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The Byzantine Empire



In the ninth through eleventh centuries, the Byzantine Empire once again rose to become a major power, but there were signs of internal discord. Attacks from outside weakened the state, and it did not fully recover from its conquest by the armies of the Fourth Crusade at the beginning of the 13th century. In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, an event that sent shock waves through Christian Europe, 1, 2 Byzantine scholars who fled to the West brought with them the knowledge of the culture of classical antiquity preserved in the Byzantine Empire, which was central to the Renaissance and the rise of humanism in Italy.

1 John Bessarion, patriarch of Constantinople
and scholar, painting, 16th с
2 Cross of John Bessarion,
14th-15th century

The Byzantine Resurrection under the Macedonian Dynasty

The Macedonian dynasty was able to reestablish the Byzantine Empire's old supremacy in the East.


Byzantine Emperor Basil I (the Macedonian 867-886) rose from modest circumstances.

In 867, he 3 murdered his patron, Emperor Michael III, and assumed the throne.

Basil was soon able to 6 reconquer territories in southern Italy and sought to win over the pope by temporarily relieving the anti-Roman patriarch, Photius I, of his office.

Domestically, he had the Imperial Code retailored to allow a more centralized, strongly bureaucratic power for a government in which the emperor was considered the absolute ruler by divine right.

3 Basil I murders Michael III in his bedchamber,
copper engraving, 17th century

6 Basil I in battle against Arab invaders,
book illustration, 13th century

Basil's son, 7 Leo VI, together with Romanus I Lecapenos, who led the government from 920 to 944, repulsed invasions by the Bulgars, the Russians, and the Arabs.

7 Leo VI at Christ's feet, mosaic over the central door of Hagia Sophia, ca. 900


Basil I

Basil I, byname Basil the Macedonian (born 826–835?, Thrace—died Aug. 29, 886), Byzantine emperor (867–886), who founded the Macedonian dynasty and formulated the Greek legal code that later became known as the Basilica.

Basil came of a peasant family that had settled in Macedonia, perhaps of Armenian origin. He was a handsome and physically powerful man who gained employment in influential official circles in Constantinople and was fortunate enough to attract the imperial eye of the reigning emperor, Michael III. After rapid promotion he became chief equerry, then chamberlain, and finally, in 866, coemperor with Michael. Quick to sense opposition, he forestalled the emperor’s uncle, the powerful Caesar Bardas, by murdering him (866) and followed this by killing his own patron, Michael, who had begun to show signs of withdrawing his favour (867).

From the mid-9th century onward, the Byzantines had taken the offensive in the agelong struggle between Christian and Muslim on the eastern borders of Asia Minor. Basil continued the attacks made during Michael III’s reign against the Arabs and their allies, the Paulicians, and had some success. Raids across the eastern frontier into the Euphrates region continued, though Basil did not manage to take the key city of Melitene. But the dangerous heretical Paulicians on the borders of the Armenian province in Asia Minor were crushed by 872, largely owing to the efforts of Basil’s son-in-law Christopher. In Cilicia, in southeast Asia Minor, the advance against the emir of Tarsus succeeded under the gifted general Nicephorus Phocas the Elder. Though Constantinople had lost much of its former naval supremacy in the Mediterranean, it still had an effective fleet. Cyprus appears to have been regained for several years.

Basil’s plans for Italy involved him in negotiations with the Frankish emperor Louis II, the great-grandson of Charlemagne. The Byzantine position in southern Italy was strengthened with the help of the Lombard duchy of Benevento, and the campaigns of Nicephorus Phocas the Elder did much to consolidate this. The region was organized into the provinces of Calabria and Langobardia. But key cities in Sicily, such as Syracuse in 878, still continued to fall into Muslim hands, an indication of the strength of Arab forces in the Mediterranean.

Another arm of Byzantine policy was the attempt to establish some measure of control over the Slavs in the Balkans. Closely allied to this was the delicate question of ecclesiastical relations between Constantinople and Rome. During Basil I’s reign, the young Bulgar state accepted the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Constantinople (870). This had significant results both for the Balkan principalities and for the Orthodox Church, as well as greatly strengthening Byzantine influence in the south Slav world. Basil had inherited a quarrel between Photius and Ignatius as to which was to be patriarch of Constantinople. This had international implications, since appeals had been made to Rome. Immediately on his accession, Basil attempted to win support at home and to conciliate Rome by reinstating the deposed patriarch Ignatius and excommunicating Photius. Eventually, Photius was restored by Basil on the death of Ignatius (877) and recognized by Rome in 879. Contrary to the belief that used to be held, no “second schism” occurred. Basil successfully resolved the tension between liberal and strict Byzantine churchmen and managed to maintain a show of peace between East and West despite Rome’s displeasure at the marked extension of imperial influence in the new Balkan principalities.

Toward the end of his life, Basil seemed to suffer fits of derangement, and he was cruelly biased against his son Leo. Basil died on the hunting field. The 11th-century historian Psellus wrote of his dynasty as “more blessed by God than any other family known to me, though rooted in murder and bloodshed.” But Macedonian historians were understandably biased in favour of the existing dynasty, to the detriment of the rulers it had supplanted. Recent historical research has raised the stature of Basil’s predecessor, Michael III, and his regents. It is now generally agreed that the “new age” in Byzantine history began with Michael III in 842 and not with the Macedonian dynasty in 867. Basil’s policies were largely determined, both at home and abroad, by factors not of his own making.

