It has been often said, very truly, that religion is the thing that makes the ordinary man feel extraordinary; it is an equally important truth that religion is the thing that makes the extraordinary man feel ordinary. — G. K. Chesterton

Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman




The End of the Macedonian Dynasty

Basil II., who now sat in his own right on the throne which his warlike guardians Nicephorus and John had so long protected, was by no means unworthy to succeed them. Unlike his ancestors of the Macedonian house, he showed from the first a love for war and adventure. Probably the deeds of John and Nicephorus excited him to emulation: at any rate his long reign from 976 till 1025, is one continuous record of wars, and almost entirely of wars brought to a successful termination. Basil seemed to have modeled himself on the elder of his two guardians, the stern Nicephorus Phocas. His earliest years on the throne, indeed, were spent in the pursuit of pleasure, but ere he reached the age of thirty a sudden transformation was visible in him. He gave himself up entirely to war and religion: he took a vow of chastity, and always wore the garb of a monk under his armour and his imperial robes. His piety was exaggerated into bigotry and fanaticism, but it was undoubtedly real, though it did not keep him from the commission of many deeds of shocking cruelty in the course of his wars. His justice was equally renowned, but it often degenerated into mere harshness and indifference to suffering. No one could have been more unlike his gay pleasure-loving father, or his mild literary grandfather, than the grim emperor who won from posterity the title of Bulgaroktonos, "the Slayer of the Bulgarians."

Basil's life-work was the moving back of the East-Roman border in the Balkan Peninsula as far as the Danube, a line which it had not touched since the Slavonic immigration in the days of Heraclius, three hundred and fifty years before. In the first years of his reign, indeed, he accomplished little, being much harassed by two rebellions of great Asiatic nobles—. Bardas Phocas, the nephew of Nicephorus II., and Bardas Skleros, the general of the Armeniac theme. But after Phocas had died and Skleros had surrendered, Basil reserved all his energies for war in Europe, paying comparatively little attention to the Eastern conquests which had engrossed Nicephorus Phocas and John Zimisces.

The whole interior of the Balkan Peninsula formed at this period part of the dominions of Samuel King of the Bulgarians, who reigned over Bulgaria, Servia, inland Macedonia, and other districts around them. It was a strong and compact kingdom, administered by an able man, who had won his way to the throne by sheer strength and ability, for the old royal house had ceased out of the land during Swiatoslaf's invasion of Bulgaria ten years before. The main power of Samuel lay not in the land between Balkan and Danube, which gave his kingdom its name, but in the Slavonic districts further West and South. The centre of his realm was the fortress of Ochrida, which he had chosen as his capital—a strong town situated on a lake among the Macedonian hills. There Samuel mustered his armies, and from thence he started forth to attach either Thessalonica or Adrianople, as the opportunity might come to him.

The duel between Basil and Samuel lasted no less than thirty-four years, till the Bulgarian king died a beaten man in 1014. This long and unremitting struggle taxed all the energies of the empire, for Samuel was not a foe to be despised; he was no mere barbarian, but had learnt the art of war from his Byzantine neighbours, and had specially studied fortification. It was the desperate defences of his numerous hill-castles that made Basil's task such a long one. The details of the struggle are too long to follow out: suffice it to say that after some defeats in his earlier years, Basil accomplished the conquest of Bulgaria proper, as far as the Danube, in 1002, the year in which Widdin, the last of Samuel's strongholds in the North surrendered to him. For twelve years more the enemy held out in the Central Balkans, in his Macedonian strongholds, about Ochrida and Uskup. But at last, Basil's constant victories in the field, and his relentless slaughter of captives after the day was won, broke the force of the Bulgarian king. In 1014 the Emperor gained a crowning victory, after which he took 15,000 prisoners: he put out the eyes of all save one man in each hundred, and sent the poor wretches with their guides to seek King Samuel in his capital. The old Bulgarian was so overcome at the horrible sight that he was seized with a fit, and died on the spot, of rage and grief. His successors Gabriel and Ladislas could make no head against the stern and relentless emperor, and in 1018 the last fortress of the kingdom of Ochrida surrendered at discretion. Contrary to his habit, Basil treated the vanquished foe with mildness, indulged in no massacres, and contented himself with repairing the old Roman roads and fortresses of the Central Balkans, without attempting to exterminate the Slavonic tribes that had so often defied him. His conquests rounded off the empire on its northern frontier, and made it touch the Magyar kingdom of Hungary, for Servia no less than Bulgaria and Macedonia formed part of his conquests. The Byzantine border now ran from Belgrade to the Danube mouth, a line which it was destined to preserve for nearly two hundred years, till the great rebellion of Bulgaria against Isaac Angelus in the year 1086.

Having justly earned his grim title of "the Slayer of the Bulgarians" by his long series of victories in Europe, Basil turned in his old age to continue the work of John Zimisces on the Eastern frontier. There the Moslem states were still weak and divided; though a new power, the Fatimite dynasty in Egypt, had come to the front, and acquired an ascendency over its neighbours. Basil's last campaigns, in 1021-1022, were directed against the princes of Armenia, and the Iberians and Abasgians who dwelt beyond them to the north. His arms were entirely successful, and he added many Armenian districts to his Eastern provinces; but it may be questioned whether these conquests were beneficial to the empire. A strong Armenian kingdom was a useful neighbour to the Byzantine realm; being a Christian state it was usually friendly to the empire, and acted as a barrier against Moslem attacks from Persia. Basil broke up the Armenian power, but did not annex the whole country, or establish in it any adequate provision against the ultimate danger of attacks from the East by the Mahometan powers.

