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From peasant to Byzantine emperor: the remarkable career of Basil the ‘Macedonian’

By Georgios Theotokis

On 24 September 867, the Byzantine empire marked the birth of a new dynasty, one that we will come to know as the ‘Macedonian’ dynasty because of the topographical origin of the founder, Basil.

This dynasty was destined to become one of the longest-surviving in the empire’s history, enduring until the passing of its last representative, Theodora, in 1056. Surprisingly, and despite the popularity of the members of the Macedonian dynasty, this period was not without its usurpers: Romanus the -so-called- Lecapenus (ruled, 920-944), Nicephorus Phocas (ruled, 963-969), and John Tzimiskes (ruled, 969-976). Yet, power inevitably harked back to the Macedonians because, as historians emphasize, these usurpers never attempted to deny the imperial claim of the Macedonians but, instead, came to justify their own positions as protectors of the ‘porphyrogennitoi’ [πορφυρογέννητοι, the ‘purple-born’].

One of the key features of the emergence of Basil as an emperor was its sheer unpredictability. It would have looked inconceivable to a contemporary that a peasant from the environs of Adrianople (modern-day Edirne) would rise to become the most powerful man in the known world. Yet, to a certain extent, this is one of Rome’s – and, as a consequence, its eastern heir – remarkable expressions of public life: social mobility! Justin (ruled, 518-27), the founder of the Justinianic dynasty who was a peasant and possibly a swineherd by occupation, and Vespasian (ruled, 69-79), the founder of the Flavian dynasty and a donkey-herder turned debt-collector in his early years, are just two examples that confirm the aforementioned argument.

The unexpected rise of Basil and the obscurity of his origins resulted in one of the most striking features of the history of the early Macedonian dynasty: the growth of a myth around his birth, his early life and achievements, as exemplified by the Life of Basil compiled at the request of his grandson, the emperor Constantine VII (second rule, 944-959).

Two points are made clear in the Life of Basil about the origins of the founder of the dynasty:

(a) that Basil was the instrument of God and that his reign was divinely-ordained, and

(b) that Basil, although obscure, did have notable ancestors in Constantine the Great and Tiridates the Armenian king.

Furthermore, the historian of the Life recorded a “divine voice” that predicted Basil’s accession, but also a warning to the emperor Michael III (ruled, 842-67) of the ‘Amorian’ dynasty by his mother, Theodora, that Basil was “destined to destroy our dynasty.” Nevertheless, the historical value of the Life of Basil is – to say the least – problematic, because it hides Basil’s early life within a shroud of mystery and myth.

The skill of taming a horse

Basil was born in the Byzantine province of Macedonia to peasant parents of Armenian origin. That much is certain! But even his name may not be the one he was born with: it might have been the Greek corruption of the “Basileus” [Βασίλειος: Basil; βασιλεύς (nom.) – βασιλέως (gen.): king]. Whatever the case, he lived in Macedonia, although Armenian was his first language, and he is reported to have spoken Greek with a noticeable accent. Furthermore, the most well-attested set of dates has him born in the 830s, although we cannot be entirely sure about that either. Basil’s family, who lived near Adrianople, were carried off over the Danube after a Bulgarian raid in the reign of Leo V (ruled, 813-20), only returning to Byzantine territory in the reign of Theophilos (ruled, 829-42); Basil was, probably, born just before or after the return in the early 830s.

When he came of age in the early 850s, he sought his fortune in the centre of power in the Empire, the capital of Constantinople, where he befriended a monk named Nicolas, a prosmonarios of the church of St Diomedes. According to the legend narrated in the Life of Basil:

On a Sunday, near the hour of sunset, he reached the Golden Gate, a poor unknown adventurer, with staff and scrip, and he lay down to sleep in the vestibule of the adjacent church of St. Diomede. During the night, Nicolas, who was in charge of the church, was awakened by a mysterious voice saying, “Arise and bring Basileus into the sanctuary.” He got up and looking out saw nothing but a poor man asleep. He lay down again, and the same thing was repeated. The third time, he was poked in the side by a sword and the voice said, “Go out and bring in the man you see lying outside the gate.” He obeyed, and on the morrow he took Basil . . . and adopted him as a brother. [ch. 9]

The future emperor then passed into the service of Theophilitzes, a relative of the Empress, who employed him as a groom. Basil possessed three skills that were to serve him well:

(a) he was extraordinarily strong;

(b) he had a real gift for controlling horses, which was appreciated by the high nobility in the capital and which, eventually, gained him the job with Theophilitzes; and

(c) he had an eye for making useful friends in high social positions.

