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Macedonian Dynasty |
The clay heart of a golden era

Macedonian Dynasty is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 137, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

While intrigue, betrayal, dalliance and murder grip the imperial household Byzantium soars to cultural heights unequalled in the contemporary world

Macedonian Dynasty - The clay heart of a golden era

Macedonian Dynasty - The clay heart of a golden era
The marriage of Eudocia, favorite concubine of the emperor Michael III to the future Basil I, performed at Michael’s request to legitimize Eudocia’s status. While priests and attendants prepare Eudocia at left, Basil receives instructions from the seated Michael. The image is from the only illustrated Byzantine chronicle in existence, written by John Scylitzes, and enhanced with 564 miniature paintings.

The emperor Michael was drunk–nothing notable about that. He swilled himself into a stupor that September evening in the year 867, at a great feast laid for him in the sumptuously decorated banqueting hall of the Palace of St. Mamas in Constantinople. During this revel, few noticed one lanky, heavily muscled, sinister figure steal quietly from the hall. He made his way to the emperor’s chambers, and deftly crowbarred the heavy bolts on the doors so that they could not be locked. Then he inconspicuously returned. Michael was drowsy now and nodding, babbling that it was time for bed. All rose as the emperor stumbled from the hall.

Soon the conspirator left too, and joined eight colleagues to complete the evening’s work, notably the assassination of Michael III, emperor of Byzantium, also known as “Michael the Drunkard.” For security, Byzantine emperors never slept alone, and tonight Michael’s longtime drinking companion Basiliscianus was on duty. Basiliscianus had noticed the damaged bolts, and was lying uneasily awake when the door opened to admit the nine assassins, headed by the dark man. Basiliscianus leaped for his sword, but one conspirator ran him through. Another approached the snoring emperor and struck off both his hands. Blood spurted over the royal bedsheets. A third man, with one plunging stab, ended the life of Michael the Drunkard.

All now looked to the tall, dark leader, their designated candidate for the imperial throne: Basil I, called the Macedonian. Thus with a bloody murder began the Macedonian dynasty, and with it the “Golden Age” of Byzantium’s twelve-century history. Basil had planned carefully. Within a week, the Senate, the nobles, the army, and the people (represented by the mob in the Hippodrome) unanimously acclaimed him as autocrat over what in the succeeding two centuries would become the world’s most magnificent and mighty empire, unequalled even by the much larger Muslim empire on its eastern flank.

Basil’s domain was a preeminently Christian one, where rich and poor alike accepted with profound belief the person of Jesus Christ, his teachings, the doctrines derived from them, and orthodox ecclesiastical authority. Churches by the thousand were packed on Sundays and great feast days. Every district had its monastery, tens of thousands of monks and nuns devoting their lives to Christ’s work. From the magnificent churches of the capital–Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), Holy Apostles, Saints Sergius and Bacchus–precious icons were carried in colorful, chanting processions for all to venerate, with the emperor himself, as patron and protector of the church on earth, often at their head.

Yes, the empire was undeniably Christian, but all Byzantine dynasties, and the Macedonian in particular, exhibited shocking degrees of unchristian behavior in the personal lives of many rulers. Of the fourteen emperors in the Macedonian line,1 one was bludgeoned to death, one was kidnapped and forced into a monastery by his two sons, one died in what is believed to have been a faked accident, one ruled with his concubine beside him on state occasions, one was a demented epileptic, and two were fatally poisoned.

To expedite dynastic shifts, regicide had always been a favored method. Since Constantine moved the capital from “Old Rome” to the city that bears his name (see earlier volume, By This Sign, chapter 6), there had been six imperial dynasties. The transition varied little. A strong contestant would wrest power from the last surviving emperor of the previous dynasty. His heirs (or their spouses) would rule for several generations, until a powerful contestant–usually a soldier with strong military support–would assassinate or banish the sitting emperor and establish his own dynasty.

Royal credentials were not essential. Basil, for example, had reached the capital ten years earlier as a young refugee–penniless, street-smart and lucky. His biographers, whether from fact or for flattery, provided him with an Armenian pedigree connecting him to the kings of ancient Parthia. As a youth, Basil was enslaved by invading Bulgars, but escaped to Constantinople, where he worked as a groom for an influential family. His patroness, the Lady Danielis, attracted (both spiritually and carnally) by his quick mind, physical beauty and raw muscular strength, lavished money upon him, providing him with a household and a staff of thirty slaves.

