Orfeas Katsoulis | Apr 17, 2024

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Phocas (Latin: Flavius Phocas Augustus, Greek: Φωκάς), born around 547 and died on October 5, 610, was a Byzantine emperor from 602 to 610.

A simple centurion in the imperial army, he took part in a military campaign in the Balkans in 602, when he led a revolt of soldiers against Emperor Maurice, who was deeply unpopular at the time due to the Empire's economic and financial difficulties, but whose relentless campaigns provoked the revolt. Phocas quickly took advantage of the fragility of imperial power to enter Constantinople, seize power and have Maurice's family executed.

It was the beginning of a tyrannical reign, marked as much by internal instability as by borders besieged by the Empire's adversaries, who took advantage of Phocas' incompetence. Indeed, Phocas was widely recognized for his inability to impose himself at the head of the Empire. His legitimacy was contested throughout his reign, encouraging numerous revolts, often bloodily suppressed, which only served to increase his unpopularity. At the same time, the Sassanid emperor Khosro II launched a general assault on the eastern provinces of the Empire, which Phocas was unable to repel. Little by little, the outlying provinces gave way, while in Carthage, the governor Heraclius the Elder launched a rebellion that quickly took over Egypt, before a fleet led by his son Heraclius took Constantinople without a fight. Phocas, abandoned by all sides, was captured and put to death.

While some historians feel that he sometimes suffers unfairly from the severity of the chroniclers of the time, few question the memory of an emperor incapable of governing an Empire beset by great difficulties, which he sometimes helped to exacerbate.

At the beginning of the 7th century, the Eastern Roman Empire was at a turning point in its history. It had just emerged from a 6th century characterized by the revival of Justinian's reign, with the reconquest of entire provinces (Italy, North Africa and part of Spain). However, soon after Justinian's death, his successors struggled to keep intact frontiers that were sometimes considered too extensive, especially as imperial resources had suffered from the waves of Justinian's plague and other natural disasters that undermined the economic and social life of the Byzantine Empire. Under Maurice, who reigned from 582 to 602, these problems seemed to worsen with continued pressure from the Lombards in Italy, the Sassanids in the East, and the Slavs and Avars in the Balkans. Although the Emperor was victorious in the East, and seemed on the verge of victory in the Balkans, it was at the cost of ever greater mobilization of limited resources, to the point of arousing growing discontent in society in general and in the army in particular. It was against this backdrop of growing domestic unrest that Phocas's rebellion took place.

The origins of Phocas are shrouded in mystery, and nothing is known of his life before the turn of the 7th century. At an unknown date, he married a certain Leontia, perhaps of Thracian origin, and they had at least one daughter, Domentzia. Although his father is unknown to us, Phocas' mother was also named Domentzia, and Phocas had two known brothers, Domentziolus and Comentiolus. Historians regularly support the idea of a Thracian-Roman origin, a thesis supported by the surnames of his brothers, but the name Phocas, often associated with Asia Minor, may point to an Asian origin, either from Cappadocia as asserted by the controversial Georges le Moine, or the more credible Patria of Constantinople on the origins of emperors. An Armenian origin cannot be completely ruled out.

In the early 7th century, Phocas was an officer in the army sent by Emperor Maurice to defend the Danube frontier against Avar and Slav incursions. Nevertheless, his exact status is not well known, and several sources, often favorable to Heraclius, tend to denigrate Phocas and describe him as a subordinate officer, a mere centurion. However, other writings, both Western and Eastern and therefore more distant from Byzantine politics, affirm that he belonged to the category of superior officers. According to Paul Diacre, he was the equerry (strator) of Priscus. Frédégaire notes that he is patrice and duke, both important ranks, and according to Jean de Nikiou, he is one of the four commanders of the Thracian army. Vincent Puech has clearly underlined this discrepancy between Byzantine and non-Byzantine sources, which calls for caution in defining Phocas' exact social origin.

