The Life of Nikephoros Phokas

Nikephoros II Phokas was the sole emperor of Byzantinium from 963 to 969. His brilliant military exploits contributed to the resurgence of the Byzantine Empire during the 10th century.

Who was Nikephoros II? Nikephoros II Phokas was the sole emperor of Byzantinium from 963 to 969. His brilliant military exploits contributed to the resurgence of the Byzantine Empire during the 10th century. In the east, he exhibited tactical prowess in the complete reconquest of Cilicia and of Crete, whilst also initiating the recapture of Cyprus, thereby opening the path for future Byzantine incursions into the Levant and the Jazira under future emperors, thus creating a safer, more secure empire not only for his successors, but also for his subjects, in that he, by bringing Crete and Cyprus under Christian rule, manage to spare much of the Aegean coastline from the devastating Arab raids which became commonplace over the 9th and early 10th Centuries. His reign, however, was not unmarred by controversy. In the west, relations with Bulgaria worsened, while Nikephoros was powerless to halt the Muslim conquest of Sicily. Incursions by the German emperor Otto II were also left unpunished. Nikephoros also had issues in the domestic sphere. His long wars resulted in increased taxes both on the people and on the church, while he also maintained unpopular theological positions which alienated many of his most powerful allies, including his top general and future emperor John Tzimiskes.

The Rise of Nikephoros: 912- 963

Nikephoros Phokas was born in around 912 and belonged to a Cappadocian Greek family which had a long history of producing prolific Byzantine generals, including Nikephoros’ father Bardas Phokas, his brother Leo Phokas, and his grandfather Nikephoros Phokas the Elder, who had all served as commanders of the field army. His mother, whose name is unknown, was a member of another powerful Anatolian Greek clan, the Maleinoi.

Nikephoros joined the army at an early age, and due in part to the distinguished military background of his family, and in part to his own military prowess, he quickly rose in power. He was appointed the military governor of the Anatolikon Theme in 945 under Emperor Constantine VII. In 954 or 955, Nikephoros replaced his father, Bardas Phokas, who consistently and disastrously lost battles both to the Hamdanid Arabs in Aleppo and to the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, as Domestic of the East, one of the top positions in the Byzantine army; he essentially took charge of the eastern Byzantine armies. From 955, the Hamdanid Dynasty of Aleppo entered a period of unbroken decline until their dissolution in 1002, at which point they were unable even to keep their independence, sending a yearly tribute to Constantinople. In June 957 Nikephoros embarked on a devastating if routine raid against the Hamdanids and managed to capture and destroy the regionally relevant city of Hadath, in the Cilicia region, controlled by the Hamdanids; the region is today in southeast Turkey. The Byzantines would continue to push their advantage against the Arabs until the collapse of the Hamdanids, especially in Cilicia, however, in 960 and 961, the army turned its focus to the reconquest of Crete.

From the ascension of Emperor Romanos II in 959, Nikephoros and his younger brother Leo Phokas were placed in charge of the eastern and western field armies respectively. In 960, a huge army was assembled at Constantinople for the purpose of the reconquest of Crete from the Muslim Arabs, who were known for their devastating raids on not only the Aegean coastline but also the Aegean islands. At the recommendation of the influential minister Joseph Bringas, Nikephoros was entrusted to lead this expedition against the emirate of Crete. Nikephoros successfully lead his fleet to the island and defeated a minor Arab force upon disembarkation near the minor port city of Almyros. He soon began a nine-month siege of the fortress town and capital of the region, Chandax, a city founded by the Arabs. Today the city is known by its Greek name, Heraklion, and is still and important region center of trade and administration, as it was then. Following a failed assault and many raids into the countryside, Nikephoros managed to collapse a part of the fortress walls using a medieval Greek version of mines, set of underneath the walls, and entered Chandax on 6 March 961, soon wresting control of the entire island from the Arabs. Following the conquest of Crete, Nikephoros soon returned to the east with a large and well-equipped army and almost immediately marched into Cilicia. In February 962, he captured Anazarbos, a major fortress town, while the major city of Tarsus ceased to recognize the Hamdanid Emir of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawla, as their sovereign, there by shuttling much of Cilicia into nominal independence. Nikephorus continued to ravage the Cilician countryside, defeating the governor of Tarsus, ibn al-Zayyat, in open battle; Zayyat later committed suicide on account of the disgrace brought on by the loss. Soon, Nikephoros returned to the regional capital of Caesarea (modern Kayseri), as was custom following these now routine raids. Upon the beginning of the new campaigning season, al-Dawla entered the Byzantine Empire and began to conduct his own regular raids. However, would prove fatal for him, as it left Aleppo dangerously undefended from a newly offensive Byzantine command. Nikephoros soon took the city of Manbij and, in December, an army split between Nikephoros and John Tzimiskes marches towards Aleppo, quickly routing an opposing force lead by Naja al-Kasaki. Al-Dawla’s force would catch up with the Byzantines, but he too was routed, and Nikephoros and Tzimiskes captured Aleppo on December 24. The loss of the city would prove to be both a strategic and moral disaster for the Hamdanids. It was probably on these campaigns that Nikephoros earned the nickname, “The Pale Death of the Saracens”. The capture of Aleppo, albeit only temporary, was devastating on a moral level for the Islamic world. The Hamdanids were considered by many as the front-line defenders against the forces of Christianity, and the sack of Aleppo was foreshadowing of a centuries-long collapse of Arab states as relevant and advanced countries which continues to this day.

