7 Interesting Facts About the Long Reign of Emperor Basil II

Emperor Basil II had one of the longest reigns of any Byzantine ruler. Under his direction and skillful administration, Byzantium grew to the largest it had been in four centuries.

Mar 12, 2021By Jack Crawford, BA Medieval History, MPhil Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic History

Emperor Basil II


Basil II was arguably one of the Byzantine Empire’s ‘greatest’ emperors. His reign was the longest of any emperor, and during his 65 years on the throne, his achievements were numerous. He expanded the empire to its greatest extent in four centuries, whilst also stabilizing the treasury and building up an impressive surplus. He not only overcame two enormous rebellions that threatened to depose him, but he also succeeded in checking the power of the great eastern aristocrats who had so nearly caused his downfall. Upon his death, Basil II left an empire that was far larger, more prosperous, and more formidable than it had been for several centuries.


Basil II Was ‘Born In The Purple’

porphyry statue tetrarchs diocletian
Porphyry statue of the Tetrarchs Diocletian and Maximian, which stands in the Piazza San Marco, Venice, via the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


Born in 958 to Emperor Romanos II and his second wife Theophano, Basil II was considered to have been Porphyrogennetos or ‘Born in the Purple’ – essentially, this meant that he was born while his father was emperor.


The origins of this term likely derive from the fact that Byzantine emperors wore imperial purple, a luxury dye obtained from sea snails. As the dye was exceptionally difficult to produce and was therefore highly expensive, it became a status symbol during the Roman period. By the 10th century, sumptuary laws in the Byzantine Empire prohibited anyone except the imperial household from wearing the color.


Porphyrogennetos also had a more literal meaning too. There was a room in the imperial palace reserved for the empress, which was lined with porphyry, an igneous rock which is a deep red-purple color. In particular, this room was used by reigning empresses for childbirth, meaning that children born to a reigning emperor were, quite literally, ‘born in the purple.’

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


Throughout His Childhood, He Was At Involved In Court Machinations

reconstruction medieval constantinople
Reconstruction of Medieval Constantinople. The Great Palace, where Basil was born and grew up, can be seen in the foreground to the right of the Hippodrome, via Realm of History


To secure the line of succession, Basil’s father Romanos II had his two-year-old son crowned co-emperor in April 960. This turned out to be a shrewd move, as Romanos died suddenly in March 963 at the age of only 24 – some historians theorize that his death may have been the result of poison and that his wife Theophano was likely the culprit.


In any case, Basil II and his younger brother Constantine were far too young to rule, so the senate confirmed them as emperors with their mother as their legal regent, although in practice power was wielded by the parakoimomenos (an office comparable to the chief minister of the empire) Joseph Bringas. However, Bringas’ reign was short, as the popular general Nikephoros Phokas, fresh from the victorious conquest of Crete, was proclaimed emperor by his army. Bringas fled Constantinople and Phokas marched on the city. The people welcomed him, and he was crowned emperor in August 963.


coronation basil ii
The Coronation of the infant Basil II as co-emperor, from the Madrid Skylitzes, in the National Library, Madrid, via Press Reader; with Emperor Basil II depicted being crowned by Christ and Angels, flanked by six military saints. Courtiers and defeated enemies bow at the emperor’s feet. Replica of the Psalter of Basil II (Psalter of Venice), BNM, Ms. gr. 17, fol. 3r, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice, via the Ancient History Encyclopedia


To legitimize his rule, Phokas married Basil’s mother Theophano, likely becoming godfather to the young co-emperor and his brother. However, this new stability did not last long, as Phokas himself was murdered in a plot hatched by Theophano in 969. Phokas’s nephew John Tzimiskes ascended to the throne, exiling the cunning Theophano to a monastery. When John finally died in January 976, Basil was finally able to assume power as senior emperor of Byzantium, and his rule began in earnest.


His Nickname Was ‘The Bulgar Slayer’

byzantine empire 1025
The Byzantine Empire in 1025 at the end of Basil’s reign, with the territories he captured from the Bulgarians marked with a checked green line, via populationdata.net


Basil’s rather imposing nickname derived from his lengthy and brutal conflict with the Byzantine Empire’s most formidable European enemy – the First Bulgarian Empire. Tsar Samuel of Bulgaria held vast territories stretching from the Adriatic to the Black sea, some of which had once belonged to the Byzantines. 


Samuel had even succeeded in capturing Moesia (a region along the coast of the Black Sea) while Basil II was distracted by internal rebellions. By the 990s, Bulgarian forces were raiding deep into Byzantine territory, even reaching as far as central Greece. The situation was intolerable, and by the year 1000, Basil had quashed internal dissent and was finally able to focus upon the external threat faced by the power of the Bulgarian Tsar.


