Post-classical history

Basil II, ‘The Bulgar-Slayer’

We have observed with our own eyes (when we traversed the themes of our empire and set out on campaigns) the avarice and injustice every day perpetrated against the poor.… The powerful who desire to aggrandize [their lands] and to enjoy in full ownership what they had wrongly expropriated at the expense of the poor… will be stripped of the property belonging to others.

Law of Basil II, 996

Basil II, who ruled four generations after the first Basil (the Macedonian), is commemorated on many streets in Greek cities as ‘Voulgaroktonos’ (Bulgar-slayer). Yet the defeat of the Bulgars is not his greatest claim to fame. During his extremely long reign, from 976 to 1025, he presided over a major expansion of the empire beyond the Taurus Mountains in the east, the conversion of the Russians, the forging of numerous important foreign alliances, the patronage of art and learning, and the protection of the poor. In all this, he was a worthy grandson of the famous Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos. Yet he almost fatally weakened Byzantium by not ensuring the continuity of the Macedonian dynasty.

His portrait, the frontispiece to a magnificent manuscript of the Psalms, has become a defining symbol of Byzantine power (plate 28). From heaven, Christ lowers the crown which the archangel Gabriel puts on his head, while Michael hands him his lance. On a pure gold background, flanked by six military saints all dressed in battle attire and holding spears, Basil imposes his rule on subjects or defeated enemies kneeling before him. Gone are the orb and sceptre of Roman imperial authority. This is an image of a medieval Christian military ruler which typifies Byzantine appreciation of the soldier-emperor celebrating his victories. It is a fitting tribute to Basil, who devoted himself to military action throughout his life. Other generals such as Belisarius, Constantine V and Nikephoros Phokas are just as famous for their military triumphs, which were also celebrated in Constantinople. Yet Basil is particularly associated with the defeat of the Bulgarians, which has attained a mythic quality.

When Romanos II died prematurely in 963, the five-year-old Basil and his younger brother and sister, Constantine and Anna (born two days before their father’s death), were orphaned. In Byzantium, not having a father made you an orphan even if your mother remained alive. In the case of the three young porphyrogennetoi, their mother Theophano immediately remarried and raised Nikephoros Phokas, who had recently reconquered Crete, to the imperial throne. Basil grew up rather like his grandfather Constantine VII, in the shadow of other rulers: Nikephoros II (963–9), John I Tzimiskes (969–76) and then Basil, the leading eunuch, who dominated the decade from 976 to 985. This Basil was his great-uncle, an illegitimate son of Romanos I Lekapenos, who is said to have acted like a father to the princes. He put down an attempted coup d’état, which followed the death of John I in 976. But eventually the young emperor had to fight to establish himself both against his great-uncle and against representatives of the Skleros and Phokas military families.

Although in 976 Basil and Constantine succeeded jointly as emperors, the elder had no intention of sharing power. Once he had banished his great-uncle in 985, Basil II proceeded to exclude his younger brother so effectively that Constantine VIII was restricted to hunting, banquets and luxurious living in his palace in Nicaea. Basil’s effort to rule alone, however, was challenged again in 987 by two opponents. In the face of this dangerous double attack, Basil negotiated an alliance with Vladimir of Kiev, the leader of the ‘Rus’, based in present-day Ukraine: 6,000 Russian mercenaries would assist the emperor in return for the promise of an imperial bride, Anna the porphyrogennetos, Basil’s sister. As the emperor must have known, this was one of the Byzantine exports specifically forbidden by Constantine VII, but in the desperate military situation he was forced to agree to it. With the help of the Rus, both rebels were later defeated, and Basil had to send his sister off to Kiev.

As we have seen in chapter 16, Vladimir’s grandmother Olga, who visited Constantinople under Constantine VII, had consolidated good relations between the Rus and Byzantium, but her son and grandson reverted to traditional pagan beliefs. The Rus were divided in their perception of Byzantium and Vladimir decided to align his forces with the Christian empire, rather than maintaining the traditional pagan hostility. He was also able to insist on his marriage to a princess ‘born in the purple’, a symbol of the allure of Byzantium, which added legitimacy and prestige to his own rule. Only when Vladimir managed to secure this concession were all his boyars baptized in a mass immersion in the River Dnieper. After considerable delay by Basil and pressure from Vladimir, the wedding finally took place. Anna was known as the tsaritsa, meaning sister of the Greek tsar (caesar), and lived in the palace complex, which Vladimir had built of stone, with rich mosaic and fresco decoration to provide a suitably grand residence for her. The alliance is recorded in the Russian Primary Chronicle, compiled in the early twelfth century from older materials, all written in the Cyrillic alphabet devised by Constantine-Cyril and Methodios.

