Dear Readers: A long time supporter of the Mystagogy Resource Center has informed me that they would like to donate $3000 to help me continue the work of this ministry, but they will only do it as a matching donation, which means that this generous donation will only be made after you help me raise a total of $3000. If you can help make this happen, it will be greatly appreciated and it would be greatly helpful to me, as I have not done a fundraiser this year. If you enjoy the work done here and want to see more of it, please make whatever contribution you can through the DONATE link below. Thank you!
(Total So Far - Day 8: $2640)

August 29, 2017

Saint Basil I the Macedonian, Emperor of the Romans (+ 886)

St. Basil I the Macedonian (Feast Day - August 29)

Though Emperor Basil I is not mentioned in the Synaxaria, he is recognized as a Saint of the Church in the Byzantine Calendar of Feasts by Manuel Gedeon. This is primarily due to the fact that he was a builder and restorer of many churches and monasteries, and he was a pious man who sought to glorify God, despite his many faults.

Basil I, called the Macedonian, was Roman Emperor who reigned from 867 to 886. Born in 811 at Charioupolis in the Roman theme of Macedonia, he rose in the Imperial court, and usurped the Imperial throne from Emperor Michael III (r. 842–867). Despite his humble origins, he showed great ability in running the affairs of state, leading to a revival of Imperial power and a renaissance of Byzantine art. He was perceived by the Romans as one of their greatest emperors, and the Macedonian dynasty, which he founded, ruled over what is regarded as the most glorious and prosperous era of the later Roman Empire.

One story asserts that he had spent a part of his childhood in captivity in Bulgaria, where his family had, allegedly, been carried off as captives of the Khan Krum (r. 803–814) in 813. Basil lived there until 836, when he and several others escaped to Roman-held territory in Thrace. Basil was ultimately lucky enough to enter the service of Theophilitzes, a relative of the Caesar Bardas (the uncle of Emperor Michael III), as a groom. While serving Theophilitzes, he visited the city of Patras, where he gained the favor of Danielis, a wealthy woman who took him into her household and endowed him with a fortune. He also earned the notice of Michael III by his abilities as a horse tamer and in winning a victory over a Bulgarian champion in a wrestling match; he soon became the Roman Emperor's companion, confidant, and bodyguard (parakoimomenos).

On Emperor Michael's orders, Basil divorced his wife Maria and married Eudokia Ingerina, Michael's favorite mistress, in around 865. During an expedition against the Arabs, Basil convinced Michael III that his uncle Bardas coveted the Roman throne, and subsequently murdered Bardas with Michael's approval on April 21, 866. Basil then became the leading personality at court and was invested in the now vacant dignity of Caesar, before being crowned co-emperor on May 26, 866. This promotion may have included Basil's adoption by Michael III, himself a much younger man. It was commonly believed that Leo VI, Basil's successor and reputed son, was really the son of Michael. Although Basil seems to have shared this belief (and hated Leo), the subsequent promotion of Basil to Caesar and then co-emperor provided the child with a legitimate and Imperial parent and secured his succession to the Roman throne. It is notable that when Leo was born, Michael III celebrated the event with public chariot races, whilst he pointedly instructed Basil not to presume on his new position as junior emperor.

When Michael III started to favor another courtier, Basiliskianos, Basil decided that his position was being undermined. Michael threatened to invest Basiliskianos with the Imperial title and this induced Basil to pre-empt events by organizing the assassination of Michael on the night of September 23/24, 867. Michael and Basiliskianos were insensibly drunk following a banquet at the palace of Anthimos when Basil, with a small group of companions (including his father Bardas, brother Marinos, and cousin Ayleon), gained entry. The locks to the chamber doors had been tampered with and the chamberlain had not posted guards; both victims were then put to the sword. On Michael III's death, Basil, as an already acclaimed co-emperor, automatically became the ruling emperor.

Basil I inaugurated a new age in the history of the Roman Empire, associated with the dynasty which he founded, the so-called "Macedonian dynasty". This dynasty oversaw a period of territorial expansion, during which Byzantium was the strongest power in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean.

