Reign of Basil II Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The reign of Basil II marked the apex of Byzantine power and political expansion and produced remarkable achievements in the military, religious, and economic realms, despite controversies over Basil’s successor.

Summary of Event

In spite of its bloody beginnings, the Macedonian Dynasty of the Byzantine Empire, founded by the illiterate Armenian peasant Basil I who, as imperial chamberlain and then coemperor, assassinated his rival to gain the throne, attained its zenith of power during the reign of Basil’s great-great-grandson Basil II, son of Emperor Romanus II and the beautiful Empress Theophano Theophano , who may have murdered a series of emperor-husbands. [kw]Reign of Basil II (976-1025) [kw]Basil II, Reign of (976-1025) Basil II Byzantine Empire Byzantine Empire;976-1025: Reign of Basil II[1300] Turkey;976-1025: Reign of Basil II[1300] Government and politics;976-1025: Reign of Basil II[1300] John I Tzimisces Theophano Basil II (958-1025) Basil the Chamberlain Samuel Vladimir I Bardas Skleros Bardas Phocas John XVI

Although crowned in 960 as a child, Basil II ascended to the throne in Constantinople in 976 after fifty years of court dissension and intrigue. Always able to control his brother and joint emperor, Constantine VIII Constantine VIII , Basil moved to control the empire by himself only in 985, when he drove his able adviser-minister and great-uncle, Basil the Chamberlain Basil the Chamberlain , into exile.

In the same year, according to the chief contemporary source, Michael Psellus, Basil reached another turning point in his life. Whereas in his early years, Basil had been given to the banquet table and pleasures of the flesh, he now became secretive, ascetic, and effectively autocratic. His sole concern was to forge a strong state, defending it from enemies within and without. By this time, his military skills had been sharpened in frustrated campaigns against Czar Samuel Samuel (czar of Bulgaria) of Bulgaria in the Balkans, and his administrative and diplomatic aptitude had developed in the absence of Basil the Chamberlain. In cultural and intellectual pursuits, however, the emperor showed little interest, and during his administration government patronage of learning and the arts declined.

His rule continued to be plagued with unrest until 989 through such contenders as the general Bardas Skleros Bardas Skleros , who was raised to the imperial purple by his troops in 976, and the pretender Bardas Phocas Bardas Phocas , who in 987 tried to usurp the throne with the support of army officers and the landed aristocracy of Asia Minor. Basil put down these rebellions in 987 by the expedient of inviting Prince Vladimir Vladimir I of Kiev and his Varangian troops to his aid, in return for which Vladimir was promised the hand of Basil’s sister, the Byzantine princess Anna. Anna, Princess of the Byzantine Empire Vladimir ensured the fulfillment of this promise by seizing the Byzantine colony of Cherson in the Crimea. After the marriage, and following his own research into the Byzantine ritual, Vladimir accepted the Orthodox rite of Christianity for himself and the Russian state in 988.

In 996, Basil attacked the powerful landed aristocracy by demanding that they restore property to those whom they had dispossessed. Although this action was motivated partly out of revenge against the Bardas family and their supporters, there were legitimate economic considerations involved. These programs revived the intentions of Basil’s predecessor and great-grandfather, Romanus Lecapenus, insofar as agrarian reforms were promoted and the tax base was broadened. No longer was the aristocracy able to ignore imperial assessments or transfer property to monastic establishments, for Basil threw the weight of taxation on all the propertied classes including the Church.

As commander in chief, Basil II had no equal among the Byzantine emperors before or after him. Not always a victor in battles, he was inevitably successful in wars, following a policy of careful consolidation of his victories along each step of his military campaigns. The Caucasian provinces were in a state of constant unrest as a result of the independent spirit of the Georgian and Armenian aristocracy, but a show of strength by Basil in 998 ensured imperial control. The expansionist policy in Syria of an Egyptian Fāṭimid caliph was countered by successful campaigns in 994 and 999 by the emperor himself.

Basil’s greatest military triumph was against the Bulgars Bulgars of Czar Samuel. The Bulgarian war occupied Basil’s attention intermittently for thirty years. John I Tzimisces John I Tzimisces , Basil’s usurping predecessor, had fragmented Bulgarian power in the Balkans, but it became a threat again under Czar Samuel, who in 985 ravaged Thrace to the Corinthian Isthmus and overran the strategic territory around Thessalonica. Basil himself narrowly escaped with his life after a sound defeat at the hands of the Bulgars in the summer of 986. The revolts of Bardas Phocas and Bardas Skleros between 986 and 996 interrupted the emperor’s Bulgarian campaign, and Samuel was able to make himself the arbiter of the Balkans, killing or capturing with impunity the Byzantine administrative officials who attempted to drive him from Thessalonica.

In 996, however, the imperial general Nicephorus Uranus crushed Samuel’s army at the Spercheus River, and the Bulgarian czar directed his attention to the more accessible goals of Dalmatia, Bosnia, and Dioclea, petty kingdoms federated to Constantinople. So successful was Samuel’s campaign in the western Balkans that he was able to arrange, about 1000, the marriage of his son and successor, Gabriel Radomir, to a daughter of Stephen of Hungary.

