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BASIL THE BULGAR SLAYER

From the day that the King of Heaven called upon me to become the Emperor … no one saw my spear lie idle … O man, seeing now my tomb here, reward me for my campaigns with your prayers.

Inscription on the tomb of Basil II

The astonishing thing about the Macedonian dynasty was that its greatest emperors were actually pretenders, men without blood ties to the throne who claimed that they were “protecting” the interests of the legitimate heirs. Romanus I Lecapenus, Nicephorus II Phocas, and John I Tzimisces had been so brilliant, so dazzling, that it was tempting to forget the shadowy figures they had displaced. Unremembered and unnoticed as he might be, however, Basil II, the son of Romanus II and the scheming Theophano, had been quietly growing up and now, at eighteen, was ready to rule as well as reign. Standing in his way was the formidable obstacle of the head chamberlain, the man who had so recently caused the great Tzimisces’ demise. After a lifetime spent in the highest corridors of power, Basil Lecape nus knew everyone and everything in administration and wasn’t about to relinquish effective control to a boy who had never shown even the slightest will or ability to rule.

A patronizing chamberlain determined to keep him a puppet, however, was the least of Basil II’s problems. The last twelve years had seen two remarkable warrior-emperors lead Byzantium to an unprecedented place in the sun, and many in the empire began to wonder if perhaps a battle-hardened warrior should be at the helm instead of a youth whose only qualification was an accident of birth. After all, who could argue that any of the generals who had usurped the Macedonian dynasty weren’t better emperors than the legitimate Romanus II? Hadn’t most of their greatest rulers—from Julius Caesar to John Tzimisces—justified their power not by heredity but by strength in arms?

The idea was a seductive one, and when the general Bardas Sclerus rose in revolt saying just that, he was met with a roar of approval. When he crushed a loyalist army sent to stop him, all of Asia Minor saw visions of imperial glory and hailed him as emperor. The rebels suffered a minor setback when the imperial navy destroyed their transports, but their mood was still buoyant when they reached the Bosporus and stared across the water at the Queen of Cities.

In the capital, the eunuch Basil Lecapenus was starting to panic. For the moment, the navy was keeping the rebels at bay, but he knew all too well how easily an army could slip across the narrow stretch of water. The only experienced general who stood a chance against the veteran Sclerus was Bardas Phocas—a man whose ability was second only to his well-known desire to seize the throne—but he was currently in exile for attempting to do just that. Putting the imperial army in Phocas’s grasping hands wasn’t much better than handing the empire to Sclerus, but Basil didn’t have any other choice. Recalling the exiled general, the chamberlain entrusted the empire to his care and sent him off to fight the rebel army.

For three years, the rival Bardases fought a series of inconclusive battles, with the rebel Sclerus generally proving the better commander but unable to conclusively defeat his wily opponent.* The matter was finally decided when the frustrated rebel foolishly accepted an offer of single combat against the huge Bardas Phocas. After ending the war with a massive blow to his opponent’s head that sent Sclerus crashing heavily to the ground, Phocas scattered the rebels and returned to Constantinople in triumph. The wounded Sclerus recovered, but he was a spent force, and he fled to Baghdad to avoid the emperor’s wrath. After eight long years of exile, Bardas Phocas could now bask in the welcome role of savior of the empire, and for the moment the imperial gratitude was enough. Riding east to battle the Saracens, Phocas planned to cover himself in glory and bide his time until the moment was right to seize the throne.

By 985, Basil Lecapenus could congratulate himself on having brilliantly played off the empire’s enemies against one another, and at the same time on having kept the legitimate emperor as a puppet. It was therefore a complete surprise to him—and everyone else—when the formerly passive Basil II suddenly struck without warning. Accused of conspiring against the emperor, the bewildered chamberlain was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night and placed under house arrest as his lands were confiscated and his vast wealth absorbed by the treasury. After twenty-five years as a crowned puppet, the son of Romanus II had finally claimed his inheritance.

