Post-classical history

The Young Basil


Cut down the governors who become overproud. Let no generals on campaign have too many resources. Exhaust them with unjust exactions, to keep them busy with their own affairs. Admit no women to the imperial councils. Be accessible to no one. Share with few your most intimate plans.

Bardas Scleras, to Basil II, Bithynia, 989

With the death of John Tzimisces, the way seemed clear at last for the assumption of power by the two young sons of Romanus II, the eighteen-year-old Basil and his brother Constantine, two years his junior. The two could scarcely have been more dissimilar. Whereas Constantine was never to display, either then or in later life, the slightest interest in politics or statecraft, nor to ask anything more than to be left to his own mildly unsavoury devices, Basil impressed everyone by his alertness, his quickness of mind and his apparently inexhaustible energy. Still less did he resemble his forebears. For all his intelligence, he was in no sense an intellectual as Leo the Wise and Constantine Porphyrogenitus had been; he showed no inclination towards scholarship or literature, while the crude simplicity of his Greek grated on the ears of the ever-fastidious Byzantines. Whereas Leo and Constantine had taken care always to emphasize their power and majesty by dazzling panoply and sumptuous costume, surrounding themselves with priceless treasures and objets d'art, Basil spent practically nothing on himself, cut state ceremonial to a minimum and went about the Palace and the city in drab, workaday clothes quite unbefitting an Emperor and, it was noted, none too clean. Physically, too, he bore little resemblance to his father and grandfather. They had been tall and dark; Basil was short and stocky, with a round, heavily-bearded face and light blue eyes that shone with unusual brilliance from beneath high, arched eyebrows. The chronicler Michael

Psellus (who makes the first of his many appearances at this point in the story) tells us that when not in the saddle his appearance was undistinguished; it was only when mounted - for he was a superb horseman - that he came fully into his own.1

In one other respect, too, did Basil differ from his father. Romanus had been, throughout the adult years of his short life, a pleasure-loving voluptuary. Basil had shown similar tendencies in his early youth, but with his accession to power he put self-indulgence behind him and thenceforth led a life of quite exceptional austerity, eating and drinking sparingly and avoiding women altogether. Almost alone among Byzantine Emperors - and indeed among contemporary princes of Europe — he never married: an omission that appears still more extraordinary in view of the importance of providing for a legitimate succession, particularly since his brother's wife, Helena Alypina, was to produce only daughters. Could it be, one cannot help wondering, that there was indeed a marriage, of which all records have somehow been lost' Several Empresses, after all - the wife of John Tzimisces is a case in point - are mentioned only once in the chronicles and then never again; and our sources for the reign of Basil II are lamentably thin. But such a hypothesis, attractive as it may be, cannot really be sustained. For the half-century that Basil and his brother were to reign in tandem, several descriptions of state functions have come down to us; and in every one of them Helena is mentioned as the only Empress, performing all the duties appropriate to her rank. There can thus be no serious doubt that Basil lived and died a bachelor. Why he did so, on the other hand, remains a mystery.

From the moment that he found himself senior Emperor, he seems to have been determined to rule as well as reign; and with a brother grateful to be relieved of the burdens of responsibility he should have experienced no difficulty in doing so. Two obstacles, however, stood in his path. The first was his great-uncle and namesake, Basil the parakoimomenos. It was now some thirty years since this natural son of Romanus Lecapenus had been raised - while still in his twenties - by

i Psellus was admittedly only seven years old when Basil died, but he himself assures us that he had many friends and acquaintances who had known the Emperor well. Such was the contrast between Basil and his predecessors that at least one historian has suggested that he may not in fact have been the son of Romanus II at all, but the result of some momentary collision between his mother Theophano and a Norman member of her husband's Varangian guard. But there is too little evidence for the theory to be convincing.

Constantine Porphyrogenitus to the highest office in the Byzantine State after the Emperor himself. Since then he had held it under Romanus II, Nicephorus Phocas and John Tzimisces; and whether or not (as has often been maintained) he deliberately encouraged the two co-Emperors in their early dissipations in order to keep power in his own hands, he certainly had no intention of letting go of it without a struggle.

