Post-classical history

The Bulgar-Slayer


His cruelty inflicted a cool and exquisite vengeance on the fifteen thousand captives who had been guilty of the defence of their country. They were deprived of sight, but to one of each hundred a single eye was left, that he might conduct his blind century to the presence of their king. Their king is said to have expired of grief and horror; the nation was awed by this terrible example; the Bulgarians were swept away from their settlements, and circumscribed within a narrow province; the surviving chiefs bequeathed to their children the advice of patience and the duty of revenge.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter LV

In the sixty-five-year reign of Basil II, the year 989 marks the watershed. Though still only thirty-one, he had held the title of Emperor for twenty-nine years. Of those years, the first sixteen - covering the period of his minority - had been overshadowed by the two military adventurers who had successively seized the throne, Nicephorus Phocas and John Tzimisces. The next nine had seen him the puppet - albeit a most unwilling one - of his great-uncle. The last four had been chiefly notable for his defeat and humiliation by Tsar Samuel at Trajan's Gate; for a major rebellion which had been contained only with outside help and which might still have been threatening him but for the sudden death of its leader; and, most recently, for his own submission to a piece of shameless blackmail on the part of the Prince of Kiev. It was not a distinguished record.

But by the end of 989 his luck had changed. The year itself had provided more than its share of disasters. After one of the cruellest winters in living memory, during which the sea itself was frozen, there had been the struggle with Bardas Phocas, and another with Bardas Scleras; within days of the Russian capture of Cherson had come news of the fall to the Bulgars of Berrhoea (the modern Verria), a strategic fortress town guarding the approaches to Thessalonica; while serious disturbances had broken out in Antioch. The significance of the aurora borealis on 7 April, and of the brilliant comet which illuminated the sky for three weeks during July and August, was variously interpreted; but there could be no two minds about the calamitous earthquake which on the night of 25 October destroyed or damaged over forty churches in the capital alone - including St Sophia itself, whose central dome was split right across and had to be completely redesigned,1 while part of the eastern apse simply subsided into a pile of rubble. A more unmistakable manifestation of the divine wrath could scarcely be imagined: yet the year was to close with the Empire enjoying internal peace for the first time since the death of John Tzimisces in 976 and its Emperor, with his defeats and disappointments behind him, standing at last on the threshold of glory.

Now that he had no longer anything to fear from the Anatolian barons, he was free to concentrate on the great task that was to occupy him for the next three decades: the annihilation of the Bulgar Empire. It was, however, typical of his farsightedness that he should first turn his attention to a small piece of unfinished business concerning David, Prince of the region of Upper Tao in Georgia. In 978 David, as a loyal vassal of the Empire, had been awarded temporary possession of a large area of imperial territory to the north of Lake Van. Since then, however, he had rather spoilt his record by supporting the rebellious Bardas Phocas - an error of judgement which he must bitterly have regretted when, in the autumn of 989, an imperial army marched eastward with obviously punitive intent. Fortunately for him the commanding general, a certain John of Chaldia, had authority from the Emperor to offer terms: David might keep the ceded territory for his lifetime and would be additionally awarded the title of curopalates, provided that all his lands - including his own birthplace and patrimony - reverted on his death to the imperial crown. With the army sharpening its swords only a mile or two away, the prince had little choice but to agree; and Basil considerably extended his eastern frontiers without the loss of a single life.

Unfortunately, as he well knew, diplomacy of this kind would have

1 The new design, by an Armenian named Trdat, was to collapse in its turn in 1346. (See Byzantium: The Early Centuries, p. 2ojn.) Another casualty of the earthquake was the Aqueduct of Valens, the subsequent repair of which put it back into working order, enabling it to bring fresh water to the city for the first time in several hundred years.

little impact on Tsar Samuel; and in the early spring of 991 he set off with his army for Thessalonica, where he strengthened the defences, prostrated himself before the altar of the city's patron St Demetrius,1 and tracked down to a remote monastery a living local saint named Photius, who had been present at his baptism - after the ceremony he had actually carried him in his arms back to the Palace - and who now promised to pray for him nightly during the coming campaign.2 This was to continue for the next four years, during which Basil never once relaxed his pressure. Gone were the days when warfare was restricted to the summer months; the new imperial army, trained and toughened by the Emperor in person and now in superb physical condition, showed itself as impervious to-the January snows as to the August sun. Many cities — including Berrhoea — were recaptured. Some were garrisoned; others, less lucky, were razed to the ground.

There were, however, no dramatic advances, no great victories. Trajan's Gate had taught Basil a lesson he would never forget. Success for him depended above all else on faultless organization. The army must act as a single, perfectly coordinated body. Psellus tells us how at first sight of the enemy he would draw up his troops 'like a solid tower', establishing unbreakable lines of communication between himself and the cavalry, the cavalry and the heavy infantry, the heavy infantry and the light. When battle began, he would absolutely forbid any soldier to break ranks or advance independently in front of the line. Heroics of any kind were not simply discouraged, but punished with instant dismissal -or, on occasion, worse. His men complained openly about their master's endless inspections, and the attention he paid to every minute detail of their weapons and equipment; but they gave him their confidence and their trust because they knew that he left nothing to chance, that he never undertook an operation until he was certain of victory and that he valued their lives as he did his own.