It is remarkable that Basil I became an effective and respected monarch, ruling for 19 years, despite being a man with no formal education and little military or administrative experience. Moreover, he had been the boon companion of a debauched monarch and had achieved power through a series of calculated murders. That there was little political reaction to the murder of Michael III is probably due to his unpopularity with the bureaucrats of Constantinople because of his disinterest in the administrative duties of the Imperial office. Also, Michael's public displays of impiety had alienated the Roman populace in general. Once in power Basil soon showed that he intended to rule effectively and as early as his coronation he displayed an overt religiosity by formally dedicating his crown to Christ. He maintained a reputation for conventional piety and orthodoxy throughout his reign.

To secure his family on the throne, Basil I raised his eldest son Constantine (in 869) and his second son Leo (in 870) to the position of co-emperor.

Basil victorious in a wrestling match against a Bulgarian champion (far left), from the Madrid Skylitzes manuscript.

Because of the great legislative work which Basil I undertook, he is often called the "second Justinian." Basil's laws were collected in the Basilika, consisting of sixty books, and smaller legal manuals known as the Eisagoge. Leo VI was responsible for completing these legal works. The Basilika remained the law of the Roman Empire down to its conquest by the Ottomans. Ironically, this codification of laws seems to have begun under the direction of the Caesar Bardas who was murdered by Basil. Basil's financial administration was prudent. Consciously desiring to emulate Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565), Basil also initiated an extensive building program in Constantinople, crowned by the construction of the Nea Ekklesia cathedral.

His ecclesiastical policy was marked by good relations with Rome. One of his first acts was to exile the Patriarch of Constantinople, Photios, and restore his rival Ignatios, whose claims were supported by Pope Adrian II. However, Basil had no intention of yielding to Rome beyond a certain point. The decision of Boris I of Bulgaria to align the new Bulgarian Church with Constantinople was a great blow to Rome, which had hoped to secure it for herself. But on the death of Ignatios in 877, Photios became patriarch again, and there was a virtual, though not a formal, breach with Rome. This was a watershed event in conflicts that led to the Great Schism that ultimately produced the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church as separate ecclesiastical entities.

Emperor Basil's reign was marked by the troublesome ongoing war with the heretical Paulicians, centered on Tephrike on the upper Euphrates, who rebelled, allied with the Arabs, and raided as far as Nicaea, sacking Ephesus. Basil's general, Christopher, defeated the Paulicians in 872, and the death of their leader, Chrysocheir, led to the definite subjection of their state. There was the usual frontier warfare with the Arabs in Asia Minor, which led to little concrete gain, but the Empire's eastern frontier was strengthened. The island of Cyprus was recovered, but retained for only seven years.

The coronation of Basil I as co-emperor, from the Madrid Skylitzes manuscript.

Basil was the first Roman emperor since Constans II (r. 641–668) to pursue an active policy to restore the Empire's power in the West. Basil allied with the Frankish Holy Roman Emperor Louis II (r. 850–875) against the Arabs and sent a fleet of 139 ships to clear the Adriatic Sea of their raids. With help from Byzantium, Louis II captured Bari from the Arabs in 871. The city eventually became Roman territory in 876. However, the Roman position on Sicily deteriorated, and Syracuse fell to the Emirate of Sicily in 878. This was ultimately Basil's fault as he had diverted a relief fleet from Sicily to haul marble for a church instead. Although most of Sicily was lost, the general Nikephoros Phokas (the Elder) succeeded in taking Taranto and much of Calabria in 880. The successes in the Italian peninsula opened a new period of Roman domination there. Above all, the Romans were beginning to establish a strong presence in the Mediterranean Sea, and especially the Adriatic.

Basil I the Macedonian developed the vastest building activity at the capital of Constantinople since the times of Justinian I (527-565), since he aimed at propagating his powerful political program through his activity as a founder and donor. Until 1056, when Theodora, the last representative of Basil’s II family, died, the appearance of Constantinople was a lot more different than two centuries earlier, when Basil had assumed power. Besides the additions to the Great Palace, many important centers were erected, mostly along the two Mese’s main branches. However, the dimensions of the new imperial foundations were diminishing and their character was more private, a trend that was more openly manifested when the Komnenoi chose the palace of Blachernai as their residence, which better suited the emperors’ needs and capabilities.

