Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Emperor Basil II - Front Line General


Basil II

"He crushed rebellions, subdued the feudal landowners, conquered the enemies of the Empire, notably in the Danubian provinces and the East. Everywhere the might of Roman arms was respected and feared. The treasury was overflowing with the accumulated plunder of Basil's campaigns. Even the lamp of learning, despite the emperor's known indifference, was burning still, if somewhat dimly. The lot of ordinary folk in Constantinople must have been pleasant enough. For most of them life was gay and colourful, and if the city's defensive fortifications were at some points in disrepair they had no cause to dread attacks."

Basil II, one of the best rulers of the empire. Emperor of the year 976 AD until 1025 AD the longest government of an emperor in Roman history.

He asked to be buried next to the training camp of the imperial cavalry tagmata in hebdomon, instead of the sumptuous place reserved to the emperors in the roundabout of the holy apostles of Constantinople. His contemporaries believed that so he could hear from heaven to his armies prepare for the fight for the empire. In 1204 his tomb was desecrated and plundered by the crusaders.

Epitaph of Basil II on his sarcophagus at the church of San Juan Evangelist in Hebdomon as recorded in late eastern Roman manuscripts:

Others of the old kings
An old man in the holy land,
But I, Basil, a child,
Hístēmi in the place of land
And the pain of pain
Whom in the name of a child, whom I have loved
For a spear did not see them,
Since the king of heaven, I am
The Land, great king;
But I have saved life time
The children of the new eryómēn
I'm going to go to the church,
I turn to them the people of the tribe,
Histō̂n trophies of the land of myría;
And this is what I am doing, and I am
With which you are born, Ishmael, áraps, íbēr;
And now, o, o, o, o, o,
We are looking forward to the future of the

Other past emperors
Previously they had designated for themselves other burial sites.
But I Basilio, born in the purple camera,
Placed my grave on the site of hebdomon
And I take the Saturday break from endless efforts
That I fulfilled in the wars I endured.
Because no one saw my spear in rest
When the emperor of heaven called me
To the government of this great empire on earth,
But I stayed vigilant throughout my life
Taking care of the children of new Rome
Marching bravely to the west,
And even the same borders of the east.
Persians and scythians bear witness to this
And along with them the abasgos, Ismaili, Arabs and iberians.
And now, good man, looking at this grave
You can make it up with prayers in exchange for my campaigns

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The historian Psellos describes a defeated enemy giving Basil the following advice:
"Cut down the governors who become over-proud. Let no generals on campaign have too many resources. Exhaust them with unjust exactions, to keep them busied with their own affairs. Admit no woman to the imperial councils. Be accessible to no-one. Share with few your most intimate plans."

Fighting Emperors

Is it good or bad to have a Head of State directing his troops and even fighting in the front lines?

One can say that in an age when there were endless military plots to overthrow the government it was good to have an Emperor embedded with his troops. He could keep an eye on his generals, build loyalty with the troops and create stability in the state - - - - stability if he was a successful general.

From ancient times on most Heads of State stayed home tending to civilian matters and directing the military in a general way from afar if at all.

The occasional Alexander, Heraclius, Fredrick the Great or Napoleon were the exceptions, not the rule. The debate is eternal if they actually helped their nations or after a point simply bled their countries white in endless wars.

Basil was a very successful soldier on horseback.

Basil II was praised by his army because he spent most of his reign campaigning with it rather than sending orders from Constantinople, as had most of his predecessors. This allowed his army to be largely supportive of him, often making his stance in political and church matters unquestionable. 

He lived the life of a soldier to the point of eating the same daily rations as the rest of the army. He also took the children of dead army officers under his protection and offered them shelter, food, and education. Many of these children became his soldiers and officers, taking the places of their fathers.

Basil oversaw the stabilization and expansion of the eastern frontier of the Empire and the complete subjugation of the First Bulgarian Empireits foremost European foe, after a prolonged struggle. 

Although the Roman Empire had made a truce with the Fatimid Caliphate in 987–988, Basil led a campaign against the Caliphate that ended with another truce in 1000. He also conducted a campaign against the Khazar Khaganate that gained the Roman Empire part of Crimea and a series of successful campaigns against the Kingdom of Georgia.

