Nikephoros II Phokas

Nikephoros II Phokas

Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas
Emperor of the Byzantine Empire
Reign 16 August 963 – 11 December 969
Predecessor Romanos II
Successor John I Tzimiskes
Born circa 912
Died 11 December 969 (aged 57)
Burial Church of the Holy Apostles
Spouse Theophano
Issue Basil II, Constantine VIII (Stepsons)
Full name
Nikephoros Phokas (Nicephorus Phocas)
Dynasty Macedonian dynasty
Father Bardas Phokas

Nikephoros II Phokas (Latinized: Nicephorus II Phocas; Νικηφόρος Β΄ Φωκᾶς, Nikēphóros II Phōkãs; c. 912 – 11 December 969) was Byzantine Emperor from 963 to 969. His brilliant military exploits contributed to the resurgence of the Byzantine Empire during the 10th century.

Early exploits

Nikephoros Phokas was born in about 912 and belonged to a Cappadocian family which had produced several distinguished generals, including Nikephoros' father Bardas Phokas, brother Leo Phokas, and grandfather Nikephoros Phokas the Elder, who had all served as commanders of the field army (domestikos tōn scholōn). His mother, whose name is unknown, was a member of another powerful Anatolian clan, the Maleinoi.

Nikephoros joined the army at an early age. He was appointed the military governor of the Anatolikon Theme in 945 under Emperor Constantine VII. When his father was wounded in battle in 953, Nikephoros was promoted to supreme commander on the eastern frontier. In the war with the Abbasid Caliphate under Al-Muti, Nikephoros began with a severe defeat in 954, from which he recovered in the following years with victories in Syria, starting in 957.

Depiction of the siege of Chandax by Phokas, winter 960-61

From the accession of Emperor Romanos II in 959, Nikephoros and his younger brother Leo were placed in charge of the eastern and western field armies, respectively. In 960, 27,000 oarsmen and marines were assembled to man a fleet of 308 ships carrying 50,000 troops.[1][2] At the recommendation of the influential minister Joseph Bringas, Nikephoros was entrusted to lead this expedition against the Saracen Emirate of Crete. After a nine-month siege, Nikephoros stormed Chandax and wrested control of the entire island from the Muslims in 961. Upon returning to Constantinople, he was denied the usual honor of a triumph, permitted only a mere ovation in the Hippodrome.[3]

He soon returned to the east with a large and well-equipped army. In the campaigns of 962–963, he employed a brilliant strategy to conquer the cities of Cilicia and to advance into Syria. There he captured Aleppo, in collusion with his nephew, John Tzimiskes, but they made no permanent conquests. It was on these campaigns that he earned the sobriquet, "The Pale Death of the Saracens". During the capture of Aleppo, the Byzantine army took possession of 390,000 silver dinars, 2,000 camels, and 1,400 mules.

The capture of Aleppo by Phokas' troops

Early in his life Nikephoros had married Stephano. She had died before he rose to fame, and after her death he took an oath of chastity. This would create problems later on.

Accession to the throne

On 15 March 963, Emperor Romanos II died unexpectedly at the age of twenty-six of uncertain cause. 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 Empress Theophano (c. 941–after 976), his wife, of poisoning him. Theophano had already gained a reputation as an intelligent and ambitious woman. She would later gain a reputation for ruthlessness in achieving her goals. Romanos had already crowned as co-emperors his two sons Basil II and Constantine VIII. At the time that Romanos died, however, Basil was five years old and Constantine only three years old, so Theophano was named regent.

Theophano was not allowed to rule alone. Joseph Bringas, the eunuch palace official who had become Romanos' chief councilor, maintained his position. According to contemporary sources he intended to keep authority in his own hands. He also tried to reduce the power of Nikephoros Phokas. The victorious general had been accepted as the actual commander of the army and maintained his strong connections to the aristocracy. Joseph was afraid that Nikephoros could claim the throne with the support of both the army and the aristocracy. Joseph's intrigues during the following months turned both Theophano and Nikephoros against him. Unknown to Joseph, Nikephoros was urged to seize the throne by his nephew John Tzimiskes, and he entered into negotiations with Theophano.

Nikephoros' entry into Constantinople as Emperor through the Golden Gate in summer 963.

