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7-08-2015, 23:39

Basil’s ‘expansionism’: its political rationale and its costs

Basil’s dominions were half as extensive again as those of Constantine VII. Constantine seems to have had little appetite for direct territorial expansion, preferring like his father to emphasise his pre-eminent role as the wise guarantor of order and justice. Basil, by contrast, appears to have presented conquest as his prime aim, without any palpable regard for the question of who would succeed to leadership over the newly amassed territories after the deaths of himself and his younger brother, Constantine VIII (1025–8). But he had managed to maintain the army’s loyalty by becoming its general and personally directing its affairs, a stance which had much in common with Nikephoros II Phokas’. Basil was contending with the prestige which individual commanders and great military affinities still enjoyed. They were bracketed with other, less politically involved, families whose wealth and influence was liable to occlude imperial authority locally and thus lower the proceeds fromtaxation at the disposal of central government. Basil, like his grandfather and the soldier-emperors of the eighth century, presented the provision of justice and security of property for the lowliest of his subjects as an essential duty of the ruler (see above, pp. 275–7, 489). Just after his spectacular campaign to rebuff Fatimid attempts at seizing Aleppo while Thessaloniki’s outskirts lay exposed to Bulgarian raiders, Basil issued an important novella on land law. This in effect abolished the statute of limitations for restitution of property acquired by ‘the powerful’ from ‘the poor’, save only for that property covered by legal documents for 934 or earlier; the legal process was, more or less, to be skewed in favour of claims by members of peasant fiscal communities against ‘the powerful’ who had ‘wrongfully deprived and despoiled’ them.96 Basil was avowedly trying to preserve tax units of property-owning country-dwellers of limited or slender means who had been the subject of imperial legislation earlier in the tenth century and who were described as vital for the empire’s well-being (see above, p. 492).His rhetoric of equity was the more strident for his need to rally the war effort against the Bulgarians in hostilities that gave every sign of being protracted and very burdensome for tax-payers. The novella of 996 alluded to those who had used their senior positions in the establishment to amass properties and who through their wealth and influence put undue pressure on those small proprietors not yet swallowed up by their estates. One such had risen from humble beginnings to the dignity of pr¯otovestiarios, only to be abruptly divested by the emperor, who ‘made him one of the villagers once more’; another