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Michael III

Michael III, byname Michael The Amorian, or The Drunkard (born 838, Constantinople—died Sept. 23, 867, Constantinople), Byzantine emperor—last of the Amorian, or Phrygian, dynasty—whose reign was marked by the restoration of the use of icons in the Byzantine Church, and by successful campaigns against the Arabs and Slavs.

Michael became a child emperor (Jan. 20, 842) upon the death of his father, Theophilus. A council of regency was set up, in which the dowager empress, Theodora, and her chief minister, Theoctistus, were the leading figures. The following year the use of icons was restored but with a conciliatory ecclesiastical policy toward the Iconoclasts. Also beginning in 843, campaigns undertaken against the Slavs in Greece and against the Arabs in Asia Minor, the Aegean, and the Nile Delta met with some success.

After a quarrel with his mother, Michael connived at the murder of Theoctistus by his maternal uncle Bardas (November 855) and in March 856, with the help of Bardas, took over direct control of the government. When Theodora attempted to resume power, she and her daughters were relegated to a convent.

Bardas became the moving spirit in the new regime. A university was organized in Constantinople. Patriarch Ignatius, who had supported Theodora, was pressured into resigning (858); his followers, however, appealed to the Pope, who ordered his reinstatement (863). Because Michael refused to depose the new patriarch, Photius, a schism with Rome resulted.

Byzantine forces continued to win victories over the Arabs, and in the campaign of 859, which reached at least as far as the Euphrates River, Michael himself led the troops. On another campaign in 860, Michael was forced to return to Constantinople, which had come under Russian siege. The invaders, however, probably withdrew before the Emperor returned with his army. About this time Michael fell increasingly under the influence of his chamberlain, Basil the Macedonian, who poisoned the Emperor’s mind against Bardas. Thus, Michael acquiesced in the murder (April 865) of Bardas by Basil. In May 866 he made Basil co-emperor. In the following year Basil had Michael assassinated and became emperor.

Although Michael was unstable and extremely cruel, many modern historians believe he was not so incompetent or so dissolute as the epithet “the Drunkard” would imply. This more modern view is supported to some extent by his record of victories over the Arabs. His faults were probably exaggerated by Byzantine historians who sought to find extenuating circumstances for the murder of Michael by Basil and his supporters.

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Leo VI

Leo VI, byname Leo The Wise, or The Philosopher (born Sept. 19, 866—died May 11, 912, Constantinople), Byzantine coemperor from 870 and emperor from 886 to 912, whose imperial laws, written in Greek, became the legal code of the Byzantine Empire.

Leo was the son of Basil I the Macedonian, who had begun the codification, and his second wife, Eudocia Ingerina. Made coemperor in 870, Leo succeeded to the throne on his father’s death. His foreign policy was directed mainly against the Arabs and the Bulgars. The able commander Nicephorus Phocas the Elder was recalled from his successful campaigns against the Lombards in south Italy to assist in the Balkans. After this Byzantium met with reverses in the West: Sicily was lost to the Arabs in 902, Thessalonica was sacked by Leo of Tripoli, and the Aegean was open to constant attack from Arab pirates. Steps were taken to strengthen the Byzantine navy, which successfully attacked the Arab fleet in the Aegean in 908. But the naval expedition of 911–912 was defeated by Leo of Tripoli. Byzantium’s enemy to the north was Simeon, the Bulgar ruler. Hostilities arose out of a trade dispute in 894, and the Byzantines, aided by the Magyars of the Danube-Dnieper region, forced Simeon to agree to a truce. With the help of the nomadic Pechenegs, however, Simeon in 896 took revenge on the Byzantines, forcing them to pay an annual tribute to the Bulgars.

During Leo’s reign the Russian prince Oleg sailed to Constantinople and in 907 obtained a treaty regulating the position of Russian merchants in Byzantium, which was formally ratified in 911. Because of his anxiety for a male heir Leo married four times, thus incurring the censure of the church.

Educated by the patriarch Photius, Leo was more scholar than soldier. In addition to completing the canon of laws, he wrote several decrees (novels) on a wide range of ecclesiastical and secular problems. He also wrote a funeral panegyric on his father, liturgical poems, sermons and orations, secular poetry, and military treatises. Leo’s image is in a mosaic over the central door of Hagia Sophia.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

In 922, the emperor sought to reform the system of land ownership, limiting the amount of land that large estate owners could acquire from small proprietors.

Leo's son, 4 Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, wrote a number of works about the ceremonial customs and administration of the court.

In 963 Constantine's son and successor, Romanus II, was probably poisoned by his wife, Theophano, who then married his successor Nicephorus II Phocas, a successful general who had recaptured parts of Asia Minor and Syria, as well as the islands of Crete and Cyprus.

Theophano then turned to a younger relative of Nicephorus, 5 John I Tzimisces, and together they plotted the assassination of the new emperor in 969.

After this usurpation John married Theophano and quickly embarked on further military campaigns.

4 Christ Crowning Constantine VII, 945

5 Aided by Theophano, John I Tzimisces scales
the palace walls in order to kill Nicephorus II Phocas,
copper engraving, 17th century


Constantine VII

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, also called Constantine Vii Flavius Porphyrogenitus (born September 905, Constantinople [now Istanbul, Tur.]—died Nov. 9, 959), Byzantine emperor from 913 to 959. His writings are one of the best sources of information on the Byzantine Empire and neighbouring areas. His De administrando imperio treated the Slavic and Turkic peoples, and the De ceremoniis aulae Byzantinae, his longest book, described the elaborate ceremonies that made the Byzantine emperors priestly symbols of the state.