Basing himself in the city of Thessalonica in 1000, Basil began a series of campaigns that conquered the old Bulgarian capital of Great Preslav in 1000, and the cities of Vodena, Verrhoia, and Servia in northern Greece in the year 1001. In 1002 the Byzantines occupied Philippopolis, blocking the east-west roads and cutting Moesia off from Macedonia, the heartlands of Samuel’s Bulgarian Empire. Following Basil’s capture of Vidin, Samuel retaliated with a large-scale surprise raid which took the major Byzantine city of Adrianople. The returning Bulgarian army was intercepted by Basil and defeated, leading to the recovery of the looted treasures of Adrianople.


battle of kleidion death of tsar samuel
The Battle of Kleidion (top) and the death of Tsar Samuel (bottom), via Radio Bulgaria


Following this setback, Samuel was forced into a defensive stance, and the Byzantine Empire’s advances were slow over the next 10 years of conflict. Gathering his resources, Basil II launched an enormous offensive in 1014 aimed at finally crushing Bulgarian resistance. On 29th July 1014, Basil outmaneuvered and utterly destroyed Samuel’s army at the battle of Kleidion. It is his actions after the battle that cemented his reputation as ‘The Bulgar Slayer’ – Basil had almost 15,000 Bulgarian prisoners blinded, sparing one man in every hundred so that he could lead his comrades back to their Tsar. Samuel was so distraught by this horrific sight that he suffered a stroke and died two days later. By 1018, the Bulgarians had finally submitted to Basil, and Byzantium once again had its ancient Danubian frontier.


A Military Emperor Who Regularly Led His Forces Personally

byzantine infantry depiction
A depiction of early 11th century Byzantine infantry, via Weapons and Warfare


Unlike many of his predecessors who had overseen military campaigning from the safety of Constantinople such as his grandfather Constantine VII, Basil II was an active emperor. He spent a great deal of his reign accompanying and personally commanding Byzantine armies.


Not only would Basil travel with his troops, but he would also share in their hardships too, supposedly even going so far as to eat a standard soldier’s rations while on campaign. Not only this, but he laid aside provisions for the dependents of dead officers, caring for their children through gifting them shelter, food, and education. As a result, Basil’s armies were generally very loyal, and he was extremely popular with the soldiers.


The actual size of the Byzantine Empire’s army under Basil is not known, but some estimates suggest that there may have been just over 100,000 men, not including the imperial guard units, the tagmata, based in Constantinople.


Several Serious Rebellions In Anatolia

redel bardas skleros
The rebel Bardas Skleros is proclaimed Emperor, from the Madrid Skylitzes, cod. Vitr. 26-2, fol. 174, via the History of Byzantium


At the start of his reign, the young and inexperienced Emperor Basil II was faced with a serious threat to his authority. In the East, powerful Byzantine families had built up vast estates over several centuries and were effectively functioning as feudal overlords, wielding enormous influence within their territories and across the empire at large. The greatest of these families possessed the independent power and wealth to raise the flag of rebellion against the emperor himself.


In 976, the Skleroi family did just that – the experienced and successful general, Bardas Skleros, who had been a trusted advisor of the previous emperor John I, fermented rebellion after being deposed from the position of ‘Domestic of the Schools’ the highest military office in the empire. Allying himself with Armenian, Georgian, and Muslim rulers, Bardas used his followers to capture most of Asia Minor. To deal with the threat, Basil recalled the exiled Bardas Phokas, a general who had revolted against John I.


Bardas Phokas succeeded in traveling to the east and coming to an agreement with David III Kuropalates of Tao, with the Georgian prince pledging 12,000 horsemen to Phokas. Skleros immediately moved to confront Phokas, and on 24th March 979 the armies fought a battle – the two generals personally fought in single combat, with Phokas succeeding in wounding his adversary’s head. Although Skleros escaped, rumor of his death put his army to flight, and his rebellion began to disintegrate. Phokas was able to subdue the remnant without too much difficulty.


limburg staurotheke reliquary
The Limburg Staurotheke, an extremely ornate reliquary commissioned by Basil Lekapenos, indicating his vast wealth and influence, via the University of Columbia


However, the threat of the great eastern families did not end with the defeat of Bardas Skleros. The parakoimomenos Basil Lekapenos, who himself had acquired great estates in the east, conspired with Bardas Phokas and the exiled Bardas Skleros to rebel and depose Basil. Their inability to influence the energetic Basil, combined with his efforts to curb the power of the eastern families, agitated them into open rebellion.


