Constant invasions and palace intrigue placed the Byzantine Empire in a weak position in the 13th century AD. the rise of Basil II (976-1022 AD) to the Byzantine throne provided the empire with more than 400 stability and prosperity.
The Byzantine Empire, during the 10th century AD, was surrounded by enemies. From the East, the Muslims pressed on Asia Minor. From the West, the Bulgarian Empire renewed under Emperor Simeon I of Bulgaria was ready to invade. From the North, the Kievan Rus were not pleased with the current diplomatic situation.
Nevertheless, Basil’s powerful personality made friends. His enemies acknowledged him as a competent and sole ruler of the Byzantine Empire. During his long reign, Basil II placed the Byzantine Empire as the most powerful state in Europe.
Basil II swiftly crushed the Fatimid Caliph to the East, completely destroyed the Bulgars Kingdom, expanded his influence to the far north, expanded the Byzantine economy, and through innovations secured the position of emperors for his predecessors. For this, could the Byzantine Empire have survived until the 15th century without the leadership and accomplishments of Basil II?
Basil II, the warrior emperor, was the most competent emperor of the Roman Empire. The longest-reigning Byzantine emperor of all time. His rule is widely regarded as the absolute zenith in power and prestige post-Justinian. During the 7th century AD, before the Muslim conquest, the Byzantine Empire encompassed Egypt, Syria, Armenia, Asia Minor, Greece, the Balkans, and some Italian and African territories.
The Byzantine Empire reached its fullest extent under Emperor Justian (482-565) in the 6th century AD. However, by the 10th century AD Asia Minor, Greece, some Eastern towns, and some Italian territories were all that was left.
A decrease of more than half in their total possessions. During the Muslim invasions of the 7th century, there was not Byzantine Emperor capable of stopping the wrath of the military might of the East. The Muslims from the East managed to conquer the known world in a matter of a few decades. The Byzantine Empire felt completely to the Muslims might have not been for Theodosius’s Walls, thought to be impenetrable at the time.
The Macedonian Dynasty (867 to 1056 AD)
By the time the Macedonian Dynasty (867 to 1056 AD) came to power, the Byzantine Empire was barely capable of defending its last territories in the Balkans and Anatolia. However, the Macedonian Dynasty brought about the rule of Emperor Basil II and the reversal of the current Byzantine situation.
Basil II signs of strong character from early youth. For instance, “Basil, the elder of the two [brothers], always gave an impression of alertness, intelligence, and thoughtfulness… (Fourteen emperors.p.310)”.
When Basil II’s father Emperor Romanos II (938–963) suddenly died in 963 AD, possibly poisoned by the landed aristocracy, Basil II and his brother Constantine were too young to rule therefore their mother Theophano became the regent ruler of the Byzantine Empire.
In addition, “At this critical moment the general Nikephoros Phokas, who had just distinguished himself by the reconquest of Crete from the Arabs in 961, saw an opportunity to seize the throne (LEOP2)”. Subsequently, general Nikephoros II Phokas easily took Constantinople and married Theophano, and became emperor.
Successively, Emperor Phokas was assassinated by future Emperor John I Tzimisces, on a plot involving Theophano. However, Emperor John I exiled Basil’s mother Theophano when the Patriarch of Constantinople prohibited his marriage with the empress.
Basil II’s Rise to Power
All this was taking place while Basil II was just in his early adolescence greatly impacting his life and view of the world. Emperor John ruled the Byzantine Empire for seven years while Basil II, nominal co-emperor, was still young. In 976 John I Tzimisces died while on campaign in the East providing the opportunity for Basil II to succeed to the Byzantine throne.
In 976 AD Basil II, at age 18, took control of Byzantium after more than a decade in the shadows. In the subsequent years, Basil II solidified the legacy of the Macedonian Dynasty as the most capable Byzantine Emperor with all his achievements.
Basil II’s legitimacy to the throne came from his father Emperor Romano II (959 – 963). It was surprising how Basil reached adulthood and was not assassinated or exiled by the ruling emperors as it was in the previous centuries.
Hence, when Basil II assumed full control of the throne in 976 AD. He was faced with an unstable empire, with numerous internal intrigues, and numerous rebellions by powerful landed generals. For instance, “… almost immediately Basil had to face internal dissension with the dangerous revolts of Bardas Skleros between 976 and 979, and of Bardas Phokas between 987 and 989 (History of LeoP.3)”.
