Basil I

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Basil's Beefy Horse Wrestler Pose.

“I 'manured' with age”

“I am going to geld my supposed son Leo

Basil I ruled the Byzantine Empire from 867 to 886. He took pride in having a regnal-title name, as his name in Greek (Βασίλειος, "Basilios") means 'King' or 'ruler'. So Basil was, in effect, 'Emperor Ruler'. It was as weird as if Joe Biden were 'President President'[1] or calling Prince Charles 'King King'.[2] (Okay, 'Prince King' for the time being.) But then, Julius Caesar and Augustus started the fashion of using your own name as a title, which your successors would copypaste as though they were your family.

To say that our Basil was a bit of a slow starter is an understatement. He did not become sole emperor until his mid-50s, in 867, when his benefactor, Emperor Michael III, ended up on the wrong end of a sharp knife. Basil was completing a career of looking after horses trained for the chariot races. It was a rapid rise for a groom, though not unusual in Byzantine terms; many previous emperors had risen to power from equally obscure backgrounds and would do so in the future. Basil was lucky to get good recommendations from the Church lobby and the military, even though in his reign the Byzantines lost their last major city in Sicily to the Arabs.


Basil was born in around 810 (8.11 being the semi-fast stagecoach to Salonika) in the Balkans.[3] His family claimed to be Macedonians with a direct family connection with Alexander the Great. Detractors said they were Slavs who had learnt Greek to pretend to be civilised. The future emperor didn't have much chance to speak either Greek or a Slavic language, as the entire family were kidnapped by the Bulgarian Khan Krum and taken to the Krummy north bank of the Danube. This was a wider grab of population by Krum after he had killed Byzantine emperor Nikephoros I and had personally scooped out the brains of his defeated enemy. Nice man, Krum.

The young Basil therefore grew up as essentially a slave-serf, showing few educational skills except a fondness for horses and wrestling. The Bulgarians were then nomadic horsemen and encouraged Basil's horse-wrestling skills. You read that right: Beefy Basil could arm-lock a stallion and bring him to heel. The Bulgarians admired bulging male biceps like any other boys' club horde, but Basil felt underappreciated. He escaped from his captors/employers and sneaked back into the empire. Basil was barely literate but he was built like a Greek shit house. There had to be work he could do. Then he heard from a town crier of a job vacancy in the imperial capital of Constantinople. He would be working for stables that supplied horses for the chariot-racing industry.


Basil presents a horse to emperor Michael. How bribery works.

In an age that had long forgotten organised sports, the chariot race was still the top entertainment in Constantinople. Races were less about individuals than teams. Basil supported whichever team was in favour with the imperial family. In any event, his horse skills got him work with Bardas, brother-in-law of empress Theodora, who was now acting regent for baby Michael III. With his life seeming settled, Basil found a wife called Maria, who also worked at the stables, cleaning out the muck. It seemed a perfect match, with a growing clutch of children to work in the horse trade.

For those without comedic tastes, the self-proclaimed experts at Wikipedia have an article about Basil I.

Basil's patron, Bardas, nicknamed him Heracles for his immense physical strength and name-dropped his employee's skills around the imperial court. The young emperor Michael took after this rough-looking man and offered him work in the imperial stables — if he could stand as the emperor's defender in a wrestling match. An envoy from the Bulgarian Khan had arrived, threatening to loot and rape in the territories unless bribed not to. Basil suggested to Michael the matter be settled in a wrestling bout with the Bulgarian champion, Krum Kryptonite. Basil snapped Kryptonite's neck in the fourth round. Michael won several bets and was ready to reward his new best bud with anything he cared to mention.

Basil got a new tunic and hairstyle and became emperor Michael's constant companion. However, the latter was displeased at the former's wife, a plain Jane with bad teeth and a broad beam who still smelt of muck, and insisted that Basil break up with her. Basil was reluctant at first but was eventually worn down. Whom should he marry instead? Michael offered his own mistress, Eudokia Ingerina. The emperor couldn't marry her himself, as he was already officially married to another woman called Eudokia Dekapolitissa. To make the arrangement even more complicated, Michael retrieved his sister Thekla from a nunnery so that she could be Basil's official mistress. It was a foursome fit for the New York Yankees, though Basil and Thekla had no children, which suggests he was cheating on Eudokia Ingerina without actually cheating. As he was also still paying child support to Maria, he naturally favoured equines for both fellowship and sparring.[4]


Emperor Michael with his rower chum Basiliskianos at the annual Constantinople-Galata boat race on the Bosphoros.

Horseman Basil's position was always precarious. His former boss Bardas was put out about Basil working for his nephew. Emperor Michael III tried to mollify Bardas by making him a Caesar in 865 and throwing in an expensive, bespoke chariot. Bardas made it known that he wanted Basil taken out of the imperial orbit. However, he craftily convinced Michael that his uncle wanted to kill him. But Basil struck first and Bardas went-a-bye-bye.

In reward for 'thwarting a coup', Michael made Basil the co-emperor. This wasn't Michael being generous, but seeking all the fun of ruling but none of the responsibilities, while he keep winging it. However, he grew bored with Basil treating the job of emperor seriously. Michael used to tell friends, 'Basil was so much fun before....'

