Bardas Phokas was born in the second quarter of the 10th century. He was a member of the powerful aristocratic Phokas family, who possessed vast landed property in Asia Minor, mainly Cappadocia. The Phokas family held top military positions almost throughout the first half of the 10th century. Bardas was the son of kouropalates Leo Phokas and nephew of Emperor Nikephoros II. He had two siblings, Nikephoros and Sophia, the wife of Constantine Skleros, Bardas Skleros’ brother. He must have received a good military education in order to make a career as a top military official according to the family tradition. His marriage to a member of the Andralestos family produced two sons, Leo and Nikephoros (the so-called Barytrachēlos [Βαρυτράχηλοs]), who also pursued a military career and actively supported their father’s efforts to assume power.
The ascension of Nikephoros Phokas to the throne in 963 signalled the beginning of Bardas’ career in top military positions. After his uncle was murdered by JohnTzimiskes (December 969) and his father and brother were partially blinded in 970, Bardas Phokas became the virtual leader of the family and the main representative of its interests. During the reign of Basil II (976-1025), relying on high military position and family tradition, he revolted and claimed the throne (987-989). The rebellion led to his death on April 13, 989, during a battle against the imperial troops in Abydos. His death signalled the decline of the aristocratic Phokas family, who had played a major role in the political and military matters of the empire throughout the 10th century.
2. Career until 978
Bardas Phokas started his career as a high military official in the years of his uncle, Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas. In 968/969, he is reported as doux of Chaldia and Colonea, bearing the title of patrikios. It was the period when the Phokas family was in full power and Bardas, as the emperor’s nephew (Nikephoros II did not have any children), must have been quite determined to pursue a career in top military positions or even to lay claims on the throne.
However, when Nikephoros II was murdered by John Tzimiskes and the latter ascended the throne in December 969, at least temporarily, the Phokas family was removed from the political limelight. Bardas Phokas was deprived of his title and was held in confinement in Amaseia, while his father, kouropalates Leo Phokas, and his elder brother, patrikios Nikephoros, were confined in Methymna, Lesvos.1 But Tzimiskes’ efforts to control the Phokas family right from the start and avoid any reactions they would have could not prevent the rebellion of this influential aristocratic family, who aimed to assume power again.
In the early autumn of 970, a considerable part of the Asia Minor troops was stationed in the Balkan Peninsula under the stratelates of the East Bardas Skleros in order to confront the Rus of Sviatioslav, the ruler of Kiev. The latter had invaded and annexed Bulgaria, and had high aspirations for Thrace. Taking advantage of the absence of the eastern forces as well as of the fact that the attention of the central administration was turned to the Balkans, Bardas Phokas escaped from Amaseia and moved to Caesarea of Cappadocia, the seat of the Phokas family, where he staged a rebellion against Tzimiskes with the help of relatives and friends. Along with his father and his brother in Lesbos he tried to spread the rebellion over the themes of Macedonia and Thrace, but their efforts came to nothing.
Tzimiskes reacted swiftly and arrested Leo and Nikephoros Phokas, whom he sentenced to death, but finally punished leniently with partial blinding. Then, he ordered Bardas Skleros to come over with to Asia Minor his troops in order to suppress the rebellion of Bardas Phokas. Not before long, Skleros managed to accomplish his mission, since the forces Phokas had gathered were proven incapable of confronting the imperial tagmata.
Until the late autumn of 970, Phokas had lost most of his supporters and finally escaped to the stronghold of Tyranna or Antigous,2 where he had to surrender to Skleros. His unsuccessful rebellion kept him away from political matters for a long time. Tzimiskes ordered that Bardas Phokas be confined in Chios, where he had to become a monk.
3. The Dispute with Basil II
Bardas Phokas remained exiled in Chios for about 8 years. In the spring of 978, he returned to the political limelight, when the parakoimomenos Basil Lekapenos recalled him from exile and awarded him the titles of magistros and domestikos ton scholon of the East. He was assigned with the tasks of reorganising the almost disbanded imperial forces and confronting Bardas Skleros, who had revolted in 976 against Basil II and had reached with his forces to the Bosporus, opposite Constantinople, after repeatedly defeating the imperial army.
The traditional rivalry between the Skleros and Phokas families, in combination with the military competence of Bardas Phokas and the difficult position of the imperial forces, were the main reasons that led to the selection of Phokas for this mission. After two defeats, at Pankalia, near the Halys River, in the wider region of Amorion (June 19, 978), and at Basilika Therma (autumn of the same year), Bardas Phokas with the help of 12,000 Georgian horsemen granted to the imperial government following an agreement with the ruler David of Tao finally managed to defeat Skleros after a third battle fought at Sarvenisi (March 24, 979) and chased him off to Arab territories.3
The victory of Bardas Phokas over Bardas Skleros gave him considerable power in imperial matters after 979, as he held the top military position and therefore controlled the army. As a result, he could claim his participation in decisions made in Constantinople by the parakoimomenos Basil Lekapenos, with Emperors Basil II and Constantine VII under his guardianship. As a domestikos ton scholon of the East, Bardas Phokas was remarkably active and almost autonomous between 980 and 986 on the eastern front against the Arabs, mainly in the region of Aleppo, and launched raids imposing tax agreements on local emirs.
