Basil II. (c. 958-1025), known as Bulgaroktonos (slayer of Bulgarians), Roman emperor in the East, son of Romanus II. and Theophano, great-great-grandson of Basil I., was born about 958 and crowned on the 22nd of April 960. After their father's death (963) he and his younger brother Constantine were nominal emperors during the actual reigns of Nicephorus Phocas, their stepfather, and John Tzimisces. On the death of the latter (10th of January 976) they assumed the sovereignty without a colleague, but throughout their joint reign Constantine exercised no power and devoted himself chiefly to pleasure. This was in accordance with the Byzantine principle that in the case of two or more co-regnant basileis only one governed. Basil was a brave soldier and a superb horseman; he was to approve himself a strong ruler and an able general. He did not at first display the full extent of his energy. The administration remained in the hands of the eunuch Basileios (an illegitimate son of Romanus I.), president of the senate, a wily and gifted man, who hoped that the young emperors would be his puppets. Basil waited and watched without interfering, and devoted himself to learning the details of administrative business and instructing himself in military science.
During this time the throne was seriously endangered by the rebellion of an ambitious general who aspired to play the part of Nicephorus Phocas or Tzimisces. This was Bardas Sclerus, whom the eunuch deposed from his post of general in the East. He belonged to the powerful landed aristocracy of Asia Minor, whose pretensions were a perpetual menace to the throne. He made himself master of the Asiatic provinces and threatened Constantinople. To oppose him, Bardas Phocas, another general who had revolted in the previous reign and been interned in a monastery, was recalled. Defeated in two battles, he was victorious in a third and the revolt was suppressed (979). Phocas remained general in the East till 987, when he rebelled and was proclaimed emperor by his troops. It seems that the minister Basileios was privy to this act, and the cause was dissatisfaction at the energy which was displayed by the emperor, who showed that he was determined to take the administration into his own hands and personally to control the army.
Phocas advanced to the Hellespont and besieged Abydos. Basil obtained timely aid, in the shape of Varangian mercenaries, from his brother-in-law Vladimir, the Russian prince of Kiev, and marched to Abydos. The two armies were facing each other, when Basil galloped forward, seeking a personal combat with the usurper who was riding in front of his lines. Phocas, just as he prepared to face him, fell from his horse and was found to be dead. This ended the rebellion.
The fall of Basileios followed; he was punished with exile and the confiscation of his enormous property. Basil made ruthless war upon the system of immense estates which had grown up in Asia Minor and which his predecessor, Romanus I., had endeavoured to check. (For this evil and the legislation which was aimed at it see Roman Empire, Later.) He sought to protect the lower and middle classes.
Basil gained some successes against the Saracens (995); but his most important work in the East was the annexation of the principalities of Armenia. He created in those highlands a strongly fortified frontier, which, if his successors had been capable, should have proved an effective barrier against the invasions of the Seljuk Turks. The greatest achievement of the reign was the subjugation of Bulgaria. After the death of Tzimisces (who had reduced only the eastern part of the Bulgarian kingdom), the power of Bulgaria was restored by the Tsar Samuel, in whom Basil found a worthy foe. The emperor's first efforts against him were unsuccessful (981), and the war was not resumed till 996, Samuel in the meantime extending his rule along the Adriatic coast and imposing his lordship on Servia. Eastern Bulgaria was finally recovered in 1000; but the war continued with varying successes till 1014, when the Bulgarian army suffered an overwhelming defeat. Basil blinded 15,000 prisoners, leaving a one-eyed man to every hundred to lead them to their tsar, who fainted at the sight and died two days later. The last sparks of resistance were extinguished in 1018, and the great Slavonic realm lay in the dust. The power of Byzantium controlled once more the Illyrian peninsula.
Basil died in December 1025 in the midst of preparations to send a naval expedition to recover Sicily from the Saracens.
Basil's reign marks the highest point of the power of the Eastern empire since Justinian I. Part of the credit is due to his predecessors Nicephorus and Tzimisces, but the greater part belongs to him. He dedicated himself unsparingly to the laborious duties of ruling, and he had to reckon throughout with the ill-will of a rich and powerful section of his subjects. He was hard and cruel, without any refinement or interest in culture. In a contemporary psalter (preserved in the library of St Mark at Venice) there is a portrait of him, with a grey beard, crowned and robed in imperial costume.
Leo Diaconus (ed. Bonn, 1828); Psellus, History (ed. Sathas, London, 1899); George Cedrenus (Chronicle, transcribed from the work of John Scylitzes, vol. ii., ed. Bonn, 1839); Zonaras, bk. xvii. (ed. Bonn, vol. iii., 1897); Cecaumenus, Strategikon (ed. Vasilievski and Jernstedt, St Petersburg, 1896); Yahyā of Antioch (contemporary Asiatic chronicle), extracts with Russian translation by Rosen (St Petersburg, 1883); Al Mekin (Elmacinus), Historia Saracenica, (ed. with Latin translation by Erpenius, Leiden, 1625); "Laws (Novellae) of Basil" (ed. Zachariä von Lingenthal, in Jus Graeco-Romanum, vol. iii., 1853); Finlay, Hist. of Greece; Gibbon, Decline and Fall; G. Schlumberger, L'épopée byzantine, part i. and part ii. (Paris, 1896, 1900).
(J. B. B.)