Nikephoros II Phokas


Nikephoros II Phokas
Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans
Nikiphoros Phokas.jpg
Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas
Emperor of the Byzantine Empire
Reign16 August 963 – 11 December 969
PredecessorRomanos II
SuccessorJohn I Tzimiskes
Bornc. 912
Died11 December 969 (aged 56 or 57)
IssueBasil II, Constantine VIII (Stepsons)
Full name
Nikephoros Phokas (Nicephorus Phocas)
DynastyMacedonian dynasty
FatherBardas Phokas

Nikephoros II Phokas
Emperor of Rome
Venerated inEastern Orthodox Church
FeastDecember 11

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. His reign, however, included controversy. In the west, he inflamed conflict with the Bulgarians and saw Sicily completely turn over to the Muslims, while he failed to make any serious gains in Italy following the incursions of Otto I. Meanwhile, in the east, he completed the conquest of Cilicia and even retook the island of Cyprus, thus opening the path for subsequent Byzantine incursions reaching as far as the Jazira and the Levant. His administrative policy was less successful, as in order to finance these wars he increased taxes both on the people and on the church, while maintaining unpopular theological positions and alienating many of his most powerful allies. These included his nephew John Tzimiskes, who would take the throne after killing Nikephoros in his sleep.

Early life and career

Nikephoros Phokas was born around 912 and belonged to a Cappadocian Greek 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 Greek clan, the Maleinoi.[1][2] 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.

Early Eastern Campaigns

Nikephoros joined the army at an early age. 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, as Domestic of the Schools, who consistently and disastrously lost battle after battle both to the Hamdanids and to the Abbasids, essentially taking charge of the eastern Byzantine army. From 955, the Hamdanids in Aleppo entered a period of unbroken decline until their destruction in 1002. In June 957 Nikephoros managed to capture and destroy Hadath. The Byzantines would continue to push their advantage against the Arabs until the collapse of the Hamdanids, however, from 960-961, the army turned its focus to the reconquest of Crete.

Conquest of Crete

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

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, 27,000 oarsmen and marines were assembled to man a fleet of 308 ships carrying 50,000 troops.[3][4] At the recommendation of the influential minister Joseph Bringas, Nikephoros was entrusted to lead this expedition against the Muslim Emirate of Crete. Nikephoros successfully led his fleet to the island and defeated a minor Arab force upon disembarkation near Almyros. He soon began a nine-month siege of the fortress town of Chandax. Following a failed assault and many raids into the countryside, Nikephoros entered Chandax on 6 March 961 and soon wrested control of the entire island from the Muslims Arabs.[5] Upon returning to Constantinople, he was denied the usual honor of a triumph, permitted only a mere ovation in the Hippodrome.[6]

Later Eastern Campaigns

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, while the major city of Tarsus ceased to recognize the Hamdanid Emir of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawla.[7][full citation needed] Nikephorus continued to ravage the Cilician countryside, defeating the governor of Tarsus, ibn al-Zayyat in open battle; al-Zayyat later committed suicide on account of the loss. He soon returned to the regional capital of Caesarea. Upon the beginning of the new campaigning season, al-Dawla entered the Byzantine Empire and began to conduct raids. This strategy, however, would prove fatal for him, as it left Aleppo dangerously undefended. Nikephoros soon took the city of Manbij.[7][full citation needed] In December, an army split between Nikephoros and John I Tzimiskes marched towards Aleppo, quickly routing an opposing force led by Naja al-Kasaki. Al-Dawla's force caught up with the Byzantines, but he too was routed, and Nikephoros and Tzimiskes entered Aleppo on December 24.[7][full citation needed] 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 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.

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 that the Empress Theophano (c. 941–after 976), his wife, poisoned him. Theophano had already gained a reputation as an intelligent and ambitious woman. 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. At the time that Romanos died, however, Basil was five years old and Constantine only three years old, so Theophano was named regent.

