Post-classical history

The White Death of the Saracens

[963-9]

He is a monstrosity of a man, a dwarf, with a broad, flat head and tiny eyes like a mole; disfigured by a short, thick, grizzled beard; disgraced by a neck scarcely an inch long; piglike by reason of the big close bristles on his head; in colour an Ethiopian. As the poet1says, 'you would not like to meet him in the dark'. A big belly, a small posterior, very long in the hip considering his short stature, small legs, fair-sized heels and feet; dressed in a robe made of fine linen but old, foul-smelling and discoloured by age; shod with Sicyonian slippers; bold of tongue, a fox by nature, in perjury and falsehood a Ulysses.

Liudprand of Cremona, describing Nicephorus Phocas

Romanus had died on 15 March, 963; and already by the next morning the rumour was circulating that the Empress Theophano had poisoned her husband. Such a reaction was, perhaps, inevitable. In the intrigue-ridden atmosphere of Constantinople the death of any young nobleman, let alone the basileus himself, for no immediately apparent reason always set evil tongues a-wagging; and the beautiful young Empress, in the forty months since Romanus's accession, had acquired a formidable reputation. Few doubted that she was capable of such a crime; but capability is a very different thing from guilt, and it is hard indeed to see how her position might have been improved by widowhood, whether or not self-inflicted. Insofar as she was able to love anyone, there is every reason to believe that she loved her husband, to whom she had already given four children - the youngest, a daughter, born only two days before his death. While he lived she was all-powerful, with her own future and that of her children alike assured. Now that he was gone, they were all in danger. She herself still lay in childbed; her two sons, the co-Emperors Basil and Constantine, were six and three years old

1 Juvenal, V, 54.

respectively. The example of her own father-in-law was enough to illustrate the perils of a long minority, especially when there were ambitious generals in the offing; and while her predecessor Zoe had had only two of these to cope with, there were now three - the two brothers Phocas and John Tzimisces - all of whom would be sure to see the present situation as a possible path to the throne. To these potential contenders there could easily have been added a fourth, the parakoimomenos Joseph Bringas, but for the fact that as a eunuch he was disqualified for the supreme power; he too, however, was a compulsive intriguer, and though Theophano knew that he would never support the Phocas faction there was no telling what other candidates he had in mind.

Meanwhile she needed a protector, and a strong one. Secretly - for Bringas, had he known, would surely have prevented her - she sent an urgent appeal to Nicephorus Phocas in the East, begging him to return at once. When the messenger found him in his camp near Caesarea in Cappadocia, Nicephorus did not hesitate. Speed, he knew, was all-important: there was no time to gather together his troops, many of whom had already dispersed to their homes. Pausing only long enough to assemble all the most precious spoils from his Syrian campaigns, he set off with a small escort, and some time in early April entered the capital. By this time the Empress's summons was common knowledge. Bringas, furious, had protested violently and at a meeting of the Council of Regency had gone so far as to argue that the general had become a public danger who should be arrested immediately on his arrival. But he had found no support, and the crowds that had gathered in front of the Palace were loudly demanding that Nicephorus be given not only a hero's welcome but also that full-scale triumph of which he had been so unjustly deprived after the Cretan conquest.

And so the triumph was held: the most splendid, perhaps, since that of Heraclius over three centuries before, and given additional sanctity by the tattered tunic of John the Baptist, recently snatched from its longtime resting-place in Aleppo and now carried proudly before Nicephorus - 'the White Death of the Saracens' - as he rode through the streets to the Hippodrome. In the face of his immense popularity, Bringas was powerless; and the anger and resentment that he had long harboured against his old enemy were now joined by a third emotion: fear. The general was in daily consultation with the Empress; if he were now with her support to make a bid for the throne, what fate would be in store for himself? Blinding? Banishment? Or both? Nicephorus, it was true, gave no outward sign of having any such ambition; on the contrary, he lost no opportunity of proclaiming his indifference to worldly pomp and power and his eagerness to retire as soon as possible to the monastery that his friend Athanasius was already building at his request on Mount Athos.1 But Bringas was not deceived. Quietly and secretly he made his plans, and when all was in readiness summoned his enemy to the Palace.

Nicephorus too was on his guard. His spies had been busy. He had no delusions about what the parakoimomenos was planning, and he was determined to regain the initiative. Instead of obeying the summons he went straight to St Sophia, where he publicly accused Bringas of plotting to murder him and appealed for asylum. It was a brilliant ploy, and a successful one. An indignant crowd soon collected, calling angrily for punishment of any who dared lay a finger on its hero, and was soon joined by Patriarch Polyeuctus himself. Now the Patriarch was, as we have seen, a narrow-minded bigot who had blighted the last years of Constantine Porphyrogenitus; this austere and deeply devout general was on the other hand a man after his own heart, and he had no hesitation in lending his own voice to that of the crowd. Joseph Bringas was a powerful man, but the united stand of both Empress and Patriarch, with the people obviously behind them to a man, was too much for him: he could only watch, fuming, while the Senate confirmed Nicephorus in his command and undertook to make no major decisions of policy without his consent. The general in his turn thanked them for their confidence and trust and, as soon as the Easter celebrations were over, returned to rejoin his army in Anatolia.

But not, as everyone knew, for long. Those secret discussions with the Empress had ended in an agreement which was - in the short term at any rate - to prove highly advantageous to both parties. Nicephorus would protect the rights, and the persons, of the two child-Emperors; in return, he would himself be proclaimed Emperor and join them on the throne. He might talk as much as he liked of the preparations he was making for a coming campaign in Cilicia, but by now few people if any believed him. Bringas had been right: he was indeed preparing the army

1 On their return from the Cretan expedition, Nicephorus had entrusted his own share of the spoils to Athanasius for the building of this foundation, 'where you and I can be alone with our brothers and together taste the joys of the Eucharist'. Now known as the Grand Lavra, the monastery remains, the oldest and most venerable on the Holy Mountain, with its great bronze doors - the personal gift of the Emperor - still in place.

to march. The object of that march, however, would be not Glicia but Constantinople.

And so Bringas, by now desperate, played his last card. He sent letters to two of Nicephorus's senior commanders, Romanus Curcuas and John Tzimisces - respectively the son and great-nephew of the great John Curcuas who had won such splendid victories for Romanus Lecapenus -offering them the supreme commands of East and West respectively in return for the betrayal of their chief. How they were to do it was for them to decide: they might have him forcibly tonsured and immured in a monastery, or they could send him in chains to Constantinople. 'I depend on you,' he wrote to Tzimisces. 'First accept the command in Anatolia, then be patient a little and before long you will be basileus of the Romans.' Unfortunately his dependence was misplaced: Tzimisces went at once to Nicephorus, who was sleeping in his tent, woke him excitedly and showed him the letter. The general seemed momentarily stunned; one of our chroniclers, George Cedrenus, claims that it was only after his two commanders had threatened to kill him if he hesitated any longer that he was at last stirred into action. But this was probably little more than a token show of reluctance. At dawn on 3 July 963, before the entire army drawn up on a great plain just outside the walls of the Cappadocian Caesarea, Nicephorus Phocas was raised by his generals on a great shield in the ancient manner and proclaimed Emperor of the Romans. Then, after a short service of blessing in the cathedral, he set off for his capital.

