Byzantine emperor and conqueror
R uler of the Byzantine Empire from 976 to 1025, a time when the power of the Muslim caliphate had faded and the Seljuk Turks had not yet made their impact, Basil II brought his realm to its greatest height since the time of Justinian (see entry). His story shares certain themes with that of England's King Alfred and Mali's Sundiata Keita (see boxes): in each case, the ruler of a beleaguered people led them in wars of conquest that united them and brought them to new glories. As leader of a world power, Basil would have the most impact of the three, but his victories would also be the most short-lived.
An unlikely hero
Unattractive and uneducated, Basil made an unlikely hero in Greek society, which placed a high emphasis on physical beauty and learning. Given the fact that he was raised in the imperial palace—he was the son of Emperor Romanus II (roh-MAIN-us; ruled 939–63)—his lack of education is hard to understand; so, too, is the fact that he never married.
Though he was short, dressed poorly, and hardly spoke, a marriage of advantage could have been arranged with some other ruling house, and it would have been expected, because rulers in the Middle Ages placed a huge emphasis on fathering a son and successor. Basil's decision not to marry was particularly unfortunate, given the fact that none of his successors proved his equal: perhaps if he had had a son, he might have exerted greater influence on the next generation of leaders.
King Alfred the Great
Many rulers have been given the title "the Great," usually after their lifetime; Alfred (848–c. 900), however, was the only king of England ever assigned this distinguished title. In fact he was the first monarch to unite all of England under his rule: before Alfred's time, the land was divided among a number of smaller kingdoms, ruled either by Angles, Saxons, or Jutes. His own Saxon kingdom of Wessex was just one of these competing states.
The one unifying factor in these lands was religion, thanks in large part to the missionaries sent by Pope Gregory I ("the Great"; see entry). Alfred himself went to Rome as a small child, and was awed by the power of the church, the splendor of the city's imperial legacy, and the great wisdom passed down in Latin books from the writers of old.
Meanwhile, his homeland was in turmoil, thanks to a series of invasions by the Danes—one of the most prominent Viking groups—starting in 787. Young Alfred first made a name for himself in his early twenties, in 871, known as "the year of the battles." He scored a major triumph against the Danes at Ashdown, but lost his brother, King Ethelred, in another battle; subsequently the Witan, the Anglo-Saxon governing body, crowned Alfred king of Wessex.
Subsequent Danish victories forced Alfred to go into hiding. During this time, in an incident shrouded in legend, he went in disguise to a poor peasant's hut. The woman of the house, having no idea who he was, asked him to keep watch over some loaves of bread she was baking. Preoccupied by concerns for his country, Alfred let the loaves burn, and when the wife returned, she rebuked him sharply and
boxed his ears. The next day, Alfred came in his royal clothes, attended by servants, to apologize to the woman.
In the struggle against the Danes, Alfred introduced two highly significant concepts: the militia, ancestor of citizen-soldier forces such as America's National Guard; and the first English navy. The latter was destined to become a powerful force in the nation's history through the twentieth century. Yet Alfred won peace with the Danes ultimately not through warfare, but through negotiation. He settled an agreement with a long-despised foe, the Dane's King Gutrum, whereby the northern part of England, the Danelaw, came under Danish control, while the Anglo-Saxons—with Alfred as their king—ruled the south.
With the Danish threat minimized, Alfred devoted much of his latter career to scholarship. He translated works of Boethius, Pope Gregory I (see entries), and the Venerable Bede (see entry on Historians) as well as the Bible, from Latin to the Old English spoken by the Anglo-Saxons.
Bardas Sclerus and Bardas Phocas
A brilliant strategist and an extraordinarily capable leader, Basil spent most of his reign in the saddle, fighting a number of conflicts. The first of these was an off-and-on conflict with two opposing men of influence, Bardas Sclerus and Bardas Phocas, each of whom intended to gain control over the empire. In line with its ancient Roman heritage, the Byzantine Empire did not recognize hereditary noblemen; but again like Rome itself, it had a powerful aristocratic class, to which both men belonged.