Constantine’s surname, Porphyrogenitus (that is, born in the Purple Chamber of the Imperial Palace in Constantinople, as befitted legitimate children of reigning emperors), pointedly answers the doubts expressed about the legitimacy of his birth in 905, which slowed down his career and contributed to his shyness. His mother was Zoë Carbonopsina, the mistress of his father, Leo VI, who married her shortly after Constantine was born, against the bitter opposition of the patriarch Nicholas Mysticus. It was Leo’s fourth marriage, and the Greek church normally forbade a widower to remarry more than once. As the infant was Leo’s only male offspring, he had to be accepted and, in 911, was proclaimed coemperor. But, on the death of his father in 912, the succession fell to his uncle Alexander, whose death the next year cleared the way for seven-year-old Constantine. The patriarch Nicholas, who became regent, found it expedient to appease the powerful tsar Simeon I of Bulgaria—who had severely defeated the Byzantine armies and coveted the Byzantine imperial crown—by promising that the child emperor would marry Simeon’s daughter. A palace revolt foiled the scheme, which looked like a betrayal of Byzantium to the Bulgarians. It was only after several years that a combination of diplomacy and successful defense of Constantinople succeeded in inducing Simeon to settle for recognition as emperor of the Bulgarians only. The strategist of this success, Admiral Romanus Lecapenus, rewarded himself by having Constantine marry his daughter (919) and crown him coemperor (920). Gradually Constantine lost most of his power to Lecapenus and to his sons.

It is not surprising that the young emperor slipped into a pattern of noninvolvement in government. His mother had been relegated to a convent. His father-in-law relieved him of the burdensome tasks of politics and war and shouldered them masterfully but treated him with deference and left him a full share of the prestige and income belonging to the crown. From his father, Constantine had apparently inherited a passion for learning and writing; he worked full-time at it until he was almost 40, when he became sole emperor. Nor did he change tastes thereafter. De thematibus, probably his earliest book, is mainly a compilation of older sources on the origins and development of the provinces of the empire. An apologetic biography of his grandfather Basil I, which he appended to an anonymous chronicle known as Theophanes Continuatus, stressed the glory of the founder of his dynasty. De administrando imperio, a handbook of foreign politics, is perhaps his most valuable work, a storehouse of information on Slavic and Turkic peoples about whom little else is known except through archaeology.

Yet, the longest book and the one that tells the most about the Byzantine mentality (and most particularly the mind of the writer) is De ceremoniis aulae Byzantinae, basically a minute description of the elaborate ceremonial and processions that made the emperor a hieratic symbol of the state and strove to impress foreigners with his grandeur. There is no doubt that it helped Byzantium in its relations with the northern “barbarians” and even with western Europe. A monument to Byzantine patriotism, the book bears traces of the spoken vernacular that crept into the stilted Greek of more academic writers. The more voluminous, encyclopaedic works compiled under Constantine’s directions are not worth describing, but he exhibited notable zeal in recruiting teachers and students for the “university” of Constantinople, inviting them to court and preferring them for public offices. He signed legislation and is said to have dabbled in various fine and mechanical arts.

Late in 944 the sons of Romanus Lecapenus, impatient to succeed to power, had their father deported; but the populace of the capital, fearing only that the Porphyrogenitus emperor might be included in the purge accompanying the seizure of power, rioted until Constantine appeared at a window of the palace. This show of loyalty emboldened him to banish Romanus’ sons in January 945; he then ruled alone until his death in 959. He appointed to the highest army commands four members of the Phocas family, which had been in disgrace under Romanus Lecapenus, but took no further reprisals, except for an incidental remark, in De ceremoniis, that Romanus Lecapenus was neither an aristocrat nor a cultured man. That he did not depart from the admiral’s basic policy—at home, maintaining a delicate balance among civil and military officers, landed aristocrats, and peasant soldiers; abroad, friendship with the Rus, peace with the Bulgarians, a limited commitment in Italy, and a resolute offensive against the Muslims—may be ascribed to statesmanship as well as to timidity. The policy continued to be effective.

Robert Sabatino Lopez

Encyclopaedia Britannica





Theophano (Greek: Θεοφανώ, Theophanō) was a Byzantine empress. She was the daughter-in-law of Constantine VII; wife of Romanos II; wife of Nikephoros II Phokas; lover of John I Tzimiskes; the mother of Basil II, Constantine VIII and the princess Anna Porphyrogenita, who later married Kievan prince Vladimir. Theophano played an important role in 10th century Byzantine history. She served as Regent during the minority of her sons.

Theophano was born of Laconian Greek origin in the Peloponnesian region of Lakonia, possibly in the city of Sparta. Theophano was originally named Anastasia, or more familiarly Anastaso and was the daughter of a poor tavern-keeper called Craterus. The crown-prince Romanos fell in love with her around the year 956 and married her. After their marriage, she was renamed Theophano, after Theophano, a sainted Empress of the Macedonian dynasty.

She is rumoured to have poisoned her father-in-law, the emperor Constantine VII (in complicity with her husband Romanos). Constantine died in 959, but he died of a fever which lasted several months, not showing evidence of poisoning. Romanos' dependence upon his wife for advice and support allowed her to dominate the empire during his short reign.

On March 15, 963, Emperor Romanos II died unexpectedly at the age of twenty-six. Again, Theophano was rumoured to have poisoned him, although she had nothing to gain and everything to lose from this action. Their sons Basil II and Constantine VIII were heirs and Theophano was named regent. However she realized that to secure power she needed to align her interest with the strongest general at the time, Nikephoros Phokas. As the army had already proclaimed him as an Emperor in Caesarea, Nikephoros entered Constantinople on August 15, broke the resistance of Joseph Bringas (a eunuch palace official who had become Romanos' chief counsellor) in bloody street fights, and on 16 August he was crowned in the Hagia Sophia. After that he married Theophano, thereby legitimizing his reign by marrying into the Macedonian dynasty.

