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Byzantium: Basil the Bulgar Slayer

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Byzantium: Overview | Constantine and the Founding of Constantinople | Justinian and the Nika Riots | Heraclius and the Persians | Irene and Iconoclasm | Constantine Porphyrogenitus | Basil the Bulgar-Slayer | Empress Zoe | Romanos Diogenes and the Loss of Anatolia | The Sack of Constantinople | Constantine XI and the Fall of Constantinople | The Walls of Constantinople | Hagia Sophia

The rule of Basil in the 10th and 11th Centuries is considered by some to be the Golden Age of Byzantium. Under his careful leadership, the Byzantine army became the strongest ever, strengthening the borders and regaining ground that had been lost in previous centuries. His impressive defeat of the Bulgars earned1 him the nickname Bulgaroctonos, literally 'Bulgar slayer'. We've seen the Byzantines' fondness for blinding their enemies before, but Basil took this to a new extreme.

Basil was short, ugly, smelly and not at all like a Byzantine Emperor. He wore everyday clothes rather than bejewelled finery, and appeared in armour rather than in an emperor's robes on state occasions. Although extremely intelligent, he disliked book learning, but was a great horseman. He wasn't one for earthly pleasures, eating and drinking only as much as necessary, and not being interested in women (or even other men). Basil had only one passion, and that was getting the Empire on a firmer footing.

Unwanted Heir

Basil was the son of Romanus II and the grandson of Constantine Porphyrogenitus. His father died when Basil was only six and his brother Constantine was only three, leaving the two boys as joint rulers of the Empire. Their mother Theophano, who was only in her early twenties at the time, did not feel competent to act as regent, so she invited one of the leading generals, Nicephorus Phocas to be the next emperor. He was crowned, and later married Theophano. Nicephorus was a just and efficient ruler, but after about nine years he was brutally murdered by another general, John Tzimisces, who took the throne and went on to be another just and efficient ruler. John died in 976 when Basil was 18. Since neither Nicephorus nor John had any children, Basil and Constantine were now the ruling emperors. Constantine wasn't interested in the job and left the ruling entirely to Basil.

Eliminating the Opposition

The early rule of Basil is dominated by his attempts to prevent three men from taking over control of the Empire. All three were connected with former emperors and felt they were much better qualified to rule than an 18-year-old boy. Like many stories about Byzantium, this one is confused by the fact that Byzantines only appear to have a limited supply of first names, which they re-used over and over. In this case the three men that Basil was up against were called Basil, Bardas and Bardas. To make things clearer, we'll have to refer to them by their full names: Basil the Chamberlain, Bardas Phocas and Bardas Sclerus:

  • Basil the Chamberlain was a eunuch who was the illegitimate son of former emperor Romanus I Lecapenus. He was the Chamberlain of the Palace and was effectively second in command in the Empire.

  • Bardas Sclerus was a general, and the son-in-law of the previous emperor, John Tzimisces.

  • Bardas Phocas was another general, and nephew of former emperor Nicephorus Phocas.

Bardas Sclerus rebelled against Basil almost immediately and had his troops declare him Emperor by raising him up on their shields, the traditional way for the army to declare their choice of emperor. He then launched an attack on the capital. His navy was quickly defeated, but his armies were not so easily disposed of. Sclerus's troops fought for three years against the troops of the Emperor led by general Bardas Phocas. Eventually, Bardas Phocas (for the Emperor) challenged Bardas Sclerus (the rebel) to single combat. The two fought and Sclerus suffered a serious blow to the head. He retreated in panic and fled to Baghdad, ending the war. Bardas Sclerus did return from Baghdad later, and his armies continued to support his claim, but he was never again a serious threat. In the end, Basil offered him a peace settlement and he accepted.

Next to be dealt with was Basil the Chamberlain. Being a eunuch, he was disqualified from being emperor himself, but he pulled all the strings in the palace and the young Basil was effectively a puppet emperor. For years he tried to find some way of bringing the Chamberlain down. Then he uncovered evidence of a plot between the Chamberlain and Bardas Phocas to set Bardas up as emperor. Basil had what he needed to dispose of Basil the Chamberlain, arresting and imprisoning him.

The First Bulgarian Campaign

Bulgaria had been part of the Byzantine Empire since the beginning. But now the Bulgars, led by a man called Samuel, had declared their independence. Samuel styled himself Tsar of the Empire of Bulgaria, and was intent on expanding his 'empire' by invading outlying areas such as Thessaly and Bosnia. Basil decided that an army campaign was necessary to teach them a lesson. He personally led the army into Thessaly, and walked his soldiers straight into an ambush at a place called Trajan's Gate. Many of the Byzantine soldiers were slaughtered, although Basil himself escaped safely. It was a disaster for which he never forgave himself, or the Bulgars either. He swore he would wipe the Empire of Bulgaria off the map, an oath which he eventually fulfilled, although it took him more than thirty years. But meanwhile, more pressing matters summoned him back to Byzantium.