Theophano, however, 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 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. This is 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, Nikephoros sent a fleet to secure the Bosphorus Strait against his enemies.[8][full citation needed] Around the same time, he appointed Tzimiskes as Domestic of the East, now taking on the formal roles of emperor. 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 Sophia, 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 Basil Lekapenos. The people of Constantinople soon turned against his cause, killing Argyros in a riot and soon forcing Bringas to flee.[9] On August 16, Nikephoros was proclaimed emperor and married the empress Theophano.

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


Western Wars

Nikephoros II was less successful in his western wars. Under his reign, relations with the Bulgarians worsened. It is likely that he bribed the Kievan Rus to perform a raid on the Bulgarians in retaliation for them not blocking Magyar raids.[10][full citation needed] This breach in relations instigated a decades-long decline in Byzantine-Bulgarian diplomacy and was a precursor for the wars fought between the Bulgarians and later Byzantine emperors, namely Basil II.

Nikephoros' first military failures 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 around 40,000 men, under Patrikios Niketas and Manuel Phokas, to the island. The Byzantine forces, however, were swiftly routed in Rometta and at the Battle of the Straits, and Rometta soon fell to the Muslims, completing the Islamic conquest of Sicily.[11][12]

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 grander 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 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 laid claim to be the successors of Rome.[13] 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 and 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 Cassano or Bovino, failed to make any progress. In May he returned north, leaving Pandulf Ironhead to take charge of the siege. However, he was quickly routed by the Byzantine general Eugenios and taken captive in Constantinople. Eugenios went on to besiege Capua and enter 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.[citation needed]

Eastern Wars

From 964 to 965, Nikephoros led an army of 40,000 men which conquered Cilicia and conducted raids in Upper Mesopotamia and Syria, while the patrician Niketas Chalkoutzes recovered Cyprus.[14] In the spring of 964, Nikephorus headed east. During the summer he captured Anazarbos and Adana before withdrawing. Later that year Nikephoros attempted to quickly take Mopsuestia, 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 July 13, while Leo Phokas invested Tarsus and Nikephoros and Tzimiskes arrived soon after. Nikephoros won a pitched battle against the Tarsiots, routing their forces with his "ironclad horsemen", referencing the Byzantine cataphracts. Within a fortnight, Tarsus surrendered on August 16th to Nikephoros who allowed the inhabitants to leave the city unharmed but plundered the city. With the fall of these two strongholds, Cilicia was in the hands of the Byzantines.[15][16]

In 967 or 968, Nikephoros annexed the Armenian state of Taron by diplomacy.[17][full citation needed] 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, and so the emperor decided to take it by hunger (so as not to damage to city) 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.

Civil administration

Nikephoros II (at right) and his stepson Basil II

Nikephoros' popularity was largely based on his conquests. Due to the resources he allocated to his army, Nikephoros was compelled to exercise a rigid economic policy 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 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.

Nikephoros also 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 in the church, a highly controversial and unpopular demand.[18][full citation needed]

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 Nika Revolt and its violent suppression within the stadium itself. The crowd within the Hippodrome panicked and began a stampede to retreat from the stadium, resulting in numerous deaths.[citation needed]

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 guerrilla-like tactics for defense 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. Dennis suggests that it was perhaps written by his brother Leo Phokas, then Domestic of the West.[19] Nikephoros was a very devout man, and he helped his friend, the monk Athanasios, found the monastery of Great Lavra on Mount Athos.[citation needed]


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, but was recalled on the pleading of Nikephoros' wife, Theophano. According to Joannes Zonaras and John Skylitzes, Nikephoros had a loveless relationship with Theophano. He was leading an ascetic life, whereas she was secretly having an affair with Tzimiskes. Theophano and Tzimiskes plotted to overthrow the emperor. On the night of the deed, she left Nikephoros' bedchamber door unlocked, and he was assassinated in his apartment by Tzimiskes and his entourage on December 11, 969.[20] 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.



By his first marriage to an unnamed Maleina, Nikephoros II Phokas had a son: Bardas Phokas, who died before 960. By his second marriage to Empress Theophano, Nikephoros II had no children.

Contemporary descriptions

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.[21] 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 apt 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.

