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7-08-2015, 20:58

Court politics 842–867

The elimination of Michael III was the culmination of a power struggle that had been going on for most of his reign. WhenMichael succeeded his father in 842 he was only a child, probably two years old.7 This necessitated the establishment of a regency headed by his mother, Empress Theodora (842–56).8 The dominant force, however, appears to have been the eunuch Theoktistos, who was logothete of the Drome and epi tou kanikleiou, and a key agent of the Amorian dynasty.9 Theoktistos appears to have had no love for the empress’ brother Bardas, who found himself excluded from political power. When Michael approached adulthood, but was still constrained by the wishes of Theodora and Theoktistos – who arranged his marriage to Eudocia Dekapolitissa despite his supposed attachment to Eudocia Ingerina – it seems that Bardas seized the moment and persuaded his nephew to consent to a plot to remove Theoktistos. In 855 the eunuch was murdered in the palace and Theodora soon found herself formally barred from government. She still appears to have hankered after position and influence, for she was implicated in a plot against Bardas. He, however, was firmly in the ascendant, and is credited with running the empire until his death in 866. Bardas’ government is often glowingly praised, as is his fostering of intellectual life by the establishment of the school of the Magnaura.10 His importance is reflected by his developing career as well as the careers of those close to him. He served as domestic of the Schools and rose through a series of titles, eventually attaining the honour of caesar. His brother Petronas replaced him as domestic of the Schools. Photios, a relative of the Amorian house11 and a close ally of Bardas, became patriarch of Constantinople in 858 on the deposition of Ignatios, who had opposed Bardas. What the ultimate ambitions of Bardas were is a moot point; his career was cut short in 866 when he was murdered while preparing to embark on an expedition to Crete. Afterwards the reason given for his death was that he had been plotting to overthrow Michael, but it is possible that Bardas had simply fallen victim to the ambitions of others, not least the emperor’s favourite, Basil the Macedonian. The origins of Basil theMacedonian are obscure and the story of his rise to prominence and power is spiced with colourful episodes, still the stuff of analysis and debate.12 Basil’s sobriquet, ‘the Macedonian’, is thought to refer to his provenance from the theme ofMacedonia, notMacedonia itself, although the Life of Basil asserts that his ancestors were originally settled in Macedonia. The Macedonian claim recalled the famed figures of Philip and Alexander the Great.13 Basil seems also to have had Armenian blood in his veins,14 and the dynasty was to claim descent from the Arsacids.15 Our narrative sources relate that the infant Basil was among the citizens of Adrianople seized and transported across the Danube by the Bulgar khan Krum (c. 803–14), and Symeon the Logothete specifies that he was born in the reign ofMichael I (811–13).16 While some scholars accept this date of birth, estimating that Basil was fifty-five years old when he became emperor,17 others are less sure.18 Certainly the narrative sources also depict Basil as still a young man when he made his way to Constantinople to make his fortune in the mid-850s. The stories about Basil’s developing career, dependent on the favour of a variety of patrons, suggest a lowly background, undermining the Life of Basil ’s assertion of his not undistinguished ancestry. His peasant origins are not contested by modern historians, and are in fact supported by the Davidic imagery embraced by Basil.19 Having been taken in by Nicholas, keeper of the church of St Diomedes – in whose porch Basil had slept on his first night in Constantinople – Basil soon moved on to the service of Theophilitzes; he ended up working for Michael III himself, having cemented a social relationship with the wealthy Peloponnesian widowDanelis along the way.20 Genesios relates thatMichael first met Basil after hearing of his participation in a wrestling match and summoning the wrestlers to come before him; but our other sources assert that the encounter occurred when Basil managed to break in one of the emperor’s horses. This episode has suspicious overtones of Alexander and Bucephalus,21 but it does tie in with Basil’s subsequent career. He was enrolled among the imperial grooms, and after the failure of Theodora’s plot against Bardas he was made head groom (pr¯otostrat¯or); the previous incumbent of the post had been executed as a conspirator. Perhaps Basil’s equine skills endeared him to Michael, since the emperor’s passions included hunting and chariot-racing; his enthusiasm for equestrian pastimes is also conveyed by his construction of luxury stables. Our narrative sources make clear that there was an intense bond between Michael and Basil.22 It has been suggested that there was in fact a sexual relationship between the two men, although some scholars have no truck with this hypothesis.23 The appointment of Basil as parakoim¯omenos (after the fall of his predecessor Damian) does suggest an unusual state of affairs, seeing that the position was normally assigned to eunuchs.24 The name of the post itself, though generally understood as ‘chief eunuch’ or ‘grand chamberlain’, literally means ‘sleeping beside’ and thus indicates close physical proximity. The question of the relationship betweenMichael and Basil is further complicated by the fact that Basil married Eudocia Ingerina. Symeon the Logothete provides further information about this union: Michael arranged for Basil to marry Eudocia, having separated him from his first wife Maria. However, Eudocia was to remain as the emperor’s mistress, while Basil was to have Michael’s sister Thekla in recompense. Some historians have accepted these details, as well as Symeon the Logothete’s report that the future Leo VI (886–912) was Michael’s son.25 The account and its interpretation can, however, be questioned.26 The hostility of the Logothete should not be overlooked, nor should details be cherry-picked.27 It is perfectly possible that Leo was a son of Basil. Whatever the truth about the relationship between Michael, Basil and Eudocia, it is clear that the two men were still close in 866 when Bardas was assassinated. Following their return to Constantinople after aborting the Cretan expedition, Basil was adopted by Michael, given the title of magistros and then quickly crowned as co-emperor. Since Basil hadMichael murdered in his bedchamber just over a year later, their relations obviously deteriorated. PerhapsBasil had always set his sights on sole power, or perhaps Michael and Basil simply lost trust in one another. The sources present alternatives according to their biases, and we must judge for ourselves. Clearly Michael suffers from receiving negative treatment, and some have sought to defend his reputation, even to the extent of claiming him as a great emperor.28 Others have recognised the hostility of the Macedonians but have felt that to reinterpretMichael as great is going too far, and that the sources’ calumny contains a grain of truth.29 It is acknowledged, too, that whatever one thinks of Basil’s motives his reign was generally successful, even if the Life of Basil exaggerates his greatness. Certainly Basil built on the achievements of the age of Michael III, and it is salutary to turn from court conflicts to the continuities of foreign policy.