A full perspective of Byzantine civilization would require at this point a record of many emperors and some empresses—not of their intrigues, palace revolutions, and assassinations, but of their policy and legislation, and their age-long effort to protect the diminishing Empire from Moslems on the south and Slavs and Bulgars on the north. In some respects it is an heroic picture: through all the fluent shifts of appearing and disappearing figures the Greek heritage was in good measure preserved; economic order and continuity were maintained; civilization continued, as if by some enduring impetus from the ancient labors of Pericles and Augustus, Diocletian and Constantine. In other aspects it is a sorry spectacle of generals climbing over slain rivals to imperial power, to be slain in their turn; of pomp and luxury, eye-gouging and nose-cutting, incense and piety and treachery; of emperor and patriarch unscrupulously struggling to determine whether the empire should be ruled by might or myth, by sword or word. So we pass by Nicephorus I (802-11) and his wars with Harun al-Rashid; Michael I (811-13), dethroned and tonsured into monkhood because of his defeat by the Bulgars; Leo V the Armenian (813-20), who again forbade the worship of images, and was assassinated while singing an anthem in church; Michael II (820-9) the illiterate “Stammerer,” who fell in love with a nun, and persuaded the Senate to entreat him to marry her;7 Theophilus (829—42), a legislative reformer, royal builder, and conscientious administrator, who revived the Iconoclastic persecution, and died of dysentery; his widow Theodora, who as an able regent (842-56) ended the persecution; Michael III “the Drunkard” (842-67), whose amiable incompetence left the government first to his mother and, after her death, to his cultured and capable uncle Caesar Bardas. Then suddenly a unique and unexpected figure appeared on the scene, overthrew every precedent except violence, and founded the powerful Macedonian dynasty.
Basil the Macedonian was born (812?) near Hadrianople of an Armenian peasant family. As a child he was captured by Bulgars, and lived his youth among them beyond the Danube, in what was then called Macedonia. Escaping in his twenty-fifth year, he made his way to Constantinople, and was hired as groom by a diplomat who admired his physical strength and massive head. He accompanied his master on a mission to Greece, and there attracted the attention, and some of the wealth, of the widow Danielis. Back in the capital, he tamed a spirited horse for Michael III, was taken into the Emperor’s service, and, though quite illiterate, rose to the position of lord chamberlain. Basil was ever convenient and competent; when Michael sought a husband for his mistress, Basil divorced his peasant wife, sent her to Thrace with a comforting dowry, and married Eudocia, who continued her services to the Emperor.8 Michael supplied Basil with a mistress, but the Macedonian thought he deserved the throne as reward. He persuaded Michael that Bardas was plotting to depose him, and then killed Bardas with his own enormous hands (866). Long accustomed to reign without ruling, Michael made Basil coemperor and left him all the tasks of government. When Michael threatened to dismiss him, Basil arranged and supervised his assassination, and became sole emperor (867): so, even under hereditary monarchy, career was open to talent. With such servility and crime the letterless son of a peasant established the longest of all Byzantine dynasties, and began a nineteen-year reign of excellent administration, legislating wisely, judging justly, replenishing the treasury, and building new churches and palaces for the city that he had captured. No one dared oppose him; and when he died by a hunting accident the throne passed with unwonted quiet to his son.
Leo VI (886-912) was the complement of his father: learned, bookish, sedentary, mild; gossip concluded that he was Michael’s, not Basil’s, son, and perhaps Eudocia was not sure. He earned his cognomen of “the Wise” not by his poetry, nor by his treatises on theology, administration, and war, but by his reorganization of provincial and ecclesiastical government, his new formulations of Byzantine law, and his meticulous regulation of industry. Though an admiring pupil of the scholarly patriarch Photius, and himself devoted to piety, he shocked the clergy, and amused the people, by four marriages. His first two wives died without bearing him a son; Leo insisted on a son as the only alternative to a war of succession; the moral theology of the Church forbade a third marriage; Leo persisted, and his fourth wife, Zoë, crowned his resolution with a boy.
Constantine VII (912—58) was called Porphyrogenitus—“born in the purple”—i.e., in the porphyry-lined apartment reserved for the use of expecting empresses. He inherited his father’s literary tastes, not his administrative capacity. He composed for his son two books on the art of government: one on the “themes” or provinces of the Empire, and a Book of Ceremonies describing the ritual and etiquette required of the emperor. He supervised the compilation of works on agriculture, medicine, veterinary medicine, and zoology, and formed an “historians’ history of the world” by selecting extracts from historians and chroniclers. Under his patronage Byzantine literature flourished in its polished and anemic way.
Perhaps Romanus II (958-63) was like other children, and did not read his father’s books. He married a Greek girl, Theophano; she was suspected of poisoning her father-in-law and hastening Romanus’ death; and before her twenty-four-year-old husband was dead she seduced into her arms the ascetic general Nicephorus II Phocas, who with her connivance seized the throne. Nicephorus had already driven the Moslems from Aleppo and Crete (961); in 965 he drove them from Cyprus, in 968 from Antioch; it was these victories that shattered the Abbasid caliphate. Nicephorus pled with the patriarch to promise all the rewards and honors of martyrdom to soldiers who should fall in battle against the Moslems; the patriarch refused on the ground that all soldiers were temporarily polluted by the blood that they shed; had he consented, the Crusades might have begun a century earlier. Nicephorus lost ambition, and retired into the palace to live like an anchorite. Bored with this monastic existence, Theophano became the mistress of the general John Tzimisces. With her connivance he killed Nicephorus (969) and seized the throne; remorseful, he repudiated and exiled her, and went off to atone for his crimes by transient victories against the Moslems and the Slavs.