In this momentous shift, the Rus from Kiev adopted Orthodox Christianity. Vladimir ordered the public humiliation of their idols, which were banished, and under the influence of a metropolitan, bishops, priests and monks, who had accompanied Anna from Constantinople, churches and monasteries were built on Byzantine models. Priests from Cherson also assisted in the process of conversion, and Vladimir put one of them, Anastasii, in charge of the church he dedicated to the Mother of God. This became known as the Tithe church because Vladimir dedicated regular funds for its support; built in brick and stone, with a dome, three aisles and three apses, it was a far larger building than anything previously constructed in Kiev. In the early eleventh century Antonii, who had been tonsured on the Holy Mountain, founded one of the first monastic communities at the Caves, and in 1037 Iaroslav built the Kievan cathedral of St Sophia, with Byzantine-style mosaics of a Christ Pantokrator in the dome and a standing Virgin in the apse. The conversion of Russia and the mere spread of eastern Christianity across a vast area was assured.

Meanwhile, in Byzantium, Basil II eventually managed to undo his great-uncle’s web of alliances and secured control over the empire’s ambitious military aristocracy. He brought effective government, peace and a huge accumulation of treasure to the empire. During his almost continuous military campaigns, he observed the dangerous results of powerful landowners extending their property at the expense of poorer villagers and attempted to legislate against this. As well as his capacity for fighting, Basil was an ascetic figure who insisted that his spiritual father, Photios of Thessalonike, should accompany him on campaigns. He supported intellectuals such as Symeon called Metaphrastes (the translator), whose Menologion (a monthly catalogue of saints’ lives) established which saints were to be commemorated throughout the liturgical year, and an unnamed group of scholars who produced the first popular Byzantine lexicon, known as the Souda. The Menologion created a standard edition of 150 lives in ten volumes, to be read on specific days of each month. It concluded research left unfinished by Leo VI and Constantine VII with full and detailed lives; very few saints were added later. In contrast, the so-called Menologion of Basil, with a dedicatory poem to the emperor, has uniformly brief lives of the saints but a wide range of different illustrations on every page. The Souda is not an original dictionary, but it was much used down to the sixteenth century and copied for its explanations of rare words, proverbs, grammatical forms and names of ancient persons, places and concepts.

Basil II never married, a most unusual feature for a Byzantine emperor, and relied on his brother and heir Constantine VIII to sustain the Macedonian dynasty. In 1002, he agreed to send his niece Zoe to marry Otto III, but she arrived to find that he had died. And despite later marriages, Zoe never had a child. When Basil was well over sixty years old, those who despaired at the prospect of Constantine becoming emperor attempted a rebellion. Basil suppressed it. The successes of his long rule perhaps gave him confidence that the system of Byzantine imperial government would survive. The administration he had established did indeed last well beyond Constantine VIII’s brief reign (1025–8), but Basil’s failure to arrange marriages for his nieces and secure another generation of the Macedonian dynasty left the empire weaker.

Basil II’s expansion of the empire began in 989 and gradually brought large areas of the Caucasus, the Balkans and southern Italy under Byzantine control. Antioch, which had been recaptured from the Arabs in 969, became the base for an eastward expansion. By a combination of tireless military campaigning and skilful diplomacy, parts of the Caucasus previously under Georgian, Armenian and Abkhasian rule were incorporated within the empire. Basil used local elites to govern these territories for Byzantium. Similarly, in the far west the emperor strengthened imperial rule in southern Italy, which had been put under the authority of a single official in the reign of John Tzimiskes or even earlier. To combat the major enemy in the region, the Muslims of Sicily, Basil secured maritime assistance from Venice through the chrysobull of 992.

In its southern Italian provinces Byzantium sustained its own Greek administrators, lawcourts, Orthodox churches and monasteries, side by side with the Lombards, who had their Catholic faith, Lombard law and Latin language. This coexistence and mutual respect helped to ensure the region’s prosperity, which was encouraged by the building of irrigation canals and mills, and the planting of vines, olives and mulberries critical to the nascent silk industry of the region. Further north, as well, Byzantium sustained good relations with the Benedictine monastery of Montecassino, and the city of Amalfi. Following the alliance made in 992, stronger contacts developed between Constantinople and Venice and several doges sent their sons to be educated in Constantinople.

Basil II, however, is most intimately associated with the area which established his later sobriquet: Bulgaria. In the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, Bulgaria was Byzantium’s most challenging and dangerous neighbour. Tsar Samuel ruled over a large area of the Balkans (see map 4), and in 986 he revived Bulgarian independence. After defeating the young emperor, he proceeded south into Hellas and the Peloponnese, ravaging cities and destroying fortifications. He captured the city of Larissa in central Greece and later crowned himself ‘Emperor of the Bulgars’. His feats are recalled in many Bulgarian cities where streets are named after him. To combat Samuel’s ambitions, Basil reorganized the administration of the area under a doux (duke) based in Thessalonike, and led annual campaigns from 991 to 995. In 997, his general Nikephoros Ouranos defeated Samuel at the River Sperchios, but Basil had to return to the region in 1000– 1002 and again in 1005 to impose peace on the Bulgars. In 1014, a Byzantine victory at the pass of Kleidion, north of Thessalonike, was balanced by a total defeat suffered by the regional doux, showing that the military forces were evenly matched. Four years later, after the death of Samuel’s successor, John Vladislav at Dyrrachion, and the capture and blinding of prisoners, the Bulgars realized that to continue their hostility was useless.

