Monarchs in the Deadpool
Today, Queen Elizabeth II of England has spent 65 years and 238 days on the throne, overtaking both Basil II of the Byzantine Empire and Leopold III of Anhalt-Dessau for #40 on the list of longest-reigning monarchs with verifiable start and end dates. Here is a closer look at the rulers that Elizabeth just surpassed.
Basil II of the Byzantine Empire
Let’s start with Basil, who was essentially named co-emperor at age 2 by his father Romanos II In 960, with younger brother Constantine joining him two years later. Their father had co-ruled with their grandfather Constantine VII for 14 years, before the older man was rumored poisoned by Romanos and/or wife (Basil’s mother) Theophano. Romanos ruled four more years, before dying mysteriously at age 26 in 963, and here is where things get very Byzantine, with regards to succession. For context, I’ll quote late UCLA professor Eugene Weber, who spoke one of my favorite historical factoids during an episode of his PBS lecture series, The Western Tradition:
Out of 88 emperors who ruled in Byzantium through 11 centuries, over 1/3 would be usurpers, and as many died in violent circumstances — poisoned, stabbed, strangled, beheaded, starved, tortured to death, or simply blinded, which was considered more humane.
However, both cases of poisoning linked to Theophano (especially Romanos’) likely were invented slander by Byzantine aristocracy, whose landowning-derived power was diminished by Byzantine emperors of this period — especially by Basil II. These marginalized elites likely also resented the path Theophano had taken to become Byzantine empress consort. Rising far above the lowly prospects she was born into as a poor tavern-keeper’s daughter, Theophano (born Anastaso, but renamed after a saint from her husband’s royal dynasty) parlayed her great beauty into marriage to Romanos, when his previous marriage to an Italian princess had ended childless. As Weber recounts, a number of Byzantine emperors came from very humble roots:
Leo I in the 5th Century had been a butcher. People in Constantinople used to point out the stall where he and his wife had sold meat. Justin I in the 6th Century was a poor swineherd from the countryside who first appeared in the capital with bare feet and a pack on his back. One day his nephew left the family village to join him. His name was Justinian, and he became emperor in 527… Phocas, who ruled in the 7th Century, was a simple centurion. Leo III in the 8th Century was an odd job man. Basil I in the 9th Century was a peasant, probably a shepherd from Macedonia. And Michael IV in the 11th Century was a servant from Paphlagonia on the Black Sea.
Now, Theophano served as regent for two under-aged Byzantine co-emperors, and quickly worked to protect her sons claims (and her own life) from usurpers by marrying the next (co-) emperor, and likely taking his successor as her lover.
First, she married the empire’s greatest general, Nikephoros II Phokas, who was murdered in his bedroom in 969 by nephew John I Tzimiskes — likely with the aid of Theophano. However, this coup ultimately led to John banishing Theophano to the island of Prinkipo — at the urging of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, who wielded ultimate power in the empire, thanks to his approval being needed for religious ceremonies that granted legitimacy to all emperors, whatever their origins. However, Basil had retained his status as co-emperor during both reigns. He also built his reputation as an accomplished field general, while maintaining an interest in learning how to administer the vast Byzantine Empire.
When John I Tzimiskes died in 976 while returning from an eastern campaign against the Abbasid caliphate, Basil finally took the royal reins, with his brother Constantine deferring power in favor of a life spent largely in leisure (before ruling alone for three years after Basil’s death). Catherine J. Holmes summarizes the results of this arrangement in the opening of her book-length study, Basil II and the Governance of Empire:
The reign of Basil II is widely accepted as the apogee of medieval Byzantium. During the century before Basil came to the throne, the Byzantine empire had made substantial territorial gains on its eastern borders at the expense of the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad. However, it was under Basil that the expansionist enterprise of tenth-century Byzantium reached its acme. In the east, the Christian Caucasian princedoms of Tao and Vaspurakan were annexed. In the west, Bulgaria was conquered in 1018. By the end of the reign, an expedition to Sicily was planned. In 1025, at the time of the emperor’s death, imperial frontiers were at their most far-flung since the seventh century.
