BASIL (Vasilios) II BULGAROCTONUS 976-1025

BASIL (Vasilios) II

Hellenic Empire 1025

BASIL (Vasilios) II BULGAROCTONUS (GREEK: BASIL, SLAYER OF THE BULGARS), Byzantine emperor (976-1025), who extended imperial rule in the Balkans (notably Bulgaria), Illyria, Mesopotamia, Syria, Georgia (Iveria), and Armenia and increased his domestic authority by attacking the powerful landed interests of the military aristocracy and of the church. Hellenic state reached its maximum extension and power. It expanded from Epirus to Pontus from Macedonia to Kaukasian mountains from Dounabe to the Taurus mountains. The Hellenic-orthodox empire was then the center of the world, that is why its dominance was challenged by many states.

The reign of Basil II, widely acknowledged to be one of the outstanding Byzantine emperors, admirably illustrates the strength of the Byzantine system of government. His forceful personality made enemies and friends to acknowledge him as sole ruler.

Basil was the son of Romanus II and Theophano and was crowned co-emperor with his brother Constantine in 960, but as minors both he and his brother remained in the background. After their father's death in 963, the government was effectively take over by the senior military emperors, first by Nicephorus II Phocas, their stepfather, and then by John I Tzimisces.

On the latter's death (976) his authority was challenged by two generals (Vardas Skliros and Vardas Fokas) who coveted the position of senior emperor. Both related to emperors, they belonged to powerful landed families and commanded outside support from Georgia and from the Caliph in Baghdad. After a prolonged struggle both were defeated by 989, though only with the help of Russians under Vladimir of Kiev, who was rewarded with the hand of Basil II's sister Anna on condition that the Kievan state adopted Christianity.

This year an earthquake devastated Constantinople and Nikomeidia. The dome of Aghia Sophia fell, and was fully reconstructed six years later.

Basil II aimed solely at the extension and consolidation of imperial authority at home and abroad. The main fields of external conflict were Syria, Armenia, and Georgia (Iveria) in the east, in the Balkans (Bulgaria) in the north, and in southern Italy in the west.

He maintained the Byzantine position in Syria against aggression stirred up by the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt and on occasion made forced marches from Constantinople across Asia Minor to relieve Antioch. In 995 Basil with 40000 men marched from Bulgaria to Syria so fast, that when egyptians were informed for his arrival, they retreated in a state of panic. The emperor left his general Damianos Dalassinos as governor of Antioch, and returned to his battlefield in Bulgaria.

By aggression and by diplomacy he secured land from Georgia (Iveria) and Armenia, after the death (1000) of a great georgian king named "David the great".

He is, however, best known for his persistent and ultimately successful campaigns against a revived Bulgarian kingdom under tsar Samuel. This ruler devasted the regions of Macedonia, Thessaly and Epirus and established his hegemony in the west Balkans.

In 996 Basil issued a law called "Neara" by which land owned by wealthy landowners was divided and given to poor farmers. The same year, the Bulgarians invaded and reached down to the north Peloponnese, pillaging many Greek cities. The emperor sent Nikophoros Ouranos to defend the area. The competent general crushed the Bulgars in a battle by the river Sperxeios (next to Lamia), and Tzar Samuel almost was killed. In 997, the Greek fleet recaptured Epidamnos (modern Dyrrachion in Albania).

We must mention also, Theophano (sister of Vasilios) who the period from 984 to 991, after the death of her husband, Othon II, ruled Germany. She promoted the greek language and byzantine art. After presiding over German policy for seven years, the empress died in June of 991. She was buried in Cologne in the Monastery of St. Pantelaeimon. Her relics remain there.

From 986 until 1014 there was warfare between Byzantium and Bulgaria, interrupted from time to time by Basil II's intermittent expeditions to settle crises on the eastern front. Basil II enlisted Venetian help in protecting the Dalmatian coast and Adriatic waters from Bulgarian aggression. Year by year he slowly penetrated into Samuel's territory, campaigning in winter as well as summer. In 1001 Basil liberated Philippoupolis, in 1003 Verroia, Larisa, Servia, Skopia, and Edessa in Macedonia, were also liberated by the Greek army.

