Basil II

One reason for this blog is to avoid being enclosed by the wall of the garden called Facebook.

Sometimes I enjoy reading the history of where I live, and lately I have been working slowly through Judith Herrin, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. The work is not chronological like that of John Julius Norwich (I have read only his Short History of Byzantium); but it does have a chapter on Emperor Basil II, the so-called Bulgar-Slayer, who apparently led the Byzantine Empire to its apogee. Reading this, I could not remember having read about Basil before, in Michael Psellus; but I had, as I could see when Herrin mentioned the latter.

Then I could look back at my copy of Psellus and recall that I had typed up a passage from the account of Basil and made it into a note on Facebook. it caused me some trouble to find that note. Here is that note:

The value of learning was in question, even a thousand years ago in what was to become Istanbul.  Short attention spans were noted too.  Here is a passage from an engaging book, Fourteen Byzantine Emperors, by Michael Psellus (London: Penguin, 1966).  Michael was born in 1018; the emperor Basil II died in 1025.

In his dealings with his subjects, Basil behaved with extraordinary circumspection.  It is perfectly true that the greatest reputation he built up as a ruler was founded rather on terror than on loyalty, for as he grew older and became more experienced he relied less on the judgement of men wiser than himself.  He alone introduced new measures, he alone disposed his military forces.  As for the civil administration, he governed, not in accordance with the written laws, but following the unwritten dictates of his own intuition, which was most excellently equipped by nature for the purpose.  Consequently he paid no attention to men of learning; on the contrary, he affected utter scorn—towards the learned folk, I mean.  It seems to me a wonderful thing, therefore, that while the emperor so despised literary culture, no small crop of orators and philosophers sprang up in those times.  One solution of the paradox, I fancy, is this: the men of those days did not devote themselves to the study of letters for any ulterior purpose—they cultivated literature for its own sake and as an end in itself, whereas the majority nowadays do not approach the subject of education in this spirit, but consider personal profit to be the first reason for study.  Perhaps I should add that though gain is the object of their zeal for literature, if they do not immediately achieve this goal, then they desist from their studies at once.  Shame on them!

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