1. Birth - Family background
Nikephoros Phokas was the son of the primogenitor of the Phokas family, who is only known by the name Phokas and gave this name to his son and successors as a surname. The family came from Cappadocia, even though the historian Michael Attaleiates, referring to the Phokas family, claims that they were descended from the Roman Fabii, some of whom are said to have followed Constantine I to the new capital in Constantinople. This theory, however, is in all probability fabricated in order to give an aristocratic background to the Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas.1
Nikephoros’ father (the man simply named Phokas) was a low-rank official in the eastern frontier of the Empire. It is not known whether Nikephoros had any brothers or sisters. We know that he had two sons, who later became ; they were Leo and Bardas Phokas. He was also the grandfather of the future Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969). The epithet ‘Old’ is given to him to distinguish him from his grandson, who had the same name.
Nikephoros’ career was predefined by his social roots, the class in which he belonged and his father’s profession. Like his father, Nikephoros was a soldier and a military officer in the eastern frontier. His social and military success was connected to his father’s career during the reign of the Emperor Basil I (867-886). It was around the time that the father Phokas became tourmarch, that the emperor also bestowed upon Nikephoros an office at the court. So, Nikephoros Phokas entered the inner circle of the emperor and his activities were directly connected to the emperor and his protection. This office meant that the emperor had singled out Nikephoros Phokas the Old despite his very early age.
This was the beginning of a gradual ascension of Nikephoros to higher offices. Around the same time, or shortly afterwards (872/873), he received the title of . It is assumed that Nikephoros Phokas the Old joined the Emperor Basil I in his campaign in Samosata (873), when he received his first titles. The young Nikephoros soon owned his own palace in Constantinople, near the temple of St Thekla.2 Later on, during the reign of Basil I and before 878,3 Nikephoros Phokas was honoured with the title of and became of the theme of Charsianon.
In the second half of 885, Basil I sent Nikephoros to Southern Italy and Sicily as the commander of the whole Byzantine army in the area, as of the western themes, Thrace, Macedonia, Kephalonia, Longobardia and Calabria. Nikephoros successfully fought there and restored some of the cities captured by the Arabs. When Leo VI became emperor (886-912), Nikephoros Phokas the Old was ordered to return to Constantinople. After returning to the capital, and as a reward for his success in southern Italy and Sicily, Leo VI presented him with the title of and made him domestikos ton scholon. The precise date of these events cannot be ascertained. Nikephoros probably became domestikos ton scholon after his return to Constantinople, because his predecessor is mentioned for the last time in 886, at the affair of the removal of the Patriarch Photios from the throne.4
After his return to Constantinople, around 886, Nikephoros Phokas’ trail is lost until 894, when Byzantium is in conflict with the Bulgarian ruler Simeon. At the time, Nikephoros was in Asia Minor, fighting against the Arabs. During this whole period, it can be assumed that Nikephoros Phokas continued to hold the office of the domestikos ton scholon, the main commander of the army after the Emperor himself. This shows that Leo VI, as his father Basil I, had great respect for Phokas.
The war between Simeon and Byzantium broke out in 894, but most probably Nikephoros was not called to the Balkans right away, since the hostilities in the eastern frontiers were still continued at the time. The next year, however, there was a truce at the Arab frontier and Nikephoros Phokas, as the domestikos ton scholon, was able to return to European soil. Byzantium, with its clever diplomatic tactics, had called upon the Hungarians to attack Simeon from the north, while Leo VI was sending his fleet to the Danube and the army from the land through Thrace. Commander of these troops was Nikephoros Phokas, who conquered territories in the southern Bulgarian borders, while the imperial fleet blocked the mouth of the Danube.5 The Byzantine success forced Simeon to sign a truce. This is the last known occurrence in the life of Nikephoros Phokas the Old.
3. Theories about his death
There are two versions concerning the death of Nikephoros Phokas the Old. The oldest and more reliable claims that shortly after that expedition and definitely before the next conflict with Simeon in 896 (so between 895 and 896), Nikephoros died. According to this theory, his death encouraged Simeon to resume the war against the Byzantines.
In the second version, narrated by John Skylitzes, Nikephoros was replaced in his office of domestikos ton scholon and became strategos of the theme of Thrakesion (after the encouragement of Basil I’s father in law, Stylianos Zaouzis). According to this second theory, Nikephoros died around 900, still fighting the Arabs.6
We believe that the first version, which says that Nikephoros died holding the title of domestikos ton scholon in 895 or 896 lies closer to the truth. His successful military career ensured the success of the following generations of the entire Phokas family. His sons, Vardas and Leo, were also leaders of the army, while his grandson Nikephoros was proclaimed emperor and surpassed the glory of his namesake with his military successes.
1. Bekker, I. (ed.), Michael Attaliotae, Historia (Bonnae 1853), p. 218. See also Kazhdan, A., The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium 3 [entry Phokas (Φωκᾶς)], pp. 1665-1666.
2. According to Grégoire, the palace of Nikephoros Phokas could be identified as the Tekfur Serai, near the temple of St Thekla (‘of the Blachernai palace’), founded by Thekla, firstborn daughter of the Emperor Theophilos (829-842). See Grégoire, H., “La carrière du premier Nicéphore Phocas”, in Mélanges St. Kyriakidès, suppl. 4 (1953), pp. 232-254.
3. Djurić, I., “Porodica Foka (La famille des Phokas)”, Zbornik radova Vizantoloskog instituta 17 (1976), p. 231.
4. Cheynet, J.- Cl., “Appendice : Les Phocas”, in Dagron, G. – Mihaescu, H. (ed.), Le traité sur la guérila (De velitatione) de l’empereur Nicéphore Phocas (963-969) (Paris 1986), p. 292.
5. Σκυλίτζης, VΙ, 12, 28-56, in Thurn, J. (ed.), Ioannes Scylitzes, Synopsis historiarum (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae, Series Berolinensis 5, Berlin - New York 1973), pp. 174-5.
6. Σκυλίτζης, VΙ, 13, 1-10, in Thurn, J. (ed.), Ioannes Scylitzes, Synopsis historiarum (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae, Series Berolinensis 5, Berlin - New York 1973), p. 176.