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H - 75 : How Basil II unintentionally crated the Russian Empire

Basil II's Coronation as Co-Emperor with his Brother in 976 AD in Constantinople

Byzantine Emperor Basil II (976 – 1025) did not have it easy in his early years. The Bulgars invaded his empire from the west, the Khalifs from the east and his unruly nobles contested his rule at every step. He turned his fortunes around by shrewd economic policy, clever diplomacy and his skills as a military leader. Known to us as the “Bulgar Slayer”, he also seeded a new empire which is still with us today: Russia.

Basil II's Success was not a foregone Conclusion at his Coronation in 976 AD

The moment Basil II ascended to the throne, he faced internal opposition from Anatolia’s powerful landlords. They owned large latifundiae and were almost a state by themselves. During the peak of fighting the Arabs in the 7th and 8th century, they held out in their local castles and stopped the invaders on mountain passes and in the narrows. They also used their power to increase land under their control and undermine central authority. Not surprisingly, the Scleras and Phocas family thought the throne should be theirs. My blog is too short to describe all these details. Wikipedia does already a good job. By 989, all of Basil’s rivals were dead. Either killed in battle or executed.

Basil II in his Church Calendar compiled in 1'000 AD

Basil II was greatly helped by the improving economy. After centuries of turmoil, Europe stabilized in the 10th century. With Otto the Great, the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations emerged from Charlemagne’s empire. He was the first German Emperor to be crowned in Rome in 962 AD. After several military defeats, the Magyars gave up their nomadic and raiding lifestyle and settled on the Hungarian planes. The western part of the Frankish Empire became France. The Vikings who opened the Dniester and Don route from the Baltic to the Black Sea established the Novgorod Kingdom with Kiev as capital. Also, the Khalifs in Baghdad discovered that they made more money by trading rather than waging holy war. These new rulers craved for products and luxury, the type that Byzantium could provide. Since Justinian it had developed a sophisticated silk industry. Constantinople, Europe’s largest town with half a million people, was still a commercial power house at the heart of all major trade routes. It was the nexus between east and west.

Silk from Constantinople, 9th Century, with Annunciation Motive. Now in Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York


Not surprisingly, trade picked up. Thanks to Byzantium’s 10% tax on traded goods, the empire’s tax revenue doubled within a few decades. The share of tax related to agriculture dropped to 10%. The full state coffers funded Basil’s reform of land ownership and returned land to small farmers. The big estate-owning families like the Phocas were not pleased and rebelled. But predictably, agricultural productivity picked up. Basil also used his tax revenue to enforce Byzantine laws and improve the safety of merchants. Business was predictable again. People started to invest. Byzantium was back from the shadows. European visitors were mightily impressed by the Empire’s wealth. Basil’s investment in small farmers and good business practise was wise.

The Circulation of Coins increased significantly under Basil II

( to the right) with his brother & Co-Emperor Constantine VIII

With his coffers full, Basil could also strengthen his armed forces and increase their size to 100’000 men. He was one of the few Byzantine Emperors who lived and fought with the troops. The loyalty of his soldiers was legendary. It enabled him to subdue the Bulgars, a Turkish people that had invaded the area south of the Danube 200 years earlier and subdued the native Slavic population. The Bulgars had been troublesome neighbors. Twice they had besieged Constantino. In 1018 it was over. After several battles, the Bulgarian state was no more. Serbia and Croatia allied themselves with Basil. Peace on the western front was achieved.

Basil's Bulgar Campaign was a Decade Long War

Basil had similar successes on the eastern front. His army was strong enough to take advantage of the wars between Arab rulers. For the Shiite Fatimids, overthrowing the Sunni Khalifs in Baghdad was priority.  In their eyes, Byzantium did not really matter. Basil's forces could win large swaths of territory back. Cilicia, Edessa and Antioch were Byzantine again.

The Fatimid's Attitude towards Byzantium was ambivalent - the Sunni Khalifs were its targets The Map shows the Fatimid Empire at its maximum Extent around 1'000 AD

Basil would not have achieved his victory had he not struck an alliance with the Vikings from Kiev. They made contact in 988 when Waldemar (Russian call him Vladimir) conquered Chersonese, an ancient Greek colony on Crimea. It was under Byzantine rule at the time. Before they knew it, the Bulgars were caught between two mighty allies and faced a two-front war which they could not win..

The old Greek colony of Chersones is at the Entrance of the Sevastopol Bay on the Crimea

The alliance was so important to Basil that he betrothed his sister Anna to Waldemar in 988. Never before had a royal princess been “given” to a barbarian. For Byzantium, it was worth it. Not so sure how Anna felt about this. As reward, Waldemar converted to Christianity and with him all the Rus. It was the beginning of the Russian Orthodox church. If you want to read a completely distorted version of this history, read Putin’s speech before he invaded the Ukraine. The fabricated story alone proves his flawed character.

Baptism of Waldemar in 988, paiting is from 1890

Waldemar gave Basil a second “gift”. In 997 AD, he allowed him to hire 6’000 of his most fearsome warriors. They became known as the Varangian Guards and soon formed the core of Byzantium’s army. Waldemar was quite happy to get rid of his unruly youngsters for some finder’s fee. Now Basil had to pay them. They were not Waldemar’s problem any longer. The Varangians fought true to their reputation. Basil’s choice was wise. The Varangians remained the backbone of the Byzantine army for several hundred years.

One of Basil's Successors, Emperor Theophilos, with his Vangarian Guards

Today, Basil II is remembered as the Emperor who restored Byzantium to its former glory. It was again the most powerful and wealthy state in Europe. Basil's role in seeding a new empire – Russia - is largely forgotten though. But when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman in 1453, the Russian Tsars quickly established the claim that they were the 3rd Rome. Rome fell in 476 AD, Constantinople in 1453. It was now up to Russia to hold and protect the banner of Christianity. Russia's claim on Constantinople continued until modern time. At the conference in Potsdam in 1946, Stalin demanded that the Bosporus Straits and Istanbul are ceded to Russia. This is why Turkey joined the NATO.

Ancient Pantikapeion we planned to visit. Kerch is now

famous for Putin's Bridge which is vital for Russian

Presence on the Crimea

It would have been fascinating to sail along the Bulgarian & Romanian coasts to Chersonese in summer 2022. We planned to continue along the Crimean coast to Pantikapeion (Kerch), visiting the sites of the Bosporian Kingdom around the Sea of Azov and end in Georgia where wine was “invented”. Sadly, Vladimir, the great fabricator of history, launched his invasion. The cancellation of our trip is nothing compared to the horrors he unleashed on Ukraine’s people – the true heirs of Waldemar. He deserves the same fate as the Bulgars.

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