The Life of Basil then relates the meteoric social rise to the position of a favourite of the emperor Michael III, and then on to becoming emperor himself. Interestingly, the author of the Life inserts another patron into the story of Basil’s social rise, the only patron who was a woman; the rich Peloponnesian widow named Danelis, whom he met with Theophilitzes while on a mission to the northern Peloponnese city-port of Patras. And like the rest of his patrons in our story, Danelis also endowed him with great wealth which he used to buy land in Macedonia. Apparently she recognised his many gifts and talents, but also – according to our source – Basil agreed to take Danelis’ son under his wing in the capital. What should be pointed out, nevertheless, is the importance of giving a favour in expectation of that person reciprocating in the future, an unwritten rule that has not eclipsed in that part of the world to-date.

Eventually, even after Basil became Emperor, he and Danelis remained close friends, with her son John being granted a position in the royal household and Danelis being given the title of Royal Mother – essentially, the emperor adopted her into the royal family as matriarch. Yet, whether all the details of these stories of Basil’s rise through the different social levels are believed or not one thing seems clear, people were intrigued and impressed by Basil.

At one stage in his rise to fame and power, sometime around the middle of the 850s, Basil acquired the ultimate of patrons, the emperor himself. While attending a wrestling match (Basil was not originally one of the contestants), and because of his renowned strength, he took on the day’s champion, a Bulgarian, possibly to defend the honour of the Byzantines, or in memory of his parents’ captivity. According to the Life:

“Basil threw the Bulgarian, squeezing him like a wisp of hay. ‘From that day the fame of Basil began to spread through the city.’”

Shortly after, he managed to tame a horse belonging to the Emperor that had resisted all training, which earned him a position in the imperial bodyguard – the hetaireia, under the command of a man called Andrew, the same man who would later become domestic of the schools (Head of the land armies). The (mythical?) taming of a wild horse is, of course, reminiscent of Alexander the Great’s taming of Bucephalus that had impressed not just his father, Philip of Macedon, but the entire Macedonian court.

Victory of Basil over a Bulgarian in wrestling match – from Madrid Skylitzes, fol. 85v

Wives and mistresses

Basil’s rise through the ranks of the hetaireia was swift, mostly because he took advantage of the ‘vacancies’ caused by the displeasure of the emperor’s uncle, Bardas. He rose to become a protostrator, again through his equine skills, while in 864 he replaced the parakoimomenos (equivalent to High Chamberlain) Damianos, who had caused offence to caesar Bardas. Two years later, in 866, Basil took one step further up the social ladder by climbing to the position of co-emperor and adopted son of the emperor, in the aftermath of the assassination of Bardas. But that came through an unusual proposal by Michael III, which Basil had no qualms to take full advantage of; the emperor wanted Basil to marry the Imperial mistress, Eudokia Ingerina.

Eudokia had been the Emperor’s lover since they were both teenagers, yet they could not marry because Eudokia’s family were both iconoclasts and of Russian/Scandinavian origin [Ingerina means ‘daughter of Inger’]. Michael had been forced by his mother to instead marry one of the brides she had chosen for him, a woman also named Eudokia. Because Eudokia had become pregnant, Michael wanted someone trustworthy enough to legitimize the baby, thus he turned to Basil, who swiftly divorced his wife (with whom he had a son, Constantine) and married Ingerina. The marriage gave the ambitious Basil a permanent hold on Michael!

Byzantine Emperor Michael III weds Basi to Eudokia Ingerina

Michael carried on with his relationship to Ingerina, and Basil was compensated with the emperor’s sister, Thekla, as his own mistress. Yet, in September 866, Eudokia gave birth to a son, Leo (the future emperor Leo VI), who was officially Basil’s son, but this paternity was questioned even by Basil himself. The strange promotion of Basil to co-emperor, in May 866, lends some support to the possibility that at least Leo was actually Michael III’s illegitimate son.

Following caesar Bardas’ assassination in April 866, Basil was crowned as co-emperor just a month later (26 May, at Pentecost). On the steps before the ambo in St. Sophia, Michael addressed his subjects:

The Caesar Bardas plotted against me to slay me, and for this reason induced me to leave the city. If I had not been informed of the plot by Symbatios and Basil, I should not have been alive now. The Caesar died through his own guilt. It is my will that Basil, the High Chamberlain, since he is faithful to me and protects my sovranty {sic} and delivered me from my enemy and has much affection for me, should be the guardian and manager of my Empire and should be proclaimed by all as Emperor.