In Constantinople, meanwhile, Joseph Bringas refused to admit defeat. He had summoned large numbers of European troops from Macedonia and elsewhere who traditionally mistrusted the Anatolians and on whose loyalty he believed he could rely; most of these he distributed not only along the land and sea walls but also at key points throughout the city, to deal with the first signs of popular uprising. The rest were dispatched to the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus, there to commandeer all the vessels they could find and sail them over to Europe. Thus it was that when Nicephorus Phocas and his army arrived at Chrysopolis (better known to us as Scutari) on 9 August they found themselves unable to cross the strait. The new Emperor did not however seem unduly disturbed; now that his friends and supporters in the city could see his watch-fires, he knew that some at least of them would succeed in joining him under cover of darkness. He installed himself comfortably in the nearby imperial summer Palace of Hieria and settled down to wait. He was soon proved right in his expectations: one of the first to arrive was his own brother Leo, hero of the battle of the Kulindros Pass. But Leo brought disturbing news: their father, the old general Bardas Phocas - now well into his eighties - was being held by Bringas as a hostage. If Nicephorus were to advance any further, his chances of survival would be slim.

In fact, events were moving a good deal faster than Leo realized. Taking advantage of the growing confusion in the city, Bardas - quite N possibly with the connivance of his guards - managed to escape and himself sought asylum in St Sophia. Bringas, the moment he heard what had happened, sent a detachment of militia after him, with orders to drag him from his refuge. It was a fatal mistake. The day was 9 August, a Sunday, and the Great Church was thronged with people. Bardas was a popular figure, both as a distinguished veteran of the Saracen wars and as the father of Nicephorus; and the soldiers immediately found themselves surrounded by a hostile crowd, who snatched their prisoner from them and drove them forcibly out of the building before returning the old man to his place of sanctuary.

Whatever his other faults, Bringas was no coward. Seeing his men returning empty-handed and visibly shaken, he leaped on to his horse and rode straight to the Patriarchate, which adjoined St Sophia; then, when Polyeuctus refused to intervene, he himself passed through into the church, pushed his way through the jostling crowd, mounted the ambo and, silencing the priests with an imperious hand, personally addressed the congregation. But once again he misjudged the strength of his opposition. A few words of conciliation might yet have saved the day; instead he blustered, roundly berating those who defied his orders, threatening to cut off all the city's supplies of food and thus, if necessary, to starve them into submission. Then he strode out of the church, pausing only to order the bread-sellers who occupied a permanent pitch outside the west doors to close down their stalls immediately.

It was, of course, an empty threat; Bringas knew it, and so did his listeners. He returned to the Palace as angry as ever, conscious only of the fact that he, the imperial parakoimomenos and chief minister of the Byzantine Empire, had lost the first round and had been made to look a fool. But he was not yet beaten. He waited, fuming, until the crowd began to stream from St Sophia. It was noon; the service was over, and it was time for the midday meal. Sending for the two child-Emperors, he took them firmly by the hand and returned with them to the Great Church, by now almost deserted except for the old general, sitting quietly among the shadows of the sanctuary. Their subsequent conversation is unrecorded — though the presence of the two little boys suggests a possible threat that any further attempt at resistance would be paid for with their lives. All we know is that Bardas allowed himself to be led away.

For the third time the eunuch had underestimated the strength of popular feeling. When the hour of Vespers drew near and St Sophia began once again to fill with people, their first thought was for Bardas; and when they failed to find him their mood became uglier than ever, the force of their anger this time being principally directed against the Patriarch and clergy, who at best had failed to protect their fugitive and at worst had deliberately betrayed him. Polyeuctus, now seriously alarmed, hurried to the Palace, found Bardas sitting sadly in an anteroom, seized him by the arm and returned with him to the church, where his appearance produced an immediate hush; but when Bringas arrived a few minutes later with a platoon of Macedonians and made yet another attempt to lay hands upon him, the people decided that they had had enough. While some took charge of the bewildered old man, carried him back to his house and mounted guard over him, the remainder seized bricks, stones and anything else - even church furniture - that might serve them as a weapon and flung themselves on Bringas's soldiers.

The riot, once started, spread like wildfire through the city. At the outset, in the manner of all riots, it was largely uncontrolled; but as it gathered momentum it also began to reveal a guiding force behind it: that of Basil, the natural son of Romanus Lecapenus. Presumably to protect the interests of his elder, legitimate, sons Romanus had had him castrated in infancy; but from his youth Basil had always shown outstanding intelligence and ability and had long played an important part in affairs of state. As early as 944Constantine Porphyrogenitus had created him Patrician and appointed him Exarch of the Grand Hetaireia;1 a few months later he was parakoimomenos. In 958 we find him commanding the army of the East, winning a splendid victory over Saif ed-Daula and being granted a triumph on his return to the capital. With the death of Constantine the following year, it was he who had personally laid the

1 The imperial guard, recruited exclusively from the barbarian tribes (including Russians and the redoubtable Varangians, or Northmen), which provided the garrison of the Great Palace and attended the Emperor on campaign.

Emperor's body beside that of his father Leo, in the same sarcophagus. Then, on his promotion to proedrus, he found himself replaced by Joseph Bringas, whom he disliked and mistrusted.

As soon as he heard the first sounds of the insurrection, Basil knew that his opportunity had come. Quickly he gathered together all his servants and retainers - 4,000 of them if the chroniclers are to be believed, a figure which gives some idea of the state maintained by noble Byzantines at this period - and led them down to the Forum, where the crowd was thickest and where he quickly assumed control. His first action was to send men to every corner of the city to proclaim the imminent arrival of the new Emperor; next - one suspects with still more satisfaction - he led the mob to Bringas's private palace, which was first plundered of everything that it possessed of value and was then burnt to the ground. After this the burning and looting became general: what had begun as a legitimate protest rapidly deteriorated into a howling, hysterical rampage. It was three days - by which time half Constantinople lay in ruins - before Basil was able to reassert his authority and impose some semblance of order. Then and only then could he lead his men down to the Golden Horn, take possession of all the vessels that lay at anchor within the harbour and sail the vast flotilla across the Bosphorus to the Hieria, where Nicephorus was still patiently waiting for him.

