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THE race of Leo the Isaurian, which in no inglorious fashion had filled the whole of the eighth and ninth centuries with its iconoclastic struggles, social reforms, and palace intrigues, nominally died out in 867 in the person of a debauched and incapable young Emperor, Michael III, known as the Drunkard. The man who in consequence ascended the throne by means of a crime, and founded The Macedonian Dynasty, was Basil I. To study the personal character and home policy of the sovereigns directly or indirectly descended from him down to 1057, is, in effect, to depict the leading aspects of the period, save for the ever-present struggle for existence against external foes...
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Copyright © 2016 by Albert Vogt
Published by Perennial Press
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THE MACEDONIAN DYNASTY FROM 867 TO 976 AD
THE MACEDONIAN DYNASTY FROM 976 TO 1057 A.D.
THE RACE OF LEO THE Isaurian, which in no inglorious fashion had filled the whole of the eighth and ninth centuries with its iconoclastic struggles, social reforms, and palace intrigues, nominally died out in 867 in the person of a debauched and incapable young Emperor, Michael III, known as the Drunkard. The man who in consequence ascended the throne by means of a crime, and founded the Macedonian dynasty, was Basil I. To study the personal character and home policy of the sovereigns directly or indirectly descended from him down to 1057, is, in effect, to depict the leading aspects of the period, save for the ever-present struggle for existence against external foes.
BASIL I (867-886).
The founder of the Macedonian dynasty was born about 812 in the neighborhood of Hadrianople, of a humble Macedonian family engaged in agriculture and probably of Armenian extraction. As always happens in such cases, no sooner had Basil ascended the throne than the genealogists provided him with illustrious ancestors. His obscure family history was made the subject of legendary embellishments, as were his infancy and early years. The Arsacids, Philip of Macedon, Alexander, and Constantine, were attributed to him as his remote progenitors. It was related that marvels and prodigies had attended his birth, foreshadowing a glorious future for him. As a matter of fact, Basil’s father and mother were poor peasants. “While still in swaddling clothes” he was, with his family, carried captive into Bulgaria by the troops of Krum, and there he remained until he was about twenty years old. On his return to Macedonia, finding himself rich in nothing but brothers and sisters, he set out for Constantinople and took service in the first instance with the Strategus of the Peloponnesus, Theophylitzes. Here he rose to fortune, having on a voyage to Patras had the good luck to make acquaintance with a rich widow named Danielis, who showered favors upon him. A very handsome man and of herculean strength, he attracted notice at Constantinople, and in 856 the Emperor Michael took him into his service as chief groom.
In this way Basil was brought into intimate association with the sovereign, whose confidant he soon became. While the government was left to Bardas, Michael amused himself and Basil became the self-appointed minister of the imperial pleasures. Amidst the corruptions of the court the shrewd peasant contrived to make a place of his own and gradually to render himself indispensable. He rose in favor, obtained ancient dignities for himself, and, in order that he might have no rival to fear, in April 866 he assassinated the Caesar Bardas, Michael’s uncle. This was a preliminary crime. Having thus got rid of the real ruler of the state, Basil prevailed upon the Emperor, on 26 May following, to declare him associated in the imperial authority. Thus the path to the crown was thrown open to him. It was quickly traversed. Having lost the affection of the Emperor, who had taken a fancy to a boatman named Basiliscianus and wished to have him crowned, Basil, no longer feeling himself secure, formed a plot with several of his relations and friends, and on the night of 23 September 867 procured the assassination of Michael in the St Mamas palace. This done, he instantly returned to Constantinople, took possession of the imperial palace, and had himself proclaimed sole Emperor. The Macedonian Dynasty was founded. It was to last for nearly two centuries.
According to the chroniclers, the revolution of September 867 was welcomed by the population as a whole. The Senate, the nobles, the army, and the people made no difficulty about acclaiming the man of the moment, for it was generally understood that the Empire was passing through a serious crisis, and that it was of the first importance to have the throne filled by one who was a good soldier, a wise administrator, and a valiant leader. Now there was no doubt that Basil possessed these qualifications.
