Delice Bette | April 8, 2023


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

Simple centurion in the imperial army, he participates in a military campaign in the Balkans in 602 when he takes the head of a revolt of the soldiers against the emperor Maurice, then deeply unpopular because of the economic and financial difficulties of the Empire, but especially its incessant campaigns which will cause the revolt. Quickly, Phocas takes advantage of the fragility of the imperial power to penetrate in Constantinople, to seize the power and to make execute the family of Maurice.

It is the beginning of a tyrannical reign, marked as much by an internal instability as by borders assailed by adversaries of the Empire, which benefit from the incompetence of Phocas. Indeed, this last is widely recognized for its incapacity to impose itself at the head of the Empire. His legitimacy is disputed during all his reign, encouraging numerous revolts, often repressed in blood, which only increases his unpopularity. At the same time, the Sassanid emperor, Khosro II, launched a general assault on the eastern provinces of the Empire that Phocas was unable to repel. Little by little, the peripheral provinces gave way while in Carthage, the governor Heraclius the Elder launched a rebellion which quickly seized Egypt, before a fleet led by his son, Heraclius, took Constantinople without fighting. Phocas, abandoned on all sides, was captured and put to death.

If some historians believe that he sometimes suffers unfairly from the severity of the chroniclers of the time, few are those who question the memory of an emperor unable to govern an Empire then in the grip of great difficulties, which he sometimes contributed to aggravate.

At the beginning of the seventh century, the Eastern Roman Empire was at a turning point in its history. It was coming out of a sixth century characterized by the surge of Justinian’s reign, with the reconquest of entire provinces (Italy, North Africa and part of Spain). Nevertheless, soon after the death of Justinian, his successors struggled to maintain intact borders sometimes considered too extensive, especially since the imperial resources suffered from the waves of the plague of Justinian and other natural disasters that have damaged the economic and social life of the Byzantine Empire. Under Maurice, who reigned from 582 to 602, these problems seemed to worsen with the continued pressure of the Lombards in Italy, the Sassanids in the East, the Slavs and the Avars in the Balkans. If the emperor is victorious in the East and seems in the process of winning in the Balkans, it is at the cost of an ever-increasing mobilization of limited resources, to the point of arousing growing discontent in society in general and in the army in particular. It is in this context, marked by an interior agitation more and more strong, that intervenes the rebellion of Phocas.

Beyond his Thracian origins, nothing is known of the life of Phocas before the turn of the seventh century. He married at an unknown date a certain Leontia, perhaps of Thracian origin too, and they had at least one daughter, Domentzia. If his father is unknown to us, the mother of Phocas is also called Domentzia and Phocas has two known brothers, Domentziolus and Comentiolus.

At the beginning of the 7th century, Phocas was a junior officer in the army sent by the emperor Maurice to defend the Danube border against the incursions of the Avars and Slavs. A few years earlier, Maurice had reached a peace agreement with the Sassanids. Temporarily preserved from any threat in the East, he can thus devote himself to the consolidation of the Danube border, which struggles to protect the Balkan peninsula. It is his brother Peter who commands the army sent in 601-602 to reinforce the border. Nevertheless, the soldiers are more and more reluctant to engage in campaigns in the long course because the wages are only imperfectly paid, symbol of the financial difficulties of the Empire. When Peter ordered the army to winter north of the Danube after spending the summer fighting, the troops categorically refused. Already, a few years before, the general Priscus had disobeyed a similar order of Maurice because he had been quickly confronted with the protests of the troop. The situation only got worse when Maurice announced that, for reasons of economy, the soldiers had to live on the land. Without prospects of substantial booty and already hit by pay cuts, the protests turned to rebellion. It is Phocas, simple centurion, who is raised on a pavilion, sign of his claim to the supreme power. Peter is forced to flee to inform his brother in Constantinople. It is a new sedition which presents itself to Maurice, who then struggles to maintain the order, more especially as during the winter which precedes, disorders burst in Constantinople following a beginning of famine.

