The age of re-conquest Nicephorus Phocas and john Tzimiskes in Byzantine state
The chroniclers represent Nicephorus Phocas ( 963-9) as ‘a pigmy with an enormous head,’ black-haired, black-skinned, and black of character, a graceless soldier. Yet he came to the throne by the caprice of a beautiful woman, and no sooner was the diadem set upon his brow than he was seen to be the most imperial of imperial rulers, the most resolved to have his rights respected, the most determined to resist his enemies. Again, Basil II, known as ‘Slayer of the Bulgarians,’ became emperor at the age of eighteen. He showed immediately and throughout his long reign a sense of responsibility, energy in the execution of his duty, and an understanding of men and events worthy of Louis XIV. It was owing to him that the influence of Byzantium was felt throughout the East and even in distant Russia. No doubt we respect rather than love these characters; they are far too deeply dyed in blood for our liking. But to do them justice we must surely take account of the terrible situation in which they were placed.
For the proven greatness of the Macedonian dynasty cannot be attributed to any circumstance that might be said to have facilitated their task. The age-long perils which had for centuries confronted the Byzantine emperors were still present; they were no less grave, and their number had been increased. We can recall those that loomed in and near the capital: popular rebellion and the constant threat of conspiracy. If the latter were successful yesterday’s monarch became a bleeding corpse whose head was offered to the derision of the mob; at best he was mutilated or his eyes put out. Nor was this all: the provinces always tended to separatism, which might at any moment become active; and new heresies, such as the Paulician, worked like leaven in the State.
Byzantium under the Macedonians had regained her glory. Her commerce, now barred from Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and maritime Asia, looked towards the north. She held undisputed sway over the Aegean and the Black Sea; through Trebizond she linked Central Asia and India; timber, furs, and slaves reached her via the rivers of Russia; the Adriatic seaboard, which she also controlled, was at the height of its prosperity, and Venice stood on the threshold of a magnificent career. The Byzantine armies were reliable, and the system of recruiting themes provided soldier-agriculturists stationed on the frontiers, thereby guaranteeing a high rate of enrolment. The navy, lately reorganized, was soon to make possible a counter-offensive which would roll back the Arabs from southern Italy, from parts of Sicily, and above all from Crete. This phase of Byzantine preeminence, which was felt both materially and politically from the shores of Italy to the Armenian plateaus, and from the Danube to the confines of Syria, was contemporary with a moral, intellectual, and spiritual radiance worthy of the greatest periods. During the two ‘Macedonian’ centuries there took place a veritable renaissance which was to the advantage of both art and literature.
Under this dynasty, more than ever before, Constantinople felt herself to be not only the capital of the world and the head of civilization, but also the bastion of the Christian faith. For she laboured on behalf of Christianity in the firm conviction that all her glory rested thereupon; or rather, she thought of her own interests as identical with those of Christ. Was it not the cause of the Gospel that her soldiers served when face to face with the pagans or the Moslems? Did not the works of her scholars, architects, and artists contribute to the glory of Almighty God? Christianity was part and parcel of the popular conscience as well as of the imperial policies–at least it was easy to imagine so.
But Christianity in the Byzantine Empire was still of that disconcerting type whose characteristics we have noticed in former periods, characteristics which had become even more pronounced. It was a closely knit web of living piety and formalism, of very high moral standards and passionate outbursts that always tended to excess whether for good or ill; a religion of sublime ascetics, of howling mobs, and of prelate-politicians. Theological debate, so violent in earlier centuries, no longer stirred men’s minds to the same degree, for the imperial authority enforced submission to the articles of faith; but since the revival of the cult of pictures the devotion paid to them had become so ardent and pervasive that there was danger of a relapse into those extravagances which had brought about the crisis.
The emperors regarded themselves as the best witnesses to Christianity, or rather as its incarnation. But Christianity as they practised it is certainly calculated to make us wonder. It would be impossible to imagine a more complete admixture of contradictory elements. Basil I, for instance, reached the throne by a succession of crimes and reigned with implacable harshness; yet towards the poor and humble he showed inexhaustible tenderness and charity in the true spirit of the Gospel. Nicephorus Phocas hesitated between the cloister and the throne, leading for years the life of a soldier-monk; then he suddenly became enamoured of a woman who enabled him to seize the crown, and gave himself up to fleshly delights with all the fervour of youth, although he was well past fifty. Some of these imperial figures lived on the borders of mystical neurosis. The beautiful Theophano, for example, wife of Leo VI, practised such a crazy form of asceticism that, apart from official ceremonies, when she was obliged to wear robes, she never appeared before her husband dressed in anything but rags, offered him no better bed than a mat spread on the floor, or better meals than vegetables and water. It goes without saying that Christianity of this sort, so full of contrasts, was marked by outbreaks of licentiousness and cruelty for which Byzantium had always been conspicuous.