With the help of Theophano and the patriarch, Nikephoros Phokas received supreme command of the eastern forces and, after being proclaimed Emperor by them on 2 July 963, he marched upon the capital, where his partisans had overthrown his enemy Bringas. Thanks to his popularity with the army, Nikephoros II Phokas was crowned emperor by the side of Romanos's young sons on 16 August 963, and in spite of the opposition of the patriarch, he married their mother, the regent Theophano.

Later campaigns

Nikephoros II Phokas waged numerous wars throughout his reign. His first campaign as an emperor was waged against the Hamdanid emirate of Aleppo between 961 and 962. His aim was not to conquer the emirate, but to terminate its role as a regional power – the city of Aleppo was thoroughly sacked and its forces destroyed, but its territories were not annexed. From 964 to 966, he led an army of 40,000 men which conquered Cilicia and conducted raids in Mesopotamia and Syria, while the patrician Niketas Chalkoutzes recovered Cyprus.[4] In 968, Nikephoros conducted a raid which reached the city of Tripoli, 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, so the emperor decided to take it by hunger and left a detachment (a taxiarchy) of 1500 men in the fort of Baghras, which lies on the road from Antioch to Alexandretta. 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, eunuch of the Phokas family. Bourtzes was disgraced for his insubordination, and later joined the plot that killed Phokas. On his northern frontier, he began a war in 967 against Bulgaria, to which the Byzantines had been paying tribute. Nikephoros revoked the tribute and bribed (with 15,000 pounds of gold) King Sviatoslav I of Kiev to attack Bulgaria. His invasion was so effective that Nikephoros renewed the alliance with Bulgaria and turned against his Kievan ally.

Nikephoros II was less successful in his western wars. After renouncing his payments of tribute to the Fatimid caliphs, he sent an expedition to Sicily under his illegitimate cousin Manuel Phokas, son of Leo the Elder (964–965), but was forced by defeats on land and sea to evacuate the island completely. In 967, he made peace with the Fatimids of Kairawan and turned to defend himself against their common enemy, Otto I, who had proclaimed himself Western emperor and had attacked Byzantine possessions in Italy. After some initial successes, however, his generals were defeated and driven back to the southern coast.

The tension between East and West resulting from the policies pursued by Nikephoros may be glimpsed in the unflattering description of him and his court by Bishop Liutprand of Cremona in his Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana.[5] His description of Nikephoros was clouded by the ill-treatment he received while on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople. Nikephoros, a man of war, was not good at diplomacy. To add insult to injury, Pope John XIII sent a letter to Nikephoros while Liutprand was in Constantinople calling Otto I Emperor of Rome and even more insultingly referring to Nikephoros merely as Emperor of the Greeks. Liutprand failed in his goal of procuring an Imperial princess as a wife for Otto's young son, the future emperor Otto II.

Civil administration

Nikephoros II (at right) and his stepson Basil II.

Due to the care he lavished upon the army, Nikephoros II was compelled to exercise rigid economy in other departments. He retrenched court largess and curtailed the immunities of the clergy, and while he had an ascetic disposition, he forbade the foundation of new monasteries. By his heavy imposts and the debasement of the coinage he forfeited his popularity with the people and gave rise to riots. Lastly, he was forsaken by his wife, and, in consequence of a conspiracy she headed with his nephew and her lover John Tzimiskes, he was assassinated in his sleeping apartment. Following his death, the Phokas family broke into insurrection under Nikephoros' nephew Bardas Phokas, but their revolt was promptly subdued.

Nikephoros was the author of extant treatises on military tactics, most famously the Praecepta Militaria, which contains valuable information concerning the art of war in his time, and the less-known On Skirmishing (Περὶ Παραδρομῆς Πολέμου in the original Greek), which concerned guerilla-like tactics for defence against a superior enemy invasion force — though it is likely that this latter work, at least, was not composed by the Emperor but rather for him: translator and editor George T. Denis suggests that it was perhaps written by his brother Leo Phokas, then Domestic of the West.[6] Nikephoros was a very devout man, and he helped his friend, the monk Athanasios, found the monastery of Great Lavra on Mount Athos.