The second obstacle was a good deal more serious, since it concerned the nature of the throne itself. The first Roman Emperors, it must be remembered, had gained power not by inheritance but by the acclamation of their army; and although the hereditary principle had long been accepted in Constantinople, it had never been an integral or essential feature of the body politic. Now, after the seizure of power by three victorious generals in less than sixty years, it was - especially in the minds of the Anatolian military aristocracy - wearing distinctly thin: would it not be better, they reasoned, to return to the old tradition, whereby the imperial diadem was the preserve of mature men who had proved themselves in battle, rather than of callow, untried youths whose only recommendation was that they had been born in the purple?

Thus it came about that the first nine years of Basil's theoretically autocratic reign were largely overshadowed by his formidable Chamberlain, and the first thirteen occupied in defending his throne against the attacks of two rebel generals determined to wrest it from him. Both have already made' their appearance in these pages. One was Bardas Scleras, Domestic of the armies of the East, who had served his brother-in-law John Tzimisces with unwavering loyalty and saw himself as his legitimate successor; the other - more predictably perhaps — was Bardas Phocas, nephew of the Emperor Nicephoras, who having failed in his first rebellion against Tzimisces was resolved to launch a second against Basil as soon as the opportunity offered. Scleras was the first to act. In the spring of 976, only a month or two after his brother-in-law's death, he had himself proclaimedbasileus by his troops, took possession of his army's treasury and marched on Caesarea. By the autumn of 977 he had won two decisive battles — during the second of which the commander of the loyalist forces, his erstwhile companion-in-arms Peter Phocas, met his death — and gained the support of the southern fleet based on Attaleia; and a few months later, having captured Nicaea, he drew up his army on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus and settled down to an amphibious siege of the capital.

At sea the issue was quickly settled. The home fleet, traditionally loyal to the reigning Emperor, streamed out of the Golden Horn and made short work of the rebel ships. On land, however, the situation seemed grave; and so it might have continued had not the eunuch Basil (who was at this time still in effective control of the government) had the imagination - and, it must be said, the courage - to entrust the command of the army to Bardas Phocas. It was a surprising appointment, to say the least. The loyalty of Phocas to the throne was scarcely less questionable than that of Sclerus himself; indeed, when the decision was taken, he was still in exile on Chios. On the other hand the entire army was now controlled by the Anatolian barons, and no other general would have been any more reliable; besides, even if Phocas did dream of acquiring the supreme power for himself, he would still have to get rid of Sclerus first. The only danger was that the two generals might combine, making common cause against Constantinople; but on balance this seemed unlikely. In any case, it was a risk that had to be taken.

So Bardas Phocas, having been brought back with all speed from Chios, flung off his monastic habit, swore an oath of loyalty to the porpbyrogeniti and secretly made his way back to his own power base at Caesarea, where it was an easy matter for him to raise an army. Sclerus, seeing a dangerous threat to his rear, had no choice but to retire. The civil war that followed lasted nearly three years. There were several fierce engagements; but Bardas Sclerus, despite repeated tactical victories, was never able to destroy the forces of his rival, who always managed to retreat in good order, collect reinforcements and return a month or two later with renewed vigour to the fray. Finally, on a date which is disputed but which must certainly have been some time in the spring of 979, the two armies fought for the last time and Bardas Phocas, seeing the tide of battle turning against him, challenged the rebel to decide the issue by single combat. Courageously - for Phocas was a giant among men1 - Sclerus accepted the challenge; the soldiers on both sides gathered round to watch; and, in a scene that seems to come straight out of the Iliad, the contest began. The two combatants galloped towards each other, then struck simultaneously. Phocas managed to parry Sclerus's thrust, which fell instead on his horse, splitting its bridle and severing its right ear. His own blow, meanwhile, found its mark. Sclerus pitched forward on his saddle and slid to the ground, blood streaming

1 'Anyone who received a blow from his hand was a dead man straightway, and whole armies trembled even when he shouted from afar.' (Psellus, Cbronographia. The translation, like all others from this source, is based on that of E. R. A. Sewter.)

from his head. A few of his men carried him, unconscious, to a nearby stream to bathe the wound; the remainder fled from the field. The war was over.

