What if Basil II had been a different Basil?

Basil

Basil

On this, the second weekend in July, a reminder of what occurred this weekend a thousand years ago.

Basil II, the son of Romanos II, grandson of Constantine Porphyrogenitos, and great grandson of Leo VI the Wise and Romanos I Lecapenos, was the one of the best known the Byzantine emperors, with a highly successful military record. But what if the second Basil on the throne had instead been the youngest child of Romanos Lecapenos, known to history as Basil the Parakoimomenos?

A little background.

Romanos Lecapenos clambered onto the throne when the regents of young Constantine Porphyrogenitos were running the empire into the ground. Constantine’s father had gotten himself into trouble with the Patriarch for marrying four times so that he could finally get a son and heir. The Orthodox church then, as now, only permits two marriages – or a third if young children need to be cared for, but certainly not four. That seems a little short-sighted to me, especially in medieval times when life was truly nasty, brutish and often short, but rules are rules.

Part of Romanos’s deal with the Patriarch to get his support when he became co-emperor with Constantine may have been that on the second Sunday each July the Tomus Unionis – condemning more than three marriages for an individual – was read in all Orthodox churches. This would have humiliated young Constantine, the offspring of such a non-canonical marriage.

One would think that this reminder about marriage rules would only benefit Romanos and strengthen his position on the throne and that of the three sons he made co-emperors with himself and Constantine. However, I suspect that it didn’t in the long run since it may have been the reason why he did not marry the mother of his youngest son, Basil. Romanos’s early years were not well recorded. The historical record only reports his marriage to Theodora, who appears to have been the mother of Helena Lecapena (wife of Constantine Porphyrogenitos) and her brothers Stephen, Constantine and Theophylact.

That leaves Christopher (and several other older sisters) who had to have been much older than Helena and her younger brothers since Christopher had a daughter, Marie/Irene, who married Peter of Bulgaria and gave birth in 931 when Helena was 18. Also, some of the historical records say that Helena’s mother, Theodora, and Christopher’s wife, Sophia, were sisters. Consequently, it seems quite possible that Romanos Lecapenos had been married once before his marriage to Theodora.

This brings us to Basil the Parakoimomenos, the youngest known child of Romans. Romanos’s wife, Theodora, died when he was in his early 50’s and still interested in female companionship. As a usurper, he could not afford to lose the Patriarch’s support by marrying a third time. Instead, he took a mistress who gave birth to a son, Basil.

What to do with this boy? He didn’t want this child to threaten the right to the throne his legitimate sons had. Christopher, Stephen and Constantine were co-emperors with him and Constantine Porphyrogenitos at the time of Basil’s birth. Also, he had already had his youngest legitimate son, Theophylact, castrated to prepare him one day to become Patriarch. Why not this boy as well? Which is what happened.

Unfortunately for Romanos, the most promising of his legitimate sons, Christopher, died years before his father, while Stephen and Constantine proved both stupid and disloyal – none of them succeeding their father. One the other hand, the young eunuch Basil was intelligent, energetic, and capable. He eventually became the Parakoimomenos, or chief minister, to his brother-in-law, Constantine Porphyrogenitos, when he began ruling on his own. He later filled that position with Nikephoros II Phokas, John I Tzimiskes, and his great nephew, Basil II. However, a few years into Basil II’s reign, he threw his great uncle from this highest office, confiscated his lands and possessions, and sent the now 60 year old man into exile where he soon died.

Basil the Parakoimomenos has not received good press over the years and may have deserved it. The historical record is clear that he grew incredibly wealthy while in office, but I’m not sure what else could be expected of a bright, well born, and ambitious eunuch. I imagine he may have seethed with frustration at seeing others sit on the throne that might have been his if his parents had been married. He probably saw that wealth as fair recompense.

How would this Basil have affected Byzantine history if he had not been castrated, but reigned? Of course, it’s impossible to say, but maybe the empire could have avoided the mess that foolish Empress Zoe’s assortment of dissolute husbands made of things after the actual Basil II died. For me, this is one of the great “what if’s” of Byzantine history.

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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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