During this period the region of Kalavria prospered. The cities of Kroton, Vari, Righion, Taras, Ydrous, Kallipolis in southern Italy were the centers of greek literature, commerce, and education. Aghios Nilos, Vartholomaios and Ioannis Philagathos were the greatest scholars, in the region of Kalavria. The Byzantine rulers of these regions are called Katepano. But these regions are in constant threat from Arab invasions and pillages. In 1003, a Venetian fleet under commandment of doge Petros II Orseolos saved the city of Vari from arab siege. The Venetians helped, because they had signed a treaty with Basil, which gave them access through Ellispontus for their commercial activities, and they, in return were obliged to defend Greek cities in southern Italy, from arab raids.

Finally, holding northern and central Bulgaria, he advanced toward Samuel's capital, Achris (northern of Prespes lakes), and won the crushing victory, that gave him his nickname, "Slayer of the Bulgars". The battle took place in Kleidi (Kimvaloggos), on 29 July 1014. His general Nikiphoros Votaniates managed to surround the enemy defence lines, causing the Bulgars to surrender in a state of panic. It was then that he blinded the whole Bulgarian army, leaving one eye to each 100th man, so that the soldiers might be led back to the Tzar who died of shock shortly after seeing this terrible spectacle. Thus the revived Bulgarian kingdom (that stretched from adriatic to black sea and from Dounabe river to Thesally), after decades of wars against the Greek state was incorporated into the Byzantine Empire. But only on 1018, Basil completed his campaign against Bulgarians, and then he visited the provinces of his empire, who were released from the bulgarian threat. It was then that he visited Athens to pay his respects to the great capital of ancient greeks. Later he sailed from Piraeus to his capital Constantinople, where he was received with great honors and entered through Golden Gate.

Basil II then looked further west and planned to strengthen Byzantine control in southern Italy and to regain Sicily from the Arabs. He attempted to establish a Greek pope in Rome and to unite in marriage the German (though by birth half Byzantine) ruler Otto III with Basil II's favourite niece, Zoe. Both schemes failed, but he was more successful in southern Italy, where order was restored, and at his death preparations were being made for the reconquest of Sicily. He defeated Germans and Normans who tried to gain control over Italy, where he built castles and cities in order to reinforce his defence. One such city he named Troy, honoring the ancient greek city in the coast of Dardanelia-Minor Asia.

The ruthlessness and tenacity that served Basil II in his military and diplomatic activities were displayed in his domestic policy as well. Its keynote was the strengthening of imperial authority by striking at his overpowerful subjects, particularly the military families who ruled like princes in Asia Minor. The by-product of this policy (Allileghion law, law under which rich men paid the taxes owed by poor ones) was the imperial protection of the small farmers, some of whom owed military service to the crown and paid taxes to the central exchequer. Title to land was rigorously inspected, and vast estates were arbitrarily confiscated. Thus, in spite of his costly wars, Basil left a full treasury, some of it stored in specially constructed underground chambers.

Both in near-contemporary history and in manuscript illustrations, Basil II is pictured as a short, well-proportioned figure, with brilliant light-blue eyes, a round face, and full, bushy whiskers, which he would twirl in his fingers when angry or while giving an audience. He dressed plainly and even when wearing the purple chose only a dark hue. An abrupt speaker, he scorned rhetoric yet was capable of wit. He has been described as mean, austere, and irascible, spending most of his time as though he were a soldier on guard. He knew only too well the danger of any relaxation. He showed no obvious interest in learning, but he did apparently commission works of religious art, and had churches and monasteries rebuilt or completed in Biotia and in Athens, though this may be accounted for by conventional piety. He seems never to have married or had children. On his death there was no able military aristocrat or other leader to take the situation in hand, and thus Basil II's work was rapidly undone.

Bibliography Gustave Schlumberger, BASILE II Paris 1900
Many thanks to Binya Even