In such circumstances progress might be sure; but it was also undeniably slow, and it comes as little surprise to find that when the Emperor was summoned urgently to Syria early in 995 he had achieved relatively

1 St Demetrius was, with St Theodore Stratilates, St Theodore of Tyre and St George, one of that great quartet (or possibly trio, since the two Theodores may have been one and the same) of warrior saints who protected Byzantine armies in battle.

2 There is a theory that Photius may have left his monastery and accompanied Basil throughout his four-year campaign, much as St Athanasius had accompanied Nicephorus Phocas; but on this point - as on so many others - our sadly inadequate sources are dumb.

little. Despite the reconquered towns, the situation was still very much as it had been fifteen years before, with the Bulgar Tsar as strong and determined as ever and the threat to Byzantium not a jot diminished. Samuel too had moved with caution, adopting the traditional Bulgar tactic of keeping to the mountains and avoiding pitched battles. He possessed, he knew, one great advantage over his enemy: he was on home ground. Over a prolonged campaign Basil might well gain the upper hand; but sooner or later he would be called away, quite possibly with a fair proportion of his army, leaving the remainder under the command of lesser men; and Samuel's turn would come. He would keep his powder dry, and play a waiting game.

When he had the choice, Basil preferred to move slowly and with caution; but he was also capable of astonishing speed when the occasion demanded, as he showed during his whirlwind Syrian expedition of 995. The crisis had been precipitated by the designs of the Egyptian Fatimid Caliph Aziz on the city of Aleppo, a Byzantine protectorate since the days of Nicephorus Phocas. Already in 994 its Emir had appealed to the Emperor, who had sent reinforcements to Antioch with instructions to the local governor, Michael Bourtzes - he who had recaptured the city for the Empire in 969 - to intervene; but Bourtzes was, alas, no longer the dashing young general he had been a quarter of a century before and was certainly no match for the Fatimid commander Manjutekin, who on 15 September had virtually destroyed his army on the banks of the Orontes.

The Emir, now desperate, dispatched a second appeal, stressing that Antioch itself was now in grave danger; and this time Basil recognized the emergency for what it was — one in which he could trust no one but himself. Hurrying back to the capital with as many troops as he dared, he collected all available reserves until he could boast a new army of some 40,000 men.1 There remained, however, the problem of getting them to Syria. For such a force, with full arms, armour and equipment, the 600 miles across Anatolia would represent a good three months' march. By the time it arrived, in all probability, both Antioch and Aleppo would be lost. Every day counted. What was to be done?

Basil's solution, simple as it was, seems to have been unprecedented in

1 Once again our sources are miserably thin and uninformative. The Byzantine chroniclers tell us next to nothing; we are left with the Jews and the Arabs, of whom Yahya (who gives this figure) seems to be usually the most reliable.

all Byzantine history. He mounted his entire army. Every soldier was provided with two mules, one to ride and one for his equipment, serving also as a reserve. Even then, some travelled faster than others; but the Emperor, himself riding at the head of the column, could not wait for stragglers. Towards the end of April 995, he drew up the first 17,000 of his troops beneath the walls of Aleppo. They had taken just sixteen days - but they arrived not a day too soon. The city was already under heavy siege; a week more and it would have fallen, with much of northern Syria, into Fatimid hands. Now it was saved. Caught unawares and hopelessly outnumbered, Manjutekin fled back to Damascus. A few days later the Emperor himself headed south, sacking Emesa and sowing a trail of devastation as far as Tripoli. Returning, he established a strong garrison in Tortosa (Tartus) and in place of Bourtzes — whom he put under house arrest - appointed a new and younger Governor of Antioch with instructions to emphasize his supremacy in the region by annual shows of strength. Then he started back to his capital.

Even on his breakneck outward journey, Basil had had time to observe the countryside through which he rode; he drew his own conclusions, and during his more leisurely return his first impressions were confirmed. This was, so far as we can tell, his first visit to Asia since he had accompanied his stepfather Nicephorus Phocas to Cilicia as a child; and he was amazed at the size and splendour of the estates built up by the Anatolian 'powerful' on what was legally either imperial property or, more probably, that of the local village communes. Several of them - including old Eustathius Maleinus, in whose territory Bardas Phocas had raised the standard of revolt in 986 - made the mistake of attempting to assure him of their loyalty by receiving him in a style that he himself could hardly have equalled: mindless displays of wealth which, given his own hatred of empty ostentation, invariably aroused his fury. It was a sombre, pensive Emperor who returned that autumn to Constantinople.

On 1 January 996 there was promulgated over the Emperor's seal an edict the very title of which must have struck horror into the hearts of those Anatolian noblemen who had so recently tried to impress him: 'New Constitution,' it read, 'of the pious Emperor Basil the Young, by which are Condemned those Rich Men who Amass their Wealth at the Expense of the Poor', going on to make specific reference to a similar -though far less stringent - decree of Romanus Lecapenus in 955. In that decree Romanus had stipulated a forty-year period of grace, during which claims could be made for the restitution of unjustly expropriated property; the trouble, as Basil well knew, was that any rich landowner could easily suppress such claims, by bribery, blackmail or a combination of the two; and he did not hesitate to name the guilty:

The Patrician Constantine Maleinus and his son the magister Eustathius have enjoyed for a hundred years, perhaps 120, the uncontested possession of property unlawfully acquired by them. The same is true of the Phocas who, from father to son over more than a century, have also succeeded in retaining estates to which they have no legal title ...

