Michael Bourtzes

1. Short biography

The date of Michael Bourtzes’ birth is unknown, but most probably we can place it chronologically around 930-935. The origins of the Bourtzes family, who came from the region of Euphrates, are believed to be either Armenian or, according to another suggestion, Arab.1 The sources do not provide any information on Michael Bourtzes’s childhood or adolescence, but his subsequent career clearly shows that he must have had a good upbringing with emphasis on his military training. He was married and had two sons, Nikephoros and Constantine. His career started under Nikephoros II Phokas, when he is mentioned to hold the office of the general of the Black Mountain, namely the region of Tauros. The date of his death cannot be defined, but it must have been some time around the autumn of 995, when his traces are lost in the sources.

2. Career

2.1. Actions until 976

Michael Bourtzes’ promotion to higher-ranking military offices started during the reign of Nikephoros II Phokas. In 968 the Emperor, during his campaign in northwestern Syria, granted Michael Bourtzes the title of patrikios and appointed him general of the Black Mountain.2 This place was of special significance, since by that time the military operations of the Byzantines against the Arabs over the eastern border were clearly focused on northern Syria. As general of the Black Mountain, Bourtzes played the following year a lead role during the siege and fall of Antioch, which was for three centuries under Arab occupation. Having as a mission to supervise the city, which Phokas has blockaded since the autumn of 968, from the nearby fortress of Pagrae, Bourtzes managed during a risky night operation to capture with a few soldiers two of the city’s wall towers and to open the city gates to the Byzantine army who, under the leadership of stratopedarches Petros, entered triumphaly in the city on the 28th of October 969. However, this big success did not bring the analogous reward for Bourtzes, who got neither a promotion nor the commandment of the city, but on the contrary fell into the Emperor’s disfavor. A main reason for that must be considered the fact that Nikephoros II had given specific orders not to seize the city in his absence. Bourtzes disobeyed his orders and deprived the Emperor from another personal success, in a period during which Nikephoros's popularity among the people as well as the aristocracy of Asia Minor and the army had deeply fallen off.3 Phokas’ disposal towards Bourtzes played a crucial role in his active participation in the movement organized by John Tzimiskes and Empress Theophano against Nikephoros II that led to the assassination of the latter on the 10th of December 969. Under John I Tzimiskes Bourtzes retained his high-ranking militarty office as general and commander of selected units, taking part in many a campaign.

2.2. Activity from 976 until 995

After the accession of Basil II to the throne (January 976), Michael Bourtzes received the very importan dignity of doux of Antioch and the title of magistros. His appointment to such an important position was the rusult of the intervention of the parakoimomenos, Basil Lakapenos, who had undertaken administration of the State on the side of Basil II and tried to lessen Bardas Skleros’ power, who until then was holding the office of the domestikos ton scholon of the East. By placing Bourtzes at Antioch and demoting Skleros, who was sent to the duchy of Mesopotamia, the parakoimomenos was trying to separate the interests of the high-ranking military officers and to avoid their possible cooperation against central authority. This strategy at first place bore fruits, since Bourtzes did not side with Skleros in the beginning of the latter’s uprising, but he remained loyal to the imperial side. However, after the defeat of the imperial troops at Lapara-Lykandos (autumn 976), Bourtzes deserted to Skleros’ camp. It is not clear if his joining the enemy’s camp was dictated by personal interests or even sympathy for Skleros’s movement, or if it was the result of pressure and coercion, since Skleros had military supremacy. In 977, as commander of part of the rebellious army, Bourtzes was defeated at Oxylithos by the imperial troops. In the spring of 978, when the domestikos ton scholon of the East Bardas Phokas undertook the commandment of the imperial troops and the mission to suppress Skleros’ rebellion, Bourtzes switched camp for the second time and came back to the imperial side. Thus, the suppression of Skleros’ rebellion (spring 979) found him on the side of the winners. However, for the period 979-989 the information we have about Bourtzes is scant. Probably during that period he retained the office of general, without any particular distinction. During the rebellious movements of Bardas Phokas and Bardas Skleros, Bourtzes was one of the few illustrious members of Asia Minor’s military aristocracy that remained loyal to Basil II. As a reward for his support, in 989 the emperor appointed him anew doux of Antioch. From this place he confronted the Arabs’ attacks against the city, but in 994 he suffered a crushing defeat on the riverbanks of Orontes. In the autumn of 995 he was removed again by Basil, who was not satisfied with Bourtzes’ continuous failures against the Arabs.4 After 995 Michael Bourtzes’ traces disappear from the sources and it seems that he never played again any important role until his death.

1. For these two different views see Kazdan, A., Armjane v sostave gospodstvujušćego klassa vizantijskoj imperii XI-XII vv. (Erevan 1975), p. 85-88. According to Kazdan, A., “Bourtzes”, in Kazdan, A. (ed.), The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium 1 (Oxford – New York 1991), p. 317, the name Bourtzes comes either from the Arabic word “burj”, meaning tower, or from the placename Bourtzo-Soteriopolis near Trepizond.

2. Butner-Wobst, Th. (ed.), Ioannis Zonarae Epitomae Historiarum ΙΙ (Bonn 1841-1897), p. 508.13-16.

3. Leo Deacon presented these events under a different light, contrary to any other source. According to him, Nikephoros II received news of the capture of Antioch with positive feelings; see Hase, C.B. (ed.), Historiae Libri Decem (Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, Bonnae 1828), pp. 82-83. Nevertheless, given the historian’s sympathy towards Nikephoros II, and the tendency to embellish this Emperor’s actions in his works, one should doubt the accuracy of this particular information.

4. Cheynet, J.-C. – Vanier, J.F., Études prosopographiques (Byzantina Sorbonensia 5, Paris 1986), p. 23, and Cheynet, J.-C., Pouvoir et contestations à Byzance (963-1210) (Byzantina Sorbonensia 9, Paris 1990), p. 308.