Macedonian Dynasty: The Golden Age of Byzantine Empire

Despite the violent, unortodox and dark ways that brought Macedonians to the throne, their dynasty was undoubtedly the most powerful of all in the history of Eastern Roman Empire, producing two centuries of expansion and progress commonly known as The Golden Age of Byzantine

Expanding the borders of Empire as never before, rulers of Macedonian Dynasty brought Byzantine fame, influence and strength, but also started a cultural and artistic renaissance, known as Macedonian Renaissance. Occasionally broken by usurpers, members of the Dynasty always found their way back to the throne; Macedonian Dynasty is one of few that were never overthrown, but rather chose to pass their power over willingly. The Golden Age of Byzantine has also seen an extraordinary expansion of Christianity under the patronism of Constantinople, as Russians, Serbs, Bulgarians and Macedonians all converted to Byzantine Christianity during the Macedonian era. This is possibly the most meaningful and enduring legacy of the Macedonian Dynasty.

Founding of the Macedonian Dynasty

In order to fully grasp the events that led to the founding of Macedonian Dynasty, it’s necessary to take a step back and look at the last Emperor of the previous, Amorian dynasty Michael III.

Crowned at the age of 3 after his father’s sudden death, Michael III was obviously unable to rule, which lead to his mother Theodora and her lover, ambitious Theoktistos ruling as regents on his behalf for more than a decade. Cunning and persuasive, Theoktistos soon ostracized everyone who represented a potential threat to his position, including Theodora’s brother and Michael’s reputable uncle Bardas. Since then, Theoktistos de facto ruled Byzantine Empire and eventually became more powerful than the Empress Theodora herself. In 856., angry and neglected Bardas convinced his fifteen year old  nephew Michael into overthrowing Theoktistos and taking over the Empire. Moody and pliable, Michael did as he was told and after assassinating Theoktistos granted Bardas a title of Cezar. Michael remained under his uncle’s heavy influence for most of his life, which was exactly what Bardas counted on. The new Emperor wasn’t a brilliant statesman by any means, but rather a mediocre monarch who happened to be advised by two brilliant diplomatic minds, Cesar Bardas and Patriarch Photios. Due to their help, his rule was a time of great victories over Arabians and Russians, whose attempt at invading Byzantine turned out to be their first contact with Christianity. Understanding the importance of spreading Constantinople’s zone of spiritual influence, wise Patriarch Photios immediately sent out missionaries to Russia, starting a series of events that will eventually determine its religious future. Following this trend, Photios helped Michael impose the religious supremacy of Constantinople over Great Moravia (today’s Slovakia and southern Poland), and Bulgaria. For the first time, the religion of the Byzantine Empire and power of Constantinople spread outside of Byzantine borders into Slavic lands. In this time of great tension and hostility between powerful Rome and blossoming Constantinople, Michael III made a mistake that would cost him both his life and throne. Emperor befriended Basil Macedonian, a horse tamer of humble peasant origins from the Greek Theme of Macedonia (not to be mistaken with today’s FYROM). Despite his unremarkable ancestry, Basil was a man of extraordinary physical strength and communication skills.  Quickly, he became Michael’s closest friend and was even allowed to marry his former lover; Basil’s uncommon rise to the power is today attributed both to his abilities and Emperor’s whimsicality. He was appointed as a parakoimomenos (‘’he who sleeps in the room with the Emperor’’ in Greek), an individual who is granted a huge proximity to the Emperor and usually holds a significant amount of power and influence over state affairs. This position, which is interpreted as a chief minister today, was reserved for eunuchs, as they weren’t a threat to the Emperors (it would not make sense for them to seize the throne, as they could not produce offspring). Basil was the first exception from this rule, and was, due to his friendship with the Emperor, allowed to serve as a parakoimomenos despite not being a eunuch. Energetic and determined, Basil strived for power and stopped at nothing, which eventually caused a conflict between him and Bardas. Completely under the influence of manipulative Basil, Michael agreed to murder his uncle together with Basil during an expedition to Crete. This way, Basil ensured all members of Amorian dynasty were either locked away or dead, with only Michael, a weak and easy target, remaining alive. Finally, on the evening of 23. September,867., Basil completed his ultimate goal; Helped by his accomplices, he assassinated intoxicated Michael in his bedroom thus ending the age of Amorian dynasty. After declaring himself the new Emperor of Byzantine, Basil crowned his sons Leo and Alexander as his coregents in order to further tie his family name to the crown. Despite the violent, unortodox and dark ways that brought Basil to the throne, the dynasty he started was undoubtedly the most powerful of all in the history of Eastern Roman Empire, producing two centuries of expansion and progress known as The Golden Age of Byzantine.