Having reached the age of fifty-six when he mounted the throne, the new Emperor did not arrive at power unaccompanied. He brought his family with him, a strange family, to tell the truth, and one which labored under the disadvantage of doubtful legitimacy. While still young, Basil had married a Macedonian girl named Maria, from whom he procured a divorce in 865 when his fortunes showed signs of soaring. The Emperor Michael immediately married him to his own mistress, Eudocia Ingerina, who nevertheless continued to live with her imperial lover. On Basil’s accession, she mounted the throne with him as Empress, dying in 882. Ostensibly Basil had two sons, Constantine and Leo. Who were these children? The elder, Constantine, was his father’s favorite. He was probably born about 859. In 870 Basil associated him in his government, and took him on the campaign which he made in 877 against Germanicea. Unfortunately he died in 879, to the despair of his father, whose mind became affected. The mother of this son was unquestionably Maria, and he would have been the natural heir. There were probably also four daughters of the same marriage, who were sent to a convent and ignored on all hands. One of them, however, must have married, for Basil had a son-in-law, a celebrated general, Christopher. As to Leo, he was almost certainly born at the palace of St Mamas on 1 December 866. Whatever Constantine VII says in his life of his grandfather, Leo was not Basil’s son but the offspring of Michael and Eudocia Ingerina. He was consequently illegitimate. The evident antipathy with which Basil regarded him is thus easily understood. He was nevertheless Basil’s successor. After becoming Emperor, Basil had two more sons by Eudocia, Alexander, who reigned jointly with Leo VI and died in 912, and Stephen, who became Patriarch of Constantinople. Basil had, besides, brothers and sisters, but none of them played a part of any importance. One of his sisters, Thecla, made herself notorious by her misconduct, and his brothers took an active and prominent share in the murder of Michael.
On the morrow of Michael’s assassination, Basil, already co-regent, was proclaimed sole Emperor by Marianus, Prefect of the City, in the Forum. Then, having at St Sophia solemnly returned thanks to God, he set himself to the task of government. The first matter which seems to have engaged his attention was the exchequer. The finances were in a truly deplorable state. Michael III had wasted all his resources, and in order to raise money had sold, broken up, or melted down a large number of works of art. When Basil came to examine the treasury, nothing was left in it. But a statement of accounts was found in possession of one of the officials, proving that serious malversations had been committed. The thieves were forced to restore half of the sums abstracted, and in this way a certain amount was brought into the treasury. Other sums of importance reached it in due time, helping to restore the finances to solvency.
But this, in itself, was little. The first urgent reform was the reorganization of the financial machinery of the State. Social questions at this juncture had become acute. The feudal class, which was all-powerful, was striving to accentuate more and more the formidable distinction between the rich and the poor, and crying abuses were springing up in every direction. Basil tried to protect the small men against the great, by showing favor to the lesser land-holders; he appointed honest and trustworthy officials over the finances, and exerted himself to maintain the peasant in possession of his plot, and to secure him from being ruined by fines or taxes out of all proportion to his wealth. Then, taking a step further, he endeavored to reform the method of collecting the taxes by revising the register of lands, and compelling the officials to set down in clear, legible, comprehensible figures the fixed quota on which depended the amount of tax payable. Finally, he took a direct and personal share in financial administration, verifying the accounts, receiving the complaints which reached Constantinople, and acting as judge of final resort. It is probable that exertions such as these brought about a temporary improvement in the state of the poor and laboring classes. Nevertheless, as we shall see, Basil’s successors were in their turn to find the social and financial tension more acute than ever.
While thus attending to the finances, Basil also applied himself to the task of legislative and judicial reorganization. Here, as elsewhere, he made a point in the first place of choosing officials of integrity, and also just and learned judges. He cared little from what stratum of society his judges were drawn, provided that they discharged their duties faithfully. Basil required that they should be numerous and easily accessible, and that their pay should be sufficient to make them independent. Justice was to be administered daily at the Chalce Palace, at the Hippodrome, and at the Magnaura, and more than once Basil himself was seen to enter the court, listen to the trial, and take part in the deliberations.