Maurice soon finds himself short of troops. He has at his disposal only the Excubites and the Blue and Green Factions, which can provide additional troops but are difficult to control. When the rebels arrive in front of Constantinople, a compromise tends to emerge. The son of Maurice, Theodosius, is proposed to take the throne. Already crowned as co-emperor, it seems a solution of continuity, but it declines the proposal. It is then Germanus, a high dignitary, who is supported by the opponents of Maurice. The latter tried to stop him, which caused riots. Soon, its capacity collapses and it flees towards Bithynia. The troops led by Phocas can enter the capital and, whereas Germanus gets ready to become emperor, it runs up against the opposition of the Greens, one of the two principal factions of the imperial City which reproach him its resolute support and of long date to the Blue. This dichotomy between the Greens and the Blues, two groups of pressure which represent broad sections of the constantinopolitan population, structures then a part of the Byzantine political life. Henceforth, Phocas has the free field because it is affiliated with none of the factions. He is crowned emperor on November 23, 602 in the church Saint-Jean-Baptiste of Hebdomon, which makes of him the first Roman emperor to be crowned in a church; a practice brought to be perpetuated. Soon, he seized the family of Maurice, refugee in Nicomedia and put to death as well the former emperor as his sons, thus inaugurating a reign marked by the political repression, most often in blood. The bodies are thrown in the Bosphorus and the head of Maurice exhibited in front of the army of Balkans. This purge of the former ruling family shocked his contemporaries and certainly contributed to weaken his power from the outset. Other high dignitaries of the regime of Mauritius were put to death, such as general Comentiolus, who seems to have left a bad memory during his service at the head of the Balkan army, or the prefect Constantin Lardys, who was made responsible for unpopular financial measures. On the other hand, it is more lenient towards Germanus or Philippicos, the count of Excubites and brother-in-law of the late emperor, who is tonsured and exiled in a monastery.

The success of Phocas’s revolt was largely due to Maurice’s growing unpopularity and lack of understanding of the general discontent within the army. As of the years 590, several movements of anger had seized the soldiers, because of the increasingly difficult financial conditions in which they serve. The Byzantine army is then mobilized intensely to defend threatened borders, without having neither the manpower, nor the financial means to support such an effort durably. Phocas knew how to capitalize on this anger, while profiting from urban disorders in Constantinople, proving henceforth that it is possible to seize the power starting from a military revolt.

Throughout his reign, Phocas shows himself unable to consolidate his legitimacy. He is then the first Roman emperor of the East to have reached the power by the force, following a coup d’état, what breaks a long period of relative political stability. As a result, he struggles to be recognized as the emperor by right, especially since the murder of Maurice and his family causes some concern among his contemporaries. Lastly, and what adds to the difficulties, it seems to have exerted no function which could have put it in bond with the government of the Empire and thus does not have any experience on the matter whereas the situation of the Empire becomes more and more critical.

From 603

In Constantinople, he was soon confronted with the Factions. The exact role of these groups of urban dwellers remains debated; Alan Cameron believes that they play no real political role, but other historians such as Wolf Liebeschuetz insist on the contrary on their powerful capacity for action. In any case, Phocas could not escape their influence. If it benefited from the support of the Greens at the time to take the power, they initially wished to avoid the arrival of Germanus on the throne and are thus not a solid support. As of 603, riots occur with a violent fire on Mésé. The Greens seem then already to have turned away from Phocas, who partly succeeded in conciliating the Blue, however reserved against him in 602. In 609, a new episode of tensions between Phocas and the Greens is evoked. Whereas the emperor goes in the Hippodrome, it is consputed, it seems for its drunkenness. He reacted sharply by putting to death several factious, while the Greens set fire again to buildings of the capital.

On the whole, Phocas relied a lot on his family, in particular his two brothers, Comentiolus and Domentziolus, who occupied leading military positions. Because of the opposition of a significant part of the Byzantine elite to his power, he must count all the more on his parents to prevent at most the risk of uprisings or treasons. He also tries to get closer to influential members of the Byzantine aristocracy like the general Priscus. From now on count of Excubites, he marries Domentzia, one of the girls of Phocas but this alliance remains fragile. Priscus seems to have always shown a limited loyalty towards Phocas who showed himself contemptuous and jealous during the ceremony of the marriage. Priscus is moreover often considered to be at the origin of a letter which incites to the revolt the governor of Africa, Heraclius the Elder, and will abandon Phocas when the power of the latter collapses.

Since 591, the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire, the two regional superpowers, are at peace. Maurice maintained good relations with Khosro II, whom he had helped to regain his throne, which had been occupied for a time by a usurper. The fall and death of Mauritius put an end to this period of good understanding. Khosro II categorically refused to recognize the new emperor and decided to avenge the one he considered as his former ally. He proclaims to fight to put Théodose, one of the sons of Maurice, on the throne. If the modern historians estimate today that Théodose was captured shortly after his family by the forces of Phocas, sources of the time affirm that he managed to join Ctésiphon to ask for the assistance of Khosro. In spite of the intentions posted by this last one, it sees especially in the fall of Maurice a pretext to attack the historical rival of the Iranian power in the Middle East and to erase the concessions made in 591, in particular the abandonment of Arménie. Thus begins what historians believe to be the last great war of antiquity.

