Brown cover

De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Paul Stephenson

The Legend of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 164 +xvii pp., $40, ISBN 0521815304.

As author Paul Stephenson notes in his introduction to his book, Emperor Basil II's reign (976-1025) over the Byzantine Empire was at the height of its existence. Thus it is easy to recognize the importance of Basil. This would be enough to warrant a biography of Basil II. Stephenson, however, decided to take an alternate course rather than approach his topic through the standard biographical means. Instead he chose to focus on a particular aspect of Basil: his wars against the Bulgars. More specifically, Stephenson examines the sobriquet given to Basil as a result of his victories against the Bulgars, that of "Voulgaroktonos" or Bulgar-Slayer and traces his reputation as such to the modern era.

The first two chapters examine his life and activities against the Bulgars. Chapter one, the introduction outlines the problem at hand and discusses the origins of the Basil's reputation as a Bulgar Slayer. It is often attributed to his victory at Kledion in 1014, where he besieged the garrison of that location. Upon the surrender of Kledion, Basil blinded all of the Bulgars except one for every hundred men. These individuals were blinded only in one eye and were to lead the others back to Tsar Samuel. Upon seeing the horror of these actions, Samuel apparently had a heart-attack and died. Thus it appears that Basil was much more of a blinder than a slayer. Hence the problem that Paul Stephenson undertakes: How did Basil become a Bulgar-Slayer?

Chapter two analyzes his activities and relationship with the Bulgar ruler, Samuel. In addition the chapter outlines the rise of Samuel to the Bulgar throne and Samuel's success against Basil in their early wars. It becomes quite clear that in open battle, Samuel dominated the battlefield against the Byzantines and only after a skillful use of diplomacy did the Byzantine armies begin to make headway against the Bulgar forces. The chapter ends with the discussion of Basil's defeat of the Bulgars at the siege of Kledion in 1014 and the death of Samuel shortly thereafter.

In the third chapter discusses Basil's annexation of Bulgaria. Stephenson also suggests that this could have been completed before Samuel's death, however, the existence of Bulgaria served a useful purpose: essentially it could be used as a ‘punching bag' in which to give his armies and generals a proper workout. Of course, prior to Basil gaining the upper hand against the Bulgars this was not quite the case as Stephenson recognizes. Nonetheless, after Basil had made adjustments to his strategy, Bulgaria was his for the taking. After Samuel's death the opportunity could not be passed as a number of contenders fought for the throne and it was unlikely that they would be able to set aside their quarrels to oppose a common enemy. Indeed, Stephenson submits that Basil made an effort to ensure that word of his deeds, particularly at Kledion, against the Bulgars circulated through the region to undermine the resolve of any resistance to him.

Chapter four examines the victory itself and the representations of the victory. It becomes abundantly clear that in his lifetime, Basil, while quite pleased with his victories over the Bulgars did not view himself as Voulgaroktonos. While he encouraged the perception that he was a fierce warrior, he also fostered the image that he was a resolute defender of the realm and not the bane of a particular enemy.

In chapter five, Stephenson explores how the contemporary authors referred to Basil. An extensive survey of the Byzantine sources reveal that instead of Voulgaroktonos, Basil was generally referred to as porphyrogennetos or "born in the purple" to show he was the reigning emperor. Otherwise he was referred to as "the younger" or "the second". Thus Basil was known to the chroniclers and others as Basil II. This trend continued in the literature well beyond the life of Basil. Stephenson also reveals that this was well known even to biographers in the seventeenth century.

It is not until chapter six that the mystery is revealed in why Basil transforms from porphyrogennetos into the Voulgaroktonos. As one might suspect it has more to do with political changes, particularly in the ways that Bulgars were viewed in the twelfth century, rather than any particular historical activities. However, Basil image would decline again in later centuries, particularly with the rise of the Turks and a decline in the threat from the Bulgars.

Basil however emerges again in the later eighteenth and nineteenth century as the Voulgaroktonos as Stephenson discusses in chapter seven. Again Basil image is transformed for political reasons as he becomes a symbol for a nascent Greek national movement. This is the period in which Byzantine history becomes firmly embraced as part of a larger Greek history.

As competition for territory in the Balkans intensified, Basil's importance became even greater until his victory over the Bulgars became a central point of Greek national history. This is the topic of chapter eight as the Greek and Slavic populations of the Balkans competed for Macedonia.

Stephenson concludes that during his lifetime Basil had no desire to be viewed as the "Bulgar-slayer". Indeed, his actions at Kledion, as horrific as they were, did not result in a massacre, nor did they eliminate the Bulgars as a military threat. Indeed, it is unlikely, as Stephenson demonstrates, that the number of those blinded were as many as the sources claim, for the Bulgars still assembled large armies against him. After the conquest of Bulgaria, however, Basil could not carry a title of Bulgar-Slayer. The Bulgars were now part of the empire, their nobles needed to be incorporated into the system, their warriors serve in the imperial armies. Any grandstanding over earlier victories would only hinder the process of assimilation.

No work is perfect and thus my major and perhaps only criticism of Stephenson's work is that he does not use many, if any sources from outside of the Byzantine Empire. The one Arabic source he uses is that of Yahya of Antioch. While I am not familiar with the Fatamid accounts during Basil's reign, it would useful if these were discussed. Certainly, the Fatamids as a rival to the Byzantines in the Middle East would have been interested or remarked on Basil's victory over the Bulgars even though it did not impact them directly. Or even later sources from the thirteenth century such as Ibn al-Athîr's Kâmil fî Tarîkh, which covers several centuries might have commented on it. However, there is no indication that Stephenson examined these sources.

In sum, Paul Stephenson's examination of the Basil's posthumous title is a worthy contribution. It forces scholars to re-examine the use of history for political uses; one which most historians would certainly condemn, but also perhaps recognize as inevitable in many aspects. It is easy to see how the true events often become secondary to needs or rather the desires of the present day.

Timothy May

North Georgia College and State University <tmmay@ngcsu.edu>

Page Added: November 2004