For the moment, at least. The Emperor Basil, following events from Constantinople, knew that his grasp on the throne remained uncertain. Apart from anything else, both his rivals were still very much alive and doubtless making new plans for the future. Bardas Scleras, having somewhat dented the reputation of Bardas Phocas by surviving his blow on the head, had sought refuge with the Saracens and had been borne off in semi-captivity to Baghdad - whence, sooner or later, he was bound to return; while Bardas Phocas was stronger than ever and, despite his oath of loyalty, equally certain to make another bid for power. None the less, here was a much-needed respite; and it afforded Basil time and opportunity to prepare himself for the tremendous tasks that lay ahead. For the six years following the defeat of Scleras we hear little of him, but we may be sure that he was hard at work, familiarizing himself with the innermost workings of the army, the navy, the Church, the monasteries and every department of state. If he were to be what he was determined to be - an Emperor in the fullest sense of the word, in complete charge of his own government, responsible for every aspect of its foreign policy and ready when the need arose to lead his own troops in the field — he could afford to leave nothing to chance.

In 985 he was ready; only his great-uncle stood in his way. Basil the parakoimomenos, however, was not easy to shift. A eunuch he might be, but there were few men in Constantinople who did not tremble before this tremendous figure, whose every word and movement seemed to proclaim his own imperial origins and to radiate authority. After a lifetime of loyalty to the Macedonian house - of which, after all, he was himself indirectly a member - he seems to have been at first genuinely attached to the young Emperor; his mistake was to underestimate him. By turns patronizing and domineering, he insisted on treating his great-nephew like the child he no longer was, dismissing his ideas, ignoring his suggestions, countermanding his orders without hesitation or apology. As Basil found himself blocked and frustrated at every step, his long-felt resentment gradually gave way to hatred: he knew that he could never breathe freely until he had rid himself of this insufferable incubus once and for all. Fortunately there were grounds in plenty for doing so. His Chamberlain's corruption was notorious, and had brought him enormous wealth which he flaunted shamelessly, maintaining a degree of state that put the Emperor himself in the shade. More serious still, he had recently been discovered — doubtless suspecting a coming attempt to unseat him - to be in secret and potentially treasonable correspondence with Bardas Phocas. Basil laid his plans carefully; then he struck. The capital awoke one morning to the news that the most feared man in the Empire had been arrested and exiled, and all his property confiscated.

That, one might think - particularly considering the amount of the property involved, the parakoimomenos having been by far the greatest landowner in all the imperial dominions - should have been enough; but there was in the Emperor's character a streak of brutal vindictiveness which he never managed to control. Not content with having broken and dispossessed his old enemy, he even turned against the immense monastery which the latter had built in the capital and had richly endowed in honour of his namesake St Basil. He was tempted, we are told, to demolish it completely; not wishing, however, to encourage accusations of impiety, he contented himself with stripping it of all its movable furniture and mosaic decoration and reducing the. luckless monks to penury.1 More extraordinary still, he then issued an edict by which all laws promulgated by his great-uncle should be considered null and void unless they bore a mark in his own hand signifying his approval; 'for,' he explained, 'at the beginning of our own reign, until the deposition of Basil the parakoimomenos . .. many things happened which were not according to our wish, for he decided and appointed everything according to his own will.' To the old man in his place of exile, it must have seemed as if his very existence were being denied. He sank quickly into senility and died soon afterwards.

At last Basil was master in his own house. But less than a year later his Empire was facing a new threat, and one that was to bring him greater humiliation than any that he had yet suffered. Samuel, self-proclaimed Tsar of the Bulgarian Empire, had invaded Thessaly and captured its chief city, Larissa.