Each wanted to take the throne from Basil, and this conflict probably influenced his lifelong opposition to the Byzantine aristocracy. In 996, he would pass a law intended to simultaneously reduce the aristocrats' influence, gain the support of the poor, and fill the imperial coffers: according to this law, rich landlords were required to pay the taxes of the local poor. In the meantime, during the late 980s, Basil found himself with his back against the wall, lacking support in his fight against the two would-be emperors. It was then that he hit on a brilliant idea.
Like Basil II, Sundiata Keita (sun-JAH-tah kah-EE-tuh; died 1255), who was crippled at birth, came from unpromising beginnings. Yet he would grow up to establish the great empire of Mali, which would reach its height some years later under Mansa Musa (see entry).
Sundiata's family were rulers of a small West African kingdom called Kangaba, which they had controlled for about two centuries. They were constantly under threat from neighboring Kaniaga (kahn-ee-AH-guh), whose ruler in Sundiata's time was Sumanguru (sü-mahng-GÜ-roo). Sumanguru killed eleven of Sundiata's brothers, but did not consider the crippled Sundiata worth killing.
The Sundiata story is steeped in legend, making it hard to pick out the facts, but it appears that he was "miraculously" cured in his twenties, and was suddenly able to walk without difficulty. He soon distinguished himself as a hunter, and attracted a following of other young hunter-warriors. Meanwhile another surviving brother had become vassal king of Kangaba, subject to Sumanguru, and he considered Sundiata a threat. Sundiata finally had to go into exile, taking refuge with a king in nearby Mema (MAY-mah).
Ultimately the people of Kangaba became increasingly unhappy with the cruel system imposed on them by Sumanguru, and they finally revolted, forcing Sundiata's brother to flee. Seeing his chance, Sundiata formed an alliance with Mema and other states, and won control of Kangaba in 1234. He marched against Sumanguru in 1235, winning a great victory at Kirina on the Niger River—a bloody battle in which the hated Sumanguru lost his life.
The people of surrounding lands viewed Sundiata as a liberator, and thus he was able to spur them on to wars of conquest that expanded his realm in all directions. This led to the creation of Mali, an empire whose name means simply "where the king lives." Sundiata established his capital at Niani (nee-AHN-ee), which became renowned as a center of learning and trade.
Basil sent a message to the ruler of Kievan Russia, Vladimir (see box in St. Cyril and St. Methodius entry), informing him that if the Russians would provide him with six thousand soldiers, Basil would allow Vladimir to marry his sister. Marriage to a Byzantine princess, which would greatly improve his standing in the world, was exactly what Vladimir desired, and his support proved crucial to Basil's later victories. Bardas Phocas was defeated, and died in 989. Basil wisely allowed the blind and aging Bardas Sclerus to go free, and as a result gained the loyalty of the latter's many supporters.
Basil becomes the Bulgar-Slayer
Basil next turned his attention to the Bulgarians' King Samuel, who had earlier defeated him in a military engagement. From 990 to 994, he waged a series of brutal and successful campaigns against Samuel, but his attention was diverted by conflicts with the Muslim Fatimids in Egypt.
In 997, Samuel adopted the title czar or "caesar," which indicated that he had his eye on the Byzantine throne. This resulted in a third campaign that lasted from 998 to 1003, and once again Basil had to leave because of conflicts in the East. The Byzantines nonetheless managed to take some key cities, and after a decade they drove the Bulgarians to a last stand.
In 1014, Samuel sent some fifteen thousand men to defend an important mountain pass. Basil attacked from the rear, capturing about fourteen thousand soldiers, and he proceeded to deal them an extraordinarily harsh punishment. Byzantine soldiers blinded ninety-nine out of every 100 Bulgarian soldiers, leaving the last man with one good eye so that he could lead the others home. When Samuel saw the ghastly specter of his returning soldiers, he died of shock.
On to Armenia
Forever after known as the "Bulgar-Slayer," Basil incorporated Bulgarian lands into his empire, and set his attention on a land that had attracted Byzantine interest for many years: Armenia. Led by the Bagratid (bahg-RAH-teed) dynasty that also controlled nearby Georgia, the Armenians had united to resist Byzantine rule, and Basil responded by making a tactical withdrawal—that is, he took one step backward so that he could move forward by two steps. With the decline of the Fatimids, he regained territories in Syria and Iraq, and by 1001 was ready for the conquest of Armenia.