Eager to prove himself, Basil II found an excellent excuse for a military adventure in Bulgaria. Thanks largely to Byzantium’s distraction, Bulgaria had somehow managed to resurrect itself from its ruined state and expand at imperial expense. A remarkable man named Samuel, the youngest and most capable of the so-called Sons of the Count who had defied Tzimisces, had assumed the title of tsar—the Slavic version of Caesar—and declared a second Bulgarian empire. Conducting summer raids into northern Greece, the tsar managed to capture several key cities, damaging Byzantine prestige and inciting more of his countrymen to join him. Outraged by the temerity of this jumped-up peasant and determined to prove himself worthy of his glorious predecessors, Basil II gathered an army sixty thousand strong and headed for the magnificent Bulgarian city of Sofia.

The campaign was a disaster from the start. After several weeks of annoying the citizens of Sofia with an ineffectual siege, Basil II gave up and started the long march home. Traveling through a mountain pass called the Gates of Trajan without bothering to scout ahead, his army blundered into an ambush by the amused tsar, who had been watching for just such an opportunity. Leaving his insignia behind, the emperor managed to escape, but most of his army was cut to pieces. The twenty-eight-year-old Basil II had stumbled badly, and when he returned to Constantinople, frightened and humiliated, the damage to his prestige was immediately apparent.

To old Bardas Sclerus, watching from the safety of the caliph’s court in Baghdad, it was obvious that he had been right all along. The bumbling boy in Constantinople who happened to have the right parents didn’t deserve the throne after all, and with his incompetence now starkly revealed, surely an old warhorse like himself would be welcomed with open arms. The caliph was only too happy to provide funding for a campaign that promised to be extremely disruptive to his powerful neighbor, and so, loaded down with money, Bardas Sclerus made his third bid for the throne.

Annoyingly enough for the hopeful pretender, when he reached Asia Minor he discovered that his old rival Bardas Phocas had also rebelled. Rather than fight it out, the two decided to bury the hatchet and pool their resources, but this proved to be just a ruse, and the moment Sclerus lowered his guard Phocas had him arrested and thrown into a dungeon. With that unpleasantness behind him, Bardas Phocas gathered his cheering army and lumbered off toward Constantinople. Unfortunately for the rebels, however, Phocas lacked a navy, and when they reached the Bosporus it was to find the imperial fleet patrolling both coasts.

But nothing seemed able to dent Bardas Phocas’s optimism. He was well aware that the master of Constantinople was a mere boy of twenty-eight whose only military experience had been to get his army annihilated in an ambush. Bardas Phocas, on the other hand, had seen a lifetime of impressive victories on the field, and historians were even now writing of him that “whole armies trembled at his shout.”

In the capital, Basil II knew the deck was stacked against him. He had lost his best troops in the ill-advised Bulgarian campaign, and the emboldened Tsar Samuel was raging unchecked through the Balkans, threatening to overrun the entire peninsula. Something clearly needed to be done soon, but even if the emperor somehow managed to scrape together an army, there wasn’t anyone to lead it—certainly not a general of Phocas’s caliber. The only solution was to enlist a formidable ally, and fortunately there was one close at hand. The emperor contacted the Russian prince Vladimir and offered the hand of his sister in exchange for an alliance.