Of the origins of Tsar Samuel we know little. His father, the comes

1 Psellus, who tells this story, records a distinctly bad-taste pun of which the Emperor is also said to have been guilty at this time. Like all puns it is untranslatable; but the following adaptation, gleefully repeated by several modern English and French historians, probably comes as close as we shall ever get to the original: 'I have turned their refectory into a reflectory, since all they can now do is to reflect on how to feed themselves.'

Nicholas, seems to have been governor of all or part of western Bulgaria around the time of Svyatoslav's invasion; and when he died his influence, if not hJ8 position, passed to his four sons. These young men thus became the natural leaders of an insurrection which broke out soon after the death of John Tzimisces and soon developed into a full-blown war of independence. When the news of it reached Constantinople, Tsar Boris escaped with his brother Romanus to join the insurgents; but the Tsar was accidentally killed at the frontier by his own subjects while Romanus, being a eunuch, was debarred from the throne. The leadership therefore remained with the sons of the comes — known collectively as the Cometopuli - and, in particular, with the youngest and ablest of the four, Samuel.

The revolt of Bardas Scleras had played perfectly into Samuel's hands, providing him with just the opportunity he needed to extend his dominions without opposition. Gradually he had managed to impose control over all Bulgaria west of a line drawn south from the Danube and passing roughly midway between his first capital Serdica (the modern Sofia) and Philippopolis; he had then assumed the old title of Tsar and simultaneously revived the old Bulgarian Patriarchate abolished by Tzimisces. Thus, both politically and ecclesiastically, the new State came to be seen by the Bulgars not so much as the descendant of its predecessor as its continuation — the continuity being further emphasized by the close association of Prince Romanus, whom Samuel took care to load with honours and titles.

By 980 Samuel was secure enough to make his presence felt beyond his own borders, and thenceforth not a summer went by without one or more Bulgar incursions into Thessaly; but it was not for another five years that he put Larissa seriously under siege. The citizens held out as long as they could; but early in 986, when a woman was found eating the thigh of her dead husband, they understandably decided to surrender. With the exception of a single quisling family, the Nicoulitzes, all were sold into slavery; while the city's holiest relic, the body of its former bishop St Achilleus, was carried off to adorn the cathedral of Prespa, to which Samuel had recently transferred his capital.1

Here was an outrage that could not go unpunished. On hearing the news Basil gave orders for the immediate mobilization of the army, personally assumed the supreme command and marched on Sardica,

1 Runciman. The First Bulgarian Empire, pp. 221-2.

following the valley of the river Maritsa before turning north-west through the pass known as Trajan's Gate and out on to the plain on which the city lies. Just short of his objective, however, he stopped to await his rearguard: a disastrous mistake, since it allowed Samuel - who, accompanied by his brother Aaron and Prince Romanus, had meanwhile hurried up from Thessaly — to occupy the surrounding mountains. Not till the end of July did the Emperor pass on to the city and lay siege to it; and even then he met with little success. The weather was stiflingly hot, morale was low, and Samuel's constant harassment of the imperial foraging parties meant that the besiegers were often almost as short of food as the besieged. After only three weeks, Basil decided to give up the struggle and return home. But worse was to come. On Tuesday, 17 August, as the Byzantine troops passed for the second time through Trajan's Gate, they marched straight into Samuel's carefully-prepared ambush - the Bulgarian cavalry streaming down from the mountains to each side and taking them totally by surprise. The vast majority were cut down where they stood; all the baggage, including the treasury, was lost. It was but a poor shambling rump of his former army that followed the distraught Emperor into Philippopolis a day or two later.1

Basil's own feelings of humiliation can easily be imagined. Never one to lack confidence in his own abilities, he had schooled himself to be the most efficient ruler Byzantium had ever known. His years under the shadow of his great-uncle had been intolerable to him because he was convinced that he could govern his Empire better than anyone else: only he, once his hands were untied, could restore it to the strength and prosperity it had known under his great-great-grandfather Basil I, under Heraclius, even under the great Justinian himself. He had had to wait until his twenty-ninth year - by which time he had been titular Emperor for over a quarter of a century - for the opportunity to undertake an important foreign campaign on his own initiative; and it had been a catastrophe. He was bitterly ashamed; but he was also angry. Somehow, too, he had retained his fundamental belief in himself. When he arrived back in Constantinople, he vowed a solemn oath that he would have his revenge on the entire Bulgar nation, until it would rue the day that it had ever raised a finger against him.

