The Battle of Kleidon is usually seen as of those game-changing moments of the Middle Ages, when the terrible Basil the Bulgar-Slayer destroyed the First Bulgarian Empire in a haze of blood. Byzantium and Bulgaria had been at war for the better part of four decades when the imperial forces of Basil II ambushed Tsar Samuel’s forces. 15,000 Bulgarians were captured and the rest were killed. The Bulgar-Slayer ordered the survivors blinded, sparing 1 out of every 100 to guide the rest home. According to tradition, Samuel had a heart attack when he saw his ruined army and died two days later.
It makes for a good story, but is is true? Samuel’s coffin was opened up by team of Bulgarian scientists in 1969. There was a severe wound to his left temple and jaw, and both of his forearms were broken (and had healed incorrectly). They concluded that he died of these wounds. But this doesn’t mean that we have to discount the traditional story.
Samuel was obviously not in good health. In addition to his wounds, he was in his early 70’s- elderly by the standards of the day. He probably couldn’t eat very well due to the injury to his lower jaw, and at least one of his arms was virtually unusable. The news of his army’s defeat was a serious enough shock, but seeing the maimed survivors was in some ways worse. His finances had already been stretched by the never-ending war, he now had the additional burden of caring for 15,000 disabled veterans while simultaneously funding the recruitment of a replacement army. It’s not hard to conclude that this last trauma was too much for him.
So while we can’t say the legend of Samuel dying from shock is true, we can at least say it’s plausible. Until we build a time machine, that’s about as certain as it will get.