NOTE: It is often taught that the Eastern Orthodox Church does not have the same issues that are found in the history of the post-Schism Western Catholic Church—i.e., Witch hunts, Inquisitions, Convert or Die methodologies, pogroms, genocides, and other such atrocities and injustices. In cases where such atrocities may have occurred in Orthodox lands, they are quickly dismissed as isolated incidents and not sanctioned by the Church (in contrast to the Western atrocities sanctioned by the Pope). The case of Basil the Physician’s death sentence is an interesting blot on Byzantine Church history because his condemnation and execution was validated and ordered by Patriarch Nicholas III and Emperor Alexius I Comnenus.
Basil the Physician (died 1118) was the Bogomil leader condemned as a heretic by Patriarch Nicholas III of Constantinople and burned at the stake by Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus.
Basil first came to the attention of the emperor after imperial officers had tortured a member of the Bogomil sect, named Diblatius, to reveal the identity of their leader. He admitted that Basil was their leader and that he had selected twelve teachers to act as his apostles. This sect, noted for their Manichaean tendencies, iconoclastic principles and their detestation of the Orthodox hierarchy, had been rapidly gaining adherents throughout Alexius’ reign, and began to cause alarm among the Byzantine clergy. Eager to confront this threat, he was ordered to appear before the emperor.
Basil was convicted and condemned as a heretic before the patriarchal tribunal of Nicholas the Grammarian. Refusing to renounce his opinions, Basil was ordered to be burnt at the stake. Though the sentence was passed in 1110, the execution was delayed for eight years. During this time, every attempt was made to convince Basil to retract his opinions, as Alexius was keen to be known as a converter of heretics. He failed, and eventually Alexius decided to put the man to death, especially as rumours began to circulate that Basil’s firmness was due to his belief that angels would descend from heaven to release him from the stake. He was burned as a heretic in the hippodrome of Constantinople.
FROM ANNA KOMNENA, THE ALEXIAD, BOOK XV: 8-10.
After this, in the course of the years of his reign, a very great cloud of heretics arose, and the nature of their heresy was new and hitherto quite unknown to the church. For two very evil and worthless doctrines which had been known in former times, now coalesced; the impiety, as it might be called, of the Manichaeans, which we also call the Paulician heresy, and the shamelessness of the Massalians. This was the doctrine of the Bogomils compounded of the Massalians and the Manichaeans. And probably it existed even before my father’s time, but in secret; for the sect of the Bogomils is very clever in aping virtue. And you would not find any long-haired worldling belonging to the Bogomils, for their wickedness was hidden under the cloak and cowl. A Bogomil looks gloomy and is covered up to the nose and walks with a stoop and mutters, but within he is an uncontrollable wolf. And this most pernicious race, which was like a snake hiding in a hole, my father lured and brought out to the light by chanting mysterious spells.
For now that he had rid himself of much of his anxiety about the East and the West he turned his attention to more spiritual matters. For in all things he was superior to other men; in teaching he surpassed those whose profession was teaching; in battles and strategy he excelled those who were admired for their exploits. By this time the fame of the Bogomils had spread everywhere. (For Basil, a monk, was very wily in handling the impiety of the Bogomils; he had twelve disciples whom he called ‘apostles,’ and also dragged about with him some female disciples, wretched women of loose habits and thoroughly bad, and he disseminated his wickedness everywhere.) This evil attacked many souls like fire, and the Emperor’s soul could not brook it, so he began investigating the heresy. He had some of the Bogomils brought to the palace and all proclaimed a certain Basil as the teacher and chief representative of the Bogomilian heresy. Of these, one Diblatius was kept in prison, and as he would not confess when questioned, he was subjected to torture and then informed against the man called Basil, and the disciples he had chosen. Accordingly the Emperor entrusted several men with the search for him. And Satanael’s arch-satrap, Basil, was brought to light, in monk’s habit, with a withered countenance, clean shaven and tall of stature. The Emperor, wishing to elicit his inmost thoughts by compulsion under the disguise of persuasion, at once invited the man on some righteous pretext. And he even rose from his chair to greet him, and made him sit by him and share his table, and threw out his whole fishing-line and fixed various baits on the hooks