Basil abolished the forty-year period altogether, requiring that any territorial claim, to be valid, must go back at least to the decree of his great-grandfather Romanus, sixty-one years before. All property acquired since that time was to be restored immediately to its previous owner or his family, without compensation or payment for any improvements made. Even imperial cbrysobuls — including those signed with the name of Basil himself— were to be inadmissible as a defence, while any deed of grant issued between 976 and 985 in the name of Basil the eunuch was automatically null and void unless specially revalidated in the Emperor's own hand.

The results were dramatic - and, to the Anatolian aristocracy, calamitous. Maleinus was not only expropriated but imprisoned for life. The Phocas lost all but a minute fraction of their vast estates. Some noble families were reduced literally to beggary, others to the level of the peasants around them. But for those peasants, and for the local small-holders — the traditional backbone of imperial armies for hundreds of years - the way was open to return to the lands of their forefathers. Meanwhile vast tracts of formerly imperial land reverted again to the Empire, while the Emperor himself gained immeasurably in strength. For thirteen years he had been obliged to defend his lawful throne against 'the powerful'. Now their power was gone; and his revenge, we may be sure, was sweet.

Even after the publication of his fateful edict, the Emperor did not at once return to Bulgaria. There was, inevitably, serious disaffection in Anatolia, and it was important that he should be at hand in the capital, ready to deal with any trouble. Besides, he had now been absent for nearly five years from the imperial chancery, where a vast backlog of work had accumulated. The Patriarchate — to take but one example - had been vacant since 991; on 12 April 996 Basil appointed a learned physician named Sisinnius to the post. In one respect it was an unfortunate choice - not so much because Sisinnius was a layman, but because he shared all his master's dislike and distrust of the Western Empire; and scarcely had he assumed his new office when there arrived in Constantinople an embassy from the court of young Otto III. Otto, it appeared, wanted a Byzantine wife, just as his father had done; and he was now making a formal request for the hand in marriage of one of Basil's three nieces Eudocia, Zoe or Theodora - he did not greatly mind which - the daughters of his brother Constantine.

On the face of it, Otto's embassy was a surprising one. Admittedly his father Otto II had married the Greek princess Theophano,1 who had made him an excellent wife and had done much for the spread of Byzantine culture in the West; but he had unfortunately seen the marriage as grounds for claiming the 'restitution', as part of her dowry, of all Byzantine lands in Italy, and war had been the inevitable result. This had continued intermittently until 981, when Otto II had marched into Apulia, his wrath on this occasion directed principally against the occupying Saracens; and Basil - or more probably his great-uncle the parakoimomenos — had seen his chance. A temporary alliance had quickly been arranged with the Saracens, who soon afterwards cut Otto's army to pieces near Stilo in Calabria. Luckily for the Western Emperor, he was a strong swimmer: he swam to a passing ship, managed somehow to conceal his identity and later, as the vessel passed Rossano, jumped overboard again and struck out for the shore. But he never recovered from the humiliation and died in Rome the following year, aged twenty-eight.2

His son by Theophano, Otto III, was an extraordinary child. Succeeding to the imperial throne at the age of three, he grew up combining the traditional ambitions of his line with a romantic mysticism clearly inherited from his mother, forever dreaming of a great Byzantinesque theocracy that would embrace Germans and Greeks, Italians and Slavs alike, with God at its head and himself and the Pope - in that order -His twin Viceroys. Who could be more suited than he - born as he was of a Greek mother — to make this dream a reality? And what better foundation for that reality than another marriage alliance between the two Empires? Otto chose his ambassadors carefully. They were Bishop

1 See p. 22o.

2 He it the only Holy Roman Emperor to be buried in St Peter's.

Bemward of Wiirzburg1 and John Philagathus, Archbishop of Piacenza, a Greek from Calabria who, having begun life as a slave, had become the close friend, protege and finally chaplain of Theophano, and had retained the favour of her son after her death.

Alas, we have no Bishop of Cremona to give us an account of this embassy; but it is safe to assume that it was received in Constantinople a good deal more cordially than Liudprand had been. Basil would have asked nothing better than a marriage which would, with any luck, preserve the peace in south Italy and give him a free hand to pursue his struggle with the Bulgars, and it is recorded that when Philagathus returned to Rome2 he took with him Byzantine ambassadors to negotiate the details with Otto in person. If those ambassadors had found the Emperor in the city, there is little doubt that all would have been swiftly arranged: the marriage would have taken place and the future would have been very different - not only for those directly concerned. Unfortunately Otto had left some weeks before, with consequences that would be unhappy for him, deeply unpleasant for them and, for John Philagathus, nothing short of catastrophic.

Early that same year, 996, the fifteen-year-old Emperor had crossed the snow-covered Brenner Pass and entered Italy in full imperial state, with the Holy Lance that had pierced Christ's side3 carried before him and a sizeable army marching behind. In Pavia he had heard of the death of Pope John XV; and in Ravenna, at the request of delegates from the Roman nobility who had come to greet him, he had personally designated as John's successor his own cousin Bruno of Carinthia, then aged twenty-four, who took the name of Gregory V. On Ascension Day - 21 May - Otto was crowned by Gregory in St Peter's. When he left for Germany a few weeks later, it seemed to everyone that the imperial power had once again been firmly established in the Eternal City, and that Western Christendom was in safer hands than for many years past.