The marriage proved controversial as Nikephoros had been god-father to one or more of Theophano's children, which placed them within a prohibited spiritual relationship. It should also be noted that the Orthodox Church only begrudgingly recognized second marriages. Thus even before the issue of his having been the god-father of at least one of Theophano's children surfaced the Patriarch, Polyeuctus, banned Nikephoros from kissing the holy altar on the grounds that he must first perform the penance for contracting a second marriage. In the issue of his role as godfather, however, Nikephoros organised a council at which it was declared that since the relevant rules had been pronounced by the iconoclast Constatine V Copronymus, it was of no effect. Polyeuctus did not accept the council as legitimate, and proceeded to excommunicate Nikephoros and insist that he would not relent until Nikephoros put away Theophano. In response, Bardas Phokas and another person testified Nikephoros was not in fact godfather to any of Theophano's children, at which Polyeuctus relented and allowed Nikephoros to return to full-fellowship in the church and keep Theophano as his wife.

However, not too long after, she became the lover to a young and brilliant general, John Tzimiskes. They soon began to conspire against Nikephoros. She prepared the assassination and John and his friends implemented it on the night between 10 and 11 December 969. The emperor was now John I Tzimiskes (969–976).

However, Theophano badly miscalculated in the hope of becoming the wife of the new ruler. Slain Nikephoros found his avenger in the Patriarch Polyeuktos, who was determined to punish the crime. He demanded John to repent, to punish the murderers (his helpers and friends), and to remove Theophano from the court. John was forced to submit to the Patriarch’s requests. Only then was he allowed to enter the church and be crowned emperor.

Theophano was first sent into exile to the island of Prinkipo (sometimes known as Prote). However, shortly afterwards, she made a reappearance in the capital, seeking asylum in the Hagia Sophia, where, however, she was forcibly removed on the orders of the Chamberlain Basil, who condemned her to exile in distant Armenia. Before this, he granted her request of an audience with the Emperor John, who surprisingly agreed to attend. Once there however, he was subjected to a torrent of abuse from the former empress, who then physically attacked the chamberlain, landing several telling blows. And according to Gibbon, she avowed the illegitimacy of her son, Basil II and hurled abuse at him as he stood silent, accepting the rule of his (soon to be) uncle, John Tzimiskes.

It is possible that after the succession of her sons to the throne that she was able to return to Constantinople.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia




Nicephorus II

Nicephorus II Phocas, (born 912, Cappadocia—died Dec. 10/11, 969, Constantinople), Byzantine emperor (963–969), whose military achievements against the Muslim Arabs contributed to the resurgence of Byzantine power in the 10th century.

Early life.
Nicephorus Phocas was the son of Bardas Phocas, an important Byzantine general in Anatolia, on the borders of the empire. He quickly embraced a military career of arms and as a young patrician distinguished himself at his father’s side in a war against the Ḥamdānid Arabs in the East. In 954–955 the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus named him commander in chief of the armies of the East, to replace the aging Bardas. Nicephorus proceeded to restructure the army to reinforce discipline and improve recruiting. At this point he probably wrote the treatises on military tactics that are attributed to him, although proof is lacking.

The emperor Romanus II named him commander of a wartime expedition to liberate Crete (which had been controlled by the Arabs ever since 826), at great cost to Aegean populations and international commerce. This enterprise mobilized the entire Byzantine fleet and close to 24,000 men. Nicephorus gained the island with the capture of Chandax, now Iráklion, on March 7, 961. In a general massacre, the inhumanity of which revealed his fierce nature, he broke all Arab resistance. Aided by the monks, among whom was Athanasius, his spiritual director and founder of the Greek Orthodox monastery on Mt. Athos, Nicephorus achieved the reconsolidation of Christianity. He then returned to Constantinople with ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, the last amīr of Crete, as his captive. This exploit, sung by the poet Theodosius the Deacon, realized the Byzantine dream (after dozens had failed to liberate Crete) of imperial mastery of the eastern Mediterranean. Later, as emperor, Nicephorus could state proudly that he controlled the seas. By that time, however, he had recovered Cilicia and the island of Cyprus and had captured other Muslim naval bases.

At the beginning of 962, Nicephorus attacked the Arabs of Cilicia and Syria, capturing more than 60 fortresses. After the death of Romanus II on March 15, 963, the situation in the capital changed. The Emperor’s will had left a eunuch, Joseph Bringas, in charge of the affairs of state and the 20-year-old empress, Theophano, as acting regent for the legitimate emperors, Basil and Constantine, aged six and three, respectively. These circumstances do not seem to have tempted Nicephorus.

Rise to power.
In spite of his great popularity, there was no indication that Nicephorus—whose physical appearance was reportedly not very agreeable and who seemed destined under the influence of Athanasius the Athonite to embrace the monastic life—would end up seducing and being seduced by the young and beautiful empress. If such a plan existed at the time (and there is reason to believe it did) it was probably the brainchild of the ambitious Theophano, who was unhappy with Bringas’ government. The people of Constantinople, aroused by Basil the chamberlain, revolted against Bringas, and the imperial army, through the intermediation of John Tzimisces, Nicephorus’ faithful lieutenant, “obliged” the soldier to accept the crown at Caesarea on July 3, 963, and to march against Constantinople. On Aug. 16, 963, Nicephorus was crowned in the Hagia Sophia by the patriarch Polyeuctus, and on September 20 he celebrated his marriage to Theophano.