Fortune continued to smile upon him. A brawny Bulgarian wrestler challenged all comers at a royal exhibition, handily defeating them one by one. Then Basil, who had no love for Bulgars, came forward, hurled the man to the ground and stood on his neck. The crowd went wild, none more so than the man in the imperial box, Michael III, and Basil became his favorite–an unofficial but prestigious office, though chronically short-lived and often fatal.

For one thing, the emperor expected special favors. Would Basil be kind enough, for instance, to marry the emperor’s concubine, the Lady Eudocia, thus legitimizing her status? Basil was already married to Maria, a Macedonian, and they had a son, Constantine. This was awkward, but the emperor must be accommodated. So Basil divorced Maria and married Eudocia, who nevertheless continued as the emperor’s mistress. She was pregnant when he was assassinated, and no one appears to have doubted that the child was Michael’s.

Basil was well aware of the perils of his preferred position, but he knew, too, that Michael was widely detested. When drunk he would order executions, then when sober would denounce and brutalize the men who had carried them out. He would don patriarchal robes and play the buffoon, serving a parodied communion of vinegar and mustard to his besotted companions, and obscenely jeering the most cherished icons–this in pious Constantinople. Furthermore, in one short reign he bankrupted the treasury.

With his death, deemed by most a service to the state, began the Macedonian era. Its first nine emperors, up to and including Basil II, would among them accomplish unprecedented foreign victories, reform the justice system, set limits on the empire’s ravenous aristocracy and increase economic prosperity. Their patronage of art, learning and culture generally, reflected in the splendid liturgies of the church, would entrench Orthodox practice in the Eastern world for the next millennium. Macedonian emperors, however sanguinary their conduct, saw themselves as agents of the mighty Christ Pantocrator (Christ the All-Powerful), establishing his kingdom upon the earth.

Basil I embarked with characteristic vigor upon his most pressing task, the bankrupt treasury, personally examining bureaucratic accounts, calling in government debts, vigorously prosecuting embezzlers and miscreants. More controversially, he revamped the tax system to press harder on the landed aristocracy of Asia Minor and the wealthy church elite, while easing the burden on small freeholders, tradespeople and peasant farmers. Wider right to purchase property was conferred on the poor and military class. His successors would sustain these initiatives toward the poor for more than a century.

Meanwhile, Basil overhauled the legal system, updating codes promulgated by Justinian three hundred years earlier and publishing a new handbook for lawyers. He vetted judicial appointments, personally took part in trials of serious cases, and acted as a court of last resort. Some hundred churches, built during his reign, testify to his faith. Not so his handling of the major tragedy of his life–the early death of his son by Maria, Constantine, upon whom he had pinned his hope for a brilliant succession. After this he became morose, harsh and vindictive, and ultimately perished in a hunting accident, which most historians agree was probably murder.

Basil had one enemy in particular, his son Leo. Or was he Michael’s son? While Constantine lived, Basil treated Leo with wary contempt, first tonsuring him as a monk, then forcing him to marry a woman in whom he had no interest, and once imprisoning him for implication in an insurrection plot. But the early death of the boy Constantine made Leo heir apparent. Thus when Basil died, Leo practically proclaimed himself the son of Michael the Drunkard, and reinterred Michael in full splendor at the Church of the Holy Apostles while providing minimal honor for the late Basil.

The chief problems of Leo VI were marital. Theophano, the wife forced upon him by Basil, died six years after he became emperor.2 Leo then married his longtime mistress, but she too soon died. So did his next wife, a young Phrygian girl. Since not one had produced a male heir, Leo resolved on a fourth marriage (his new mistress being pregnant with a potential heir), something strictly forbidden by the church. The pope at Rome finally ratified it, the patriarch of Constantinople resigned over it, and the public wrangle went on until Leo’s own death. This fourth wife, Zoë by name, did bear a son, the future Constantine VII.

