How a Peasant Became Emperor of Rome
From humble beginnings to the world’s most powerful ruler
By the turn of the 9th century, the Byzantine Empire had experienced nearly 200 year of steady decline. Once the most powerful state in Europe, the empire had been reduced to control of Anatolia and small parts of modern Greece and Italy due to a combination of infighting and territorial expansions of the Arab and Slavic peoples on its frontiers. This period of decline had weakened Byzantine society, creating the perfect environment for an ambitious and competent outsider to rise through the ranks and make his mark.
Basil the Macedonian was born in 811 AD in western Thrace to a peasant family in the town of Chariopolis. Thrace is the southeastern portion of the Balkan peninsula that today includes European Turkey and far eastern Greece. At the time, western Thrace was part of the Theme of Macedonia, a province of the Byzantine Empire. The ethnic origins of his family are disputed, but it is generally believed that his father, Bardas, was of Armenian descent
His early life is mysterious, but some evidence suggests that his family was taken captive by an invading Bulgarian army. Basil would live in Bulgaria until 836, when he and several other captives escaped and returned to Byzantine territory in Thrace. From here, a combination of luck and skill would carry him to prominence.
Basil entered into the military service of a prominent noble, Theophilitizes, and would quickly make a name for himself as a skilled fighter and athlete. Theophilitizes happened to be a relative of Byzantine Emperor Michael III through his uncle Caesar Bardas. Eventually, he gained the good grace of both the Imperial family and other prominent landowners through adept social maneuvering. This culminated in his appointment as a personal retainer of Emperor Michael III, acting as a bodyguard and eventually as a close friend and confidant.
Basil would leverage his role as a member of the emperor’s retinue to accelerate his rise. He started by marrying a mistress in the emperor’s harem. On Emperor Michael’s orders, Basil divorced his wife Maria and married Eudokia Ingerina, in around 865. Then he would use a combination of cunning, duplicity, ruthlessness to rise further. During a military expedition against the Abbasid Caliphate, Basil persuaded Michael that his uncle Bardas was plotting for the throne. He murdered Bardas himself with the approval of the emperor in 866.
The vacated title of “caesar” was conferred on Basil, and Michael III formally adopted Basil as his son, though Basil was a generation older. Basil would use his newfound influence in the court to consolidate political power. This culminated in his coronation as co-emperor.
This placed the future Leo VI, Basil’s son, in-line for the throne, and Michael III had ulterior motives for doing this. Given that Basil’s wife was Michael’s former mistress, it is believed that Leo was Michael’s illegitimate son. Since Michael had no legitimate sons, the only way to ensure that he had a male heir in line for the throne was to appoint Basil to the position of co-emperor.
However, Basil’s ambition and duplicity would cause this plan to backfire. Michael began to favor another courtier, and, getting angered by Basil’s displeasure, threatened to replace him as co-emperor. Feeling his position threatened, Basil began to plot against the emperor. One night in September of 867, Michael III attended a banquet at the Palace of Anthimos in Constantinople and retired to his apartment insensibly drunk. With a small group of companions that included his father, Basil entered the apartment and murdered the emperor. They would escape by boat across the Bosporus Strait.
With the death of his co-emperor, Basil became the sole emperor of the Byzantine Empire.
Basil I would begin his reign with very little resistance. Michael III was very unpopular within his government, being viewed as a debauched monarch with little interest in administrative duties. Though Basil had no formal education and little experience in government, he would go on to be an effective and respected emperor for 19 years, founding a dynasty that would rule for another 200 years.
Basil and his “son” Leo would have a strained relationship for much of his reign, since Basil believed that his second-oldest son was actually the son of the emperor he murdered. Leo would become the direct heir to the throne upon the death of his brother Constantine in 870, rising to the level of co-emperor. Basil continued to harbor suspicions and had Leo arrested in 879 on the charge of plotting against his life. After public outcry, Leo was released three years later and would ascend to the throne in 886 after Basil’s death in a hunting accident.
Basil was paranoid until the end. He had the man who attempted to save his life executed for involvement in a supposed conspiracy and attempted to implicate Leo in the same conspiracy on his deathbed. Given the duplicitousness of his rise, it seems that Basil could not avoid suspecting it in everyone around him.
But his greatest legacy would be the founding of the Macedonian dynasty, which would reverse the decline of the Byzantine Empire. Basil I would stabilize the borders of his empire, and his successors fought a series of wars that resulted in the reconquest of the Balkan peninsula and southern Italy, and expansion into the Levant and the Caucasus. His dynasty also produced the Macedonian Renaissance, a revival of classical learning and culture throughout the empire.
As remarkable as Basil’s ascent was, it was enabled by people far more powerful than him. His rise through the ranks rested on noble largess he tapped into with his skill at arms and adept social maneuvering, and a level of ruthlessness and cunning that was shocking even at that time. However, Basil’s story does show that ancient social systems were not completely rigid. Though extremely rare, it was possible for peasants to rise to the most powerful positions in Medieval empires.