Smitten with the young woman and influenced by his brother Leo Phocas, whose self-interested machinations (he was accused of speculating on the price of wheat) stirred up the discontent of the people of Constantinople, Nicephorus gradually became taciturn and suspicious even of his best advisers, who, one after another, were removed from office. As emperor, Nicephorus continued his exploits against the Arabs until finally, abandoned by all, he retired to the fortified palace of Boukoleion, which he had built for his personal safety. During a night in December 969, he was killed there by former friends, guided by Tzimisces and advised by Theophano.

The contradictions in Nicephorus’ life and character also marked his domestic politics. His government evoked unanimous discontent: the hostility of the people to the new fiscal charges and coinage debasement required by military needs; the exasperation of ecclesiastical authorities over decisions against enrichment of the monasteries; the remonstrances of his spiritual director, Athanasius, against his private life; and the apprehensions of Theophano that her children would be ousted through the machinations of Leo Phocas. These all created a climate of intrigue, which resulted in Nicephorus’ assassination and brought John Tzimisces to the throne.

Military achievements.
The failure of Nicephorus’ domestic policies did not cast a shadow on his military achievement, which made his reign one of the Byzantine Empire’s most glorious. In the words of C. Schlumberger, his most exhaustive biographer, he inaugurated the Byzantine era in the East. In fact, though known primarily for his exploits against the infidel, Nicephorus also carried the imperial frontier beyond the Euphrates to Syria. Nor did he neglect the other imperial frontiers in the conception of Byzantine grandeur. To counteract the Bulgar menace he spurred Russian intervention in the Danubian area, a policy that was not without danger for Byzantium, especially after his death. Also, to stop expansionist plans of the Germanic sovereign Otto I, who was re-creating the Carolingian heritage, Nicephorus opposed Otto’s title of emperor, while trying with more or less success to consolidate the Byzantine presence in Italy. Nicephorus II’s policies, seen in their entirety, indicate that his purpose was to assure Byzantium of its place as international arbiter, which he accomplished through the use of arms.

Phocas was indeed a Nicephorus (Bringer of Victory) for the empire. The Byzantines surnamed him Kallinikos, artisan of good victories; the Arabs called him Nikfour, the Saracen hammer. His death caused joy in the Muslim world and shook Christianity. His legend was quickly nourished with stories of his exploits and tragic death. Byzantine and even Bulgar poets were inspired by his exploits, and posterity has kept his memory alive: he is celebrated in the epic poetry of the frontier; the church beatified him (an acolouthie was composed in his honour); and the monks of Mt. Athos still venerate as their benefactor and founder Nicephorus, emperor and martyr. His life was summed up in the phrase inscribed on his sarcophagus: “You conquered all but a woman.”

Hélène Ahrweiler

Encyclopaedia Britannica




John I Tzimisces

John I Tzimisces, (born 925—died Jan. 10, 976, Constantinople), Byzantine emperor (969–976) whose extension of Byzantine influence into the Balkans and Syria and maintenance of domestic tranquillity assured the prestige and stability of the empire for his immediate successors.

Descended from an aristocratic Armenian family, John was related through his mother to the general, and later emperor, Nicephorus II Phocas. He entered the imperial army and fought with Nicephorus against the Arabs in Cilicia and Syria. Having helped Nicephorus gain the throne, he was rewarded with the supreme command of Byzantine forces in the East. His ambition for the throne later led him into the conspiracy with his mistress, Theophano (the Emperor’s wife), that led to the assassination of Nicephorus in December 969. Forced to do penance by Polyeuctus, patriarch of Constantinople, in order to receive the imperial crown, John banished Theophano to a convent and punished the murderers.

John I strengthened the empire by coupling diplomatic skill with military strength. In 970 he married Theodora, sister of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, the legitimate claimant to the throne, to offset challenges to his rule at home. When the Bulgars attacked the empire in 971, he led his forces against their capital, captured their tsar, and forced them to recognize Byzantine suzerainty. In July 971 he defeated the Russian prince Svyatoslav, ending threats to Byzantine rule in the north. To preserve the Byzantine position in the West, he arranged a marriage between one of his relatives and the future Holy Roman emperor Otto II. Turning to the East, he reduced the Fāṭimid strength around Antioch in 974–975, taking Antioch, Damascus, and other cities in Syria. Before he could retake Jerusalem he died, probably of typhoid.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Patriarch Photius I

Basil I initially attempted to cultivate a cordial relationship with the Roman papacy and removed Photius I, the patriarch of Constantinople, from office because of his emphasis on the independence of the Byzantine Church from Rome.

Pope Nicholas I had also been angered by the success of the Slavic mission of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, initiated by Photius. After the death of his successor in 877, Photius was reinstated, which led to an open breach with Rome.

Saints Cyril and Methodius,
mural painting of Bulgarian icon-painter Zahari Zograf

Saints Cyril and Methodius

Saints Cyril and Methodius, (respectively, born c. 827, Thessalonica, Macedonia—died Feb. 14, 869, Rome; born c. 815, Thessalonica—died April 6, 884, Moravia; feast day for both, Western Church February 14; Eastern Church May 11), brothers who for christianizing the Danubian Slavs and for influencing the religious and cultural development of all Slavic peoples received the title “the apostles of the Slavs.” Both were outstanding scholars, theologians, and linguists. They were honoured by Pope John Paul II in his 1985 encyclical Slavorum Apostoli.

