Basil II (Greek: Βασίλειος Β΄, Basileios II; 958 – 15 December 1025) was a Byzantine Emperor from the Macedonian dynasty who reigned from 10 January 976 to 15 December 1025. He was known in his time as Basil the Porphyrogenitus and Basil the Young to distinguish him from his supposed ancestor, Basil I the Macedonian.
The early years of his long reign were dominated by civil war against powerful generals from the Anatolian aristocracy. Following their submission, Basil oversaw the stabilization and expansion of the eastern frontier of the Byzantine Empire, and above all, the final and complete subjugation of Bulgaria, the Empire's foremost European foe, after a prolonged struggle. For this he was nicknamed the Bulgar Slayer (Greek: Βουλγαροκτόνος, Boulgaroktonos), by which he is popularly known. 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. His reign is therefore often seen as the medieval apogee of the Empire.
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, while 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 later successor nations of Kievan Rus' within the Byzantine cultural and religious tradition.
Birth and childhood
Basil was the son of Emperor Romanos II and Empress Theophano, whose maternal family was of Laconian Greek origin
He married a Greek girl, Theophano, who was suspected of poisoning her father-in-law and hastening Romanus' death. from the Peloponnese, possibly from the city of Sparta. His paternal ancestry is of uncertain origins, his putative ancestor Basil I, the founder of the dynasty, being variously attributed as Armenian, Slavic, or Greek. Indeed the biological father of Leo VI the Wise (Basil II's great-grandfather) was possibly not Basil I, but Michael III.
The family of Michael III were Anatolians from Phrygia and of Greek speech and culture, though originally of the Melchisedechian heretical faith. In 960, Basil was associated on the throne by his father, who then 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. When Tzimisces died on 10 January 976, Basil II finally took the throne as senior emperor.
Rebellions in Anatolia and alliance with Rus'
Basil was a brave soldier and a superb horseman, and he would prove himself as an able general and strong ruler. In the early years of his reign, 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 politician who hoped that the young emperors would be his puppets. Basil waited and watched without interfering, devoting himself to learning the details of administrative business and military science.
Even though Nikephoros II Phokas and John I Tzimiskes were brilliant military commanders, both had proven to be lax administrators. Towards the end of his reign Tzimiskes had belatedly planned to curb the power of the great landowners, and his death, coming soon after his 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 outset of his reign as two members of the wealthy military elite of Anatolia, Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas, had sufficient means to undertake open rebellion against his authority. The chief motive of these men, both of whom were experienced generals, was 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) but not without the help of 12,000 Georgians of Tornikios and David III Kuropalates of Tao-Klarjeti. The relationship between the two generals was interesting: Phokas was instrumental in defeating the rebellion of Skleros, but when Phokas himself later rebelled, Skleros returned from exile to support his old enemy. When Phokas dropped dead and fell from his horse in battle, Skleros, who had been imprisoned by his erstwhile accomplice, assumed the leadership of the rebellion, before being forced into surrendering to Basil in 989. Skleros was allowed to live, but he ended his days blind, perhaps through disease, though he may have been punished by blinding.
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 to heart.
In order to defeat these dangerous revolts, Basil formed an alliance with Prince Vladimir I of Kiev, who in 988 had captured Chersonesos, the main Imperial base in the Crimea. 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 in Asia Minor, which his predecessor, Romanos I, had endeavored to check.
Campaigns against the Fatimid Caliphate
The internal strife quelled, Basil II turned his attention to other enemies of the Empire. The Byzantine civil wars had weakened the Empire's position in the east, and the gains of Nikephoros II Phokas and John I Tzimiskes had nearly been lost to the Fatimids.
In 987/8, a seven-year truce was signed with the Fatimids, stipulating an exchange of prisoners, the recognition of the Byzantine emperor as protector of the Christians under Fatimid rule and of the Fatimid Caliph as protector of the Muslims under Byzantine control, and the replacement of the name of the Abbasid Caliph by that of the Fatimid Caliph in the Friday prayer in the mosque of Constantinople.
