Leo VI The Wise: Was He Really?

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In the ninth century A.D., the Byzantine Empire was experiencing some of its best days during its 1,000 years of existence. But with the dictatorial connotation of the words “

In the ninth century A.D., the Byzantine Empire was experiencing some of its best days during its 1,000 years of existence. But with the dictatorial connotation of the words “emperor” and “empire,” it’s possible that the reign of Leo VI the Wise might have been the catalyst for that connotation.

During the Roman Empire and the first couple centuries of the Byzantine Empire, emperors did have a lot of executive power, but there was an imperial legislature, called a senate, which debated and passed much legislation that ran the Empire as a whole, Emperors were mostly left for proclamations and executions of the laws which the senate passed. But much of that changed when Leo VI rose to power in 886 A.D.

Leo, whose lineage was questioned (it was unclear of his father was Emperor Michael III or his direct predecessor, Basil I, as Basil’s wife took a lover), rose to the throne upon Basil’s death in 886, and he reigned until 912. Leo developed the name Leo the Wise or Leo the Philosopher because he was more educated than many of his contemporaries at the time, and he was known more as a scholar-emperor than a soldier, which was the more common background of past rulers.

Leo was prolific in much of his more scholarly work, as he codified and collected much of the past Roman and Byzantine codes and developed some of his own treatises that would bring the past more in line with the realities of the current-day Empire. He wrote much about virtually all aspects of imperial society, from the military to Roman law to precedent order to even the guilds. He addressed much of the past (sometimes exaggerated, by some claims) and re-constituted traditions to meet the changes of the Empire during that period.

Usually known as a mighty army in the world, the Byzantine military suffered a string of defeats under Leo’s watch, most notably a war with the Bulgars which resulted in Byzantium paying an annual tribute to the Bulgars following defeat. While Leo made an impression and a legacy with his writings, he was most known for two things – imperial ruling changes and a battle with the Church.

For centuries, the senate in the Empire was the main governing body in terms of developing laws for the Empire. But during Leo’s reign, he was able to massage more power away from the senate to when, by the time he dided, the senate was not much more than a legacy entity, having lost most of its tradition and powers, which essentially led to a benevolent dictatorship where more legislative and executive power resided with the emperor and his appointees.

The second legacy for Leo was the battle with the Church over his marriages. Determined tohave a male heir to his throne, Leo had three different wives and intended to marry a fourth, but Church patriarch Nicholas Mysticus declared it illegal according to church law (though even the third was considered illegal as well). Leo then took a mistress called Zoe, who gave birth to a son named Constantine. Because of this birth, Leo was allowed to marry Zoe in 904 (when Constantine was 3 years old), but with such pentalties as not being allowed to declare his wife empress to the empire and to not be in the line of succession.

Leo VI died in 912, and his son, Constantine VII, ascended to power at age 11. Thanks to his dad, there was an emphasis on “power.”