But it is plain that the chief legislative work of Basil was the revision of the Justinianean Code and the issue of new law-books. In 878 or 879, without waiting for the completion of the work of remodeling which he had planned, he promulgated the Prochiron, a handbook or abridgment which determined the laws and unwritten customs in force, and abrogated those no longer in use. The Prochiron was, above all, concerned with civil law. It maintained its authority up to 1453. A second and fuller edition was prepared by Basil about 886. This was the Epanagoge, which besides formed an introduction and a summary, intended for a more important collection in forty books, the Anacatharsis. The last-named work is no longer in existence. No doubt its substance, as well as that of the Epanagoge, was included in the Basilics. But apparently neither of these earlier works was ever officially published. In any case, they did not remain in force for long.
During the most glorious period of his reign, Basil gave a new impulse to the fine arts which was destined to outlast his life. Under his direction, large numbers of churches were rebuilt, repaired, and beautified. In architecture we get the type of cupola intermediary between the large and dangerous dome of St Sophia and the elegant lantern-towers of a later age, while buildings on the basilica model become rarer, and architects are chiefly eager to construct splendid churches with gilded roofs, glittering mosaics, and marbles of varied hues. It was to Basil that his contemporaries owed, among other buildings, the magnificent church begun in 876 and consecrated in 880, called, in contradistinction to St Sophia, the New Church, with its scheme of decoration in many colors, and its unequalled mosaics forming a great assemblage of religious pictures, a church worthy to stand beside that which Justinian had built. We know it fairly well through the descriptions of Photius and Constantine VII.
Basil’s artistic enterprise also found free scope in the erection of secular buildings which he raised for his own use, such as the palace of the Caenurgium, with its famous historical decorations and its ornamented pavements. The lesser arts also entered on a period of revival, and among works which have come down to us one in particular is famous, the celebrated manuscript of St Gregory (Parisinus 510) with its full-page illuminations and its varied ornamentation. It is of the highest interest for the reign of Basil, as it leaves us some trace of the portraits, unfortunately in a very imperfect condition, of Basil, Eudocia, Leo, and Alexander.
The religious question was the chief concern of Basil’s reign. At his accession, the dispute with Rome which had arisen over Photius had reached an acute stage, and the Eastern Church was deeply divided. Photius had been chosen Patriarch in very irregular fashion on 25 December 858, a month after the banishment of the rightful Patriarch, Ignatius. Bardas had been the cause of the whole trouble, and, as early as 860, Rome had intervened. In spite of the Roman legates who, in 861, had allowed themselves to be intimidated into recognizing Photius, Nicholas I had deposed and anathematized him and his adherents. The result was anarchy. Basil, therefore, who disliked “the knavery of this sage” and was also desirous of conciliating the Roman See and restoring religious peace to the Empire, hastened to recall Ignatius on 23 November 867, and to demand a council to put an end to the schism. This Council met in St Sophia on 5 October 869 and sat until 28 February 870. Basil, though in an indirect and covert way, took a leading part in it, and brought about the triumph of his own policy. On 5 November Photius was anathematized, declared to be deposed, and exiled to the monastery of Skepes.
The Emperor had, in part at least, gained his end. The solemn sitting of a council had, in the eyes of the public, set a seal upon his usurpation, and the Church found itself in the position of having implicitly recognized his title. And, what was more, the arrival of ambassadors from Bulgaria, who came at this juncture to inquire of the Council to which of the two Churches, Rome or Constantinople, their own belonged, was a further advantage for Basil. Thanks to the support given him by the Patriarch Ignatius, against the will of Rome and its legates, the Emperor obtained a decision that Bulgaria came under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate, and Ignatius consecrated a bishop for that country. The result of all these religious transactions was clear. Basil’s authority at home and abroad was strengthened, but at the same time he had broken with the Pope, Hadrian III.
The settlement, however, brought some measure of peace to the Church. In 875 or 876 Photius even returned to Constantinople as tutor of the imperial children, entered again into communication with Pope John VIII, and waited for the death of the aged Ignatius, which occurred on 23 October 877. Three days later, Photius again took possession of the patriarchal throne, and the Pope, upon certain conditions which were never carried out, confirmed his title. A temporary end was thus put to the schism, and the two authorities were again in harmony. A Council was held at Constantinople in 879-880 to decide the religious question. But by that time Basil’s reign was virtually ended. Having lost his son Constantine he allowed things to take their own course, and Photius profited by his apathy to weave the conspiracy which proved his ruin.