When he was not fighting the Bulgarians, Basil devoted much of his attention to conquering Armenia, a process that lasted beyond his lifetime. Byzantium was destined to control the country for only a short time, however: less than fifty years after Basil's death on December 15, 1025, the Seljuk Turks dealt the Byzantines a devastating blow at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. This resulted in the Byzantines' loss of virtually all the lands Basil had gained, and sent the empire into a long, slow decay.
Yet Basil's legacy remained fixed, in part through his able administration of the empire, which along with his military victories brought Byzantium to its greatest glory since Justinian nearly five centuries before. He also influenced the Christianization of Russia, which would forever be tied to the Eastern Orthodox Church. At the time of his death, he was planning the reconquest of Sicily from the Arabs, and perhaps if his successors had been men of Basil's caliber, the empire's later history would have turned out to be quite different.
For More Information
Chrisp, Peter. The World of the Roman Emperor. New York: P. Bedrick Books, 1999.
Corrick, James A. The Byzantine Empire. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1997.
Davidson, Basil. African Kingdoms. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1978.
Jenkins, Romilly. Byzantium: The Imperial Centuriesa.d. 610–1071. New York: Random House, 1966.
Johnson, Eleanor Noyes. King Alfred the Great. Illustrated by Arthur Wallower. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966.
Mitchison, Naomi. The Young Alfred the Great. Illustrated by Shirley Farrow. New York: Roy Publishers, 1963.
Wisniewski, David. Sundiata: Lion King of Mali. Illustrations by the author. New York: Clarion Books, 1992.
"Alfred the Great." [Online] Available http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/MEDalfred.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Background to the Epic of Sundiata Keita." [Online] Available http://courses.wcupa.edu/jones/his311/notes/sundiata.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Byzantine and Medieval Web Links." Medieval Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/medweb/links.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).
"Mali—Formation of an Empire." [Online] Available http://xavier.xula.edu/~jrotondo/Kingdoms/Mali/Formation02.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).
(1415–1462), grand prince of Moscow from 1425 to 1462 (with intervals).
Basil II, third son and successor to Basil I (two elder sons of the latter died in childhood), ascended the Muscovite throne at the age of ten. Until he attained his majority, three persons shared the real power: his mother Sophia (the daughter of Vitautas, the grand prince of Lithuania), metropolitan Photius, and a boyar, Ivan Vsevolozhsky. In 1425 the intercession of Photius stopped the outbreak of dynastic war: When Basil's uncle Yuri Dmitrievich, the prince of Galich and Zvenigorod, laid claim to the grand-princely throne, the metropolitan made Yuri reconcile with his nephew. Basil II also owed much to Vsevolozhsky. When in 1431 the dispute over the Muscovite throne was transferred to the Golden Horde, this boyar managed to obtain the judgment of the khan favorable to Basil II.
Basil's first actions on his own were far less successful. In spring 1433 he could not stop his uncle Yuri's march on Moscow, and in the battle at Klazma River on April 25 Basil was completely defeated. Yuri seized grand-princely power, and only his unexpected death on June 5, 1434, allowed Basil II to supersede this strong rival.
Having grown up in the atmosphere of dynastic war, Basil II became suspicious and ruthless: He ordered the blinding of Vsevolozhsky, suspecting him of contacts with prince Yuri's party. In 1436, having captured his rebellious cousin Basil the Cross-Eyed, Basil II also had him blinded. Later, the same means of political elimination was applied to Basil II.
The mid-1440s were the most troublesome years in Basil's life. On July 7, 1445, in the battle at Kamenka River (near Suzdal), the Kazan Tatars defeated his army; he was wounded and captured. Having gotten this news, his cousin Dmitry Shemyaka proclaimed himself the grand prince of Moscow. Only in October 1445 was Basil II released (on condition of paying a huge ransom) and returned to Moscow. Shemyaka fled but was prompt enough to organize a broad opposition to the grand prince, spreading rumors about the commitments undertaken by Basil II in captivity. As a result of a conspiracy, in February 1446 Shemyaka occupied Moscow, and Basil II was captured in the Trinity monastery (where he went for prayers) and blinded. Though exiled to Uglich (later to Vologda), the blind prince in February 1447 managed to return to Moscow as a victor.