In any case, a few years earlier, Maurice had reached a peace agreement with the Sassanids. Provisionally safe from any threat in the East, he could devote himself to consolidating the Danubian frontier, which was struggling to protect the Balkan peninsula. His brother Peter commanded the army sent to reinforce the frontier in 601-602. However, soldiers were increasingly reluctant to embark on long-distance campaigns, as salaries were only imperfectly paid - a symbol of the Empire's financial difficulties. When Peter ordered the army to winter north of the Danube after spending the summer fighting, the troops categorically refused. A few years earlier, General Priscus had already disobeyed a similar order from Maurice, as he was quickly confronted with protests from the troops. As early as 598, when Comentiolus (a namesake of Phocas' brother) was in charge of the Thracian army, Phocas is said to have been part of the first delegation to protest to the emperor about the harsh conditions within the troops. The situation only worsened when Maurice announced that, for reasons of economy, the soldiers would have to live off the land. With no prospect of substantial spoils, and already hit by pay cuts, protests turned to rebellion. It was Phocas, a simple centurion, who was raised on a pavilion as a sign of his claim to supreme power. Peter is forced to flee to inform his father.

Maurice soon finds himself short of troops. All he has at his disposal are the Excubites and the Blue and Green Factions, who can provide back-up troops but are difficult to control. When the rebels arrived in Constantinople, a compromise began to emerge. Maurice's son, Theodosius, is proposed for the throne. Already crowned co-emperor, he seemed to offer continuity, but declined. Then Germanus, a high-ranking dignitary, was supported by Maurice's opponents. Maurice tried to arrest him, provoking riots. Soon, his power collapses and he flees to Bithynia. Troops led by Phocas are able to enter the capital and, as Germanus prepares to become emperor, he encounters opposition from the Greens, one of the two main factions in the Imperial City, who criticize him for his long-standing and resolute support of the Blues. This dichotomy between the Greens and the Blues, two pressure groups representing large sections of the Constantinopolitan population, structured part of Byzantine political life. From then on, Phocas had a free hand, as he was not affiliated to either faction. He was crowned emperor on November 23, 602 in the church of St. John the Baptist in Hebdomon, making him the first Roman emperor to be crowned in a church - a practice that was to continue. He soon seized Maurice's family, who had taken refuge in Ni

The success of Phocas' revolt was largely due to Maurice's growing unpopularity and lack of understanding of the general discontent within the army. As early as the 590s, several angry movements had taken hold of the soldiers, due to the increasingly difficult financial conditions in which they served. The Byzantine army was intensely mobilized to defend threatened frontiers, but had neither the manpower nor the financial resources to sustain such an effort. Phocas capitalized on this anger, taking advantage of urban unrest in Constantinople to prove that it was possible to seize power through military revolt.

Throughout his reign, Phocas proved unable to consolidate his legitimacy. He was the first Eastern Roman emperor to come to power by force, following a coup d'état, which shattered a long period of relative political stability. As a result, he struggled to gain recognition as the rightful emperor, especially as the assassination of Maurice and his family caused quite a stir among his contemporaries. Finally, and adding to the difficulties, he does not appear to have held any office that might have brought him into contact with the government of the Empire, and therefore has no experience in the matter at a time when the Empire's situation is becoming increasingly critical.

From 603

In Constantinople, he soon came up against the Factions. The exact role of these groups of urban dwellers remains debated; Alan Cameron believes they played no real political role, but other historians, such as Wolf Liebeschuetz, insist on their powerful capacity for action. In any case, Phocas could not escape their influence. Although he benefited from the support of the Greens when he took power, they initially wished to avoid the arrival of Germanus on the throne, and were therefore not a solid support. As early as 603, riots broke out with a violent fire on the Mésé. By this time, the Greens seemed to have turned their backs on Phocas, who had partly succeeded in winning over the Blues, who had been reserved against him in 602. In 609, a new episode of tension between Phocas and the Greens is mentioned. While the emperor was visiting the Hippodrome, he was booed, apparently for his drunkenness. He reacted swiftly by putting several factious people to death, while the Greens once again set fire to buildings in the capital.

