Rebellion of Bardas Phokas, 987-89

1. Historical context

Following the defeat of the doukas of Mesopotamia Bardas Skleros during the rebellion of 976-979 and his flight to the court of the Arab caliph Adud ad-Daula, where he remained as a hostage, the true regents of the empire by the emperors Basil II (976-1025) and Constantine VIII (976-1028) remained the parakoimomenosBasil Lekapenos, who controlled the civil administration of the state, and the domestikos ton scholon of the East Bardas Phokas, who remained supreme commander of the army. The dominance of the two men in the political and military scene of the empire resulted in the relegation of the two emperors to a decorative role, which was not acceptable to Basil II’s strong temperament. Over time, his interest in governance grew more intense along with his desire to free himself of the parakoimomenos’ stifling guardianship. Possibly early in 986, the emperor banished Basil Lekapenos, taking the administration of state affairs into his own hands.1 At the same time he wished to curtail the power of Bardas Phokas and the influence the latter exerted on the army, demoting him from domestikos ton scholon of the East to dux of Antioch.2 The emperor’s defeat, however, during his campaign against the Bulgarians (August 986)3 discredited him, and combined with his policy of limiting the power of the powerful representatives of the military aristocracy which he had tried to implement, brought him to dire straits. Early in January of 987, the Arabs deemed that the time was opportune to release Bardas Skleros. Phokas, having secured the support of some Arab tribes and the Armenians, old allies of his since the time of the 976-979 rebellion, invaded the Byzantine lands and, in the spring of 987, he conquered Melitene, where he proclaimed himself emperor. To face the usurper, Basil II reinstated Bardas Phokas to the office of domestikos ton scholon of the East (April-May 987), affording him the opportunity to gather a significant military force in the theme of Charsianon, where he resided.

2. The rebellion of Bardas Phokas

2.1. The outbreak of the rebellion

Following the defeat of the emperor by the Bulgarians (August 986), Bardas Phokas spent the winter in the Charsianon theme, where he made pacts with other dissatisfied nobles, like the magistros Eustathios Maleinos, who had clashed with Basil II during the campaign against the Bulgarians, aiming to organize a rebellion against the emperor. There he was informed of Skleros’ return, a formidable adversary and an obstacle to his plans. However, the reinstatement of Phokas as domestikos ton scholon tes Anatoles by Basil II, carried out to counter the threat of Skleros, afforded him the opportunity to go on with his plans and incite rebellion, as now he had the opportunity to amass a significant number of troops in the Charsianon theme. This, combined with the fact that he enjoyed the support of a great part of the nobility of Asia Minor,4 as well as of his old ally David of Tayk, who dispatched a sizeable force of Iberian soldiers,5 gave him a clear advantage vis-à-vis Skleros. Having the upper hand, in the summer of 987, Phokas entered into negotiations with him, which resulted into an alliance treaty that envisaged the partition of the empire between the two rebels. Phokas ceded to Skleros the lands of Antioch, Phoenike, Syria Koile, Palestine and Mesopotamia. On August 15, 9876 Bardas Phokas proclaimed himself emperor in the estates of Eustathios Maleinos in Cappadocia. In the meantime, Romanos, son of Skleros, had sought refuge to the emperor during the negotiations, possibly with the consent of his father, so as to allow him some access to the imperial camp in case of defeat. Phokas, either because he had been informed of Skleros’ double game, or because he was following his own plan, arrested him in September of 987, when Skleros arrived in Cappadocia to join forces with him, and confined him with his brother Constantine Skleros to the fortress of Tyropoios.7

2.2. Course and suppression of the rebellion

Bardas Phokas, having at his side the majority of the nobility of Asia Minor, by the end of 987 controlled almost the entire eastern part of the empire, reaching by the spring of 988 the coasts of Bosporus. A detachment of his army under the patrikios Kalokyros Delphinas and his brother Nikephoros Phokas set up camp at Chrysopolis, opposite Constantinople. Basil II, finding himself in a difficult position, as the eastern army was loyal to the rebel and the troops of the west were busy dealing with the Bulgarian raids, decided to enlist the help of the Rus’. Promising the hand of his sister Anna to the ruler of Kiev Vladimir, he received from him, possibly late in spring of 988, an army of 6,000 Russian soldiers (the future Varangian Guard). Early in the summer of 988, after having transported his troops using the fleet to Chrysopolis, the emperor led a surprise attack achieving total victory over the forces of Delphinas, whom he arrested and had put to death.8 In the meanwhile, Bardas Phokas together with the magistros Leo Melissenos and the rest of his army laid siege to the city of Abydos (summer of 988), which was defended by the droungarios tou ploimou Kyriakos. Basil had dispatched the patrikios Gregorios Taronites to Trebizond, from where he moved against Bardas Phokas. The rebel sent against Taronites his son, Nikephoros Phokas, leading the reinforcements he had received from David of Tayk, as well as an Armenian contingent.9 The imperial forces were turned to flight, but the allies of Nikephoros withdrew when they were informed of the defeat of the rebels at Chrysopolis. The final battle was joined on April 13, 989 at Abydus, where the two armies faced each other. Phokas perished during the fighting, under unclear circumstances (probably he was poisoned);10 his army was defeated and disbanded by the imperial forces.