Upon ascending to the throne, Basil II set out to eliminate the power grip of the aristocratic families over the empire and the emperors. In addition, “He knew Asia Minor well, for in his youth he had led imperial armies with success against the Arabs”.¹
The Kingdom of Kiev
Basil II’s first threats came from Asia Minor where his power was disputed by two power generals Bardas Skleros, brother-in-law of Emperor John I Tzimisces, and Bardas Phokas.
Basil II was a very capable commander from youth and proved it on the battlefield against Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas. Hereafter, Basil II moved east, to Anatolia, to crush the two revolts knowing the importance of Asia Minor to the grain supply of Constantinople.
Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas were two capable military commanders from the Anatolian aristocratic families. With sufficient means to pose a threat to the emperor. Therefore, Basil II turned to the north for support. To the North of Constantinople was the Russian kingdom of Kiev.
The Kingdom of Kiev originally at peace with Byzantium was now becoming very powerful and moving closer to Byzantine territories. “In 969 they captured the Bulgarian capital of Preslav and the tsar, Boris II (969—971) so that the Byzantines now had an even more dangerous enemy to the north (History of Leo the Beacon P.2)”.
Basil II inherited a tense situation with Kievan Rus. However, his political, as well as administrative capabilities, proved decisive in the future diplomatic relations with the Kievan Rus. The Kievan Rus, now under the usurper Vladimir I Kiev, desired recognition by the Emperor of the most ancient civilization of the known world.
However, any other Byzantine Emperor in the position of Basil II would surely reject the diplomatic demands of Vladimir I of Kiev. Yet, Basil II cared about the future of his state and the expansion of Christianity.
During his early reign, Basil II set out to expand his influence and gain military support from the North. For instance, one of the most interesting and recognizable accomplishments of Basil’s reign was the conversion to Orthodox Christianity of the Kievan Rus in 988. During the 10th century AD, Christianity was the leading religion in the known world.
From Rome, the Pope led the Catholic Church encompassing mostly Western Europe. However, in the East, from Constantinople, the Patriarch of Constantinople led the Orthodox Christian church as the official religion of the Byzantine Empire.
Yet, there were still various states that practice Paganism. Such as the Kingdom of Kievan Rus, and various Scandinavian kingdoms. During the early years of his reign, Basil II strategically strengthened his state while expanding Christianity to the further North.
For instance, In order to create a solid alliance with Vladimir I of Kiev, Basil II agreed to married his sister, Ana (963–1011), to the Prince in return for more than 5,000 troops and the conversion of the Kievan state to Orthodox Christianity in 988 AD.3 As a result, Basil II swiftly eliminated the possibility of a three-front war and gain both troops and a strong alliance with the powerful Kingdom of the Kievan Rus, as well as the full support of the Orthodox church.
Now Basil II used his Scandinavian troops, provided by his allied Vladimir of Kiev, to crush the Byzantine revels in Asia Minor.
“The turning point in the reign [of Basil II] is frequently dated to 989, the year when one leading rebel, Bardas Phokas was defeated and killed in battle, and another, Bardas Skleros, was forced to surrender. It is widely believed that these victories enabled Basil to emasculate the empire’s land-owning aristocracy and to develop a highly centralized state focused on the emperor’s own person”. ²
At this point in the late 10th century, Basil was able to turn his attention to the outside threats and, and internal strife. Basil II turned his attention to the administration of the state and the leadership of the army. For instance, “the emperor [Basil II] decided to supervise everything himself (14Emperorp453).”
Thus, unlike most Byzantine emperors, Basil II led his forces on the ground rather than relying on his generals to command while sending orders from Constantinople. In addition, he even shared the harsh reality of military life with his troops.
Such as small rations, brutal weather, and long marches. As a result, he gained the undisputed loyalty, and admiration of his troops and generals. Additionally, Basil II became a very capable administrator.
Ultimately, Basil II became a warrior Emperor with administrative qualities, a formula for success. The troops sent to Basil II from Vladimir I of Kiev served a very important purpose in the future of the Byzantine Empire and on the legacy of Basil II.