Overall, Phocas relied heavily on his family, especially his two brothers, Comentiolus and Domentziolus, who held key military positions. With a significant proportion of the Byzantine elite opposed to his rule, he had to rely all the more on his relatives to prevent the risk of uprisings or treachery. He also tried to forge closer ties with influential members of the Byzantine aristocracy, such as general Priscus. Now Count of the Excubites, he married Domentzia, one of Phocas' daughters, but the alliance remained fragile. Priscus seems to have always shown limited loyalty to Phocas, who was contemptuous and jealous at the wedding ceremony. Indeed, Priscus is often credited with writing a letter inciting the governor of Africa, Heraclius the Elder, to revolt, and will abandon Phocas when the latter's power collapses.

Since 591, the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire, the two regional superpowers, have been at peace. Maurice maintained good relations with Khosro II, whom he had helped to regain his throne, once occupied by a usurper. The fall and death of Maurice put an end to this period of good relations. Khosro II categorically refused to recognize the new emperor and decided to avenge his former ally. He proclaimed that he was fighting to put Theodosius, one of Maurice's sons, on the throne. Although modern historians believe that Theodosius was captured shortly after his family by Phocas' forces, sources from the time claim that he managed to reach Ctesiphon to ask Khosro for help. Despite the latter's stated intentions, he saw the fall of Maurice above all as a pretext for attacking the historic rival of Iranian power in the Middle East and erasing the concessions made in 591, notably the abandonment of Armenia. Thus began what historians believe to be the last great war of antiquity.

The Sassanid advance took place on two fronts: Armenia and Mesopotamia, the two outer provinces of the Byzantine Empire in direct contact with the Persian-Iranian world. Khosro's first ambition was to recover the region of Armenia, which had been ceded to the Byzantines in 591 and over which the latter still had precarious control. The Sassanids gradually advanced, defeating the Roman armies on several occasions. The exact chronology of events is difficult to establish and remains debated, but by the time Phocas died, the Sassanids had recaptured a large part of the Armenia they had lost in 591, seizing in particular two important fortresses: Theodosiopolis and Citharizum. They were now in a position to threaten Anatolia directly. During these campaigns, Khosro's forces did not hesitate to put forward Maurice's presumed son, to obtain surrenders more easily, which attests to the precariousness of Phocas's power.

In Mesopotamia, the pattern was broadly similar, with slow but steady progress. The Sassanids took advantage of the rebellion of Narses, master of the Eastern militia, to return to war. They defeated and killed Germanus, sent by Phocas around 604, then defeated Leontius, his successor, probably in 605. The emperor then sent his nephew, Domentziolus, but without further success. Meanwhile, Khosro's soldiers had taken Dara after a long siege in 604. This position, a lock on Syria, enabled them to advance inland, while coming up against the solid fortifications of the eastern limes. Here again, the chronology is difficult to establish, but the situation deteriorated significantly after 608, when the rebellion of Heraclius the Elder and the loss of Egypt forced Phocas to clear his eastern frontier to combat the rebels. In addition, a general movement of contestation inflamed the cities of the Byzantine East, accompanied by unrest caused by the uprising of the Jews and Samaritans, resistance from the Monophysites and disorder caused by the Factions, those urban corporations that both opposed and sometimes challenged imperial authority. Among the important positions taken by the Persians after Phocas' death were Amida, Callinicum, Edessa and Constantina in the Osroene. Again, these were only peripheral possessions, but they paved the way for the conquest of Syria and Palestine.