Spreading Byzantine Style — by force:
As Basil’s armies pushed his empire’s borders, they brought Byzantine clothing styles with them — as described by Francois Boucher in 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment:
As a result of Byzantine civilization, Byzantine costume spread throughout the Balkans and Russia, influencing court costume for many centuries — until the sixteenth century in Russia — and persisting to the present in the liturgical vestments of the Orthodox Church. The adoption of Orthodoxy by the Southern Slavs in the ninth century and the submission of Bulgaria, Armenia and Georgia brought Byzantine influence to the north of Eurasia at the end of the ninth century.
Boucher looks closer at the Byzantine impact on Bulgarian costume — fitting, since Basil II was known as “Bulgaroktonos,” or “Bulgar-slayer”:
In the early ninth and tenth centuries the Bulgarians probably wore Avarian costume. As usual, we know well only the costume of the aristocracy. It’s main element was the tunic reaching to the knees or feet, decorated with braids and pearls, fastened on the right shoulder and worn as in Byzantium. The loose caftan or skaramangion, which could be long or short, had tight sleeves and was trimmed with a fur collar and braid edging. Sometimes it was slit in front to the waist, where it was belted, and decorated with plaiting, like the Persian, Bulgarian, Turkish and Russian caftans worn throughout the Middle Ages.
The sheepskin coat worn with the wool side inwards was the typical garment of Bulgarian mountain dwellers. It was tight, reached half way down the legs, and was decorated with frogging on the front opening. The king, court and ordinary citizens all wore it. We find the same garment among the Huns, the Hungarians and the Cumanians.
Trousers, which were worn by both sexes, were tight and narrow and reached to the feet; they were worn with fairly high boots of black, red or yellow leather.
Byzantine clothing spread further north thanks to a royal marriage with the Holy Roman Empire in what is now Germany and Austria. During the reign of John I Tzimiskes, HRE emperor Otto the Great purportedly wanted Basil’s sister Anna to marry his son Otto II. However, John instead sent his niece Theophanu, while Anna was later married to Grand Prince Vladamir the Great of Kiev to secure a crucial alliance, and spread Orthodox Christianity among the Kievan Rus. (This led to Russia’s Tsars considering themselves the heirs to Roman and Byzantine emperors). Yet, as Boucher recounts, the new HRE empress consort brought a very important marriage gift to Otto — Byzantine style of the finest make:
During the period of prosperity from the ninth century to the thirteenth, the manufacture of textiles developed rapidly, especially in the Imperial workshops which worked for the exclusive use of the court. These textiles were dyed with dark red and violet purple, mixed with dark violet and yellow. The huge cloaks magnificently decorated with scenes were reserved for the Emperor. Sometimes the basileus sent these rich cloths as presents to foreign rulers, and we know that Theophanu brought textiles in her luggage when she married Otto in 972. Travelers, pilgrims and crusaders also contributed to their spread, but it was forbidden to export them, unlike inferior cloths, which could be exported on the delivery of a prefect’s order.
In The Complete History of Costume & Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day, Bronwyn Cosgrave highlights other fashion styles spread by Byzantine royals:
Enameling: The art of enameling spread westward to Byzantium from Persia and its production flourished between the 9th and 11th centuries. From here, Byzantine enameling techniques spread into Europe. [Theophanu], a Byzantine princess, introduced enameling to Germany when she married Otto II in the mid-10th century. A particularly popular style was cloisonné enameling. Invented by Greek goldsmiths, the cloisonné style featured a thin coating of white or pale blue enamel inlaid between slightly raised gold wire. They also enameled images such as flowers and other delicate patterns. The Byzantines invented techniques for producing colored glass, which they used to make small mirrors. These were regarded more as ornaments than functional tools.
