This is my tale of a certain Michael inspired by the many similarities with the beloved pop-star hero shown here.
If you know anything about Michael III of Byzantium, then reward youself with a smug sense of satisfaction and go to the front of the class. That's largely because history has chosen to neglect him or, when it refers to him, to write disparagingly.
Let's start at the end, my favourite place for getting to know someone.
Michael was murdered by those answering to the man who was both his chamberlain and companion in arms. The latter was Basil, a peasant of Armenian extraction who had risen through the ranks by deep cunning and extraordinarily fine looks, to become Michael's ... er, right hand man. How did it get this bad? Was Basil just after the throne? The answer is ... well, yeah!
But I don't think it's ever that simple. Let's paint a picture of the young Michael.
His father, the Emperor Theophilos, died
from dysentry when he was very young. His mother, the Empress Regent Theodora, was detached and neglectful, as a result of having taken over the full time job of administering the wealth and foreign policy of what we now call the Byzantine Empire.
Michael was not interested in learning but was well schooled in the complex court rituals and protocols. He was precocious at sports and in women, becoming besotted in his early teens with a devastatingly beautiful and calculating half-Nordic, half-Greek, blonde starlet some 3 years older than him, named Ingerina (daughter of Inger the Viking ambassador).
The Empress Regent, Michael's mom, was a rare bird - a female medieval ruler - and her job was a tough one. She was driven by very pragmatic needs for most of her time in office. so she really had little time for Michael and little patience with his rather relaxed approach to life. She despised Ingerina and wished that Michael would marry according to his station (partly because Theodora was not all that high born herself, coming from a family of pig farmers in Paphlagonia, in northwestern Anatolia). Michael was also probably petrified about what the Empress Irene had done to her son some seventy years earlier - namely blinded him - and sought any kind of support against her. First the return of his uncles from exile supported him against his mother. Then Basil came along - a strong, independent, wily man who feared no one - especially not women.
Some historians say that as Michael grew up he neglected his studies and used to hang out with the charioteers and ride and drink a lot. Probably true. And sounds quite normal for a young man.
They say he was irresponsible and irreverent - that he used to dress up as the unpopular Patriarch of the time and parade around Constantinople as if delivering a drunken mass. Well - it is hard to disagree based on the available evidence - is my response.
But then they say he was gay. And the reason he 'became' gay was that he was not raised properly. And that, as a result, he did not have legitimate children with the Empress he was forced to marry. Well, bollocks to all that - I say.
In fact Michael had at least two illegitimate children, with Ingerina, one of whom became Emperor Leo VI. That he had two children with a mistress is sufficient to me to make him out to be straight, or at the very least bi. One offspring might be considered a mistake - but two could hardly be counted as simply bi-curious (apologies to Wilde) and with a mistress no less! He was obssessed with Ingerina - everything recorded indicates he would do anything for her intimate attentions. Again this doesn't sound like your typical excerpt from Brokeback Mountain.
So what's the buzz? Spin doctors (formerly known as court historians) have known for ages that in order to divert attention from your boss's problems or shortcomings you focus public attention on someone else's. In many ways Basil I is regarded in the Church as one of the greatest Roman Emperors of all time, and ostensibly the founder of one of it's greatest dynasties. Yet all this talk of Basil being a top emperor is hardly consistent with being a flaming poofter, is it now?
Looking through the records from the time (mostly second hand) it becomes very clear that while Vassilis was a determined and powerful man, he built largely on Theodora's and Michael's achievements before him. In addition it appears that he was some kind of sexual savant who knew how to butter his bread on both sides. This seems to be supported by the rapid way in which he ascended the throne (from stable boy to Emperor in about 10 years) and of the recorded instances in which he joined in same-sex union with at least two, possibly three different men over the course of his time in Constantinople, not to mention being married to at least one possibly three different women during the course of his life.
As it turns out, there is every reason to believe that at least two of his children, the oldest boys, were not his - that they were in fact Michael's. Yet, these children were born while Basil was married to Ingerina (and Michael was sleeping with her).
So it really behoves us to ask ourselves carefully what the underlying agenda is with the reputation of any Michael, indeed anyone - no matter what epoch they may live in - before we effuse blind adoration. or even harsh criticism.