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Basil II, later surnamed the Bulgar-slayer ( , Basileios II Boulgaroktonos, 958 – December 15, 1025), known in his time as Basil the Porphyrogenitus and Basil the Young to distinguish him from his ancestor Basil I the Macedonian, was a Byzantine emperor from the Macedonian dynasty who reigned from 10 January 976 to 15 December 1025.

The first part of his long reign was dominated by civil war against powerful generals from the Anatolianmarker aristocracy. Following their submission, Basil oversaw the stabilization and expansion of the Byzantine Empire's eastern frontier, and above all, the final and complete subjugation of Bulgaria, the Empire's foremost European foe, after a prolonged struggle. He acknowledged regal tile and also promoted Stjepan Držislav of Croatia to a Patriarch and an Exarch of Dalmatia and Croatia, after Držislav helped him against Tsar Samuil of Bulgaria. At his death, the Empire stretched from Southern Italy to the Caucasus and from the Danube to the borders of Palestine, its greatest territorial extent since the Muslim conquests, four centuries earlier.

Despite near-constant warfare, Basil also showed himself a capable administrator, reducing the power of the great land-owning families who dominated the Empire's administration and military, and filling the Empire's treasury. Of far-reaching importance was Basil's decision to offer the hand of his sister Anna to Vladimir I of Kiev in exchange for military support, which led to the Christianization of the Kievan Rus', and the incorporation of Russia within the Byzantine cultural sphere.

Birth and childhood

Basil was the son of Emperor Romanos II by Theophano, whose family was of Laconian Greek origin originating in the Peloponnesianmarker region of Lakonia, possibly from the city of Spartamarker. In 960, he was associated on the throne by his father, but the latter died in 963, when Basil was only five years old. Because he and his brother, the future Emperor Constantine VIII (ruled 1025–1028), were too young to reign in their own right, Basil's mother Theophano married one of Romanos' leading generals, who took the throne as the Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas several months later in 963. Nikephoros was murdered in 969 by his nephew John I Tzimisces, who then became emperor and reigned for seven years. Finally, when John died on January 10, 976, Basil II took the throne as senior emperor.

Asian rebellions and alliance with Rus'

Basil was a brave soldier and a superb horseman; he was to prove himself a strong ruler and an able general. He did not at first display the full extent of his energy. In the early years of his reign, the administration remained in the hands of the eunuch Basil Lekapenos (an illegitimate son of Emperor Romanos I), president of the senate, a wily and gifted man, who hoped that the young emperors would be his puppets. Basil waited and watched without interfering, and devoted himself to learning the details of administrative business and instructing himself in military science.

Nikephoros II Phokas and John I Tzimiskes were brilliant military commanders, however, both had proven to be lax administrators. Towards the end of his reign John had belatedly planned to curb the power of the great landowners; his death soon after speaking out against them led to rumours that he had been poisoned by Basil Lekapenos, who had acquired vast estates illegally and feared an investigation and punishment.

As a result of the failures of his immediate predecessors Basil II found himself with a serious problem at the very outset of his effective reign as two members of the wealthy military elite of Anatoliamarker, Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas, had sufficient means to undertake open rebellion against central authority. The chief motive of these men, both of whom were experienced generals, was that they wished to assume the imperial position that Nikephoros II and John I had held, and thus return Basil to the role of impotent cypher. Basil, showing the penchant for ruthlessness that would become his trademark, took the field himself and suppressed the rebellions of both Skleros (979) and Phokas (989)

These rebellions had a profound effect on Basil's outlook and methods of governance. The historian Psellus describes the defeated Bardas Skleros giving Basil the following advice: "Cut down the governors who become over-proud. Let no generals on campaign have too many resources. Exhaust them with unjust exactions, to keep them busied with their own affairs. Admit no woman to the imperial councils. Be accessible to no one. Share with few your most intimate plans." Basil, it would appear, took this advice very much to heart.

