Florin Curta

title.none: Stephenson, Basil the Bulgar-Slayer (Florin Curta)

identifier.other: baj9928.0410.013 04.10.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Florin Curta, University of Florida,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Stephenson, Paul. The Legend of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xvii, 164. $40.00 0-521-81530-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.10.13

Stephenson, Paul. The Legend of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xvii, 164. $40.00 0-521-81530-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Florin Curta
University of Florida

The reputation of the Byzantine emperor Basil II among his contemporaries was apparently not as varied and controversial as that which was shaped and re-shaped in the centuries after his death in 1025. In fact, not much was written during the emperor's lifetime and even fewer are the bits about him and his reign. What we have suggests that Basil did not yet enjoy the reputation of conqueror attached to his name in Byzantine history textbooks. The court poet known as Geometres, whom Basil banished from court in 985 for his support of the Phokas family, thought of the emperor as just a pale imitation of his favorite hero, Nicephorus II Phokas. Exactly how did Basil then gain his reputation of fierce warrior and cruel conqueror? When did he begin to be a "Bulgar-Slayer"? The timing for the publication of this book could not have been better. The medievalist going this summer to Athens, either for the Olympic Games or for some other, less leisurely activities, will be well advised to take this book along, if he or she wants to have some understanding of the pattern of street naming in Athens, where one of the arteries running through the district of Neapoli north of the Lykavittos Hill is called Voulgaroktonou, "the Bulgar-Slayer." Paul Stephenson's book examines and tries to explain the image- and myth-making activity that went not just into street naming, but also into some less benign political decisions of the twentieth century.

As a Byzantinist rather than a historian of the modern Balkans, and with a significant book on Byzantium's Balkan Frontier (2001) to his credit, Stephenson is well placed to debunk the myth of the Bulgar-Slayer and elucidate the texts produced by a variety of authors, from John Scylitzes, and Nicholas Mesarites to Penelope Delta and and Kostas Kyriazes. But this book is about visual no less than textual construction of a Bulgar-slaying hero; Stephenson's sources also include manuscript illuminations, ivory caskets, and war propaganda posters. While the famous image of Basil in the psalter now in the Marcian Library in Venice (Cod. Marc. gr. 17) contains no hint at his posthumous glory of Bulgar-Slayer, its reproduction on the frontispiece of Konstantine Paparrigopoulos's History of the Greek People (reproduced as figure 11 on page 105) unmistakably identifies the ruler in the center of the image as Basil II, the Bulgar-Slayer. Stephenson's book is equally illuminating when discussing Greek posters from the time of the Second Balkan War (1913), in which Greek soldiers are often depicted blinding or biting Bulgarians. This is by all accounts a very thorough investigation of just one instance of the "invention of traditions" in the modern Balkans.

Paul Stephenson's short monograph is not a biography in the traditional sense of that word. As the author points out in the introduction, his book is "a survey from the time of his death to the present, of Basil's reputation as the 'Bulgar-slayer'" (1). The eight chapters are well integrated, although each one of them may be used separately as a solid essay on such diverse themes as "Victory and its representations" or "Basile apres Byzance." The first chapter surveys the political and military background that is much more thoroughly discussed in chapter 2 (11-21) and 3 (32-48). Chapter 4 is concerned with the representation in both texts and visual arts of the kind of military triumph that Basil purportedly celebrated after the conquest and annexation of Bulgaria in 1018. Chapter 5 examines the image of Basil II coming out of texts written between the early eleventh century (after Basil's death) and the twelfth century. In Chapter 6, Stephenson ably demonstrates that the legend of the Bulgar-Slayer is a byproduct of the tensions created in the Balkan provinces of the Empire in the late 1100s, as Byzantine authority was challenged first by Bulgarians and Vlachs, then by the Fourth Crusade. In chapter 7, Stephenson then follows the myth-making process during the Tourkokratia and the nineteenth century, following the creation of an independent Greek state. Finally, chapter 8 is dedicated to the use and abuse of the legend in the context of the "Macedonian question," especially during the Second Balkan War. Stephenson offers a fascinating discussion of the relation between scholarly research in Byzantine studies and nation building, a process that is still on its way in some of the countries in the region, especially in the newly-established Macedonia, a country known by the odd name of FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). To modern nationalists, Basil II was a ruthless tyrant, eager to shed the blood of the Slavic enemy in order to promote a Greek empire. Paul Stephenson tells a different story. In his view, not only was Basil no slayer of Bulgars, but his annexation of Bulgaria was far from being "an exercise in suppressing Bulgarians and Bulgarian national feeling, as later accounts would have us believe" (136). He is however more concerned with the degree to which the legend of the Bulgar-Slayer has by now been incorporated so thoroughly into the traditional narrative of Greek national history that the emperor seems to have taken on a second life, without much connection with either his lifetime achievements or the current research on the medieval Balkans. Stephenson's major contribution with this book is to establish a clear connection between medievalism and nationalism for an area of Europe that has produced much turbulence in recent years that is associated with the ethnic nationalism. In spite of an enormous amount of literature attempting to explain and sometimes to condemn the phenomenon, the region has so far inexplicably remained outside the research area of scholars interested in the recycling of the Middle Ages for nation building. Stephenson's book sits squarely within the genre of recent historical works about the politicization of such historical figures as Arminius, Joan of Arc, or King Tomislav of Croatia. His own preferred comparison is with Duby's analysis of the legend of Bouvines, "for that Frenchman writes elegantly and critically" (10). But Stephenson has also succeeded in teaching us more about the political and military developments in the early eleventh-century Balkans. I would have liked to see some comparison with the emperor's success and posthumous glory elsewhere, for example in the Caucasus region. Stephenson gives us some insight into this problem when examining Basil's epitaph, which mentions Abkhazia and Iberia, but not Bulgaria, among the emperor's conquests worth of praise.