The Varangian Guard
For instance, from the 6,000 men acquired from the alliance with Vladimir I of Kiev, Basil II created the most fearless and loyal unit bodyguard of the medieval period. In addition, “The Byzantine emperors from the late tenth century maintained the Varangian Guard, which consisted largely of Scandinavian and Norman mercenaries”.4
The Varangian Guard stayed active for the next 400 years, they were armed with long axes, shields, strong body armor, and were taller and stronger than the average Greek. The Varangian Guard was the elite bodyguard of the Byzantine emperors, unlike the Praetorian Guard, the Varangian Guard was very loyal to the emperors and protected the emperors on campaigns. In 995 Basil answered the Muslim threat to the eastern frontier.
The Varangian Guard swore an oath of loyalty to the death and was impossible to bribe. Additionally, the Vangarian Guard went on campaigns and served as the backbone of the field army.
Moreover,“…When the emperor rode out to war a strong contingent of the Varangians always accompanied him; and detachments were also dispersed away from the emperor’s presence as shock troops with field armies, as fort garrisons, and on maritime duties (The Varangian Guard P.18)”. The Varangian Guard helped stabilized the Byzantine Empire by protecting the emperors from assassination, and plots, therefore, preventing the empire from falling into chaos.
With his position solidified as emperor, Basil II set out to expand the empire and regain territories lost to the Fatimid in the East. In 995 AD, Basil II focused his resources on the war with the Muslims.
To the East of the Byzantine Empire was the Fatimid Empire, a large and powerful Muslim state that threaten the empire. To its fullest extent, the Muslim Empire stretched from Spain all the way to Mesopotamia. Controlling all of North Africa, most of the Spanish peninsula, Egypt, the Middle East, and parts of Asia Minor.
Various internal disputes broke the Muslim Empire apart into several different Caliphs or (a successor of Muhammad as the temporal and spiritual head of Islam —used as a title) (Webster dictionary).
The Fatimid dynasty was established in 909 AD by Abū Muḥammad ʻAbdul-Lāh al-Mahdī bi’llāh (909-934). The Fatimid cultural and administrative center was In Tunisia and later moved to Egypt when they built the city of Cairo. In addition, the Fatimid troops were fearless and posed a threat to the Byzantine possessions in Anatolia.
The Fatimid troops were driven by religion therefore fleeing from the battlefield represented a direct insult to their religious beliefs. The Fatimid Empire claimed direct decadence of the Muslim Prophet Mohamed therefore the predominantly Christian Byzantine Empire war was inevitable. Basil II’s leadership proved ideal given the current situation in Asia Minor.
The revolts in Anatolia weaken the Byzantine troops in the eastern frontiers. As a result, the Fatimid took advantage and invaded and laid siege to the Byzantine settlement to Aleppo.
Nevertheless, Basil II, a fearless commander, took full command of his troops and commanded a force of approximately 40,000 men east and swiftly crushed the Fatimid and sacked numerous Muslim cities along the coast, and restored much of the province of Syria back to Byzantine rule. In addition, he strengthened the borders and left the Fatimid in a weak position.
For example, the Eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire were stable for almost a century after the death of Basil II, an astonishing accomplishment considering the military might of the Muslim forces, their determination. For instance, “Justinian’s reign was the high mark for the Byzantine Empire. After his death in 565 AD, the Eastern Roman Empire faced a crisis, constantly besieged by the Slavs and Bulgars… [And] Persians in Mesopotamia… Islam from Africa and the Levant, the Byzantine Empire found its military and fiscal resources relentlessly stretched”. 5
Whereas the Muslims crushed the Byzantine forces in Syria and the east in less than a century, Basil managed to repel the Fatimid and secured the frontiers for years to come.
The most important accomplishment of Basil II’s military career, and perhaps a turning point in the future of the Byzantine Empire, was Basil II’s Bulgarian conquest (968 -1018). The Bulgarian were a semi-nomadic people from the steppe (The origins of the Bulgars).
For most of the tenth century, Byzantium was the second power in the Balkans. The Bulgarian empire reached its fullest extent during the reign of Tsar Symeon (894-927) when its borders ran within miles of Thessalonica … Byzantium’s second city, and Dyrrachium (modern Durres), the port and gateway to the great land route called Via Egnatia (P.18).