He was, as we shall see, as good as his word.

1 Among the survivors was Leo the Deacon, who owed his survival, he tells us, only to the agility of his horse.

Basil's time would indeed come; but it would not come yet. News of Trajan's Gate persuaded Bardas Sclerus, now effectively a prisoner in Baghdad, that the Empire was at last his for the taking; and he had no difficulty in persuading the Caliph al-Tai to release him, in return for a promise to restore certain frontier fortresses as soon as he gained the throne. The Caliph supplied him with men, money and provisions, and it was thus with quite a sizeable and well-equipped force that Sclerus returned to Asia Minor and, at Melitene in the first weeks of 987, for the second time proclaimed himself basileus.

Initially at any rate, he must have been gratified to find the Anatolian barons already on the point of revolt. The imperial army, they firmly believed, was their own special preserve; and they were outraged that the Emperor should have appropriated it to invade Bulgaria without so much as informing them of his intentions. Without one of their own number in command, the defeat had, they agreed, been inevitable. Basil had brought it on himself, and had only himself to blame. Here, in short, was conclusive proof, if any were needed, that they should never have allowed the crown out of their own hands. The sooner it returned to them, the better.

But whose, precisely, should it be? Here Sclerus must have been rather less pleased, for he soon discovered that many of his fellow-nobles favoured Bardas Phocas rather than himself: so many in fact that Phocas, instead of leading a loyalist army against him as he had eight years before, once again turned his coat and on 15 August formally claimed the Empire on his own account. Of the two claimants, Phocas was now substantially the stronger, enjoying as he did the support of the majority of the senior officers as well as that of the landed aristocracy; but he did not dare march on the capital leaving Sclerus in his rear. Clearly some sort of compact was necessary between the two, and he therefore proposed what amounted to a partition of the Empire, whereby he would be satisfied with the European part — including, of course, Constantinople - leaving Sclerus all Anatolia from the Marmara to the eastern frontier. Sclerus, against the advice of all his associates, accepted, dropped his guard - and walked straight into the trap. Soon afterwards he was arrested, and spent the next two years immured in the fortress of Tyropoion - the same, ironically enough, from which he had starved out Bardas Phocas after the latter's first rebellion sixteen years before — while his rival made a final bid for power.

At that time Phocas can have been in little doubt of his eventual success. On his long march through Asia Minor he encountered no opposition of any kind, while more and more recruits flocked enthusiastically to his banner. Against him stood a young and inexperienced Emperor, whose only military exploit had ended in disaster and whose army - what was left of it - was broken and utterly demoralized. How, in such circumstances, could he possibly fail? When he reached the Marmara he divided his army, sending half of it west to Abydos on the Hellespont while the other half dug itself in at Chrysopolis opposite Constantinople, and began to prepare a two-pronged attack on the capital.

Basil's situation was indeed desperate; but he kept his head. If he could not hope to defend his Empire unaided, he must seek foreign help; and help on the necessary scale could come from one quarter only: Vladimir, Prince of Kiev. Even before Bardas Phocas had arrived on the Bosphorus shore the imperial ambassadors were on their way, though it was months later before they returned with the Prince's answer. Vladimir, they reported, considered himself bound by his father Svyatoslav's agreement with John Tzimisces to send the force required: a druzhina of 6,000 fully-equipped Varangians1 would be dispatched as soon as possible. In return, he asked one thing only: the hand in marriage of the Emperor's sister, the porphyrogenita Anna.