On 15 March 963, the current Byzantine emperor Romanos II died unexpectedly at the age of twenty-six of uncertain causes. Both contemporary sources and later historians seem to either believe that the young emperor had exhausted his health with the excesses of his sexual life and his heavy drinking, or suspect that the Empress Theophano, his wife, poisoned him. Theophano had already gained a reputation as an intelligent and ambitious woman, and unfavorable accounts of her by later historians would characterize her as a woman known for ruthlessness in achieving her goals. Romanos had already crowned as co-emperors his two sons Basil II and Constantine VIII, but at the time of his death, Basil was only five years old, and Constantine only three years old, so Theophano was named regent.

Theophano, however, was not allowed to rule alone by the court aristocracy. Joseph Bringas, the eunuch palace official who had become Romanos’ chief councilor, maintained his position, and was thereby the highest de facto ranking official within Byzantine, as the two child-emperors did not exercise power. According to contemporary sources, he intended to keep authority in his own hands. He also tried to reduce the power of Nikephoros Phokas and the Phokas clan on the whole. The victorious general had been accepted as the actual commander of the army and maintained a strong connection to the aristocracy. Bringas was afraid that Nikephoros would attempt to claim the throne with the support of both the army and the aristocracy, which was exactly what he did. On July 2 in Caesarea, his armies, in coalition with his highest ranking officers in his favor, proclaimed Nikephoros emperor. From his position in Caesarea, and in advance of the news of his proclamation as emperor, Nikphoros sent a fleet loyal to him to secure the Bosphorus Strait against his enemies. Around the same time, he appointed his colleague, John Tzimiskes, as Domestic of the East, now taking on the formal roles of emperor by appointing officials. He then sent a letter to Constantinople requesting to be accepted as co-emperor. In response, Bringas locked down the city, forcing Nikephoros’ father Bardas Phokas to seek sanctuary in the Hagia Sofia, while his brother Leo Phokas escaped the city in disguise. Bringas was able to garner some support within the city from a few high ranking officers, namely Marianos Argyros, but he himself was not a skilled orator, and he was unable to attain the support of other popular officials such as the Patriarch Polyeuctus and the general and Eunuch Basil Lekapenos. The people of Constantinople soon turned against his cause, killing Argyros in a riot and soon forcing Bringas to flee. On August 16, Nikephoros was proclaimed emperor.

Military Success: The Eastern Front from 964-969

In the spring of 964, Nikephorus headed east. During the summer he captured the major cities of Anazarbos and Adana before withdrawing. Later that year Nikephoros attempted to quickly take Mopsuestia, a major fortress city, but failed, returning to Caesarea. It was around this time that Niketas Chalkoutzes instigated a coup on Cyprus, which at the time was a shared condominium between the Byzantines and the Arabs. In the summer of 965, the conquest of Cilicia began in earnest. Nikephorus and Tzimiskes seized Mopsuestia on July 13, while Leo Phokas forced Tarsus to capitulate on 16 August. With the fall of these two strongholds, Cilicia quickly collapsed, and was now bak in the hands of the Byzantines. In 967 or 968, Nikephoros managed to annexed the Armenian state of Taron through a series of diplomatic maneuvers. In 968, Nikephoros conducted a raid which reached the city of Tripoli in modern day Lebanon, raiding and sacking most of the fortresses along his path. His aim was to cut off Antioch from its allies: the city was unsuccessfully blockaded two times in 966 and 968, and so the emperor decided to take Antioch by hunger (so as not to damage to city) and left a detachment of 1500 men in the fort of Baghras, which lies on the road from Antioch to Alexandretta in Cilicia. The commander of the fort, the patrikios Michael Bourtzes, disobeyed the emperor’s orders and took Antioch with a surprise attack, supported by the troops of the stratopedarch Petros, a eunuch of the Phokas family. Bourtzes was subsequently dismissed from his position due to his insubordination, and he and his family were disgraced.

