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Monday, 29 August 2011

Basil I of Byzantium (867-886)

b. 830's
d. 29 August 886,

The story of Basil I is important as providing some of the evidence for the rite of church blessing of same sex unions in medieval Europe, and also for illustrating once again how marriage and and sexual activities with men are by no means contradictory – the existence of a marriage does not deny the existence of male sexual partners in parallel relationships, particularly in the case of political rulers who were (and are) under an obligation to produce heirs for their kingdoms.
The barest bones of Basil’s story are that he arrived in Constantinople as a penniless wanderer, and finessed friendships with a series of influential men to a point of immense political influence of his own, before assassinating his last and most powerful patron, assuming control of the empire, founded the Macedonian dynasty, and ruled over what is regarded as Byzantium's most glorious and prosperous era.  A less discreet account would say that he slept his way to the top.
When he arrived penniless in Constantinople, Basil was befriended by a man called Nicholas, from the church of St Diomede. Two accounts make clear that Nicholas and Basil were joined in some formal of formal rite of union, one of them using precisely the term “adelphoeisis” (the liturgical rite for church blessing of same sex unions):
On the morning after finding him, Nicholas ‘bathed and dressed Basil and was ceremonially united to him, and kept him as his housemate and companion. 
and, more explicitly
“on the next day he went with him to the baths and changed his clothes and going into the church established a formal union with him and they rejoiced in each other”.
This was just one of two such formal unions, and other less formal unions, Basil contracted with men. What was the appeal? He was a hunk, with notable physical charms, as John Boswell points out  referring to Basil’s service with his next patron, Theophilos, who
‘had a great interest in well-born. good-looking, well-built men who were very masculine and strong’.and when he saw how exceptional Basil was in these respects he appointed him his chief equerry. Basil was ‘loved by him more and more with each passing day.’
(As Basil was not “well born”, he presumably had super-abundant charms in the looks and build departments).
The attachment to Theophilos did not last, however. Basil soon found a more useful patron, in the form of a wealthy widow (Danelis), who “showered him with gifts of gold and dozens of slaves”. Why? She clearly had a keen eye for a coming man, and asked nothing except that he form a ceremonial union with her son John. Basil made a good show of demurring so as not to look cheap – but he could see where his interest lay. He duly entered his second same sex union, this time with John – and accepted the money and salves which came to him as a dowry. A surviving medieval illustration clearly shows the ceremony, with John’s mother looking on.   (Danelis in time received her anticipated reward. After Basil later became emperor, John was an “intimate” of the Emperor in honour of his earlier union, and Danelis came to the Emperor on a litter – and showered on him still more extravagant gifts. It was not wealth she had sought, but prestige).
But first, Basil had other fish to fry, and other beds to occupy, on his climb to the throne. First was the young Emperor Michael III, who was still in his teens.
Michael became so attached to Basil that he named him ‘companion of the bedchamber’, a position usually held by a eunuch….Ultimately he named Basil co-emperor. 
Both contemporary and modern accounts see physical attraction as influential in Micahael’s choice:
Bad as Michael’s character was, seems clear that we must also credit him with homosexualism (sic); and this is confirmed, both by making Basil his bedfellow, and by his choice, when when he grew tired of Basil of a pretty boy to succeed him as favourite.
Basil was not content to share the empire, and in time assassinated Michael, and reigned alone.
(Basil was not exclusively “homosexual”. Even before taking up with Michael, he had been married, but then in a curious, bizarre arrangement the Emperor persuaded him to divorce his wife, and to marry his own mistress – who continued her relationship with Michael, while another mistress was secured for Basil. One embarrassing outcome was that it was not entirely clear who was the real father of Basil’s putative heir by his wife – who was intensely disliked by Basil, and was “probably” sired by Michael.)

Information has been taken primarily from John Boswell, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe ”.

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