The Sassanid progression is made on two fronts: Armenia and Mesopotamia, which are the two external provinces of the Byzantine Empire, directly in contact with the Persian-Iranian world. Khosro’s ambition was first to recover the region of Armenia which had been ceded to the Byzantines in 591 and over which the latter still had a precarious control. The Sassanids advanced little by little and succeeded several times in defeating the Roman armies. The exact chronology of the events is difficult to establish and remains debated but, with the death of Phocas, the Sassanides took again a large part of Armenia lost in 591 and seize in particular two important fortresses: Theodosiopolis and Citharizum. From now on, they can directly threaten Anatolia. During these campaigns, the forces of Khosro do not hesitate to put forward the presumed son of Maurice, to obtain more easily surrenders, which attests to the precariousness of the power of Phocas.

In Mesopotamia, the pattern is globally similar with a slow but regular progression. The Sassanids took advantage of the rebellion of Narses, the master of the Eastern militias, to return to war. They defeated and killed Germanus, sent by Phocas around 604 then beat Leontius, his successor, probably in 605. The emperor sends then his nephew, Domentziolus, without more success. In the meantime, Khosro’s soldiers took Dara after a long siege in 604. This position, lock of Syria, enables them to progress in the interior of the grounds, while running up against the solidity of the fortifications of the Eastern limes. Here again, the chronology is difficult to establish but the situation deteriorates appreciably after 608, when the rebellion of Heraclius the Elder and the loss of Egypt oblige Phocas to clear his eastern border to fight the rebels. In addition, a general movement of contestation ignites the cities of the Byzantine East, matched by disorders caused by the uprising of the Jews and the Samaritans, the resistance of the Monophysites and the disorder caused by the Factions, these urban corporations which oppose as much as they sometimes dispute the imperial authority. Among the important positions that the Persians took at the death of Phocas are Amida, Callinicum, Edessa or even Constantina in Osroene. There still, they are only peripheral possessions but they open the way to the conquest of Syria and Palestine which is about to follow. Thus, the important cities of Antioch or Apamea fell in the first days of Heraclius’ reign, in October 610.

The Balkans under threat

The Balkan policy of Phocas is relatively ignored. Native of this area, it necessarily has an attentive glance on the evolution of the situation, knowing that at that time, the Danubian border is regularly assailed, in particular by the Avars, who established an Empire in Pannonia and the Slavs. The army which carries Phocas to the power is besides itself fighting these threats in 602 and returns on the Danube after the enthronement of the new emperor. Nevertheless, in 604, Phocas must transfer troops in the East to fight the Sassanides of Khosro, which weakens the Byzantine defense. The emperor could be all the more tempted to use these soldiers in the East that they come from the same army which brought him to power and are thus potentially more loyal. He then signed a treaty with the Avars to guarantee peace, with the payment of a probably important tribute. On the other hand, the Slavs are sometimes suspected to have launched a raid until Thessalonica. The reign of Phocas thus marks the abandonment of the ambitions of Maurice to carry the war in avar territory, to reduce their power as well as possible and then to restore completely the Byzantine sovereignty in the Balkans. Nevertheless, contrary to what was sometimes affirmed, the Danubian border holds rather well under Phocas and it is especially in the years 610, after his death, that the incursions of the Slavs and Avars take again with a found vigour and sometimes lead to a beginning of colonization of the peninsula. If the passivity of Phocas in the area thus did not directly open the way to an invasion, it probably facilitated its occurrence at more or less short notice.

Byzantine Spain

Phocas does not seem to have been much concerned with the fate of Byzantine Spain. This distant province, reconquered by Justinian, had been under attack for several years by the Visigoths, who wanted to control the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. Because of the many problems he had to face, Phocas could probably not take care of a territory so distant from his capital. He did not renew the administration and the local forces had to fend off the assaults of Witeric, the Visigothic ruler, who managed to seize Sagonte, reducing Byzantine Spain a little more to the southeast coast of the peninsula.