The Balkans under threat

Phocas' Balkan policy is relatively unknown. As a native of the region, he necessarily had a keen eye for developments, knowing that the Danubian frontier was under regular assault at the time, notably from the Avars, who had established an empire in Pannonia, and the Slavs. The army that brought Phocas to power was itself fighting these threats in 602, and returned to the Danube after the new emperor's enthronement. Nevertheless, in 604, Phocas had to transfer troops to the East to fight Khosro's Sassanids, which weakened the Byzantine defense. The emperor may have been all the more tempted to use these soldiers in the East as they came from the same army that had brought him to power, and were therefore potentially more loyal. He then signed a treaty with the Avars to guarantee peace, probably with the payment of a substantial tribute. On the other hand, the Slavs are sometimes suspected of having raided as far as Thessalonica. The reign of Phocas thus marked the abandonment of Maurice's ambitions to wage war on Avar territory, in order to reduce their power as much as possible and then fully re-establish Byzantine sovereignty in the Balkans. Nevertheless, contrary to what has sometimes been asserted, the Danubian frontier held up rather well under Phocas, and it was especially in the 610s, after his death, that Slavic and Avar incursions resumed with renewed vigor and debauchery.

Byzantine Spain

Phocas seems to have paid little attention to the fate of Byzantine Spain. This remote province, reconquered by Justinian, had for some years been under attack from the Visigoths, intent on controlling the whole of the Iberian peninsula. Given the many problems he had to face, Phocas was unlikely to be able to deal with a territory so distant from his capital. He did not renew the administration, and the local forces had to fend off the assaults of the Visigoth ruler Witeric, who succeeded in seizing Sagonte, reducing Byzantine Spain even further to the southeastern coast of the peninsula.

Italian politics

Phocas' Italian policy was characterized by his desire to win over the region's influential authorities, which explains why it was one of the few regions where he enjoyed a high level of popularity. Byzantine Italy was in the throes of the Lombard invasions, which threatened imperial control of the peninsula. In Rome, moreover, the Papacy was asserting itself as an increasingly autonomous spiritual power, despite the protective role the Roman Empire had to play towards it. Phocas stood out for his propensity to maintain good relations with the Pope. As soon as he came to power, he was congratulated by Gregory the Great, probably because of the tensions that existed between the Pope and Maurice at the time. A few years later, Phocas arranged for Boniface III, then in Constantinople, with whom he had close ties, to be appointed pope. In return, Phocas recognized the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. This was a sensitive issue in a Christian Church still divided into five patriarchs. Henceforth, only the Pope could claim the title of universal or ecumenical bishop, while the Patriarch of Constantinople also claimed this status. Relations between the emperor and the patriarch were fairly strained at the time, since Cyriacus of Constantinople, who died in 606, gave sanctuary for a time to Maurice's widow and her supporters. It is therefore possible that Phocas wished to sanction the Constantinopolitan patriarchate. Finally, Boniface IV, the last pope of Phocas' reign, obtained from the emperor the conversion of Rome's ancient Pantheon into a church.

At the same time, Phocas distinguished himself by raising a column in his honor in Rome's Forum, the latest addition to what had once been the heart of Roman power, while a statue of him was also erected in Rome, representing one of the last recorded examples of sculpture in the round depicting a Roman emperor. It was also during his reign that the Roman Senate was last mentioned in 603. By then, the institution had largely declined. These examples symbolize the gradual transformation, even disappearance, of a whole part of ancient Roman culture. At the same time, cultural life seems to have been eclipsed under Phocas, before briefly reappearing under his successor, foreshadowing the so-called dark centuries of Byzantine history, when cultural production declined.

Despite his efforts to secure the support of the papacy and the Italian elite in general, Phocas was unable to contain the Lombard expansion. In 603, he recalled Smaragde, former exarch of Ravenna, to take over his post, with instructions to fight the Lombard king Agilulf. However, the Byzantines quickly lost several positions, including Mantua and Cremona. Smaragde was finally forced to make peace and release Agilulf's daughters, whom his predecessor had taken prisoner.