for this voracious whale to devour. And he made this monk, who was so many-sided in wickedness, swallow all the poison he offered him by pretending that he wished to become his disciple, and not he only, but probably his brother, the Sebastocrator Isaac, also; he pretended too to value all the words he spoke as if they came from a divine voice and to defer to him in all things, provided only that the villain Basil would effect his soul’s salvation. “Most reverend father,” he would say (for the Emperor rubbed sweets on the rim of the cup so that this demoniac should vomit forth his black thoughts), “I admire thee for thy virtue, and beseech thee to teach me the new doctrines thy Reverence has introduced, as those of our Churches are practically worthless and do not bring anybody to virtue.” But the monk at first put on airs and he, that was really an ass, dragged about the lion’s skin with him everywhere and shied at the Emperor’s words, and yet was puffed up with his praises, for the Emperor even had him at his table. And in all this the Emperor’s cousin [?] the Sebastocrator, aided and abetted him in the play; and finally Basil spued out the dogmas of his heresy. And how was this done? A curtain divided the women’s apartments from the room where the two Emperors sat with the wretch who blurted out and openly declared all he had in his soul; whilst a secretary sitting on the inner side of the curtain committed his words to writing. And the nonsense-monger seemed to be the teacher while the Emperor pretended to be the pupil, and the secretary wrote down his doctrines. And that man, stricken of God, spun together all that horrible stuff and did not shun any abominable dogma, but even despised our theology and misrepresented all our ecclesiastical administration. And as for the churches, woe is me! he called our sacred churches the temples of devils, and our consecration of the body and blood of our one and greatest High Priest and Victim he considered and condemned as worthless. And what followed? the Emperor threw off his disguise and drew the curtain aside ; and the whole senate was gathered together and the military contingent mustered, and the elders of the church were present too.
The episcopal throne of the Queen of Cities was at that time occupied by that most blessed of patriarchs, Lord Nicholas, the Grammarian. Then the execrable doctrines were read out, and proof was impossible to attack. And the defendant did not deny anything, but immediately bared his head and proceeded to counter-demonstrations and professed himself willing to undergo tire, scourging and a thousand deaths. For these erring Bogomils believe that they can bear any suffering without feeling pain, as the angels forsooth will pluck them out of the fire. And although all . . . and reproached him for his impiety, even those whom he had involved in his own ruin, he remained the same Basil, an inflexible and very brave Bogomil. And although he was threatened with burning and other tortures he clung fast to his demon and embraced his Satanael. After he was consigned to prison the Emperor frequently sent for him and frequently exhorted him to forswear his impiety, but all the Emperor’s exhortations left him unchanged. But we must not pass over in silence the miracle which happened to him. Before the Emperor had begun to take severe measures against him, after his confession of impiety he would occasionally retire to a little house which had recently been prepared for him situated fairly close to the royal palace. It was evening and the stars above were shining in the clear air, and the moon was lighting up that evening, following the Synod. When the monk entered his cell about midnight, stones were automatically thrown, like hail, against his cell, and yet no hand threw them, nor was there any man to be seen stoning this devil’s abbot.
It was probably a burst of anger of Satanael’s attendant demons who were enraged and annoyed because he had betrayed their [secrets?] to the Emperor and roused a fierce persecution against their heresy. A man called Parasceviotes who had been appointed guard over that infatuated old man to prevent his having intercourse with others and infecting them with his mischief, swore most solemnly that he had heard the clatter of the stones as they were thrown on the ground and on the tiles, and that he had seen the stones coming in successive showers but had not caught a glimpse anywhere of anyone throwing the stones. This throwing of stones was followed by a sudden earthquake which had shaken the ground, and the tiles of the roof had rattled. However Parasceviotes, as he asserted, was quite unafraid before he suspected it was the work of demons, but when he noticed that the stones seemed to be poured down like rain from above and that the old heresiarch had slunk inside and had shut himself in, he attributed the work to demons and was not able to whatever was happening.
