Asen dynasty

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Monument to the Asen dynasty in their capital Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, sculptor prof. Krum Damianov

The Asen dynasty (Bulgarian: Асеневци, Asenevtsi) founded and ruled a medieval Bulgarian state, called in modern historiography the Second Bulgarian Empire, between 1187 and 1256.

The Asen dynasty and the Second Bulgarian Empire rose as the leaders of a rebellion against the Byzantine Empire at the turn of the year 1185/1186 caused by the increase in the Imperial taxes.

Early rulers from the Asen dynasty (particularly Kaloyan) referred to themselves as "Emperors of Bulgarians and Vlachs". Later rulers, especially the successful Ivan Asen II, styled themselves "Tsars (Emperors) of Bulgarians and Greeks".

Some members of the Asen family entered Byzantine service in the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries. The name also occurs as a family name in modern Greek, and could go back to the same name.

The Sratsimir dynasty descends paternally from the Asen dynasty.


Genealogy of the Asen dynasty

The origins of the dynasty, especially the ethnic background of the three Asen brothers (Teodor I Peter IV, Ivan Asen I and Kaloyan) are still a source of much controversy, debated between historians. There are three main hypothesis regarding their origins:[1]

  1. Bulgarian origin, a view that is common among the Bulgarian historians who reckon that all native sources use predominantly the terms Bulgaria, Bulgarians and Bulgarian, that tsar Kaloyan claimed provenance from the rulers of the First Bulgarian Empire.[citation needed]
  2. Vlach origin,[2] a view supported by historians who base their claims on mentions in some chronicles.
  3. Cuman origin,[3][4][5][6][7] as some of the names in the dynasty, including Asen and Belgun (nickname of Ivan Asen I) are derived from Cuman language.

In their own administrative documents and correspondence, the three rulers viewed themselves as descendants and successors of the Bulgarian Tsars Samuil, Peter I and Simeon I, and the state they founded as a continuation of the First Bulgarian Empire. However, this could be just a way to proclaim their legitimacy for the throne of the Empire.

In a correspondence, of 1199, the Pope talks about the "Roman descent" of Kaloyan. However, considering the actual text says Nos autem audito quod de nobili urbis Romae prosapia progenitores tui originem traxerint ("We heard that your forefathers come from a noble family from the city of Rome"), it is usually dismissed as simply a hidden compliment of the Pope to Kaloyan.

Pope Innocent III in his letter to the Bulgarian King Kaloyan (Calojoannes) in 1204 addressed him "King of Bulgarians and Vlachs" (Bulgarorum and Blacorum rex); in answering the Pope, John called himself imperator omnium Bulgarorum et Blachorum ("Emperor of all Bulgarians and Vlachs'), but signed himself imperator Bulgariae Calojoannes ("Emperor Kaloyan of Bulgaria"); besides, the archbishop of Veliko Tarnovo called himself totius Bulgariae et Blaciae Primas ("Primate of all Bulgaria and Vlachia").


The name of the dynasty comes from one of the brothers, namely Asen I. The etymology is most likely of Cuman Turkic origin, derived from "esen" which meant "safe, sound, healthy" and the Belgun nickname seems to be derived from Turkic "bilgün", which meant "wise". Further support to this connection can be found in the charters of the Great Lavra of Mt. Athos from the end of the 12th century, which mention the monastery's problems with some of the Cuman stratiotes, where "Asen" is listed as the name of one of those Cumans.[8]

Bulgarian Emperors from the Asen dynasty

Veloko Tarnovo-Panorama.jpg
Ivan Asen I (Asen) 1187 - 1196
Peter IV (Teodor) 1186 - 1197
Kaloyan (Ioanitsa) 1197 - 1207
Boril (Boril Kaliman) 1207 - 1218
Ivan Asen II 1218 - 1241
Kaliman I Asen (Koloman) 1241 - 1246
Michael II Asen 1246 - 1256
Kaliman II Asen (Koloman) 1256
Mitso Asen 1256 - 1257
Ivan Asen III 1279 - 1280

Byzantine branch

The Asens in Byzantium largely descend from Ivan Asen III, who ruled briefly as Emperor of Bulgaria before fleeing to Constantinople as Ivaylo's uprising was gaining momentum in 1280. A despotes under Michael VIII Palaiologos, Ivan Asen III had already been married to the Byzantine Emperor's eldest daughter, Irene Palaiologina. The couple's five sons and two daughters were the progenitors of one of the highest-regarded Byzantine noble families of their time, along with the Palaiologoi. Among the Byzantine Asens, three bore the title of despotes, three that of sebastokrator, two panhypersebastos, one was a megas doux and two were titled megas primikerios.[9] In Greek, the male form of the family name is rendered as Ἀσάνης (Asanis) and the female as Ασανίνα (Asanina).

A smaller branch descends from Elena Asenina of Bulgaria, wife of Nicaean Emperor Theodore II Laskaris.[10]

The Asens of Byzantium intermarried with other prominent noble dynasties, including the Kantakouzenos, Doukas, Laskaris, Tornikios and Raoul families. Notable members of the Asen family in the Byzantine Empire include:

Byzantine Asens elsewhere

From Byzantium, the Asens spread as far as Frankish Greece, the Principality of Theodoro, the Principality of Moldavia, the Kingdom of Naples and the Kingdom of Aragon.[9]

See also


  1. Humanitas 2008: 4
  2. Steven Runciman. A History of the Crusades (page 13)
  3. István Vásáry (2005) Cumans and Tatars, Cambridge University Press, p. 2
  4. Laurențiu Rădvan, At Europe's Borders: Medieval Towns in the Romanian Principalities, BRILL, 2010, p. 129
  5. The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, Volume 1, Denis Sinor, pg 279.
  6. Ion Grumeza, The Roots of Balkanization: Eastern Europe C.E. 500-1500 (2010), p.51.
  7. Bulgarian Folk Customs, Mercia MacDermott, pg 27
  8. Plamen Pavlov - "Scythian chieftains in the fields of Bulgaria, 11th-12th century (in Bulgarian)
  9. 9.0 9.1 Božilov, pp. 20-22.
  10. Božilov, pp. 102-103.


  • Božilov, Ivan (1985). Familijata na Asenevci (1186–1460) (in Bulgarian). Sofia: Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. OCLC 14378091.CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Vasary, Istvan (2005) "Cumans and Tatars", Cambridge University Press: pp. 34–42
  • Stephenson, Paul (2000) "Byzantium's Balkan Frontier — A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900–1204" pp. 289–300
  • History of the Byzantine Empire, A. A. Vasiliev 1935
  • Djuvara, Neagu (2008). O scurta istorie a romanilor povestita celor tineri. Humanitas. ISBN 978-973-50-2591-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Stelian Brezeanu, Istoria Imperiului Bizantin, Bucuresti, MERONIA, 2007