The Intriguing Tale Of Basil The Copper Hand


The early 10th century saw the rise and fall of an interesting rebel leader named Basil. The date of his birth is unknown, but his path to infamy began in the first decades of the reign of Emperor Romanos I of Constantinople (r. 919-944). Basil’s life of crime apparently started with a simple scheme of impersonating a nobleman. The man he chose to impersonate was Constantine Doukas, a popular figure from a prominent family who was slain in a failed coup d’etat around 913. Although he was gone, many people apparently refused to believe that Constantine Doukas was truly dead. The mischievous Basil, proclaiming himself to be Constantine, was happy to oblige the fantasies of the people.

Once Basil took on the persona of Constantine Doukas, he found that people not only respected him, but also wanted to fight for his cause. The fake Constantine suddenly found himself in command of a growing band of armed fighters. Whether or not it was his original intention, Basil soon embraced this growing militancy. He eventually started openly trying to incite several cities into rebellion. The plot, however, did not turn out well. A regional official discovered the fledgling rebellion and succeeded in capturing Basil alive without much issue.

Basil was brought before the emperor for judgment. Considering the often-brutal crackdown on rebels, Basil was given a fairly light punishment. The emperor cut off one of Basil’s hands, but after that punishment was carried out, Basil was allowed to walk free otherwise unmutilated. Upon his release, Basil in no way gave up his ambitions. Instead, he made the most of the situation and delved right back into his ploys. According to the 11th-century historian, John Skylitzes, “he equipped himself with a hand of bronze and had a huge sword made. He stalked the Opsikion theme [northwest Anatolia] deluding the simpler folk into believing that he was Constantine Doukas, and when he had gathered a large following he broke into revolt” (Synopsis historian, chapter 10, section 27).

This time, Basil (“the Copper Hand,” as he came to be known) was much more successful in his rebellion. He and his rebels successfully managed to storm and seize a stronghold called Plateia Petra. They used the conquered fort as a headquarters from which they pillaged the surrounding area. Yet, the emperor of Constantinople would soon put an end to Basil the Copper Hand’s reign of banditry. An imperial army was sent to hunt down the rebels and their charismatic leader. Although Basil had fought well against local garrisons, he proved no match for the larger army sent to crush his revolt. Basil the Copper Hand was ultimately captured alive for a second time, along with most of his followers.

Emperor Romanos apparently believed that Basil was working for someone else, and he had the rebel interrogated along that line of questioning. Basil, however, was said to have never implicated anyone during his imprisonment. The emperor eventually stopped asking for the names of accomplices, but the end of interrogation was not much of a relief for Basil—next came punishment. The rebel leader would not be lucky enough to be released for a second time. Instead, according to John Skylitzes, “they had him put to the flames at the place called Amastrianon” (Synopsis historian, chapter 10, section 27). The execution of Basil the Copper Hand is reported to have occurred in 932.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Scene from the Menologion of Basil, c. 985, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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