Italian politics

The Italian policy of Phocas is characterized by his desire to conciliate as well as possible the influential authorities of the area, which explains that it is one of the rare areas where it enjoys a high popularity. Byzantine Italy was then struggling with the Lombard invasions that threatened imperial control of the peninsula. Moreover, in Rome, the Papacy asserted itself as an increasingly autonomous spiritual power, despite the role of protector that the Roman Empire had to play towards it. Phocas is distinguished by his propensity to keep good relations with the pope. As soon as he came to power, he was congratulated by Gregory the Great, surely because of the tensions that existed between the pope and Maurice. A few years later, Phocas arranged to have Boniface III, who was in Constantinople at the time and with whom he had close ties, named pope. In return, Phocas recognizes the bishop of Rome the primacy. This was a sensitive issue in a Christian Church that remained divided into five patriarchs. Henceforth, only the pope can claim the title of universal or ecumenical bishop, whereas the patriarch of Constantinople also claims this status. The relations between the emperor and the patriarch are then rather degraded since Cyriacus of Constantinople, who dies in 606, gives a time asylum to the widow of Maurice and his partisans. It is thus possible that Phocas wished to sanction the Constantinopolitan patriarchate. Finally, Boniface IV, the last pope of the reign of Phocas, obtains from the emperor to convert the ancient Pantheon of Rome into a church.

At the same time, Phocas distinguished himself by the erection of a column in his honor in the Forum of Rome, the last addition to what was once the heart of Roman power, while a statue of him was also erected in Rome, representing one of the last mentioned examples of sculpture in the round of a Roman emperor. It was also during his reign that the last mention of the Roman Senate was made in 603. The institution then largely declined. These examples symbolize the gradual transformation, even the disappearance of a whole part of ancient Roman culture. At the same time, cultural life seems to have experienced a certain eclipse under Phocas, before reappearing briefly under his successor, but prefiguring the so-called dark centuries of Byzantine history, during which cultural production declined.

Despite his efforts to secure the support of the papacy and the Italian elites in general, Phocas hardly succeeded in containing the expansion of the Lombards. 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 the city of Mantua and Cremona. Smaragde was finally forced to make peace and release the daughters of Agilulf that his predecessor had taken prisoner.

In 608, Phocas reigned for six years, but he still did not manage to establish his power firmly. The East is in the grips of the progression of the Sassanids while the hotbeds of unrest persist in various parts of the Empire, particularly in the East, often fanned by the opposition between the Blue and the Green. Byzantine Africa, relatively spared from external threats, was then a rather prosperous province, ruled by Heraclius the Elder. When it rises, the threat to Phocas quickly becomes untenable. From Carthage, Heraclius had an entire region behind him and significant financial and human resources. The exact origins of this rebellion are difficult to trace. For chroniclers of the time, it is the influential Priscus who sent a letter inciting Heraclius to the revolt to deposit and eliminate Phocas, whose reign shows itself each day more disastrous. Beyond this enterprise which could be qualified of public interest, Walter Kaegi underlines the personal interest of Heraclius and his family to revolt, seeing there a real opportunity to conquer the supreme power.

Heraclius the Elder first sends his nephew Nicétas to conquer Egypt, with a small army of a few thousand men, often Moors recruited locally. Quickly, Nicétas makes himself master of a great part of the rich Egyptian province. Phocas reacted first by imprisoning the wife of Heraclius the Elder and the bride of his son, Fabia Eudocia, for whom the chroniclers lend him lustful desires. He also sent to Egypt one of his main generals, Bonosos, known for his severity and even his cruelty, since he had just put down various local uprisings in Palestine. As of his arrival, the loyalist general gains a victory against Bonakis, the deputy of Nicétas, before carrying out the blockade of Alexandria. But he was eventually defeated in his turn and had to flee Egypt. This defeat led to the loss of Egypt, the granary of the Empire, and the main source of wheat supplies for Constantinople. In addition, the troops remaining loyal to Phocas deployed in Palestine and Syria found themselves caught in a pincer movement between the Sassanids, who progressed all the more easily as Phocas had to divert part of his forces against the rebels, and Egypt now controlled by Nicetas.

The situation worsens when Heraclius the Elder’s own son, also named Heraclius, takes the head of a fleet engaged against Constantinople. Heraclius landed at Hebdomon between late September and early October 610. The exact route of Heraclius 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, in particular on behalf of the faction of the Greens according to Jean de Nikiou. Phocas, then directly threatened, tried to send his brother, Domentziolus against him. At the same time, the forces of Nicétas continue to progress and seem to seize a great part of Syria as well as Cyprus, always under the growing threat of the Sassanides. However, Heraclius temporizes one moment, perhaps to ensure himself of new supports, while Phocas recalls his brother. He also tried to constitute in haste 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 began to spread throughout the city. The faction of the Greens rallied largely to Heraclius and let go Bonosos, sent by Phocas to fight Heraclius, before freeing the mother and the fiancée of the latter, Fabia Eudocia. As for Priscus, who has the hand on the Excubites and the Bucellaires, troops of first order, he prefers to adopt a posture of neutrality and withdraws, claiming to be sick. For Phocas, the game is already played. Deprived of any support of weight, he ends up being captured by the patrice Probos. Dragged in a ship, it is presented in front of Héraclius. This one would then have had these words with regard to him: “- It is thus, to ask Héraclius, that you governed the empire? – And you think, to answer Phocas with spirit, that your government would have been better? It is quickly executed on October 5 and mutilated, its body dismembered and flayed, some of its parts exposed before being burned on the forum of the Ox, traditional place of the executions, where are also put to death Bonosos, Domentziolus and other dignitaries of the fallen regime.

