Nick Name: Bulgar Slayer
Died At Age: 67
Born Country: Turkey
Born in: Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
Famous as: Byzantine Emperor
Emperors & Kings
father: Romanos II
Died on: December 15, 1025
place of death: Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
Who was Basil II?
Basil II (or Basilius II) was the Byzantine emperor of the Macedonian dynasty, from 976 (coronation in 960) to 1025 CE. He came to be known as the “Bulgar-Slayer” (“Bulgaroktonos”) for his aggressive conquest of Bulgaria, defeating the army of the mighty King Samuel of Bulgaria. With a little help from the Vikings sent by Prince Vladimir of Kiev, Basil defeated two claimants to the throne, Bardas Sclerus and Bardas Phocas. His diplomacy led to Prince Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity. He recaptured Greece and the Balkans, won battles in Syria, and almost doubled his empire. He also won against the Arabs and won battles in Georgia and Armenia. He was planning to annex Sicily when he fell ill and died. He was succeeded by his brother, Constantine VIII, as he had remained a bachelor all his life and had no children. His huge empire was eventually led to its decline by his inefficient successors.
Childhood & Early Life
Basil II was born in 958 CE, to Byzantine emperor Romanos II and his second wife, Theophano. He was his parents’ elder son. Some sources mention he may have had an older sister named Helena. He also had a younger brother named Constantine and a younger sister named Anna. His mother was the daughter of a tavern-keeper named Krateros.
Basil II was just 5 years old when his father died (963 CE). Constantine co-inherited the throne, along with him, while Empress Theophano served as the regent. She married General Nikephoros Phokas, who later ascended to the throne as Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas.
Theophano planned the murder of Nikephoros II in December 969 CE. Following this, General John Tzimiskes, Nikephoros II’s nephew, took over the kingdom, as John I.
Tzimiskes sent Theophano to a monastery and served as the guardian of the two minor emperors. He also participated in a series of successful battles in the Middle East.
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Early Reign & Domestic Policies
After Tzimiskes’s death on January 10, 976 CE, Basil II ascended to the throne and called his mother back from exile. While he was still a co-ruler, along with his sibling, Basil II was the one who had considerable hold over his kingdom.
However, Basil II was initially dependent on his great-uncle, the eunuch Basil Lecapenus the Chamberlain. A shrewd politician, the chamberlain helped Basil fight two claimants to the throne, Bardas Sclerus and Bardas Phocas. However, Basil II ousted the chamberlain from office and sent him to exile in 985 CE, due to his overbearing nature.
The two Bardases made Basil II seek military aid from Prince Vladimir of Kiev. The Viking army sent by Vladimir helped Basil II ward off Bardas Phocas in 989. Bardas Sclerus, too, was pushed back.
Vladimir received a token of appreciation for his help, when Basil II promised his younger sister Anna’s hand in marriage to Vladimir, on the condition that Vladimir agree to be baptised. Vladimir thus became St. Vladimir, and this led to a further expansion of Christianity in Russia.
Basil II also led a campaign against the Arabs and the Fatimids who tried to conquer Antioch and Aleppo in Syria. In 995 CE, Basil won a battle in northern Syria. He then restricted all trade with the caliph, thus damaging the Arab economy.
He also focused on the tax reforms in his region. He initiated a system whereby the large landowners, or the “dynatoi,” would have to pay the tax arrears of the poor. The new tax plan, came to be known as the “allelengyon” and was hugely unpopular. It was discontinued much later, by Romanos III, in 1028 CE.
In his bid to centralize power, Basil II wanted to permit payment instead of military service in his kingdom’s provinces, thus reducing the manpower of the local leaders. Basil utilized the new tax revenue to afford a new army that was more loyal to him.
Campaign Against Bulgaria
Basil II then decided to adopt an aggressive military strategy. His initial campaign against Bulgaria was a failure. In August 986 CE, he was defeated badly by King Samuel of Bulgaria, when he clashed with the king’s army in the Bulgarian mountain pass called Trajan’s Gate.
Basil II had earlier lost 60,000 men in his unsuccessful siege of Serdica (Sofia), the capital of Bulgaria, but now his army was obliterated and he was forced to escape to Constantinople.
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In 990, Basil II gathered his forces against Bulgaria again. For the next 25 years, Basil II and King Samuel of Bulgaria continued to fight. In 997, Basil II recaptured Greece, followed by Pliska in 1000 CE, Skopje in 1004 CE, and Dyracchion in 1005 CE.
Eventually, Basil II managed to defeat Samuel and divided his territories. In 1014, he marched into Ochrida and crushed the Bulgarian army, thus earning the nickname “Slayer of the Bulgars.” The Byzantines captured around 14,000 Bulgarian soldiers.
Basil II got them all blinded. However, he left one in every 100 soldiers with an eye, to make them serve as guides. He sent them to King Samuel, who died from shock after seeing this. Basil II then annexed Bulgaria and integrated it with his existing empire.
He then concentrated on eastern Asia Minor and the Caucasus. He began by annexing Armenia and Georgian Iberia in 1021–1022 CE and also captured Vaspurkan.
Basil II then turned westward. The Byzantine territories stretched all the way to Mesopotamia. He planned to fight the Arabs again and recapture Sicily, which would help him expand the Byzantine rule to the whole of Italy. However, before he could venture into this conquest, Basil II fell ill and died.
Personal Life & Death
Basil II was a skilled horse rider. He did not like literature and mostly lived the life of a monk. He carried a statue of the Virgin in his battles. He was short-tempered and did not trust anyone. He refused to wear anything flashy, and even the purple robes of his office were dull in tone.
He breathed his last on December 15, 1025. Since he was a bachelor, his younger brother, Constantine, took over the throne as Constantine VIII. What ensued was the decline of the great empire that Basil II had built.
Basil II was to be buried in a sarcophagus in the ‘Church of the Holy Apostles’ in Constantinople, but he had earlier asked to be buried in a simpler tomb, in the ‘Church of St. John the Theologian’ at the ‘Hebdomon Palace’ complex, located away from the city.
Since the 20th century, many biographies and historical novels have been written about Basil II. One such book was ‘Basil Bulgaroktonus’ (1964) by Kostas Kyriazis. It was a sequel to ‘Theophano’ (1963), which was about Basil's mother.
Rosemary Sutcliff's historical fiction ‘Blood Feud’ (1976) narrated Basil II’s tale from the perspective of a member of the ‘Varangian Guard.’
The book ‘Ton Kairo tou Voulgaroktonou’ (In the Years of the Bulgar-Slayer), Penelope Delta's second novel, was about the rule of Basil II. Delta’s lover Ion Dragoumis published ‘Martyron kai Iroon Aima’ (Martyrs' and Heroes' Blood) in 1907. It was about the Bulgarian issue.