The Bulgars ruled the Balkans and pushed on Byzantine territories in Greece and even targeted Constantinople. Under the leadership of Tsar Simeon I ((893—927)) the Bulgaria Empire flourished at the beginning of the 10th century. Initially, the Bulgarians harassed the Byzantine Empire and continued expanding at the Byzantine expense.
“It has generally been maintained, not least in the excellence histories written in English of tenth-century Byzantium and Bulgaria, that for most of his reign, and certainly for most of 913, Symeon was intent on establishing himself in Constantinople, from which he would rule a combined empire as emperor of the Romans and Bulgarians”.6
The Bulgarian developed from the early 10th century an idea of conquering the Byzantine Empire, the continuation of Rome, and setting their capital in the mighty city of Constantinople; and perhaps, this accomplishment was within grasp if it was not for the rise to power of the Macedonian dynasty and most importantly Basil II.
Simeon I the Great
Under Simeon I the Great the Bulgarian Empire ruled supreme in the Balkans. The Byzantine’s power was limited by the authority of the Bulgarian monarch. During the reign of Basil II, the Byzantine Empire in the Balkans was limited to Macedonia, Greece, Thrace, and some strip of lands on the Aegean coast, and the Rhodope Mountains. However, the borders of the Balkans would dramatically change after Basil II’s Bulgarian conquest.
(Emperor) Tsar Simeon successfully campaigned against the Byzantines numerous times. In addition, he laid siege to Constantinople and force the Byzantines to pay tribute, recognized his imperial title, and intermarry between the Crowns.7
Thus, “On the northern frontier in the Balkans, the Byzantines’ primary concern was the state of Bulgaria, which had proved to be a major threat to the empire during the reign of Tsar Symeon (893—927), who launched an expedition against Constantinople itself in 913.” Yet, he was determined to crush the Bulgarians once and for all. For example, Basil II initiated the offensive against the Bulgarians in the early 11th century with the goal of subduing once and for all the Bulgarians.
“On the northern frontier in the Balkans, the Byzantines’ primary concern was the state of Bulgaria, which had proved to be a major threat to the empire during the reign of Tsar Symeon (893—927), who launched an expedition against Constantinople itself in 913. Under Symeon’s son Peter (r. 927—969), Byzantium signed a peace treaty that obligated it to pay tribute. By 966 Nikephoros felt strong enough to cancel tribute payments and to go on the offensive. At first, he used
diplomacy to persuade the Rus’ to invade Bulgaria. The Rus’, however, under the leadership of Sviatoslav of Kiev, were more successful than Nikephoros had bargained for; in 969 they captured the Bulgarian capital of Preslav and the tsar, Boris II (969—971) so that the Byzantines now had an even more dangerous enemy to the north”.
Initially, Basil II faced numerous challenges when facing the Bulgarians. First, Emperor Samuel of Bulgaria moved into the heart of Byzantium and sacked Adrianople, however, Basil II’s fortunes favored him and he intercepted the Bulgarian army and recovered the loot from Adrianople. 8 In addition, “Emperor Basil II continued to invade Bulgaria each year and destroy and devastate everything on his way.
Samuel could not stop him in the open field or engage the Emperor in a decisive battle, and suffered many defeats and began to lose his strength.”9 Thus resulting in the inevitable decisive battle between Samuel of Bulgaria and the Basil II in 1014; Emperor Samuel mobilized an army of approximately 50,000 troops to face the imminent Byzantine approach.
The Bulgars Slayer
Throughout his reign Basil II was an outstanding commander and administrator, he recognized the weaknesses of his state, as well as the strength, therefore, he set out to solidify the future of the Byzantine Empire with determination. For instance, in the aftermath of the decisive Battle of Kleidon, he captured more than 10,000 Bulgarian troops.
However, his decision on the lives of the captured troops had long-term results. Basil II blinded almost all the Bulgarian soldiers, having one for every hundred men partially blinded to help the rest back to Samuel.
Now, this clearly crippled the Bulgarian army to a point of complete submission, but additionally, Basil II sent shockwaves into the hearts of his new Bulgarian subjects and killed the Bulgarian Emperor with the psychological effect thus completing his Bulgarian campaigns and gaining the title “the Bulgars Slayer” or “the Slayer of the Bulgars”. 10
Basil II’s reign marked the revival of the Byzantine Empire as the undisputed power in Europe. In addition, Basil II proved a capable administrator both in the administration of the military and the administration of the state. For instance, the introduction of the Varangian Guard into the Byzantine army proved priceless in terms of dependability and reliability.
furthermore, it strengthens the position of the Byzantine Emperor, secured the eastern and, with the complete annexation of the Bulgarian Empire, the western frontiers as well. In addition, he stabilized the Byzantine treasury with an influx of gold from the loot of his Bulgarian conquest.