Bishop Liutprand described Nikephoros 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.[22]

Whereas Bishop Liutprand describes the emperor's hair as being bristly, Leo the Deacon says it was black with "tight curls" and "unusually long". Anthony Kaldellis calls Liutprand's description a "racist satire".[23]

John Julius Norwich says, about his murdering and burial, "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".[24]


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. ^ Krsmanović 2003, Chapter 2.
  2. ^ Kazhdan 1991, p. 1276.
  3. ^ Treadgold, W. (1997). A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press. p. 495. ISBN 0-8047-2421-0.
  4. ^ Norwich, J. (1992). Byzantium: The Apogee. New York: Knopf. pp. 175–178. ISBN 0-394-53779-3.
  5. ^ Treadgold (1997), pp. 493–495
  6. ^ Norwich, p.961
  7. ^ a b c Kaldellis(2017), pp. 39[full citation needed]
  8. ^ Kaldellis (2017), pp. 41[full citation needed]
  9. ^ Treadgold 1997, pp. 498–499; Whittow 1996, pp. 348–349.
  10. ^ Kaldellis (2017), p. 56[full citation needed]
  11. ^ PmbZ, al-Ḥasan b. ‘Ammār al-Kalbī (#22562).
  12. ^ Brett 2001, p. 242.
  13. ^ Keller & Althoff 2008, pp. 221–224.
  14. ^ W. Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 948
  15. ^ Kennedy (2004), pp. 278–279
  16. ^ Treadgold (1997), pp. 500–501
  17. ^ Kaldellis (2017), pp. 50[full citation needed]
  18. ^ Kaldellis (2017), pp. 52[full citation needed]
  19. ^ George T. Dennis, Three Byzantine Military Treatises, (Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2008), p. 139.
  20. ^ Garland, Lynda. (1999). Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527–1204. New York: Routledge. pp. 131-132.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ Liutprand of Cremona (968), Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana ad Nicephorum Phocam
  23. ^ Kaldellis(2017), p. 44
  24. ^ Norwich, Byzantium, The Apogee, p. 210


  • The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford University Press. 1991.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Nicephorus". Encyclopædia Britannica. 19 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 647–648.
  • Norwich, John Julius (1991). Byzantium: The Apogee. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-394-53779-3.
  • Dennis, George T. (2008). Three Byzantine Military Treatises. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks. ISBN 978-0-88402-339-5.
  • Garrood, William (2008). "The Byzantine Conquest of Cilicia and the Hamdanids of Aleppo, 959–965". Anatolian Studies. British Institute at Ankara. 58: 127–140. doi:10.1017/s006615460000870x. ISSN 0066-1546. JSTOR 20455416.
  • Ioannes A. Melisseides & Poulcheria Zavolea Melisseidou, "Nikefhoros Phokas (El) Nikfur", ek ton Leontos tou Diakonou, Kedrenou, Aboul Mahasen, Zonara, Ibn El Athir, Glyka, Aboulfeda k.a. Historike Melete, Vol.1–2, Vergina, Athens 2001, ISBN 9789607171887 (Vol.1) ISBN 9789607171894 (Vol.2), (Worldcat, Greek National Bibliography 2001/2007/2009, Biblionet).
  • Taxiarchis Kolias, " Nicephorus II Focas 963–969, The Military Leader Emperor and his reforms ", Vasilopoulos Stefanos D. Athens 1993, ISBN 9789607100658, (Worldcat, Greek National Bibliography 1993, Biblionet).
  • Romane, Julian (2015). Byzantium Triumphant. Pen and Sword Books. p. 6. ISBN 978-1473845701.
  • Lilie, Ralph-Johannes; Ludwig, Claudia; Pratsch, Thomas; Zielke, Beate (2013). Prosopographie der mittelbyzantinischen Zeit Online. Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften. Nach Vorarbeiten F. Winkelmanns erstellt (in German). Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter.

External links

  • A more detailed profile of the Emperor
  • Nicephorean coinage
  • Greek Opera Omnia by Migne Patrologia Graeca with analytical indexes
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