However, towards the late 985 or the early 986, Basil II took Basil Lekapenos by surprise and exiled him in order to become the true ruler of the state. Then he tried to weaken Bardas Phokas by reducing him from domestikos ton scholon of the East to doux of Antioch.4 This degradation along with the exclusion of other influential members of the military aristocracy from the campaign against the Bulgarians (August 986) are possibly related to the efforts of Basil II to reduce their power and gain control over the army. But the unsuccessful campaign spoiled his plans and strengthened the position of the displeased aristocracy. The emperor was in a predicament when the exiled Bardas Skleros returned to the empire (February 987) from Baghdad, following an agreement made with the Arab Caliph Samsam ad-Dawlah, and invaded Melitene launching a new rebellion against Basil II.
In order to confront the new threat, Basil II rehabilitated Bardas Phokas as domestikos ton scholon of the East in the spring of 987. However, Phokas took advantage of his position and gathered a great army in the theme of Charsianon and, after contacting Skleros in the summer of 987, when both agreed to move jointly against Constantinople, he proclaimed himself emperor in estates of Eustathios Maleinos in Cappadocia (August 15, 987).5 Then, he ignored the agreement, arrested Bardas Skleros (early autumn 987) and confined him to the castle of Tyropoios. He could now move alone against the emperor. With a large number of military aristocrats and the Asia Minor troops by his side, he managed to control almost the entire Asia Minor and reached as far as the Bosporus, opposite Constantinople.Finally, after about two years of civil conflicts, the rebels were defeated by the imperial troops in the decisive battle of Abydos on April 13, 989. Bardas Phokas was killed under unclear circumstances6 during the battle. His death as well as his son’s, Nikephoros, death under similar circumstances forty years later actually put an end to the long and powerful presence of the Phokas family in the political matters of the empire.
1. Λέων Διάκονος, Ιστορία, Hase, C.B. (ed.), Leonis Diaconi Caloensis Historiae libri decem (Bonn 1828), p. 96, 3-6; Ιωάννης Σκυλίτζης, Σύνοψις Ιστοριών, Thurn, I. (ed.), Ioannis Scylitzae Synopsis Historiarum (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 5, Berlin - Νew York 1973), p. 284, 11-12, reports that the patrikios Nikephoros Phokas was exiled to Imbros island.
2. Λέων Διάκονος, Ιστορία, Hase, C.B. (ed.), Leonis Diaconi Caloensis Historiae libri decem (Bonn 1828), p. 122, 1-6. On the location of the stronghold, see Seibt, W., Die Skleroi: eine prosopographish-sigillographische Studie (Byzantina Vindobonensia 9, Wien 1976), pp. 32-33.
3. Τhe number of soldiers as well as the sites of the battles fought between Bardas Phokas and Bardas Skleros have greatly concerned modern researchers, as the various sources present marked divergence. Forsyth, J., The Byzantine‑Arab Chronicle (938‑1034) of Yahya b. Saʹid Al‑Antaki (Ann Arbor 1977), pp. 384‑388, supporting Adontz, N., Etudes armeno‑byzantines (Lisbon 1965), pp. 298‑299, who is based on Leo the Deacon, Yahya al‑Antaki and John Zonaras, believes there were two battles, while John Skylitzes, who refers to three battles, wrongly dissociates the first battle at Basilika Therma from the third battle at Sarvenisi or Aquae Sarvenae, which he thinks by oversight that took place at Pankalia. The battle of Sarvenisi or Aquae Sarvenae is confirmed and located by an inscription at the Georgian monastery of Zarzma. See Forsyth, J. (trn.), The Byzantine‑Arab Chronicle (938‑1034) of Yahya b. Sa’id Al‑Antaki (Ann Arbor 1977), pp. 386‑387. However, Kamer, S., Emperors and Aristocrats in Byzantium 976‑1081 (Ann Arbor 1983), pp. 349‑352, and Seibt, W., Die Skleroi: eine prosopographish‑sigillographische Studie (Byzantina Vindobonensia 9, Wien 1976), p. 47, who support Tarchnisvili, P.M., “Die Anfange der schriftstellerischen Tatigkeit des hl. Euthimius und der Aufstand von Bardas Skleros”, Oriens Christianus 38 (1954), p. 122, are based on the account of John Skylitzes, who refers to three battles, as they believe that the two sites –Basilika Therma and Sarvenisi– do not coincide.
4. Kamer, S., Emperors and Aristocrats in Byzantium 976-1081 (Ann Arbor 1983), pp. 71-72, has expressed the opinion that when Basil II appointed Phokas doux of Antionch, he intended to support him in his struggle against the Arabs by actually assigning the eastern front to him rather than to weaken him.
5. The Arab historian Yahya al-Antaki reports that the rebellion broke out on September 14, 987.
6. According to John Skylitzes: Ιωάννη Σκυλίτζης, Σύνοψις Ιστοριών, Thurn, I. (ed.), Ioannis Scylitzae Synopsis Historiarum (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 5, Berlin - New York 1973), p. 337, 17-29, Bardas Phokas was probably poisoned by Basil II in cooperation with Phokas’ servant.