At last, on Sunday 16 August 963, the Emperor Nicephorus Phocas was ready to enter his capital. With Basil, now reappointed parakoimomenos, at his side he boarded the imperial dromond, seating himself upon a great silver throne beneath a golden canopy supported by gilded caryatids; he was then rowed slowly across the strait and westward along the European shore to the Palace of the Hebdomon, just outside the land walls at their southern end. Here he changed into ceremonial attire, strapped on his golden breastplate and mounted the huge white charger, caparisoned in purple and gold, that was to bear him through the city; and so the great procession began, stopping first at the Abramite monastery of the Acheiropoietus1 to revere the miraculous ('not made with hands') icon of the Virgin, then passing through the Golden Gate and along the Mese to St Sophia where, in the

1 This had been founded in the sixth century by the monk Abraham, who went on to establish the Byzantine monastery on the Mount of Olives and who later still became Bishop of Ephesus. Inevitably, perhaps, in view of its exposed position, it was to be destroyed shortly before the Turkish siege of 145 j - together, presumably, with the miraculous icon.

presence of the two child-Emperors, Patriarch Polyeuctus laid the diadem on his head.

Bishop Liudprand of Cremona never made any effort to conceal his dislike of Nicephorus Phocas, and his description at the head of this chapter can hardly be called unprejudiced; Leo the Deacon, on the other hand, who knew the Emperor well and has no axe to grind, paints a not dissimilar picture: he confirms that Nicephorus was short and squat - an impression strengthened by his broad shoulders and barrel chest - that his complexion was distinctly swarthy, and rendered darker still by his long years of service under the Syrian sun; and that his eyes were indeed small and dark, under heavy brows. (He adds that they seemed thoughtful and somehow sad.) The only point of radical disagreement is on the Emperor's hair: Liudprand's reference to bristles suggests that Nicephorus wore it en brosse, whereas according to Leo it was black with tight curls, and unusually long.1

We have already touched in the previous chapter on the character and way of life of the new Emperor. Neither, it may be repeated, was particularly endearing. His interests were confined to the army and his religion. He was, it is true, a man of normally high moral integrity, intelligent if narrow-minded, serious and sober, utterly incorruptible, impervious to flattery and hard as nails; but he could also be pitiless and cruel, and his meanness and avarice were notorious. Duplicity, too, came easily to him. As for his habits, they may have been in the highest degree praiseworthy but it is difficult to feel much affection for a man who for years had eaten no meat, who abhorred women, who invariably slept in the hair-shirt of his uncle - a monk famed for his holiness named Michael Maleinus - and who spent several hours a day in prayer. But Nicephorus never courted popularity. Though he had now entered his sixth decade his energies were unabated, and he flung himself into the task of government with every appearance of enthusiasm.

His first concern was Bringas. He too, when the mob was baying for his blood, had taken refuge in St Sophia, but after the dust had settled he seems to have left it of his own accord. When the time came for him to prostrate himself before his old enemy, knowing already that he was dismissed from his high office and that his home had been destroyed with all his possessions, he must have trembled for his future. The

1 Since this style is quite dearly illustrated in the contemporary coinage, we can safely prefer the evidence of the deacon to that of the bishop.

Emperor, however, was not vindictive: he contented himself by banishing Bringas to his wild Paphlagonian homeland, forbidding him ever to return to Constantinople. Meanwhile there were rewards to be distributed as well as punishment. On old Bardas his father, the Emperor conferred the title of Caesar, in recognition of the courage he had shown during his recent tribulations; his brother Leo became magister and curopalates, or marshal of the imperial court; while John Tzimisces was confirmed as Domestic of the Schools, commander-in-chief of the army in Anatolia.

There remained Theophano: she who had first appealed to Nicephorus to assume the protection of herself and her children, she without whom he would have probably spent the rest of his active life in Syria, at war against the Saracen. The Emperor's first action where she was concerned was, perhaps, somewhat surprising: he expelled her from the Palace to the old fortress of the Petrion, in what is now the Phanar quarter along the upper reaches of the Golden Horn. For a month and four days she was obliged to languish in what was effectively little better than a prison, while Nicephorus, austere and frugal as ever, occupied the imperial apartments; then, on 20 September in the palatine church of the Nea,1 he married her.

It would seem to be beyond reasonable doubt that Theophano's temporary banishment was in fact a measure agreed by both of them in advance, in order to preserve the proprieties and to prevent undesirable gossip - though why she should have been consigned to so uncomfortable a retreat, rather than to any one of the dozen or more palaces in the neighbourhood of the capital, is not immediately clear. A more intriguing question, however, concerns the background to the marriage. It was suggested at the time - though not, it must be said, by any of our more reliable sources — that Nicephorus, dazzled by the Empress's extraordinary beauty, had fallen passionately in love with her; and this theory has been eagerly espoused by a number of later historians. It is not hard to see why: the picture of the rough, unbending old general suddenly losing his head and heart to the loveliest - and most vicious - woman of her day is difficult to resist. But is it likely? Nicephorus was, after all, a natural and deeply religious ascetic, who after the death of his first wife had taken an oath of chastity and who throughout his life had seldom

1 Strictly speaking of course, 'the church of the Nea' is a misnomer - as if one referred to New College, Oxford, as 'the College of "the New'". But since every more accurate translation is in one way or another even more unsatisfactory, 'the Nea' it will have to be.

missed an opportunity for further mortification of the flesh. Would he -other historians have asked - really have proved so susceptible? Was this not, quite simply, a contract agreed between the two of them in those long private conversations after the general's first recall, by the terms of which he would take the Empress and her little co-Emperors under his protection in return for his own third share of the imperial crown?

For her, certainly, it could have been nothing else. We cannot seriously imagine this exquisite and pleasure-loving young Empress, immediately after a happy if short-lived marriage with the outstandingly attractive Romanus, feeling anything but repugnance for a sanctimonious puritan more than twice her age who - however much allowance we may make for the obvious malice of Liudprand's description - still seems to have been unattractive to a point bordering on the grotesque. But as for Nicephorus - well, we cannot be so sure. If we had nothing but the evidence of his character and background to guide us, we should probably agree that his motives were purely political and were based on ambition rather than love. On the other hand, Nicephorus would not have been the first confirmed bachelor to have been swept off his feet when he least expected it, and his subsequent conduct when the legality of the union was called in question strongly suggests that this was for him anything but a manage de conveyance and that he loved his young; wife to distraction.