Phokas’ rebellion was very similar to Skleros’ – the general raised his forces in Asia Minor in 987 and besieged Abydos on the Hellespont, with the intention of blocking the Dardanelles and access to Constantinople. Basil II was able to procure troops to combat this threat by marrying his sister Anna to the Grand Prince of the Rus, Vladimir the Great – the Rus leader not only sent a large army, including a contingent of 6,000 Varangians but also agreed to convert to Christianity.


grand prince vladimir baptism
Grand Prince Vladimir is baptized, from The Baptism of Vladimir by Victor Vasnetsov, via the History of Byzantium


Slowly Basil’s forces advanced on Phokas, who became increasingly desperate as his supply lines were cut off and his allies began to desert him. In early 989, Basil’s forces were fast approaching Abydos and Phokas prepared his armies for battle, only to suffer a seizure and die on 16th March before the two sides could meet. After his death, Phokas’ rebellion quickly collapsed, and Basil’s reign was secure.


Challenged Byzantine Aristocrats And The Great Eastern Families


For centuries, the great eastern families in Anatolia had been steadily increasing their landholdings by purchasing territory from smaller farmers and landowners. This alienation of land away from rural Byzantine landowners often occurred during times of hardship, when powerful aristocratic families could afford to purchase land from their poorer neighbors. In the Byzantine Empire during the medieval period, land ownership came with an annual tax or civic obligations, obligations that forced many landowning citizens to sell their holdings during economic downturns.


byzantine agricultural workers farmers
Byzantine agricultural workers being paid (top), Byzantine farmers working the land (bottom), a parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Byzantine 11th Century Gospel Book, via Vanderbilt University, Nashville


Not only were the predatory actions of the great eastern families to the detriment of lower- and middle-class Byzantines in the east, but they also presented a threat to the emperor, as these large landowners were powerful enough to effectively act as semi-independent rulers. Previous emperors had instituted land laws in an attempt to curb the growth of these great estates, and Basil II was no different. In January 996 he issued a decree stipulating that all landowners who had purchased land since the reign of Romanos I had to prove it had been obtained legally and without duress – if the estate owner could not provide proof, the original owners of the land had the right to reclaim it.


Furthermore, in 1002 Basil introduced the Allelengyon tax, which forced wealthy landowners (the dynatoi) to pay additional dues to make up for any shortfalls of poorer taxpayers. Although Basil’s actions were obviously unpopular with the rich aristocracy of the eastern Byzantine Empire, he was well-liked by the rural inhabitants of Anatolia. In addition to this, these acts increased the empire’s treasury considerably – by 1025 Basil had increased the annual revenues of the state to seven million nomismata, and he had managed to accumulate a further fourteen million nomismata in the imperial treasury.


Basil Expanded The Byzantine Empire’s Borders To Their Greatest Extent

basil ii battlefield georgians
Basil II (far left) on the battlefield against the Georgians, from the Madrid Skylitzes, via Press Reader


Between the rebellions which plagued his early reign, his vendetta against the Bulgarian Tsar, and his numerous foreign campaigns, Basil II was almost always at war throughout his entire reign. During the insurrections of Bardas Skleros and Bardas Phokas, the Fatimid Caliphate has taken the opportunity to seize territory in the east which had been conquered by Basil’s predecessors. 


When, in 994, Caliph Al-Aziz Billah attacked the Hamdanid Emirate of Aleppo (a Byzantine protectorate) and defeated an imperial force under the command of the doux of Antioch, Basil personally led an army to Aleppo. Taking the Caliph’s army by surprise, the Fatimids retreated in disorder, allowing Basil to occupy Tartus. In 1000 a ten-year truce was signed between the two sides.


Hostilities flared in the Caucasian mountains in 1015 and 1016 when the Georgian prince George I invaded Tao, with the intention of retaking the territories once controlled by prince David III of Tao (who had aided Basil II in his war against the rebel Bardas Skleros many years before).


In 1021 Basil launched a full offensive, occupying much Georgian territory after defeating George and his Armenian allies, before withdrawing to Asia Minor for the winter. In December 1021, the Armenian king Senekerim, suffering from Seljuk raids, surrendered his kingdom to Basil. In early 1022 Basil renewed his offensive, defeating George at the battle of Svindax and forcing George to hand over his kingdom.

Author Image

By Jack CrawfordBA Medieval History, MPhil Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic HistoryJack is a contributing writer with a primary interest in Medieval History, in particular the early medieval period. He completed a bachelor’s degree in Medieval History at the University of St. Andrews, and a masters in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge.