Nicephorus Phocas

Nicephorus Phocas 963-969

Byzantine emperor (963-969), whose military achievements against the Muslim Arabs contributed to the resurgence of Byzantine power in the 10th century.

Born (912) in Cappadocia, Nicephorus was descended from the aristocratic family of Phokades from Cappadocia which possessed considerable tracts of land. Serving as Domestichos of the schools in the East, during the years of Romanos II's predecessor, he acquired a notable reputation and political power.

Nicephorus Phocas was the son of Bardas Phocas, an important Byzantine general in Anatolia, on the borders of the empire. He quickly embraced a military career and as a young patrician distinguished himself at his father's side in a war against the Hamdanid Arabs in the East, where he lost his brother Constantine Phocas at the battle of Germanikea (949). In 954-955 the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus named him commander in chief of the armies of the East - Magestros, to replace the aging Bardas. Nicephorus proceeded to restructure the army to reinforce discipline and improve recruiting. At this point he probably wrote the treatises on military tactics that are attributed to him.

The emperor Romanus II named him commander of a wartime expedition to liberate Crete (which had been controlled by the Arabs-Saracens ever since 826), at great cost to Aegean populations and international commerce. Muslim pirates who were called Saracens had devastated the greek islands, and terrorized the populations. In 904 they managed in an assault to take the second largest city of the Greek Empire, Thessalonica, exterminated the population and carried 25000 young boys and girls as slaves to the bazzars of Crete, Egypt and Tripolis. The Saracens were a real plague for the Byzantine Empire. In a few hours they could convert a flourishing city to a deserted area full of smoke and ruins.

According to Leon Diakonos, this enterprise mobilized the entire Greek fleet (more than 3000 ships=Dromones) and close to 24,000 men. The navy was excellent in organization and possessed the terrible greek fire, which rendered the Byzantine fleet invincible. Nicephorus gained the island with the capture of Chandax, now Iraklion, on March 7, 961. In a general massacre, the inhumanity of which revealed his fierce nature, he broke all Arab resistance. Aided by the monks, among whom was Athanasius, his spiritual director and founder of the Greek Orthodox monastery on Mt. Athos, Nicephorus achieved the reconsolidation of Christianity. He then returned to Constantinople with 'Abd al-'Aziz, the last amir of Crete, as his captive. This exploit, sung by the poet Theodosius the Deacon, realized the Byzantine dream (after dozens had failed to liberate Crete) of imperial mastery of the eastern Mediterranean. Crete's destiny would see it liberated again 1000 years later, as it came under Venetian (1204-1669) and Ottoman occupation (1669-1897).

At the same time, his brother Leon Phocas was producing great military successes, in Cilicia - the Tavrus mountains. He crushed the Arab army of Saif Edollach and liberated the cities of Edessa (Ufa), Karrai, Martyroupolis, Germanikeia (Maras), Melitini (Malatia). The crucial battle occurred in Andrassus city, a Byzantine castle, where the Greeks took the Arabs by surprise, returning from a raid in Byzantine territory.

In the autumn of 961, Nicephorus, having with him as general Ioannes Tzimisces (Armenian in origin), realized an enormous military campaign, consisting of 200,000 men, aiming to effect final blow against Saracens invaders. He liberated Tarsus, Adana, Alexandretta (Iskederum), Dolichi (Doluk), Ierapolis, Anazarbus, Flavioupolis (Sis), (cities of Cilicia), capturing more than 60 fortresses built on the precipitous slopes of Tavrus mountain. In an assault on December 23rd 962 he captured Verhia (Chalepion) the capital of Saif Edollach, and the Arab leader nearly fell into the hands of the Greek army.

After the death of Romanus II on March 15, 963, the situation in the capital changed. The Emperor's will had left a eunuch, Joseph Bringas, in charge of the affairs of state and the 22-year-old empress, Theophano, as acting regent for the legitimate emperors, Basil and Constantine, aged six and three, respectively. These circumstances do not seem to have tempted Nicephorus.

In spite of his great popularity, there was no indication that Nicephorus--whose physical appearance was reportedly not very agreeable and who seemed destined under the influence of Athanasius the Athonite to embrace the monastic life--would end up seducing and being seduced by the young and beautiful empress. If such a plan existed at the time (and there is reason to believe it did) it was probably the brainchild of the ambitious Theophano, who was unhappy with Bringas' government. The people of Constantinople, aroused by Basil the chamberlain (illegitimate son of Romanus Lecapenus), revolted against Bringas, and the imperial army, through the intermediation of John Tzimisces, and Romanus Kourkouas, Nicephorus' faithful lieutenants, "obliged" the soldier to accept the crown at Caesarea (capital of Cappadokia) on July 3, 963, and to march against Constantinople. On Aug. 16, 963, Nicephorus entered through Golden Gate and was crowned in Hagia Sophia in a magnificent ceremony, by patriarch Polyeuctus, and on September 20 he celebrated his marriage to Theophano.

Nikephoros was a deeply religious and ascetic man. After the death of his wife and only child, he abstained from other women and he refused to eat meat. He preferred to sleep on tiger's hide, than in silky sheets. Being a friend of St Athanasios of Athos, he contributed to the creation of the Great Lavra monastery and to the extension of the monastic life on Mount Athos.