Nevertheless, in 991 the Fatimids launched a campaign against the Hamdanid Emirate of Aleppo, a Byzantine protectorate, perhaps in the belief that Byzantium would not interfere. Under the governor of Damascus, Manjutakin, the Fatimids scored a series of successes against the Hamdanids and their Byzantine allies, including a major victory at the Battle of the Orontes against the doux of Antioch, Michael Bourtzes, in September 994. Bourtzes' defeat forced Basil to intervene personally in the East: in a lightning campaign he rode with his army through Asia Minor in sixteen days and reached Aleppo in April 995, forcing the Fatimid army to retreat without giving battle. The Byzantines besieged Tripolis unsuccessfully and occupied Tartus, which they refortified and garrisoned with Armenian troops. The Fatimid caliph al-Aziz now prepared to take the field in person against the Byzantines and initiated large-scale preparations, but they were cut short upon his death.
Warfare between the two powers continued as the Byzantines supported an anti-Fatimid uprising in Tyre. In 998, the Byzantines under the successor of Bourtzes, Damian Dalassenos, launched an attack on Apamea, but the Fatimid general Jaysh ibn al-Samsama defeated them in battle on 19 July 998. This defeat drew Basil II into the fray. The emperor arrived in Syria in October 999, and remained there for three months. Basil's troops raided as far as Baalbek, placing a garrison at Shaizar, while burning three minor forts in the vicinity of Abu Qubais, Masyath, and 'Arqah. The siege of Tripolis in December failed, while Hims was not threatened. However, as Basil's attention was diverted to developments in Armenia following the murder of David III Kuropalates, he departed for Cilicia in January and dispatched another embassy to Cairo.
In 1000 a ten-year truce was concluded between the two states. For the remainder of the reign of al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (r. 996–1021), relations remained peaceful, as Hakim was more interested in internal affairs. Even the acknowledgement of Fatimid suzerainty by Lu'lu' of Aleppo in 1004 and the Fatimid-sponsored installment of Aziz al-Dawla as the city's emir in 1017 did not lead to a resumption of hostilities, especially since Lu'lu' continued to pay tribute to Byzantium, and Aziz al-Dawla quickly began acting as an independent ruler. Nevertheless, Hakim's persecution of Christians in his realm, and especially the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at his orders in 1009, strained relations, and would, along with Fatimid interference in Aleppo, provide the main focus of Fatimid–Byzantine diplomatic relations until the late 1030s.
Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria
Basil also sought to restore territories the Empire had lost long before. At the start of the second millennium, he took on his greatest adversary, Samuel of Bulgaria. Bulgaria had been partly subjugated by John I Tzimiskes after the invasion of Svyatoslav I of Kiev, but parts of the country had remained outside Byzantine control, under the leadership of Samuel and his brothers.
As the Bulgars had been raiding Byzantine lands since 976, the Byzantine government sought to cause dissension amongst them by allowing the escape of their captive emperor Boris II of Bulgaria. This ploy failed, so Basil used a respite from his conflict with the nobility to lead an army of 30,000 men into Bulgaria and besiege Sredets (Sofia) in 986. Taking losses and worried about the loyalty of some of his governors, Basil lifted the siege and headed back for Thrace, but he fell into an ambush and suffered a serious defeat at the Battle of the Gates of Trajan. 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 sister Anna in marriage (the same Anna who wed 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 under terms reducing Venice's custom duties in Constantinople from 30 nomismata to 17 nomismata. In return the Venetians agreed to transport Byzantine troops to southern Italy in times of war.
During the years when Basil was distracted with internal rebellions and recovering the military situation on his eastern frontier, Samuel had extended his rule from the Adriatic Sea to the Black Sea, recovering most of the lands that had been Bulgarian before the invasion of Svyatoslav. He also conducted damaging raids into Byzantine territory as far as central Greece. The tide turned in 996 when the Byzantine general Nikephoros Ouranos inflicted a crushing defeat on a raiding Bulgarian army at a battle on the River Spercheios in Thessaly. Samuel and his son Gabriel were lucky to escape capture.
Beginning in 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 Theodorokanos took the old Bulgarian capital of Great Preslav and the towns of Lesser Preslav and Pliskova. In 1001, Basil himself, operating from Thessalonica, was able to regain control of Vodena, Verrhoia, and Servia. The following year he based his army in Philippopolis and occupied the length of the military road from the western Haemus Mountains to the Danube, thereby cutting off communications between Samuel's Macedonian heartland and Moesia. Following this success Basil laid siege to Vidin, 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 Adrianople.