The close friendship between the emperor and Basil quickly soured, however, when Michael began to show increasing preference for another courtier named Basiliskianos, whom he also raised to junior Emperor. Basil realised that he could not let power slip out of his hands and he decided to confront Michael. The latter’s reply was direct: “I made you Emperor, and have I not the power to create another Emperor if I will?” On 24 September 867, Basil invited Michael and his new courtier to dinner; while Michael drank heavily, Basil made an excuse to leave briefly. He snuck into Michael’s chambers and compromised the lock. Returning later with eight confidants, Basil murdered the emperor Michael, cutting off both of his hands before killing him. Basil’s position as emperor was now secure!

Primarily Basil needed to establish a dynasty, and he was quick to associate his eldest son from his first wife, Constantine, in power with him, although Leo was soon also linked in power. He had also realised that marriage could mean power, not just for himself, but also for his family (and dynasty), hence he quickly negotiated a betrothal for Constantine with the daughter of the Carolingian emperor Louis II of Italy, and married Leo to Theophano, a kinswoman, soon after Leo had become heir-apparent in 879, following the sudden death of Constantine on 3 September 879.

On the throne

Following the murder of the last emperor of the ‘Amorian’ dynasty, the ‘mythologising’ began, which eventually shaped how Michael was portrayed by the contemporary sources; for he had to be a bad emperor to justify Basil’s eventual liquidation of him as an agent of God. To give but a couple of examples:

For just as people destroy scorpions and vipers on sight, before they strike, on account of the evil inherent in them, so do those who anticipate danger from virulent and murderous men hasten to slay them before they can strike to kill. And Michael, who had lived thus, shamefully and ruinously for himself and the affairs of state, met such an end, worthy of his previous life. [Life of Basil, ch. 27]

It so happened that on the very day when Basil assumed supreme power, news reached our capital announcing great victories and the ransoming of many Christian prisoners; it was as if God wished to signify the change for the better in Roman affairs. [Life of Basil, ch. 29]

It is true that Basil had originally intended to pass on imperial power to his eldest son Constantine, but then had to turn to his second son Leo upon the death of the heir-apparent in 879. As every Byzantinist knows, the accession of Leo as the Macedonian heir is heavy with irony, for it is said that he was not the son of Basil, but of the assassinated Michael. However, Patricia Karlin-Hayter has taken an interesting approach on the issue, in that she considers the fact that the rumour that was circulated by anti-Macedonian chroniclers point to the fact that it spread whilst Michael III still lived, thus concluding that the story of Michael being the biological father of Leo was – simply – a court gossip intended to humiliate Basil.

Basil, his son Constantine, and his second wife, Empress Eudokia Ingerina – image: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc / Wikimedia Commons

Whatever the case, once he became emperor, Leo granted the murdered corpse of Michael an imperial burial, probably – according to Shaun Tougher – wishing to restore Michael’s memory for the good of his own dynasty, which was in reality inextricably linked with the ‘Amorians’. Finally, Leo’s son and future emperor Constantine also wished to highlight his blood relation with the founder of the dynasty, Basil, thus confirming the survival of one of the longest-surviving imperial houses in Byzantine history. In a laudatory poem on the death of Leo VI, in 912, commissioned right after his death, the author attempts to legitimise Constantine’s claim to the Imperial throne despite the Church’s objection to Leo’s fourth marriage. Then, follows the confirmation of the blood-relation between Constantine and the founder of the ‘Macedonian’ dynasty, his grandfather Basil:

Forthwith the heir to Leo’s throne,
Of lineage imperial,
The purple-clad sun doth arise:
His name is Alexander.
A star is rising side by side
With Master Alexander:
‘Tis Constantine, child issued from
The loins of Emp’ror Leo.
O City, sing, intone the praise
Of Basil’s noble offspring.

Georgios Theotokis: Ph.D History (2010, University of Glasgow), specializes in the military history of eastern Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. He has published numerous articles and books on the history of conflict and warfare in Europe and the Mediterranean in the Medieval and early Modern periods. His first book was on the Norman Campaigns in the Balkans 1081-1108 (2014), while his second on the Byzantine Military Tactics in Syria in the 10th century came out in October 2018. He has taught in Turkish and Greek Universities; he is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Byzantine Studies Research Centre, Bosphorus University, Istanbul. Click here to read more from Georgios Theotokis.

Top Image: The Byzantine emperor Basil I (left) with his son Leo VI – from the History of John Skylitzes 



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