In order to defeat these dangerous revolts, Basil formed an alliance with Prince Vladimir I of Kiev, who had captured the main imperial base in the Crimeamarker, Chersonesos, in 988. Vladimir offered to evacuate Chersonesos and to supply 6,000 of his soldiers as reinforcements to Basil. In exchange he demanded to be married to Basil's younger sister Anna (963–1011). At first, Basil hesitated. The Byzantines viewed all the nations of Northern Europe, be they Franks or Slavs, as barbarians. Anna herself objected to marrying a barbarian ruler, as such a marriage would have no precedence in imperial annals.

Vladimir had conducted long-running research into different religions, including sending delegates to various countries. Marriage was not his primary reason for choosing the Orthodox religion. When Vladimir promised to baptize himself and to convert his people to Christianity, Basil finally agreed. Vladimir and Anna were married in the Crimea in 989. The Rus' recruitments were instrumental in ending the rebellion, and they were later organized into the Varangian Guard. This marriage had important long-term implications, marking the beginning of the process by which the Grand Duchy of Moscow many centuries later would proclaim itself "The Third Rome" and claim the political and cultural heritage of the Byzantine Empire.

The fall of Basil Lekapenos followed the rebellions. He was accused of plotting with the rebels and punished with exile and the confiscation of his enormous property. Seeking to protect the lower and middle classes, Basil II made ruthless war upon the system of immense estates which had grown up in Asia Minor and which his predecessor, Romanos I, had endeavored to check.

Campaigns against the Arabs

Having put an end to the internal strife, Basil II then turned his attention to the empire's other enemies. The Byzantine civil wars had weakened the empire's position in the east and the gains of Nikephoros II Phokas and John I Tzimiskes came close to being lost, with Aleppomarker besieged and Antioch threatened by the enemy. In 995 Basil II, with an army of 40,000 men (with 80,000 mules), launched a campaign against the Muslim Arabs and won several battles in Syriamarker, relieving Aleppo, taking over the Orontesmarker valley, and raiding further south, sacking all of the cities from Emesamarker to Tripolimarker.

Although he did not have sufficient forces to drive into Palestine and reclaim Jerusalemmarker, his victories did restore much of Syriamarker to the empire. No emperor since Heraclius had been able to hold these lands for any length of time, and they remained Byzantine for the next 75 years.

Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria

Basil II and his step-father, Emperor Nikephoros II

Basil also wanted to restore to the empire territories that it had long lost. At the start of the second millennium, he took on his greatest adversary, Samuel of Bulgaria, who also was of Armenian descent. Bulgariamarker had been partly subjugated by John I Tzimiskes, but parts of the country had remained outside Byzantine control, under the leadership of Samuel and his brothers.

Since the Bulgars had been raiding Byzantine lands since 976, the Byzantine government sought to cause dissention amongst them by first allowing the escape of their captive emperor Boris II of Bulgaria.

This having failed, Basil used a respite from his conflict with the nobility to lead an army of 30,000 men into Bulgaria and besiege Sredets (Sofiamarker) in 986. Taking losses and worried about the loyalty of some of his governors, Basil lifted the siege and headed back for Thrace but fell into an ambush and suffered a serious defeat at the Battle of the Gates of Trajanmarker.

Basil escaped with the help of his Varangian Guard and attempted to make up his losses by turning Samuel's brother Aaron against him. Aaron was tempted with Basil's offer of his own sister Anna in marriage (the same Anna wed to Vladimir I of Kiev, two years later), but the negotiations failed when Aaron discovered that the bride he was sent was a fake.

By 987 Aaron had been eliminated by Samuel, and Basil was busy fighting both Skleros and Phokas in Asia Minor. Although the titular emperor Roman of Bulgaria was captured in 991, Basil lost Moesia to the Bulgarians.

In 992, Basil II concluded a treaty with Pietro Orseolo II by the terms that Venicemarker's custom duties in Constantinople would be reduced from 30 nomismata to 17 nomismata in return for the Venetians agreeing to transport Byzantine troops to southern Italymarker in times of war.