Basil I Macedonian (867–886)

Basil I Macedonian, Source:

As soon as he ascended to the throne, Basil started an intensive campaign of spreading Byzantine influence throughout Slavic lands. At the beginning of his rule, Dubrovnik asked Byzantine for protection against violent Sicilian Arabians, and Basil gladly accepted the challenge. After a successful defense of Dubrovnik, the reputation and influence of Byzantine drastically growed in the Balkans; This marks the beginning of a period when Constantinople’s supremacy was recognized by Slavic tribes on the eastern coast of Adriatic Sea. Conversion of Serbs and all Serbian lands to Christianity under the patronism of Constantinople is today considered to be one of the greatest legacies of Basil’s rule. He defeated the paulicians, a prominent Christian sect, supported the rise of Armenia and spiritually tied it to Constantinople, but also protected Romans from Arabians upon their request. Because of his extensive work in legislature, he is celebrated as a heir to great Iustinian, with his most influential work being ‘’Prochiron’’. It set the foundation and heavily influenced law codes in all Eastern and Southern Slavic lands during the Middle Ages. He had three sons, with his oldest son and heir to the throne, Constantine, being his favorite.  Unfortunately, Constantine died before his father and never got a chance to become the Emperor. After his death, Basil’s energy and ambition drastically fell off, and he spend the last years of his life struggling with great depression. He died in 886., aged 75, leaving the throne to his son Leo.

Leo VI the Wise (886-912)

Leo VI the Wise, Source:

Highly educated and religious, Leo’s extensive literary legacy most likely earned him a nickname ‘’the Wise’’. He codified all of the existing Byzantine laws in his work ‘’Basilica’’, which consisted of sixty books and ‘’Novels’’, which dealt with both secular and canon law. His work spread to all Slavic lands and gained large popularity, replacing his father’s ‘’Prohiron’’. He also revisioned Thema system of Byzantine territorial division, founded new institutions and supported the founding of Constantinople guilds. Leo signed the first ever trade agreement between Russia and Byzantine Empire with prince Oleg of Novgorod, and started a symbiotic tradition that would continue for many centuries. Unlike his rule, which is considered to be very successful, Leo’s private life was the exact opposite. He had three childless marriages, with all of his wives dying approximately one year after the wedding. After many struggles, he finally managed to get a son by a woman called Zoya Karbonopsina and ensure the continuation of the dynasty. Yet, the current Patriarch Nicholas I Mystikos wouldn’t recognize the child as a heir unless Leo promised not to marry Zoya (Christian laws didn’t allow for more than 3 marriages). Leo agreed, and Nicholas Mystikos baptized and recognized the young Emperor, Constantine VII Porphyrogennitos. Despite his promise, Leo VI married Zoya after the baptism, and was excommunicated in return. Being aware of the ongoing feud between Constantinople and Rome, Leo asked the Roman Pope Sergei III for forgiveness, and with this act seemingly admitted his superiority over Patriarch. Sergei III forgave Leo out of vanity and proclaimed his marriage as valid before the Christian church. After this, Nicholas I Mystikos abdicated and retreated to the monastery.

