Nicephorus II

Emperor Nicephoros Phocas

Nikephoros II Phokas or Nicephorus II Phocas (Greek: Νικηφόρος Β΄ Φωκάς, Nikēphoros II Phōkas), (c. 912 – 969), Byzantine Emperor from 963 to 969. During the 6 years of his rule, Phokas alienated the sympathies of his followers and was assassinated at the behest of his wife and her lover. An inscription carved out on the side of his tomb reads: "You conquered all but a woman."

Early exploits

Nikephoros Phokas belonged to a Cappadocian family which had produced several distinguished generals, including Nikephoros' father (Bardas Phokas), uncle (Leo Phokas), and grandfather (Nikephoros Phokas the Elder), who had all served as commanders of the field army (domestikos tōn skholōn). He was born about 912, joined the army at an early age, and, under Emperor Constantine VII, became commander on the eastern frontier. In the war with the Abbasids he began with a severe defeat in 954, from which he recovered in the following years by victories in Syria, starting in 957. From the accession of Emperor Romanos II in 959, Nikephoros and his younger brother Leo were placed in charge of the eastern and western field armies, respectively.

In 960, at the recommendation of the influential minister Joseph Bringas, Nikephoros was entrusted in leading an expedition to Crete, and, storming Candia after a 9-months' siege, he wrested the whole island from the Muslims in 961. After receiving the unusual honor of a triumph, he returned to the east with a large and well-equipped army. In the campaigns of 962–963 by brilliant strategy he conquered the cities of Cilicia and advanced into Syria where he captured Aleppo in collusion with his nephew John Tzimiskes, but made no permanent conquests. It was on these campaigns he earned the sobriquet "The Pale Death of the Saracens."

Liberation of Cyprus by the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas

Accession to the throne

On March 15, 963, Emperor Romanos II unexpectedly died at the age of 26. The cause of his death is uncertain. Both contemporary sources and later historians seem to either believe that the young Emperor had exhausted his health with the excesses of his sexual life and his heavy drinking, or suspect Empress Theophano (c. 941–after 976), his wife, of poisoning him. Theophano had already at the time gained a reputation as an intelligent and ambitious woman. She would later gain a reputation for ruthlessness in achieving her goals. Romanos had, before his death, already crowned as co-emperors his two sons Basil II and Constantine VIII. At the time, however, Basil was five years old and Constantine only three years old, and they were not able to assume the duties that came with their title. Theophano was named regent.

But Theophano was not allowed to rule alone. Joseph Bringas, the eunuch palace official who had become Romanos' chief council, maintained his position. According to contemporary sources he intended to keep the authority to take decisions for the actual matters of importance in his own hands, rather than those of the young Empress. He also tried to remove part of the authority that had been concentrated at the hands of Nikephoros Phokas. The victorious general had been accepted as the actual commander of the army and maintained his strong connections to the aristocracy. Joseph was afraid that Nikephoros could claim the throne with the support of both the army and the aristocracy. Joseph's intrigues during the following months turned both Theophano and Nikephoros against him. Unknown to Joseph, Nikephoros was urged to seize the throne by his nephew John Tzimiskes and entered into negotiations with Theophano.

With the help of Theophano and the patriarch, Nikephoros Phokas received supreme command of the eastern forces and, after being proclaimed emperor by them on July 2, 963, he marched upon the capital, where meanwhile his partisans had overthrown his enemy Bringas. Thanks to his popularity with the army, Nikephoros II Phokas was crowned emperor by the side of Romanus's young sons on August 16, 963, and in spite of the patriarch's opposition married their mother, the regent Theophano.

Later campaigns

During his reign Nikephoros II Phokas continued to wage numerous wars. From 964–966 he definitely conquered Cilicia and again overran Mesopotamia and Syria, while the patrician Niketas recovered Cyprus. In 968 he reduced most of the fortresses in Syria, and after the fall of Antioch and Aleppo in 969, which were recaptured by his lieutenants, he secured his conquests by a peace treaty. On his northern frontier he began a war against Bulgaria in 967, to which the Byzantines had been paying tribute. Nikephoros revoked the tribute and instigated Prince Sviatoslav I of Kiev to attack Bulgaria, which he did so effectively, that Nikephoros ended up renewing the alliance with Bulgaria and turning against his own Kievan ally.

Nikephoros II was less successful in his western wars. After renouncing his payments of tribute to the Fatimid caliphs, he sent an expedition to Sicily under Niketas (964–965), but was forced by defeats on land and sea to evacuate that island completely. In 967 he made peace with the Fatimids of Kairawan and turned to defend himself against their common enemy, Otto I, who had proclaimed himself Western emperor and attacked the Byzantine possessions in Italy; but after some initial successes his generals were defeated and driven back upon the southern coast.

The tension between East and West that resulted from Nikephoros' policies can be glimpsed from Bishop Liutprand of Cremona's very unflattering description of him and his court in his Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana.

Civil administration

Owing to the care which he lavished upon the proper maintenance of the army, Nikephoros II was compelled to exercise rigid economy in other departments. He retrenched the court largesses and curtailed the immunities of the clergy, and although himself of an ascetic disposition forbade the foundation of new monasteries.

By his heavy imposts and the debasement of the coinage he forfeited his popularity with the people and gave rise to riots. Last of all, he was forsaken by his wife, and, in consequence of a conspiracy which she headed with his nephew and her lover John Tzimiskes, was assassinated in his sleeping apartment. Following his death, the Phokades family broke into insurrection under Nikephoros' nephew Bardas Phokas, but their revolt was promptly subdued.

Nikephoros was the author of an extant treatise on military tactics, most famously the Praecepta Militaria which contains valuable information concerning the art of war in his time, and the less-known De velitatione, which concerned guerilla-like tactics for defence against a superior enemy invasion force.

Nikephoros was also a very devout man, and helped his friend, the monk Athanasios, found the monastery of Megísti Lávra on Mount Athos.


By his first marriage to an unnamed Maleina, Nikephoros II Phokas had a son:

  • Bardas Phokas, who died before 969.

By his second marriage to Empress Theophano, Nikephoros II had no children.

Modern honors

On November 19, 2004, the Hellenic Navy named its tenth Kortenaer class frigate in his honour as F-466 Nikiforos Fokas (formerly HMNLS Bloys Van Treslong F 824). Also, in the Rethymno Prefecture in Crete, a municipality (Nikiforos Fokas) is named after him, as are many streets throughout Greece.


Carved on the side of his tomb:- "You conquered all but a woman"


Preceded by: Romanos II
Byzantine Emperor
Succeeded by: John I Tzimisces


The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Oxford University Press, 1991.

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

Retrieved from "
All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License