Let this be sufficient about that miracle. I wished to expound the whole heresy of the Bogomils, but ‘modesty prevents me,’ as the beautiful Sappho says somewhere, for though a historian, I am a woman and the most honourable of the Porphyrogeniti and Alexius’ eldest scion, and what is the talk of the vulgar had better be passed over in silence. I am desirous of writing so as to set forth a full account of the Bogomilian heresy; but I will pass it over, as I do not wish to defile my tongue. And those who wish to understand the whole heresy of the Bogomils I will refer to the book entitled Dogmatic Panoply, which was compiled by my father’s order. For there was a monk called Zygabenus, known to my mistress, my maternal grandmother, and to all the members of the priestly roll, who had pursued his grammatical studies very far, was not unversed in rhetoric, and was the best authority on ecclesiastical dogma; the Emperor sent for him and commissioned him to expound all the heresies, each separately, and to append to each the holy Fathers’ refutations of it; and amongst them too the heresy of the Bogomils, exactly as that impious Basil had interpreted it. The Emperor named this book the Dogmatic Panoply, and that name the books have retained even to the present day. But now my story must return to Basil’s death.
The Emperor had summoned Basil’s disciples and fellow mystics from all over the world, especially the so-called twelve disciples and made trial of their opinions, and found that they were openly Basil’s followers. For the evil had gone deep even into very great houses and had affected a very large number. Consequently he condemned those aliens to be burnt, the leader of the chorus and the chorus too. When the Bogomils who had been discovered, were assembled, some clung to their heresy, while others recanted absolutely and resisted their accusers strongly and expressed their abhorrence of the Bogomihan heresy. The Emperor was not inclined to believe them, and to prevent many a Christian being confounded with the Bogomils as being a Bogomil, and a Bogomil escaping as a Christian, he invented a new device for revealing clearly those who were really Christians. Accordingly the next day he took his seat on the imperial throne and many of the senate and the Holy Synod were present and a chosen few of the monks who were learned men. Then all the Bogomils accused of heresy were placed together in  the centre and the Emperor commanded each to be examined again. Some confessed to being Bogomils and adhered stoutly to their heresy, while others denied it absolutely and called themselves Christians and when accused by others did not yield an inch, so he glowered at them and said, “Today two pyres shall be lighted and on one of them a cross shall be fixed in the ground itself. Then you shall all be given your choice and those who are ready to die to-day for their Christian faith, can separate themselves from the others and walk to the pyre with the cross, while those who cling to the Bogomilian heresy shall be thrown on the other. For it is better that even Christians should die, than live to be persecuted as Bogomils and offend the consciences of many. Go now and let each one of vou choose his station.”
With this verdict against the Bogomils the Emperor pretended to have closed the matter. They were at once taken and led away and a large crowd had gathered and stood round about them. Then pyres were lighted, ‘seven times as large as they were wont to be,’ as the hymn-writer says, in the place called Tzycanisterin [*= the palace polo grounds]; the flames rose to the heavens, and the cross stood above the one; each of the condemned was given his choice to walk to which of the two pyres he wished, as all were destined to be burnt. Seeing that there was no escape, the orthodox among them walked to the pyre with the cross, ready really to suffer martyrdom; whereas the godless ones who clung to their abominable heresy turned to the other. And they were all on the point of being thrown on the pyres at the same time and the bystanders all grieved for the Christians who were now to be burnt, and were very wroth against the Emperor, for they were ignorant of his plan. But an order from the Emperor came just in time to prevent the executioners carrying out their duties. Having in this way obtained certain proof of those who were really Bogomils he released the Christians, who had been falsely accused, with many admonitions. The others he recommitted to prison, but had the impious Basil’s apostles separated from the rest. And these he sent for daily, and taught some himself, exhorting them earnestly to abandon their hideous religion, and for the others he ordered some picked men of the hierarchy to come every day and teach them the orthodox faith and advise them to relinquish the Bogomilian heresy. And some of them did change for the better and were released from confinement, but others were kept in prison and died in their heresy, but were amply supplied with food and clothing.
