Who is Nicephoros Phocas?
Nicephorus II Phocas (c.912 – 969), also known as Nikephoros II Phokas, was Emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 963 to 969. During his six years of reign, he contributed to the resurgence of the Empire thanks to his successful military campaigns.
Early Years and Ascension to the Throne
Nicephorus Phokas was born around 912. His father, Bardas Phokas, belonged to the Phokas family, which had produced several distinguished generals. From his maternal side, he belonged to the Maleinoi, a powerful Anatolian Greek family. Nicephorus joined the army at a young age and became commander under Emperor Constantine VII. From 957 onwards he achieved several victories in Syria and was placed in charge of the eastern field army by Emperor Romanos II. In 961, he led an expedition to Crete and took the island from the Muslims. Moreover, he attacked the cities of Cilicia and Aleppo, which earned him the name “The Pale Death of the Saracens”.
On March 15, 963, Emperor Romanos II passed away suddenly. As his two sons Basil II and Constantine VIII were not able to rule due to their young age, her wife Theophano was named regent. However, she was not allowed to rule alone, so Romanos’ chief council, Joseph Bringas, was put in charge of taking decisions on matters of importance. Bringas also tried to remove part of Nicephorus’ authority, as he was afraid that he would claim the throne. His suspicions became true since a few months later Nicephorus was encouraged by his nephew John Tzimiskes to negotiate with Theophano and claim the throne. On July 963, Nicephorus Phokas marched to the capital leading the eastern forces and overthrew Bringas. On August 16, he was crowned emperor and married Theophano.
During his six years of reign, the Emperor carried out several military campaigns. Between 964-966, he conquered Cilicia and occupied Mesopotamia and Syria, which he secured by a peace treaty in 969. On the northern frontier of the Empire, he allied himself with Prince Sviatoslav I of Kyiv and declared war on Bulgaria in 967, to which the Byzantines were paying tribute. However, Nicephorus ended up betraying his ally and forming a new alliance with Bulgaria.
Still, the Emperor suffered several defeats in the military campaigns that took place in the Western. In 965, after sending an expedition to Sicily to fight the Fatimid caliphs, he saw the island completely turn to the Muslims. Two years later, he was defeated by Otto I and failed to make any serious gains in Italy.
Nicephorus’ aim of maintaining the army took a toll on the economy of the Empire, and the Emperor was forced to take unpopular economic measures. In this sense, he reduced the immunities of the clergy and forbade the foundation of monasteries. Moreover, the increase in taxes was met with heavy criticism and gave rise to riots.
Death and Legacy
In 965, Nicephorus was assassinated during his sleep by his wife, who had plotted with her lover and the Emperor’s nephew Tzismiskes. Right after his death, Tzismiskes claimed the throne.
Nicephorus is well-known for his numerous military victories, which led to the resurgence of the Byzantine Empire. He was a brilliant strategist and warrior and the author of a treatise on military tactics, among which the most well-known are the Praecepta Militaria and De velitatione.