Basil II (976–1025 as recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History) was the son of the Byzantine Emperor Romanos II and his wife, Theophano. Although Romanos died in 963 AD, he had already proclaimed his five-year-old Basil and his three-year-old brother, Constantine as heirs. Unfortunately, their position as co-emperors was not as secure as Romanos first thought. So their mother, Theophano, offered to marry the brilliant Byzantine general Nikephoros II Phokas to safeguard her sons’ succession.
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Nikephoros II Phokas acceded as emperor and kept his end of the bargain. Theophano later had an affair with his nephew, John Tzimiskes and together, they conspired to remove the general from the throne. The plot ended in the brutal death of Nikephoros Phokas, but to Theophano’s dismay, John Tzimiskes turned on her and sent her to a nunnery while he became the boys’ regent. John died of dysentery in 976 which caused Basil II and his brother Constantine to accede the throne in the same year. The boys succeeded Tzimiskes around the age of eighteen and sixteen. They were first under the regency of their uncle, the eunuch Basil Lekapenos, who served as the boys’ mentor and empire’s temporary administrator.
The siblings were poles apart when it came to their personalities. These differences would later shape their destinies. Basil was described as a gruff warrior who forsook pleasures and luxuries to be a capable ruler. His brother and co-emperor, Constantine VIII, became a pleasure-seeker who preferred to live an easy life. The older brother swore off any pleasure to such that it bordered on asceticism. While the younger one embraced it fully and later abandoned the position of the emperor so that Basil ruled the empire alone.
Basil did not have to wait long for his leadership skills to be tested. The Bulgarian rebels demanded that their King Boris II and his brother Romanus be freed from the Byzantine prison after they were captured by John Tzimiskes. The new emperor suspected that the rebel leaders were only using the brothers to unite the Bulgarians against the Byzantines and that their end goal was to claim independence. So he ordered the freedom of the royal brothers and hoped that the Bulgarians would descend into civil war. Boris died when they reached the Bulgarian frontier, but Romanus survived and became a puppet king for one of the rebel leaders, Samuel.
It seemed that the emperor’s strategy backfired as this united the Bulgarians and they started to invade Byzantine cities again. Basil captured Romanus some years later and imprisoned him once again in Constantinople. The unfortunate man had been castrated during his first imprisonment in Constantinople. So Samuel took advantage of this and declared himself as the childless king’s successor. All of this happened while Basil had his hands full of a domestic rebellion led by his former generals and the conflict with the Fatimid Dynasty in the Asian frontier. After he finally got a break from these matters, he focused on building his army to face the Bulgarian threat.
Basil crushed the Bulgars in 1014 AD in the Battle of Kleidion. The Byzantine captured as much as fifteen thousand Bulgar soldiers after the war. The emperor took his revenge by blinding ninety-nine men out of a hundred soldiers. He left the hundredth soldier’s one eye intact, so he could lead the others back to their king. The arrival of his blinded soldiers horrified the Bulgarian King Samuel. This caused him to promptly suffer a heart attack and die. The Bulgarian resistance buckled four years after this, and Bulgaria became a Byzantine domain once again in 1018 AD.
The Rebellion of Bardas Phokas and Bardas Skleros
Basil was beset by troubles throughout his reign, but the rebellion of generals Bardas Phokas and Bardas Skleros hit close to home. Bardas Phokas was the nephew of the murdered emperor Nikephorus II Phokas. When his cousin John Tzimiskes usurped the throne, the younger Phokas led a rebellion against the new Byzantine emperor. He stayed in prison for seven years but was freed by Basil’s uncle and regent Basil Lekapenos to counter the rebellion of another Byzantine general, Bardas Skleros. Bardas Phokas succeeded in suppressing Skleros’ revolt in 978 AD, and for this, he was reinstated and rewarded.
The regent Basil Lekapenos, Bardas Phokas, and Bardas Skleros later came together and led a renewed rebellion against Emperor Basil II after he showed indications of independence from his uncle’s influence. They declared Phokas as leader of this renewed revolt and proclaimed him as the new Byzantine emperor. The battle-hardened Phokas and his troops steadily captured city after city in Asia Minor. They gained so many loyal followers along the way that his troops were able to eventually came close to the gates of Constantinople.
Besieged at all sides, Basil found he had no one to trust in his court. He sent a message to the Kievan Rus king Vladimir (who also happened to be his own brother-in-law) asking for reinforcements. Vladimir sent as much as 6,000 Varangian warriors to help Basil. They met Phokas’ troops in battle in Chrysopolis. The general Phokas, however, fell from his horse after he suffered a stroke. His bewildered troops promptly fled. Phokas had imprisoned Skleros before this, while their accomplice Basil Lekapenos was exiled and died in disgrace. Basil became secretive and suspicious after the double rebellion and refused to send the Varangian warriors back to his brother-in-law. He turned them into his own private bodyguards and started to govern the Byzantine empire with an iron fist.
Against the Fatimid Dynasty
In 995 AD, Basil started a campaign against the Fatimids led by Caliph al-Aziz in Asia. Then he wrested Syria, as well as some parts of Palestine from them. For some reason, he stopped short of Jerusalem. The Fatimid Caliph al-Aziz died some time later, and he was replaced by his son al-Hakim. Basil negotiated a 10-year peace treaty with the Fatimid caliph, and he turned back to Constantinople to prepare for the war against the Bulgars. While Basil was away, al-Hakim proceeded to purge the Christians and Jews out of Egypt and Palestine. According to some historians, he even went as far as razing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a synagogue in Jerusalem. The Christians and Jews were outraged, and they expected Basil to avenge the purge and the desecration. However, Basil was too busy in the war against Bulgarians. He also could not disregard the 10-year peace treaty he signed with al-Hakim.
Al-Hakim descended into insanity as years passed. Even his fellow Muslims did not escape his cruel laws. News of his madness eventually reached the Abbasids in the east. They condemned him when he ordered his people to replace Allah’s name with his own during Friday prayers. It seemed that Basil and the Abbasids’ intervention were not necessary as he left the city in 1021 AD to meditate in the desert but never returned. Al-Hakim was thirty-six years old at the time of his mysterious disappearance.
Basil died in 1025 AD. However, he never found the time to marry and produce an heir. His brother, Constantine VIII succeeded him and ruled until 1028 AD.
Picture By Nécropotame (French version); Cplakidas (English translation) – Translated and extensively modified from Image:Map_Byzantine_Empire_1025-de.svg, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4078443
Bury, John Bagnell, comp. The Cambridge Medieval History: The Eastern Roman Empire. Edited by J.R. Tanner, C.W. Previte-Orton, and Z.N. Brooke. Vol. IV. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923.
Leo. The History of Leo the Deacon: Byzantine Military Expansion in the Tenth Century. Translated by Alice-Mary Maffry. Talbot and Denis Sullivan. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2005.
Psellos, Michael. “Chronographia.” Internet History Sourcebook. Accessed September 24, 2016. http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/psellus-chronographia.asp.
Scylitzes, John. John Skylitzes: A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811-1057. Translated by John Wortley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
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