When he learnt of this decisive turn, Basil set out from Constantinople to secure the Bulgars’ submission. As he proceeded west from Adrianople, their leaders acknowledged his authority. At Strumica he received a letter from Maria, John Vladislav’s widow, who promised the submission of three of her sons and her six daughters, as well as numerous younger members of the royal family. Basil went on to Ohrid where Samuel’s palace was thoroughly ransacked and quantities of silver, jewelled crowns and gold embroidered clothes were found, together with a supply of coined money, which was distributed to the troops. There he welcomed Maria and her large family. Later, she was given the title of zoste patrikia, an exceptional honour. From Ohrid, Basil returned to Lake Presba and Kastoria. Everywhere Bulgar leaders came to make their submission, received imperial titles and honours and were sent to Constantinople. Then the emperor marched his army via Larissa to the River Sperchios, where he was amazed to see the bones of the Bulgars killed nearly twenty years earlier, past Thermopylai where he admired the fortifications, and on to Athens. In the church of the Mother of God, within the Parthenon temple, he gave thanks for his victory and presented splendid and rich offerings. After this visit, he returned to the capital and celebrated a triumph, in which the booty from Samuel’s palace at Ohrid, as well as the Bulgarian royal family, were paraded in front of the people. Finally, he entered the Great Church and thanked God for the victory.

The prolonged period of warfare must have resulted in many deaths on both sides. To ensure better relations in future, Basil insisted on marrying Bulgar nobles to Byzantine women and finding Byzantine husbands for their female relatives. He also allowed the Bulgars to continue paying their taxes in kind rather than currency and to preserve other local customs. So, in addition to slaying the Bulgars, Basil instituted methods of ensuring future control; during his extended march to Athens and back, symbols of domination were craftily associated with honours. At Basil’s death in 1025, Michael Psellos reckoned that the empire was stronger and richer than ever, but he does not identify Basil as the Bulgar-slayer. So the epithet was not coined during his lifetime. In the 1090s, John Skylitzes gave prominence to the great victories of Basil II over the Bulgars for a particular reason: at that time, Alexios I Komnenos urgently needed to mobilize aristocratic families to participate in his campaigns against the Pechenegs in the same region. But again, the term is not yet used. The nickname Voulgaroktonos emerges only under Isaac II Angelos (1185–95), who was again challenged by Bulgaria. Then the late twelfth-century historian, Niketas Choniates, identifies Basil II as the slayer of Bulgars, to recall that emperor’s long campaigns and victories.

Among the most striking aspects of this evolution is a mythical claim that after the battle at Kleidion in 1014, Basil ordered that all the 15,000 Bulgar prisoners of war should be blinded, apart from one in every hundred who would retain one eye in order to lead them back to their ruler. On seeing the pitiful spectacle, Tsar Samuel is reported to have had a heart attack and died. There are many reasons to doubt the story. Much larger conflicts had already occurred, for instance at the River Sperchios in 997. The garrison at Kleidion is unlikely to have been attacked by thousands, and many defenders as well as Bulgars were killed before the Byzantines won the battle. Although the large numbers quoted by Byzantine historians are notoriously exaggerated, blinding was commonly imposed on prisoners of war. It was also a traditional method of punishing the leaders of Byzantine revolts and political opponents, much less unpleasant than impaling on a stake. Basil imposed the loss of the right hand on Bedouin prisoners in 995, and blinded Georgian captives in 1021/2, but he was not exceptionally brutal; he was exceptionally successful. He was determined to defeat and punish rival forces, whether Christian or Muslim.

Tsar Samuel’s death in 1014, however, provided a peg on which to hang the story of blinding on a massive scale. In fact, the conflict continued for four more years until his successor, John Vladislav, died. This finally brought the Bulgar wars to an end in 1018. The emperor’s nickname has obscured Basil’s other exceptional military achievements, the conversion of the Rus, and his patronage of Byzantine encyclopaedic culture in the style of his grandfather. His ascetic lifestyle and the founding of the church of St John at the Hebdomon, an imperial palace attached to the military parade ground outside the walls of Constantinople, where he chose to be buried, signal his piety. Verses inscribed on his tomb stress his military campaigns in the first person:

For from the day that the King of Heaven called upon me to become the emperor, the great overlord of the world, no one saw my spear lie idle. I stayed alert throughout my life and protected the children of the New Rome, valiantly campaigning both in the West and at the outposts of the East… O man, seeing now my tomb here, reward me for my campaigns with your prayers.

Similarly, Basil chose to display himself in the Psalter wearing his chain mail and armour. In these ways he invokes a timeless representation of military power, and the figures prostrate at his feet are as likely to be Byzantine courtiers as Bulgars.

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