Having come to the throne with enough blood on his hands to make Macbeth blush, Basil seemed destined to have an insecure reign. The murderous swath he had cut to the crown was flagrantly illegal, and it proved to be a source of considerable embarrassment to future members of his dynasty. But the medieval world was a remarkably volatile place, and most Byzantines were quite willing to forgive a questionable path to power if it resulted in effective rule. Great good, after all, can sometimes come from evil men. Michael had disgraced the office and would have drunk himself to an early death if Basil hadn’t intervened. By contrast, the new emperor—murderer though he might be—would prove to be a beacon of good stewardship. Almost two centuries later, a member of his family was still sitting on the imperial throne.
Basil was uneducated by eastern standards, but he was astute enough to recognize the possibilities of a Byzantine recovery. Byzantium was no longer the sprawling empire of antiquity, but what had emerged from the wreckage of the Arab conquests was a vastly smaller, compact state with considerably more defensible borders. Its deep foundations had seen it through the years of turmoil, and now it had emerged from the darkness with its internal strength intact. While there was no need—or desire—to return to the vast territory of Justinian, Basil wanted to reclaim the empire’s place in the sun. Clearly, nothing could be achieved without a strong military, but while the army was sturdy enough, the fleet was in an appalling condition—a fact made obvious a few months after he took power, when Arab raiders easily brushed it aside and captured the island of Malta. As a Mediterranean power, the empire’s strength depended on a strong navy, and leaving it in such a decrepit state was an invitation to disaster. Opening up the treasury, Basil poured money into rebuilding the fleet from the ground up, constructing top-of-the-line ships and scouring the empire to find men to fill their crews.
The refurbished sea power was to be the tip of the spear for Basil’s grand offensive. The past century had seen only sporadic campaigns against the Muslims, and the time was ripe for a concerted attack. After years of aggressive expansion, the caliphate was divided and crumbling, unable to keep up the pressure against Byzantium. Now was the time for a campaign. The Arabs were on their heels, and such an opportunity wasn’t to be missed. Sailing proudly out into the Saronic Gulf, the new navy proved its worth immediately when it got word that Cretan pirates were raiding in the Gulf of Corinth. Not wanting to waste his time sailing around the Peloponnese, the ingenious Byzantine admiral Nicetas Oöryphas dragged his ships across the four-mile width of the isthmus, dropping them safely into the gulf in time to send the pirates to the bottom.
Flushed with victory, Basil launched his great offensive. The fleet swept toward Cyprus, soon reconquering the island for the empire, and the imperial armies battered their way into northern Mesopotamia, annihilating the hapless Arab army that wandered into their path. The next year, Basil turned west, clearing the Muslims out of Dalmatia and capturing the Italian city of Bari. By 876, he had extended Byzantine influence into Lombardy, laying the groundwork for the recovery of all of southern Italy.
While his armies marched from one victory to the next, Basil turned his prodigious energies to the domestic front. In his mind, there was no greater testament to the decline of Byzantium than the lack of building in the capital. Old churches had fallen into shameful disrepair, and public monuments were beginning to have a distinct atmosphere of decay. Sending his workmen throughout the capital, he began a massive program to refurbish the queen of cities. Timber roofs were replaced by stone, walls were patched, and glittering mosaics restored numerous churches to their former glory. The most effort of all, however, was saved for his personal residence in the imperial palace. Heavily carved columns of green marble with rich veins of yellow supported a ceiling covered in gold, and huge portraits of the emperor and his family were arrayed in sumptuous mosaics. Massive imperial eagles decorated the floor, and glass tesserae filled with gold sparkled above them. Just to the east of these apartments rose his magnificent new church, officially dedicated to four saints but more commonly known by the rather uninspired name of Nea Ekklesia—“new church.” Not since Justinian had finished construction on the Hagia Sophia had such a bold new church graced the imperial skyline. Countless angels and archangels looked down from its cascading domes, and priceless jewels studded its interior. This was to be Basil’s supreme architectural triumph, a perpetual reminder of the splendor of the house of Macedon. So intent was the emperor on finishing it that when he heard the Arabs were besieging Syracuse—the last major Byzantine stronghold in Sicily—he refused to dispatch the fleet to help, preferring to use the navy to transport marble for his church instead. Syracuse fell, but the Nea was completed.*
Byzantium had clearly found its footing again, and in addition to a resurgence of power and prestige, the empire now entered a startling cultural renaissance. It started with the brilliant patriarch Photius, who virtually single-handedly reawoke a love of classical Roman and Greek literature in the empire.† A flurry of intellectual activity followed, and Basil began an ambitious new project to translate Justinian’s law codes into Greek. It would have been a remarkable achievement for an emperor whose own education was lacking, but he never had the chance to complete the project. His beloved eldest son Constantine, who had been groomed for the throne, suddenly died, and Basil was thrown into a deep depression from which he never recovered.