The causes of Basil's II final victory are open to debate. Alexander Zimin, the author of the most detailed account of his reign (1991), maintained that Basil was "a nobody" and that the victory of the blind prince was entirely due to his loyal servicemen. This social explanation seems highly probable, but the personal role of Basil II in the events should not be neglected. Though he lacked the abilities of a military leader, his courage, persistence, and devotion to his cause must be taken into account.
See also: basil i; basil iii; civil war of 1425–1450; golden horde; grand prince; metropolitan
Crummey, Robert O. (1987). The Formation of Muscovy 1304–1613. London: Longman.
Presniakov, A. E. (1970). The Formation of the Great Russian State: A Study of Russian History in the Thirteenth to Fifteenth Centuries, tr. A. E. Moorhouse. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.
Mikhail M. Krom
The Byzantine emperor Basil II (ca. 958-1025) ruled from 963 to 1025 and was called Bulgaroctonus (Bulgar-Slayer). He was the last and greatest of the emperors who brought Byzantium to its military zenith.
The elder son of Emperor Romanus II, Basil and his younger brother, Constantine, succeeded in title as children upon their father's death in 963. Their position was exploited by two successive military usurpers, Nicephorus Phocas (963-969) and John I Tzimisces (969-976). Upon John's death, while Constantine remained in the background, Basil attempted to rule but became dependent upon his great-uncle, the eunuch Basil the Chamberlain. A cunning politician of long experience, the chamberlain helped Basil face the challenges of two more would-be usurpers, the aristocrats Bardas Sclerus and Bardas Phocas. Amid these struggles the chamberlain's tutelage became intolerable, and Basil drove him from office.
The rebellions of the two Bardases eventually drove Basil to seek military help from Prince Vladimir of Kiev; this alliance led to Russia's subsequent conversion to Byzantine Christianity. The unit of Russian soldiers sent by Vladimir helped Basil stop Bardas Phocas in 989, and Bardas Sclerus capitulated shortly afterward. These long struggles to guarantee his throne left deep scars on Basil's personality. Easygoing and dissipated in his youth, he was turned by his ordeals into a dour, stern, self-denying ascetic. His experiences with ambitious warlords also bred in him a passionate hatred for the aristocrats and a determination to curb them.
With the aristocracy dominating the military high commands, Basil decided early to establish his own reputation as a soldier. An initial attempt at campaigning against Bulgaria, the deadly northern enemy of Byzantium, in 986 had proved an embarrassing failure. In 990, however, Basil resumed his efforts against Bulgaria, which would become the prime target of his mature military efforts. The 25 years of bitter war between King Samuel of Bulgaria and Basil that followed became both a personal duel and a fight to the death between the two enemy states.
With victories, devastation, and bold strategy, Basil wore Samuel down, segmented his territories, and crippled Bulgarian strength. The climax was reached in 1014, when the Byzantines captured the main Bulgarian army of some 14, 000 men. Basil had these men blinded but left one in every hundred with one eye to serve as a guide. He sent them back to Samuel, who died from shock at the sight. Basil completed the annexation of Bulgaria and its incorporation into the empire with singular moderation and pragmatic wisdom.
The next years of the tireless Emperor's reign were spent in settling the empire's interests in eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus. He began the dismemberment and annexation of independent Armenia. Then, still restless, Basil turned his attentions further westward. He planned an expedition to reconquer Sicily and expand Byzantine authority in Italy; but before he could undertake this campaign, Basil suddenly took ill and died on Dec. 15, 1025. A bachelor, Basil left the throne to his younger brother, Constantine VIII, during whose reign (1025-1028) began the rapid erosion of the strength Basil had built up.
The chief scholarly study of Basil II is in French. Good general accounts in English are in George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State (1940; trans. 1956; rev. ed. 1969), and in Romilly Jenkins, Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries, A.D. 610-1071 (1966), part of which is reproduced in J. M. Hussey, ed., The Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 4 (2d ed. 1966), pt. 1. □