Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Part 7

The Macedonian Dynasty and the Conquest of Bulgaria

“Basil II, who ruled four generations after the first Basil (the Macedonian), is commemorated on many streets in Greek cities as ‘Voulgaroktonos’ (Bulgar-slayer). Yet the defeat of the Bulgars is not his greatest claim to fame. During his extremely long reign, from 976 to 1025, he presided over a major expansion of the empire beyond the Taurus Mountains in the east, the conversion of the Russians, the forging of numerous important foreign alliances, the patronage of art and learning, and the protection of the poor. In all this, he was a worthy grandson of the famous Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos.”

 – Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, Ch. 20, Judith Herrin (2007)

The period between the Second Siege of Constantinople and the rise of the Macedonian Dynasty is characterised by the development of the defensive thematic system of military organisation, the erosion of Imperial territory, a succession of uninspiring emperors (and notably, the Empress Irene), and Iconoclasm.

While the invention of the themeta (quasi-feudal administrative and military divisions within the empire, designed to optimise defensive capability) was certainly a positive (and necessary) step for the Byzantines, other occurrences – like the appearance of Iconoclasm (a cultural schism regarding the veneration of religious icons) and the associated civil strife it inspired, succeeded only in distracting the populace and their leaders from the real threats massing at the borders.


By the time a young Macedonian peasant by the name of Basil appears in the history books, the Empire was struggling. Although the reigning Emperor Michael III managed to score some victories – diplomatic and economic, mostly – there was no denying that the Byzantines were on the back foot.

Coming to the capital a penniless one-time slave, Basil had the good fortune to fall in with the right crowd. Gaining employment with an associate of the ruling family, and enamouring a wealthy widow to the point she left him everything she had, the former peasant then proceeded to impress the inconstant Michael III with his skills at horse-taming and wrestling. Before long, he and the Emperor were inseparable drinking buddies and conspirators. Together they plotted against Michael’s uncle (and Basil’s patron) Bardas, and killed him – Basil himself reportedly did the deed.

Amongst the other favours Basil (who was swiftly promoted to the esteemed position of Caesar, or co-emperor) did for Michael was the divorce of his peasant wife Maria and marriage to Michael’s mistress Eudokia Ingerina. Now the Emperor had a pretext to keep his “squeeze” in the palace. This act also calls into question the parentage of Leo VI, the future emperor and supposed son of Basil and Eudokia…who reputedly bore a strong resemblance to Michael III.


The fickle emperor quickly grew bored with Basil though, and began to favour another courtier named Basiliskian. Not willing to let his hard-won position slip away, Basil resorted to murder once again, arranging to ambush the sleeping basileus in his chambers and putting him – and Basiliskian – to death.

By process of elimination (with extreme prejudice), Basil was now left as sole emperor, and wasted no time seizing the reins of power. Despite his (rumoured) illiteracy, he proved to be an able governor and inspiring leader. In contrast to the debauched Michael, Basil was pious, orthodox and upright. He also stabilised the empire’s finances and recodified the law code, earning him the honour of being remembered as “the second Justinian”.


He proved equally adept at promoting the cause of the church, simultaneously placating the Pope in Rome while securing the conversion of the Bulgarians to Orthodox Christianity.

Successful wars against the heretical Paulicians and the Arabs in the east helped secure his legacy, while territorial gains were made in Italy against the empire’s enemies there.

Despite advancing age, Basil remained healthy and robust well into his seventies, and no doubt would have continued to reign successfully had he not suffered a hunting accident and died in 886AD.

Succeeded initially by the (suspect) Leo IV, called “the Wise”, Basil managed to establish a dynasty that would survive for almost two centuries and reach its peak in the person of Basil II, called “the Bulgar-Slayer.”

Only five years old when his father (the emperor Romanos II) died, Basil II’s early life was defined by those who tried to use him as a political pawn – his mother’s suitors and stand-in emperors Nikephoros II and John I Tzimisces, followed by the palace eunuch Basil Lekapenos (a bastard uncle). Unwilling to be a mere figurehead, Basil II first had to deal with the rebellious generals Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas, before he could do away with Lekapenos too.

Basil’s instrument of victory was the Kievan Rus of Prince Vladimir I. Having conquered Imperial territory in the Crimea, Vladimir sent a delegation to Basil II, offering aid for legitimacy in the form of an Imperial marriage to Basil’s sister Anna. Initially reluctant to agree to such a union between a pagan and his own blood, porphyrogenitus, or “born in the purple” (a reference to the purple-decorated birthing chamber in the Byzantine Imperial Palace, where princes and princesses were born), the young basileus was eventually swayed by the offer of 6000 fierce northmen to bolster his forces and a promise from Vladimir to convert both himself and his people to the Orthodox religion.

Those 6000 soldiers would become the core of Basil’s army and eventually would form the famous Varangian Guard, the axe-wielding Imperial bodyguards who would defend the emperors of Constantinople for another three centuries.

At the same time, the conversion of the Rus would set in motion a series of events that would culminate in the establishment of Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church.


Long before that though, Basil II would reap the rewards of his new alliance and an independent rule. Also called “the Father of the Army”, he would spend most of the rest of his life on campaign: against the Fatimid Arabs in the east, culminating – after several Byzantine victories – in a 10-year truce; and against the Bulgars in the west, where protracted campaigning and back and forth victories and defeats eventually led to the final destruction of the independent Bulgar empire and the subjugation of an entire people.

It was after the decisive Battle of Kledion that Basil II was reputed to have gained his cognomen, “the Bulgar-Slayer”. Having narrowly missed capturing the Bulgarian tsar Samuel, Basil did manage to imprison 15,000 others, whom he then released – but not before blinded 99 out of every 100 men, leaving the one man out of every century with a single eye so he could navigate his compatriots back to their ruler.

Samuel was said to have died from the shock of seeing the remnants of his army return in this way.

Having restored the northern border of the empire to the Danube River (for the first time in 400 years), Basil next fought against the Slavs, Khazars, Armenians and, like his namesake, consolidated the Imperial territories in Italy.

He died on 15 December 1025AD, having expanded the Byzantine Empire’s borders to their greatest extent since the arrival of the Arabs during the time of Heraclius.


Unfortunately, a life spent on campaign was not conducive to family-building, and Basil II died childless. He was succeeded by his younger brother Constantine VIII, whose own children, Zoe and Theodora, reigned both via proxy and directly until the dissolution of the dynasty in 1056AD.

Next part: The Seljuks and Manzikert

About ethanreilly

Ethan Reilly is an author and blogger who lives in Brisbane, Australia. Did he mention he blogs?
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1 Response to Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Part 7

  1. Pingback: Tides of War: Byzantium’s Vacillating Imperial Fortunes – Part 9 | Ethan Reilly

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