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7-08-2015, 23:38

Basil i i versus rebel generals

John I Tzimiskes’ designs on Armenia had, however, no time for fruition. On 11 January 976 he died of typhoid or poison. The elder son of Romanos II, Basil II (976–1025), was about eighteen years old. No formal regency was required, although his great-grandfather Romanos I’s bastard son Basil Lekapenos the parakoim¯omenos dominated the administration for a further ten years. Basil II’s speech was staccato, ‘more that of a peasant than a gentleman’,76 a description which would surely have pained his bookish grandfather Constantine Porphyrogenitus. In fact Basil, with his singleminded devotion to his army and preoccupation with drill and military formations, had far more in common with Nikephoros Phokas, another celibate ascetic. The role of war leader, which he assumed in early adulthood, became habitual and congenial and was highlighted in portrayals of Basil. He is depicted in military uniform on the frontispiece of a celebrated psalter, opposite verses explaining such images as the archangel Michael handing Basil a spear.77 A predominantly martial note was also struck in the verses engraved on his tomb: No one saw my spear lie still . . . but I was wakeful through all the time of my life and guarded the children of the New Rome . . .78 Basil’s watchfulness was in reality directed as much at his own subjects and officers as at foreign foes. The resentment of the Bulgarians at the dissolution of their ancient state was exploited by four sons of an Armenian officer in the Byzantine occupation army. Soon after Tzimiskes’ death, if not before, the Kometopouloi (‘sons of the kom¯es’) deserted, and they were soon leading Bulgarians in rebellion.79 More immediately menacing was the revolt of the eastern army within months of Tzimiskes’ death. The new claimant was Bardas Skleros, the general upon whom the government had relied to combat the Rus and also to quash the rebellion of Bardas Phokas, a nephew of the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas, in 970. Skleros forced the Taurus mountain passes, and after further battles he gradually closed on Constantinople. Basil the parakoim¯omenos turned to none other than Bardas Phokas, but the troops which Phokas mustered in his family heartland around Caesarea were no match for the array of regular units which Skleros could field, and Phokas was defeated twice in the summer and autumn of 978. The Macedonians’ plight was undoubtedly dire, even though Skleros hesitated to march straight for Constantinople. The day was saved by the arrival of a 12,000-strong force of cavalry despatched by David kouropalat¯es, the ruler of Tao, the region of western Georgia adjoining Theodosioupolis. The Georgians joined up with the remnants of Phokas’ army and surprised and defeated the rebels to the west of Caesarea, in the theme of Charsianon, on 24 March 979. Bardas Skleros fled to Muslim territory and lengthy negotiations about his repatriation ensued between Byzantium and Baghdad. Skleros eventually returned, but as a claimant to the throne, not a deportee. In 985 Basil II dismissed the ´eminence grise of tenth-century politics, Basil Lekapenos the parakoim¯omenos, and subsequently exiled him from the City, upon suspicion of plotting with various generals of the eastern army. Basil II resolved to take charge of the army himself and to undertake an operation independently of his overbearing and well-connected generals. Bulgaria offered at once an opportunity and a real threat to his regime. In 985 and early 986 Samuel of Bulgaria (987/8–1014), who was emerging as dominant among the Kometopouloi, was systematically reducing important forts and towns in Thrace and northern Greece. He transplanted the inhabitants of Larissa to Bulgaria and enrolled the males for military service. Basil led a large army to Sofia, a key strategic centre, but he failed to reduce the town and his army was ambushed withdrawing through the pass at Trajan’s Gates; Basil himself barely escaped. Basil II’s first steps in soldiering thus ended in ignominy and Bardas Skleros seized the opportunity to negotiate his release with the authorities in Baghdad and make his second bid for the throne early in 987. Then, on 15 August 987, Bardas Phokas, to whom Basil had earlier turned for assistance against Skleros, was himself proclaimed emperor: with the help of Maleinos and other Cappadocian notables he had raised local troops, supplementing the tagmata already under his command. A pact was negotiated between the two rebel generals, whereby Skleros would become master of Antioch and other recently gained or still unconquered territories to the south and east of that city. By the end of 987 Bardas Phokas had gained control of most of Asia Minor and was able to send a detachment to Chrysopolis, in the footsteps of his grandfather Leo Phokas in 919.He himself laid siege to Abydos, at the other end of Byzantium’s ‘inner sea’. Once again, the mystique of imperial authority seems to have dispersed a Phokas-led army, but this time the mystique worked on a distant foreign ruler, and not on rank-and-file Byzantine soldiers. A marriage was negotiated between Basil II’s sister, the porphyrogenita Anna, and the ruler of the Rus, Vladimir Sviatoslavich of Kiev. In return for Anna’s hand, Vladimir would send warriors to the emperor’s aid and, according to an almost contemporary Armenian writer, 6,000 Rus arrived at Byzantium. They surprised and routed the rebel force encamped at Chrysopolis.80 However, they were infantrymen, and probably could not have prevailed over the heavy cavalry of the eastern army. It was hugely to Basil’s good fortune that on 13 April 989 his most formidable enemy, Bardas Phokas, died suddenly of a stroke and the rebel army dispersed. Bardas Skleros emerged to make common cause with the dead man’s sons. In June, Skleros wrote to the Turkish general in charge of Baghdad, requesting his aid. No prompt aid was forthcoming, and this may well have been one reason why Skleros entered into negotiations with the Byzantine government. Basil granted him an amnesty in the autumn of 989. Only then did the citizens of Antioch drive Leo Phokas (Bardas’ son) out of their city and acknowledge Basil II’s regime.