For there were others a good deal less ready to overcome their scruples than Nicephorus had been, and among them was Polyeuctus the Patriarch. He had, so far as is known, voiced no prior objections to the imperial marriage, or uttered any word of caution; indeed, it was he who had personally led the Emperor by the hand up the nave of the Nea to the iconostasis, in front of which the ceremony was to be performed. But when, towards the end of the service, Nicephorus advanced alone towards the middle door of the screen to implant the traditional kiss upon the high altar which stood behind it, the Patriarch suddenly stepped forward, hand upraised. Was the Emperor unaware, he asked, of the penance imposed by the Church on all who contracted a second marriage? After one full year had passed, he might once again be permitted within the sanctuary; until then it would remain closed to him.

Nicephorus had no choice but to accept the judgement; but he never forgave Polyeuctus for what he considered a public insult. Neither was this the end of his tribulations; for before many days had passed the palace chaplain, one Stylianus, was foolish enough to mention an extremely awkward fact, which all those aware of it had been doing their utmost to forget: that a few years before, on one of his brief visits to Constandnople, the Emperor had stood godfather to one of Theophano's children. By another law of the Orthodox Church, this had created a 'spiritual affinity' between them which put them within the proscribed degrees and would, if upheld, render the enure marriage null and void. When the Patriarch was informed, he did not hesitate. As he had already demonstrated on any number of previous occasions, he had no idea of tact or of diplomacy: for him the law was the law, and he was determined to obey every letter of it. He went straight to the Palace, strode into the Emperor's private apartment and offered him a simple choice: he must either immediately repudiate Theophano or suffer the ban of the Church in perpetuity.

At this point, had he cared nothing for his wife, Nicephorus might well have given in. The very thought of spending the rest of his life debarred from the Eucharist would have been inconceivable to a man of his temperament and beliefs. To have submitted with a good grace to the law of the Church, simultaneously consigning Theophano to a nunnery, would not only have reinstated him in divine favour; it would also have provided him with a perfect excuse to rid himself of a tiresome responsibility. But he did not submit. Accepting neither option, he immediately called a meeting of all the bishops who chanced to be in Constantinople — several of whom had come specifically to seek favours from him and might therefore be not unamenable to persuasion -together with a number of other prominent figures from Church and State, and made it clear that he looked to them to find a solution. It was not long before this distinguished gathering pronounced its decision: the canonical decree which at first sight appeared to cast doubt on the validity of the Emperor's marriage had been promulgated during the reign - and consequently in the name - of Constantine Copronymus, 'a heretic who held in contempt the Blessed Virgin and the Saints, infamous persecutor of their cult, worshipper of devils, vile executioner of monks, impious destroyer of the holy images'. The decree was consequently itself without validity. The marriage stood.

Not, however, in the eyes of the Patriarch. Inflexible as ever, he held with some justification that an ad hoc commission of this kind had no authority to pronounce on such matters, and simply repeated his ultimatum. Meanwhile the Emperor was excommunicate, the breach between Church and State complete. Once again, Nicephorus refused to submit. Even though his very soul were in jeopardy, he refused to leave Theophano. Once again, he began to look desperately for a way out. Finally, he himself hit upon a solution: not, perhaps, a particularly elegant or even honourable one^ but the only one that offered any prospect of success. A few days later Stylianus - the cause of all the trouble — testified before a joint assembly of Church and Senate that he had never made the statement attributed to him or, if he had, that his memory had played him false. At this point old Bardas was brought in, and quaveringly confirmed that neither he nor his son had stood sponsor to any of Theophano's children. Polyeuctus, confronted with what he and everyone else knew were two bare-faced lies one after the other, knew that he was beaten. He might have been able to handle Stylianus alone; but the aged Caesar, who enjoyed not only the reverence due to the father of the Emperor but also that special kind of popularity which is exclusively reserved for those with one foot in the grave, was beyond his reach. He gave in.

Only one other opponent of the marriage remained to be dealt with: Athanasius, whose monastery on Mount Athos was now well on the way to completion. The church was finished but for the domes, and around it the monastic buildings were rising fast - concealing, somewhere in their depths, the small cell which had already been reserved for the Emperor. According to the Vita Athanasii, he had written Nicephorus a letter accusing him of having broken his promises and of having preferred the transitory pleasures of this world to the imperishable joys of the next, had immediately suspended all building operations and had withdrawn in high dudgeon to his old hermitage. The Typicon of the Grand Lavra, on the other hand, assures us that the saint went straight .to Constantinople in person and told the Emperor what he thought of him, adding that after such a betrayal of trust he himself had lost all interest in his monastery and would not be returning. Nicephorus fell on his knees, pleading tearfully that he had had no option but to act as he did. He still cherished his monastic dream: one day, when the situation permitted, he would put away Theophano and join his old friend on the Holy Mountain as he had always promised to do. Meanwhile, he assured him, for all his wife's undoubted attractions he had never had and never would have carnal intercourse with her.1 Pressing into his hand a chrysobul according formal recognition to the new monastery and rendering

1 True or false? If not simply an out-and-out lie to appease Athanasius, was this decision the result of Nicephorus's oath or of Theophano's repugnance? We shall never know.

it free from all but direct imperial control, he implored him to return and finish the task he had begun.

Loaded down with all the treasures, precious relics, endowments and privileges with which Nicephorus strove to appease his agonized conscience - including the great jewelled Bible and the golden reliquary containing a section of the True Cross which are still among the chief glories of the Holy Mountain — Athanasius did as he was bidden. Within a few months his monastery was complete - though it was never, alas, destined to shelter the two old men, one an Emperor and the other a saint, in the evening of their lives. The dreadful fate of Nicephorus is shortly to be told, but Athanasius was spared this further shock: soon after his resumption of building operations, the half-completed dome of his church collapsed on his head and killed him.

The Emperor Nicephorus II was - it hardly seems necessary to repeat -a soldier through and through, and one moreover for whom the war against the Saracens was nothing less than a crusade. It was, he devoutly believed, the will of God that the infidels should be driven back to the desert wastes from which they had come - and that he, Nicephorus, had been ordained to perform the task. Thus even his love for Theophano, great as it may have been, could not keep him from his duty; and in 964 he returned to the attack, which rapidly regained all its old momentum. The summer of 965 saw the first major conquest of this new campaign: the city of Tarsus, the Arabs' chief springboard for their annual incursions into Cilicia and for over 200 years one of the sharpest and most painful thorns in Byzantine flesh.

From Tarsus, too, it was but a short sail across to Cyprus. As early as 668 the island had been the subject of a treaty between Constantine IV and the Caliph Abdul-Malik, by the terms of which it had been demilitarized and ruled as a sort of neutral condominium by Emperor and Caliph together. To the bigoted mind of Nicephorus, however, this eminently civilized arrangement was anathema. That same summer of 965 his troops occupied the island in strength, such Muslims as were there at the time making not even a gesture of resistance or even protest; and Cyprus became a Byzantine Theme.