Basil I and his son Leo. Leo is discovered carrying a knife in the emperor's presence

Already since the time when Basil I was co-emperor of Michael III, he contributed to the flourishing building activity in the city; and after Michael’s III murder (24 September 867) he continued with eagerness towards the same direction. Basil through his building activity pointed out the exceptional position and significance of the capital city, since the more than thirty newly-erected or restored churches were all situated inside the city or very close to its walls. Basil’s edifices bore great political symbolism even when the motive for their erection were at first sight personal (such was the case of the restoration of Saint Diomedes near Golden Gate), or when their restoration was undertaken after damages caused by earthquakes (Virgin Mary of Pege, Virgin Mary of Sigma square, Holy Apostles and Hagia Sophia). On each case the personality, the ideology as well as the royal destiny of the founder of the Macedonian dynasty was exalted. With regard to Basil’s authority as an inspirer of building activity, particularly important were the restoration of Saint Mokios’ church, a very popular saint at Constantinople, and the erection of Saint Euphemia’s monastery at Petrion, where his four daughters led a monastic life and inside which most of his family members were buried. Nevertheless, the political and ideological significance of capital’s renewal becomes more apparent when it comes to the case of the most important buildings inside the imperial palace. Of special importance was Nea Ekklesia (New Church), Basil’s main ecclesiastical foundation, which had a five-fold dedication (it was dedicated to Christ, the Virgin Mary, Prophet Elijah, Saint Nicholas and one of the archangels, originally to Gabriel and later on to Michael) and it had probably been constructed as a five-domed cross-in-square church. Nea Ekklesia constituted Basil’s “answer” not only to Michael’s III church of Virgin Mary of Pharos, but also to the increased influence of the patriarchal institution over Constantinople. The post-Iconoclasm patriarchs of Constantinople propagated more and more their role and their direct relationship with Christ (at the expense of the imperial authority), and Hagia Sophia was gradually evolving to the center of their power. For that reason Nea Ekklesia is called by some sources the New Great (or Royal) Church, thus clearly highlighting its importance for the imperial power. This is confirmed by Basil himself, who established the day of Nea Ekklesia’s consecration, May the 1st (880), as the new official feast day at Constantinople. On that day each year, the consecration of Basil’s main foundation was celebrated at the capital in an official religious procession, drawing a parallel with the celebration of Constantinople’s inauguration on the 11th of May, which Constantine the Great, the founder of the city had established. Basil’s building program at the imperial Great Palace, acquiring a heavy political overtone, was supplemented by the building of Kainourgion palace, famous for its mosaic decoration, on which the life of Basil was depicted.

Basil's spirits declined in 879, when his eldest and favorite son Constantine died. Basil now raised his youngest son, Alexander, to the rank of co-emperor. Basil disliked the bookish Leo, on occasion physically beating him; he probably suspected Leo of being the son of Michael III. In his later years, Basil's relationship with Leo was clouded by the suspicion that the latter might wish to avenge the murder of Michael III. Leo was eventually imprisoned by Basil after the detection of a suspected plot, but the imprisonment resulted in public rioting; Basil threatened to blind Leo but was dissuaded by Patriarch Photios. Leo was eventually released after the passage of three years. Basil died on August 29, 886 from a fever contracted after a serious hunting accident when his belt was caught in the antlers of a deer, and he was allegedly dragged 16 miles through the woods. He was saved by an attendant who cut him loose with a knife, but he suspected the attendant of trying to assassinate him and had the man executed shortly before he himself died.

One of the first acts of Leo VI as ruling emperor was to rebury, with great ceremony, the remains of Michael III in the Imperial Mausoleum within the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. This did much to confirm in public opinion the view that Leo considered himself to have been Michael's son.