Basil died in IO25 at the age of sixty-eight, just as he was preparing to send forth an expedition to rescue Sicily from the hands of the Saracens. He had won more provinces for the empire than any general since the days of the great Belisarius, and at his death the Byzantine borders had reached the furthest extension which they ever knew. His successors were to be unworthy of his throne, and were destined to lose provinces with as constant regularity as he himself had shown in gaining theme There was to be no one after him who could boast that he had fought thirty campaigns in the open field with harness on his back, and had never turned aside from any enterprise that he had ever taken in hand.

Basil's brother Constantine had been his colleague in name all through the half century of his reign. No one could have been more unlike the ascetic and indefatigable "Slayer of the Bulgarians." Constantine was a mere worlding, a man of pleasure, a votary of the table and the wine cup, whose only redeeming tastes were a devotion to music and literature. He had dwelt in his corner of the palace surrounded by a little court of eunuchs and flatterers, and excluded by the stern Basil from all share and lot in the administration of the empire. Now Constantine found himself the heir of his childless brother, and was forced at the age of sixty to take up the responsibilities of empire. He proved an idle and incompetent, but not an actively mischievous sovereign. His worst act was to hand over the administration of the chief offices of state to six of his old courtiers—all eunuchs whose elevation was a cause of wild anger to the great noble families, and whose inexperience led to much weak and futile government during his short reign.

Constantine died in Io28, after a very brief taste of empire. He was the last male of the Macedonian house, and left no heirs save his elderly unmarried daughters whose education and moral training he had grossly neglected. Zoe, the eldest, was more than forty years of age, but her father had never found her a husband. On his death-bed, however, he sent for a middle-aged noble named Romanus Argyrus, and forced him, at an hour's notice, to wed the princess. Only two days later Romanus found himself left, by his father-in-law's death, titular head of the empire. But Zoe, a clever, obstinate, and unscrupulous woman, kept the reins of authority in her own hands, and gave her unwilling spouse many an evil hour. She was inordinately vain, and pretended, like Queen Elizabeth of England, to be the mistress of all hearts long after she was well advanced in middle age. Her husband let her go her own way, and devoted himself to such affairs of state as he was allowed to manage. His interference with warlike matters was most un happy. Venturing a campaign in Syria, he led his army to defeat, and saw several towns on the border fall into the hands of the Emir of Aleppo. After a reign of six years Romanus died of a lingering disease, and Zoe was left a widow. Almost before the breath was out of her husband's body, the volatile empress—she was now over fifty—had chosen and wedded another partner. The new emperor was Michael the Paphlagonian, a young courtier who had been Gentleman of the Bedchamber to Romanus: he was twenty-eight years of age and noted as the most handsome man in Constantinople. His good looks had won Zoe's fancy, and to his own surprise he found himself seated on the throne by his elderly admirer [1034].

The object of Zoe's anile affection was a capable man, and justified his rather humiliating elevation by good service to the empire. He beat back the Saracens from Syria and put down a Bulgarian rebellion with success. But in his last years he saw Servia, one of the conquests of Basil II., burst out into revolt, and could not quell it. He also failed in a project to reconquer Sicily from the Moors, though he sent against the island George Maniakes, the best general of the day, who won many towns and defeated the Moslems in two pitched battles. The attempt to subdue the whole island failed, and the conquests of Maniakes were lost one after the other. Michael IV., though still a young man, was fearfully afflicted with epileptic fits, which sapped his health, and so enfeebled him that he died a hopeless invalid ere he reached the age of thirty-six. The irrepressible Zoe, now again a widow, took a few days to decide whether she would adopt a son, or marry a third husband. She first tried the former alternative, and crowned as her colleague her late spouse's nephew and namesake Michael V. But the young man proved ungrateful, and strove to deprive the aged empress of the control of affairs. When he announced his intention of removing her from the capital, the city mob, who loved the Macedonian house, and laughed at rather than reprobated the foibles of Zoe, took arms to defend their mistress. In a fierce fight between the rioters and the guards of Michael V1, 3,000 lives were lost: but the insurgents had the upper hand, routed the soldiery, and caught and blinded Michael.

Zoe, once more at the head of the state, now made her third marriage, at the age of sixty-two. She chose as her partner Constantine Monomachus, an old debauchee who had been her lover thirty years ago. Their joint reign was unhappy both at home and abroad. Frequent rebellions broke out both in Asia Minor and in the Balkan Peninsula. The Patzinaks sent forays across the Danube, while a new enemy, the Normans of South Italy, conquered the "theme of Langobardia," the last Byzantine possession to the West of the Adriatic, and established in its stead the duchy of Apulia [1055]. A still more dangerous foe began also to be heard of along the Eastern frontier. The Seljouk Turks were now commencing a career of conquest in Persia and the lands on the Oxus. In 1048 the advance guard of their hordes began to ravage the Armenian frontier of the empire. But this danger was not yet a pressing one.

When Zoe and Constantine IX. were dead, the sole remaining scion of the Macedonian house was saluted as ruler of the empire. This was Theodora, the younger sister of Zoe, an old woman of seventy, who had spent the best part of her days in a nunnery. She was as sour and ascetic as her sister had been vain and amorous; but she does not seem to have been the worst of the rulers of Byzantium, and her two years of power were not troubled by rebellions or vexed by foreign war. Her austere virtues won her some respect from the people, and the fact that she was the last of her house, and that with its extinction the troubles of a disputed succession were doomed to come upon the empire, seems to have sobered her subjects, and led them to let the last days of the Basilian dynasty pass away in peace.

Theodora died on the 30th of August, 1057, having on her death-bed declared that she adopted Michael Stratioticus as her successor. Then commenced the reign of trouble, the "third anarchy" in the history of the Byzantine Empire.