In 860, Cyril (originally named Constantine), who had gone on a mission to the Arabs and been professor of philosophy at the patriarchal school in Constantinople, worked with Methodius, the abbot of a Greek monastery, for the conversion of the Khazars northeast of the Black Sea. In 862, when Prince Rostislav of Great Moravia asked Constantinople for missionaries, the emperor Michael III and the patriarch Photius named Cyril and Methodius. In 863, they started their work among the Slavs, using Slavonic in the liturgy. They translated the Holy Scriptures into the language later known as Old Church Slavonic (or Old Bulgarian) and invented a Slavic alphabet based on Greek characters that in its final Cyrillic form is still in use as the alphabet for modern Russian and a number of other Slavic languages.

The brothers accepted Pope St. Nicholas I’s invitation to Rome (867) to explain their conflict with the German archbishop of Salzburg and bishop of Passau, who claimed control of the same Slavic territory and who wanted to enforce the exclusive use of the Latin liturgy. Cyril and Methodius arrived in Rome (868), where the new pope, Adrian II, took their side, formally authorizing the use of the Slavic liturgy. When Cyril died, Adrian sent Methodius back to the Slavs as his legate and archbishop of Sirmium.

Methodius’ ecclesiastical province included all of Moravia. When Rostislav’s nephew and successor, Svatopluk, failed to support Methodius, he was tried in 870 by the German clergy, brutally treated, and jailed until liberated by the intervention of Pope John VIII. In 880 Methodius was again summoned to Rome about the Slavic liturgy, obtaining once more papal approval of his use of the vernacular.

When Methodius’ suffragan bishop, Wiching, continued to make trouble, Methodius tried to strengthen his position in the Eastern Church by visiting Constantinople in 882. After Methodius’ death, Pope Stephen V forbade the use of the Slavonic liturgy; and Wiching, as successor, forced the disciples of Cyril and Methodius into exile. The posthumous influence of Cyril and Methodius reached distant Kiev in Russia and left traces among the Slavs of Croatia, Bohemia, and Poland. Soon canonized by the Eastern church, they were celebrated by the Roman Catholic church in 1880.

Encyclopaedia Britannica




The Byzantine Empire and the Crusades

The attacks of the Normans, the Seljuks, and ultimately the crusaders brought the last golden age of the Byzantine Empire to an end.


The new emperor, John I Tzimisces, conquered eastern Bulgaria in 971 and advanced further into Syria and Palestine. He arranged the marriage of Theophano, the daughter of Romanus II, to Otto II, the future Holy Roman emperor.

John was succeeded in 976 by 11 Basil II, another member of the Macedonian dynasty.

11 Emperor Basil II stands over the defeated Bulgars,
book illustration, early eleventh century



Basil II

Basil II, byname Basil Bulgaroctonus (Greek: Basil, Slayer of the Bulgars) (born 957/958—died Dec. 15, 1025), Byzantine emperor (976–1025), who extended imperial rule in the Balkans (notably Bulgaria), Mesopotamia, Georgia, and Armenia and increased his domestic authority by attacking the powerful landed interests of the military aristocracy and of the church.

The reign of Basil II, widely acknowledged to be one of the outstanding Byzantine emperors, admirably illustrates both the strength and the weakness of the Byzantine system of government. His indomitable and forceful personality and his shrewd statesmanship were offset by the inherent weakness of an imperial autocracy that depended so much on the character of the ruler.

Basil was the son of Romanus II and Theophano and was crowned co-emperor with his brother Constantine in 960, but as minors both he and his brother remained in the background. After their father’s death in 963, the government was effectively undertaken by the senior military emperors, first by Nicephorus II Phocas, their stepfather, and then by John I Tzimisces. On the latter’s death (976) the powerful great-uncle of Basil II, the eunuch Basil the chamberlain, took control. His authority—and that of Basil II—was challenged by two generals who coveted the position of senior emperor. Both related to emperors, they belonged to powerful landed families and commanded outside support from Georgia and from the Caliph in Baghdad. After a prolonged struggle both were defeated by 989, though only with the help of Russians under Vladimir of Kiev, who was rewarded with the hand of Basil II’s sister Anna on condition that the Kievan state adopted Christianity. Certain Russian soldiers remained in Basil II’s service, forming the famous imperial Varangian guard. Eventually, Basil II asserted his claim to sole authority by ruthlessly eliminating the dominating grand chamberlain, who was exiled in 985.

Basil II aimed solely at the extension and consolidation of imperial authority at home and abroad. The main fields of external conflict were in Syria, Armenia, and Georgia on the eastern front, in the Balkans, and in southern Italy. He maintained the Byzantine position in Syria against aggression stirred up by the Fāṭimid dynasty in Egypt and on occasion made forced marches from Constantinople across Asia Minor to relieve Antioch. By aggression and by diplomacy he secured land from Georgia and from Armenia, with the promise of more to come on the death of the Armenian ruler. He is, however, best known for his persistent and ultimately successful campaigns against a revived Bulgarian kingdom under its tsar Samuel. This ruler centred his activities in Macedonia and established his hegemony in the west Balkans. From 986 until 1014 there was warfare between Byzantium and Bulgaria, interrupted from time to time by Basil II’s intermittent expeditions to settle crises on the eastern front. Basil II enlisted Venetian help in protecting the Dalmatian coast and Adriatic waters from Bulgarian aggression. Year by year he slowly penetrated into Samuel’s territory, campaigning in winter as well as summer. Finally, holding northern and central Bulgaria, he advanced toward Samuel’s capital, Ochrida, and won the crushing victory that gave him his byname, “Slayer of the Bulgars.” It was then that he blinded the whole Bulgarian army, leaving one eye to each 100th man, so that the soldiers might be led back to their tsar (who died of shock shortly after seeing this terrible spectacle). Thus the revived Bulgarian kingdom was incorporated into the Byzantine Empire. Basil II then looked further west and planned to strengthen Byzantine control in southern Italy and to regain Sicily from the Arabs. He attempted to establish a Greek pope in Rome and to unite in marriage the German (though by birth half Byzantine) ruler Otto III with Basil II’s favourite niece, Zoe. Both schemes failed, but he was more successful in southern Italy, where order was restored, and at his death preparations were being made for the reconquest of Sicily.