The effect of this demand on the Byzantine court can hardly be imagined. In the whole history of the Empire, no princess born in the purple had ever been given in marriage to a foreigner; and Vladimir was not only a foreigner but - despite the conversion of his grandmother Olga — a heathen, a man who was known to have killed his own brother and who already boasted at least four wives and 800 concubines: a fact which however in no way discouraged him from cutting an almost legendary swath through the matrons and maidens of any town or village in which he happened to be. He possessed, in the minds of the Byzantines, only one 'redeeming feature: he had given it out that he was seeking, for himself and his people, a respectable religion. If we are to believe that curious document known as Nestor's chronicle, he had already ordered a survey of all the principal faiths of the known world and had personally made searching inquiries of Muslims, Jews and

1 The name (which comes from an Old Norse word meaning 'plighted faith') was given to those Russianized Vikings whose forefathers had sailed across the Baltic and up the rivers of northern Russia, easily dominating the Slav tribes of the interior.

Roman Catholics - by none of whom, however, had he been particularly impressed. Finally, in that very year of 987, he had sent emissaries to Constantinople where, in their honour, a special service had been held in St Sophia. So captivated had they been by its beauty that, as they subsequently reported to their master, they had not known whether they were on earth or in heaven: 'all we can tell is that in that place is God's dwelling among men.' It seemed likely therefore that Vladimir might soon be forswearing his pagan gods and, with any luck, some of his more reprehensible habits; and Basil accordingly gave his consent to the match, on the sole condition that the Prince of Kiev were to embrace the Orthodox faith. Then he settled down to wait.

He waited for the best part of a year: a year he survived thanks to the imperial navy which, by its constant patrolling of the Hellespont, the Marmara and the Bosphorus, successfully prevented Bardas Phocas and his army from crossing over into Europe. Only around the time of the winter solstice1 did the Black Sea lookouts espy the first of a great fleet of Viking ships on the northern horizon; but a week or so later the whole of that fleet was safely anchored in the Golden Horn and 6,000 burly giants drawn up for the inspection of the Emperor. He made his plans quickly. One night in late February 989 the Norsemen, with Basil himself at their head, crossed the straits under cover of darkness and took up their positions a few hundred yards from the main rebel camp, spread out along the coast at Chrysopolis. Then, at first light, they attacked, while a squadron of imperial flame-throwers sprayed the shore with Greek fire. Phocas's men, roused from sleep to find this terrible horde bearing down upon them, could do little to defend themselves; but their assailants swung their swords and battle-axes without mercy until they stood ankle-deep in blood. Few of the victims escaped with their lives; three subordinate commanders, delivered into the hands of the Emperor, were respectively hanged, impaled and crucified.

Bardas Phocas seems - fortunately for him - to have remained with his reserves, if not actually at Nicaea, at any rate some litde distance

1 The chronology at this point presents something of a problem, since our principal sources - to say nothing of modem historians - are in considerable disagreement. If however we accept Yahya's precise date of 13 April 989 as the date of the batde of Abydos, it is hard to see how the massacre at Chrysopolis could have preceded it by more than a few weeks, or that the latter could have occurred long after the Norsemen's arrival.

away from Chrysopolis. As soon as he heard of the massacre, he hastened to join the rest of his army outside Abydos; if he could but capture this port at the mouth of the Hellespont he would, he knew, find vessels enough in its harbour to transport his men across to the Gallipoli peninsula, whence they could launch their assault on Constantinople. On his arrival he immediately laid siege to the city; but the town put up a determined resistance, and with the imperial navy in firm control of the straits a proper blockade proved impossible. Meanwhile the Emperor, who had returned to the capital, set about preparing a relief expedition. By mid-March 989 it was ready, and he at once sent off an advance contingent under the command - rather surprisingly - of his brother and co-Emperor Constantine: the only time in his long life, so far as we know, that this unsatisfactory prince led an army in the field. Basil himself embarked a few days later, landed near Lampsacus a few miles to the north-east and immediately set off for the besieged city, his gigantic Varangians following behind.