A few reservations can be voiced in the midst of appreciation. While I agree with Stephenson that the eight prostrate figures next to the image of Emperor Basil II in the Vatican psalter cannot be identified as Bulgarians, it is also hard to believe that "these figures are Byzantine citizens" (55). Whatever their true identity, they are clearly the people "cast down" by the military saints depicted on both sides of the emperor, as explained in the accompanying poem. In other words, the prostrate figures are the enemies scared away by the emperor's lance. Indeed all six military saints carry lances and have the same battle dress as the emperor, which suggests that the main point of the illumination was to draw a parallel between Basil and the archetype warriors. Moreover, the unknown author of the illumination drew from a stock of well-known images of military saints. One of them, St. Mercurius, appears in similar attire in more or less contemporary representations in such diverse location as Ala kilise in Cappadocia, the crypt of the St. Luke Church in Phocis, the Cathedral in Monreale, and a copy of an Exultet now in the Cathedral of Bari. The general message of the Vatican psalter illumination is definitely one related to military victories over enemies, not with the submission of "a range of those brought to heel in the first decades of Basil's reign." (55).

The "Slavic-speaking" people occupied the Balkan peninsula in the early seventh, not in the sixth century (2). It is not true that the "so-called Mysian plain [the plain between the Danube and the Stara Planina range of mountains]" was brought under cultivation only with "the advent of widespread irrigation in the nineteenth century" (18). Stephenson's source for such a statement is a study of Andrew Poulter published in 1983, and the Acta of a conference on the Danube limes that took place in Bulgaria (and was reviewed for TMR by this reviewer, TMR 00.05.05), both of which refer to forts, not agriculture. A number of tenth-century settlements excavated in the region by Bulgarian archaeologists produced clear evidence of cultivation, and Stephenson would have been better advised to consult Joachim Henning's 1987 pathbreaking book on agriculture in Southeast Europe during the first millenium A.D. Fallmerayer's favorite source was the Chronicle of Monemvasia, not Evagrius (101). The idea that Vasile Lupu, prince of Moldavia (1634-1653) took his first name from a Byzantine emperor (p. 99 with note 5) is entirely Nicolae Iorga's invention. The name "Vasilie" is first attested in a charter of 1634, but beyond some similarity with the Greek word "basileus," there is absolutely no indication that Lupu had in mind either Basil I or Basil II. Against both logic and sigillographic studies, Stephenson believes lead seals demonstrate that "officers from the Byzantine field army were installed as garrison commanders in several localities known from the Escorial Taktikon" (19). In reality, all that a seal with ascertained origin can show is that a message of the seal owner was received by somebody else in the place where the seal was found. Vidin is in the northern, not northwestern Balkans (21), closer to Banat, not Transylvania (34). Kekaumenos is cited in full twice (p. 16 with note 16 and p. 33 with note 6). On both occasions, the reader is announced that following that citation, the author will use an abbreviated title. That same reader may wish to known just who is the author of an English translation from André Grabar's L'empereur dans l'art byzantin in note 11 on page 52. Finally, several place names in Serbia appear with diacritics on map 3 (116), but without them on map 2 (39).

Nonetheless, The Legend of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer is fine history: rich in detail, bold in its combination of written and visual sources, masterfully clear where the subject matter is most complex, written elegantly even when "reluctantly adopting the American English spelling" (xiv). There may be reasons for Stephenson's fears to mention all the Byzantinists who had helped him at various stages of the project (xii). But he provided future historians--and not just of Byzantium--a framework to consider and challenge, and no doubt his work will stimulate further investigation.