Basil II

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Basil II "Bulgaroktonus" (in Greek Basilios Bulgaroktonos, written Βασίλειος Βουλγαροκτόνος, (en) "The Bulgar-Slayer" (958December 15, 1025)) Byzantine emperor (January 10, 976December 15, 1025) led the Byzantine Empire to its greatest heights in nearly five centuries. However, he left no worthy heir and most of his achievements were undone by a long line of weak successors.

Birth and childhood

Basil was the son of Emperor Romanus II, who died 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 Romanus' leading generals, who took the throne as the Emperor Nicephorus Phocas in 963. Nicephorus 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 took the throne.

Early reign and the Russian alliance

Although Nicephorus Phocas in particular had proven to be a brilliant military commander during his reign, both generals had proven to be lax administrators. As a result of this, Basil found himself with a serious problem as soon as his reign began. The great landowners of Asia Minor 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 rebellion.

To do so Basil formed an alliance with Vladimir the Great 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 men of his army as reinforcements to Basil. In exchange Vladimir 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 Russians, as barbarians. Anna herself objected to marrying a barbarian ruler, as such a marriage would have no precedents in imperial annals. But when Vladimir promised to baptize himself and to convert his nation to Christianity, Basil finally had to agree. 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.

Campaigns against the Arabs

Having put an end to the internal strife, Basil then turned his attention to the empire's other enemies. In the 990s, he launched a campaign against the Muslim Arabs to the south of the empire's heartland, and won several battles in Syria. Although he did not have the force 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 and Khazar campaigns

However, Basil was far from done. He wanted to restore to the empire territories that had long slipped from its grasp. As the second millennium got under way, he took on his greatest adversary, Tsar Samuil of Bulgaria.

When all-out war broke out in 1002, Samuil had extended the Bulgarian kingdom from the Danube River in the north all the way into Greece, stopping just north of Athens. His rule extended from the Adriatic Sea to the Black Sea, and all of this territory had been conquered over the past 300 years at the expense of the Byzantines. Basil was determined to reverse the fortunes of the empire.

The war ravaged the Balkans for the next dozen years, as Basil and Samuil each won impressive victories. Samuil's force was outnumbered numerically, but he was able to avoid fighting a general engagement while harassing Basil's forces as they advanced through Bulgarian territory. Samuil hoped to wear down the Byzantine forces and either defeat them, or force Basil to make peace.

Finally, on July 29, 1014, Basil II cornered the Bulgarian army and forced it to fight at the Battle of Kleidion, with Samuil several miles away from the battlefield. He crushed the Bulgarians and took 14,000 prisoners. Basil was said to have blinded 99 of every 100 of the prisoners, with every 100th man left with only one eye to guide the rest home. Although maybe an exaggeration, this gave Basil his nickname Bulgaroktonus, "the Bulgar-slayer."

When Samuil saw his blinded troops return, he is said to have died of sorrow. Bulgaria fought on for four more years, but finally submitted in 1018. The victory over the Bulgarians and the subsequent 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.

Meanwhile, in 1016, Byzantine armies, in conjunction with princes of the Kievan Rus, attacked the Crimea, much of which had fallen under the sway of the Khazar successor kingdom of Georgius Tzul, based at Kerch. Kedrenos reports that Georgius Tzul was captured and the Khazar successor-state was destroyed.

Later years

Basil 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. In the meantime, other Byzantine forces restored much of southern Italy, lost to the Normans 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. By his last request, he was buried not among the other emperors of his family, but instead next to the cavalry's training field. Contemporary sources state this was in order for him to forever hear his troops training to combat for his empire. During the pillage of 1204, Basil's grave was ravaged by the invading Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade.

Assessment

Basil was a short, stocky man 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 sheltering, nourishment and education. Many of those children would later grow to become his soldiers and his 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 offered him most of his soldiers. To assure that this flow of supplies and men 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 - a womanizer as a young man, Basil chose to devote himself fully to the duties of state upon becoming emperor. Unfortunately, this meant that he was succeeded by his brother and his family, who proved to be ineffective rulers. Within 50 years of Basil's death, the empire had once again fallen to the status of a second-rate power, and had lost almost everything he regained.

Basil in literature

During the 20th century in Greece, interest for the prominent Emperor resulted in Basil becoming the subject of a number of biographies as well as historical novels. Arguably the most popular of them is Basil Bulgaroktonus (1964) by historical fiction writer Kostas Kyriazis (1920 - ). Written as a sequel to his previous work Theophano (1963), focusing on Basil's mother, it examines Basil's life from his childhood till his death at an advanced age, through the eyes of three different narrators (all of them fictional). The first one is Areti Skylitzi, a girl from a noble family that 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 that truly loves him. Basil can never marry her. Witnessing at an early age the murders of his father Romanus and step-father Nicephorus by Theophano, their wife, his mother, had traumatised him. He associates marriage, trust with death and murder. Areti stays by his side, as his unofficial consort, till his death. She alone hearing his private thoughts, filled often 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 Nicolaus, 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 and last one is a Bulgarian, one of Samuil's generals. He spend most of his life serving his Tsar and fighting Basil. He tells their side of the long battle, that occupied almost forty 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, a casual reader could have. It has been continuously reprinted since 1964.

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