In the years of Basil's distraction with internal rebellions and recovering the military situation on his eastern frontier Samuel had extended his rule from the Adriatic Seamarker to the Black Seamarker, recovering most of the lands which had been Bulgarian before the invasion of Svyatoslav I of Kiev. He also conducted damaging raids into Byzantine territory as far as central Greecemarker. The turning of the tide of the conflict occurred in 996 when the Byzantine general Nikephoros Ouranos inflicted a crushing defeat on a raiding Bulgarian army at a battle on the River Spercheios (Sperchius) in Thessaly. Samuel and his son Gabriel were lucky to escape capture.

From 1000, Basil II was free to focus on a war of outright conquest against Bulgaria, a war he prosecuted with grinding persistence and strategic insight. In 1000 the Byzantine generals Nikephoros Xiphias and Theodorokan took the old Bulgarian capital of Great Preslavmarker, and the towns of Lesser Preslav and Pliskova. In 1001 Basil himself, his army operating from Thessalonica, was able to regain control of Vodena, Verrhoia and Servia. The following year Basil based his army in Philippopolis and occupied the length of the military road from the western Haemus Mountains to the Danube, thereby cutting off Samuel's communications between his Macedonian heartland and Moesia. Following up this success he laid siege to Vidinmarker, which eventually fell following a prolonged resistance. Samuel reacted to the Byzantine campaign with a daring stroke; he launched a large-scale raid into the heart of Byzantine Thrace and surprised the major city of Adrianoplemarker. On returning homeward with his extensive plunder Samuel was intercepted near the town of Skopje by a Byzantine army commanded by the emperor. Basil's forces stormed the Bulgarian camp, inflicting a severe defeat on the Bulgarians and recovering the plunder of Adrianople. Skopje surrendered shortly after the battle; its governor, Romanos, was treated with overt kindness by the emperor. In 1005, the governor of Durazzomarker, Ashot Taronites, surrendered his city to the Byzantines. The defection of Durazzo to the Byzantines completed the isolation of Samuel's core territories in the highlands of western Macedonia. Samuel was forced into an almost entirely defensive stance and he extensively fortified the passes and routes from the Byzantine held coastlands and valleys into the territory remaining in his possession. During the next few years, the Byzantine offensive slowed and no significant gains were made, though in 1009 an attempt by the Bulgarians to counterattack was defeated at the Battle of Kreta, which was fought to the east of Thessalonica.

In 1014 Basil was ready to launch a campaign aimed at destroying Bulgarian resistance. On July 29, 1014, Basil II and his general Nikephoros Xiphias outmanoeuvred the Bulgarian army, which was defending one of the fortified passes, in the Battle of Kleidionmarker. Samuel avoided capture only through the valour of his son Gabriel. Having crushed the Bulgarians, Basil was said to have captured 15,000 prisoners and blinded 99 of every 100 men, leaving 150 one-eyed men to lead them back to their ruler. Samuel was physically struck down by the dreadful apparition of his blinded army, and he died two days later after suffering a stroke. Although the extent of Basil's mistreatment of the Bulgarian prisoners may have been exaggerated, this incident helped to give rise to Basil's nickname of Boulgaroktonos, "the Bulgar-slayer", in later tradition..

Bulgaria fought on for four more years, its resistance fired by Basil's cruelty, but it finally submitted in 1018. This submission was the result of continued military pressure and a successful diplomatic campaign aimed at dividing and suborning the Bulgarian leadership. This victory over the Bulgarians, and the later submission of the Serbs, fulfilled one of Basil's goals, as the empire regained its ancient Danubian frontier for the first time in 400 years. Before returning to Constantinoplemarker, Basil II celebrated his triumph in Athensmarker. Basil showed considerable statesmanship in his treatment of the defeated Bulgarians; he gave many former Bulgarian leaders court titles, positions in provincial administration, and high commands in the army. In this way he sought to absorb the Bulgarian elite into Byzantine society. Bulgaria did not have a monetary economy to the same extent as was found in Byzantium, and Basil made the wise decision to accept Bulgarian taxes in kind. Basil's successors reversed this policy; a decision which led to considerable Bulgarian discontent, and rebellion, later in the 11th century.

