The Rebellion of Bardas Phokas the Younger

During the second half of the tenth century the Byzantine Empire managed to conquer a slew of new territories, largely thanks to the Phokas clan, an aristocratic family who consistently produced competent generals.

The Rebellion of Bardas Phokas the Younger was a major Byzantine civil war fought mostly in Asia Minor. During the second half of the tenth century the Byzantine Empire was characterized by emperors either devoted to or forced into long periods of campaigning mostly in the Middle East, Crete, Cyprus, Antioch; many other territories were also conquered during this period. The success Byzantium experienced in these conquests was largely thanks to the Phokas clan, an aristocratic family who consistently produced competent generals. Indeed, during the reigns of Nikephoros II Phokas and his nephew John I Tzimiskes, these aristocratic generals supplanted the legitimate heirs of the Macedonian dynasty, the adolescent brothers Basil II and Constantine VIII, as the true rulers of the empire. When Tzimiskes died in 976, Basil II ascended to power. Quickly, however, tensions began to flare up within the royal court itself as the purple-born emperor attempted to reign fully out of the influence of the established court eunuchs. The figureheads behind the simmering tensions in the capital would come to blows in a major rebellion lead by Bardas Phokas the Younger, the most powerful man left of the old Phokas regime.

Prelude to the rebellion

The war was sparked by tensions circulating between the newly crowned emperor Basil II and the Phokades-Lekapenos clan. In 985, Basil dismissed the longtime chief minister, the eunuch Basil Lekapenos, who had in essence been in control of the empire up to that point. He first placed him under house arrest in Constantinople and then later exiled him and confiscated his possessions. Following this, Basil attempted to weaken the general power of the Phokades-Lekapenos clan and their supporters across the empire. Throughout 985 he demoted or dismissed suspected sympathizers. Bardas Phokas the Younger was demoted from Domestic of the Schools of the East to mere doux of the East, with nominal authority over Antioch, while the former doux of Antioch, a supporter of Lekapenos, Leo Melissenos, was recalled to the capital. Basil also recalled the katepano of Italy, Delphinas, as he too was a supporter of Lekapenos. Even the poet Ioannes Geometres was dismissed from service in the military on suspicion of supporting the Phokades-Lekapenos clan.

It was around this time that Bulgarian forces once again began to raid into Byzantine Greece. Basil, however, saw this as an opportunity: by crushing the Bulgarian forces, he could legitimize his rule at home while diminishing the distinguished military record of the Phokades carried on by Bardas Phokas in the east, as this was his main catalyst of support, he himself being a poor tactician. He departed for the western front in 986 and reached Serdica (modern Sofia) by summer. He besieged the city for twenty days before becoming worried on account of circulating rumors that Melissenos was planning a coup in the capital. He began the journey home, however, on August 16, he was ambushed by the forces of the Bulgarian Tsar Samuel at the Gates of Trajan. His forces were scattered, and Basil was disgraced by the defeat. Not only was Samuil able to reconquer much of the former Bulgarian Empire in Greece, taken by John Tzimiskes decades earlier, but support for Basil’s reign fragmented both in Constantinople and in the east. Worse yet, news of the disastrous defeat would reach as far as Baghdad, where the former rebel Bardas Skleros had been granted asylum by the ruling Buyid dynasty.

Beginning of hostilities

In a formal treaty in December 986, Skleros agreed to a number of concessions to the Buyids, including an exchange of Muslim prisoners, and cession of certain border fortresses, provided that they would provide him with support in an open rebellion against the Byzantine Empire. The Buyids, however, did not assist Skleros with a standing army; instead he recruited Arab tribesmen and Armenians on his way to the Byzantine border. In February 987, he reached Melitene, which surrendered to him, and he declared himself emperor in coalition with his supporters in the officer class. The Emir of the Buyid Emirate, however, Samsam al-Dawla, who had supported Skleros, was overthrown the same year, and while formal support from Baghdad continued, in reality the possibility of actual Buyid intervention in the war all but vanished. At Melitene, Skleros was able to confiscate large quantities of gold and provisions, as well as corral local support, including from the Kurdish chieftain Bad ibn Dustuk, who would supply him with troops.

