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This Week In History

Bardas Phocas against Basil II. February 7, 987.

Bardas Phocas was descendant of the Phocas Clan, an aristocratic family who consistently produced very competent generals that acted supplanting the actual heirs of the Macedonian Dynasty by acting as the authentic rulers of the Byzantine Empire. Let´s not forget that the Byzantine Empire at this time (during the second half of the tenth century) was characterized by long periods of military campaigns and many territories were conquered during this period.

When Basil II ascended to the power at the death of his brother John I Tzimiskes in 976, tensions began to surface between the court and the emperor, that tried to rule without any exterior influence. This situation finally resulted in a major rebellion led by Bardas Phocas the Younger, the most powerful man left of the old Phocas Clan.

Bardas Phocas participated in three revolts that took place during the government of the Macedonian Dynasty. His father, Leo Phocas the Younger was brother of emperor Nicephorus II, and Bardas earned a reputation of outstanding warrior from his early youth.

His military career had a quick ascension, but his decline was even faster. When his uncle died in 970, Bardas and his family rebelled against the new emperor (his cousin) Tzimiskes. The rebellion was nevertheless quickly suffocated by another great commander, Bardas Skleros, and Phocas and his family were banished to the Greek island of Chios, where he remained for the following 7 years.

In 978, Bardas was freed from prison by eunuch Basil Lekapenos, uncle of emperor Basil II and regent de facto. Bardas then travelled under disguise to his birthplace, Cappadocia, in order to start a revolt between the local aristocracy against Skleros, that had risen against imperial authorities and headed to Hellespontos.

Supported by Georgian troops under Tornikios, Phocas managed to extinguish the revolt, obtaining a significant victory against Skleros on Pakalia. For his services, he received the office of Domestikos of the Scholae, and the command of the army in order to recover Aleppo from the Saracens. Later, as stated by Psellos, “he was granted the privilege of a Thiumphus and took his place among his sovereign´s personal friends”.

While Constantinus VIII was easily controlled by his counselors, his brother Basil quickly revealed himself as a man eager for supremacy. His energy and determination made clear his desire of taking complete control of the administration of the Empire and the army. His increasing independence alarmed Phocas, and in 987 he started a conspiracy together with his former enemy Skleros, with the idea of splitting the Empire in two in case of success.

In a campaign that curiously imitated that of Skleros a decade before, Phocas proclaimed himself emperor on February 7, 987, and took great part of Anatolia. “It was no longer imagination, but pure reality, he dressed himself with the imperial attire, imperial crown and wore the royal purple”, said Psellos.

After incarcerating Skleros, he started the siege of Abydus, menacing with a blockade to Dardanellia. Basil II asked his brother in law, Vladimir, prince of Kiev, for help and he sent Varangian mercenaries and marched with them to Abydus.

Both armies met and Phocas gallopped towards the Emperor seeking direct combat. Exactly in the moment when he was preparing for the first shock, he fainted, fell from his horse, and died instantly. His head was chopped off and given to Basil, finishing the revolt definitively.

 

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