Pope Gregory, however, now made a disastrous mistake. He revoked

1 Not Bishop - later St - Bernward of Hildesheim, as Schlumberger rather surprisingly assumes.

1.       Minus, unfortunately, the Bishop of Wurzburg, who expired en route. Such is the paucity of our information on this period that we do not even know whether his death occurred on the outward or the return journey; only that he was buried in the monastery of Politika, on the island of Euboea.

3.       Another Holy Lance, with equal claims to authenticity, had been cherished in Constantinople since the seventh century and was to remain there till 1492, when Sultan Beyazit II presented it to Pope Innocent VIII. Yet another was to be discovered at Antioch during the First Crusade; this is' almost certainly the one which is still preserved in the Armenian cathedral at Etchmiadzin. We may take our choice.

the sentence of banishment that had been passed on the Patrician Crescentius, head of the most influential family in Rome, who had been responsible for the election of John XV and had, until shortly before Otto's arrival, held the city in his grip; and Crescentius, heedless of the oath of fidelity that he had been obliged to swear, at once reverted to his old ways. One of his first actions on returning to power was to seize Basil's ambassadors (who were apparently still in Rome, recovering from their long sea voyage) and throw them into prison - more, it seems, to spite Otto by spoiling his marriage plans than for any other reason. Gregory, panic-stricken, sent urgently to his cousin, begging him to return and restore imperial-papal authority; but Otto refused -on the somewhat surprising grounds that he could not stand the climate -and the poor Pope had no alternative but to flee, early in 997, to Pavia, whereupon Crescentius appointed in his place none other than the Archbishop of Piacenza, John Philagathus.

Why one of the Emperor's most trusted servants should have lent himself to such villainy is hard to understand. Having successfully concluded the preliminary negotiations for the imperial marriage, Philagathus could confidently have expected high preferment in the near future; to have betrayed his master by throwing in his lot with an unscrupulous adventurer seems little short of lunacy. But he was eaten up by ambition, and the immediate prospect of the papal throne, even if he were to occupy it only as Anti-Pope, seems to have been more than he could resist. In May 997 he installed himself in the Lateran Palace under the name of John XVI.

He soon had cause to regret his decision. Already excommunicated by his rival, he spent a miserable summer under a hail of abuse from every bishop in Italy, scarcely able to show himself in the streets of the city, dealing with the remonstrations of both Gregory and Otto by the simple expedient of throwing their ambassadors too into prison. Then, towards the end of the year, came retribution. The Emperor of the West —trusting, presumably, that the Roman winter would prove less of a trial to his constitution than the Roman summer — marched into the peninsula for the second time, joined the Pope at Pavia (where they celebrated Christmas together) and then, with a mixed force of Germans and Italians, advanced on Rome. Two years before, he had come peaceably, as a friend. This time he was angry - and pitiless. As confusion spread through the city Crescentius shut himself up with a dozen faithful henchmen in the Castel Sant'Angelo. John Philagathus meanwhile fled the city and took refuge in a tower that was said to be impregnable; but a few days later he was tracked down by a party of Germans who quickly proved that it was nothing of the kind. On Pope Gregory's orders - but, we are assured, without the knowledge of the Emperor — he was taken prisoner and hideously mutilated. His captors cut off his ears, nose and hands, put out his eyes and tore out his tongue; then they dragged him back to Rome and flung him into a monastic cell to await trial.

Some time during Lent in 998, what was left of John Philagathus was brought before Pope and Emperor, sitting side by side. John's fellow-countryman St Nilus, abbot of Rossano in Calabria, pleaded earnestly that he had already suffered enough; but Pope Gregory thought otherwise. The unfortunate man was now seated backwards on a mule and paraded through the streets of Rome to jeers and catcalls; only then was he permitted to retire to a distant retreat - probably the German monastery of Fulda, near Frankfurt-am-Main - where he lived on, after a fashion, till 1013.

As for Crescentius, he held out in the Castel Sant'Angelo until 29 April, when he was finally obliged to surrender. His punishment was comparatively merciful: at the highest point of the castle, where he could be seen by all Rome, he was publicly beheaded. His body was flung into the surrounding ditch, whence it was later retrieved and, together with those of his twelve followers who had suffered a similar fate, hung by the heels from a gallows on Monte Mario.

For Basil II, who seems - though we cannot be sure - to have remained throughout this period in Constantinople, news of the fate of John Philagathus and the events leading up to it could hardly have been more unwelcome. Not that he would have been moved by any description of the archbishop's sufferings; he was not that sort of man. But it would have suited him to have a Greek on the throne of St Peter almost as much as to have a niece as Empress of the West;1 now the first was out of the question, and even the second had run into difficulties. His ambassadors, who had left Constantinople nearly two years before, had finally been released from prison; but they had not yet made contact with Otto — whose pro-Greek sympathies might well have been, after the Philagathus affair, not quite what they were.

1 It has even been suggested - by St Peter Damian (most uncharitable of chroniclers) and by many others after him - that John's elevation might have been due less to Crescentius's powers of persuasion than to the sacks of Byzantine gold that he had brought with him from Constantinople.