Moreover, according to John Skylitzes during Basil’s reign, the Byzantine treasury overflowed with coin, resulting in many years of prosperity and financial stability in Constantinople.11 Throughout Roman and then Byzantine history, most emperors were either assassinated in a palace coup, secretly poison, or killed in civil war, and generally did not have long lives.
Basil II proved to be the last capable and patriotic commander willing to sacrifice for the good of the state. As a consequence rained for almost half a century and died unquestionably of natural causes.
Basil’s accomplishments secured the short-term future of the Byzantine Empire, however, his desire for conquest and warfare put a toll on his life. For instance, Basil never wed and did not have offspring resulting in the succession of family members none of which shared Basil traits resulting in the long declined and collapsed of the Byzantine Empire.
1. Psellus, Michael; Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus (Penguin Classics) E. R. A. Sewter (Translator) December 20, 1979.
2. Skylitzes, John; A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811–1057 introduction, text, and notes translated by John Wortley CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS 2010.
3. Comnena, Anna the Alexiad; Peter Frankopan (Editor, Introduction), E. R. A. Sewter (Translator) Published Sep 29, 2009.
4.http://homepage.mac.com/paulstephenson/trans/scyl.html ACCESSED 09/26/2012
5. Carey, Brian Todd, Joshua B. Allfee, John Cairns, WARFARE IN THE MEDIEVAL WORLD (March 2002).
6. Magdalino, Paul (Editor). Byzantium in the Year 1000 Leiden, NLD: Brill Academic Publishers, 2003. P ii.
7. Daniel (Editor). Central Middle Ages: Europe 950-1320. Oxford, GBR: Oxford University Press, UK, 2006
8. Stephenson, Paul (2004). Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900–1204. Cambridge University Press (http://assets.cambridge.org/97805217/70170/sample/9780521770170wsc00.pdf) ACCESSED 09/26/2012
9. Constantinople: Capital of Byzantium Harris, Jonathan; (Continuum International Publishing) London-03/2009
10. Procopius (Author), Peter Sarris (Editor, Translator, Introduction), G. A. Williamson (Translator) the Secret History (Penguin Classics) [Paperback] Jan 24, 2008
11. Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus (Classics) by Michael Psellus and E. R. A. Sewter (Kindle Edition – Sep 27, 1979)
12. Raffaele D’Amato and Giuseppe Rava the Varangian Guard 988-1453 (Men-at-Arms) (Jun 22, 2010)
13. Cyril Mango the Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453: Sources and Documents (MART: The Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching, No. 16) [Paperback]
14. J.B Bury The Cambridge Medieval History volumes 1-5 [Kindle Edition] Publication Date: January 27, 2011
15. Introduction, translation, and annotations, Talbot, Alice-Mary, and Sullivan Denis F. with the assistance of Dennis George T. and McGrath Stamatina; The Histories of Leo the Deacon Byzantine military expansion in the 10th century; 2005 Dumbarton Oaks Trustees for Harvard University Washington, D.C.
Dilian Gurov; the Origins of the Bulgars
http://www.csc.kth.se/~dilian/Papers/bulgars.pdf accessed 09/26/2012
1. Byzantium in the Year 1000 Magdalino, Paul (01/2003) pg. 37/38
2. Ibid pg.71
3. Ibid pg. 102
4. Daniel (Editor). Central Middle Ages: Europe 950-1320. Oxford, GBR: Oxford University Press, UK, 2006. Pg. 106
5. WARFARE IN THE MEDIEVAL WORLD Brian Todd Carey, Joshua B. Allfee, John Cairns, (march 2002) pg. 27
6. Stephenson, Paul (2004). Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900–1204. Cambridge University Press pg. 18
7. Ibid pg. 21
8. Ibid pg. 29
9. John Skylitzes A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811–1057 introduction, text and notes translated by John Wortley CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS 2010
10. Ibid pg. 347
11. Ibid pg. 348