Basil II

Basil II

Infobox Monarch
name =Basil II
title =Emperor of the Byzantine Empire

reign =nominally from 960 (as co-emperor), effectively 10 January 976 - 15 December 1025
coronation =
predecessor =John I Tzimiskes
successor =Constantine VIII
dynasty =Macedonian dynasty
father =Romanos II
mother =Theophano
date of birth =958
date of death =15 December 1025|

Basil II, surnamed the Bulgar-slayer ( _el. Βασίλειος Β΄ Βουλγαροκτόνος, "Basileios II Boulgaroktonos", 958 – December 15 1025), also known as Basil the Porphyrogenitus and Basil the Young to distinguish him from Basil I the Macedonian, was a Byzantine emperor from the Macedonian dynasty who reigned from January 10 976 to December 15, 1025. Under his reign, the Byzantine Empire reached its greatest strength in nearly five centuries.

Birth and childhood

Basil was the son of Emperor Romanos II by Theophano, whose family was of Armenian descent. 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, only to be succeeded by another general, who became Emperor John I Tzimisces 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 puppet. Basil waited and watched without interfering, and devoted himself to learning the details of administrative business and instructing himself in military science.

Although Nikephoros II Phokas in particular had proven to be a brilliant military commander during his reign, both he and John I Tzimiskes had proven to be lax administrators. Although John had reportedly planned to curb the power of the landowners at the end of his reign, 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, Basil found himself with a serious problem as soon as his reign began. The great landowners of Asia Minor, Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas – who provided many of the empire's soldiers and taxes – were in open revolt against the empire. 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).

To do so Basil formed an alliance with Prince Vladimir I of Kiev, who had captured the main imperial base in the Crimea, 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. But when Vladimir promised to baptize himself and to convert his people to Christianity (though the marriage was not Vladimir's primary reason for choosing the Orthodox religion—he had conducted long-running research into different religions, including sending delegates to various countries), 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.

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 Aleppo besieged and Antioch threatened by the enemy. In 995 Basil II, with an army of 40,000 men (with 80,000 mules)J. Norwich, "Byzantium: The Apogee", 251] , launched a campaign against the Muslim Arabs and won several battles in Syria, relieving Aleppo, taking over the Orontes valley, and raiding further south, sacking all of the cities from Emesa to Tripoli. Although he did not have sufficient forces to drive into Palestine and reclaim Jerusalem, his victories did restore much of Syria to the empire. No emperor since Heraclius had been able to hold these lands for any length of time, and they would remain Byzantine for the next 75 years.

Bulgarian campaigns

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, Samuil of Bulgaria, who also was of Armenian descent. Bulgaria had been partly subjugated by John I Tzimiskes, but parts of the country had remained outside Byzantine control, under the leadership of Samuil and his brothers. The Bulgars having been raiding Byzantine lands since 976, the Byzantine government sought to cause dissention by first allowing the escape of the 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 (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 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 Samuil's brother Aron against him. Aron 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 Aron discovered that the bride he was sent was a fake. By 987 Aron had been eliminated by Samuil, 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 Venice'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 Italy in times of war.J. Norwich, "A History of Venice", 158]

From 1000, Basil II was able to focus on his war with Bulgaria again. Samuil had extended his rule from the Adriatic Sea to the Black Sea and raided into central Greece, and Basil was determined to reverse the fortunes of the empire. In 1000 Byzantine generals Theodorokan and Xiphias have taken old Bulgarian capital Great Preslav [John Skylitzes:The Year 6508] and in 1001–1002, the Byzantines were able to regain control of Moesia, and in 1003 he raided into Macedonia, taking Skopje. In 1005, the governor of Durazzo surrendered his city to the Byzantines. During the next several years, the Byzantines failed to make any significant gains.

Finally, on July 29, 1014, Basil II outmaneuvered the Bulgarian army in the Battle of Kleidion, with Samuil separated from his force. 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, who fainted at the sight and died two days later suffering a stroke. Although this may be an exaggeration, this gave Basil his nickname "Boulgaroktonos", "the Bulgar-slayer" in later tradition.

Bulgaria fought on for four more years, but finally submitted in 1018. This victory and the later submission of the Serbs fulfilled one of Basil's goals, as the empire regained its ancient Danube River frontier for the first time in 400 years. Before returning to Constantinople, Basil II celebrated his triumph in Athens.

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 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.

Later years

Basil II returned in triumph to Constantinople, then promptly went east and attacked the Persians over control of Armenia, which had become a Byzantine tributary when its king died in 1000. More victories followed, and Armenia rejoined the Byzantine empire for the first time in two centuries. 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 Hebdomon Palace complex, outside the walls of Constantinople. The epitaph on the tomb celebrated Basils campaigns and victories. [] During the pillage of 1204, Basil's grave was ravaged by the invading Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade.

During the reign of Smbat III, an Georgian great king lord, David I, who owned Taik (Ispir and Olti) had, during his battles against the Muslims, gained a large area which stretched all the way to Manazkert (Malashgert). David was a subject of Byzantium and when he died his entire territory was occupied by Basil II, who had resumed the policy of, bit by bit, annexing Armenia to his empire (year 1000). [Schlumberger, Un Emperor byzantin - Basile II, Paris, 1900, chapter III]


Basil was a short, stocky man with ascetic tastes, who 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 unique among the soldier-emperors, left a full treasury upon his death.

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 that we know of. As a young man he was a womanizer, but when he became emperor, he chose to devote himself to the duties of state. Unfortunately, this 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 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 (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 a Bulgarian general of Samuel who spend 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 fictional to fill in the blanks, it has been considered the best introduction to Basil and his age for a 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 " [] .


*(primary source) Michael Psellus, "Chronographia"
*"The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium", Oxford University Press, 1991
*John Julius Norwich, "History of Byzantium"
*Penelope Delta, "The Age of the Bulgar-slayer" (In Greek), 1911, ESTIA Publishing Co.
*Paul Stephenson, "The Legend of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer", Cambridge (2003)
*Catherine Holmes, "Basil II and the Governance of Empire (976-1025)" Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-927968-3


External links

*A more detailed profile of the Emperor:

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