This lack of Saracen reaction to what was little better than an act of highway robbery was by now almost to be expected; for as the Abbasid Caliphate crumbled, so did its subjects grow ever more demoralized. As for Sai'f ed-Daula of Aleppo, he had never really recovered from the destruction of his palace and the effective conquest of his capital in 962; five years later, a broken man and partially paralysed after what seems to have been a stroke, he died aged only fifty-one.1 With his chief adversary gone, Nicephorus encountered no more serious obstacles to his progress. The position of Aleppo itself, whose garrison had never formally capitulated, was now regularized: the city became an imperial vassal and protectorate. And in 969, after 332 years, the ancient patriarchal city of Antioch returned once more to Christian hands.

Thus, so far as the war in the East is concerned, an account of the reign of Nicephorus II is one of virtually uninterrupted success; nor need this surprise us, since all that was required there was the military skill that the Emperor, his brother Leo and his companion-in-arms John Tzimisces - to say nothing of the young hero of Antioch, Michael Bourtzes - possessed in plenty. In the West, on the other hand, there is a less happy story to tell; for in dealing with Europe diplomacy was required; and in all the history of Byzantium there were few worse diplomats than Nicephorus Phocas. He seems to have allowed supreme power to go to his head: at the best of times singularly devoid of charm, we see him becoming ever more arrogant and overbearing as his reign goes on. He provided an excellent example of this blundering boorishness as early as 965, when an embassy arrived from Bulgaria to collect the annual subsidy agreed by Romanus Lecapenus and Tsar Peter at the time of the latter's marriage in 927. The Bulgars were, it is true, pressing their luck: the Tsaritsa Maria-Irene had died a month or two before, and Nicephorus might legitimately have objected that the arrangement had lapsed with her death.2 On the other hand Bulgaria was an invaluable buffer state, protecting the Empire from both the Magyars and the Russians, and the modest subsidy - which had been annually handed over without question for thirty-eight years - might have been considered a small enough price to pay for friendly relations. Be that as it may, the Emperor had no possible justification for acting as he did. He turned on the ambassadors with a stream of invective, abusing them and their countrymen as a race of hideous and filthy beggars, triple slaves and sons of dogs, ruled by a prince dressed only in the skins of

1 The immediate cause of his death, according to The Encyclopaedia of Islam, was 'retention of the urine'. His body, it continues, 'was brought to Mayyafariqin and buried in the turbe of his mother outside the town. He had given orders for a brick made of soil that he had won in his campaigns to be placed under his head in his coffin.'

2 Still according to the theory of Sir Steven Runciman. See p. 147n.

animals. Then he had them scourged before sending them back empty-handed to Preslav.

Whatever the provocation, such conduct was obviously inexcusable -paralleled only by that of the Emperor Alexander in similar circumstances over half a century before. But while Alexander had been a drunken boor, Nicephorus was in deadly earnest. He advanced at once to the Bulgar fronder and captured several border strongholds to show that he meant what he had said, and in other circumstances he would doubtless have penetrated further; but the bulk of his army was fully - and profitably - engaged in the East and he had no wish to weaken it at such a time. He therefore concluded an agreement with Prince Svyatoslav of Kiev - the son of Igor and the recently baptized Olga - whereby Svyatoslav, in return for a handsome fee, undertook to subdue the Bulgars on his behalf. Svyatoslav was more than happy to accept Byzantine gold, but he was also greedy for conquest. Only a few years before, he had utterly destroyed the Kingdom of the Khazars; here was a heaven-sent opportunity to do the same to his Bulgar neighbours, pushing forward his already extensive frontiers as far as the banks of the Danube. The Bulgar Kingdom, now hopelessly divided, could put up no effective resistance: too late, the Emperor saw that he had succeeded only in replacing a weak and peace-loving neighbour with an ambitious and aggressive enemy.

In his dealings with Western Europe, Nicephorus's diplomacy - if it can so be described - was equally calamitous, and his chief adversary still more formidable. Otto the Saxon had come a long way since the time of his first appearance in this story, some fifteen years before. Although titular King of Italy since 952, he had at first been largely occupied in Germany, while the peninsula had been effectively ruled by the Marquis Berengar of Ivrea. In 961, however, in response to an appeal by the unspeakable John XII,1 he had swept down into Italy, reasserted his control, taken Berengar prisoner and ridden on to Rome, where in February 962 the Pope had crowned him Emperor.

Attentive readers may remember that Otto in earlier years had welcomed the offers of an alliance made to him by Constantine

1 Most infamous of the tenth-century papal 'pornocracy', John had been made Pope in 95 5 at the age of sixteen. As Gibbon puts it, 'we read, with some surprise, that the worthy grandson of Marozia lived in public adultery with the matrons of Rome; that the Lateran Palace was turned into a school foi prostitution; and that his rapes of virgins and widows had deterred the female pilgrims from visiting the shrine of St Peter, lest, in the.devout act, they should be violated by his successor*.

Porphyrogenitus: an alliance which Constantine had hoped to seal by the marriage of his son Romanus (after the early death of the latter's first wife) to Otto's niece Hedwig. Romanus's rejection of this lady in favour of the lovely Theophano had greatly displeased the Saxon King, and when in 959 this arrogant and - in Otto's eyes - extremely ill-mannered young man succeeded his father on the throne relations between them became chillier still; but Otto condnued to dream of a dynastic union, and in the last weeks of 967 - with Romanus in his turn now safely out of the way - he sent an embassy to Nicephorus to discuss the possibility. Thanks to misunderstandings on both sides, this proved unsuccessful -so unsuccessful indeed that, in an effort to bring the basileus to his senses, Otto launched a totally unprovoked attack on Byzantine-held Apulia, occupying much of the province; but when his army failed absolutely to capture Bari he resorted once again to diplomacy, and in the early summer of 968 dispatched a second embassy, more high-powered than the first and under a considerably more experienced ambassador: our old friend Liudprand of Cremona.

Liudprand's report to Otto of his second journey to the Bosphorus, the so-called Relatio de leatione constantinopolitana, is incontestably the most enjoyable - as well as the most malicious - account ever written of a diplomatic mission to the court of Byzantium; and if he has little good to say of it, this is hardly surprising when we consider the difficulties with which he had to contend. First of all there was the abrasive personality of the Emperor himself. On Liudprand's earlier mission he had got on well enough with Constantine Porphyrogenitus, for whose sophisticated and scholarly mind any Western intellectual probably had considerable appeal. To the rough and uncultivated Nicephorus, on the other hand, he was everything that was most abhorrent: a smoothtongued trickster made still more dangerous by his fluent Greek, a man in whom no trust could possibly be reposed and a heretic to boot. On top of this he represented a German adventurer who called himself Emperor, whereas every right-thinking person knew that the Roman Empire was one and indivisible, with its seat at Constantinople: a pretender to his throne and a usurper of his title who had, moreover, recently broken faith with an entirely unjustified attack on imperial Byzantine territory.