Basil pursued a relentless policy of encirclement, negotiating a treaty with the Venetians to cut off Bulgarian access to the Adriatic, and deploying his own forces in a pincer movement along the lower and middle Danube and into the central Balkans. Although Basil surprised the army of Samuel in the spring of 1003 near Skoplje, and nearly captured him, Bulgarian resistance dragged on until 1019 as a result of the tenacious spirit of the Bulgarians and the impregnable nature of their strongholds. The turning point was Basil’s summer campaign of 1014 aimed at the Bulgarian capital of Ochrid, when the emperor captured a Bulgarian force of fourteen thousand men. The eyes of ninety-nine out of every hundred were put out; the hundredth man was left with only one eye so he could lead his fellows back to their hapless czar. Samuel was so struck by this tragic sight that he suffered a seizure and died on October 6, 1014. Basil, the “Bulgar-slayer,” could as a result hold the Balkan Peninsula securely in the empire.

Basil’s skill as a diplomat presents a record more mixed in its success. While he himself never married and seemingly had little liking for women, he used marriage freely to cement relationships with his allies. Marriage as a political tool;Byzantine Empire In addition to the alliance with the Kievan Dynasty of Vladimir, another royal princess was promised in marriage to the Venetian John Urseolo in order to seal an alliance with that naval power against the Bulgarians in 998. Crown Princess Zoë (980-1050), eldest daughter of Constantine VIII (r. 976-1028), was given in marriage to the three-year-old emperor Otto III Otto III (r. 983-1002), who died before consummation. In the latter case, there was a precedence for such a foreign marriage, since the mother of Otto III was a Byzantine princess.

In regard to the Church, Basil maintained a truly autocratic policy. He personally appointed three successive patriarchs in Constantinople and controlled the appointments at Antioch and Jerusalem. Probably unappreciative of the complexity of Western papal-imperial politics, he tried to promote a Calabrian bishop, the antipope John XVI John XVI (antipope) (997-998), as a rival for the German papal candidate and then pope, Gregory V Gregory V (996-999). The ambitious plan failed in 998 when Philagathus was captured, mutilated, and imprisoned by Ottonian supporters.


During Basil II’s reign, the Byzantine Empire’s political expansion and its artistic and cultural influence was at its peak. At his death in December, 1025, however, Basil was preparing an offensive against the Normans in southern Italy, the objective being to resurrect Byzantine power in the West.

Basil was a supreme nation builder and protector, and his main focus was on maintaining the powerful position the empire had attained and maintained in the region, a position that began with Constantine the Great’s transformation of an old Greek port called Byzantium into Constantinople around 330, when the city was named the center of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Basil saw both the peak and the beginning of a decline of the Byzantine Empire during his lifetime. The eleventh century was marked by the Seljuk Turks attacking the eastern Mediterranean, and the Byzantines began to seek the help of Crusaders and the Papacy in Rome. The empire, however, did not collapse completely until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when the Ottoman Turks attacked and conquered the city and established their own flourishing empire.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Browning, Robert. The Byzantine Empire. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1992. A history of the Byzantine Empire. Chapter 3 discusses its golden age and the reign of Basil II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fine, John V. A. The Early Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Sixth to the Late Twelfth Century. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991. A detailed historical survey of the entire Balkans, with a good discussion of original sources and areas of scholarly dispute. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jenkins, Romilly. Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries, A.D. 610-1071. 1966. New ed. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993. A scholarly study of the apex of Byzantine power. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kazhdan, A. P., and Ann Wharton Epstein. Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. A scholarly treatment of the cultural, social, and economic background to the reign of Basil II and his successors. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Magdalino, Paul, ed. Byzantium in the Year 1000. New York: Brill, 2003. A collection that reassesses the politics and culture of the empire during Basil’s time. Articles look at diplomacy, Basil’s power, Byzantine provinces, law, historiography, poetry, and more. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Apogee. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. A very readable account of the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire, including considerable detail on the relationship with Bulgaria. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Decline and Fall. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Continuation of the author’s account above, covering the period from the Crusades to the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Turks in 1453. Tables, maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Runciman, Steven. A History of the First Bulgarian Empire. London: Bell and Sons, 1930. The classic history of the first Bulgarian Empire, focusing on religious and political developments from the earliest times to the end of the reign of Samuel. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stephenson, Paul. The Legend of Basil the Bulgar-slayer. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. A historical biography that argues Basil’s reign did not mark a golden age for the empire. The author also argues that the epithet “Bulgar-slayer” was not ascribed to Basil during his time but instead a century and a half later, as political propaganda. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Treadgold, Warren. Byzantium and Its Army, 284-1081. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995. An examination of the Byzantine army’s role and structure within the empire’s history. Maps, illustrations, bibliography, index.

Categories: History