Basil’s reign ended gloomily. The nineteen years during which he had governed the Empire had not been free from complications. More than once he had had to foil a conspiracy aimed against his life; serious difficulties had arisen with his successor Leo; his armies had not been uniformly successful. It was, however, Constantine’s death in 879 which really killed Basil. From this time onwards his reason was clouded; he became cruel and left to others all care for the administration. He himself spent his time in hunting, and it was while thus employed that he was overtaken by death at Apamea as the result of an accident perhaps arranged by his enemies. He was brought back seriously injured to Constantinople, where he died on 29 August 886, leaving the Empire to Leo VI under the guardianship of Stylianus Zaützes, an Armenian, who later became father-in-law of the Emperor.
LEO VI (886-912).
The revolution of 867 which had raised Basil to the throne was now undone, so far as its dynastic significance went, since with Leo VI the crown returned to the family of Michael III. Although the offspring of an adulterous connection, the new sovereign was none the less of the imperial blood, and his accession really meant that the murderer’s victim in the person of his son thrust aside the impostor in order to take his proper place. Officially, however, Basil’s successor was regarded as his legitimate heir, and many no doubt believed that he was in fact his son and Eudocia’s. It is this false situation which explains the estrangement between Basil and Leo, the conduct of the latter, and doubtless also the existence of a party at court which remained permanently hostile to Basil and constant to Michael’s dynasty in the person of Leo VI.
Leo, when he ascended the throne at Constantinople (886), was twenty years old. Up to that time his life had been a painful one. It is true that Basil had given him an excellent education, and that his care had not been thrown away. We know that Leo VI was surnamed the Wise, or the Philosopher, probably on account of his writings, his eloquence, and his learning. But this was certainly the sole advantage which the new ruler owed to his nominal father. While he was still quite young Basil had him tonsured; then, as he had an heir in the person of Constantine and as public opinion looked upon him as the father of the second child also, he associated him in the Empire with Constantine, and soon afterwards with Alexander. As long as Constantine lived, the relations between Basil and Leo were in no way unusual, but on the death of the eldest son the situation was changed. Leo now became the heir, the second place only falling to Alexander. It will easily be understood that this was a grief to Basil. At all costs he desired to set Leo aside in favor of Alexander. In the winter of 880-881 the Emperor married his adopted son to a young girl for whom he had no affection and who might be supposed unlikely to bear him children. This was Theophano, a relation of Eudocia Ingerina, afterwards St Theophano. A daughter was, nevertheless, born of this marriage, named Eudocia, but she died in 892. Her birth no doubt caused an increase of hatred on both sides. Leo roused himself, the party which he led took shape, and in 885 a revolt broke out under John Curcuas, Domestic of the Hicanati, supported by sixty-six fellow-plotters, all great dignitaries of the court. The conspirators were discovered and severely punished. Leo, who had been concerned in the affair, was betrayed by a monk named Theodore Santabarenus, and thrown into prison with his wife and little daughter. The Emperor threatened to have his eyes put out, but was dissuaded from this course by Photius himself, and some of the courtiers. Leo was restored to his dignities, but the Emperor gave him neither his confidence nor his affection. Before long, Basil died, as a result of a hunting-accident which may well have been a murder.
A light was at once shed upon the doubtful paternity of Leo by his conduct on the death of Basil I. Without bestowing much attention on the remains of his supposed father, he reserved all his care for those of his real parent, Michael III. Immediately on his accession he ordered that the body of the murdered Emperor should be solemnly removed from Chrysopolis, where it had been hastily interred in 867, and brought to Constantinople, where a magnificent funeral service was held over it in the church of the Holy Apostles. It thus appeared that he wished to emphasize the renewal, in his own person, of a dynastic tradition which had been momentarily interrupted. He then applied himself to the task of government, in theory jointly with Alexander but practically as sole ruler. The reign of Leo VI is in one sense the completion and crowning of that of Basil. All the reforms adumbrated during the late reign were achieved and codified under Leo, and the majority of the questions then left unsolved were now dealt with. To pronounce the reign a poor and feeble one is grossly unfair. It is true that, as far as foreign affairs are concerned, there is little to record and that little not of a fortunate kind. Leo VI evidently was not built on the scale of Basil. Far more at home in court and cabinet than his predecessor, he had none of the qualities of a general. This did not, however, prevent his doing useful work as a ruler.
End of the Photian schism
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