Though Leo had repudiated Basil I as a usurper, his public policies upheld everything Basil began. He codified Basil’s legal reforms. He published a manual for the imperial bureaucracy, covering everything from palace ritual to tax administration. He established rules for the craft guilds on apprenticeship terms, working hours, wages and prices. All such skilled crafts as weaving, dye making, and manufacture in wood, gold and ivory, licensed by the emperor, were prime revenue sources.

Because of his education and cultural interests, Leo VI became known as Leo the Wise, much to the disgust of the acerbic and classic historian, Edward Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).3 His plan for the succession, however, was very unwise. When he died in 912, his son by Zoë became Constantine VII, at age seven. Not until he was thirty-nine would he get hold of the reins of government, which meanwhile were grasped by a succession of regents, usually recognized as emperors. Leo’s (probable) younger half brother, the dissolute Alexander, served as regent for a year and died–too soon, it later appeared, for him to carry out his intention to castrate the boy emperor so his own family could claim the succession. But on his deathbed, Alexander established a council of regency.

This set off a contest for the crown, soon won by a soldier-adventurer, Romanus I Lecapenus, who legitimated his claim by marrying his daughter Helena to fourteen-year-old Constantine. But Romanus had himself proclaimed emperor, his wife empress, and his three sons the equivalent of princes. He was, in short, an ambitious upstart like Basil. Also like Basil, he proved an able administrator, and in his twenty-five-year reign made effective treaties with the warlike eastern European tribes, helping to tie them to the Greek church rather than the Latin.

Romanus won little popular support, however, and for reasons never explained his two younger sons rebelled against him. (The eldest had died.) They immured him in a monastery on the island of Proti in the Sea of Marmara, intending to assassinate Constantine VII and become joint emperors. Instead they were confronted by an angry mob that favored a very unexpected candidate–Constantine, no less. Their sister Helena, loyal to her husband, had betrayed them. So Constantine VII, long since reduced to poverty and making a living as an artist, finally came into his inheritance at age thirty-nine. The two conspirators were banished to Proti with their father, where Gibbon portrays their arrival: “Old Romanus met them on the beach with a sarcastic smile, and after a just reproach of their folly and ingratitude, presented his imperial colleagues with an equal share of his water and vegetables.” Such was the monastic diet.

But Constantine, although adored by the people, allowed his government to slide into corruption. Absorbed by his art and his books, he let Helena run the empire for the next fifteen years, assisted by an incompetent prime minister quaintly known as “Basil the Bird.” Two conspiracies led by the Lecapenus family were suppressed with ferocious cruelty. Constantine did greatly advance learning, however, giving the arts new impetus, and appointing men of high reputation as writers, philosophers, historians and scientists to senior teaching positions. Byzantines appreciated this, for a great many of them could read, a skill confined in the West to monks, clergy and the wealthy.

Constantine and Helena failed in another crucial respect. Their son, destined to become Romanus II, grew up handsome, indolent, dissolute and wicked, and chiefly distinguished himself by marrying a woman generally regarded as the most ghastly female ever to reign as Byzantine empress. This was Theophano–not to be confused with the repudiated, though saintly, first wife of Leo VI. There was nothing saintly about this Theophano. Daughter of a pub-keeper, she was a beautiful and conniving Hippodrome prostitute, skilled in the use of poison, who became a society courtesan. Malicious gossip was rarely lacking in Byzantine society, and it was said that she persuaded Romanus to poison his father, Constantine VII. Four years later, her detractors said, she herself poisoned Romanus. But this undoubtedly powerful lady (whose name means “manifestation of God”) did bear two sons and two daughters. One son became Basil II, second greatest of the Macedonian emperors. One daughter, Anna, became Grand Duchess of Kiev, participant in one of the great romantic marriages of medieval times and founder with her husband of Christian Russia. (See Chapter 8.)

Ironically, however, the outstanding accomplishment of the Macedonian era occurred in the reign of the debauched Romanus II. This was the rise of the master military strategist Nicephorus Phocas, who regained Crete from the Muslims and whose armies reconquered much of Syria and reached the very gates of Jerusalem (as described in this volume’s last chapter). This hero-soldier was a complex individual, rigidly disciplined and passionately Christian, who after the deaths of his wife and son vowed to become a monk at Mount Athos. Then he met the newly widowed Theophano, and everything changed. As regent for her sons, Basil and Constantine, both under six, she wanted a powerful backer. Nicephorus, the pledged monk, struck her as ideal.