Meanwhile, Basil attempted to counter the invasion of Skleros by elevating Bardas Phokas back to Domestic of the East. Phokas, however, who was already in control of most of Byzantine Asia Minor, in turn rebelled against Basil. Phokas then appealed to Skleros to join his cause, as Phokas, despite being the inferior tactician, commanded a much stronger force. The two came upon an agreement that if they were victorious, they would partition the empire, with Skleros taking Antioch and the eastern provinces and Phokas taking the rest. Skleros reacted positively to the plan. However, upon meeting in Cappadocia, Phokas promptly had him imprisoned and took over the rebellion for himself. Following this, Skleros’ Arab contingents returned home; Phokas now controlled all of Byzantine Asia Minor. Phokas quickly moved his armies towards the Bosphorus Strait in an attempt to blockade Constantinople and eventually cross into Europe and besiege the capital itself. While Phokas encamped on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, Delphinas, Phokas’ ally and the former katepano of Italy, encamped at Chrysopolis. Phokas attempted to take Abydos without success, leaving Melissenos in charge of the siege, while Delphinas attempted to block grain imports into Constantinople, also without success, as Basil’s forces were able to use their command of the Black Sea to bring in food from loyalist coastal cities such as Trebizond.

Basil turns the tide

At this time, Basil II made a foreign policy decision which would alter the course of eastern European history forever. In exchange for Rus’ assistance in his civil war, and a guarantee to Christianize Russia, Basil agreed to marry off his sister, Anna, to the grand prince of Rus’, Vladimir the Great. Early in 988, Vladimir’s forces arrived in Byzantium with his own troops along with a contingent of 6,000 Varangian Scandanavians. The same year Basil crossed the Bosporus and took Delphinas’ camp by surprise, defeating his troops and taking him into custody. He was swiftly executed, as Basil’s forces continued to move onward. As this offensive continued, the Georgian loyalist Gregory Taronites landed in Trebizond. He soon began to ravage Phokas’ backline with impunity, attempting to move towards the Euphrates. Phokas sent his son, named Nikephoros, to the king of Tao, David III, in order to procure new troops for the rebellion. He managed marshaled 2,000 Caucasian troops in support of the Phokades.

Taronites was defeated by Phokas’ son, but Nikephoros’ armies soon disbanded and returned to their respective homelands as they heard of the defeat at Chrysopolis. In early 989, Phokas became more and more desperate for a victory, and intensified the Siege of Abydos. Basil, however, was speedily approaching his camp, and Phokas had no choice but to make preparations for battle. He died, suddenly, possibly of a seizure, on April 16, before the battle could begin. The rebellion quickly disintegrated without his leadership. On November 3, Leo Phokas, under pressure from his people, surrendered Antioch. Many of Phokas’ former followers wished to continue the fight under Skleros, and so they released him from captivity, but he was by now in his late 60’s, and was tired of the fight. By October, he negotiated a surrender with Basil, guaranteeing his amnesty. He retired to Didymoteichon, where he died on March 6, 991.

Despite the inherently destructive nature of most rebellions, Bardas Phokas’ rebellion, in fact, provided the Byzantine Empire with many long-term benefits. The most obvious of these was that the resource-depleted David III was now in no position to withstand a concentrated Byzantine attack on his Iberian territories, and his countries were quickly overrun in the years after the civil war in retaliation for his support of Phokas. The Rus’ emerged from the civil war the newest Christian state in Europe, and one of the largest, largely as a result of the diplomacy sparked by the rebellion. The Rus’ would continue to prove a Byzantine-aligned state for centuries, following their path in the schism of 1054. The civil war also highlighted the inability of both the Buyids and the Fatimids to effectively influence Byzantine politics in a meaningful way despite their supposed military might and control of the Caliph. The rebellion also paved the way for the future conquests of Basil II, as he had effectively displaced the majority of his internal critics and could now focus his attention on the frontiers.