In 608, Phocas had reigned for six years, but had still not managed to consolidate his power. The East was beset by the advance of the Sassanids, while hotbeds of unrest persisted in various parts of the Empire, particularly in the East, often fanned by the opposition between the Blue and the Green. Byzantine Africa, relatively unaffected by external threats, was a prosperous province ruled by Heraclius the Elder. When he rose up, the threat to Phocas quickly became untenable. From Carthage, Heraclius had an entire region behind him, as well as considerable financial and human resources. The exact origins of this rebellion are difficult to trace. According to chroniclers of the time, it was the influential Priscus who sent a letter inciting Heraclius to revolt in order to depose and eliminate Phocas, whose reign was proving more disastrous by the day. Beyond this undertaking, which could be described as in the public interest, Walter Kaegi underlines the personal interest of Heraclius and his family in revolting, seeing it as a real opportunity to conquer supreme power.

Heraclius the Elder first sent his nephew Nicetas to conquer Egypt, with a small army of a few thousand men, often locally recruited Moors. Nicetas quickly took control of a large part of the rich Egyptian province. Phocas reacted by imprisoning Heraclius the Elder's wife and his son's betrothed, Fabia Eudocia, for whom chroniclers claimed he had lustful desires. He also sent to Egypt one of his leading generals, Bonosos, known for his severity and even cruelty, having just quelled various local uprisings in Palestine. Upon his arrival, the loyalist general won a victory against Nicetas' deputy Bonakis, before blockading Alexandria. But he was eventually defeated in his turn and had to flee Egypt. This defeat meant the loss of Egypt, the Empire's granary and Constantinople's main source of wheat. In addition, the troops loyal to Phocas in Palestine and Syria found themselves caught between the Sassanids, who were advancing all the more easily since Phocas had to divert part of his forces against the rebels, and Egypt, now controlled by Nicetas.

The situation worsened when Heraclius the Elder's own son, also named Heraclius, led a fleet against Constantinople. Heraclius landed at Hebdomon between late September and early October 610. Heraclius' exact route is unknown, but he seems to have passed through Sicily and southern Italy before taking Abydos, south of the imperial city. On his way, he would have benefited from reinforcements, particularly from the Green faction, according to Jean de Nikiou. Phocas, now directly threatened, tried to send his brother Domentziolus against him. At the same time, Nicetas' forces continued to advance and seemed to have seized a large part of Syria as well as Cyprus, still under the growing threat of the Sassanids. However, Heraclius temporized for a while, perhaps to secure new support, while Phocas recalled his brother. He also hastily assembled a war fleet, but it was easily defeated by the rebels. Finally, Heraclius landed at Hebdomon, just outside Constantinople, on October 3. Panic and anarchy begin to sweep through the city. The Green faction largely rallied to Heraclius and let go of Bonosos, sent by Phocas to fight Heraclius, before freeing the latter's mother and fiancée, Fabia Eudocia. As for Priscus, who had his hands on the Excubites and Bucellaires, first-rate troops, he preferred to adopt a neutral posture and

Byzantine emperors are rarely unanimously opposed. Phocas was one of them. From the moment of his death, he was widely criticized by his contemporaries and later historians. Heraclius, who overthrew him, contributed in part to this damnatio memoriae to further legitimize his arrival in power, since he rid the Empire of a tyrant. George of Pisidia, a poet in Heraclius' service, described Phocas as "the face of a Gorgon" or "the earthly Leviathan". Theophylact Simocatta, who wrote a history of Maurice's reign, is hardly more magnanimous, describing him as a barbarian, half centaur and half Cyclops. This poor image has survived the test of time. It was taken up by Pierre Corneille, for example, in his tragedy Heraclius, in which Heraclius, presented as a son of Maurice, escapes the massacre of his family and ends up overthrowing the tyrant Phocas. In the 18th century, Montesquieu saw the advent of Phocas as the beginning of a new era, one from which "the history of the Greek Empire - as we shall henceforth call the Roman Empire - is nothing but a web of revolts, seditions and perfidy". Beyond this particularly gloomy and decadent vision of Byzantine history, Phocas's seizure of power effectively ushered in a period of resurgent violent takeovers, in stark contrast to the stability of the early centuries.

