Nicephorus II Phocas

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Nicephorus II Phocas, (Greek: Νικηφόρος Β΄ Φωκᾶς, Nikēphoros II Phōkas), was the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire from 963 to 969. A brilliant military leader, his exploits in the tenth century contributed to the resurgence of the Empire, restoration of Christian life on Crete and Cyprus, and defeat of the Muslim forces that had subdued much of the Christian land in the eastern Mediterranean area.


Nicephorus Phocas was born about 912 and into an aristocratic Cappadocian family that had produced several distinguished generals, including his father (Bardas Phocas), brother (Leo Phocas), and grandfather (Nicephorus Phocas the Elder), who had all served as commanders of the field army. He embraced a military career and, as a young patrician, distinguished himself at his father's side in a war in the east against the Arabs. Early in his career, Nicephorus married Stephano who bore him a son. Both, however, died before he gained his fame. With their deaths, Nicephorus, influenced by Athanasius the Athonite for whom he helped build the Monastery of the Great Lavra at Mount Athos, embraced a monastic life style.

Nicephorus was appointed by emperor Constantine VII to be the military governor of the Anatolikon Theme in 945. Nicephorus then restructured the army, reinforced discipline, and improved recruiting as well as wrote treatises on military tactics that have been attributed to him. After the death of emperor Constantine on November 9, 959, and the ascension of emperor Romanos II, Romanos entrusted Nicephorus with the command of a expedition against the Arab Saracens who held the island of Crete. On March 7, 961, after a nine-month siege of Candia (Iraklion), Nicephorus freed the island from the Muslims and re-stored life to the Christian communities on the island.

During the years 962-963, after returning to the East, Nicephorus conquered the cities of Cilicia and advanced into Syria where he captured Aleppo with help from his nephew John Tzimiskes. It was from these campaigns that he earned the sobriquet "The Pale Death of the Saracens".

On March 15, 963, emperor Romanos II died suddenly leaving Joseph Bringus, a eunuch, in charge of the affairs of state and Theophano, his twenty-two year old widow as acting regent of their sons, Basil and Constantine - ages six and three, the legitimate emperors. Unhappy with Bringus' government, Theophano and John Tzimiskes, supported by Nicephorus, deposed Bringus and had Nicephorus crowned Caesar in Cappadocia on July 3, 963. After a march to Constantinople, Nikephoros was crowned emperor by Patriarch Polyeuctus on August 16, 963 in the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia. Although an ascetic and a deeply religious man, he married the widow empress Theophano on September 20, over the objections of the patriarch.

As emperor, Nicephorus issued laws that restricted the growth ecclesiastical property as he believed that wealth did not fit with the spiritual nature of the Church and the ascetic life style of monastics.

In the summer of 964, he continued his campaigns against the Arabs in the east, mounting an offense through Cappadocia. In 965, he captured Tarsus, then freed the region of Cilicia. Meanwhile, his general Nikitas Halkountzes freed Cyprus of Arab domination. However, the attempt to free the Greek population of Sicily failed. His campaigns of 967 in the west were not as successful, where Otto I made himself the western emperor, to which Nicephorus objected, and attacked the possessions of Constantinople in Italy.

While Nicephorus lavishly maintained his army, he was compelled to economize in other areas of the government that caused his popularity to fall and gave rise to riots. Added to this dissatisfaction, Nicephorus' wife Theophano and brother Leo Phocas, with John Tzimiskes, Theophano's lover, entered into a conspiracy and had him assassinated during the night of December 10, 969.

While, at the time his death brought joy to the Muslims and shook Christianity, the memory of Nicephorus II Phocas lived on. Surnamed Kallinikos, the artisan of good victories, by the Romans of Constantinople, the stories of his exploits and tragic death became legend. He was venerated as their benefactor and founder by the monks of Mount Athos and is remembered as a saint, commemorated on December 11 [1]. Yet, the inscription carved on the side of his sarcophagus summed up his life: You conquered all but a woman.


  1. Recorded in the Great Lavra Codex B 4f. 133
Succession box:
Nicephorus II Phocas
Preceded by:
Romanos II
Eastern Roman (Byzantine)

Succeeded by:
John I Tzimiskes
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