Perfumes: Constantine VII (r. 945-59) took perfume with him on campaign, and Empress Zoe (978-1050) has been singled out as a scent lover. In her gynaeceum could be found scent burners and servants who bottled perfume for her own personal use.
Hairstyles: Men wore their hair in a short, cropped bob with a fringe on the forehead — a similar style to that worn by men during the empire in Rome. Another popular style was for the hair to be cut medium short and brushed away from the crown. Before the 9th century men were clean-shaven, but later they wore short, trimmed beards and mustaches. To mark their religious dedication, church dignitaries shaved the crown of their heads — a mark still known as a tonsure.
Next, we look at Leopold III, who at age 11, upon the death of both parents in 1751, became ruler of the small but prosperous principality of Anhalt-Dessau. Leopold became a duke when his lands were made a duchy by the HRE, shortly before he joined Napoleon Bonaparte’s client states in 1807 as part of the Confederation of the Rhine, and then later joined the German Confederation after Napoleon’s final defeat. Leopold died in 1817, after a fall from his horse, one day short of his 77th birthday, and of equaling the length of Basil II’s reign.
Leopold III of Anhalt-Dessau
While Byzantine style trends spread via imperial power, Leopold’s small domain held no such sway. The rulers of much larger neighboring powers were not shy about imposing their personal fashion sense, even on visitors they received — as detailed by Francois Boucher in 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment:
The royal pleasure controlled some modes right down to the last detail. Maria Theresa herself instituted a compulsory costume for her guests in Laxenburg Castle: a red cloth frock-coat over a gold-embroidered waistcoat for men, and a red gown woven with gold and silver and trimmed with lace for women.
Boucher adds that this compulsory-courtly-uniform approach was inevitably copied by Leopold’s fellow German princes:
In almost all the minor courts of Germany we find this mixture of rigid Spanish etiquette and attention to the latest lead from France. The latter influence was favored within the numerous princely castles and palaces built in imitation of Versailles.
We see the Dresden court impose scarlet and gold for men, blue and gold for women; Hesse created a special costume for each of the royal residences; in Munich the Elector Max-Joseph III not only stipulated that his guests at Nymphenburg must wear a green uniform piped with white round the lapels, but specified every detail of the costume to be worn by his courtiers during the thirty-three gala days each year.
As a youth, Leopold had taken after his father and joined the Prussian army. Yet, while Leopold II had been a valued general of Frederick the Great, the Prussian army’s loss to Austrian forces at the Battle of Kolin in 1757 soured the 15 year-old Leopold III on warfare, and he would strive thereafter to keep Anhalt-Dessau neutral during Europe’s war-torn decades to come. However, Boucher notes how the Prussian rulers Leopold once served had a fashion sense strongly influenced by national pride, and resisted imported style trends:
Frederick-William I (1713-1740), far from having the same tastes as his father Frederick I, despised splendor and elaborate clothing; his son, Frederick II the Great, had the same attitude even more strongly, and while expanding Prussia’s essential industries, importing sheep from Spain, improving cloth and cotton-dying mills, introducing silkworms, and planting mulberry trees, he threatened corporal punishment for anyone he saw wearing foreign silk or lace. He once threw the muff carried by one of his father’s courtiers into the fire, and forbade the wearing of cottons and indiennes, the import of which was suspended until 1750 in the Leipzig market.
As always in such situations, the commands of an authoritarian sovereign did not prevent French fashions from dominating an elegant society. Paris provided the models that were copied by German fashion periodicals, the first of which appeared between 1782 and 1787; French tailors travelled the length and breadth of Germany to propagate them.
The imitation of French modes led to absurdities and extravagances… Consequently we see Count Bruhl, the arbiter of elegance in Dresden, boasting of possessing five hundred suits, twelve muffs, forty-seven furs and one thousand five hundred wigs: ‘rather a lot’, remarked Frederick II, ‘to cover an empty head.’