After the conquest of Crete, the whole disposable force of the empire in Asia was placed under the command of Nicephorus, who, according to the Arabians, opened the campaign of 962 at the head of one hundred thousand men. The Saracens were unable to oppose this army in the field; Doliche, Hierapolis, and Anazarba were captured, and Nicephorus advanced to Aleppo, where Seif Addawalah had collected an army to protect his capital. The position of the Hamdanite was turned by the superior tactics of the Byzantine general, his communications with his capital cut off, his army at last defeated, and his palace and the suburbs of Aleppo occupied. A sedition of the Arab troops, and a quarrel between the inhabitants and the garrison, enabled Nicephorus to enter the city, but the citadel defied his attacks. On the approach of a Saracen army from Damascus, Nicephorus abandoned his conquest, carrying away immense booty from the city of Aleppo, and retaining possession of sixty forts along the range of Mount Taurus as the result of his campaign.
The only mode of protecting the commerce of the capital and the coasts of Greece was to conquer the island of Crete, and expel all the Saracen population. Romanus determined to fit out an expedition on a scale suitable for this undertaking, and he knew that in Nicephorus Phokas he possessed a general equal to the enterprise. Bringas aided the emperor with zeal and energy, and gave no countenance to the endeavours that some courtiers made to awaken the jealousy of Romanus, that too much glory might accrue to Nicephorus from the successful termination of so great an undertaking.
The port of Phygela, near Ephesus, served as the place of rendezvous for the ships collected from the coasts of Greece and the islands of the Egean. Everything was ready in the month of July 960, and Nicephorus disembarked his troops in Crete without sustaining any loss, though the Saracens attempted to oppose the operation. The city of Chandax was prepared to defend itself to the last extremity, and the Mohammedans in the rest of the island took active measures for resisting the progress of the Byzantine troops, and preventing their deriving any supplies from the interior. Chandax was too strongly fortified to be taken without a regular siege, so that the first operation of Nicephorus was to invest it in form. To insure the fall of the place, even at the risk of prolonging the siege, he began his operations by forming a complete circumvallation round his camp and naval station, which he connected with the sea on both sides of the city, and thus cut the enemy off from all communication with the Saracens in the country. The pirates of Chandax had often been at war with all the world, and they had fortified their stronghold in such a way that it could be defended with a small garrison, while the bulk of their forces were cruising in search of plunder. The repeated attacks of the Byzantine emperors had also warned them of the dangers to which they were exposed. Towards the land, a high wall protected the city; it was composed of sun-dried bricks, but the mortar of which they were formed had been kneaded with the hair of goats and swine into a mass almost as hard as stone, and it was so broad that two chariots could drive abreast on its summit. A double ditch of great depth and breadth strengthened the work, and rendered approach difficult.
One of the parties sent out by Nicephorus to complete the conquest of the island having been cut off, he was compelled to take the field in person as soon as he had completed his arrangements for blockading the fortress during the winter. The Saracens, encouraged by their success, had assembled an army, and proposed attempting to relieve the besieged city, when they were attacked in their position, and routed with great loss. The Byzantine general, in order to intimidate the defenders of Chandax, ordered the heads of those slain in the country to be brought to the camp, stimulating the activity of his soldiers in this barbarous service by paying a piece of silver for every head. They were then ranged on spears along the whole line of the circumvallation towards the fortifications of the city; and the number of slain was so great, that many more were cast into the place by means of catapults, in order to let the besieged see the full extent of the loss of their countrymen.
A strict blockade was maintained during the whole winter. When the weather permitted, light galleys cruised before the port, and at all times several of the swiftest dromons and chelands were kept ready to pursue any vessel that might either attempt to enter or quit the port. But though the Saracens were reduced to suffer great privations, they showed no disposition to surrender, and Nicephorus pressed on the siege as spring advanced with mines and battering-rams. At last a practicable breach was effected, and the place was taken by storm on the 7th of May, 961. The accumulated wealth of many years of successful piracy was abandoned to the troops, but a rich booty and numerous slaves were carried to Constantinople, and shown in triumph to the people.