The staid imperial court was horrified. As Basil’s own grand father Constantine VII had pointed out, Byzantine princesses “born in the purple” ranked with Greek fire as state treasures never to be handed over to its enemies. Furious patricians pointed out that no Roman princess in the history of the empire had ever been given to a pagan barbarian, and certainly not to one who already had plenty of wives and several hundred concubines. Now Basil II was threatening to trample Byzantine pride under the feet of the uncivilized Slavs. But neither the outraged cries of the court nor the anguished sobs of his sister had any effect on the emperor. Marriage in the imperial family had always been more of a political than a personal matter, and when Vladimir eagerly sweetened the deal by agreeing to provide six thousand huge Norse warriors in addition to being baptized, Basil’s protesting sister was hastily bundled off to await her new husband’s pleasure.*

The arrangement may have offended popular sentiment in the capital, but Basil was quite pleased with himself when he saw the blond giants that Vladimir sent. Armed with massive double-bladed axes, and subject to the famous beserker rages, they were splendidly terrifying. The emperor was so impressed that he made them his personal bodyguards—a permanent position he called the Varangian Guard.* After slipping across the Bosporus at night with his new force, Basil launched a ferocious dawn attack on the unsuspecting rebel camp. While flamethrowers spraying Greek fire spread chaos, the emperor went crashing through the tents, slaughtering everyone he could find. Those rebels who weren’t half asleep or drunk stumbled to their feet, only to be greeted by the horrible sight of the Norse warriors lopping off the limbs of men and beasts with a hideous efficiency. In a matter of hours, the killing was over, and though Phocas himself was away with a large part of the army besieging a city, Basil II could at last claim a victory in the field.

A few months later, the newly confident emperor got a chance to face his rival directly, and to the surprise of nearly everyone involved, he turned out to be a considerably better general than the aging Bardas Phocas. Seeing his imperial dreams slipping away just when they were within his grasp was too much for the old rebel, and he roared out a challenge of single combat, charging toward the emperor and wildly swinging his sword above his head. Before he had closed half the distance, a sudden seizure gripped him and Phocas fell heavily from his saddle. The watching imperial guards leaped on the paralyzed general, chopping off his head, and at the sight of their master’s gruesome death, the rebel army disintegrated.

The great revolt was broken, but it wasn’t quite over. The moment she heard of her husband’s death, Phocas’s widow set the imprisoned Bardas Sclerus free, and the surviving rebels flocked to his standard. The old general accepted the acclamations of his troops, and for a moment it looked as if the civil war would drag on, but Sclerus was a tired, broken man, by now nearly completely blind. After a brief show of resistance, he happily accepted the emperor’s offer of a fancy title and a comfortable estate. When the two met to discuss their treaty at one of the emperor’s sumptuous villas, Basil was surprised to see that the celebrated general was a rather sad-looking, bent old man who had to be supported on either side in order to walk. After graciously pretending that the whole rebellion had been a simple misunderstanding, Basil asked his guest for advice on how to prevent dissension in the future. The answer, he was told, was to declare a virtual war on those of noble birth. “Exhaust them with unjust exactions, to keep them busy with their own affairs. Admit no woman to the imperial councils. Be accessible to no one. Share with few your most intimate plans.”*

No emperor in the long and illustrious history of the empire would ever take such advice closer to heart. The vicious civil wars had left their scars on Basil II, wiping away the carefree spirit he had shown as a youth and leaving a hard, untrusting man in its place. Surrounded by his Varangian Guard, he dedicated himself unswervingly to the service of the empire. Nothing—neither the outcries of the aristocracy nor the spears of his enemies—would be allowed to get in the way.

By strengthening the empire’s land laws, Basil II forced the nobility to return—without compensation—any land they had taken since the reign of Romanus Lecapenus. He also decreed that if a peasant couldn’t pay his taxes, his rich neighbors would have to come up with the money for him. Predictably, the nobility howled with outrage, but Basil II ignored them. His entire life had been spent in the shadows of overpowerful aristocrats; their grasping ambitions had troubled the Macedonian dynasty for long enough. Now that he was firmly in control, he meant to see that they would never have the opportunity to do so again.

By the spring of 991, the emperor was finally secure enough to begin the great endeavor of his life. He hadn’t forgotten the humiliations of the Gates of Trajan, or how Samuel had laughed at Byzantine arms, and the time had come to tame the Bulgarian wolf. He moved with an agonizing slowness—there was no point in risking another ambush. Every route was checked and double-checked, and close tabs were kept on possible escape routes.

