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The Byzantine emperor Basil I (left) with his son Leo VI. Uploaded by Ghirlandajo, 2005

The Forgotten Renaissance: The Successes of the Macedonian Dynasty

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The Macedonian Dynasty was relatively short lived in the grand scheme of dynasties, yet it sent waves throughout the Byzantine Empire. Under them, previously lost territories were regained, the empire expanded once more, and education as well as the arts flourished. In power from the ninth to eleventh centuries, the Macedonian Dynasty was, in truth, one of the most effective dynasties of the East, transforming the Byzantine Empire into the most powerful medieval state in the world. 

The Macedonian Dynasty began with the usurper Basil I, a man of meager origins who rose rapidly through the imperial court of Michael III.  By the year 867 AD, Basil had taken the throne from Michael and he remained in power until his death in 886 AD. Under the dynasty Basil heretofore forged, the Byzantine Empire grew to its most powerful and prestigious, in part due to the fact that it was smaller under the Macedonians and thus more easily protected and defended. However, without regard for its size, population boomed during this period and the empire's major cities vastly expanded to accommodate the increase in production. Gold reserves were increased under the careful eye of Theoktistos prior to Basil's usurpation and continued to grow as Basil made it a priority to regain lands that had been previously won and then lost.

On an academic level, the Macedonian Dynasty introduced a new era of education and learning, as ancient texts were more readily preserved and copied art was once again allowed within the empire.  Previous to the Macedonian Dynasty, images of Christian figures were banned from art and architecture in what historians called the iconoclasm.  Depictions of Jesus, Mother Mary, God, and Apostles vanished under the reign of Leo III between the years 726-729 AD in a set of edicts declaring such images blasphemous.  Just before the Macedonian rule, Empress Theodora brought an end to this practice, yet it was the Macedonians who brought that significant art form back into the light.  Following this, Byzantine art saw a rise in Greek and Roman influence as artists attempted to adopt their naturalistic tendencies to blend them with Christian concepts.

The battles against the Arabs and the Bulgarians are the most pertinent in Macedonian history.  The Arabs remained a constant enemy throughout their reign, yet despite the Arab destruction of the Byzantine city Thessaloniki, the Macedonian warriors eventually made their way far into Syria and claimed it, as well as Crete and Cyprus, for their own by the late tenth century under the reign of Emperor Nikephoros II.  This renewed conquest of this land was valuable for the Macedonian Dynasty as it showed their strength compared to previous dynasties, and the emperor's ability to bring the empire back to its former height under Justinian I.

Emperoro Nikephoros II. Photo by Neuceu, 2005.

Emperoro Nikephoros II. Photo by Neuceu, 2005. (

The warfare surrounding the Bulgarians, however, was much more of a religious fight as the Eastern Empire wanted to claim the newly Christianized country for their own.  In gaining Bulgaria as one of their territories, the Byzantine Empire laid the foundation for the position of its Orthodox Church as the strongest in the East—rivals of the Pope in Rome. 

The Kievan Rus', descendants of the Vikings who had ventured from their homes in Scandinavia to the Eastern Empire, also played a significant role in the life of the Macedonian Dynasty as they were the Empire's main trade partner.  After engaging in numerous battles against the Rus', the Byzantine Empire finally came to a mutually sufficient agreement with them resulting in the Empire gaining access to powerful trade routes.  Furthermore, Vladimir I of the Rus' married into the Byzantine family, wedding Basil II's daughter Anna, and thereafter beginning a succeeding tradition of intermarriage with the Byzantine Empire, ensuring mutual political and military security.

Coronation of Basil II as Co-Emperor to his Father Romanos II. Photo by Cplakidus, 2012.

Coronation of Basil II as Co-Emperor to his Father Romanos II. Photo by Cplakidus, 2012. (

The dynasty ended in 1057 AD with Michael VI, an elderly former military minister who came to prominence after being appointed by a second regent empress called Theodora as her successor.  He ruled for only one year (1056-1057), before being forced to abdicate when the power of the military refused to back him.  Directly following his removal from the throne, the subsequent rulers from 1057-1081 AD nearly drove Byzantium into the ground.  By the time Alexios Komnenos, Alexios I, came to the throne in 1081 AD, the Byzantines were lucky that even half of their empire had survived.

Featured Image: The Byzantine emperor Basil I (left) with his son Leo VI. Uploaded by Ghirlandajo, 2005.  (

By Riley Winters


Comnena, Anna. The Alexiad. Trans. E.R.A. Sewter (Penguin Classics: New York, 1969.)

Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Edited by Hans-Friedrich Mueller (Modern Library: New York, 2003.)

Hussey, John Mervyn. "Basil I: Byzantine Emperor." Encyclopedia Britannia. Accessed June 3, 2015.

Psellus, Michael. Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographica of Michael Psellus. Trans. By E.R.A. Sewter (Penguin Classics: New York, 1979.)

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Vasiliev, A. "The Macedonian Epoch (867-1081)." History of the Byzantine Empire (324-1453). University of Wisconsin Press. 1952. Accessed June 2, 2015.

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Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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