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The Life of Nikephoros Phocas

Nikephoros II Phocas

The Life of Nikephoros Phocas

Nikephoros Phocas, also known as Nikephoros II Phocas, was a prominent Byzantine general and later Emperor who lived from 912 to 969 AD. He was born in the province of Cappadocia, located in modern-day central Turkey, which was then part of the Byzantine Empire.

As a young man, Nikephoros Phocas joined the military and rose through the ranks due to his exceptional skills as a commander and strategist. He quickly gained a reputation as a capable and courageous leader, earning the respect of both his peers and superiors. On his paternal side, he was from a military family, with both his father and grandfather being commanders of the Byzantine field army.

Nikephoros Phocas first rose to prominence during the reign of Emperor Romanos II, when he successfully defended the eastern frontier of the Byzantine Empire against Arab invasions. He later became involved in the power struggles that followed the premature death of Romanos II (only 26!), and eventually, with the support of the military and aristocracy, he seized the throne from Romanos’ widow Empress Theophano. Theophano was acting as regent, with the help of Joseph Bringas who had been Romanos’ chief advisor, for her infant sons who were the co-Emperors Basil II and Constantine VIII. Nikephoros had been in the provinces when Romanos had died but was popularly acclaimed by the army and he sent messages ahead to Comstantinople that he should be co-Emperor but Bringas closed the gates against him. Fortunately, the citizens rose up in a riot and welcomed Nikephoros as Emperor. Bringas was exiled and died two years later and Theophano married the new Emperor and thereby safeguarded her own sons – both went on to become Emperors.   

Nikephoros Phocas pursued an ambitious agenda of military expansion and administrative reform. He sought to strengthen the Byzantine Empire by reclaiming lost territories and reasserting imperial authority. He launched military campaigns against the Arabs in the east, the Bulgarians in the north, and the Lombards in southern Italy, with varying degrees of success.

One of Nikephoros Phocas’ most notable achievements was the reconquest of the island of Crete, which had been under Arab control for over a century. His forces, successfully captured the island in 961 AD, dealing a significant blow to Arab power in the eastern Mediterranean and ending their 100 year long occupation. On his return to Constantinople however, Nikephoros was denied a triumph but was permitted an ovation in the hippodrome.

In addition to his military campaigns, Nikephoros Phocas also implemented significant administrative reforms aimed at curbing corruption and strengthening the central government. He introduced measures to improve the collection of taxes, reorganized the administration of the provinces, and sought to streamline the Byzantine bureaucracy. His efforts to encourage the Church to consider soldier who were killed fighting the Muslims as martyrs – similar to the manner in which Muslims considered their fallen as ‘Shahid’ was resisted and unpopular.

Despite his successes, Nikephoros Phocas was not universally popular. His high expenditure on military matters were the driving force behind his reforms and the fiscal tightening at home. His debasement of the coinage created economic problems and expansion of the tax base was unpopular. His relationship with the Church was not always cordial on account if him curtailing their benefits and advantages, despite his personal religious zeal and assistance in the creation of the Monastery of Great Lavra on Mount Athos.

Key military campaigns of Nikephoros Phocas:

  1. Eastern Campaigns against the Arabs: One of Nikephoros Phocas’ primary military objectives was to push back against Arab incursions in the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire. He launched multiple campaigns against the Arab forces, seeking to reclaim lost territories and establish Byzantine dominance in the region. One of his most significant victories was the recapture of the strategic fortress city of Chandax in Crete from Arab control in 961 AD, a feat achieved by his brother Leo Phocas. This success dealt a significant blow to Arab power in the eastern Mediterranean and marked a significant achievement of Nikephoros Phocas’ military campaigns. During his reign the Byzantines captured Antioch in 969 in a surprise attack – although this was not actually sanctioned by the Emperor and the commander, Micheal Bourtzes, was later disgraced for insubordination – despite his victory. In the east he was successful in the conquest of Cilicia and with his nephew John Tzimiskes he captured the city of Aleppo a strategic victory against the Hamdanids, earning him the name ‘The Pale Death of the Saracens’.

  2. Northern Campaigns against the Bulgarians: Nikephoros Phocas also conducted military campaigns against the Bulgarian Empire in the north. He aimed to weaken Bulgarian influence and establish Byzantine control over the Balkans. In 965 AD, he led a successful campaign against the Bulgarians, capturing the fortress city of Preslav and annexing it to the Byzantine Empire. However, his attempts to subdue the Bulgarians and fully incorporate their territories into the Byzantine Empire were met with resistance, and he faced challenges in maintaining control over the region.

  3. Southern Campaigns in Italy: Nikephoros Phocas sought to expand Byzantine influence in Italy, which was a contested region with multiple Lombard and Byzantine states vying for control. He conducted military campaigns in southern Italy, capturing several Lombard cities, including Taranto, Bari, and Tarentum, and asserting Byzantine authority in the region. However, his campaigns in Italy were not entirely successful, as he faced challenges in consolidating Byzantine control over the Lombard territories and faced opposition from local factions. His efforts to be recognised as Emperor of the Romans by Pope John XIII were unsuccessful who referred to him as ‘Emperor of the Greeks’, with the Roman title being passed to Frankish King Otto the Great. Furthermore, despite some victories Nikephoros did, however, lose the Byzantine foothold in Sicily which was overwhelmed by the Arabs after they defeated the Byzantines at the Battle of the Straits. 

It all ended however in 969 AD when Nikephoros Phocas was assassinated by his nephew, John I Tzimiskes. John went on to seized the throne and became the next Byzantine Emperor. This plot was hatched after Nikephoros’ demotion of a his General Micheal Bourtzes, the man who captured Antioch in a surprise attack but not in the manner directed by the Emperor. This action against Bourtzes was widely resented and the general himself joned the conspiracy which saw Nikephoros’ death shorty afterwards. Despite his controversial rule, Nikephoros Phocas left a lasting impact on the Byzantine Empire. His military campaigns and administrative reforms helped to strengthen the empire and set the stage for future Byzantine emperors, including the Macedonian dynasty that would come to power in the late 10th century.

Nikephoros Phocas was remembered as a skilled and ambitious leader who made significant contributions to the Byzantine Empire during his reign. His legacy is one of military prowess and he remains an important figure in Byzantine history.


– A Complete List of the Byzantine Emperors (Article with complete list of the Emperors of Byzantium from Constantine I to Constantine XI)

– The Rise to Power of Constantine the Great (Article about the struggle and rise of Constantine, founder of Constantinople)

– Byzantine Inventions and Innovations (Article about the most notable inventions and innovations of the Byzantines)

– Who was Emperor Zeno? (Article about the life of Emperor Zeno)


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