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The Story of Nikephoros II Phokas

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Nikephoros II Phokas, 912 – 969, was a great military commander, and a Byzantine emperor 963-969. He won the war in the East against the Arabs and because of that, he wore the title of Commander of the Eastern troops. Nikephoros enjoyed tremendous influence in the army; and was very popular in Byzantium. In 960, he was appointed commander of the troops sent to Crete to retake it from the Arabs. With a fleet of 3,000 ships, Nikephoros landed in Crete. After an eight-month siege, Crete was retaken. Securing Crete’s fortifications and settling Armenian and Greeks in it, Nikephoros took extra care for the organization of churches. On his return to Constantinople, Nikephoros gave the Greeks the spectacle of a glorious triumph, with immense wealth and many prisoners from Crete. With the conquest of Crete, Byzantium secured its coastal possessions from raids of the Saracens. After that, Nikephoros, went to Asia, where he won several victories over the Syrian Arabs, took Aleppo and enriched himself.


Receiving the news that Emperor Roman II died March 963, Nicephorus returned to Constantinople. Empress Theophano who became the regent to hear young children, wished to bring him nearer to the throne, but the powerful nobleman, eunuch Joseph Bringas, took measures to eliminate Nikephoros.

Joseph Bringas sent a letter to the military commander John Tzimiskes, who was under the command of Nikephoros and was in close relations with him. In this letter, Tzimiskes was advised to arrest Nikephoros, and send him to Constantinople. Tzimiskies showed Nikephoros the letter, and persuaded him immediately to take drastic measures. July 2, 963, in the camp at Caesarea, Nikephoros was proclaimed Emperor. He had a solemn entrance into Constantinople, welcomed by all as an Emperor. The question of the heirs of the throne was resolved by the fact that he married the Empress, and thus the rights of the old dynasty were not violated.

Foreign Policy

Nikephoros, as an Emperor, did not change his way of life. He preferred the military camps and spent the first years of his reign in the East, continuing military operations against the Saracens.

No less important were relations with the Western Empire. Three great nations, the Greeks, the Saracens and the Germans, met on the Italian peninsula. The southern provinces of the peninsula were subject to the Lombard dukes. Arabs controlled Sicily and Southern Italy. In the tenth century, Southern Italy became dependent on Byzantium. The opponent of Nikephoros in Italy was Emperor Otto I.

After inflicting severe losses on Arabs in the East, and taking Crete from them, he expelled the Arabs from Sicily and secured his Italian possessions. For the Italian war, huge funds were collected, strict reductions in public spending were imposed, and taxes were imposed on church property. Nicephorus made two trips to Italy; although both trips were unsuccessful, this did not weaken the Emperor’s determination. The plans of Nikephoros in southern Italy were stopped by the German Emperor Otto I. Military forces designated against the Arabs were turned against the Germans. In 967, Nikephoros temporarily had to sacrifice Sicily for Italy. He made a truce with the Arabs to untie his hands in the war with Otto I. Otto’s army was defeated by the Byzantines.

In connection with Italian politics, the attention of Nikephoros was occupied by relations with Bulgaria. The kings of Bulgaria had victories over Byzantium, that forced her to pay an annual tribute. Nikephoros, denying the Bulgarians tribute, had to prepare for war with them. Having broken off relations with Bulgaria, he sent an ambassador to Kiev with presents, and with an offer to attack Bulgaria in order to divert the attention of the Bulgarians from south to north. Prince Svyatoslav supported the plans of Nikephoros, and decided in 968 to go to war with Bulgaria.


Nikephoros did not come from a royal family and did not have by birth the rights to the imperial crown. The abolition of luxury and ceremony, the frugality in spending public funds, did not please the majority, especially the higher ranks of the civil and military officers, who never looked at Nikephoros as an equal. In addition, Nikephoros had plans for state reform, which were not good for landowners and clergy. From his legislative acts, it is clear that he wished to deprive the church of many privileges. At the same time, because of high taxation and manipulation of the price of bread, the common people also did not respect him very much.

The Byzantine aristocracy, the higher clergy, and monasticism were not on the side of Nicephorus. The empress joined the camp of the discontented. In December 969, Nikephoros was killed in his own palace, by John Tzimiskes, who was secretly brought into the royal bedroom with the consent of Empress Theophano.

According to the testimony of Leo Diacon:

“John grabbed his beard and mercilessly tormented him, and the conspirators so violently and inhumanely beat him with the hilt of his sword on his cheeks, that his teeth fell out of his mouth. When they tired of the torture of Nicephorus, John pushed his foot into the chest, swung his sword and cut his skull in two. He ordered others to strike, and they ruthlessly cracked down on him, and one struck him in the back and pierced him. After that, the body of the former emperor lay under the open sky for one day. Then the corpse was laid in a wooden box and at midnight was secretly taken to the temple of the Holy Apostles. There he was placed in one of the royal tombs

He was one of the great Byzantine emperors of the Macedonian dynasty. He was able to rise from the ranks of an ordinary man to a military officer and later, Emperor. He left the empire in a better state, followed by a period of great conquest and stability in the empire. He is eternally remembered as one of the greatest military commanders of Caesar’s Byzantium.

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