But Basil had other more immediate preoccupations: and the most important of these was the fact that the past three years had seen an alarming increase in the power of Tsar Samuel. In 996, taking full advantage of the Emperor's absence in the East, Samuel had ambushed and killed the Governor of Thessalonica and had taken prisoner both his son and his successor, John of Chaldia. He had then invaded the defenceless Theme of Hellas, which he had sacked and plundered as far south as Corinth. The following year, admittedly, had seen a decisive defeat of the Bulgar army - on the banks of the river Spercheus, near Thermopylae - by the best of the new generation of imperial generals, Nicephorus Uranus; Samuel himself had been lucky to escape with his life. Soon afterwards, however, the Tsar had seized the important Adriatic harbour of Dyrrachium (Durazzo, now Diirres in Albania) and begun a long, triumphant advance through the Dalmatian hinterland and into Bosnia. If he were not. stopped quickly it might soon be too late to stop him at all.

The Byzantine lands along the shores of the Adriatic had always presented something of an administrative problem. In terms of distance they were no further from Constantinople than was Syria; but the roads were steep and rocky and the populations, even in peaceful times, tended to be a good deal less friendly than those of Asia Minor. In present circumstances, Basil would have had to fight every inch of the way. There was, as he saw it, only one solution: the Republic of Venice, with which he was already on excellent terms. Already in 992 he had concluded a treaty with Pietro Orseolo II - one of the most brilliant Doges in Venetian history - by the terms of which Venice was granted generous commercial privileges in Constantinople in return for her agreement to transport imperial troops in time of war; why should the republic not now take over responsibility for the entire Dalmatian coast, ruling it as a protectorate under Byzantine suzerainty?

Pietro Orseolo asked nothing better. Here was an offer of a practically inexhaustible new source of corn for Venice's rapidly growing population, and of timber for ship-building. Furthermore, for some time Venetian merchantmen had been suffering severely at the hands of Croatian pirates; such an arrangement as was now proposed would allow him to move against them far more effectively than before. His son Giovanni hastened to Constantinople, and the matter was soon settled. On Ascension Day, AD 1000, Orseolo — newly dubbed Dux Dalmatiae — attended Mass in the cathedral of S. Pietro di Castello and received from the Bishop of Olivolo a consecrated standard.1 He then boarded his flagship and set sail at the head of a huge fleet to receive the homage of his new subjects. Tsar Samuel might control the hinterland and the fastnesses of Bosnia; but the Greek-speaking cities of the coast were henceforth in safe hands.

The Emperor meanwhile turned his attention back to Bulgaria itself, employing precisely the same tactics as before: first, the establishment of an impregnable base camp - now Philippopolis (Plovdiv); then a slow, methodical spreading-out to north, west and south, consolidating every conquest and garrisoning every captured town before advancing to the next. In 999 another Fatimid victory in Syria caused a repetition of the crisis of five years before and called him back to the East — fortunately as it happened, since he chanced to be in Tarsus when, on Easter Sunday 1000, Prince David of Upper Tao was assassinated; he was thus able to move in immediately with the army to claim his new inheritance. The governorship of this vast region to the north of Lake Van he entrusted to the dead man's cousin Bagrat, King of Abasgia, to whom he also transferred David's title ofcuropalates but it was already late autumn before he was back on the Bosphorus. A few months later he was able to conclude a ten-year truce with the Fatimid Caliphate. Now at last, with both his eastern and western frontiers properly protected, he was free to concentrate on Bulgaria; and in the summer of 1001 he succeeded both in recapturing Berrhoea and in expelling the Bulgar garrisons from Thessaly before returning to the capital — where important business awaited him.

The Emperor Otto, far from giving up his idea of a Byzantine marriage, had sent a second embassy to Constantinople with instructions not only to conclude any outstanding arrangements but to bring him back his bride. It was consequently a far larger and more impressive mission than its predecessor. At its head was Archbishop Arnulf of Milan, the richest and most magnificent ecclesiastic in the West, who appeared at the Palace on a superbly caparisoned steed whose very horseshoes were of gold, secured with silver nails. Although he made no attempt to match his guest either in sartorial splendour or in the social graces - for Arnulf was renowned for his cultivation, intelligence and charm - Basil received him with every honour, bade him sit by his side and, calling for an interpreter, engaged him in long and earnest conversation

1 There is reason to believe that on it the Venetian emblem of the winged lion of St Mark, holding in its paw an open book, appeared for the first time.

while all the other high dignitaries of East and West remained standing. He made no difficulties: the sooner the marriage were to take place, the sooner he could be off to Bulgaria where he belonged. Of his three nieces the eldest, Eudocia, was badly disfigured by smallpox and destined to spend her life in the cloister while the youngest, Theodora, is said to have been almost as unpleasing inappearance; she too - as we shall see - never married. The middle sister, the Princess Zoe, was however a good-looking and eminently nubile girl of twenty-three, in every respect suitable for the match. The archbishop was delighted with her, and had no doubt that his imperial master would be equally enthusiastic; while Zoe herself seems to have displayed none of the reluctance that had characterized the departure of her aunt Anna to Kiev a dozen years before. In January 1002, accompanied by Arnulf and his suite and a retinue appropriate to a porphyrogenita and an Empress, she set sail for her new home.