Notwithstanding the above, it was mainly Basil's conspicuous act of cruelty which remained engraved in the historical memory of Greeks and Bulgarians alike, up to and including the 20th Century descendants of both peoples.

Khazar campaign

Although the power of the Khazar Khaganate had been broken by the Kievan Rus' in the 960s, the Byzantines had not been able to fully exploit the power vacuum and restore their dominion over the Crimeamarker and other areas around the Black Seamarker.

In 1016, Byzantine armies, in conjunction with Mstislav of Chernigov, attacked the Crimea, much of which had fallen under the sway of the Khazar successor kingdom of George Tzoul, based at Kerchmarker. Kedrenos reports that George Tzoul was captured and the Khazar successor-state was destroyed. Subsequently the Byzantines occupied the southern Crimea.

Later years

Basil II returned in triumph to Constantinople, then promptly went east and attacked the Georgian ruler in Tayk, and later secured the annexation of the sub-kingdoms of Armenia (and a promise to have its capital and surrounding regions to be willed to Byzantium following the death of its king Hovhannes-Smbat). Basil created in those highlands a strongly fortified frontier, which, if his successors had been capable, should have proved an effective barrier against the invasions of the Seljuk Turks.

In the meantime, other Byzantine forces restored much of Southern Italy, lost over the previous 150 years, to the empire's control. When Basil finally died on December 15, 1025, he was planning a military expedition to recover the island of Sicily.

Basil was to be buried in the last sarcophagus available in the rotunda of Constantine I in the Church of the Holy Apostles. However, he later asked his brother and successor Constantine VIII to be buried in the Church of St. John the Theologian (i.e. the Evangelist), at the Hebdomonmarker Palace complex, outside the walls of Constantinople. The epitaph on the tomb celebrated Basil's campaigns and victories.[7589] During the pillage of 1204, Basil's grave was ravaged by the invading Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade.


The Byzantine Empire at the death of Basil II in 1025

Basil was a stocky man of less than average stature who, nevertheless, cut a majestic figure on horseback. He had light blue eyes and strongly arched eyebrows; in later life his beard became scant but his sidewhiskers were luxuriant and he had a habit of rolling his whiskers between his fingers when deep in thought or angry. He was not a fluent speaker and had a loud laugh which convulsed his whole frame. As a mature man he had ascetic tastes, and cared little for the pomp and ceremony of the imperial court, and typically held court dressed in military regalia. Still, he was a capable administrator, who, uniquely among the soldier-emperors, left a full treasury upon his death. Basil despised literary culture and affected an utter scorn for the learned classes of Byzantium; however, numerous orators and philosophers were active during his reign.

He was worshipped by his army, as he spent most of his reign campaigning with them instead of sending orders from the distant palaces of Constantinople, as had most of his predecessors. He lived the life of a soldier to the point of eating the same daily rations as any other member of the army. He also took the children of deceased officers of his army under his protection, and offered them shelter, food and education. Many of them later became his soldiers and officers, and came to think of him as a father.

Besides being called the "Father of the Army", he was also popular with country farmers. This class produced most of his army's supplies and soldiers. To assure that this continued, Basil's laws protected small agrarian property and lowered their taxes. His reign was considered an era of relative prosperity for the class, despite the almost constant wars. On the other hand, Basil increased the taxes of the nobility and the church and looked to decrease their power and wealth. Though understandably unpopular with them, neither of them had the power to effectively oppose the army-supported Emperor.

Basil never married or had children. As a young man he was a womanizer, but when he became emperor, he chose to devote himself to the duties of state. Psellus ascribes Basil's radical change from a dissolute youth to a grim autocrat to the circumstances of the rebellions of Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas. Unfortunately, Basil's asceticism meant that he was succeeded by his brother and his family, who proved to be ineffective rulers. Nevertheless, 50 years of prosperity and intellectual growth followed because the funds of state were full, the borders were not in danger from exterior intruders, and the empire remained the most powerful political entity of the Middle Ages. Also, under Basil II, the Byzantine Empire probably had a population of about 18 million people. By AD 1025, Basil II (with an annual revenue of 7,000,000 nomismata) was able to amass 14,400,000 nomismata (or 200,000 pounds of gold) for the imperial treasury due to his prudent management.