Liudprand's lukewarm reception on his return to Constantinople was thus only to be expected; he was, none the less, deeply wounded in his amour propre. Nineteen years before, as emissary of a mere Italian marquis, he had been welcomed with at least a modicum of politeness; now, a plenipotentiary of the Emperor of the West, he described to his master the barely disguised hostility with which he had been received:

The palace in which we were confined, though large and open, neither kept out the cold nor afforded protection from the heat; furthermore we were placed under armed guards, who prevented my people from going out and anyone else from coming in. It was thus accessible only to us who were shut up inside it, and was so far from the residence of the Emperor that when we walked there -for we were not permitted to ride — we arrived exhausted. To make matters worse, the Greek wine was quite undrinkable, having been mixed with pitch, resin and plaster1 ...

On the fourth of June ... we arrived at Constantinople and waited in heavy rain with our horses outside the Carian Gate until the eleventh hour [5 p.m.]. Only then did Nicephorus order us to be admitted on foot, for he did not deem us worthy to ride the horse with which Your Grace had provided us, and we were escorted to the aforesaid loathsome, waterless and draughty stone house. On the sixth of June, the Saturday before Pentecost, I was brought before the Emperor's brother Leo, marshal of the court and Logothete; and we wore ourselves out in a fierce argument over your tide. He called you not 'Emperor', which is basileus in his tongue, but - most insultingly - rex, which is 'King' in ours. When I told him that the two words, different as they were, signified the same he accused me of having come not to make peace but to foment strife. Finally he rose from his seat in a fury and, greatly offended, received your letter not with his own hands but through an intermediary. Though he may appear humble he is in fact a man of considerable stature: if anyone were to lean upon him for support, he would pierce his hand.

On the following day Liudprand had his first audience of the Emperor - who came, he tells us, straight to the point. He regretted not having been able to give his guest a more courteous reception, but in view of Otto's conduct - invading Rome, and depriving Berengar and Adalbert of their lawful Kingdom, to say nothing of his attempted seizure of Apulia - he had had no choice. Liudprand - if his account is to be believed - gave as good as he got. His master, he pointed out, had not invaded Rome, but had liberated the city from a tyranny of libertines and harlots; if Nicephorus and his predecessors were truly the Roman Emperors they claimed to be, why had they allowed this state of affairs? Berengar and Adalbert had been Otto's vassals. They had rebelled

1 This must, I believe, be the first recorded reaction of a Western European to the taste of retsina.

against him; he had removed them. It was as simple as that. As to the Apulian problem, that could easily be solved: if Nicephorus would give the hand in marriage of one of Romanus's daughters to his master's son, the younger Otto - who since the previous Christmas had been reigning with his father as co-Emperor - among the several important concessions that he might expect in return was the total evacuation of all occupying forces in the region. To this proposal he received no immediate answer; the Emperor signified that the audience was at an end, and Liudprand withdrew. Six days later, however, he was summoned by Basil the parakoimomenos and informed that a princess born in the purple might indeed be available - but only if the Western Empire were prepared to cede in return Ravenna, Rome and all eastern Italy, together with Istria and the northern part of the Dalmatian coast.

Neither Nicephorus nor Basil can have imagined for a moment that Otto would consider such terms, which were virtually tantamount to the surrender of all Italy and a good deal more besides; nor would Liudprand have had the authority to accept them even if he had wished to do so. There was consequently no good reason for him to remain in Constantinople, and his alarm was all the greater when, instead of being sent on his way, he found himself confined even more closely to his detested lodgings, from which he was allowed to emerge only when the Emperor from time to time invited him to dinner. Even these occasions were less agreeable than they might have been, owing first to the perfectly disgusting food, 'washed down with oil after the manner of drunkards and moistened also with an exceedingly bad fish liquor', and second to the fact that Nicephorus saw them only as opportunities to bully him. How, he would be asked again and again, did his master have the temerity to occupy lands in south Italy which had been recognized for centuries as the property of Byzantium? How, come to that, did he dare to call himself an Emperor at all?

At the end of July, to the ambassador's intense relief, his host left for Syria to resume his campaign; now at last there seemed some chance that he might be permitted to return home. But obstacles continued to be put in his way, and on 15 August a further disaster struck: an embassy arrived from Pope John XIII with a letter which was intended to help the negotiations along but which unfortunately referred to Otto as 'the august Emperor of the Romans' while Nicephorus was simply addressed as 'Emperor of the Greeks'. Liudprand describes the reaction of the Byzantine court with morbid relish: had the new envoys been of higher rank, he quotes them as saying - had there been, for example, a bishop or a marquis among them - they would have been scourged and had their hair and beards plucked out before being sewn into sacks and hurled into the sea. Being a bishop himself, he confesses to having felt some concern for his own safety: he was of course the emissary of the Western Emperor and not that of the Pope, but it was common knowledge that John was Otto's nominee, and he was far from sure that in their present anti-Western mood the Byzantines would bother with such nice distinctions.

Subsequent events were to prove him right; for on 17 September he was once again summoned, this time by the Patrician Christopher, a eunuch, who began the conversation with one or two personal remarks:

The pallor of your face, the emaciation of your whole body, the unusual length of your hair and beard, all reveal the immense pain that is in your heart because the date of your return to your master has been delayed. .. The reason is this. The Pope of Rome - if indeed he may be called Pope when he has held communion and ministry with Alberic's son, the apostate, the adulterer, the sacrilegious - has sent a letter to our most sacred Emperor, worthy of himself and unworthy of Nicephorus, calling him 'Emperor of the Greeks' and not 'of the Romans'. Certainly this has been done at your master's insdgation ... That fatuous blockhead of a Pope does not know that the sacred Constantine transferred to this city the imperial sceptre, the senate and all the Roman knighthood, leaving in Rome nothing but vile slaves, fishermen, confectioners, poulterers, bastards, plebeians and underlings. Never would he have written this letter if your king had not suggested it.

Clearly this was no time for heroics. Liudprand tried to argue that since the days of Constantine the Byzantines had changed their language, customs and dress, and that the Pope had probably thought that by now the very name of Romans, like their sartorial style, might be distasteful to them; but he did not press the point. Finally he promised that all future letters would be addressed to 'Nicephorus, Constantine and Basil, the great and august Emperors of the Romans'.