Alas, it was not to be. When her ship reached Bari, she found tragic news awaiting her. Her betrothed, stricken by a sudden fever, had died on 24 January at the castle of Paterno near Rome, aged twenty-two. Poor Zoe: by his death she had lost far more than a husband - far more, even, than the imperial crown of the West. If she and Otto had had a son, he might in due course have inherited not only the Western Empire but - in the absence of any other male heir — the Eastern as well, uniting the two for the first time and ruling over a territory extending from the borders of France to those of Persia; and the whole subsequent history of the world might have been changed. Now those dreams had vanished. Sadly she bade farewell to the archbishop and re-embarked on the same vessel by which she had come. .

We may indeed grieve for Zoe; we need not, on the other hand, grieve for her too much. The Western Empire might have slipped from her grasp; but the Eastern remained her inheritance and, as we shall see in the next chapter, for more than twenty years after the death of her father she was to enjoy all the power - and all the marriages - that she could have wished.

The spirits of the young princess can hardly have been much lifted when, in the spring of 1004, there was celebrated in Constantinople another dynastic marriage with all the pomp and panoply that she might have expected for her own. The bride on this occasion was a distant relative of the two Emperors, a certain Maria Argyra; the groom was Giovanni, the son of the Doge of Venice Pietro Orseolo, whom his rather had recently raised to share the ducal throne. The ceremony took place in the imperial chapel and was performed by the Patriarch himself, the two Emperors Basil and Constantine both being present to crown the bridal pair in the Eastern fashion. When the festivities were over, a magnificent palace was put at their disposal in which they stayed for several months. Autumn was already far advanced - as was Maria's pregnancy - by the time they returned to Venice.

But if Zoe envied the couple their happiness, she did not do so for long. In 1006, after a series of disastrous harvests, north Italy and Dalmatia were stricken by famine; and in the wake of famine, as so often in the Middle Ages, came plague - carrying off, among many thousands of humbler victims, Giovanni Orseolo, his wife and their baby son. The death of the young Dogaressa was recorded, with ill-concealed satisfaction, by St Peter Damian; vindictive as always, however, he ascribes it to a rather different cause:

Such was the luxury of her habits that she scorned even to wash herself in common water, obliging her servants instead to collect the dew that fell from the heavens for her to bathe in. Nor did she deign to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up in small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth. Her rooms, too, were so heavy with incense and various perfumes that it is nauseating for me to speak of them, nor would my readers readily believe it. But this woman's vanity was hateful to Almighty God; and so, unmistakably, did He take His revenge. For He raised over her the sword of His divine justice, so that her whole body did putrefy and all her limbs began to wither, filling her bedchamber with an unbearable odour such that no one - not a handmaiden, nor even a slave - could withstand this dreadful attack on the nostrils; except for one serving-girl who, with the help of aromatic concoctions, conscientiously remained to do her bidding. And even she could only approach her mistress hurriedly, and then immediately withdraw. So, after a slow decline and agonizing torments, to the joyful relief of her friends she breathed her last.

Almost as soon as the Venetian wedding was over, Basil had returned to Bulgaria, where he was devoting all his energies to the eradication of Tsar Samuel and his Empire. By dint of almost continuous campaigning between 1000 and 1004, he had regained virtually all the eastern half of the Balkan peninsula, from Thessalonica to the Iron Gates of the Danube; Samuel, who had always trusted to what might today be called guerrilla tactics, now found himself struggling against an enemy who could move through rough country as quickly as he could himself, who - never gave him an opportunity for ambush or surprise attack and who seemed alike impervious to heat and cold, wind and weather. Throughout the next decade the Emperor continued to advance, though our sources - such as they are - give us infuriatingly litde detail. We know, for example, that in 1005 Samuel was betrayed by his father-in-law John Chryselius, his daughter Miroslava and her husband Ashot the Taronite, who handed over Dyrrachium to Basil in return for money and tides; and that in 1009 the Tsar suffered a crippling defeat at a village called Creta, near Thessalonica. But that is about all. It is only in 1014 that the mists clear away sufficiently to allow us a glimpse of a battle which, though it by no means marked the end of the war, certainly put its eventual outcome beyond reasonable doubt.

It was fought in the narrow defile of Cimbalongus, or Clidion, leading from Serrae (Seres) into the valley of the Upper Struma. Fifteen years before, Samuel would probably have prepared an ambush; but by this dme any such plan, as he knew all too well, was doomed to failure. Instead, he decided to occupy it with his own troops, blocking Basil's way forward and obliging him to undertake a long and dangerous detour. Thus, when the Emperor arrived with his army, he found the entry to the defile closed by row after row of wooden palisades. He was still wondering how to proceed when one of his generals, the strategos of Philippopolis Nicephorus Xiphias, suggested leading a detachment secredy up the wooded hillside, along the ridge and down again to attack the Bulgars in the rear. At first Basil was sceptical - the plan smacked of risk and daring, two qualities he always mistrusted - but finally, seeing no other way out of the difficulty, he reluctantly agreed.

So Xiphias stole out of the imperial camp with a small body of carefully chosen men, made his way through the forest and eventually emerged at the further end of the defile, behind Samuel's army; and on 29 July he attacked, while the Emperor simultaneously launched a determined assault on the palisades. The Bulgars, taken entirely by surprise and unable to defend both extremities of the pass at once, panicked and fled. Many were cut down as they ran, many more were captured — some 14,000 to 15,000, if our sources are to be believed.1 The Tsar himself would have been among them but for the heroism of his son, who somehow remounted him and brought him back to the

1 Cecaumenus, writing some sixty years after the event, gives a figure of 14,000; Cedrenus 15,000.

fortress of Prilapon (the modern Prilep). The two of them were especially lucky, for Basil was in vengeful mood: it was now that he meted out the punishment for which - more than for any of his conquests, or any of his legislation - he is chiefly remembered, and which is described by Gibbon at the head of this chapter.