In literature

During the 20th century in Greecemarker, interest in the prominent emperor led to a number of biographies and historical novels about him. Arguably the most popular is Basil Bulgaroktonus (1964) by historical fiction writer Kostas Kyriazis (b. 1920). Written as a sequel to his previous work Theophano (1963), focusing on Basil's mother, it examines Basil's life from childhood till his death at an advanced age, through the eyes of three fictional narrators.

The first one is Areti Skylitzi, a girl from a noble family whom John I brought to young Basil to be his friend and playmate. She becomes the confidant of his deepest thoughts, and later the only woman who truly loves him. Basil can never marry her, because he was traumatized by the murders of his father Romanos and step-father Nikephoros by their wife and his mother, Theophano. He associates marriage and trust with death and murder. Areti stays by his side, as his unofficial consort, till his death. She alone hears his private thoughts, often filled with self-doubt, sorrow, inner conflict, while dealing with hard decisions. For Areti, Basil is her life-long consort, needing to be comforted.

The second narrator is Nikolaos, one of Basil's generals. He has followed Basil's campaigns through his life, and witnessed his major battles and later his death. For him Basil was his leader, a lord to be respected and served, a "father" of his army.

The third narrator is one of Samuel's [Bulgarian] generals who spent most of his life serving his Tsar and fighting Basil. He tells their side of the battle of almost 40 years. For him Basil is the enemy, the slayer of his people, the man responsible for his own leader's death. Accurately describing the historical events and adding fiction to fill in the blanks, it has been considered the best introduction to Basil and his age for the casual reader. It has been continuously reprinted since 1964.

For his part, commentator Alexander Kiossev, wrote in "Understanding the Balkans: "The hero of one nation might be the villain of its neighbour (...) The Byzantine emperor Basil the Murderer (sic) of Bulgarians, a crucial figure in the Greek pantheon of heroes, is no less important as a subject of hatred for our [Bulgarian] national mythology "[7590].

Penelope Delta's second novel, Ton Kairo tou Voulgaroktonou (In the Years of the Bulgar-Slayer), is also set during the reign of Basil II.. It was inspired by correspondance with the historian Gustave Schlumberger, a renowned specialist on the Byzantine Empire, and published in the early years of the 20th Century, a time when the Struggle for Macedonia once again set Greeks and Bulgarians in bitter enmity with each other.

Ion Dragoumis, who was Delta's lover and was deeply involved in that struggle, in 1907 published the book Martyron kai Iroon Aima (Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Blood), which was full of resentment towards everything Bulgarian. He urges Greeks to follow the example of Basil II: "(...)Instead of blinding so many people, Basil should have better killed them instead. On one hand these people would not suffer as eyeless survivors, on the other the sheer number of Bulgarians would have diminished by 15 000, which is something very useful." Later in the same book, Dragoumis foresaw the appearance of "new Basils" who would "cross the entire country and will look for Bulgarians in mountains, caves, villages and forests and will make them flee in refuge or kill them".



Primary sources:

  • Michael Psellus, Chronographia, also published under the title Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, ed. E.R.A. Sewter. London 1953. [English translation, [ Full online text]
  • Nestor, The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text,, Samuel Hazzard Cross, Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor, Published by Mediaeval Academy of America, 1953

Secondary sources:

  • Penelope Delta, The Age of the Bulgar-slayer (In Greek), 1911, ESTIA Publishing Co
  • George Finlay, (1856), History of the Byzantine Empire from DCCXVI to MLVII, 2nd Edition, Published by W. Blackwood.
  • Catherine Holmes, Basil II and the Governance of Empire (976-1025) Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-927968-3
  • John Julius Norwich, History of Byzantium
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Oxford University Press, 1991
  • Paul Stephenson, The Legend of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, Cambridge (2003)

External links

  • A more detailed profile of the Emperor:

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