Leo was the son of Basil I and Eudocia. Basil had Constantine, his eldest and only son of his first marriage with Maria, crowned co-Emperor in 869, but in 879, Constantine died. Basil loathed Leo and did all he could to prevent him inheriting the throne.
When Leo was sixteen he had been married against his will to a girl called Theophano. He refused to give up his first love Zoe Zautsina, but Basil banished her and imprisoned Leo for three months.
While hunting in the summer of 886 Basil had a riding accident. After lingering nine days in agony, he died on 29th August at the age of 74. Leo may have had a hand in the accident.
Leo VI thus succeeded to the throne at the age of 20. He seems to have been possessed of considerable charm, a first-rate academic mind, and very considerable learning. This seems to have earned him the title of sophotatos, "the most wise"; and it is as Leo the Wise that he is still known today.
In theory, Leo shared his throne with his brother, Alexander - but Alexander was a hard drinking hedonist with little interest in governing.
Leo made Stylian Zautses father of Zoe and possible co-conspirator in the death of his father, Master of the Offices and Logothete of the Course, in charge of Imperial policies. He sacked the Patriarch Photius and raised his youngest brother, Stephen, to the throne.
With Stylian Zautses and Stephen attending to business, Leo was able to work on a re-codification of Roman Law, replacing Justinian's Codes.
The Bulgarians were an old enemy, but after the conversion of King Boris the Byzantines had hoped that the two Christian peoples might now live in peace. In 889 Boris abdicated, leaving the throne to his son Vladimir. However, Vladimir identified with the boyar aristocracy which Boris had done his utmost to crush. Boris emerged from his monastery, seized back the government, deposed and blinded Vladimir and had his younger son Symeon proclaimed as ruler.
In Byzantium the news of his accession was greeted with relief, but in 894 Stylian Zautses awarded the monopoly of trade with Bulgaria to two of his own protégés, dramatically increasing the customs dues payable on goods imported into the Empire.
Within weeks, a Bulgar army had invaded Thrace. The Empire's most able general, Nicephorus Phocas, was urgently recalled from south Italy. Leo turned for assistance to the Magyars, a savage warrior people who were the northern neighbours of the Bulgars. Symeon retaliated by bribing another nomadic tribe, the Pechenegs, from the plains of southern Russia to attack the Magyars in the rear. The Magyars decided to call the whole thing off and continued their migration into the Pannonian plain - the land now called Hungary and which is still their home.
Leo was obliged to sue for peace, with an undertaking to pay a large annual tribute.
On 1st August 902 Taormina fell to the Arabs, the last Byzantine possession in Sicily, and the Muslim forces began a new advance into Cilicia. In 904 a Greek renegade, Leo of Tripoli, led a Saracen fleet up the Hellespont and into the Marmara Sea. When he was finally driven back he attacked and destroyed Thessalonica, taking more than 30,000 prisoners.
Leo's wife, Theophano, died on 10th November 897, much to his relief. He gave her a magnificent funeral and immediately sent for his beloved Zoe. Zoe's husband conveniently died and Leo and Zoe were married in 898. Zoe became pregnant, but to Leo's disappointment, she produced a girl, Anna. Zoe herself then died in 899.
Leo's desire for a successor led him to select a beautiful girl named Eudocia Baiana as his new wife. On Easter Sunday, 12th April 901, she presented him with a son, but she died in child-birth an the son quickly followed her.
Leo was determined to try again, but more than one marriage was frowned on by the Church. He took as his mistress the strikingly beautiful niece of the admiral Himerius, Zoe Carbonopsina - 'with eyes of coal'. Zoe's first child was a girl, but in September 905, a son was born. To legitimise the boy, a compromise was reached; Zoe would leave the palace and the Patriarch would consent to baptise the young prince, who was given the name Constantine (Constantine VII).
Within days Zoe was back in the palace, and the couple were married in a private chapel by a parish priest. The Church was furious and the Patriarch Nicholas denied Leo entry into St Sophia. With the help of Pope Sergius in Rome, Nicholas was forced to abdicate and a more compliant Euthymius enthroned as Patriarch. Now Constantine could become porphyrogenitus, "born in the purple".
In the autumn of 911 Leo sent Himerius on a final attempt to recapture Crete. For six months the admiral maintained the siege; but the defenders held firm. Then, in April 912, there arrived an urgent message from the capital: the Emperor's health had taken a sudden turn for the worse: he was unlikely to live. Reluctantly, Himerius gave up the siege and set sail for the Bosphorus. His ships were just rounding the island of Chios when they found themselves surrounded by a Saracen fleet under the command of Leo of Tripoli - he who had practically annihilated Thessalonica eight years before. Nearly all the Byzantine ships were sent to the bottom, Himerius himself narrowly escaping.
Leo lived just long enough to hear the news, and on the night of 11th May he died.