It was the beginning of October before the dreadful procession shuffled into the Tsar's castle at Prespa. Samuel was already a sick man, broken by the misfortunes of his nation and the failure of his hopes; and at the sight of his once-splendid army in its pitiful state he collapsed in a fit of apoplexy. A draught of cold water revived him for a few moments; but he soon lapsed into a coma and died two days later. Most of those who mourned his death knew full well that they were also mourning that of his Empire; and yet, with all the courage of their despair, the Bulgars still fought on - first under his son Gabriel Radomir and then, after the latter's murder in 1016, under his murderer (who was also his cousin), John Vladislav. Only when John in his turn was killed while besieging Dyrrachium in February 1018 did they surrender. Soon afterwards Basil made his formal entry into their capital, Ochrid. He was met at the gates of the city by John's widow, Maria, and as many of their family as she had been able to gather: three sons1 and six daughters, together with two daughters of Gabriel Radomir and five of his sons, one of whom had been blinded. There was even a bastard son of Samuel's. Basil received them with friendliness and courtesy and took all eighteen under his protection.

He had been twenty-eight years old when he first took up arms against the Bulgar Empire; he was now sixty. Its annihilation had taken him most of his active life, but now at last the task was triumphantly accomplished. For the first time since the arrival of the Slavs the entire Balkan peninsula was under Byzantine control. All that he had to do now was to show himself in as many cities - as possible, to receive homage, to exact oaths of fealty and to establish himself in the minds of the populations as their overlord. From Ochrid he passed on with his royal proteges to Prespa, where one of the bravest of the Bulgar generals, Ivatsia, was blinded when he refused to submit; thence to Castoria, where two daughters of Tsar Samuel were brought before him and, suddenly catching sight of the Tsaritsa Maria, were with difficulty

1 Their eldest son Prusian and two more of his brothers had escaped to the mountains, where they were resolved to continue the struggle; but it was not long before they too gave themselves up.

prevented from tearing her limb from limb; thence to Thermopylae, where he gazed upon the bleached bones of the 'thousands of Bulgar soldiers slaughtered' by Nicephorus Uranus twenty-three years before and - with still greater interest - upon the mighty fortifications built by another of his commanders, Roupen the Armenian, to protect the pass against further assault; thence finally to Athens itself, where he climbed up to the Acropolis to attend a service of thanksgiving in the Church of the Theotokos, the Mother of God - originally dedicated to a very different goddess, and known to us as the Parthenon.

In war Basil II - called Bulgaroctonus, the Bulgar-Slayer - had been merciless and brutal; with the coming of peace he proved moderate and understanding. The Bulgars were no longer his enemies; they were his subjects, and as such they deserved every consideration. Taxes were kept deliberately low, and payable not in gold as elsewhere in the Empire but in kind. The Patriarchate of Ochrid was downgraded to the status of an archbishopric, but not subordinated to the see of Constantinople: the Bulgarian Church thus continued to be autocephalous in every respect save one: the appointment of the archbishop was kept by the Emperor in his own hands. Most of the conquered territory was divided into two main Themes, Bulgaria and Paristrium, the latter being essentially the old Danubian province to the north. Certain areas in the west, however - notably Croatia, Dioclea, Rascia and Bosnia - continued to be ruled by their own native princes under imperial suzerainty. As for the Bulgars themselves, the vast majority welcomed the peace and caused no trouble (except on two later occasions when they very understandably protested against corrupt imperial governors); the aristocracy, for their part, were integrated into the Byzantine social and official hierarchy, several of them being given high office. Thus Prusian, the eldest son of John Vladislav, received the rank of magister and subsequently became strategos of the important Brucellarian Theme, covering roughly the area between Nicaea and Ancyra. His brother Aaron was later to be catapan (military governor) of Vaspurakan and, as we shall see, brother-in-law of the Emperor Isaac Comnenus.

And so the Bulgarian problem was settled; but the Emperor's work was not yet done. The eastern curopalates, King Bagrat of Abasgia, had died in 1014, whereupon his son George had immediately renounced the agreement of fourteen years before, invading and occupying Tao and Phasiane. Basil had sent a fleet to the far end of the Black Sea in an attempt to contain the damage, but now was his first chance of dealing effectively and conclusively with the rebel prince. In 1021 he set out on his third and last Asian expedition; in the following year George surrendered, leaving his three-year-old son in the Emperor's hands as a hostage for his good behaviour.1 At this point Basil could easily have turned back; instead, he seized the opportunity to improve his position along his ever-troublesome eastern frontier. By astute diplomacy and without any threat or even suggestion of military aggression, he annexed the region of Vaspurakan; equally peacefully, he persuaded John Smbat, the Armenian King of Ani, to bequeath his kingdom to the Empire on his death. By the time he returned to the capital in 1023 he had established no less than eight new Themes - running in a huge arc from that of Antioch in the far south and then north-eastward with those of Teluch, 'the Euphrates Cities' (later to be known as the Theme of Edessa), Melitene, Taron, Vaspurakan, Iberia and Theodosiopolis. He himself now reigned supreme from the Adriatic to Azerbaijan.

