Byzantine Basil II: He Took an Icon of the Virgin into Battle Then Gouged Out the Eyes of Foes
The horrors and mass slaughters that many monarchs around the world perpetrated in ancient and more modern times may be eclipsed by the Byzantines, including Byzantine Emperor Basil II, known as Slayer of the Bulgars. After defeating the Bulgarian army in 1014 AD he blinded 15,000 prisoners of war, except 1 in 100 men, whom he left with one eye to lead their comrades home.
Other Byzantine emperors blinded and mutilated enemy troops, so Basil II was not unique. It was an act of revenge for a resounding defeat Basil II suffered at the hands of the Bulgarians 28 years earlier. But, most of the people he blinded after the battle probably weren’t even alive 28 years before. Nonetheless, it was the emperor’s most infamous exploit and it secured him territory for his empire. He made war on his neighbors, including during winter, for nearly his entire reign, trying to acquire glory and territory for the Byzantine Empire.
Basil II’s Early Life
Basil II reigned for a long time, from 976 to 1025. He ascended the throne when he was 18-years-old and died 49 years later. With all of his conquests, in Greece, the Balkans, Syria, Mesopotamia, Italy, and Bulgaria, he doubled the size of the Byzantine Empire.
- How Byzantine Art and Architecture Captivated the Known World
- The Varangian Guard: Berserkers of the Byzantine Empire
- Wild Success and Deplorable Failure: The Cursed Reign of Heraclius, Byzantine Emperor
It says something about his personality that Basil II would carry an icon of the Virgin Mary in battle and be depicted in paintings with a halo, yet commit such an atrocity as blinding his foes and making unnecessary war all his adult life. Presumably, he felt divinely protected and inspired in doing the monstrous act of blinding thousands of young men and making war in much of the known world just because he wanted revenge and territory for the Byzantines and authority over the Earth.
In this miniature, Basil II is being crowned by angels. Note the halo around his head. ( Public Domain )
Basil II did not seem vainglorious. He did not throw a lot of lavish parties and wear fancy jewelry and clothing. Even the purple robes of state that he wore were of a muted color. He did not live a life of luxury and decadence. Some say he lived the life of an austere monk.
He had been named co-emperor with his brother Constantine at age 5, but his mother lost control of the center of power. Empress Theophano, wife of the late Emperor Romano, was their regent and remarried to Nikephoro II Phokas. She was unhappily married and had him murdered as he slept.
General John I Tzimiskes banished their mother to a monastery and acted as the boys’ guardian. Tzimiskes died in 976, and Basil, or Basilius as he was also known, became emperor. His brother Cecil was named co-emperor, but it was Basil II who truly ruled.
Coronation of Basil II as co-emperor to his father, Romanos II, by Patriarch Polyeuctus, on April 22, 960. ( Public Domain )
Basil II: Serious and Pious
He was witty but serious in nature and believed he was pious. He trusted no one. Consequently, he was not beloved of his people, but his success in ruling made his people respect him and his enemies fear him.
Basil II did not marry and did not have children, so all the territory he gained and the consolidation of the power of the Byzantine Empire that he accrued were quickly undone once he died.
The emperor weathered an early rebellion by an aristocrat named Bardas Skleros and then made a move to secure his throne by checking the powers of the monasteries and the landed aristocracy. Both groups were increasing their power and riches by taking or buying land from the peasants. Basil tried taxing the gentry for the overdue tax bills of the poor. This failed and was abandoned by a subsequent emperor.
Clash of the armies of the rebel Byzantine general Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas in 978/979, from the Madrid Skylitzes manuscript. ( Public Domain )
He further centralized power by allowing men in the provinces to pay him instead of serving in the military. He could afford the reduction in his army’s manpower because allied states lent him elite troops. He used the taxes to buy a new army that was more loyal to him , which helped him later on.
Emperor Basil II’s Wars
Basil II suffered a resounding defeat against the Bulgarians at a mountain pass named Trajan’s Gate in 986. The Bulgarian king went on to take territory from the Byzantines and it was not until 28 years later that Basil II got revenge—and they territory—back.
It’s interesting to note that while Basil was merciless with the Bulgarian troops, he went easy on the rest of the Bulgarians , making them citizens and including their aristocracy in his power scheme. He also allowed the Bulgarian church to stand, but demoted their patriarch to an archbishop. The shock at the defeat of the Bulgarians and the blinding of their troops induced a fatal stroke in Bulgaria’s King Samuel.
Byzantine victory over the Bulgarians at the Battle of Kleidion, from the Madrid Skylitzes. ( Public Domain )
While Basil was away in Bulgaria, there were two rebellions. Basil called on Vladimir I of Kiev, who agreed to help him in exchange for marrying Basil’s sister. In return, Vladimir, who was later sainted, was baptized as a Christian.
One way Vladimir was able to help was with his force of 6,000 Vikings, who had land and naval forces. When Basil defeated the insurgents, he had different fates for each of three military commanders: hanging, impalement, and crucifixion.
He was also making war in Syria, which he kept secure from Arab rule. The emperor himself went to war in 995 and led a victory. He strangled the Arab economy by restricting trade with the caliph. After years of making war all year long, summer and winter, he got back Greece for his empire. He later added Pliska, Skopje, Dyracchion and many other cities.
- 1,400-Year-Old Coins are the Forgotten Remnants of a Terrifying Siege on Jerusalem
- Revealing Discoveries of Rare Ivory and Unique Gold Coin from Byzantine Bulgarian Fortress
- A Rare Byzantine Painting of Jesus’ Face Has Been Uncovered in Israel
Triumph of Basil II in the forum of Constantinople. ( Public Domain )
The Death of Basil II
Basil kept up his military campaigns almost until his death. He added Georgian Iberia and Armenia in 1021 and 1022. He reorganized Italy and was about to attempt to force the Arabs out of their last western stronghold, Sicily, but he died in December 1025.
During his time on the throne, Basil II nearly doubled the empire, whose lands reached from the Crimea to Crete and from the Straits of Messina to the Danube, and east to the Araxes, Euphrates (Mesopotamia), and Orontes rivers.
Top image: A miniature depicting the defeat of the Georgian king George I ("Georgios of Abasgia") by the Byzantine emperor Basil II. Skylitzes Matritensis, fol. 195v. Source: Public Domain
By Mark Miller