Basil II and the government of Empire (976-1025)

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 Basil II and the government of Empire (976-1025)

By Catherine J.Holmes

PhD Dissertation, University of Oxford. 1999

Abstract: The reign of Basil II (976-1025) is widely accepted as the apogee of medieval Byzantium. During the century before Basil came to the throne, the Byzantine empire had made substantial territorial gains on its eastern borders at the expense of the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad. However, it was under Basil that the expansionist enterprise of tenth-century Byzantium reached its acme. In the east, the Christian Caucasian princedoms of Tao and Vaspurakan were annexed. In the west, Bulgaria was conquered in 1018. By the end of the reign, an expedition to Sicily was planned. In 1025, at the time of the emperor’s death, imperial frontiers were at their most far-flung since the seventh century. Yet, the military and territorial success of Basil’s reign proved to be ephemeral. Within fifty years of the emperor’s death, Byzantium was on the point of disintegration, torn asunder by internal civil wars and battered by external foes. Positioned between the expansion of the tenth century and the fragility of the later eleventh, the significance of Basil’s reign to any understanding of the history of medieval Byzantium in particular, and the Near East in general, could hardly be clearer. Yet, there has been no major study of this period by a modern historian since Gustave Schlumberger’s extensive two-volume appraisal, L ‘Epopee byzantine a la fin du dixieme siede, was published at the end of the nineteenth century. This thesis represents the preliminary stages in the composition of a new history of Basil’s reign.

The principal deterrent to a modern analysis of the reign has been the problem of evidence. There is no contemporary appraisal of the whole reign in Greek. Coverage by later medieval Greek historians is meagre in quantity, and inconsistent in quality. Isolated references to the reign in literary materials outside the Greek historical record are difficult to interpret in the absence of a sustained Greek narrative. Although contemporary historians located on the eastern periphery of the empire, writing in languages other than Greek, offer more reliable dated information than their Greek counterparts, large chronological periods of the reign and substantial geographical regions are almost entirely neglected by the historical record. To some extent the short comings of the written sources can be offset by archaeological, sigillographical and numismatic evidence. Yet, the material record, which is often so difficult to date, should not be used simply to plug geographical or chronological lacunae left gaping by the medieval historians.




The ultimate ambition of any fresh investigation into Basil’s reign must be the development of a new narrative of the political, military and diplomatic history of the Byzantine empire in the later tenth and early eleventh centuries. Yet, the chronological difficulties inherent in the primary sources mean that such a narrative cannot simply be constructed by synthesising the extant written materials and adding occasional details from the material record. Such an approach runs the risk of replicating the chronological and geographical lacunae of the medieval historians, and is unlikely to improve substantially on Schlumberger’s analysis of the reign. Instead, a convincing narrative needs to be predicated on a better understanding of the extant literary evidence, and a strong sense of the structures which underpinned political society in medieval Byzantium. This thesis develops these two essential foundation stones to the construction of a new narrative. The first half of the thesis examines the main medieval Greek account of the reign in the light of the wider literary, social and political contexts in which it was written. The second half looks more directly at the economic and administrative structural bases to political power in tenth- and eleventh-century Byzantium by analysing a wide range of contemporary literary and material evidence from the eastern half of the empire.

The first three chapters of this thesis investigate the ‘Synopsis Historion’ of John Skylitzes. This long synoptic history, which was compiled towards the end of the eleventh century and covers the period 811 to 1057 (or 1079 in those versions of the text which contain the ‘Continuation’), contains the earliest and longest connected narrative of the reign of Basil II in Greek. At the very beginning of the first chapter of the dissertation, the importance of Skylitzes’ testimony to any understanding of the reign of Basil II is considered in general terms. The discussion summarises the contents of Skylitzes’ coverage of the reign, stressing the extent to which the first half of the account is dominated by the civil wars waged by the generals Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas between 976 and 989, and the second half by Basil’s campaigns in Bulgaria. The text’s many geographical and chronological confusions and lacunae are highlighted. The chapter then argues that it is impossible to approach Skylitzes’ coverage of this period simply by trying to amplify or verify his information and interpretation with material from other medieval historians. Instead of attempting to assess Skylitzes’ coverage of Basil’s reign on a fact by fact basis, the modern historian of this period should try to understand the principles of selection, presentation and interpretation which underpin Skylitzes’ text. Such an approach requires a more profound understanding of how Skylitzes’ coverage of Basil’s reign relates to the text of the ‘Synopsis Historion’ as a whole, and of the literary, social and political contexts behind the author’s compilation. It is this relationship between authorship, text and context, which lies at the heart of the first three chapters of this thesis.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Oxford

Click here to visit Catherine Holmes’ webpage at the University of Oxford

Sharan Newman