He was just sixty-five: a good age by medieval standards. Almost half his life had been spent on campaign. Most other men of his years and achievements would have been only too ready to lay down their swords and live out the rest of their days in peace and tranquillity. But Basil was not like other men: his energies were undiminished, and the reports that he found awaiting him at Constantinople immediately suggested a new channel into which they might be directed. These reports came from the imperial catapan in south Italy, Basil Boioannes. The political situation in that region had been gready complicated since 1017 by the arrival of large numbers of young Norman adventurers and freebooters, who had entered the peninsula in search of fame and fortune and had willingly allied themselves with the local Lombard separatists in the latter's efforts to free all Apulia and Calabria from Byzantine rule. For a year they had had considerable success; but in October 1019, at Cannae on the River Ofanto — where in 216 BC the Carthaginians under Hannibal had destroyed the army of Republican Rome — Boioannes had won a similar (if smaller) victory over a mixed force of Lombards and Normans. Three years later he had blocked a huge military expedition led by the Western Emperor

1 The little prince was returned three years later, and only just in time. A day or two after he had been safely delivered into the hands of his parents, Constantine VIII - who had just become sole ruler - made a determined effort to have him brought back to Constantinople. Fortunately the attempt failed; less than two years later, on George's death at the age of thirty, he succeeded to the throne under the name of Bagrat IV, and ruled over almost all Georgia for nearly half a century.

Henry II in person, and forced it back over the Alps. Now, surely, was the moment to strike again while the iron was still hot, consolidating past gains, re-establishing traditional frontiers and clearing Byzantine territory once and for all of foreign upstarts.

In south Italy, thanks to Boioannes, the job was already half done; there remained, however, the problem of Sicily which, reconquered for the Empire by Belisarius in 535, had been invaded by the Arabs three centuries later1 and had long been effectively part of the Muslim world. Now at long last this unsatisfactory state of affairs could be rectified. A great new army was prepared, and Boioannes was ordered to draw up a comprehensive plan for the invasion of the island in 1026. It was to be another twelve years, however, before that invasion took place; and when it did, neither the Emperor or his splendid catapan were there to lead it. Ten days before Christmas 1025, at the ninth hour of the day, Basil II died in the Great Palace of Constantinople, aged sixty-seven.

He had been a phenomenon: the most astonishing, perhaps, in all Byzantine history. For reasons which should be clear from the previous chapter, he had come late to maturity; but once he had found his touch it never deserted him. Despising as he did the outward trappings of power — by which almost all Emperors before and after him set so much store - he none the less effortlessly dominated and directed, by the impact of his personality alone, every branch of the administration of Church and State. He made and unmade Patriarchs, framed laws which revolutionized the whole social structure of Anatolia, summoned foreign princes again and again to do his bidding and - by virtue of the way in which he uniquely combined the strategic vision of a commander-in-chief with the meticulous attention to detail of a drill-sergeant - showed himself one of the most brilliant generals that the Empire had ever seen.

This last quality is the more surprising in that, apart from what must inevitably surround the figure of an Emperor, he was utterly devoid of glamour. Throughout history, nearly every outstanding leader in the field has had something charismatic about him, some indefinable spark that fires the imagination of his men, persuading them to follow him into battle not only willingly but with energy and enthusiasm. Of this, so far as we can judge, Basil possessed scarcely a trace. His campaigns generated no thunder or lightning. Under him the imperial army was more like a flood of volcanic lava, advancing slowly but inexorably, as

1 See pp. 37-8.

impervious to direct frontal resistance as it was to attack from the sides or the rear. After his youthful humiliation at Trajan's Gate — which he never forgot, and for which the entire Bulgarian war was, in a sense, an act of revenge - he took few risks, and suffered few casualties. But although he was trusted by his troops, they never loved him.

No one - with the possible exception of his mother - ever did. Love as an emotion seems never to have touched him, either as lover or beloved. Indeed, there is no evidence that anyone even liked him much. The chroniclers mention no close associates. No lonelier man ever occupied the Byzantine throne - or any other, for that matter. And it is hardly surprising: Basil was ugly, dirty, coarse, boorish, totally philistine and almost pathologically mean. He was, in short, profoundly un-Byzantine. And all these things, one suspects, he would have readily admitted. He was not concerned with the social graces, not interested even in personal happiness, in laughter and the love of friends. He cared only for the greatness and prosperity of his Empire. No wonder that in his hands it reached its apogee.

In one respect only did he fail; but it was a failure so calamitous as to outweigh much of his success and to bring to naught much of his achievement. He left no children, and no one to continue his work after he was gone. He knew - better than anyone - the hopeless inadequacy of his brother Constantine, still as frivolous and pleasure-loving in his middle sixties as he had been half a century before. His own attitude to women - whether he hated them, or despised them, or (as is most likely) feared them - remains a mystery; and yet, one wonders, with all that steel discipline of his, could he not somehow have forced himself to take a wife, and engender a son or two, for the Empire's sake? Had he done so, it might have continued to prosper, might have spread still further across Europe and Asia, might have risen to yet greater heights of influence and power. Dying as he did without issue, he virtually ensured its decline.

He died on 15 December. By the 16th, that decline had already begun.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!