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Basil I - pauper to prince of power - fiction vs. history

Would you "clean up" the family tree if you were concerned that your ancestry was not as noble as one might expect?
Basil I being crowned by Michael III, from the Skytlizes manuscript
Well, that is what Constantine VII Porphyrogennitus may have done for his grandfather, Basil I, easily one of the most incredible people of 9th Century New Rome.
What we do know for sure is that Basil started off life as an impoverished peasant, and ended it as the founder of a new Imperial dynasty. But we know very little about his origins or his ascendancy to the Throne. When was Basil I born? How did he get to Constantinople? How / why did he get noticed at court? Did he really marry Maria the Bulgarian? If so, under what circumstances? How could he bring himself to cast aside his wife to marry a plaything of the Emperor Michael?
And perhaps most important of all: how did he swing support with Michael and the military to be appointed co-Emperor?
There are several original sources to draw on, the most comprehensive of which is Book 5 of the Theophanes Continuatus, a collection of biographies of emperors. Book 5 was commissioned by Basil's grandson, the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennitus. It is clear that, rather than writing a history of Basil, Constantine was doing his best to clean up the family tree and consolidate his own reign (see this great piece of research by Lieve van Hoof).
So how does one use the sources to write a work of historical fiction that tells a reasonable version of the story?
I would suggest that one does it by embracing the following principles:
  • Use the facts as a framework (and stick to them)
  • Abandon modern preconceptions (and discard personal agendas)
  • Understand the social context (and use that understanding to inform the narrative)
  • Work with primal emotions (common to all of us)
By applying this method I have come up with one solution, which I don't claim to be unique, but is simple enough to be appealing. That Basil had a terrific woman behind him. Why a woman?
  • There was a recent history of women in power – Empresses Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora, Michael’s mother
  • Women in the highest circles could be highly educated if they chose to be
  • The Gynaeconitis – the Court of the Women – was a world of power and largely a law unto itself
  • Basil was an illiterate peasant – how could he have written pamphlets which turned people’s minds and hearts without some help?
Clearly Basil needed someone close to him with an education and the desire to help him. Once he had made his mark at court, what better person than his new wife, court starlet Eudocia Ingerina, to support and guide him, and provide the real brains behind the final coup?

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