Tsar Samuel watched it all with some amusement from the safety of the mountains. He had no reason to fear a man he had so effortlessly beaten years before, and if the emperor’s army was large, he could take comfort from the fact that it would soon be gone. The empire was a large place, with enemies on every side. All he had to do was stay out of the way and before long a crisis on some far-flung frontier was sure to force the Byzantines to leave. The tsar had seen invaders like this emperor before—one moment all flash and thunder, and the next moment gone.

Sure enough, less than a year after Basil had entered Bulgarian territory, a breathless message reached him that the Fatimids were besieging Aleppo and threatening Antioch. Those cities—and all of northern Syria—were on the brink of surrender, but there seemed little hope of reaching them in time since the journey would take the better part of three months. Basil II had so far only moved with glacial slowness, but he had spent his life surprising people and with the help of eighty thousand mules (one for each soldier, another for each man’s equipment) he made the trip in an extraordinary sixteen days. Terrified by the Byzantine army that had seemed to materialize out of thin air, the Fatimid army fled, and Basil II marched triumphantly down the coast, conquering the city of Tripoli for good measure.

When the emperor returned home, it was to find that Tsar Samuel had taken advantage of his absence to overrun Bosnia and Dalmatia, even raiding as far south as the Peloponnese. With virtually any other ruler on the Byzantine throne, Samuel’s strategy of hiding in the hills until the danger had passed would have worked brilliantly. Against Basil II, however, the tactic only prolonged Bulgarian suffering. True enough, Basil had none of the panache or brilliance of his two predecessors, but he was far more dangerous than either of them. Other men campaigned from the middle of the spring to the end of the summer, but on returning to face the tsar, Basil II stayed in the field year-round, equally impervious to the freezing snow and the blazing sun. With his grinding, methodical nature, he never lost patience or resolve. Year after year, Bulgarian cities were sacked and their crops burned as the emperor relentlessly hunted Tsar Samuel. Finally, after nearly twenty years of defeats and devastating invasions, the Bulgarian army took a last stand. On the morning of July 29, 1014, the two armies clashed in a valley at the foot of the Belasica Mountains, and the result was a crushing Byzantine victory.

Samuel escaped to a nearby fortress, proclaiming that he would carry on the fight, but Basil was in no mood to let that happen. He had fifteen hundred prisoners blinded—sparing one eye in every hundred men so that they could lead their sightless companions back to the tsar. Mutilation had always been the preferred Byzantine treatment of its dangerous enemies, but never on such a scale, and from it Basil earned the nickname that is still celebrated in the street names of modern Greece. Down through the centuries the emperor would thereafter be known by the sobriquet Boulgaroktonos—the “Bulgar Slayer.”

The ragged horde shuffled its way to the city of Prespa in modern-day Macedonia, where Samuel was staying. The horrible sight was even more devastating than Basil intended. Their very presence was a constant reminder of Samuel’s humiliation, and their care was an added burden that the ravaged state couldn’t afford. When they appeared before their tsar, the terrible sight was too much for the broken Samuel to bear. He turned his face to the wall and expired in shame two days later. The second Bulgarian empire struggled on for another four years without its founder, but the handwriting was on the wall, and in 1018 Basil II entered the Bulgarian capital and received its complete surrender.