Basil’s melancholy was made much worse by the fact that the death left his second son, Leo VI, as the heir apparent. Thanks to a rather complicated arrangement, Basil had married his predecessor’s mistress, and Leo was widely believed (especially by Basil, who presumably would have known) to be the child of Michael the Drunkard. The thought that this boy would soon inherit the throne that should have gone to Constantine nearly pushed Basil over the edge. When the emperor discovered that the fifteen-year-old Leo had taken a mistress named Zöe, he beat the boy severely with his own hands, restricting the prince to a wing of the palace and marrying off Zöe to someone else. This failed to stop the affair, however, and the moment Leo was released, he resumed relations with Zöe. The enraged emperor threw Leo into prison and, in a scene that shocked his courtiers, threatened to put out the boy’s eyes.
Zöe’s father finally managed to talk the emperor into releasing Leo by pointing out that since he was in his mid-seventies, keeping the heir to the throne disgraced was an invitation to all the horrors of a disputed succession. Reluctantly, Basil relented and the two were reconciled, but few believed it would last for long. The emperor was increasingly unpredictable, burdened down by the weight of his depression and frequently subject to bouts of insanity. He had never shown even the remotest scruple about murder, and Leo was perfectly aware that the odds were against his continued survival if the emperor lasted much longer. Basil, however, had always been renowned for his physical prowess, and at seventy-four didn’t show many signs of slowing down. Perhaps nature needed to be nudged along.
A month after his reconciliation with Leo, the emperor was dead. The official story was that he had been killed during a hunting accident, a wildly improbable tale involving an enormous stag that dragged him sixteen miles through the woods. Even more suspicious was the fact that Zöe’s father—a man who certainly wasn’t enjoying the imperial favor—led the rescue party. The full extent of Leo’s involvement has, of course, been long buried by the intervening years, but whatever the truth, most citizens were willing to turn a blind eye toward the cloudy circumstances in favor of the bright promise of the nineteen-year-old heir. A few days later, Leo VI took possession of the empire, and his first action was to exhume Michael the Drunkard’s body from its shabby tomb and have it reburied in a magnificent sarcophagus in the Church of the Holy Apostles. At last the murdered emperor could sleep in peace—his death had been avenged. As for Basil, his reign had begun with the dark stain of a murder, and perhaps it’s fitting that it ended the same way. For all the violence, however, he left the empire immeasurably strengthened both militarily and culturally, and it had good cause to mourn him.
Teenagers had been cast to the forefront of Byzantium before, but none had ever been as superbly prepared for the role as Leo VI. Easygoing and charming, the emperor could boast an education more extensive than any ruler since the days of Julian the Apostate, and an intellect to match it. His reign saw the return of classical architecture, a burst of literary activity, and a new spirit of humanism. Within weeks of his inauguration, he had talked the church into appointing his youngest brother, Stephen, as patriarch, a move that united the offices of the sacred and the secular under a single family and let the emperor exercise a control over church and state unrivaled in imperial history. Presiding over an astonishing period of domestic peace and prosperity, Leo was able to concentrate on Basil’s great unfinished work—the recodification of Roman law.
More than three and a half centuries had passed since Justinian had brought order to the chaotic Roman judicial system, and the law books were in desperate need of review. The passing years had piled on thousands of new legal decisions, adding volumes to a legal code that already had the disadvantage of being written in Latin—an impenetrably dead language now accessible only to a few antiquarians. In just two short years, the emperor managed the monumental task of translating the entire mess, systematically arranging it, and publishing the first of six condensed volumes. The unveiling of the finished work earned the emperor the nickname “Leo the Wise” and saw him hailed as the greatest lawgiver since Justinian (a fact that would have severely irked his predecessor). Those who expected him to lead the armies to equal glory, however, were soon to be disappointed. The young emperor was more of a lover than a fighter, and perhaps inevitably he proved a good deal less successful in his foreign policy than in his domestic pursuits.
Byzantium never wanted for hostile neighbors, but, at the start of Leo’s reign, it seemed as if at least the northwestern border was somewhat safe. There the Bulgar khan Boris had adopted Christianity, and many in Constantinople began to hope that the awful specter of Krum had been banished once and for all. This feeling was strengthened when Boris abdicated in favor of his youngest son, Vladimir, and retired meekly to a monastery, but no sooner had he gone than Vladimir tried to resurrect paganism, threatening to undo all of his father’s hard work. Displaying a certain lack of monastic tranquillity, the enraged Boris blinded Vladimir and put his younger sibling, Simeon, on the throne instead. The watching dignitaries of Byzantium were relieved to have a friendlier candidate in power. It was widely known that Simeon had grown up in Constantinople and was a firm Christian to boot. Here, surely, was a man who understood the civilized world and could recognize the advantages of remaining on good terms with the empire.
