Emperor Basil I descended from a family of Armenian refugees and grew up in Macedonia, hence his nickname, Basil the Macedonian, and the title of his dynasty—the Macedonian Dynasty. Through dubious means, Basil became an immensely wealthy landowner and joined the inner circle of Emperor Michael III (r. 842-867). At first, Basil and Michael were close friends, with Basil even being granted a position as co-emperor in 886, yet the two men quickly began to plot against each other. On September 24, 867, Basil I finally succeeded in having Michael III assassinated and seized sole control of the empire.
Like all sensible monarchs, Basil I was eager to groom an heir for the longevity of the Macedonian dynasty. Basil’s first pick was Constantine, his oldest son, but this heir unfortunately died of a fever on September 3, 879. With the death of Constantine, Basil’s second son, Leo, suddenly found himself advanced to the position of heir to the empire—Leo was only about thirteen years old at the time.
Basil immediately began preparing his son for future rule. The emperor arranged a marriage for his son—one to which Leo was bitterly opposed—and he often brought the boy out on hunting trips. Young Leo also began receiving more attention from his father’s vassals, some of which were not loyal to Basil.
In the autumn of 883, Leo found himself embroiled in the shadowy politics of government in Constantinople. The young heir, only about seventeen at the time, seemed to have become mixed up in a plot against Emperor Basil I. How complicit he was in the conspiracy remains debated—some sources (like John Skylitzes, c. 1040-1101) claimed that Leo was tricked into joining the plot, while others proposed that Leo willingly conspired because of the ill-will caused by his recent arranged marriage. Whatever the case, the plot was discovered before any nefarious action could take place and a disappointed Basil had his son ingloriously thrown in jail.
Basil I supposedly considered having his son blinded—a punishment for traitors and a disqualification from the throne (a blind man was not permitted to rule the empire). Fortunately for Leo, however, there were still numerous powerful individuals who sympathized with the young prince and they were able to restrain Basil’s wrath. Leo’s eyes were spared, but Basil kept his son locked in prison for almost three years.
Leo was finally released from jail on July 20, 886, and his status as heir to the empire was reaffirmed. The timing could not have been better, for Emperor Basil I died the following month, on August 29, either succumbing to illness or dying of wounds sustained in a hunting accident. Upon the death of his father, Leo VI (r. 886-912) ascended to the throne and was eventually known as Leo the Philosopher or Leo the Wise.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Imperial Gate mosaics in the former basilica Hagia Sophia of Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey) showing Emperor Leo VI bowing before Christ, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- John Skylitzes. A Synopsis of Byzantine History: 811-1057, translated by John Wortley. Original text c. 11th or early 12th century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.