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7-08-2015, 23:37

Nikephoros i i phokas, john i tzimiskes and victories in the east

Basil Lekapenos was dismissed by Constantine’s heir, Romanos II (959– 63), but the new parakoim¯omenos, Joseph Bringas, also urged an attack on Crete, and Romanos himself seems to have been enthusiastic for military success at the outset of his reign. The greater part of the empire’s armed forces embarked for the island in a huge flotilla in June 960. The ensuing hard-fought campaign lasted until March 961. Contemporaries were well aware of the significance of this feat. The author of a poem composed just after Crete’s fall looks forward to the invasion of other Muslim lands: the vultures of Egypt will devour the victims of the emperor’s sword. As the preface acknowledges, the real hero of the poem is Nikephoros Phokas, for all the dutiful praise awarded to Romanos.62 Nikephoros was now allowed to strike at Aleppo, from which Saif had continued to harass the empire’s borderlands. Saif’s army proved no match for the Byzantine heavy cavalry and he fled ignominiously. Byzantine soldiers entered the city on 23 December 962. Double question-marks now hung over Byzantium: would the offensive against the Muslims be sustained, now that Saif had been humbled? And how would relations fare between Nikephoros and the young emperor, depicted in chronicles as a dissolute youth much given to pig-sticking?63 The second question was resolved by Romanos’ sudden death on 15 March 963, from poison according to some sources, and before the slighting of Aleppo had been celebrated. Phokas was summoned to the capital by Joseph Bringas, was hailed as ‘bravest conqueror’,64 a pun on his first name (‘victory-bearer’), and then withdrewto the east; but the temptation or pressure to claim the throne was strong. Unlike his uncle Leo Phokas in 919, Nikephoros had a large victorious army at his disposal and the officers seem to have felt prime loyalty to him. If we may believe a source biased heavily in his favour, they proclaimedNikephoros emperor willy-nilly, maintaining that he, rather than an ‘ignoble eunuch with sucklings [the infant porphyrogeniti, Basil II and Constantine VIII] should be giving out orders to men of blood’.65 Nikephoros also enjoyed active support among the Constantinopolitan populace,and whereas Leo Phokas had been opposed by the fleet under Romanos Lekapenos, Basil the ex-parakoim¯omenos managed to seize the docks and their warships armed with Greek fire. Basil Lekapenos’ web of patronage was extensive, while in the palace the mother of the porphyrogeniti, Theophano, seems to have been in sympathy withNikephoros. Basil sent ships, including the imperial yacht, inviting him into the City, and on 16 August 963 Nikephoros made a triumphal entry, receiving such acclamations as ‘Nikephoros for emperor the public good demands’.66 He was crowned in St Sophia. In little more than a decade, the army had become not only a battering-ram against distantMuslim foes but also a sought-after presence in the political life of the capital. Constantine VII had claimed the inheritance of Constantine the Great through his veneration of the TrueCross;Nikephoros bid for the succession by acts of conquest. An inscription on an ivory reliquary from his reign reads: ‘Formerly, Christ gave theCross to the mighty master Constantine for his salvation. But now the lord by the grace of God Nikephoros, possessing this, routs the barbarian peoples.’67 It fits with the notion that the empire’s military fortunes hinged upon Nikephoros’ personal survival, expressed in a book of prophecy, the Visions of Daniel, shown to Liudprand of Cremona at Constantinople in 968.68 Nikephoros, acclaimed as ‘conqueror’ at his coronation as well as at his triumphs, kept his forces engaged; in some years there were two or three expeditions in progress on different fronts. The disastrous outcome of the 964 Sicilian expedition did not prevent Nikephoros from reducing the numerous Muslim fortifications beyond the Taurus and Anti-Taurus ranges, in Cilicia and northern Syria. He is plausibly credited with the capture of ‘more than a hundred towns and forts’.69 This was a very fertile, well-populated region which had not suffered ruination from Byzantine campaigning earlier in the century, being studded with ‘hard’ targets. The forts, most notoriously Tarsus, had served as bases for raids, and in 965 Tarsus itself surrendered. That same year, a Byzantine force occupied Cyprus. Nikephoros commanded an expedition as far as the outskirts of Aleppo in 966 and briefly laid siege to Antioch. Pressure was resumed in the autumn of 968: he initiated another siege of Antioch and then left a blockade under subordinates; almost a year later, on 28 October 969, Antioch surrendered. The fall of Antioch had considerable ´eclat, for this was an ancient Christian city. TheMuslims’ execution of its patriarch on a charge of treachery in 967 gave edge to claims that Nikephoros was ‘armed with the holy spirit’.70 Yet the fundamentally defensive cast of his strategy is indicated by the truce which Peter Phokas concluded with the amir of Aleppo in January 970: a blueprint for coexistence and commerce, biased in Byzantium’s favour but leaving the emirate as a semi-autonomous power. The amir was to inform the emperor of the military movements of his fellow Muslims, and ‘if any Muslim troops arrive to invade the Rum . . . [he is] to hinder them, saying “Pass through other regions and do not come into the land of the truce!”’71 The terms were probably not very different from those initially offered to the amir of Melitene some forty years earlier (see above, p. 509), and they presupposed that Byzantium would rest content with its gains in Cilicia and along the Euphrates valley. The terms had almost certainly been approved by Nikephoros, but by the time the truce was made he was dead and headless, murdered during the night of 11 December 969. His fall was a quintessential palace coup; his wife, Theophano, had been attracted to his former right-hand man, John I Tzimiskes (969–76), who personally participated in the killing of Nikephoros and had the severed head displayed to the guards who came, too late, to the rescue. Tzimiskes’ first measure, after consultation with Basil Lekapenos the parakoim¯omenos, was to decree that looting or violence would be punished with death, a stern pronouncement against the lawlessness that had been dogging the City in the later part of Nikephoros’ reign. This endeared him to the propertied classes, as did his remission of the hearth tax, and he increased the stipends payable to senior officials and title-holders. He was also more attentive to the material needs of ordinary citizens than Nikephoros had been. Reportedly, he had to be restrained by the parakoim¯omenos from emptying the treasury through distributions to the poor.72 He took steps to alleviate famine in the countryside, but pacification of the City was probably his first priority. When celebrating a triumph through the streets, he had them bedecked with laurel branches and cloths of gold ‘like a bridechamber’,73 thus invoking the emperor’s role as bridegroom of the City. The procession was staged to mark his victory over the Rus, thwarting Prince Sviatoslav’s attempt to instal himself on the Danube; but it gave Tzimiskes the opportunity to demonstrate to the citizens ‘ignorant of military matters’ the utility for their own security of large, well-equipped armed forces, and the indispensability of military leadership.74 The need to rekindle personal loyalties among the former soldiers of Nikephoros Phokas was one of the reasons for the spectacular campaigns against the Muslims which John I Tzimiskes launched from the autumn of 972 onwards. Byzantine propaganda even claimed that in 974 he led an all-conquering army to Baghdad itself; he certainly levied tribute from the amir of Mosul. In 975 Tzimiskes penetrated as far south as Damascus, levying tribute from its governor and taking Beirut by storm. Relics were sent back to Constantinople, as they had been byNikephoros II after several of his campaigns. In a letter to Ashot III Bagratuni (‘theMerciful’) (953–77), ‘king of kings’ of Armenia, Tzimiskes claimed to have received tribute from Ramla, Jerusalem and other towns, and that the liberation of Jerusalem was his ultimate goal.75 Such propaganda was partly for domestic consumption, but it also bolstered the emperor’s moral, and eventually political, authority over the Armenian princes.