Basil the Macedonian

From peasant to Byzantine emperor: the remarkable career ...Basil I (811-886 AD) was the 50th ruler of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. His story is remarkable: He was born a peasant, spent his formative years a slave and died an Emperor.  Basil’s 19 year reign was a golden age of Byzantine resurgence, peace and prosperity. He is regarded as one of their greatest leaders.

Basil was born in eastern Thrace, modern day Turkey, in the then province of Macedonia, to an Armenian family. Greek, the Byzantine Empire’s spoken tongue, was his second language and he maintained a heavy accent throughout his life.

In the early 800s the Byzantine Empire was in decline. Years of civil war over the violent iconoclast movement had sapped the once proud Empire, a weakness exploited by Bulgars in the north and the Arabs in the east. In 813 the Bulgar Khan Krum invaded Thrace and enslaved thousands, including two year old Basil and his family.

Basil spent his next 23 years a slave in Bulgaria. He escaped to Constantinople in 836 and slept his first night in the antechamber of a church.  Nicolas, the local monk, noticed and allegedly had a vision proclaiming that this striking vagabond would one day sit on the throne. Eager to assist, Nicolas found Basil employment as a horse groom, a role in which he excelled. Basil travelled frequently with his new master and one day caught the eye of Danelis, a wealthy Greek noblewoman. She bestowed a generous fortune on the handsome young man, and assisted in his rise, a favour he would later repay in kind.

On returning to Constantinople Basil gained a reputation for both his physical prowess and skill in taming horses. Once, while watching a wrestling match he was invited to take on the reigning champion, a Bulgarian.  Basil defeated him with ease.

News of his victory spread rapidly around the capital, eventually reaching the ear of the reigning emperor, Michael III. After Basil successfully tamed the Emperor’s unruly new horse, Michael was so impressed he granted Basil a slew of government positions and made him the new court favourite.

The Emperor grew to trust Basil so much, that when Basil convinced him his uncle Bardas was plotting treason he had Bardas killed. Believing Basil had saved his life, Michael III adopted Basil and appointed him coEmperor.

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A few years later Michael had a new favourite and Basil began to fall from favour. In 867 he murdered Michael and seized the throne.  In just six years since his liberation, Basil the Macedonian had ascended to the highest office in the Empire.

As Emperor, Basil I proved effective. He reversed the war with the Abbasid Caliphate in the East, who just forty years before had besieged Constantinople, and destroyed the Paulicians, their troublesome allies in Armenia.  The Adriatic was cleared of pirates and Cyprus and southern Italy were retaken from the Arabs.

At home, Basil settled church disputes and introduced a new law code, the Basilika, which remained until Constantinople’s fall in 1453. He also oversaw the ‘Macedonian Renaissance’ a revival in Byzantine artistry that lasted well beyond his reign. Basil made peace with the Bulgars by converting them to the Orthodox Christian Faith. His success undoubtedly owed to Basil’s familiarity with Bulgarian culture – he grew up there after all.

Emperor Basil’s one mistake was the fall of Sicily. When the Arabs attacked the capital at Syracuse he requisitioned ships to carry marble for a church project instead of providing relief.

Basil’s cruel streak that won him the crown also spilled into personal relations: he beat his scholarly son Leo and imprisoned him for three years, regularly threatening to gouge out his eyes.

In 886, aged 75, Basil was out hunting when a deer’s antler lodged itself in his belt. The deer dragged the emperor through 25 kilometres of forest before a local saved him. Before his wounds could be properly treated Basil had the man executed in paranoia. He died from the infection soon after. Basil’s hated son, Leo the Wise, ruled for the next 46 years. The Macedonian dynasty lasted another 200.

Conservatism and Age

old manI recently had some colleagues over for drinks. Ultimately overshadowing the entire evening was a heated debate over race, immigration, welfare, drug legalisation and homosexuality in modern day America, which proved nonetheless entertaining.  Dominating one side was an ex-navy, straight laced baby boomer (we’ll call him Frank) on the other a younger art teacher with two tattooed sleeves (we’ll call him Tom).

Frank argued their differing outlooks were primarily generational. He argued that, as you get older, the circle of people you generally care about gets smaller, and that having a family ‘changes everything’, the well being of your flesh and blood being of ultimate importance over everything else.  Whilst I agreed more with Tom over Frank on the topics we discussed, he did raise a few good points.

I have since done my own research.

As people age, the more conservative they become. 60% of British over 50 voted for Brexit in 2016, compared to the 75% of 18-24 year olds who voted Remain. Last year in the USA 36% percent of Baby Boomers, and 49% of the Silent Generation identified as conservative republicans. . The bulk of the staunchly pro-Republican Fox News’s audience too, are over 50. Meanwhile, more millennials voted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries than Trump or Hillary combined

As a point of comparison the Baby Boomers, in their prime, were the most liberal generation the Western World had seen, spearheading the sexual revolution, civil rights and anti-war movements. Now over fifties lean conservative. So what happened? Risqué, drug taking hippies were more likely to die off before their more conservative peers,  but elections since the ’60s show that baby boomers as a whole are consistently sliding to the right.

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Disillusioned with the Ford Presidency’s economic malaise, Boomers in the eighties turned to Ronald Reagan, who sought to end the perceived excesses of affirmative action, Carter’s unpopular policies and the Democrats’ welfare system. The shift of support of boomers was a key factor in his 1980 landslide. Many Reagan voters had previously been enthusiastic supporters of the 1960s zeitgeist.

Obviously there are, and have always been, young conservatives and older progressives, at all times and across all generational cohorts, but the generational trends are undeniable.

Peoples’ views of the world become less rose tinted and idealistic as they age.  The longer you’ve been around, the more comfortable you become with the status quo. Social change is risky at best, outright dangerous at worst.   Psychological studies show older people become more reliant on maintaining, rather than increasing, knowledge and are less induced to innovation and taking risks, than folk in their 20s.

These younger folk on the other hand, are more likely to possess university degrees, and degree holders lean liberal as they did in the 60s. Lower incomes and rates of cohabitation make the younger less ‘settled’ and hungry for change. This adds to existing conditions of creativity and intellectual curiosity.  The older one is, the less adaptable one is to change.

A frequently used, but widely misquoted, adage (most likely from Anselme Batbie or Edmund Burke), proves insightful:

“If you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative at 35 you have no brain.”