For the first time since the Slavs had invaded the empire four centuries before, the entire Balkan Peninsula was under imperial control. Basil II had spent more than half his life in its conquest, capping a remarkable resurgence of Byzantine power brought about by the extraordinary Macedonian dynasty. The empire had almost doubled in size, emerging as the strongest power in the Mediterranean, and its new territories would not be easily relinquished. Unlike his predecessors, Basil II understood that quick gains seldom lasted unless they were properly consolidated and governed. Under previous emperors, conquered peoples had been made perfectly aware that they were second-class citizens, but now Bulgarian nobles were given Byzantine wives and imperial titles, and taxes were helpfully relaxed in regions that had been devastated by war. Such examples of good governance certainly reduced tensions and strengthened ties to Constantinople, but above all it was the emperor’s refusal to indulge in unnecessary risks that contributed the most to maintaining peace. When the Fatimid caliph ordered all churches in his territory destroyed in 1012, Basil refused to take the bait—although he could certainly have extended Byzantine power into Palestine and even Egypt. Instead, he responded with an economic blow, banning all trade with the Fatimids until they saw the error of their ways. Only when they allied with Armenia to attack the empire did he come sweeping down to sack a few cities and panic the caliph. When it came to war, Basil was always willing but never eager to fight.

In one area only did the great emperor disastrously fail. Absorbed by the cares of state, he never produced an heir, but though this would prove to be calamitous for the empire, it didn’t appear so in his lifetime. By 1025, in the steady hands of its all-powerful emperor, the Byzantine eagle was triumphant on virtually every frontier. Its enemies were scattered and broken before it, and only in Sicily did the Muslim foe continue to resist. Hoping to correct that final oversight, the seventy-year-old emperor gathered a vast army and sent it under the care of a eunuch to await his arrival in Calabria. Basil II, however, never arrived. After a sixty-four-year reign—longer than any other monarch in Roman history—he died, fittingly enough, while planning the campaign.

Constantine the Great had set up twelve massive sarcophagi around his own magnificent tomb in the Church of the Holy Apostles, and the bodies of the greatest Byzantine emperors were traditionally laid to rest inside them. In 1025, there was one last unused sarcophagus, and by all rights Basil should have been buried there; but according to his own wishes, the body was taken to a church in Hebdomon just outside the city walls. Though there were few emperors who better deserved to be buried alongside the giants of the past, his final resting place was somehow fitting. He had always remained aloof from his citizens, never allowing himself to become distracted from the all-important task of running the empire. He had bent foreign rulers to his will, humbled his enemies, and provided a shield for the poor against the clutches of the aristocracy. Yet for all that, he was oddly distant, inspiring admiration in his subjects, but never love. His mind had always been uniquely un-Byzantine, cast more in the mold of his Spartan ancestors than the murky theological speculations of his peers. As the old rebel had advised him so many years ago, no woman or man was ever offered a share in his burdens. Through all the trials of his reign, he remained splendid but remote—surely the loneliest figure ever to sit on the Byzantine throne.

*Bardas Sclerus and Bardas Phocas had a tangled history. When Phocas first rebelled against his cousin Tzimisces, it had been Sclerus who had extinguished his military career by defeating him and sending him into exile. There was certainly no love lost between the two, but their fates were oddly linked until the end of their lives.

*Vladimir had been interested in changing religions for some time. According to legend, he sent ambassadors to the major surrounding religions to help him decide. Islam was rejected for being without joy (especially in its rejection of alcohol and pork!), and Judaism was rejected since the Jews had lost their homeland and therefore seemed abandoned by God. Settling on Christianity, he sent his men to discover if the Latin or the Greek rite was better. It was hardly a fair fight. The ambassadors to the West found rather squat, dark churches, while their compatriots in Constantinople were treated to all the pageantry of a Divine Liturgy in the Hagia Sophia. “We no longer knew,” they breathlessly reported back to Vladimir, “whether we were in heaven or on earth.” The Russian prince was convinced. Within a year, he had been baptized, and Russia officially became Orthodox.

*The term “Varangian” means “men of the pledge,” and they would be famously loyal to the throne (though not always to its occupant). On the night of their sovereign’s death, they had the curious right to run to the imperial treasury and take as much gold as they could comfortably carry. This custom enabled most Varangians to retire as wealthy men and ensured a steady stream of Norse and Anglo-Saxon recruits.

*Michael Psellus, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers (London: Penguin, 1966).

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