This is one of several translated excerpts from Byzantine sources produced and mounted with historical introduction and commentary by Paul Stephenson.


 

Basil II's sarcophagus, not that of his brother Constantine, should have been the twentieth and last sarcophagus to fit within the crowded rotunda of Constantine the Great at the Church of the Holy Apostles. According to the Antiochene Christian Arab chronicler Yahya ibn Said, the sarcophagus in which Constantine VIII rested was originally intended for Basil. This “sarcophagus was of marble, extremely beautiful, of many colours and sporting exuberant carvings.” [1] However, Basil changed his mind, and asked Constantine to arrange for him to be laid to rest in simple clothing at the Church of St. John the Theologian (i.e. the Evangelist), at the Hebdomon Palace complex, outside the walls of Constantinople. He did so, Yahya suggests, to be amongst strangers, rather than past emperors and familiars. [2] Basil's burial at the Hebdomon is confirmed by Byzantine chroniclers, although no further indication is given of why he chose this place. [3]   The sarcophagus is said to have been associated with a verse epitaph, now preserved only in later manuscripts.

 

                            Other past emperors

                            previously designated for themselves other burial places.

                            But I Basil, born in the purple chamber,

                            place my tomb on the site of the Hebdomon [Palace]

                            and take sabbath's rest from the endless toils

                            which I satisfied in wars and which I endured.

                            For nobody saw my spear at rest,

                            from when the Emperor of Heaven called me

                            to the rulership of this great empire on earth,

                            but I kept vigilant through the whole span of my life

                            guarding the children of New Rome

                            marching bravely to the West,

                            and as far as the very frontiers of the East.

                            The Persians and Scythians bear witness to this

                            and along with them Abasgos, Ismael, Araps, Iber.

                            And now, good man, looking upon this tomb

                            reward it with prayers in return for my campaigns. [4]

 

 

A fuller consideration of this epitaph, and the sarcophagus, can now be found at P. Stephenson, 'The tomb of Basil II', in: Zwischen Polis, Provinz und Peripherie. Beiträge zur byzantinischen Geschichte und Kultur, ed. L. Hoffmann, Mainzer Veröffentlichungen zur Byzantinistik 7 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz 2005), 227-38.


Notes

 

[1] Histoire de Yahya– ibn Sa‘ i– d d'Antioche , fasc. 3, ed. I. Kratchkovsky, tr. F. Micheau & G. Tropeau, Patrologia Orientalis 47/4, no. 212 (Turnhout, 1997), [112-15], 480-3. Cf. Yah ya– al Antak i–, Cronache dell'Egitto fãtimide e dell'impero bizantino 937-1033 , tr. B. Pirone (Milan, 1997), 336, §15:69; V. R. Rozen, Imperator Vasilij Bolgarobojca. Izvle c¹ enija iz Letopisi Jaxi Antioxijskago (St. Petersburg, 1908; repr. London, 1972), 69, 383-4;   G. Schlumberger, L'épopée byzantine à la fin du dixième siècle , II . Basile II le tueur des Bulgares (Paris, 1900), 622-4.

 

[2] Op. cit. See also R. Janin, La géographie ecclésiastique de l'empire byzantin, I. Le siège de Constantinople et la patriarcat oecuménique, III. Les églises et les monastères (Paris, 1953), 275-8, 426-9. I am grateful to Irfan Shahîd for his assistance in extracting an accurate reading from Yahya's ambivalent text, confirming that Basil was laid to rest in a small monastery, but that it need not have been attached to a xenodocheion , as Janin suggested. “Strangers” in this context need not be “travellers”, still less “foreigners,” but rather those unrelated to Basil who might pray for his soul upon visiting his accessible tomb. I am presuming, therefore, that burial in the Mausoleum of Constantine at Holy Apostles denied access to imperial tombs to “the common man.”

 

[3] John Skylitzes: Ioannis Scylitzes synopsis historiarum , ed. J. Thurn, CFHB V (Berlin & New York, 1973), 368, “He asked his brother, whom he designated as successor to the throne, to bury him in the church of the Evangelist and Divine next to the Hebdomon, and thus it was done.” Theodore Skoutariotes: K. Sathas, ed., “Anonymou synopsis chroniki,” Mesaioniki vivliothiki VII (Venice, 1894), 159, “At his death, the emperor Basil was buried in the church, that he had built, of the beloved St. John the Theologian in the Hebdomon.”

 

[4] S. G. Mercati, “Sull'epitafio di Basilio II Bulgaroctonos,” Bessarione 25 (1921), 137-42; “L'epitafio di Basilio Bulgaroctonos secondo il codice modenese greco 324,” Bessarione 26 (1922), 220-2; both reprinted in: S. G. Mercati, Collectanea Byzantina , II (Bari, 1970), 226-31, 232-4. I am grateful to Alice-Mary Talbot for her assistance in translating this poem.


Paul Stephenson, February 2004

Revised January 2010