How a Multiethnic Gay Peasant Became a Roman Emperor
Rising from rags to riches, Emperor Basil I “The Macedonian” founded his own imperial dynasty and set the stage for the Byzantine Renaissance.
Usually when we think of Roman Emperors, we think of extravagance, opulence, and wealth. No doubt the Roman Empire elicits some of the most vivid images of the stark divide between rich and poor; emperor and peasant.
During the dawn of the Middle Ages however, there was one man who could call himself both. And he took a tumble in the sheets of the Empire's most powerful men along the way.
The story of Emperor Basil I “The Macedonian” started with the decline of the Roman Empire. Rome reached its lowest point in 476 CE, when the city itself fell and its last Latin ruler was deposed by Odovacar the Goth. About one-hundred years earlier, the Empire was divided between two emperors: one west in Rome and the other east in Constantinople. The east Roman Empire survived, and would actually become an influential force in the Mediterranean and Western Asia for another thousand years.
Those thousand years got off to a rough start. Attackers ravaged the Empire from all sides. Hordes of Huns, Goths, and Slavs raided its borders. The Persians and Arabs brought war to the walls of Constantinople. And nomadic Bulgarians seized control of lands in Thrace and Greece surrounding it. During the reign of its first few emperors, it seemed like Rome in the east would face the same fate that had befallen Rome in the west.
It was during these events that a peasant boy named Basil was born in the farmlands of Macedonia, in 811 CE. His parentage is subject to much debate, but we can be certain that his mom was Greek and his dad was not. Arab sources say his father was a Slav. Modern historians believe the father was Armenian. Regardless, Basil was born a mutt of two ethnic groups, carrying a life sentence of peasantry, and all as Barbarian hordes were invading his homeland.
As a young boy, one of those hordes attacked his family's farm and enslaved them. Basil spent the remainder of his childhood in captivity in Bulgaria, serving Bulgarian nobles as their prisoner. He'd never forget the torment he and his family endured under their thumb and held a fierce grudge against all Bulgarians for the rest of his life.
By his early twenties, he finally escaped and fled to Roman-controlled Thrace. There he started serving Roman nobles instead of Bulgarian ones. The Empire at the time was rife with both male and female prostitution, and the poor were literally plucked off the streets by nobles looking for a good time. Contemporary sources say that Basil was viewed as “good-looking” and “well-built” by Roman nobility. His numerous sexual encounters with the wealthy later in life might paint Basil's time in Thrace a little more colorful than one would expect.
He did eventually leave Thrace though and wandered city to city, finally arriving in Constantinople. The city streets seemed like a last bastion of civilization in a world full of chaos. Plagues had swept the land and wars destroyed the countryside, yet the city had sewers, hospitals, universities, and public baths. It repelled attack after attack, using its famously massive walls to protect the inner neighborhoods from harm. Constantinople's lack of problems left all the drama to occur behind closed doors; the newest gossip at the time was that the boy Emperor, a timid teenager named Michael III, overthrew his mother's regency with the help of his crafty Uncle Bardas.
All this juicy gossip didn't go unheard by Basil. He took a spot next to a church to beg for food, and likely heard all about the palace intrigue from streetgoers and passerbys. After a day of begging, he took refuge in the vestibule of the church and fell asleep. Dreams of living that fabled palace life likely danced through his mind. Later that night, his own life would be changed forever by a chance encounter with a man named Nicholas.
According to sources, Nicholas worked in the church and believed he was told by God to look for a beggar in the vestibule and take him into the sanctuary. Nicholas found Basil there, and took him in as his companion. The next morning, Nicholas officiated a special promise with him through the church, a “union” of sorts. Over the course of their new friendship, they bathed together constantly and kept each other company in very intimate ways.
In other words, Basil found his first boyfriend.
This wasn't the last of Basil's boos by any means. After tumbling with Nicholas for a few years, Basil started to make some new friends. Nicholas introduced him to Theophilitzes, a member of the Imperial Family. It's noted that Theophilitzes “desired” Basil for his handsome looks so much that he employed him to manage his stables so he could keep an eye on his toned physique when working with the horses. This was the first of Basil's many new noble friends, setting the stage for his swift rise up the Roman social ladder.
The two took a trip to the city of Patras, where Basil entered the social circle of Danielis. She was a friend of Theophilitzes and an uberwealthy widow, controlling much of Greece's textile industry and owning large swaths of land. But more importantly, Danielis had a wifeless son named John who caught Basil's fancy. He took an immediate liking to John, and like his fling with Nicholas, they entered a “union” and became intimate friends.