Modern historians have not questioned his disastrous reign, both militarily and economically. Louis Bréhier describes him in unfriendly terms: "An uneducated soldier from the ranks, with a despotic temperament, hot-tempered, cruel and vindictive". According to John Haldon, Phocas had neither the skills nor the experience to lead an Empire that was now facing major challenges. Michel Kaplan described him as a "lamentable" ruler, whose reign ushered in a period of profound internal instability due to his inability to assert his authority. All see him as a bloodthirsty tyrant and a "reign of unbridled terror" which, according to Georg Ostrogorsky, is like the final notes in the history of the Bas-Roman state, ushering in a new era of Byzantine history. Indeed, the early seventh century marked the beginning of major transformations in the Eastern Roman world, with the loss of authority over large swathes of the Empire, which began as early as Phocas, if not before, and continued under his successor Heraclius. Eventually, the Eastern Roman world entered a period of change, opening up to what some historians refer to as the "Meso-Byzantine" period, which explains why the beginning or end of Phocas's reign sometimes constitute chronological milestones.

One of the few dissenting opinions is to be found in Soviet historiography, where Vassili Kuchma sees Phocas's rise to power as a "social revolution" that helped weaken the domination of the Byzantine aristocracy and laid the foundations for the coming transformation of the Byzantine world, based on the model of the small peasant proprietor with the system of themes. On the other hand, some historians, such as Walter Emil Kaegi, while not questioning the largely negative assessment of Phocas's reign, nevertheless point out that certain criticisms are exaggerated, and feel that the primary sources are excessively harsh against him. Kaegi notes, for example, that Phocas is held responsible for territorial losses that actually occurred under Heraclius, such as the loss of control of the Balkans or the Sassanid conquest of Palestine and Egypt, even though the unrest caused by Phocas's errant policies sometimes created the conditions for these invasions.


  1. Phocas
  2. Phocas
  3. Haldon 1990, p. 40.
  4. Stratos 1976, p. 51.
  5. Martindale, Jones et Morris 1992, p. 409.
  6. ^ John Bagnell Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire from Arcadius to Irene, II, Cosimo, Inc., 2009 [1889], ISBN 1-60520-405-6.
  7. ^ Giovanni Polara, I regni barbarici del VI secolo- La prosa: Gregorio Magno, in Letteratura latina tardoantica e altomedievale, Jouvence, p. 59, ISBN 88-7801-069-3.
  8. ^ Alcides Vargas Echegaray (15 June 2021). Sin Fronteras. Caligrama. ISBN 9788418435485.
  9. ^ William of Tyre (1893). Colvin, Mary Noyes (ed.). Godeffroy of Boloyne; or, The siege and conqueste of Jerusalem. Early English Text Society (originally from the University of Michigan). p. 335. Nicephorus Phocas, Emperor of the East from 602–610.
  10. ^ PLRE 3B p. 1030
  11. ^ Bury, John Bagnell (1889). A History of the Later Roman Empire: From Arcadius to Irene (395 A.D. to 800 A.D.). Vol. 2. London: Macmillan and Co. p. 197. The reign of Phocas the Thracian, which lasted for eight years, was the realisation of that dreaded something whose approach had long been felt.
  12. Martindale, Jones & Morris. The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire – Volume III, AD 527–641, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-20160-8 (1992), p. 326
  13. Stephen Mitchell. A history of the later Roman Empire, AD 284–641: the transformation of the ancient world (2007 edición). Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 1-4051-0857-6, p. 411.
  14. David Michael Olster. The politics of usurpation in the seventh century: rhetoric and revolution in Byzantium (1993 edición). A.M. Hakkert. - Total, p. 133.

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