The next morning saw the two opposing armies drawn up facing each other on the open plain to the landward side of Abydos, where they remained for several days manoeuvring for position. Only at dawn on Saturday 13 April did the Emperor give the order to attack. At first it seemed as if this initial onslaught might prove decisive. The rebel troops scattered: many were cut down, others simply turned and ran. Only with the greatest difficulty did Phocas manage to restore order and regroup the survivors. Then, we are told, as he gazed across the plain, he caught sight of Basil himself, riding up and down the lines of Norsemen, congratulating them and encouraging them to still greater feats of valour, with young Constantine, carrying a long lance, at his side; and his expression changed as he remembered how, during his last encounter with Bardas Sclerus, he had turned defeat into victory by proposing that the issue be decided by single combat. Ignoring all attempts to dissuade him he suddenly called for his horse, spurred it to a gallop and, as both armies watched, silent and incredulous, thundered towards the imperial lines, his sword pointing directly at the Emperor. Basil stood his ground, his own drawn sword clasped in his right hand, while in his left he clutched an icon of the Virgin, well known for its miraculous powers.1

1 Was this the icon that was to be stolen by the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade and, now known as the Nicopotia or Bringer of Victory, still hangs in the north aisle of the Basilica of St Mark? It may well have been: see Canon Ag. Molin,

Nearer and nearer came his assailant - 'like a cloud driven by a hurricane' as Psellus describes him; then, suddenly, he seemed to falter. Swaying as if overcome by a fit of dizziness, he reined in his horse, slipped slowly from the saddle and lay motionless on the ground. When Basil, Constantine and their followers rode up a moment or two later they found that he was already dead. At first they assumed that he had been hit by an arrow, but his body bore no trace of a wound. He had in fact suffered a sudden stroke, presumably brought on by excitement and exertion, which had killed him instantly. His troops, seeing what had occurred, panicked and fled; but they were no match for the Norsemen, who pursued them and cheerfully hacked them to pieces.

Bardas Sclerus was left the only pretender to the throne of Byzantium. During his two years' captivity at Tyropoion, his gaoler had been none other than Phocas's wife; with her husband's death, however, seeing him no longer as her prisoner but as her one hope of revenge, she immediately set him free to raise a new army. Almost from the first, however, Sclerus realized that it was too late: he was getting old, and his sight was rapidly failing. In the comparative darkness of his prison he had scarcely noticed the cataracts that were by now clouding both his eyes; back once again under the brilliant Anatolian sky, he knew that there was no hope -blindness would soon be upon him. Basil - his usual vindictiveness for once put aside - had already offered him almost unbelievably generous terms: he asked only that Sclerus should formally renounce all imperial attributes and the title of basileus, in return he would be accorded that of curopalates. His officers, once they had taken a new oath of loyalty, would retain all their ranks and titles and suffer no further penalties, while the rank and file would be allowed to return peaceably to their homes.

And so Bardas Sclerus made his submission; and on one of the imperial estates in Bithynia, for the first time in thirteen years, the young Emperor and the old general met face to face. When Basil saw his former enemy, now almost blind, being led into the audience chamber by two of the court ushers, he could barely suppress a gasp. 'Can this old dotard,' he asked those around him, 'truly be he whom I have feared for so long? See, he can scarcely walk by himself]' Then his eye fell on Sclerus's feet, which unaccountably still wore the imperial purple buskins; and he turned away his head. Only when the old man had removed the offending boots was he allowed to approach his sovereign and prostrate himself at the foot of the throne. Basil continued to treat him with surprising courtesy and consideration, listening carefully to his explanation of his past conduct which - if Psellus is to be believed - he simply ascribed to the will of God; at the dinner that followed, as a further gesture of reconciliation - though also, perhaps, to allay any suspicions of poison - he seized the wine-cup and took a copious draught before handing it to his guest. Then the two settled down to talk.