The Revolt of Bardas Phocas

Basil's disastrous failure at Trajan's Gate made him very unpopular with the army - they felt that they would be better led by an experienced general. Bardas Phocas was such a general - he decided the time was ripe for his claim on the throne. First he got the troops to declare him emperor, and then started to plan his two-pronged attack on Byzantium. Bardas's armies were in Anatolia, the Asian part of what is now Turkey. To attack Byzantium, they had to cross into Europe. He decided to launch one half of the army from Chalcedon directly opposite Byzantium. The other half went down to Abydos at the Dardanelles strait. Things were looking bad for Basil.

Basil's navy was able to prevent the two armies from crossing the straits and he managed to keep Bardas in Asia for more than a year. But it was only a matter of time before they made the crossing and invaded the capital. The emperor didn't have enough troops to resist them. At this stage, Basil showed his ability to think laterally. He made an alliance with the Russian Vladimir, Prince of Kiev. Basil promised him his own sister, Anna, in marriage, in exchange for an army of 6,000 Varangian mercenaries. In addition, Vladimir would become a Christian and would attempt to convert the whole of Russia. The Varangians arrived just in time - these enormous axe-wielding Scandinavian berserkers made short work of Bardas's army at Chalcedon, chopping them into pieces.

Basil's new elite guard met up with Bardas's other army at Abydos on 13 April, 989. Basil sat on horseback with a sword in one hand and an icon of the Virgin Mary in the other. Bardas led his troops, but the battle went badly for him and degenerated into a rout. Bardas reckoned the day might be saved by a show of bravery, and spurred his horse straight at Basil. A hush fell over the battlefield as all eyes were on Bardas's heroic charge. As the rebel's horse galloped closer and closer, Basil sat motionless. Then the rebel fell dead from his galloping horse, struck down by a sudden stroke. His army immediately surrendered, leaving Basil in full control of the Empire.

True to his word, Basil's sister Anna was packed off to wildest Russia, where Vladimir married her. It was the first time that a Byzantine princess had been bartered with barbarians. But Vladimir was also faithful to the bargain. He became an Orthodox Christian, and set about his work of Christianising Russia. He is remembered now as Saint Vladimir, founder of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Second Bulgarian Campaign

Basil was now free to pursue his promised war against the Bulgars. This he did on and off from 991 to 1018. Progress was slow but steady. Basil was determined never to be ambushed again, so he never entered a fight unless he was sure he could win it. Gradually he started to win back the land taken by the Bulgars.

In 995, the war was interrupted suddenly by a threat in the east - Fatimid Arabs had besieged Antioch, an important Byzantine town at the east end of the Mediterranean. The city looked doomed, as it would take months to march an army to the area. Basil saved the day by mounting his entire army, 17,000 strong, on mules. They arrived in Antioch 16 days later and the Arabs fled.

In 1000, Basil resumed his war against the Bulgars, slowly and carefully defeating the Bulgar army over a period of nearly twenty years. Basil controlled his armies with strict discipline, never letting soldiers take their own initiative, and all the time steadily advancing through Bulgaria.

Bulgar Slayer

One of the most significant battles was at the pass of Cimbalongus, in 1014. Basil's troops won the day and captured 15,000 Bulgars. Basil ordered that instead of slaughtering the captives, all 15,000 of them should be blinded, except for 150 men who were blinded in one eye only; these were entrusted to lead the rest home, each one-eyed man in charge of 100 blinded men. When the Tsar, Samuel, saw his blinded warriors arriving back in his capital, he is said to have had a fit and died. It was this incident that earned Basil the title 'Bulgar Slayer'.

This was the beginning of the end for the Bulgars. The war lasted another four years; in 1018, Basil finally marched into the Bulgarian capital. Southeast Europe was now in Byzantine control right up to the Danube border, for the first time in 400 years.

Basil offered the conquered nation very good peace terms, including a lower rate of tax than anywhere else in the Empire. There was no further trouble from that quarter during the rest of Basil's reign.

Basil had many other military campaigns, in eastern Anatolia, Armenia, the Crimea, Southern Italy, and a planned expedition to Sicily, but it is for his Bulgarian war that he is best remembered.

The Death of Basil

Basil died on 15 December, 1025, at the age of 67. He left behind an Empire which had finally solved the problem of the Bulgars. The army was now a powerful force, well-trained in the battlefield and with the numbers required to protect the Empire.

He had also made changes to the laws to divide up the agricultural land more fairly, so that small farmers had more control of the land and the common man was less likely to starve while rich men reaped the profits of the land.

Basil is remembered as one of the best Emperors. Unfortunately, he had never married and had no children. There was no strong figure to take over and carry on his good work. Basil's undertaking in building up the Empire soon went to waste. This is told in the story of Empress Zoe.

1This nickname was used in later histories of the man, but never during his lifetime.

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