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Ivan Asen I of Bulgaria

Ivan Asen I
Еmperor of Bulgaria
Lithograph by Nikolai Pavlovich
Reign 1189–1196
Predecessor Peter IV
Successor Peter IV
Died 1196
Spouse Elena
Issue Ivan Asen II
House Asen dynasty

Ivan Asen I (also in Romanian Ioan Asan I, in English John Asen I) (Bulgarian: Иван Асен I) ruled as emperor (tsar) of Bulgaria between 1189 and 1196. The year of his birth is unknown.


  • Life 1
  • Family 2
  • Honour 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


The ethnic background of the brothers Ivan Asen and Theodore (Todor) (later known as Peter IV of Bulgaria) is still a source of much controversy among historians. In 1185, they appeared before the Byzantine Emperor Isaac II Angelos at Kypsela to request a pronoia. Their request was turned down, and when Ivan Asen dared to argue against the emperor's decision, he was slapped across the face.[1] Irate, the brothers returned home and, taking advantage of the discontent at the heavy taxation levied by Isaac II to finance his wars against William II of Sicily and his marriage to Margaret of Hungary, raised a revolt against Byzantine rule in late 1185.

Second Bulgarian Empire from 1185 to 1196 under the rule of tsar Peter IV and tsar Ivan Asen I.

Although Ivan Asen played the more active part in the operations against the Byzantines, his older brother Theodore was proclaimed Emperor of the Bulgarians under the name Peter IV (Petăr IV). An early assault on the old capital Preslav failed, and the probable center of the revolt, Tărnovo, became the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Between 1185 and 1186 the Bulgarians took over most of Moesia and raided across the Balkan mountains into Thrace.

In the summer of 1186 Isaac II Angelos marched with a large army against the Bulgarians and invaded Moesia again. While Peter IV showed himself ready to negotiate with the Byzantine emperor, Ivan Asen fled across the Danube and raised a strong force of Cumans, with whom he returned to relieve his brother. Isaac II had already left for Constantinople, contenting himself with Peter IV's promises for obedience. With his new force, Ivan Asen proceeded to raid Thrace again, skillfully avoiding pitched battles against superior Byzantine armies.

Monument of the Assens - Veliko Tarnovo 1987.

A new expedition led by Isaac II proceeded to Sredec (Sofia) in 1186, but it did not impact the territories under the control of the restored Bulgarian state. The Byzantine Emperor attacked again in 1187, this time threatening Tărnovo and besieging Loveč for three months without success. During the course of the siege the Byzantines captured the wife of Ivan Asen, Elena, who was exchanged for Ivan Asen's younger brother, Kaloyan (Kalojan), as a hostage at the conclusion of a truce. But neither side had intentions to keep the peace. When the Third Crusade led by Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor, was advancing towards Constantinople, representatives of Peter IV and Ivan Asen approached him with offers of military assistance against the latently hostile Isaac II Angelos at Niš and again at Adrianople.

After the passing of the Third Crusade, Isaac II Angelos decided to deal with the Bulgarians decisively. The expedition was planned on a grand scale and reached Tărnovo before besieging it for a protracted period. By this time Peter IV had crowned Ivan Asen I as co-emperor in 1189 and, without abdicating, retired to Preslav. In charge of the defense of the Tărnovo, Ivan Asen I incited the Byzantine emperor to hastily retreat by spreading rumors of the arrival of a great Cuman army to the relief of the besieged city. The retreating Byzantine army was ambushed by Ivan Asen I in the Balkan passes and Isaac II barely escaped with his life in 1190.

Success now definitely swung in favor of the Bulgarians, who captured the areas of Sredec (Sofia) and Niš in 1191, of Belgrade in 1195, of Melnik and Prosek in 1196, while raiding parties reached as far south as Serres, where the Byzantines were defeated again. During his return from the southwest, Ivan Asen I was murdered by Ivanko, one of his military commanders, who was threatened with punishment for an affair with the sister of Ivan Asen I's wife. The murderer attempted to assume control in Tărnovo and negotiated with Constantinople, to which he soon afterwards fled.

For other events of Ivan Asen I's reign, and for a short note on the ethnic and political character of the Second Bulgarian Empire, see under Peter IV.


Ivan Asen I was married first to a certain Maria, buried at Cherven, and then to Elena (religious name Evgenija), whose antecedents are unknown. She is sometimes alleged to be a daughter of Stefan Nemanja of Serbia, but this relationship is questionable and would have caused various canonical impediments to marriages between their descendants. By his marriage to Elena, Ivan Asen I had at least two sons:

  1. Ivan Asen II, emperor of Bulgaria 1218-1241
  2. Alexander (Aleksandăr), sebastokrator, who died after 1232; Alexander had a son named Kaliman Asen II, emperor of Bulgaria in 1256


Asen Peak on Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica is named for Ivan Asen I.


  1. ^ Nicetas Choniates, Historia, ed. J.-L. Van Dieten, 2 vols. (Berlin and New York, 1975); trans. as O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, by H.J. Magoulias (Detroit; Wayne State University Press, 1984)
  • John V.A. Fine, Jr., The Late Medieval Balkans, Ann Arbor, 1987.

External links

  • Detailed list of Bulgarian rulers
Preceded by
Peter IV
Emperor of Bulgaria
Succeeded by
Peter IV and Kaloyan
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