Despite near-constant warfare, Basil distinguished himself as an administrator, reducing the power of the great land-owning families who dominated the Empire's administration and military, filling its treasury, and leaving it with its greatest expanse in four centuries.

On a side note, in the early years of his reign, administration remained in the hands of Basil Lekapenos, President of the Roman Senate.

Click to enlarge
The Eastern Roman Empire at the death of Basil II in 1025

Basil's first expedition to Syria

Basil intervened personally in the East; with his army, he rode through Asia Minor to Aleppo in sixteen days, arriving in April 995. Basil's sudden arrival and the exaggeration of his army's strength circulating in the Fatimid camp caused panic in the Fatimid army, especially because Manjutakin, expecting no threat, had ordered his cavalry horses to be dispersed around the city for pasture. 

Despite having a considerably larger and well-rested army, Manjutakin was at a disadvantage. He burned his camp and retreated to Damascus without battle.

The Byzantines besieged Tripoli unsuccessfully and occupied Tartus, which they refortified and garrisoned with Armenian troops.

Conquest of Bulgaria

The Muslims were under control on the Eastern Front. That left the Bulgarian Empire as the major enemy in the field.

In 986 the Bulgarian Tsar Samuel, won a decisive battle at the Trajan’s Gate. Almost the entire Roman army was destroyed in the battle, the entire convoy was lost, and the Emperor himself narrowly escaped capture.

Sharply in need of ships for the rapid transfer of troops to various parts of the empire, Basil entered into negotiations with the Venice. In 992, a large Venice embassy arrived in Constantinople, which achieved a seven-fold reduction in customs duties. A special order was issued which initiated the exclusive status of the Venetians in Constantinople. 

This was the beginning of the end for the Empire.

The Emperor got immediate help from Venice but at the cost of long term reduced income to the Imperial Treasury. This was the first of many concessions to neighbors that over time prevented the Empire from raising the money needed to defend itself.

Basil sought to restore former territories of the Roman Empire. Beginning in 1000, Basil was free to focus on a war of conquest against Bulgaria, which he fought with grinding persistence and strategic insight. In 1000, the Byzantine generals Nikephoros Xiphias and Theodorokanos took the former Bulgarian capital Great Preslav.

The Bulgarian wars went on and on for years.

On 29 July 1014, in the Battle of Kleidion, he and his general Nikephoros Xiphias outmaneuvered the Bulgarian army, which was defending one of the fortified passes. Samuel avoided capture through the valor of his son Gabriel. Having crushed the Bulgarians, Basil exacted his vengeance cruelly—he was said to have captured 15,000 prisoners and fully blinded 99 of every 100 men, leaving one one-eyed man in each cohort to lead the rest back to their ruler. Samuel was struck down by the sight of his blinded army and died two days later on 6 October 1014 after suffering a stroke.

Bulgaria fought on for four more years, but it submitted in 1018. The rulers of neighboring Croatia, who were previously allies of Bulgaria, accepted Basil's supremacy to avoid the same fate as Bulgaria; Basil warmly received their offers of vassalage and awarded them the honorary title of patrikios. Croatia remained a tributary state to Basil until his death in 1025.

Before returning to Constantinople, Basil celebrated his triumph in Athens. He showed considerable statesmanship in his treatment of the defeated Bulgarians, giving many former Bulgarian leaders court titles, positions in provincial administration, and high commands in the army. In this way, he sought to absorb the Bulgarian elite into Roman society.


At the time of his death, the Empire stretched from southern Italy to the Caucasus and from the Danube to the Levant, which was its greatest territorial extent since the Muslim conquests four centuries earlier.

Basil was to be buried in the last sarcophagus available in the rotunda of Constantine I in the Church of the Holy Apostles but he later asked his brother and successor Constantine VIII to be buried in the Church of St. John the Theologian at the Hebdomon Palace complex outside the walls of Constantinople. 

The epitaph on Basil's tomb celebrated his campaigns and victories. During the pillage of 1204, Basil's grave was desecrated by the invading Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade.

Depiction of Basil II from the Menologion of Basil II

(about-history.com)      (Basil II)      (sourcebooks)

(Kleidion)      (Georgian wars)