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7-08-2015, 20:59

Court politics 867–886

Compared with the shenanigans of the court politics ofMichael III’s reign, court politics in the reign of Basil I seem relatively tranquil. Turbulence is concentrated at the extremes of his period of rule. Following the assassination of Bardas and the elevation of Basil, one of the main conspirators, Bardas’ son-in-law Symbatios, felt sidelined and came out in revolt. This was apparently aimed at Basil, not Michael, but was anyway suppressed, and Symbatios and his accomplice Peganes found themselves mutilated and forced to beg in the streets of Constantinople. With the assassination of Michael, Basil clearly had to justify himself, and judging by the amount of propaganda produced under the new regime much energy was devoted to this task. Following the murder, one of Basil’s first main steps was to depose Patriarch Photios (858–67, 877–86) and reinstall Ignatios. These acts of Basil have been viewed in the light of ecclesiastical politics, namely the tensions between Rome and Constantinople that had set in during the patriarchate of Photios and the supposed internal division between ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’. The existence of these opposing ‘politico-religious’ groups was formulated by Francis Dvornik, who saw them as competing for control over church and state in Byzantium.51 The extremistswere identified as traditional and conservative Christians, mainly monks and their supporters. The moderates were considered those more in touch with the realities of earthly life, and more willing to compromise in the matter of Christian ideals. Amongst their number Dvornik included the secular clergy and intellectuals. Basil’s ousting of Photios and favouring of Ignatios was read by Dvornik as signifying that the emperor threw in his lot with the extremists in a bid to secure support for his regime. Even if one accepts the existence of these two factions in Byzantine society – and surely such a formulaic reading of history is open to question – it is perfectly possible that Basil was simply motivated by the desire to eliminate a political rival: Photios had close connections with the Amorian dynasty and could have headed opposition to the usurper.52 However, Photios later returned to favour, taught Basil’s children, and became patriarch again upon Ignatios’ death in 877.53 Ironically, it seems that the rehabilitated Photios had a part to play in contributing to, and even shaping, the ideology of the new regime.54 Basil was cast as the legitimate God-favoured restorer of the Roman empire. The appeals to Armenian ancestry and Davidic imagery appear to have had some input from Photios, even while he was still in exile.55 The dynasty’s ideological concerns, including devotion to the prophet Elijah and the archangel Gabriel, are reflected in the illustrated copy of the homilies of Gregory Nazianzen presented to Basil c. 880, the commissioning of which has been attributed to Photios (see fig. 16).56 Photios’ fingerprints have also been detected on Basil’s legislative work, which was to culminate in the issuing under Leo VI of the Basilika, a revised Greek version of the Justinianic corpus.57 The model of Justinian, the ‘great restorer’ of the sixth century, seems to be evident in other spheres of Basil’s activity, too. Basil’s interest in the empire’s western approaches is notable, and the example of Justinian’s reconquest may have influenced him. Basil also has the reputation of being a great builder, particularly in the Life of Basil.58 While it is possible that this text overplays the emperor’s architectural achievements, as did Procopius those of Justinian in The Buildings,59 it is clear at least that Basil was responsible for a new complex in Constantinople, encompassing a polo ground, gardens, a courtyard, and the Nea Ekklesia (‘new church’), which celebrated the dynasty.60 The difficult court politics towards the end of the reign revolve around Basil’s heir Leo, but can perhaps be opened up to reveal larger issues. Basil’s intended successor was his eldest son Constantine, but he died from a fever in 879. As next oldest, and already a co-emperor, Leo became heir apparent. The future of the dynasty looked assured, as Leo was duly married to Theophano Martinakia, a relative of both the Amorians and Eudocia Ingerina.61 However, relations between Basil and Leo were strained.62 A common explanation for this is that Basil disliked Leo because he was Michael III’s son, but perhaps the answer lies more in a clash of personalities and wishes. Leo was not content with Theophano. The Life of Euthymios has Leo vividly recall how Basil threw him to the floor and beat him when Theophano told him that Leo was having an affair with Zoe Zaoutzaina.63 Relations deteriorated to the point that Leo was suspected of plotting against Basil, and was shut up in the palace apartment of the Pearl, a confinement that is thought to have lasted for three years, from 883 to 886.64 It is evident that Leo had formed his own group of supporters, such as Andrew the domestic of the Schools and Stephen magistros, but it is not certain that they had hatched a plot. Indeed the narrative sources depict Leo as victim of the machinations of Photios’ circle. It looks as if towards the end of Basil’s reign the Amorians were preparing to stage a comeback. It has been suggested that this move was also inspired by discontent with Basil’s western initiatives, which seem to have incurred some internal opposition.65 That a major plot against Basil headed by John Kourkouas was exposed in March 886 adds to the air of political crisis. Maybe from realisation that Leo had been innocent, or perhaps simply because difficult circumstances required a show of dynastic unity, Basil restored Leo on 20 July 886, the feast day of Elijah, one of the patrons of the Macedonian dynasty.66 This event was followed by Basil’s death just over a month later, and Leo was thrust to sole power. The question of his complicity in the demise of the dynasty’s founder remains open.

 

 

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