In 867, Basil's position started to weaken. Michael had found a new favourite with the name Basiliskianos, an oarsman on the University rowing team, closer in age to Michael, and still lots of fun. Michael even talked about adding Basiliskianos to the imperial nameplate, replacing named-and-liked with named-like. However, Basil moved fast. He and a few stable-mates killed Michael and Basiliskianos as they debauched together in an imperial playroom, coincidentally making Basil sole emperor. Once again, Byzantium got a Head of State by severing a head.

Full power[edit]

Proclaimed emperor by his friends and a paying audience, Basil immediately faced several issues. One had to do with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, a bearded troublemaker called Photios. A few years earlier, he had helped turf out Patriarch Ignatios (a son of former emperor Michael I and a eunuch) in a power struggle. Photios had been a close friend of Bardas who had objected when the latter was murdered. To Basil, therefore, Photios was a threat. Looking for any excuse to remove him, Basil suggested Photios was a heretic and the Papacy backed him up to get him sacked. Ignatios was returned as patriarch.

The empire's enemies were more annoying that threatening. The big exception was the continued loss of territory in Sicily to the Arabs. Basil forgot to send reinforcements, and consequently, their last foothold of Syracuse was lost, a city that was the imperial capital in the 7th century under the erratic emperor Constans II.

Alliance with a Western emperor[edit]

Holy Roman emperor Louis II was so upset with the Byzantines that he refused to take off his helmet for five years.

Relations between the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne and the Byzantines went from chilly to ice-cold to proposals of marriage. The Holy Romans' realm had been broken up into family holdings that would become France and Germany. The imperial title was held by Louis II. This should have given him some sort of superiority over the others, but in practise, he only controlled northern and central Italy, including Rome.

Basil formed an alliance with Louis against the Arabs. In 871, a joint force re-captured Bari in Southern Italy from the Saracens. Louis took the city in the name of the 'Romans', a title Basil objected to, as he thought his half was the true successor of the united Roman Empire. Angry scrolls were exchanged and the betrothal of Louis's daughter Ermengard to Basil's eldest son Constantine was called off. Before there was a chance to renew the idea, Louis died and the French Carolingians and the German Carolingians fought over his title. While they bickered, Basil got Bari for keeps.

Family matters[edit]

Basil's family tree, complicated to begin with, now had the ornament of paranoia hung onto it: The emperor wasn't sure how many male children were his. The eldest boy, Constantine, was Basil's, by his first wife, Maria. However, since Basil had been sharing Eudokia Ingerina with Michael III, Basil wasn't sure whose sons Leo and Stephen were. Eudokia (now empress as Basil's wife) claimed she didn't no either.

Thus, when he became emperor in 867, Basil made Constantine the Caesar, the title usually reserved for an heir apparent, but he died in 879. Basil turned to his youngest son, Alexander, who had been born long enough after Michael's murder so that his genes were not in doubt. Basil made both Leo and Alexander co-emperors whilst allowing Stephen to join the clergy but not his testicles. Stephen accepted that mutilation and eventually became the Patriarch of Constantinople when a vacancy arose.

Relations between Basil and Leo got worse after Constantine the Caesar's death. Leo's strongest defender was his mother but she was forced to leave the imperial court when it was revealed that she had been carrying on with another man behind Basil's back[5]. Leo was married off to the dull daughter of a minor Byzantine civil servant, then accused of treason and the loss his eyes. Basil was eventually talked out of more drastic occular action on Leo by Patriarch Photios, but Leo knew his father (or stepfather) could change his mind at any time. It was the Byzantine way.


Basil died in 886 whilst out on a hunt. The ever-fit horseman sought to show everyone he still had the power by wrestling a large deer to the ground. But the bout was best-of-three-throws, and the deer jumped up and dragged Basil through the forest for miles. When a groom chased after them and eventually killed the deer, Basil stabbed him thinking the man was an assassin sent by Leo. The rough drag hunt through the undergrowth was too much for Basil's ticker. Gravely ill, he died a few weeks later.


'Can't you Latins read? Where does it say the Holy Spirit comes from God and Jesus?' A suitably shirty Photios makes his point in an icon.

Despite reaching power via murder, those who rate such things call Basil a 'good emperor'. He did lose Syracuse, but regained some territory in Italy and maintained the Byzantine grip on Anatolia.

On religious matters, Basil restored Photios to the patriarchy, when Ignatios died in 877, despite Rome's disapproval. Photios had one particular bee in his mitre: The Catholics had introduced the 'triangle' depiction for Trinity to describe how the Holy Spirit could either come via God or Jesus, whereas the Orthodox Greeks (checking the text of First Council of Nicaea) said it only came from God. It seemed a minor issue, but once theologians and their supporters got involved, it promised to be a feud on the order of iconoclasm.


  1. As weird as it would be to have a President named President, it's weird enough merely using the word once on this one.
  2. However, historian Gene Chandler states that there could be a 'Duke of Earl'.
  3. Historians have also suggested Basil was actually born in the 830s, so making him closer age to Michael III. Otherwise they say, why would a youthful emperor shower favours on a bearded muscle man? Why indeed??
  4. Hope you followed all that.
  5. The miscreant got away with just a forcible move to a monastery. He kept even kept his balls!

See also[edit]

Preceded by:
Michael III
Byzantine Emperor
Succeeded by:
Leo VI