Now at last he was allowed to leave - but there was still one further insult in store for him. During his stay in Constantinople he had managed to buy five lengths of sumptuous purple cloth for the adornment of his cathedral in Cremona. These he was now peremptorily ordered to surrender. In vain he argued that Nicephorus himself had given him authority to take with him as much as he liked, calling as his witnesses the interpreter and the Emperor's brother Leo, both of whom had been present during the conversation; Nicephorus, he was told, had never intended his permission to cover luxuries such as these. In vain he pleaded that when, as a mere deacon representing the Marquis Berengar, he had visited the city nearly twenty years before, he had returned with a far greater number of vestments even more sumptuous than those at present in question, and had suffered none of the prevarications and insults that now, as a bishop representing an Emperor, he was called upon to endure. Times, it was firmly pointed out to him, had changed. Constantine had been a mild man, who achieved his ends by peaceful methods, working from his Palace; Nicephorus was a man of more warlike temper, who preferred crushing his enemies to bribing them. And so at last on 2 October, after four months of misery, sickness and almost constant vilification,

... I boarded my vessel and left the city that was once so rich and prosperous and is now such a starveling, a city full of lies, tricks, perjury and greed, a city rapacious, avaricious and vainglorious. My guide was with me, and after forty-nine days of ass-riding, walking, horse-riding, fasting, thirsting, sighing, weeping and groaning, I arrived at Naupactus . ..

Even that was not the end of Liudprand's tribulations. He was delayed by contrary winds at Naupactus, deserted by his ship's crew at Patras, unkindly received by a eunuch bishop and half-starved on Leucas and subjected to three consecutive earthquakes on Corfu, where he subsequently fell among thieves. He was conscious, too, that it had all been in vain. The imperial marriage seemed no nearer, and relations between East and West were if anything even more strained than they had been before he set out: indeed, before he was back in Cremona war had erupted once again between the two Empires in south Italy. Poor Liudprand - he could not have known that his account of his journey would still be read a thousand years after his death, and found to be as fresh, funny and revealing as on the day it was written. A pity: it would have cheered him up.

It was only to be expected, in view of the character, manners and appearance of Nicephorus Phocas, that he should have been incapable of maintaining the affections of his subjects. At the beginning of his reign he had enjoyed the popularity due to a hero who had fought long and valiantly for the Empire, and whose exertions had been rewarded by the reconquest of Crete and the virtual annihilation of the Saracen threat in the East. It was on the wave of this popularity that he had risen to the throne - not, certainly, as his birthright but at least by invitation of the reigning Empress, who had almost immediately become his wife; and his worst enemies would have had to agree that, in the political vacuum prevailing after the death of Romanus, he - and she - were fully justified in acting as they did. But Nicephorus was, as we have seen, supremely ungifted in the arts of peace; and in the six years of his reign he rapidly antagonized almost all those with whom he came into contact, together with that all-important element in the Byzantine State, the people of Constantinople.

Political power - which he had never before enjoyed - went to his head, and as his arrogance increased so did his irritability and shortness of temper. His unforgivable treatment of the Bishop of Cremona - who was, after all, an imperial ambassador - and his reception of the Bulgarian envoys were, alas, all too characteristic of his diplomatic methods, and he seems to have dealt with the officials of his own court and government in a similarly high-handed manner. Their dislike - and, as time went on, their growing distrust - of their master was based, however, on more than personal grounds. There was also his lack of judgement in foreign affairs, illustrated by his invitation to Prince Svyatoslav of Kiev to destroy Bulgaria and his gratuitous insults to Otto the Great at a time when his army, already fully stretched on both the eastern and western frontiers, could not possibly undertake a third simultaneous campaign in south Italy. And there was the shameless favouritism which he showed to the only two sections of society that represented his own background: the army first, and then the Anatolian military aristocracy. The imperial garrison in the capital could, in his eyes, do no wrong, and took full advantage of the fact: at night the streets were loud with the carousings of drunken soldiery, to the point where honest citizens feared to leave their homes. Protests and petitions in plenty were addressed to the Emperor, only to be brushed roughly aside.

The fortunes of 'the powerful' underwent an even more dramatic change. Romanus Lecapenus and Constantine Porphyrogenitus had both done their utmost to limit their growing influence; Nicephorus Phocas deliberately legislated in their favour. Formerly, if a holding came up for sale, first refusal was given to the owners of the immediately adjoining land; henceforth it was to be available to the highest bidder - almost inevitably a landed nobleman bent on increasing his estates. Formerly again, the minimum value of property to be owned by a small-holder for him to qualify as an armed cavalryman was four pounds of gold; this figure Nicephorus now increased to twelve pounds, effectively disqualifying thousands of those landed peasant families who for centuries had constituted the backbone of the local militia and giving further power to the proprietorial class. Thus the rich threatened to become richer and the poor poorer; and the people of Constantinople, who took no interest in agrarian questions and very little in military ones - which they tended to leave so far as possible to their Asian compatriots - but who knew injustice when they saw it, did not attempt to conceal their displeasure.

Another, rather more surprising, source of opposition was the Church. The Emperor's extreme piety had initially predisposed the ecclesiastical authorities strongly in his favour; but they were soon made to understand that Nicephorus's views on their proper role in society differed radically from their own. His ascetic and puritanical sensibilities were profoundly shocked by the enormous wealth that the Church — and in particular the monasteries - had accumulated over the centuries. This problem was not new, but it had not been seriously tackled since the days of Constantine Copronymus 200 years before; and with vast tracts of superb agricultural land lying fallow under monastic mismanagement the time had clearly come for remedial action. Nicephorus's approach was characteristically uncompromising: all further such transfers were forbidden, whatever the circumstances. Would-be benefactors might if they wished restore churches or monasteries that were ruined or derelict, but that was all. Predictably, the edict called forth a storm of protest from monks and clergy alike, but worse was to follow: there now came a decree that no new bishop might be appointed without the Emperor's personal approval. This, in the opinion of the outraged priesthood, could mean but one thing: that he was determined on complete control of the Church, its hierarchy and its administration.

Finally, affecting rich and poor, cleric and layman, soldier and civilian alike, was the crippling taxation that Nicephorus had increased to unprecedented levels to finance his endless warfare, now raging simultaneously on three fronts: against the Saracens in the East, the Russians in Bulgaria and Otto in south Italy. Of these three wars, the first was already virtually won while the other two were unnecessary and should never have been allowed to begin; and the average taxpayer saw no reason why he should finance a grossly inflated army, which he in any case cordially detested and which - while its demands for further financial support grew ever more insistent - made no attempt to share its considerable spoils. To make matters worse, a series of disastrous harvests had sent the price of bread rocketing. On similar occasions in the past, previous Emperors had ordered a government subsidy; but Nicephorus showed no such concern, and was widely suspected of using the misfortunes of his subjects for the additional benefit of his beloved soldiers.