3. Consequences

The rebellion of Bardas Phokas clearly affected the developments on the Bulgarian front, as for nearly two years it monopolized Basil II’s attention, thus allowing the Bulgarian tsar Samuel organize his state and launch raids in the western lands of empire meeting no resistance. However, the most important consequences were political. This rebellion marks the climax of a series of attempts by the then powerful noble families of Asia Minor, the Phokas and the Skleroi, to take over power. Its distinctiveness as compared with the earlier rebellions (by Bardas Phokas in 969-970 and Bardas Skleros in 976-979) was that for the first time the rebel leader enjoyed the support of the majority of the nobility of Asia Minor. The rebellion of Phokas was of course, like all the other revolts of this period, a movement founded on the ambitions of a single person, a leader who based his claims on the fact that his family had been intimately related in the recent past with the imperial throne. This was the first time, however, that the majority of the military nobility of Asia Minor were united, as its representatives were frustrated over the emperor’s intentions to curtail their influence in the military and generally their participation in the government. Basil II’s victory over Bardas Phokas heralded the end of the large-scale civil wars in Asia Minor, and vindicated the policy he had followed vis-à-vis the powerful nobility, as he did not only neutralize his most fearsome opponent, but in a single stroke achieved the submission of the entire military aristocracy, becoming the absolute ruler in the interior of the empire. After the defeat of Phokas and until his death, Basil II did not face a similar threat to his authority and was able to turn untrammelled to the wars against the empire’s external enemies and engage in the reorganization of the state.

1. Lakapenos’ banishment was probably related to the fact that the parakoimomenos, interpreting the endeavours of the young emperor to actively participate in the administration of the state as a threat to his political power, attempted to organize a conspiracy against him. See Thurn, I. (ed.), Ioannis Scylitzae Synopsis Historiarum (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 5, Berlin-New York 1973), p. 335.59-63.

2. The Arab historian Yahya ibn Said is the only source mentioning that Phokas received the offices of doukas of the East and governor of Antioch and all provinces of East. See Forsyth, J., The Byzantine-Arab Chronicle (938-1034) of Yahya b. Sa'idAl-Antaki (Ann Arbor 1977). As Seibt, W., Die Skleroi: Eineprosopographish-sigillographische Studie (Byzantina Vindobonensia 9, Wien 1976), p. 49, fn. 153, correctly argues there no such office existed, and it is most likely that Phokas was demoted to dux of Antioch. A different view is expressed in Kamer, S., Emperors and Aristocrats in Byzantium 976-1081 (Ann Arbor 1983), p. 72, who believes that the office mentioned by Yahya is accurate, and that Basil’s intention was to strengthen Phokas’ power so as to allow him to successfully defend the empire’s eastern provinces while the emperor was busy with waging his war against the Bulgarians.

3. Basil II was personally in charge of his troops in this campaign. As Kamer, S., Emperors and Aristocrats in Byzantium 976-1081 (Ann Arbor 1983), pp. 73-74, notes his intention was to win the recognition of the army, which could only come through a personal military victory.

4. As Kamer, S., Emperors and Aristocrats in Byzantium 976-1081 (Ann Arbor 1983), pp. 79-80.

5. This is a ruler of Iberia, with whom Phokas maintained friendly relations.

6. Our two main sources on the rebellion of Bardas Phokas, Ioannes Skylitzes and Yahya, disagree on this, as the Arab historian dates the official declaration of the rebellion on September 17, 987 following the arrest of Skleros. See Ιωάννης Σκυλίτζης, Σύνοψις  Ιστοριών, Thurn, I. (ed.), Ioannis Scylitzae Synopsis Historiarum (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 5, Berlin-New York 1973), p. See Forsyth, J., The Byzantine-Arab Chronicle (938-1034) of Yahya b. Sa'idAl-Antaki (Ann Arbor 1977), p. 430.

7. This is the name of the fortress in Skylitzes. For more detailed information on its appellation see Seibt, W., Die Skleroi: Eine prosopographisch-sigillographische Studie (Wien 1976), pp. 53-54.

8. Apart from Delphinas, the emperor captured other prominent nobles that had sided with Phokas, like his brother Nikephoros, which he imprisoned, and Atzypotheodoros, which he put to death.

9. This Armenian contingent consisted in a force of 1,000 horsemen under the command of two patrikioi, Bagrat (Pangratios) and Kordaphel, grand-children of Ashot of Taron and sons of Bagrat; through their participation in the rebellion of Phokas they probably aimed at regaining the lands of the Armenian kingdom of Taron, which had been annexed earlier by Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas. See Adontz, Ν., Etudes armeno-byzantines (Lisbon 1965), p. 233.

10. Thurn, I. (ed.), Ioannis Scylitzae Synopsis Historiarum (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 5, Berlin-New York 1973), p. 337, mentions that Bardas Phokas fell from his horse during the charge, but no would was later found on his body, and cites a story according to which Symeon, Phokas’ trusted servant, poisoned the rebel’s water at the behest of Basil II.