Contemporary descriptions

In Bishop Liutprand's description of Nikephoros, a clearly biased source, he is described as:

...a monstrosity of a man, a pygmy, fat-headed and like a mole as to the smallness of his eyes; disgusting with his short, broad, thick, and half hoary beard; disgraced by a neck an inch long; very bristly through the length and thickness of his hair; in color an Ethiopian; one whom it would not be pleasant to meet in the middle of the night; with extensive belly, lean of loin, very long of hip considering his short stature, small of shank, proportionate as to his heels and feet; clad in a garment costly but too old, and foul-smelling and faded through age; shod with Sicyonian shoes; bold of tongue, a fox by nature, in perjury, and lying a Ulysses.[7]

Whereas Bishop Liutprand describes the emperor's hair as being bristly, Leo The Deacon says it was black with "tight curls" and "unusually long".


By his first marriage to an unnamed Maleina, Nikephoros II Phokas had a son:

By his second marriage to Empress Theophano, Nikephoros II had no children.


With unrest mounting around him, his second wife Theophano took as her lover Nikephoros II's nephew and general John Tzimiskes. Theophano and Tzimiskes would meet in secret and plot Nikephoros' death, with the plot eventually growing to include others – namely Michael Bourtzes (the disgraced commander who captured Antioch a few months earlier) and his servant Theodoros, Leo Balantes (who was ransomed by the emperor in 966) and Leo Pediasimos, one of Tzimiskes trusted retainers. On a blustery night, the conspirators went into the palace dressed as women. Nikephoros was warned that assassins were in the palace, and he demanded the palace be searched. The guards left the room of the empress unsearched, however, and the assassins avoided capture.[8] Later, when Nikephorus was asleep on the floor before the holy icons,[8] 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?...."[8]

His head was cut off and paraded on a spike, while his body was thrown out the window. He was buried at the Church of the Holy Apostles, and John Tzimiskes became Emperor John I. An inscription carved on the side of his tomb reads: "You conquered all but a woman" (Ώ πλην γυναικός τα δ' άλλα Νικηφόρος).[9]

John Julius Norwich says "It was a honourable place; but Nikephoros Phocas, the White Death of the Saracens, hero of Syria and Crete, saintly and hideous, magnificent and insufferable, had deserved a better end".[10]


During the last decades of the tenth century, the Phokades repeatedly tried to get their hands again on the throne, and almost succeeded when Nikephoros' nephew, Bardas Phokas the Younger, rebelled against the rule of Basil II. His death, possibly by cardiac arrest, put an end to the rebellion, and ultimately to the political prominence of the Phokades, although his own son, Nikephoros Phokas Barytrachelos, launched another abortive revolt in 1022 along with Nikephoros Xiphias.

Modern honours

On 19 November 2004, the Hellenic Navy named its tenth Kortenaer class frigate in his honour as Nikiforos Fokas F-466 (formerly HNLMS Bloys Van Treslong F-824). Also, in the Rethymno regional unit in Crete, a municipality (Nikiforos Fokas) is named after him, as are many streets throughout Greece.

See also


  1. Treadgold, W. (1997). A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press. p. 495. ISBN 0-8047-2421-0.
  2. Norwich, J. (1992). Byzantium: The Apogee. New York: Knopf. pp. 175–178. ISBN 0-394-53779-3.
  3. Norwich, p. 961
  4. W. Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 948
  5. H. Mayr-Harting, Liudprand of Cremona’s Account of his Legation to Constantinople (968) and Ottonian Imperial Strategy, English Historical Review (2001), pp. 539–56.
  6. George T. Dennis, Three Byzantine Military Treatises, (Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2008), p. 139.
  7. Liutprand of Cremona (968), Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana ad Nicephorum Phocam
  8. 1 2 3 Leo the Deacon: Historiae Libri X
  9. Πολύευκτος, ο Πατριάρχης που ασκούσε πολιτική. (Β' Μέρος):
  10. Norwich, Byzantium, The Apogee, p. 210


Wikimedia Commons has media related to Nicephorus II.
Nikephoros II Phokas
Born: c. 912 Died: 11 December 969
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Romanos II
Byzantine Emperor
16 August 963 – 11 December 969
With: Basil II
Succeeded by
John I
Military offices
Preceded by
Bardas Phokas the Elder
Domestic of the Schools of the East
954– 963
Succeeded by
John Tzimiskes
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