Basil (867–886)

Basil (867–886)

Byzantine historians (including his own grandson) expended much ink whitewashing Basil’s fairly bloody path to the throne. Born to a peasant family in Thrace or Macedonia Basil moved to Constantinople to make his fortune. Once in the capital he caught the attention of Michael III, eventually rising to the rank of co–emperor, and then emperor by first murdering Bardas, Michael III’s uncle and advisor, with Michael’s approval, and then the emperor himself. But whatever his means, once upon the throne Basil proved an emperor of great ability. He had the luck to be succeeded by strong rulers, which established not only the legitimacy and longevity of the Macedonian dynasty, but also set in place the social, political, and military conditions for imperial recovery and expansion. Basil has a mixed military record. In Italy he managed to secure the Adriatic city of Bari, the nucleus around which the Byzantine province would flourish, but failed to stem the Arab tide in Sicily where Syracuse fell in 878. In the east Basil's main campaigns were directed against the Paulicians, a Dualist Christian sect, and the Emir of Melitene. In 872 Basil's armies crushed Chrysocheir, the Paulician leader, and sacked their home of Tephrike.

His political, economic, and administrative activities elicited praise from his biographer and grandson, Constantine VII. Basil undertook the reinvigoration of Roman law, promulgating the Epanagoge (a handbook of law for judges and lawyers), and overseeing the initial preparation of the Basilika (a codification of the law). He also took measures to expand state control in the economic realm, and sponsored a number of building projects. Basil deposed Photios, improving relations with the papacy, but reappointed him ten years later when his successor died. In 879 at a council the pope backed down, and the Photian Schism, and the question of papal supremacy, was resolved in Photios's favour.

Basil’s somewhat confused family life, in which the parentage of his second and third sons (Leo and Stephen) was uncertain (though often assumed to be Michael III), led to some noteworthy designs and exclusions on the seals and coins. Constantine, Basil’s eldest son, was added to all issues of seals and coins from 867/8 until his death in 879, while Leo and Alexander (Basil had castrated Stephen, as a result he could never become emperor) were excluded from all but the fractional gold and two issues of folles. Basil's early seals (see top, ca. 868) retained the depiction of Christ en buste on the obverse, and showed the emperor wearing a chlamys and crown and holding a labarum on the reverse. Later issues retain the same obverse but add the emperor's eldest son Constantine to the reverse. The formula of these seals, two emperors holding something between them, would become a common feature of the seals of the Macedonian dynasty. All of Basil’s seals in the Dumbarton Oaks collection depict only the emperor and Constantine; an example with Basil, Leo, and Constantine is a tessera rather than a seal, which the editors suggest may have been a grain token. For the seals of Basil's family see the Macedonian Dynasty in the Dynasties of Empire section.

 
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