Perhaps that would have been the case if Leo had lived up to his nickname, but he foolishly decided to raise the import taxes on Bulgarian goods, completely ignoring Simeon’s protests. The annoyed Bulgarians immediately invaded, catching the empire by surprise, and within a matter of weeks they had swept into Thrace and had started plundering. Unfortunately for Leo, all of his armies were busy fighting in the East, so he resorted to the tried-and-true method of calling in allies to do his fighting for him. Byzantine messengers sped to the Magyars, a hostile tribe to the east of Bulgaria, inviting them to fall on the Bulgar rear. Caught in the pincer, Simeon had no choice but to withdraw and ask for peace. Leo sent his ambassadors to hammer out the details of the treaty and withdrew to deal with some Arab raiders, convinced that the chastened Bulgars had learned their lesson.
Leo may have been satisfied with himself, but Simeon had no intention of letting the matter drop. He had been outmaneuvered by the emperor, but the Bulgarian khan was a fast learner who was fully capable of employing Byzantine tactics. The moment the last imperial troop had disappeared down the road to Constantinople, he called in his own proxies, the Pechenegs—a Turkish tribe that was the natural enemy of the Magyars. Attacked from all sides, the Magyars were forced to flee, leaving Simeon free to invade Thrace once again.* A Byzantine army tried vainly to contain the damage, but it was easily crushed, and Leo was forced to conclude a humiliating and expensive peace.
The emperor had badly mishandled the situation, and when Taormina—the last Byzantine outpost in Sicily—fell to the Muslims in 902, it seemed as if the empire was once again going to slip back into weakness and enervation. Fortunately for Leo, his generals saved his military reputation in the East, where they were keeping up a steady pressure against the disintegrating caliphate. The next decade saw a surge of activity as Byzantine armies expelled the Muslims from western Armenia, destroyed the Arab navy, and raided as far as the Euphrates. There were, of course, the occasional setbacks. A major naval expedition failed to reconquer Crete, and in 904 an earthquake leveled the seawalls of Thessalonica—the second most important city of the empire. Its citizens hurried to repair the walls, but before the work was completed, an Arab fleet appeared, and the Saracens managed to batter their way inside. For an entire week, the Muslims plundered the city, butchering the old and weak before carting the rest off to their busy slave markets. The insult of Thessalonica was avenged the next year as Byzantine armies left the Arab port of Tarsus a heap of smoking ruins, but not many people were paying attention. The entire capital was gripped in the very public spectacle of the emperor’s love life.
Leo had never really been happy with the woman Basil had forced him to marry as a teenager, and he had found comfort instead in the arms of his longtime mistress, Zöe. Not surprisingly, the imperial couple failed to produce an heir, and when the empress died in 898, Leo had happily summoned Zöe to the capital. There was the small obstacle of Zöe’s husband, but he rather conveniently died, and the two lovers were hastily married. Their idyll, however, proved to be short-lived. After presenting her husband with a daughter, Zöe died of a fever only two years into the marriage. Leo was devastated with grief. Not only was his love gone, but he still hadn’t managed to produce an heir, and the ramifications of that were terrible indeed. His brother Alexander was a hopeless reprobate by now, thoroughly incapable of progeny, and if Leo died it would be the end of the dynasty. The empire seemed destined to be subjected to all the horrors of a civil war.
Third marriages—at least in the East—were strictly forbidden by the church, but since the future of the empire was at stake, the patriarch reluctantly decided to allow Leo to choose another wife.* A stunningly beautiful woman by the name of Eudocia was selected, and within a year she was pregnant. The court astrologers assured the emperor that it was a boy, and he was overjoyed when they proved to be correct. Leo VI, however, seemed destined for tragedy, and his uneasy subjects could only shake their heads when Eudocia died in childbirth and the baby expired a few days later. Canon law, it seemed, could not be flouted so easily.
Leo was now in an awkward position. He was desperate to have a son, but he himself had written the law forbidding multiple marriages. Now deeply regretting the thundering sermons he had given against those who “wallowed in the filth” of a fourth union, he gingerly sounded out the new patriarch, Nicholas, but was sternly informed that a fourth marriage would be “worse than fornication.” Deciding that if this was the case he might as well enjoy some fornication, he found a devastatingly beautiful mistress named Zoë Carbonopsina.* Leo was a resourceful man, and he knew that with a bit of arm-twisting he could probably arrange for another marriage, but since this would unquestionably be his last chance, there was no reason to try unless she produced a son. That fall Zoë became pregnant with a son, and the overjoyed emperor had her moved into a special room in the palace. Decorated with porphyry columns and hung with purple silks—a color specifically reserved for emperors—it was known as the Porphyra, or Purple Room. Only imperial children could be born there, and from that day on Leo’s son would bear the proud nickname “Por-phyrogenitus,” the Purple-born. Leo clearly intended to have the boy follow him on the throne, and just in case anyone missed the point, he named him Constantine VII to further strengthen his prestige.†
Leo finally had his heir, but since he wasn’t married, the boy was illegitimate, and no amount of clever naming could change that. For all the purple draped around him, Constantine VII was unbaptized, and, ironically enough, the very laws that Leo had written specifically forbade baptism for any child of a fourth marriage. If the emperor couldn’t get Constantine recognized in his lifetime, then it would all be for nothing, and the empire would be doomed to a disputed succession. Summoning Patriarch Nicholas, Leo pulled out all the stops, and with a good deal of begging and a dash of blackmail he managed to force an agreement. He would eject Zoë from the palace and submit to never seeing her again, and in return Nicholas would baptize Constantine in the Hagia Sophia. Zoë had her bags hastily packed and the ceremony was duly carried out, but Leo had no intention of keeping his side of the bargain. Three days after the baptism, Zoë was smuggled back into the palace, and an obliging parish priest married her to the emperor.
The church exploded in controversy when word of Leo’s actions became public. The furious patriarch refused to recognize the marriage and barred the doors when the emperor tried to enter the Hagia Sophia. Once again, however, Leo outmaneuvered his opponents. When the church doors were slammed in his face, he calmly returned to the palace and wrote an appeal to the pope. He was well aware that in the barbarian West, where death was an all-too-common event, church fathers took a more pragmatic view of widowers and remarriage. Moreover, by cleverly submitting the question to the pope when his own patriarch had vocally made his position known, Leo was giving the pontiff a golden opportunity to reinforce papal supremacy. The pope, he rightly guessed, wouldn’t miss such a chance.
Once armed with the pope’s muted approval, Leo acted quickly. The patriarch was arrested on charges of conspiracy and forced to sign an act of abdication. To replace him, Leo chose a mild man who was opposed in principle to the marriage but was willing to allow it for the appropriate concessions. Leo would have to make a public statement condemning fourth marriages and for the rest of his life would have to enter the church as a penitent—enduring the humiliation of remaining standing throughout any service he attended. The emperor was only too happy to accept these terms. This time he was as good as his word, and the church grudgingly accepted his marriage. His son, Constantine VII, was now legitimate and recognized as such throughout the empire. Two years later, the little boy was crowned coemperor, and his face appeared on his father’s coins. Leo could do no more to guarantee a peaceful succession.
The emperor lived for four more years, and after one last attempt to reconquer Crete, he died in his bed on May 11, 912. He hadn’t been a great military leader—in fact, he had never even led an army into battle—but through his law codes he left the empire far stronger internally than he had found it. Through sheer force of will, he had provided the empire with an heir—truly a gift of inestimable value—and it’s fitting that the most enduring image we have of him is from a mosaic above the great imperial door of the Hagia Sophia. There, in a lunette above the entrance that was denied to him in life, the emperor bows humbly before the throne of God while the Virgin Mary intercedes on his behalf. He had ruled wisely and well for nearly a quarter of a century, and, as far as most of his citizens were concerned, he was worthy of a little forgiveness.
*Sadly, the written accounts are all that is left of the splendid church. After the fall of the city in 1453, the Turks used it to store gunpowder, and not too surprisingly it exploded.
†An avid reader, Photius took copious notes of the manuscripts in his possession, and in what amounts to the first real book reviews in history, he left us a wonderful account of what he thought of them. Unfortunately, most of the works he referred to have long since disappeared, but it gives us a rare glimpse at some of the glittering, lost Byzantine masterpieces.
*Blocked from returning to their homes by the Pechenegs, the Magyars ended up in the fertile plains of central Hungary, where they still remain today.
*Divorce was generally not tolerated, but there were some examples in which a special dispensation was given. In one case in particular, an unhappy couple was locked in a house for a week, and when that failed to lead to a consummation of the marriage, they were granted a divorce on the grounds of mutual hatred.
*The name Carbonopsina means “of the coal-black eyes” and it seems to have been this feature that struck most of Zoë’s contemporaries. She was by all accounts one of the most beautiful women who ever lived in Byzantium.
†The normal custom would have been to name the boy after his grandfather, which in this case would be Basil, but Constantine was a more prestigious name—and, more important, an imperial one.