The Emperor opened the conversation by seeking the old general's advice. How, he asked him, could he best guard against any further rebellions by the powerful Anatolian barons, similar to those which Bardas Phocas and he himself had so recendy led? Sclerus's reply is quoted at the head of this chapter. He did not propose that the barons should be suppressed: not even Basil at his most ruthless could have succeeded in doing that. But he did recommend that they should be kept on the tightest of reins, that they should be taxed to the hilt, harassed, plagued, financially persecuted, even deliberately and unfairly victimized, in such a way that they would be far too preoccupied in keeping their own heads above water to pursue any schemes of personal ambition. To Basil, these words alone would have occasioned little astonishment, expressing as they did his own opinions to the letter. What was interesting was the source from which they came. Now at last, as his life was drawing to a close and after the collapse of all his own ambitions, Bardas Scleras was putting the interests of the Empire above those of himself and his class. His words may have been cynical, but they were also wise. Not only would Basil remember them for the rest of his life; he would act upon them, making them the keystone of his domestic policy. And he would never regret having done so.

In view of all the momentous events of the past two years, it is perhaps understandable that Basil should have given little time to the question of his sister's promised marriage to the Prince of Kiev. But Vladimir soon made clear that he was not to be trifled with. By responding to the Emperor's appeal he had saved Byzantium, and he was impatient for his reward. It was thus by way of reminding Basil of his responsibilities that in the summer of 989 he suddenly seized the imperial colony of Cherson in the Crimea, the last Byzantine outpost on the northern Black Sea coast, simultaneously sending him an ominous message to the effect that if his forgetfulness continued, Constantinople itself would suffer a similar fate.1

For Basil, the fall of Cherson was quite enough to be getting on with. Not only was the colony financially and strategically valuable in its own right; its capture also suggested the withdrawal of Russian support at a time when Bardas Scleras was sdll at large and, worse still, the real possibility of a rapprochement between Vladimir and Tsar Samuel of Bulgaria. The 6,000 Varangians were still in Constantinople: they tineeded only a word from their sovereign for their present friendship to change to open hostility, in which event the damage that they might do would be incalculable. There was, in short, nothing for it: the agreement must be honoured. When the twenty-five-year-old princess was told by her brothers of her fate, she wept long and bitterly, accusing them of selling her into slavery - which, in the light of what was known about Vladimir, was not far from the truth. Finally, however, she was persuaded to accept the inevitable, and reluctantly embarked on the ship that was to take her to Cherson, where her betrothed awaited her. There the two were duly married, the colony being immediately returned to Basil as the veno - the traditional gift from the bridegroom; there too, immediately before the ceremony, the Prince of Kiev was baptized by the local bishop in what was perhaps the most fateful religious ceremony in Russian history.2

For it was the conversion of Vladimir, far more than that of his grandmother thirty-two years before, that marked the entry of Russia itself into the Christian fold. After their marriage, he and his bride were escorted to Kiev by the local clergy of Cherson, who immediately set about proselytizing and converting whole towns and villages en masse. The new Russian Church was thus from the outset subordinated to the the Patriarchate of Constantinople, forming part of the Eastern Church and tied culturally to Byzantium. There is consequently some reason to. hope that poor Anna may have found her new life a degree or two less intolerable than she had feared it might be. Kiev, admittedly, was no Constantinople; but her husband became, after his baptism, a changed man. Away went the four previous wives and the 800 concubines;

1.       Prince Svyatoslav's undertaking never to attack or invade this city (p. 223) had presumably lapsed on his death.

2.       It is in fact possible that this was Vladimir's second baptism - the first having already taken place two years previously, after the return of his representatives from Constantinople and the conclusion of his agreement with the Emperor.

henceforth he was to give her no cause for complaint, spending all his time instead on supervising conversions, standing godfather at innumerable baptisms and building churches and monasteries wherever he went. Saints, one feels, can never be the easiest of husbands, and St Vladimir of Kiev is unlikely to have been an exception to the rule; but for a girl who had expected to share her bed with an ogre it must, all the same, have been something of a relief.

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