khan in the course of its retreat from Hungary in 1241, this was not a decisive defeat, and a new Mongol invasion in 1242 forced Bulgaria to become tributary to the Golden Horde. By this time, however, Ivan Asen II was already dead, having died on 24 June 1241.


Ivan Asen II is considered, with good reason, one of the most important and successful rulers of Bulgaria, his work included the restoration of the autocephalous Bulgarian patriarchate in 1235 (after a long hiatus since 1018) through successful negotiations with Rome,[45] the minting of the first Bulgarian non-imitation coinage in both gold and copper, the suppression of the centrifugal forces that had plagued his predecessor's reign, and the expansion of Bulgaria's frontiers in all directions. Ivan Asen II had sought to bolster the effectiveness of his state by providing for some level of administrative control and concluding a commercial treaty with the republic of Ragusa (modern Dubrovnik), a dependency of Venice. He showed restraint on the field of battle and sought to face challenges through diplomatic solutions. However, his policies exhibit considerable inconsistencies, especially in the relationship towards Nicaea and the Latin Empire, it is possible that Ivan Asen II could not decide which of these rivals was more dangerous to him or more profitable as an ally. In the long run his actions (including the victory over Theodore of Epirus and the general preference for Nicaea) secured the position of Nicaea as the Byzantine successor state best able to reconquer Constantinople. Bulgarian influence over Serbia and Thessalonica lapsed on his death, the rudimentary administrative apparatus he left behind proved insufficient to cope with the challenges of two successive minorities on the throne, and led to significant territorial losses to Nicaea, Epirus, and Hungary in 1246, not to mention Bulgaria's status as a tributary to the Golden Horde in 1242. It is difficult to say to what extent Ivan Asen II may have been able to prevent these developments, but he may be credited with presiding over a period of rare prosperity, internal peace, and external hegemony for Medieval Bulgaria.


Ivan Asen married two or three times.[46] According to a scholarly theory, his first wife was one Anna whom he forced to enter a monastery after he engaged Maria of Hungary and Anna died as the nun Anisia.[46] Historian Plamen Pavlov states that Anna–Anisia was actually Kaloyan's widow.[46] Ivan Asen's second wife, Maria, was born around 1209,[46] she was married to Ivan Asen in 1221.[46] She was called Anna after she converted to Orthodoxy in 1235.[46]

Anna–Anisia may have been a concubine instead of a legitimate spouse, and she may have been the mother of his two eldest daughters:[citation needed]

  1. Maria (?), who married Manuel of Thessalonica.[citation needed]
  2. Beloslava (?), who married Stefan Vladislav I of Serbia.[citation needed]

Maria–Anna died in 1237 and by her he had several children, including:[citation needed]

  1. Elena, who married Theodore II Doukas Laskaris of the Nicaea.[citation needed]
  2. Thamar, at one point alleged to be engaged to the future Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos.[citation needed]
  3. Kaliman Asen I, who succeeded as emperor of Bulgaria 1241–1246.
  4. Peter, who died in 1237.

By his third wife, Eirene (religious name Xene) of Thessalonica, a daughter of Theodore of Epirus and Maria Petraliphaina, he had three children:[citation needed]

  1. Anna (or Theodora), who married the sebastokrator Peter before 1253.[citation needed]
  2. Maria, who married Mitso Asen, who succeeded as emperor of Bulgaria 1256–1257.[citation needed]
  3. Michael Asen I, who succeeded as emperor of Bulgaria 1246–1256.


Ivan Asen Point and Ivan Asen Cove on Smith Island in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica are named for Ivan Asen II.

Ivan Asen II's seal is depicted on the reverse of the Bulgarian 2 lev banknote, issued in 1999 and 2005.[49]


  1. ^ a b c Sedlar 1994, p. 22.
  2. ^ Curta 2006, p. 360.
  3. ^ a b Madgearu 2017, p. 27.
  4. ^ a b c Fine 1994, p. 91.
  5. ^ Petkov 2008, p. 258.
  6. ^ a b Curta 2006, p. 363.
  7. ^ a b c Crampton 2005, p. 24.
  8. ^ Curta 2006, p. 380.
  9. ^ a b Curta 2006, p. 383.
  10. ^ Madgearu 2017, p. 135.
  11. ^ a b Curta 2006, p. 384.
  12. ^ a b c Madgearu 2017, p. 175.
  13. ^ Madgearu 2017, pp. 3, 175.
  14. ^ Vásáry 2005, p. 57.
  15. ^ a b Fine 1994, p. 93.
  16. ^ a b c d e Madgearu 2017, p. 193.
  17. ^ a b c d Madgearu 2017, p. 194.
  18. ^ Vásáry 2005, p. 61.
  19. ^ a b c d e Curta 2006, p. 386.
  20. ^ Fine 1994, p. 106.
  21. ^ a b c d Vásáry 2005, p. 62.
  22. ^ Vásáry 2005, pp. 59–60.
  23. ^ Vásáry 2005, p. 60.
  24. ^ a b c Madgearu 2017, p. 196.
  25. ^ a b Fine 1994, p. 129.
  26. ^ Fine 1994, p. 113.
  27. ^ a b c Madgearu 2017, p. 198.
  28. ^ a b Madgearu 2017, p. 200.
  29. ^ a b c d Fine 1994, p. 123.
  30. ^ a b c d e f Madgearu 2017, p. 201.
  31. ^ Fine 1994, p. 120.
  32. ^ a b c d Madgearu 2017, p. 199.
  33. ^ Fine 1994, pp. 123–124.
  34. ^ Madgearu 2017, pp. 197–198.
  35. ^ Curta 2006, p. 406.
  36. ^ a b c d e Madgearu 2017, p. 202.
  37. ^ Fine 1994, pp. 124–125.
  38. ^ a b Fine 1994, p. 125.
  39. ^ a b Madgearu 2017, p. 205.
  40. ^ Madgearu 2017, p. 203.
  41. ^ Madgearu 2017, pp. 203–204.
  42. ^ Madgearu 2017, p. 204.
  43. ^ Andreev & Lalkov 1996, pp. 193–194
  44. ^ Andreev, Lazarov & Pavlov 2012, p. 114
  45. ^ Crampton, R.J. (2005). A Concise History of Bulgaria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 25. ISBN 978-0521616379. 
  46. ^ a b c d e f Madgearu 2017, p. 197.
  47. ^ Božilov, Familijata na Asenevci, pp. 192–235.
  48. ^ Božilov, Ivan; Vasil Gjuzelev (2006). Istorija na srednovekovna Bǎlgarija VII-XIV vek (tom 1) (in Bulgarian). Anubis. ISBN 954-426-204-0. 
  49. ^ Bulgarian National Bank. Notes and Coins in Circulation: 2 levs (1999 issue) & 2 levs (2005 issue). – Retrieved on 26 March 2009.


External links[edit]

Preceded by
Emperor of Bulgaria
Succeeded by
Kaliman Asen I