The ruthlessness and tenacity that served Basil II in his military and diplomatic activities were displayed in his domestic policy as well. Its keynote was the strengthening of imperial authority by striking at his overpowerful subjects, particularly the military families who ruled like princes in Asia Minor. The by-product of this policy was the imperial protection of the small farmers, some of whom owed military service to the crown and paid taxes to the central exchequer. Title to land was rigorously inspected, and vast estates were arbitrarily confiscated. Thus, in spite of his costly wars, Basil left a full treasury, some of it stored in specially constructed underground chambers.

Both in near-contemporary history and in manuscript illustrations, Basil II is pictured as a short, well-proportioned figure, with brilliant light-blue eyes, a round face, and full, bushy whiskers, which he would twirl in his fingers when angry or while giving an audience. He dressed plainly and even when wearing the purple chose only a dark hue. An abrupt speaker, he scorned rhetoric yet was capable of wit. He has been described as mean, austere, and irascible, spending most of his time as though he were a soldier on guard. He knew only too well the danger of any relaxation. He showed no obvious interest in learning, but he did apparently commission works of religious art, and he had churches and monasteries rebuilt or completed in Boeotia and in Athens, though this may be accounted for by conventional piety. He seems never to have married or had children. On his death there was no able military aristocrat or other leader to take the situation in hand, and thus Basil II’s work was rapidly undone.

Joan Mervyn Hussey

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Basil conquered western Bulgaria after more than a decade of fighting. After the final victory in 1014, he had 14,000 enemy prisoners blinded, which earned him the title of the "Bulgaroctonus" ("Slayer of the Bulgars"). Basil's regency also marked the last great cultural flowering of the Byzantine Empire, which from then on was increasingly forced onto the defensive by the encroachments of its powerful enemies.

The advance of the Muslim Seljuks was particularly threatening. A crushing defeat of the Byzantines at Manzikert in Armenia in 1071 cleared the way for the Seljuks to occupy Asia Minor, where they established the sultanate of Iconium.

At the same time, struggles over the throne grew in intensity.

The female members of the court, notably 12 Zoe and 9 Eudocia, played an important role in the dynastic intrigues of the period.

8 Alexius I Comnenus, who became emperor in 1081, granted Venice, Genoa, and other leading Italian powers broad trading privileges to gain their support against the Normans, who had seized Byzantine possessions in southern Italy.

12 Empress Zoe, wife of three Byzantine
emperors, golden diadem, eleventh с

9 Christ crowning Empress Eudocia
and her second husband
Romanus IV Diogenes,
ivory carving, eleventh century

8 Alexius I Comnenus,
mosaic, 12th с


10 Murder of Alexios IV Angelos
by Alexius V Dukas Murtzuphlos

In the long run, however, this undermined the Byzantine economy as the state lost control of its revenues. Despite the break with the Roman Catholic Church in the Great Schism in 1054, Alexius also sought help from the pope in 1095 in his fight against the Seljuks. Although parts of Asia Minor were regained by Byzantium in the wake of the First Crusade in 1096, the new Crusader states in Syria and Palestine soon ceased to recognize the sovereignty of the Byzantine emperor.

Alexius' grandson, Manuel I, spent much of his reign fighting to regain lost provinces. Meanwhile, in 1175 the Venetians began to support the Normans, and the Byzantine Empire suffered a defeat in 1176 at the hands of the Seljuks at Myriocephalon. In 1185, the Bulgars also made themselves independent of the Byzantine Empire.

Under the influence of Venice, the Fourth Crusade used the 10 struggle over the throne to sack Constantinople in 1203 and occupy it in 1204. The Byzantine Empire was reduced to a shell of small provinces.




Zoe, also spelled Zoë (born c. 978, Constantinople [now Istanbul, Turkey]—died 1050, Constantinople), Byzantine empress, by marriage from 1028 and in her own right from 1042.

The daughter of the emperor Constantine VIII, Zoe was married to the heir presumptive, Romanus III Argyrus, in 1028 and became empress consort upon his elevation to the throne the same year. She became self-assertive and jealous, exiling her sister Theodora to a monastery; and, neglected by her husband, became enamoured of Michael, her young Paphlagonian chamberlain. In 1034 the emperor became ill, allegedly poisoned by Zoe; and, upon his death on April 11, she at once took control and married Michael, who was proclaimed Emperor Michael IV. Michael IV died in 1041 and was succeeded by Michael V Calaphates.

When Michael V was deposed by a Byzantine mob, then blinded and exiled to a monastery (April 1042), Zoe and her sister Theodora were proclaimed coempresses on Easter Tuesday, 1042. Quarrels, however, broke out between the sisters; and, in order to secure her position, Zoe married Constantine IX Monomachus, a man of good family, with whom she shared the throne until her death.

Encyclopaedia Britannica





Eudocia, original name Athenais (born c. 400, Athens—died Oct. 20, 460, Jerusalem), wife of the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II. She was a highly cultured woman who, in rivalry with her sister-in-law, the empress Pulcheria, exercised great influence over her husband until her withdrawal from Constantinople.

