Saturday, June 11, 2011

Emperor Nikephoros Phokas . "The pale death of the Saracens"

Nicephoros Phokas

Nikephoros Phocas was born in 912. In 943 he was appointed strategos(general with military and political authority) of the theme of Anatolikon. After 955 when he was appointed Domestikos of scholae(general of the eastern army) and he achieved many victories against the Arabs in the eastern frontier. The time for imperial recognition came in 959 when he was appointed general of the campaign for reconquering Crete.

The byzantines under Nikephoros Phokas capture Crete.
In 961 when the news about Nikephoros Phokas success in Crete arrived in Constantinople, he became very popular and festivities were organised in the hippodrome .After his success in Crete he returned to the eastern front to deal with the main rival of the Byzantines the Hamdanid emir who was based in Halepi(Aleppo).In 962 Nikephoros Phokas took the initiative to order an offensive and invaded Hamdanid Cilicia from his base Caesaria capturing many cities and forts. During the fall of the same year he entered Syria and sacked Halepi(Aleppo). It's worth to mention that second in command was the general and future emperor Ioannes Tzimisces.

Rise to the throne

Gold coin with Christ on the one side and Basil II and Nikephoros Phokas on the other
The emperor Romanos II died in 963 in undefinable circumstances. He was only 24 years old. His two heirs were only children at this time but both of them would become later emperors. The one was Basil(later Basil II the Bulgarslayer) and the other Constantine (later Constantine VI)  Thus the reign was passed to Romanos' wife , empress Theofano. Nikephoros took advantage of the lack of emperor and organised a new triumphant parade for his victories in the east in order to gain public support. The eunuch and prime minister Bringas cautious of Nikephoros' actions and because of a rumour of an alleged relationship with the empress made an attempt to finish him off. Nikephoros avoided being arrested by finding refuge in  the church of Aghia Sophia under the protection of the patriarch. The patriarch because of the public pressure persuaded the senate to keep the charismatic Nikephoros as a domestikos of scholae. Indeed Nikephoros swore an oath of faith to the children of Romanos and went to the East.

Nicephoros Phocas enters Constintinople in triumph
Bringas didn't give up, he considered Nikephoros Phokas a main enemy for his throne aspirations and attempted to organise a conspiracy by contacting the generals Ioannes Tzimisces and Romanos Kourkouas to get rid of Nikephoros. However the two generals revealed the plan of Bringas to Nikephoros and as a result the army of Caesaria declared Nikephoros as emperor in 963. At first Nikephoros showed some doubt about this decision(Byzantine sources refer though, that this was hypocritical). 

After these developments Nikephoros headed towards Constantinople. His arrival in the city was followed by riots and hostilities in the streets of the city between supporters of Bryggas and of Nikephoros. His popularity as a victorious general helped Nikephoros to win the crown eventually. In order to make his coronation legal he married empress Theophano. He respected the rights of Romanos' children and didn't try to establish a dynasty of  Phokas family.

Military activity
Cypriot post stamp about the liberation of Cyprus by Nicephoros Phocas

During Nikephoros' absence from the eastern front , Ioannes Tzimisces  had continued the Byzantine victories over the Arab armies. When Nikephoros returned as an emperor this time the army took once again the offensive to start conquering and consolidating their possessions this time. In a quick invasion of Cilicia Nikephoros secured the region by conquering the capital city called Adana. In 967 Nikephoros signed a peace treaty with the Arabs after his first defeat as  an emperor in a campaign to reclaim Sicily from the Arabs. However three years earlier he had succeeded to to capture the island of Cyprus which was a major supply base for  the Arabs for the war  in the Cilician front.

The Byzantine army pursuing the Bulgarian.
The news of the death of the last Hamdanid emir  allowed Nicephoros to turn his eyes towards the Balcan front. As part of the treaty of 927 the Bulgarians every year received a tribute in gold coins by the Byzantine emperor. Nikephoros used this as a pre text and declared war to the Bulgarians. His army invaded and conquered many cities and fortresses. Crucial to the result of the war was the Byzantine-Kievan Rus alliance by which the Rus forces invaded bulgaria from the north. In the same time the Holy Roman emperor Otto invaded the Lombard principalities of Southern Italy which were under Byzantine sphere of influence. Diplomacy failed after the disastrous  meeting of the ambassador Liutprand with Nikephoros Phokas in which Liutprand asked the hand of princess Anna Porfyrogenita(purpleborn) for the emperor Otto.The Byzantine sensitivity with issues like imperial marriages and also the fact that the German emperors claimed the title of the Roman emperor made things worse. As a result of all that, Otto besieged the Byzantine city of Bari in Italy and hostilities continued in the following years without a clear result.
Nikephoros Phokas greatest feat. The capture of Aleppo.

In the same time Nikephoros continued his invasion of the Levantine by conquering cities in Syria and even reaching  Phoenike(Lebanon) which was never under Byzantine control since the Arab expansion of the 7th century.In 968 he captured major cities like Akre, Laodicea(Latakya) and Tortossa. In 969 his generals captured the biggest city of Syria, Antioch after a long siege.

Internal policy
Nicephoros Phocas' depiction in an Athonite monastery

The military victories had given Nikephoros much fame and the people of Constantinople nicknamed him white death. However Nikephoros Phokas proved to be incapable of handling the internal affairs. He broke his good relations with the church by introducing a law which forbade  the creation of new monasteries cause monasteries and their property were excepted from imperial taxation and the empire was losing a significant amount of mone by this.

The people began to feel frustrated after so many years of heavy taxation for maintaining the offensive Byzantine armies. Nikephoros' indifference towards the citizens and his focus on the army made the situation even worse . The events of the easter of 967 when Armenian soldiers quarrelled with sailors at the docks and the death of hundreds of citizens in the hippodrome after a military display that went out of control after a slaughter of the citizens by the soldiers who tried to maintain order angered even more the population.
The Byzantine flag during Nicephoros Phocas' reign

Nicephoros towards the end of his regn became cautious with everyone. He even changed his residence moving to a better fortified palace that the people were calling it tyrraneion(tyrrant's house). Eventually Nicephoros might have lost his sanity as he began acting as a monk. He wore monk's clothing and was sleeping on the floor. Theophano who was feeling neglected by Nikephoros already had started a relationship with Ioannis Tzimisces who was the Nicephoros' right hand. Ioannes Tzimisces along with other generals organised a plot and killed Nicephoros in his room after they woke him up. The imperial guards arrived late and Ioannes Tzimisces showed them the cut head of Nikephoros to prevent any useless bloodshed for a dead emperor.

On a blustery night, the conspirators went into the palace dressed as women. Nikephoros was warned that assassins were in the palace, and demanded the palace be searched. The guards however left the empresses' room unsearched, and the assassins avoided capture. Later, when Nikephorus was asleep on the floor before the holy icons,Tzimiskes and the others sneaked into his bed chamber, alarmed at first to find the bed empty (Nikephoros frequently slept on the floor). Aroused by the noise, Nikephoros rose just as one of the assassins swung his sword in an attempt to decapitate him. It struck him in the face, and he was then dragged to the foot of the bed, where Tzimiskes sat.

Tzimiskes then shouted:
"Tell me, most senseless and malicious tyrant, was it not through my actions that you attained the heights of Roman power? How therefore did you pay no regard to such a good service? How, blinded by malice and madness, did you thus not hesitate to remove me, your helper, from command of the army?...

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