The Macedonian era: 867–1025
Under the Macedonians, at least until the death of Basil II in 1025, the empire enjoyed a golden age. Its armies regained the initiative against the Arabs in the East, and its missionaries evangelized the Slavs, extending Byzantine influence in Russia and the Balkans. And, despite the rough military character of many of the emperors, there was a renaissance in Byzantine letters and important developments in law and administration. At the same time there were signs of decay: resources were squandered at an alarming rate; there was growing estrangement from the West; and a social revolution in Anatolia was to undermine the economic and military strength of the empire.
The empire was in theory an elective monarchy with no law of succession. But the desire to found and perpetuate a dynasty was strong, and it was often encouraged by popular sentiment. This was especially true in relation to the Macedonian dynasty, the founder, Basil I, having murdered his way to the throne in 867. Probably of Armenian descent, though they had settled in Macedonia, Basil’s family was far from distinguished and can hardly have expected to produce a line of emperors that lasted through six generations and 189 years. But, having acquired the imperial crown, Basil tried to make sure that his family would not lose it and nominated three of his sons as coemperors. Though he was his least favourite, through the scholarly Leo VI, who succeeded him in 886, the succession was at least secure. Even the three soldier-emperors who usurped the throne during the Macedonian era were conscious, in varying degrees, that they were protecting the rights of a legitimate heir during a minority: Romanus I Lecapenus for Constantine VII, the son of Leo VI; and Nicephorus Phocas and John Tzimisces for Basil II, the grandson of Constantine VII.
A reassertion of Byzantine military and naval power in the East began with victories over the Arabs by Michael III’s general Petronas in 856. From 863 the initiative lay with the Byzantines. The struggle with the Arabs, which had long been a struggle for survival, became a mounting offensive that reached its brilliant climax in the 10th century. By 867 a well-defined boundary existed between the Byzantine Empire and the territory of the ʿAbbāsid caliphate. Its weakest point was in the Taurus Mountains above Syria and Antioch. Basil I directed his operations against this point, recovered Cyprus for a while, and campaigned against the Paulicians, a Christian sect regarded as heretical by the Byzantines and whose anti-imperial propaganda was effective in Anatolia. But the conflict with Islam was one that concerned the whole empire, in the West as well as in the East, and by sea as well as by land. In 902 the Arabs completed the conquest of Sicily, but they were kept out of the Byzantine province of South Italy, for whose defense Basil I had even made some effort to cooperate with the Western emperor Louis II. The worst damage, however, was done by Arab pirates who had taken over the island of Crete. In 904 they plundered Thessalonica, carrying off quantities of loot and prisoners. Leo VI sent a naval expedition to Crete in 911, but the Muslims drove it off and humiliated the Byzantine navy off Chios in 912.
On the eastern frontier, the Byzantine offensive was sustained with great success during the reign of Romanus I Lecapenus by an Armenian general John Curcuas (Gurgen), who captured Melitene (934) and then Edessa (943), advancing across the Euphrates into the caliph’s territory. It was Curcuas who paved the way for the campaigns of the two soldier-emperors of the next generation. In 961 Nicephorus Phocas, then domestic (commander) of the armies in the West, reconquered Crete and destroyed the Arab fleet that had terrorized the Aegean for 150 years; he thereby restored Byzantine naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. In 962 his strategy achieved unexpected triumphs all along the eastern frontier and culminated in the capture of Aleppo in Syria. When he was proclaimed emperor in March 963, Nicephorus appointed another Armenian general, John Tzimisces, as domestic of the East, though he retained personal command of operations against the Arabs. By 965 he had driven them out of Cyprus and was poised for the reconquest of Syria.
The revived morale and confidence of Byzantium in the East showed itself in the crusading zeal of Nicephorus Phocas and John Tzimisces for the reconquest of Syria and the Holy Land. The ground lost to Islam in the 7th century was thus fast being regained; and, although Jerusalem was never reached, the important Christian city of Antioch, seat of one of the patriarchs, was recaptured in 969. These victories were achieved largely by the new cavalry force built up by Nicephorus Phocas. In the areas recovered from the Arabs, land was distributed in military holdings with the interests of the cavalry in mind. But the victories were achieved at the expense of the western provinces, and an attempt to recover Sicily ended in failure in 965.
The campaigns of John Tzimisces, who usurped the throne in 969, were directed against the Emir of Mosul on the Tigris and against the new Fāṭimid caliph of Egypt, who had designs on Syria. By 975 almost all of Syria and Palestine, from Caesarea to Antioch, as well as a large part of Mesopotamia far to the east of the Euphrates, was in Byzantine control.
The way seemed open for Tzimisces to advance to the ʿAbbāsid capital of Baghdad on the one hand and to Jerusalem and Egypt on the other. But he died in 976 and his successor, Basil II, the legitimate heir of the Macedonian house, concentrated most of his resources on overcoming the Bulgars in Europe, though he did not abandon the idea of further reconquest in the East. The kingdom of Georgia (Iberia) was incorporated into the empire by treaty.