Athenais, as she was then called, came from Athens, where her father, Leontius, was a pagan philosopher. Before she and Theodosius were married (June 7, 421), Athenais was baptized a Christian and changed her name to Eudocia. In 422 she gave birth to a daughter, Licinia Eudoxia, who married (437) the Western emperor Valentinian III (reigned 425–455). In 438 Eudocia went on a year’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Accused of adultery and facing a challenge to her position by Theodosius’ influential sister Pulcheria, she returned to Jerusalem c. 443 and remained there for the rest of her life, directing the rebuilding of that city’s fortifications and the construction of several splendid churches.

Eudocia was sympathetic to Monophysitism—a heresy that maintained that Christ’s human nature is absorbed in his divine nature—but she died an orthodox Christian. In addition to religious poetry in the classical style, she wrote a panegyric on the Roman victory over the Persians (422).

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Alexius I Comnenus

Alexius I Comnenus, also spelled Alexios I Komnenos (born 1057, Constantinople, Byzantine Empire [now Istanbul, Turkey]—died August 15, 1118), Byzantine emperor (1081–1118) at the time of the First Crusade who founded the Comnenian dynasty and partially restored the strength of the empire after its defeats by the Normans and Turks in the 11th century.

The third son of John Comnenus and a nephew of Isaac I (emperor 1057–59), Alexius came from a distinguished Byzantine landed family and was one of the military magnates who had long urged more effective defense measures, particularly against the Turks’ encroaching on Byzantine provinces in eastern and central Anatolia. From 1068 to 1081 he gave able military service during the short reigns of Romanus IV, Michael VII, and Nicephorus III. Then, with the support of his brother Isaac and his mother, the formidable Anna Dalassena, and with that of the powerful Ducas family, to which his wife, Irene, belonged, he seized the Byzantine throne from Nicephorus III.

Alexius was crowned on April 4, 1081. After more than 50 years of ineffective or short-lived rulers, Alexius, in the words of Anna Comnena, his daughter and biographer, found the empire “at its last gasp,” but his military ability and diplomatic gifts enabled him to retrieve the situation. He drove back the south Italian Normans, headed by Robert Guiscard, who were invading western Greece (1081–82). This victory was achieved with Venetian naval help, bought at the cost of granting Venice extensive trading privileges in the Byzantine Empire. In 1091 he defeated the Pechenegs, Turkic nomads who had been continually surging over the Danube River into the Balkans. Alexius halted the further encroachment of the Seljuq Turks, who had already established the sultanate of Rūm (or Konya) in central Anatolia. He made agreements with Sulaymān ibn Qutalmïsh of Konya (1081) and subsequently with his son Qïlïch Arslan (1093), as well as with other Muslim rulers on Byzantium’s eastern border.

At home, Alexius’s policy of strengthening the central authority and building up professional military and naval forces resulted in increased Byzantine strength in western and southern Anatolia and eastern Mediterranean waters. But he was unable or unwilling to limit the considerable powers of the landed magnates who had threatened the unity of the empire in the past. Indeed, he strengthened their position by further concessions, and he had to reward services, military and otherwise, by granting fiscal rights over specified areas. This method, which was to be increasingly employed by his successors, inevitably weakened central revenues and imperial authority. He repressed heresy and maintained the traditional imperial role of protecting the Eastern Orthodox church, but he did not hesitate to seize ecclesiastical treasure when in financial need. He was subsequently called to account for this by the church.

To later generations Alexius appeared as the ruler who pulled the empire together at a crucial time, thus enabling it to survive until 1204, and in part until 1453, but modern scholars tend to regard him, together with his successors John II (reigned 1118–43) and Manuel I (reigned 1143–80), as having effected only stopgap measures. Judgments of Alexius must be tempered by allowing for the extent to which he was handicapped by the inherited internal weaknesses of the Byzantine state and, even more, by the series of crises precipitated by the western European Crusaders from 1097 onward. The Crusading movement, motivated partly by a desire to recapture the holy city of Jerusalem, partly by the hope of acquiring new territory, increasingly encroached on Byzantine preserves and frustrated Alexius’s foreign policy, which was primarily directed toward the reestablishment of imperial authority in Anatolia. His relations with Muslim powers were disrupted on occasion, and former valued Byzantine possessions, such as Antioch, passed into the hands of arrogant Western princelings, who even introduced Latin Christianity in place of Greek. Thus, it was during Alexius’s reign that the last phase of the clash between the Latin West and the Greek East was inaugurated. He did regain some control over western Anatolia; he also advanced into the southeast Taurus region, securing much of the fertile coastal plain around Adana and Tarsus, as well as penetrating farther south along the Syrian coast. But neither Alexius nor succeeding Comnenian emperors were able to establish permanent control over the Latin Crusader principalities. Nor was the Byzantine Empire immune from further Norman attacks on its western islands and provinces—as in 1107–08, when Alexius successfully repulsed Bohemond I of Antioch’s assault on Avlona in western Greece. Continual Latin (particularly Norman) attacks, constant thrusts from Muslim principalities, the rising power of Hungary and the Balkan principalities—all conspired to surround Byzantium with potentially hostile forces. Even Alexius’s diplomacy, whatever its apparent success, could not avert the continual erosion that ultimately led to the Ottoman conquest.

Joan Mervyn Hussey

Encyclopaedia Britannica



From the tenth century, the Byzantine emperors increasingly turned toward granting estates as payment for services rendered.

It was also possible for large property owners to be granted immunity from taxes.

When the estates and privileges became hereditary, the state also lost its control over the peasants, who had been pressed into serfdom.

The authority of the central government in the provinces deteriorated in favor of the newly established domains of a developing nobility.