Danielis endorsed their relationship and became something of an adoptive mother to Basil, even gifting him some land of his own. When Basil eventually became Emperor, he kept Danielis as his close advisor and even had a separate bedroom for John to stay in.
With a plot of land to call his own, Basil was a peasant no more, all-but marrying himself into wealth through his connections as a stable-hand to the Imperial Family.
Basil's unlikely rise then took him to the highest bed chamber in the land. Emperor Michael, then still a young man who relied on his Uncle Bardas for managing the empire, hosted a wrestling tournament in Constantinople. Michael chose a hefty Bulgarian warrior as his champion, and watched as the competitors wrestled with each other for dominance.
Basil made a late entry into the tournament, and when it was only him and the Bulgarian left in the arena, Basil emerged victorious. Michael was drawn to Basil's strength and good looks, and made him his chamberlain. The two grew very close, and of all of Basil's relationships, their's is the most widely confirmed as having been sexual. They wrote many love letters to each other that survive today, and his court noted that Michael adored Basil above all others.
In spite of the steamy romances and quick promotions, Basil was far from accepted by the Emperor's court. To justify keeping him so close, Michael had Basil marry one of his Slavic mistresses, Eudokia Ingerina. Her marriage to multiethnic Basil incited ridicule throughout Constantinople.
He also grew close with other Armenian members of the court, but was sidelined by his fellow Greeks. They mocked him for speaking with a clumsy, unsophisticated accent, probably due to his background among the peasants and a childhood spent with Bulgarians. Despite joining the upper echelons of Roman society, the nobility in the Emperor's circle remained suspicious of him.
Most suspicious was the domineering Uncle Bardas, who officially served as Michael's prime minister or “Caesar” and had been murdering political opponents to stay in power. So dominant was Bardas's influence that Arab sources said Bardas spoke during all their war negotiations while a passive Emperor Michael would sit in silence. Bardas held all the power, and without a child of his own, Michael's death meant that Bardas would inherit the Empire instead.
It was Bardas's power-hungry nature that led to his downfall. Michael only had the option to make Basil his chamberlain because Bardas dismissed his previous one for supposed treason. As Basil got closer and closer to Michael, Michael drifted further and further away from Bardas. Once Eudokia became pregnant, scandal ensued over if her child was Basil's or actually Michael's from her time as his mistress.
If Eudokia's child really was Michael's, that meant he had an heir to the throne. Which meant Bardas was no longer the future Emperor if Michael died.
Basil quickly began pulling strings with Eudokia to turn the court against Bardas. Rumors spread that Bardas was going to murder Michael and install himself as emperor. With all this gossip floating around, Basil finally convinced Michael to act fast and take Bardas out first. With Michael's blessing, Basil confronted Bardas in Anatolia with a group of assassins, and killed Bardas himself.
Immediately after, Michael appointed Basil as his new Caesar. Basil had become the second-most powerful person in the Roman Empire!
However, there's no glory in second place.
When Michael appointed Basil as Caesar, he not only announced him as an heir but as a lover as well. Michael made his announcement to Constantinople from the steps of his palace, saying:
It is my will that Basil, the High Chamberlain, since he is faithful to me and protects my [sovereignty] and delivered me from my enemy and has much affection for me, should be the guardian and manager of my Empire
This romantic sentiment didn't last long. Shortly after becoming Caesar, Basil drifted apart from Michael. The Emperor began falling for a chariot racer named Basiliskianos. Michael first met Basiliskianos at a chariot match and was so infatuated that he offered him his own shoes on his feet as a gift.
In pompous Constantinople, an Emperor's clothes were sacrosanct, so Michael gifting his imperial shoes to a random chariot racer rang of scandal. No one was more furious than Basil, who fell into a jealous rage. Basil commanded Basiliskianos to refuse the shoes, infuriating Michael. The couple had a fiery argument with each other, and to Basil's horror, Michael threatened to make Basiliskianos his new Caesar if Basil didn't calm down.
With their relationship soured, Basil decided to take matters once more into his own hands. He arranged a sort of double-date with Michael and Basiliskianos at the Emperor's estate in St. Mamas. Basil dined all day with them, and got Michael incapacitatingly drunk. Basiliskianos probably took the event as a stamp of approval, and he helped Michael back to the bedroom after the feast. Basil made the signal, and his assassins congregated in the dining hall to make their move.