Part of Armenia was annexed, with the rest of it to pass to Byzantium on the death of its king. Basil II personally led two punitive expeditions against the Fāṭimids in Syria, but otherwise his eastern policy was to hold and to consolidate what had already been gained.
The gains can be measured by the number of new themes (provinces) created by the early 11th century in the area between Vaspurakan in the Caucasus and Antioch in Syria. The annexation of Armenia, the homeland of many of the great Byzantine emperors and soldiers, helped to solidify the eastern wall of the Byzantine Empire for nearly a century.
John I Tzimisces (left), effigy on a gold coin, 969–976; in a private collection.
Relations with the Slavs and Bulgars
Although imperial territory in the East could be reclaimed only by military conquest, in the Balkans and in Greece the work of reclamation could be assisted by the diplomatic weapon of evangelization. The Slavs and the Bulgars could be brought within the Byzantine orbit by conversion to Christianity. The conversion of the Slavs was instigated by the patriarch Photius and carried out by the monks Cyril and Methodius from Thessalonica. Their invention of the Slavonic alphabet (Cyrillic and Glagolitic) made possible the translation of the Bible and the Greek liturgy and brought literacy as well as the Christian faith to the Slavic peoples. The work began in the Slavic kingdom of Moravia and spread to Serbia and Bulgaria. Latin missionaries resented what they considered to be Byzantine interference among the northern Slavs, and there were repeated clashes of interest that further damaged relations between the sees of Rome and Constantinople. The conversion of the Bulgars became a competition between the two churches and was ably exploited by the Bulgar king Boris until, in 870, he opted for Eastern Orthodox Christianity on condition of having an archbishop of his own.
The trade with Constantinople that followed the missionaries whetted the appetites of the Slavs and Bulgars for a larger share in the material wealth of Byzantium. Simeon (Symeon) I of Bulgaria, who succeeded his father Boris in 893 and who had been educated at Constantinople, proved to be an even more dangerous enemy than the Arabs. His efforts to become emperor dominated Byzantine history for some 15 years. In 913 he brought his army to the walls of Constantinople, demanding the imperial title. The patriarch, Nicholas Mysticus, appeased Simeon for a time, but it was Romanus Lecapenus who, by patience and diplomacy, undermined the power of the Bulgars and thwarted Simeon’s ambitions. Simeon died in 927, and his son Peter I came to terms with Byzantium and married a granddaughter of Romanus.
Relations with Russia
The Russians lay far outside the Roman jurisdiction. Their warships, sailing down the Dnepr from Kiev to the Black Sea, first attacked Constantinople in 860. They were beaten off, and almost at once Byzantine missionaries were sent into Russia. The Russians were granted trading rights in Constantinople in 911, but in 941 and 944, led by Prince Igor, they returned to the attack. Both assaults were repelled, and Romanus I set about breaking down the hostility and isolationism of the Russians by diplomatic and commercial contacts. In 957 Igor’s widow, Olga, was baptized and paid a state visit to Constantinople during the reign of Constantine VII; her influence enabled Byzantine missionaries to work with greater security in Russia, thus spreading Christianity and Byzantine culture. Olga’s son Svyatoslav was pleased to serve the empire as an ally against the Bulgars from 968 to 969, though his ambition to occupy Bulgaria led to war with Byzantium in which he was defeated and killed. In 971 John Tzimisces accomplished the double feat of humiliating the Russians and reducing Bulgaria to the status of a client kingdom. Byzantine influence over Russia reached its climax when Vladimir of Kiev, who had helped Basil II to gain his throne, received as his reward the hand of the Emperor’s sister in marriage and was baptized in 989. The mass conversion of the Russian people followed, with the establishment of an official Russian Church subordinate to the patriarch of Constantinople.
The Bulgars, however, were not content to be vassals of Byzantium and rebelled under Samuel, youngest of the four sons of a provincial governor in Macedonia. Samuel made his capital at Ochrida and created a Bulgarian empire stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea and even, for a while, into Greece, though Thessalonica remained Byzantine. The final settlement of the Bulgar problem was worked out by Basil II in a ruthless and methodical military campaign lasting for some 20 years, until, by 1018, the last resistance was crushed. Samuel’s dominions became an integral part of the Byzantine Empire and were divided into three new themes. At the same time the Slav principalities of Serbia (Rascia and Dioclea) and Croatia became vassal states of Byzantium, and the Adriatic port of Dyrrhachium came under Byzantine control. Not since the days of Justinian had the empire covered so much European territory. But the annexation of Bulgaria meant that the Danube was now the only line of defense against the more northerly tribes, such as the Pechenegs, Cumans, and Magyars.