At the same time, he issued the "Neara" law, restricting the growth of the ecclesiastic property and forbidding the concession of land to monasteries and ecclesiastic establishments, as he believed that wealth did not fit in with the spiritual nature of the Church and the ascetic lifestyle of the monks. The huge number of monks was a terrible problem for the Greek Empire, because its military power depended on mercenaries (Varags, Russians, Armenians, etc). In adittion, he reduced the principle of protimesis (preemption) on lands of dynatoi (powerful) or penetai (poor) to the members of their respective classes and provided for the support of the class of landed soldiers by fixing military estates at a non-appropriable limit value of 12 nomismata. In this way the soldiers were able to cover the expenses of their equipment.

In the spring of 964, as emperor, Nicephorus started a huge campaign aiming at a final blow against Arabs who continued to devastate the Christian cities of Cilicia and Cappadokia. His departure from Ieron Palation (Holy Palace) was made known to the garrisons on Tavrus mountains, in a few hours through a system of fires called fryctories. He left the Holy City and reached Nicaea. Along the march more and more soldiers joined. He passed Dorylaeon (Eskhi Sehir), the river Sagareos, Pessinous city, the lake of Tatta and reached the historical city of Caesarea (birth place of St. Basil). In July 964, the huge Greek army passed through the famous Ciliceae Pylae (Kulek Boghas), taking by storm more than 20 fortresses.

Later (965), Nicephorus captured Tarsus (birthplace of St. Paul) and Mopsouestia (an ancient Greek city) thus liberating all the region of Cilicia. Meantime Nikitas Halkountzes, Greek general, also liberated Cyprus, the martyric island which was always prey to the rapacity of predators (be they Frankish, Venetian, British, or Turkish). Simultaneously a huge Byzantine fleet, carrying 40,000 men, left Keratios (Golden Horn) and headed towards Sicily, where the Greek populations of Syrakousae, Tavromenion, Thermae, Panoromos, Messini, and Righion were suffering under Arab yoke. Only the city of Rametta still resisted. But this campaign failed - the fleet was destroyed and Sicily remained under Arab control.

Nicephorus' domestic policy evoked unanimous discontent: the hostility of the people to the new fiscal charges and coinage debasement required by military needs; the exasperation of ecclesiastical authorities over decisions against enrichment of the monasteries; the remonstrances of his spiritual director, Athanasius, against his private life; and the apprehensions of Theophano that her children would be ousted through the machinations of Leo Phocas. These all created a climate of intrigue and fear for the emperor. He fortified the Boukoleon palace, an act that made the population even more hostile.

But his military achievements were continuing. To counteract the Bulgar menace he sent Kalokyres from Herson (Crimaea) with precious presents to Sviatoslav (Russian leader) and spurred Russian intervention in the Danubian area, a policy that was not without danger for Byzantium, especially after his death. So, in 967, Sviatoslav attacked Bulgaria, ruled by tsar Petrus, from the north. According to greek writer Manasses, Bulgarians were took by surprise and were totally defeated.

In the West he fell into dispute with the new German emperor Otto I. Otto the Great, Emperor of Holy Roman Empire had created a strong state occuping also the whole italian peninsula except the southern part which resisted. The southern part was totally Greek, made up of the provinces of Apoulia and Kalavria. Although it was neglected by the central government of Constantinople, which was engaged with wars against Bulgars on north and Arabs on south, the Greek cities of Ydrous, Righion, Varhi (Bari), Katassaron (Catanzaro), Taras, Rouskianon, Kallipolis, Polukastron remained under Byzantine rule, and their administration was appointed Bishop of Miletus, Saint Nicephorus. According to Luitprand (Italian bishop) Nicephorus refused to allow Otto to bear the title of the Emperor of the Romans. He throwed in jail the German deputies who adressed him as him King of Greeks, because the Byzantines still claimed they were the succesors of the Ancient Roman Empire.

On October 29th 969, Michael Vourtzes and Petros Phocas, recovered Antiocheia (Theoupolis). It was the last military success of the Great Emperor. His military achievements made his reign one of the Byzantine Empire's most glorious. In the words of Gustave Schlumberger, his most exhaustive biographer, he inaugurated the Byzantine era in the East.

Due to his severity and his ascetic character - as well as because of his continuous military operations that cost the State so much and led to an increase in taxes and the military obligations of citizens - Nikephoros aroused hostility within the Empire. Smitten with the young woman and influenced by his brother Leo Phocas, whose self-interested machinations (he was accused of speculating on the price of wheat) stirred up the discontent of the people of Constantinople, Nicephorus gradually became taciturn and suspicious even of his best advisers, who, one after another, were removed from office. Abandoned by all, he retired to the fortified palace of Boukoleion, which he had built for his personal safety. During the night of 10th to 11th December 969, he was killed there by former friends, guided by Tzimisces and advised by Theophano.

Phocas was indeed a Nicephorus (Bringer of Victory) for the empire. The Byzantines surnamed him Kallinikos, artisan of good victories; the Arabs called him Nikfour. His death caused joy in the Muslim world and shook Christianity. His legend was quickly nourished with stories of his exploits and tragic death. Byzantine and even Bulgar poets were inspired by his exploits, and posterity has kept his memory alive: he is celebrated in the epic poetry of the frontier; the church beatified him (an acolouthie was composed in his honour); and the monks of Mt. Athos still venerate as their benefactor and founder Nicephorus, emperor and martyr. His life was summed up in the phrase inscribed on his sarcophagus: "You conquered all but a woman.".

BIBLIOGRAPHY. Gustave Schlumberger, Un Empereur byzantin au Xe siecle: Nicephore Phocas (1890).
Gustave Schlumberger, L'Epopee byzantine a la fin du Xe siecle, 3 vol. (1896-1905)
Many thanks to Binya Even