His successor was one of the most powerful personalities in Byzantine history. Basil II, born to Romanus and Theophano (958), had served as co-emperor with Nicephorus Phocas and Tzimisces; now (976) he began at the age of eighteen an undivided rule that lasted half a century. Troubles encompassed him: his chief minister plotted to displace him; the feudal barons, whom he proposed to tax, financed conspiracies against him; Bardas Sclerus, general of the eastern army, rebelled, and was suppressed by Bardas Phocas, who then had himself proclaimed emperor by his troops; the Moslems were recovering nearly all that Tzimisces had won from them in Syria; the Bulgars were at their zenith, encroaching upon the Empire in east and west. Basil suppressed the revolt, reclaimed Armenia from the Saracens, and in a ruthless thirty years’ war destroyed the Bulgarian power. After his victory in 1014 he blinded 15,000 prisoners, leaving one eye in every hundredth man to lead the tragic host back to Samuel, the Bulgarian tsar; perhaps in terror rather than in admiration the Greeks called him Bulgaroctonus, Killer of Bulgars. Amid these campaigns he found time to war against “those who enriched themselves at the expense of the poor.” By his laws of 996 he sought to break up some of the large estates, and to encourage the spread of a free peasantry. He was about to lead an armada against the Saracens in Sicily when death surprised him in his sixty-eighth year. Not since Heraclius had the Empire been so extensive, nor since Justinian so strong.
The Byzantine decline was resumed under his aged brother Constantine VIII (1025—8). Having no offspring but three daughters, Constantine persuaded Romanus Argyrus to marry the eldest, Zoë, who was nearing fifty. As regent, and with the help of her sister Theodora, Zoë governed the state through the reigns of Romanus III (1028-34), Michael IV (1034-42), Michael V (1042), and Constantine IX (1042—55); and seldom had the Empire been better ruled. The imperial sisters attacked corruption in state and Church, and forced officials to disgorge their embezzled hoards; one who had been chief minister surrendered 5300 pounds of gold ($2,226,000) which he had secreted in a cistern; and when the Patriarch Alexis died, a cache of 100,000 pounds of silver ($27,000,000) was discovered in his rooms.9 For a brief interlude the sale of offices was stopped. Zoë and Theodora sat as judges on the highest tribunal, and dispensed stern justice. Nothing could rival Zoë’s impartiality. Having at sixty-two married Constantine IX, and knowing that her cosmetic skill had preserved barely the surface of her charms, she allowed her new husband to bring his mistress Sclerena to live in the royal palace; he chose quarters between their apartments, and Zoë never visited him without making sure that he was disengaged.10 When Zoë died (1050), Theodora retired to a convent, and Constantine IX ruled for five years with wisdom and taste; he chose men of competence and culture for his aides, rebeautified St. Sophia, built hospitals and refuges for the poor, and supported literature and art. At his death (1055) the supporters of the Macedonian dynasty led a popular revolt that brought the virgin Theodora out of her conventual retreat, and, much against her will, crowned her empress. Despite her seventy-four years she and her ministers governed efficiently; but in 1056 she died so suddenly that chaos ensued. The palace aristocracy named Michael VI emperor; the army preferred the general Isaac Comnenus. One battle decided the issue; Michael became a monk, and Comnenus entered the capital in 1057 as emperor. The Macedonian dynasty had come to an end after 190 years of violence, war, adultery, piety, and excellent administration.
Isaac Comnenus resigned after two years, named Constantine Ducas, the president of the Senate, as his successor, and entered a monastery. When Constantine died (1067) his widow Eudocia acted as regent for four years; but the demands of war required a sterner leader, and she married and crowned Romanus IV. Romanus was defeated by the Turks at Manzikert (1071), returned to Constantinople in disgrace, was deposed, imprisoned, and blinded, and was allowed to die of his untended wounds. When AlexiusComnenus I, nephew of Isaac Comnenus, came to the throne (1081), the Byzantine Empire seemed near its fall. The Turks had taken Jerusalem (1076), and were advancing through Asia Minor; the Patzinak and Cuman tribes were approaching Constantinople from the north; the Normans were attacking the Byzantine outposts in the Adriatic; the government and the army were crippled with treason, incompetence, corruption, and cowardice. Alexius met the situation with subtlety and courage. He sent agents to foment revolution in Norman Italy; gave Venice commercial privileges in return for the aid of its navy against the Normans; confiscated Church treasures to rebuild his army; took the field in person, and won victories by strategy rather than by blood. Amid these foreign cares he found time to reorganize the government and its defenses, and gave the tottering Empire another century of life. In 1095, in a far-reaching stroke of diplomacy, he appealed to the West to come to the aid of the Christian East; at the Council of Piacenza he offered a reunion of the Greek with the Latin Church in return for the unity of Europe against Islam. His appeal conspired with other factors to unleash the first of those dramatic Crusades that were to save, and then destroy, Byzantium.