Nikephoros II Phokas

Nikephoros II Phokas
Nikephoros II Phokas
Emperor of the Byzantine Empire

Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas
Reign August 16, 963 – December 10–11 969
Full name Nikephoros Phokas (Nicephorus Phocas)
Born circa 912
Died December 10–11 969 (aged 57)
Place of death Constantinople
Buried Church of the Holy Apostles
Predecessor Romanos II
Successor John I Tzimiskes
Wife Theophano
Offspring Basil II, Constantine VIII (Stepsons)
Dynasty Macedonian dynasty
Father Bardas Phokas
Mother ?
The capture of Aleppo by Phokas' troops, as depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes manuscript.

Nikephoros II Phokas (Latinized: Nicephorus II Phocas) (Greek: Νικηφόρος Β΄ Φωκᾶς, Nikēphoros II Phōkas) (c. 912 – 10 December 969) was a Byzantine Emperor (963–969) whose brilliant military exploits contributed to the resurgence of Byzantine Empire in the tenth 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, Bardas 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 by victories in Syria, starting in 957.

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 in leading this expedition against the Saracen Emirate of Crete, and, storming Chandax after a 9-month siege, he wrested the whole island from the Muslims in 961. He was denied the usual honor of a triumph, only permitted a mere ovation in the Hippodrome. (Norwich, p. 961) he returned to the east with a large and well-equipped army. In the campaigns of 962–963 by brilliant strategy he conquered the cities of Cilicia and advanced into Syria where he captured Aleppo in collusion with his nephew John Tzimiskes, but made no permanent conquests. It was on these campaigns 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.

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 March 15, 963, Emperor Romanos II unexpectedly died at the age of twenty-six. The cause of his death is uncertain. 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 at the time gained a reputation as an intelligent and ambitious woman. She would later gain a reputation for ruthlessness in achieving her goals. Romanos had, before his death, already crowned as co-emperors his two sons Basil II and Constantine VIII. At the time, however, Basil was five years old and Constantine only three years old, and they were not able to assume the duties that came with their title. Theophano was named regent.

But 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, rather than those of the young Empress. 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 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 July 2, 963, he marched upon the capital, where meanwhile his partisans had overthrown his enemy Bringas. Thanks to his popularity with the army, Nikephoros II Phokas was crowned emperor by the side of Romanus's young sons on August 16, 963, and in spite of the patriarch's opposition married their mother, the regent Theophano.

Later campaigns

During his reign Nikephoros II Phokas continued to wage numerous wars. From 964–966 he led an army of 40,000 men which conquered Cilicia and again overran Mesopotamia and Syria, while the patrician Niketas recovered Cyprus.[3] In 968 he reduced most of the fortresses in Syria, and after the fall of Antioch and Aleppo in 969, which were recaptured by his lieutenants, he secured his conquests by a peace treaty. On his northern frontier he began a war against Bulgaria in 967, to which the Byzantines had been paying tribute. Nikephoros revoked the tribute and instigated (with 15,000 pounds of gold) King Sviatoslav I of Kiev to attack Bulgaria, which he did so effectively, that Nikephoros ended up renewing the alliance with Bulgaria and turning against his own Kievan ally.

At right, Nikephoros II and his stepson Basil II.

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 Niketas (964–965), but was forced by defeats on land and sea to evacuate that 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 attacked the Byzantine possessions in Italy; but after some initial successes his generals were defeated and driven back to the southern coast. The tension between East and West that resulted from Nikephoros' policies can be glimpsed from Bishop Liutprand of Cremona's very unflattering description of him and his court in his Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana.


Liutprand's description of Nikephoros was clouded by the fact that he was ill-treated 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 getting an imperial princess for the wife of Otto's young son, the future emperor Otto II.

Civil administration

Owing to the care which he lavished upon the proper maintenance of the army, Nikephoros II was compelled to exercise rigid economy in other departments. He retrenched the court largesses and curtailed the immunities of the clergy, and although himself of an ascetic disposition 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. Last of all, he was forsaken by his wife, and, in consequence of a conspiracy which she headed with his nephew and her lover John Tzimiskes, was assassinated in his sleeping apartment. Following his death, the Phokades family broke into insurrection under Nikephoros' nephew Bardas Phokas, but their revolt was promptly subdued. Nikephoros was the author of an extant treatise 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 (Περί Παραδρομής 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 Phocas, then Domestic of the West.[4] Nikephoros was also a very devout man, and 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.[5]

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:

  • Bardas Phokas, who died before 969.

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. 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.[6] Later, when Nikephorus was asleep on the floor before the holy icons,[6] 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?...."[6]

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, while John Tzimiskes became Emperor John I. An inscription carved on the side of his tomb reads: "You conquered all but a woman".

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" (Byzantium, The Apogee, page 210).


It is claimed that at some period (perhaps after the assassination of Nikephoros II, or with the Latin invasion of Constantinople), the Phokas family moved to the island of Paxi. Today the name is quite common on the island, yet no one has any dynastic claims. Furthermore, some historians claim that a family's branch moved to the area of Mani, building castles and organizing the community. Today the Kallergis, Kavalierakis,Kontzalis, Bakogiannis and Bounakos families are considered to be the descendants of this historic family.[citation needed] In Lebanon, the family of Phocas became Nakfour. The Nakfour family originally settled in Hasbaya, a town in south Lebanon, and later on in Deirmimas, also a town in south Lebanon.[7] There have been also recordings of a Callergis family in Venice, a branch of the Cretan Kallergi family.

Modern honours

On November 19, 2004, the Hellenic Navy named its tenth Kortenaer class frigate in his honour as Rethymno Prefecture in Crete, a municipality (Nikiforos Fokas) is named after him, as are many streets throughout Greece.


  1. ^ Treadgold, W. (1997). A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press. p. 495. ISBN 0804724210. 
  2. ^ Norwich, J. (1992). Byzantium: The Apogee. New York: Knopf. pp. 175–178. ISBN 0394537793. 
  3. ^ W. Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 948
  4. ^ George T. Denis, Three Byzantine Military Treatise, (Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2008), p. 139.
  5. ^ Liutprand of Cremona (968), Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana ad Nicephorum Phocam, 
  6. ^ a b c Leo the Deacon:Historiae Libri X
  7. ^ Phocas Family:


  • The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford University Press. 1991. 
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Norwich, John Julius (1991). Byzantium: The Apogee. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0394537793. 
  • Denis, George T. (2008). Three Byzantine Military Treatises. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks. ISBN 9780884023395. 
  • Hronopoulos, Ioannis (2009). Nikephoros Phocas. Periscopio Press.  (Greek)

External links

Media related to Nicephorus II at Wikimedia Commons

Nikephoros II Phokas
Born: c. 912 Died: 969
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Romanos II
Byzantine Emperor
Succeeded by
John I

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