To complete the conquest of the island, it was necessary to exterminate the whole of the Saracen population. To effect this, the fortifications of Chandax were levelled with the ground, and a new fortress called Temenos, situated on a high and rugged hill, about twelve miles inland, was constructed and garrisoned by a body of Byzantine and Armenian troops. Many Saracens, however, remained in the island, but they were reduced to a state approaching servitude. The greater part of the Greek population in some parts of the island had embraced Mohammedanism during the 135 years of Saracen domination. When the island was reconquered, an Armenian monk named Nikon became a missionary to these infidels, and he had the honour of converting numbers of the Cretans back to Christianity. As soon as the conquest of the island was completed, the greater part of the army was ordered to Asia Minor; but Nicephorus was invited by the emperor to visit Constantinople, where he was allowed the honour of a triumph. He brought Kurup, the Saracen emir of Crete, a prisoner in his train.
We may here pause to take a cursory view of the state of Greece during the ninth and tenth centuries. The preceding pages have noticed the few facts concerning the fortunes of this once glorious land that are preserved in the Byzantine annals, but these facts are of themselves insufficient to explain how a people, whose language and literature occupied a predominant position in society, enjoyed neither political power nor moral pre-eminence as a nation.
The Fatimite caliph Moëz reigned at Cairowan, and was already contemplating the conquest of Egypt. Nicephorus not only refused to pay him the tribute of eleven thousand gold byzants, stipulated by Romanus I., but even sent an expedition to wrest Sicily from the Saracens. The chief command was intrusted to Niketas, who had conquered Cyprus; and the army, consisting chiefly of cavalry, was more particularly placed under the orders of Manuel Phokas, the emperor’s cousin, a daring officer. 1 The troops were landed on the eastern coast, and Manuel rashly advanced, until he was surrounded by the enemy and slain. Niketas also had made so little preparation to defend his position, that his camp was stormed, and he himself taken prisoner and sent to Africa. Nicephorus, who had a great esteem for Niketas in spite of this defeat, obtained his release by sending to Moëz the sword of Mahomet, which had fallen into his hands in Syria. Niketas consoled himself during his captivity by transcribing the works of St. Basil, and a MS. of his penmanship still exists in the National Library at Paris.
The affairs of Italy were, as usual, embroiled by local causes. Otho, the emperor of the West, appeared at the head of an army in Apulia, and having secured the assistance of Pandulf, prince of Beneventum, called Ironhead, carried on the war with frequent vicissitudes of fortune. Ironhead was taken prisoner by the Byzantine general, and sent captive to Constantinople. But the tyrannical conduct of the Byzantine officials lost all that was gained by the superior discipline of the troops, and favoured the progress of the German arms. Society had fallen into such a state of isolation, that men were more eager to obtain immunity from all taxation than protection for industry and property, and the advantages of the Byzantine administration ceased to be appreciated.
The European provinces of the empire were threatened with invasion both by the Hungarians and Bulgarians. In 966, Nicephorus was apprised of the intention of the Hungarians, and he solicited the assistance of Peter, king of Bulgaria, to prevent their passing the Danube. Peter refused, for he had been compelled to conclude a treaty of peace with the Hungarians, who had invaded Bulgaria a short time before. It is even said that Peter took advantage of the difficulty in which Nicephorus appeared to be placed, by the numerous wars that occupied his troops, to demand payment of the tribute Romanus I. had promised to Simeon. 1 Nicephorus, in order to punish the insolence of one whom he regarded as his inferior, sent Kalokyres, the son of the governor of Cherson, as ambassador to Russia, to invite Swiatoslaff, the Varangian prince of Kieff, to invade Bulgaria, and intrusted him with a sum of fifteen hundred pounds’ weight of gold, to pay the expenses of the expedition. Kalokyres proved a traitor: he formed an alliance with Swiatoslaff, proclaimed himself emperor, and involved the empire in a bloody war with the Russians.
E. R. A. Sewter, trans. Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, by Michael Psellus. London: Penguin Press, 1966.
G. Schlumberger, Un empereur byzantin au dixième siècle. Nicèphore Phocas ( Paris, 1890), p. 723.
G. Freytag, Regnum Saahd-Aldaulae in oppido Halebo ( Bonn, 1820), pp. 9-14.
Robert Browning. The Byzantine Empire. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, Revised edition 1992