Once Michael had knocked out, Basil's group approached the bedroom. Basiliskianos heard them approaching and, anticipating the murder, tried to blockade the door. Basil rigged the doors ahead of time though to prevent them from locking, and his conspirators burst through. One man slashed Basiliskianos with a sword. Another hacked off Michael's hands mid-sleep. And by the end of the night, Basil was on a boat back to Constantinople and his former lover's twenty-seven year old body was left at St. Mamas, wrapped in a horse cloth. One could only guess to whom it belonged to.
Basil's journey from beggar to stable-boy to Emperor changed the course of Roman history, and European history at large. Constantinople took Michael's murder smoothly, assuming the young Emperor was weak and that Basil would fill the power vacuum quickly.
He did not disappoint. Under Basil's rule, the Empire took back Thrace and Greece from the Bulgarian hordes that tortured him as a boy. He also solidified control over Anatolia against violent Christian zealots that had plagued the region for decades.
Basil also began a series of public works projects and art commissions. Without violent zealots ransacking towns and churches for their perceived heretical art, artists could start innovating again and paint or sculpt what they pleased. Basil began a campaign to seize control of the Adriatic Sea to protect imports of stone and marble for buildings, leading to new architectural projects and achievements. And the artistic archives compiled by Basil's newly-freed artists inspired what historians dub the “Byzantine Renaissance”, which set the creative groundwork for the much later Renaissance period we know of today.
Once the courtiers in Constantinople started questioning his legitimacy again, Basil quickly placated them by cozying up with the East Orthodox Church, particularly its Patriarch who was responsible for all the Christians in the Empire. Basil didn't stop there, and reached out to the Catholic Pope in Rome and the German King Louis II to make alliances for mutual protection against Arab invasions. Working together, they started liberating Arab-held lands in Italy and repelled Arab pirate attacks across the Mediterranean.
Basil's friendliness with Catholics and the Pope reversed centuries of attempts by Roman emperors to unite the Christian Church under their sole authority. With the Emperor treating the Pope as an equal, there was no longer any motivation left to unify their two religions under one leader. The final schism between the Catholic and East Orthodox Churches occurred largely due to Basil's attempts to reconcile them rather than unite them.
For all of Basil's new achievements as Emperor, the specter of Michael's murder never went fully away. Public gossip started to conclude that Basil's son Leo, his heir and child with Eudokia, was actually Michael's. The rampant rumors left Basil vengeful against the boy for nineteen years, beating him constantly and blaming him for any of his own mistakes. At one point, Basil imprisoned Leo and almost executed him before riots erupted across Constantinople demanding he let the innocent boy go.
Their stressed relationship reached a climax when Basil accused Leo of trying to avenge his true father's death after discovering Leo approach him with a knife. Flustered by the incident, Basil embarked on a hunting trip to calm his nerves. The trip ended in a freak accident that left him impaled by an angry deer that dragged him comically for miles on end by its antlers. Medics tried to cure his wounds, but he assumed they were assassins sent by Leo and ordered them to be executed.
Paranoid and alone, Emperor Basil finally succumbed to his injuries and died in 886 CE. Leo assumed the throne right after, and the public's suspicions were finally confirmed when his first act as the new Emperor was to retrieve Michael's mutilated remains from his unmarked grave and give him a proper burial.
Leo may have been Michael's child, but he carried on Basil's name and dynasty. The Macedonian Dynasty ruled the Roman Empire for another two hundred years, resulting in events like the publishing of legal texts like the Basilika that compiled Roman laws and became the civil code of modern-day Greece. And the openness on religious expression caused by the Byzantine Renaissance allowed a laxer form of East Orthodox Christianity to spread to Bulgarians and eventually the Russians, who make up the largest population of East Orthodox Christians today.
If Basil “The Macedonian” hadn't risen from the prisons of Bulgaria to the palaces of Constantinople, the Roman Empire and the world beyond would've looked much different. Despite his imperious achievements, Basil never learned to read or write. Later Roman rulers mocked Basil and tried to tarnish his reputation. Hiding his love letters to Michael and censoring accounts from the Macedonian-era biographers, they mocked him as corrupt, barbaric, foreign, illegitimate, and worst of all: queer.
The story of Emperor Basil is a story against every norm of the time he lived. For a homosexual man born a peasant and raised a slave to scheme his way to the top and rule an Empire sounds like a fairy tale or a Medieval drama show.
But it really happened.
And remembering that it did, despite all the odds saying it never would, is why Basil's story is important for us to remember today. Society sometimes presents harsh barriers for us based on our color, race, class, religion, and sexual orientation.
Yet, even when those barriers were worse than they are now, they could still be overcome.