Alexander (912-913)

Alexander, Source:

After his death in 912., Leo was succeeded by his younger brother Alexander. New Emperor had strong aspirations to undo his brother’s actions, which resulted in him locking Zoya Karbonopsina in a monastery, replacing all of his brother’s collaborators and helpers with new people, and returning the title of Patriarch to Nicholas I Mystikos. Alexander disrespected the powerful Bulgarian leader Symeon by rejecting Empire’s obligations towards him, and gave Symeon exactly what he was waiting for – the excuse to attack Constantinople. Alexander died a few months later, only a year into his rule; This meant seven-year old Constantine was the only living heir to the dynasty. The role of regents was fulfilled by both Patriarch Nicholas Mysticus and Constantine’s mother Zoya; neither was successful at turning Symeon away from the Byzantine throne. During this highly problematic period, Byzantine Themes of Thessaloniki and Dyrrachium were consistently raided by Bulgarian troupes, and there was only one man in the entire Constantinople with diplomatic skills that could turn this situation around. Romanos I Lekapenos, a famed and extraordinary general made a diplomatic compromise with Symeon; He granted him the title of Emperor of Bulgaria (still inferior to the Emperor of Byzantine) and offered him the marriage between one of his cousins and one of Symeon’s sons. Hesitant at first, Symeon insisted on marrying his daughter to the heir Constantine VII, but Romanos Lekapenos firmly rejected this idea. Finally, Symeon accepted the terms and signed a peace treaty with Romanos. Few months later, Symeon died and was succeeded by his son Peter, a young man who didn’t inherit his father’s ambition or pugnacity. However, after the Bulgarian crisis, Romanus didn’t return to his regular army duties. A brilliant strategist had a special plan in mind, and saw this event as a chance to turn it into reality.

Romanus I Lekapenos (920-944)

Gold solidus of Romanus Lekapenos and his son, Source:

Refusing the marriage between a Bulgarian princess and Byzantine heir Constantine VII was more than a diplomatic duty for Roman Lekapenos. Once he married his daughter Helena to young and passive Constantine, it became apparent what he was up to the whole time. Romanus, now a father-in-law to the future Emperor, started out as a Cezar, only to get a title of coregent a year later. Eventually, his power outgrew Constantine’s and he crowned his sons Hristofor and Stefan as his heirs, leaving Constantine VII as third in the line of succession despite being the only legitimate leader. Romanus was famous for his strategic and diplomatic skills, and his rule brought many great victories to Byzantine; Eastern Empire defeated Russia on Bosphorus and Bithynia, and won over the cities of Nisibis and Martyropolis. These victories largely increased the reputation of Byzantine in the East, causing the migration of many Arabian tribes to the bordering Themes of the Empire and their conversion to Christianity. A seemingly invincible Emperor, Romanus had a tragic end. His sons, out of fear of losing the crown to Constantine VII after their father’s death, conspired against both Romanus and Constantine. They arrested and banished their father, and before they managed to finalize the second part of the plan and murder Constantine, he ordered their arrest and execution.

Constantine VII Porphyrogennitos (913-959)

Crowning of Constantine VII Porphyrogennitus by Christ, Source:

After 40 years of being a decorative Emperor, Constantine began to rule in 945., and, in accordance to tradition of the Macedonian Dynasty, crowned his son Roman II as his coregent. The truth is, Constantine never actually wanted to rule in the first place, and was glad to let others take this burden onto themselves. A scientist and writer, Constantine wrote many encyclopedias, bibliographies and geographical studies. His rule is the period of great literary and cultural progress in Byzantine Empire, but also a time of groundbreaking diplomatic relationships with foreign lands. Constantine VII founded embassies, and served as a patron of arts and literature. He hosted the stay of Russian princess Olga of Kiev in Constantinople, and personally baptized her, converting a Russian ruler into Christianity for the first time in history.

Romanos II (959-963)

Gold solidus of Romanos II with his father Constantine VII, Source:

After the death of Constantine VII in 959., his son Romanos II became the Emperor of Byzantine. Without any talent for politics, or even his father’s gift for science and literature, Roman II was one of the least productive members of the dynasty. He married a local peasant girl named Anastasa (she received a royal name Teophano after marriage), an individual of extraordinary importance in Byzantine history. Romanos never cared about military or state affairs and he appointed many members of court to deal with them. Under the influence of his wife, Romanos banished his mother and locked his sisters away in a monastery. The Emperor suddenly died in 963., and the rumors of his death being a result of poisoning by Teophano spread throughout the Empire. Rulling as a regent on behalf of her sons Basil II and Constantine, Teophano soon realized she needed a companion and coregent. The Empress found what she was looking for in a 40 years older famed general Nikephoros II Phokas.

Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969) and John I Tzimiskies (969-976)

John I Tzimiskies meeting with Svyatoslav I of Kiev, Source:

Lovers and coregents of Empress Teophano, Nikephoros and John were both extraordinary generals and conquerors which noticeably expanded the territory of Byzantine Empire. However, as they don’t belong to the Macedonian Dynasty, their remarkable feats will be skipped over in this article. Unlike Romanus I Lekapenos (who also wasn’t a legitimate heir to the Macedonian Dynasty), involvement of Nikephoros and John was mostly conquering in nature, and not as entangled with lives of legitimate members of dynasty, which is why they’re not discussed in detail. Yet, it’s very important to stress their huge impact and incredible legacy to the Byzantine Empire, one that has possibly outshined the actions of some legitimate members of Macedonian Dynasty.

Basil II Bulgarslayer (976-1025)

Basil II, Source:

It seemed evident that the throne will once again be taken over by a general usurper after the death of John I Tzimiskies, as it already became normal despite the existence of legitimate and adult heirs of the dynasty. However, due to extraordinary energy of the young Basil II, that didn’t happen, and he managed to avoid the destiny of a decorative Emperor, unlike some of his predecessors. A man of huge energy and ambition, he proved to be the only worthy heir of Basil I, founder of the dynasty. At the beginning of his rule, he managed to end a civil unrest in the Empire, by asking a Russian prince Vladimir the Great for help. In return he offered Vladimir a marriage with his sister Anna; An extraordinary event, as no Byzantine princess ‘’born in purple’’ (Porphyrogennitus in Greek, a child of an Emperor born in a purple hall ‘’Porphyra Chamber’’) has ever married a foreign Emperor before, despite thousands of offers from French and German kings. Vladimir was extremely honored by this offer; however, Basil gave him one condition he had to fulfill before marriage. Prince of Novgorod, and all of his people had to be converted to Christianity by Byzantine priests, which is exactly what happened in 988. Playing with Vladimir’s vanity enabled Basil to spread his cultural and spiritual influence to the biggest Slavic land of the time, and one of the biggest Empires known to him. Basil II himself was a man of a few words, who trusted no one and therefore had no friends or wives (he also had no children). He wasn’t interested in arts, literature or science and despised luxury and wealth. His lifestyle was described as militant, almost ascetic, with his only passion being the strength and size of the Empire. Basil II extended the territory from Danube to Palestine and from southern Italy to Caucasius, more than any other Byzantine ruler in the past or future 400 years. He fought vigorously against Bulgaria, Empire’s greatest European enemy, and eventually defeated the brave Bulgarian leader Samuel. Basil’s nickname Bulgarslayer is derived from a rather gory legend; After the occupation of a Bulgarian village, Basil removed the eyes of 14.000 people, leaving 1 out of 100 men with a single eye, so they could take their blinded countrymen to the city of Prilep, where Samuel was at. After seeing this terrifying scene, Samuel had a stroke and died two days later. Cruel and merciless on the battlefield, Basil was actually quite easy on the people in the territories he won over, as he didn’t impose large taxes or harsh cultural changes onto them. During his remarkable rule, he spread Byzantine Empire on the Slavic territories in the Balkans, won over parts of Armenia, and finally subjugated Bulgaria. While preparing a large attack on Arabians, Basil II unexpectedly died in 1025.

Map of the Empire during the rule of Basil II, Source:

Constantine VIII (1025-1028)

Constantine VIII with Basil II, Source:

Ascending to the throne as a coregent at the same time as his brother Basil II, Constantine VIII never actually took part in the actual rule. Complete opposite from his brother, Constantine loved luxury, feasts and horse races; He had no interest in being an Emperor. After the death of his powerful brother, Constantine appointed others to take care of state affairs while he continued with his debauched lifestyle. Producing three daughters, Constantine had no heir; seemingly becoming aware of this fact only on his deathbed, Constantine decided to marry one of his daughters to an aristocratic man named Romanos Argyros. In 1028., after marrying a fifty-year old princess Zoya, Romanos sucessed the Byzantine throne from his father-in-law Constantine VIII, who passed away only three days after the wedding. As Byzantine dynasties could only be continued through patrilienality (male lineage) and Constantine VIII produced no sons, his death marked the end of Macedonian Dynasty.

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