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, and its governor, Romanos, was treated with overt kindness by the Emperor. In 1005, the governor of Dyrrhachium, Ashot Taronites, surrendered his city to the Byzantines. The defection of Dyrrhachium 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. He extensively fortified the passes and routes from the coastlands and valleys held by the Byzantines to 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 29 July 1014, Basil II and his general Nikephoros Xiphias outmanoeuvred the Bulgarian army, which was defending one of the fortified passes, in the Battle of Kleidion. Samuel avoided capture only through the valour of his son Gabriel. Having crushed the Bulgarians, Basil exerted his vengeance by cruelty - he was said to have captured 15,000 prisoners and blinded 99 of every 100 men, leaving one one-eyed man in each cohort to lead the rest back to their ruler. Samuel was physically struck down by the dreadful apparition of his blinded army and died two days later, on 6 October 1014, after suffering a stroke. Although the mistreatment of the Bulgarian prisoners may have been exaggerated, this incident helped give rise to Basil's Greek epithet of Boulgaroktonos, meaning "the Bulgar-slayer", in later tradition. The first recorded coupling of the term Boulgaroktonos with Basil II dates from a number of generations after his death. It appears to have entered common usage among the Byzantines at the end of the 12th century, when the Second Bulgarian Empire broke away from Byzantine rule and the martial exploits of Basil against the Bulgarians became a theme of imperial propaganda. Thus it was used by the historian Niketas Choniates and the writer Nicholas Mesarites, and consciously inverted by the Bulgarian ruler Kaloyan, who called himself "Roman-slayer" (Rhomaioktonos). Prior to this, during Basil's own lifetime as well as in the works of the 11th and early 12th centuries, Basil was usually distinguished from Basil I the Macedonian by the sobriquets "the Younger" (ho neos) or "the Purple-born" (ho porphyrogennetos).
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.
The neighbouring rulers of Croatia, Krešimir III and Gojslav, who were previously allies of Bulgaria, accepted Basil's supremacy in order to avoid the same fate as Bulgaria; the emperor warmly received their offers of vassalage and awarded them the honorary title of patrician. Croatia remained a tributary state to Basil until his death in 1025. Before returning to Constantinople, Basil II celebrated his triumph in Athens. He showed considerable statesmanship in his treatment of the defeated Bulgarians, giving 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 that led to considerable Bulgarian discontent, and rebellion, later in the 11th century.
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 Crimea and other areas around the Black Sea. 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 Kerch. Kedrenos reports that George Tzoul was captured and the Khazar successor-state was destroyed. Subsequently the Byzantines occupied the southern Crimea.
Basil II returned in triumph to Constantinople, then promptly went east and attacked the Georgian Kingdom of Tao-Klarjeti. He later secured the annexation of the sub-kingdoms of Armenia along with a promise that its capital and surrounding regions would be willed to Byzantium following the death of its king Hovhannes-Smbat. In 1021, he also secured the cession of the Kingdom of Vaspurakan by its king, Seneqerim-John, in exchange for estates in Sebasteia. 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.
Basil was preparing a military expedition to recover the island of Sicily when he died, on 15 December 1025. 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 had 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 Hebdomon Palace complex, outside the walls of Constantinople. The epitaph on his tomb celebrated Basil's campaigns and victories. During the pillage of 1204, Basil's grave was desecrated by the invading Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade.
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 that convulsed his whole frame. As a mature man he had ascetic tastes and cared little for the pomp and ceremony of the Imperial court, typically holding 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 owners 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 on the nobility and the church, seeking to decrease their power and wealth. Though understandably unpopular with them, neither 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.
As a result of Basil's asceticism, he was succeeded by his brother and his family, who unfortunately proved to be ineffective rulers. Nevertheless, fifty 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 age. The Byzantine Empire under Basil II probably had a population of about 18 million people. By 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.
During the 20th century in Greece, 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 (born 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. 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".
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 correspondence 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".
Rosemary Sutcliff's 1976 historical fiction novel Blood Feud depicts Basil II from the point of view of a member of his recently created Varangian Guard.