However all the members of the Holy Synod and the chief monks, as well as the patriarch of that time, Nicholas, decreed that Basil who was the heresiarch and quite unrepentant, deserved to be burnt. The Emperor was of the same opinion and after conversing with him several times and recognizing that the man was mischievous and would not abandon his heresy, he finally had an immense pyre built in the Hippodrome. A very large trench was dug and a quantity of wood, all tall trees piled up together, made the structure look like a mountain. When the pile was lighted, a great crowd slowly collected on the floor and steps of the circus in eager expectation of what was to happen. On the opposite side a cross was fixed and the impious man was given a choice, for if he dreaded the fire and changed his mind, and walked to the cross, then he should be delivered from burning. A number of heretics were there watching their leader Basil. He shewed himself contemptuous of all punishment and threats, and while he was still at a distance from the fire he began to laugh and talk marvels, saying that angels would snatch him from the middle of the fire, and he proceeded to chant these words of David’s, ‘It shall not come nigh thee; only with thine eyes shalt thou behold.’ But when the crowd stood aside and allowed him to have a free view of that terrifying sight, the burning pyre (for even at a good distance he could feel the fire, and saw the flames rising high and as it were thundering and shooting out sparks of fire which rose to the top of the stone obelisk which stands in the centre of the Hippodrome), then the bold fellow seemed to flinch from the fire and be disturbed. For as if wholly desperate, he constantly turned away his eyes and clapped his hands and beat his thigh. And yet in spite of being thus affected by the mere sight he was adamant. For the fire did not soften his iron will, nor did the messages sent by the Emperor subdue him. For either great madness had seized him under the present stress of misfortunes and he had lost his mind and had no power to decide about what was advantageous; or, as seems more likely, the devil that possessed his soul had steeped it in the deepest darkness. So there stood that abominable Basil, unmoved by any threat or fear, and gaped now at the fire and now at the bystanders. And all thought him quite mad for he did not rush to the pyre nor did he draw back, but stood fixed and immovable on the spot he had first taken up. Now many tales were going round and his marvellous talk was bandied about on every tongue, so the executioners were afraid that the demons protecting Basil might perhaps, by God’s permission, work some wonderful new miracle, and the wretch be seen snatched unharmed from the middle of the mighty fire and transported to some very frequented place. In that case the second state would be worse than the first, so they decided to make an experiment. For, while he was talking marvels and boasting that he would be seen unharmed in the middle of the fire, they took his cloak and said, “Now let us see whether the fire will touch your garments,” and they threw it right into the middle of the pyre. But Basil was so uplifted by the demon that was deluding him that he said, “Look at my cloak floating up to the sky! ” Then they ‘recognizing the web from the edge,’ took him and pushed him, clothes, shoes and all, into the middle of the pyre. And the flames, as if deeply enraged against him, ate the impious man up, without any odour arising or even a fresh appearance of smoke, only one thin smoky line could be seen in the midst of the flames. For even the elements are excited against the impious; whereas, to speak truthfully, they spare those beloved of God, just as once upon a time in Babylon the fire retreated from those young men who were dear to God, and enclosed them like a golden chamber. In this case the men who lifted up the accursed Basil had scarcely placed him on the pyre before the flames seemed to dart forward to snatch hold of him. Then the people looking on clamoured loudly and demanded that all the rest who belonged to Basil’s pernicious sect should be thrown into the fire as well, but the Emperor did not allow it but ordered them to be confined in the porches and verandahs of the largest palace. After this the concourse was dismissed. Later, the godless ones were transferred to another very strong prison into which they were cast and after pining away for a long time died in their impiety. This was the last and crowning act of the Emperor’s long labours and successes and it was an innovation of startling boldness.
And I think that men who lived then and associated with him must even now be marvelling at what was done then and think it was not real, and it must seem a dream and mere vision to them. For ever since the time when shortly after Diogenes’ accession the barbarians first overstepped the boundaries of the Roman Empire and he at first start, as they say, made his disastrous expedition against them, from that time right on to my father’s reign the barbarian power was never checked, but swords and spears were whetted against the Christians and there were battles, wars and massacres. Cities were wiped out, countries were laid waste, and the whole Roman territory was defiled with the blood of Christians. For some perished miserably by darts or spears, while others were driven from their homes and led away captive to the cities of Persia. And dread seized them all and they hurried to hide themselves from the dangers that threatened, in the caves and groves and mountains and hills. Among these some lamented aloud over the ills which their friends who had been taken away to Persia were suffering; the few others who still survived in the Roman lands were sighing deeply, and lamenting, one for a son, another for a daughter; or weeping for a brother or a nephew cut off before his time, and shedding bitter tears like women. In fact there was no condition of life free from tears and groans. Of the Emperors not one except a few, I mean Tzimisces and the Emperor Basil, before my father’s time ever dared touch the land of Asia at all, even with their toes.