Military Failure: The Western Front from 962-969

Nikephoros’ first military failures, on the other hand, would come in Sicily. In 962 the son of the governor of Fatimid Sicily, Ahmad ibn al-Hasan al-Kalbi, captured and reduced the city of Taormina, one of the last Byzantine strongholds on the island. The last major Byzantine stronghold in Sicily, Rometta, soon appealed to the newly crowned emperor Nikephoros for aid against the approaching Muslim armies. Nikephoros soon renounced his payments of tribute to the Fatimid caliphs, and sent a huge fleet, purportedly boasting a size of arosund 40,000 men, under Patrikios Niketas and Manuel Phokas, to the island. The Byzantine forces, however, were swiftly routed both in Rometta and at the Battle of the Straits, and Rometta soon fell to the Muslims, completing the Islamic conquest of Sicily. In 967, the Byzantines and the Fatimids hastily concluded a peace treaty with the goal of the cessation of hostilities in Sicily. Both empires had grandeur issues to attend to: the Fatimids were preparing to invade Egypt, and tensions were flaring up on mainland Italy between the Byzantines and the German emperor Otto I. Tensions between the Germans and the Byzantines were consistently inflamed throughout the historical overlap of the two empires. This was largely due to mutual cultural biases, but also to the fact that both the Germans and the Byzantines claimed to be the successors of Rome. Conflicts in southern Italy were preceded by religious contests between the two empires and by the malicious writings of Liutprand of Cremona. Otto first invaded Byzantine Apulia in 968 but failed in an attempt to take Bari. Early the next year, he once again attempted to move against Byzantine Apulia and Calabria, but, failing to capture neither Cassano nor Bovino, failed to make any progress. In May he returned north, leaving Pandulf Ironhead to take charge of the conflict. However, he was quickly routed by the Byzantine general Eugenios and taken captive in Constantinople. Eugenios went on to besiege Capua and even take Salerno. The two empires would continue to make skirmishes with the other until after the reign of Nikephoros, but neither side was able to make permanent or significant gains.

Civil Controversy

Nikephoros also had many problems on the home front, despite being a general successful general. Nikephoros’ popularity was largely based on his conquests, and due to the resources, he allocated to his armies, Nikephoros was compelled to exercise a rigid economic policy in other departments. By his heavy imposts and the debasement of the Byzantine currency, along with the enforcement and implementation of taxes across the centralized regions of the empire, he forfeited his popularity with the people and gave rise to riots. He disagreed with the church on theological grounds. He wished the church to elevate those soldiers who died in battle against the Saracens to the positions of martyrs within the church, a highly controversial and unpopular demand. In 967 he sparked a controversy in the capital by making a display of his military maneuvers in the Hippodrome similar in style to those displayed by the emperor Justinian centuries earlier preceding the violent suppression of the Nika Revolt within the stadium itself. The crowd within the Hippodrome panicked and began a stampede to retreat from the stadium, resulting in numerous deaths.

The plot to assassinate Nikephoros began when he dismissed Michael Bourtzes from his position following his disobedience in the siege of Antioch. Bourtzes was disgraced, and he would soon find an ally with whom to plot against Nikephoros. Towards the end of 965, Nikephoros had John Tzimiskes exiled to eastern Asia Minor for suspected disloyalty. It is also possible that Nikephoros’ wife, Theophano, was involved in the plot. Both a popular and a powerful public figure, the exile of Tzimiskes ensured Nikephoros’ demise, and he was assassinated in his apartment by Tzimiskes himself on December 11 969. Following his death, the Phokas family broke into insurrection under Nikephoros’ nephew Bardas Phokas, but their revolt was promptly subdued as Tzimiskes ascended the throne.