Rare are the Byzantine emperors to cause the unanimity against them. Phocas is one of them. As of his death, he is largely criticized by his contemporaries and the later historians. Heraclius, who overthrew him, contributed in part to this damnatio memoriae to legitimize his arrival in power, since he rid the Empire of a tyrant. Thus, George of Pisidia, poet with the service of Herclius, qualified Phocas of “face of Gorgon” or “terrestrial Leviathan”. Theophylact Simocatta who delivers a history of the reign of Maurice is hardly more magnanimous, since he makes of it a barbarian, half centaur and half cyclops. This poor image has survived the test of time. It is for example taken up by Pierre Corneille 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 in the advent of Phocas the beginning of a new era, one from which “the history of the Greek Empire – that is how we will name the Roman Empire from now on – is nothing but a tissue of revolts, seditions and perfidies”. Beyond this particularly dark and decadent vision of the Byzantine history, the seizure of power of Phocas inaugurates indeed a period of resurgence of the violent seizures of power, which contrasts largely with the stability of the first centuries.

Modern historians have not questioned the observation of a disastrous reign, both militarily and economically. Louis Bréhier describes it in not very friendly terms: “Uneducated soldier left the row, despotic temperament, coléreux, cruel and vindictive”. According to John Haldon, Phocas has neither the competences, nor the experience to direct an Empire which must then fight against challenges of great scale. Michel Kaplan qualifies it of “lamentable” leader whose reign opens on a period of deep internal instability because of its incapacity to assert its authority. All see in him a bloodthirsty tyrant and a “reign of unbridled terror” which, according to Georg Ostrogorsky, is like the last notes of the history of the Bas-Roman State, opening on a new era of the Byzantine history. Indeed, the beginning of the seventh century constitutes the beginning of important transformations in the Eastern Roman world with the loss of authority over large parts of the Empire, which begins from Phocas, even before and continues under his successor Heraclius. Eventually, the Eastern Roman world enters into change, to open up what some historians call the “Meso-Byzantine” period, which explains why the beginning or the end of the reign of Phocas are sometimes chronological boundaries.

One of the rare divergent opinions is to be found in Soviet historiography, since Vassili Kuchma sees in Phocas’s coming to power a “social revolution” that contributes to weakening the domination of the Byzantine aristocracy and lays the foundations for the coming transformation of the Byzantine world, based on the model of the small peasant owner with the system of themes. Otherwise, some historians, such as Walter Emil Kaegi, without questioning the largely negative assessment of Phocas’s reign, nevertheless point out that certain criticisms are exaggerated and consider that the primary sources are excessively severe against him. Kaegi thus notes that Phocas is made responsible for territorial losses that actually occurred under Heraclius, such as the loss of control of the Balkans or the conquest of Palestine and Egypt by the Sassanids, even if the troubles caused by the errors of Phocas’ policy sometimes created the conditions for these invasions.

External links


  1. Phocas
  2. Phocas
  3. Haldon 1990, p. 40.
  4. Stratos 1976, p. 51.
  5. Martindale, Jones et Morris 1992, p. 409.
  6. Martindale, Jones et Morris 1992, p. 326, 417.
  7. ^ John Bagnell Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire from Arcadius to Irene, II, Cosimo, Inc., 2009 [1889], ISBN 1-60520-405-6.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Teofane Confessore, A.M. 6098
  10. ^ a b c Teofane Confessore, A.M. 6099
  11. ^ Alcides Vargas Echegaray (15 June 2021). Sin Fronteras. ISBN 9788418435485.
  12. ^ PLRE 3B p. 1030
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ Charanis, Peter (1972). Studies on the Demography of the Byzantine Empire: Collected Studies. Variorum Reprints. p. 221. ISBN 978-0-902089-25-9. The name Phocas appears as early as the fifth century; it is also attested for the sixth century; and there is of course, the Emperor Phocas, apparently of Cappadocian origin, who overthrew Maurice and was in turn overthrown by Heraclius early in the seventh century.
  15. ^ a b Kleinhenz 2017, p. 890.
  16. 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
  17. 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.
  18. 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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