Abandoning all monastic aspirations, Nicephorus had his army proclaim him emperor, marched into the capital, and was crowned by the patriarch. News that he intended to marry Theophano, however, lost him much popular support.4 The monks, formerly his friends, condemned this marriage. So did the patriarch, who excommunicated him for a year, and relented only after Nicephorus assembled a council of sympathetic bishops and coerced its approval. As emperor, he then avenged himself on the monks by forcing them to sell their city properties, using the proceeds to finance his victorious war against the Muslims in Syria. Meanwhile, the burden of wartime taxes on the populace furthered his unpopularity, but the crucial factor was Theophano’s infatuation with another man, Nicephorus’s cousin, fellow general and longtime friend, John Tzimisces. This proved fatal to Nicephorus, and his assassination was particularly brutal.5

Tzimisces, as famed as Nicephorus for his courage and success against the Muslims, vowed to serve solely as regent for young Basil, now eleven. The patriarch refused to recognize him at all, however, until he banished Theophano to a convent, turned in his fellow assassins, and returned the monastic properties. He did all three. Theophano did not take exile well. She cursed and clawed her erstwhile lover. She beat poor Basil (who bore it stoically) and declared him the bastard offspring of one of her illicit liaisons. But she too was carted off to Proti, and Tzimisces ruled Byzantium for seven years. He died, it was generally agreed, of natural causes.

Theophano’s son then became Basil II at age twenty-seven, in a chaos of civil war between two of his generals, each intent on assassinating him. With the help of a Viking contingent from Kiev, he emerged from this triumphant, having promised his sister Anna to the Viking leader, Vladimir of Kiev, in exchange. This was a central factor in the conversion of the Russians to Greek Christianity, undoubtedly the most lasting success of Basil’s reign.

But it was Basil’s military triumphs that won him most renown at home. Tenth- and eleventh-century Byzantium had three fearsome enemies: the Muslims, whom he kept in check; the Viking-led Rus, with whom he signed a lasting treaty; and the fearsome Bulgarians, whom he taught a terrible and permanent lesson. (See chapter 8.) To the people, this made him Basil Bulgaroctonos (“the Bulgar Slayer”), yet they never loved him. Indeed, many detested him. He was reportedly a cold, austere man, vowed to celibacy, neither drinking wine nor eating meat, wearing a monastic habit under his robes and armor. The heavy taxes he imposed, combined with his contempt for literature, art, and culture generally, also ensured that his death in 1025 was little mourned.

In its final thirty-two years, the Macedonian dynasty produced eight more emperors, none distinguished. Indeed, their history reads like an increasingly bad soap opera. The childless Basil was succeeded by an elderly brother who reigned three years as Constantine VIII. When he died, a respected senator was forced on pain of execution to marry Zoë, one of his three daughters. This unfortunate man reigned for six years as Romanus III, until Zoë poisoned him in order to marry a paramour, who became Michael IV. But her new husband turned out to be a demented epileptic who wandered through cemeteries lamenting his sins, while his eunuch brother John robbed the treasury. When Michael died, John coerced Zoë into adopting his nephew.

This nephew became Michael V, moaning that he didn’t want the job and cursing as they placed the crown on his head. As emperor he promptly dispatched his benefactress Zoë to a monastery, a deed so offensive to the mob that they stormed the palace, blinded Michael, exiled him instead, and installed Zoë on the throne along with her sister Theodora, a nun. But the sisters quarreled, Theodora returned to her convent, and Zoë, now sixty, married her third husband, who insisted that his mistress also live with them. Zoë consented, and thereafter the new emperor, Constantine IX, routinely appeared in public flanked by his wife and his concubine.

Constantine outlived them both, but died without an heir. The aged nun Theodora was thereupon recalled from her convent, served as empress for eighteen months, and on her deathbed named a retired soldier as successor. This was Michael VI. Senile, and nearly blind, he lasted less than a year, until Isaac Comnenus briskly defeated him and brought to power the Comnenian dynasty. Before long, Michael VI died, peacefully it seems, the last of the Macedonians.

This is the end of the Macedonian Dynasty category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 137, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Macedonian Dynasty from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at