And so dissatisfaction grew; and, as it grew, so it was more and more openly expressed. The first signs of serious trouble came on Easter Sunday 967, when a quarrel between the Emperor's Armenian guard and some Thracian sailors developed into a full-scale riot; there were scores of casualties, several of them fatal. That afternoon, as the usual Easter games were about to start in the Hippodrome, a rumour spread to the effect that the Emperor intended to mark his displeasure by ordering random killings among the assembled crowd. Now Nicephorus, we can be perfectly sure, had no such intention; in an interval between the races, however, he gave the signal for certain companies of armed guards to descend into the arena. His reasons are uncertain. Leo the Deacon suggests that he may have decided on this show of military strength as a salutary warning, an indication that no repetition of the morning's disturbances would be tolerated; but mock battles were common enough in games of this kind, and he may have ordered one on this occasion simply as an amusement for the spectators. The immediate reaction, in any event, was panic: the thousands that thronged the stands had but a single thought in mind — escape. Only after many had been crushed to death in the sudden dash for the exits, and many more trampled underfoot, was it noticed that the soldiers in the arena had made no move against anyone and that the Emperor was still sitting, calm and utterly impassive, in his box. Gradually peace was restored; but the people persisted in blaming Nicephorus for the whole affair and he became more unpopular than ever.

Two months later, on Ascension Day, as the basileus was proceeding in state through the city after attending Matins in the Church of the Virgin at Pegae, abusive shouts were heard from the crowd — coming, it was said, from the families and friends of those who had perished during the Easter disturbances; and within moments he was surrounded by a hostile mob. As always when physical danger threatened, Nicephorus betrayed no trace of emotion, continuing his measured pace and looking neither to right nor left; but had it not been for his personal guard, who formed a dense phalanx around him and shielded him from blows and even missiles, he would have been lucky to return to the Palace alive.

The next morning two women, a mother and her daughter, who had been arrested for hurling bricks at the Emperor from a nearby rooftop, were burnt alive in the Amaratas district; and Nicephorus gave orders for the fortification of the Great Palace, sealing it off completely from the surrounding streets. Within this huge enclave, down towards the little harbour of the Bucoleon, he built what seems to have been a private citadel, for the use of himself, his family and his closest associates. By now it was clear to all of them that — perhaps for the first time in his life - the Emperor was afraid. On the battlefield he had not known the meaning of the word; but Constantinople, where the very air was loud with rumours of plots and portents, had become sinister and threatening. His aspect grew still more sombre, his religious observances ever more morbid and morose. He no longer slept in a bed, but on a panther-skin laid on the floor in the corner of the imperial bedchamber. The death of his father, old Bardas Phocas, who had finally expired at the age of ninety, had utterly prostrated him; and he seemed never to have fully recovered from the shock that he had suffered one day in the late summer when he had been accosted in the middle of a religious procession by an unknown monk of repellent aspect, who had thrust a note into his hand before disappearing into the crowd. It read: 'O basileus, although I am but a worm upon the earth, it has been revealed to me that in the third month after this coming September you shall die.'

What ultimately brought matters to a head was the fate of Bulgaria. By the summer of 968 King Peter was desperate. Partially incapacitated by a stroke, he sent first an ambassador1 to Constantinople to appeal for military aid against Svyatoslav, and shortly afterwards two little Bulgar princesses, intended as brides for the young Emperors Constantine and Basil. But it was already too late. On 30 January 969 he died after forty-two years on the throne, leaving as his successor his elder son Boris, a callow youth unremarkable except for an enormous red beard. Six months or so later Peter was followed to the grave by Princess Olga of Kiev, the only restraining influence on her headstrong son Svyatoslav, who in the early autumn swept down, at the head of a huge and heterogeneous army of Russians, Magyars and Pechenegs, into the

1 This curious figure, 'unwashed, with his hair cropped short in the Hungarian fashion and girt about with brass chains', had been the unwitting cause of furious indignation on the part of Liudprand of Cremona when given precedence over him at the Emperor's table.

Bulgarian heartland. Preslav fell after scarcely a struggle, and young Boris with his entire family was taken off into captivity. Philippopolis by contrast put up a heroic resistance; but it too had to capitulate in the end, and paid dearly for its heroism when Svyatoslav impaled 20,000 of its citizens. By the onset of winter the Russians were ranged along the whole Thracian border, and few doubted that at the first signs of spring they would launch their attack upon the Empire.1

At this point there returns to the forefront of the stage the lovely but ever-fateful figure of the Empress Theophano. Unlikely as it is that she - or anyone else for that matter - could have felt any physical attraction for Nicephorus, there can be little doubt that at some moment during the previous six years she had fallen passionately in love with his erstwhile colleague, the outstandingly good-looking former Domestic of the Schools John Tzimisces. The degree to which the tiny but irresistible Armenian returned her love is perhaps somewhat less certain: there were plenty of other emotions — ambition, jealousy, resentment towards the Emperor, who had recently deprived him of his military command and exiled him to his Anatolian estates - that might have impelled him to act as he did. But Theophano at twenty-eight was still as beautiful as-ever: whether or not his heart was engaged, her embraces cannot have been altogether distasteful.

Her first task was to convince her husband that he had been unjust towards his former friend - to whom, after all, he probably owed his crown - and to persuade him to rescind the sentence of banishment. This was not as difficult as might have been imagined: she could nearly always get what she wanted from him if she put her mind to it (another indication, perhaps, of the genuineness of his love for her) and he readily agreed to recall Tzimisces, on the condition that he remained in his family's house at Chalcedon on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus, coming over to Constantinople only when given specific permission to do so. Obviously, from the lovers' point of view, the situation was still rather less than ideal; but dispositions were made, and before long the little general was slipping nightly across the strait under cover of darkness to a hidden corner of the Palace where the Empress was waiting — and where, among other less reprehensible occupations, the two of them cold-bloodedly planned her husband's murder.

1 Older historians tend to date the fall of Philippopolis to the early spring of 970; I prefer to follow Sir Steven Runciman's chronology (First Bulgarian Empire, pp. 205-6).

Accomplices were not hard to find. By now there were few in his immediate entourage who had a good word to say for Nicephorus Phocas, and those party to the plot included Basil the parakoimomenos and several other high court officials; also implicated was Michael Bourtzes, hero of Antioch, whose conquest of the city had been furiously resented by the jealous Nicephorus and who had shortly afterwards been relieved of his command.

The date of the assassination was fixed for 10 December. On the afternoon of that day the leading conspirators, disguised as women with their swords concealed beneath their robes, entered the gynaeceum of the Palace ostensibly on a visit to the Empress, who distributed them among various small rooms in which they could wait unobserved until the time came for action. As evening drew on, Nicephorus received another message of warning, this time from one of his chaplains, telling him that the danger was now imminent and that his intended murderers were already hidden in the Palace. He immediately dispatched Michael, his chief eunuch and major-domo, to investigate; but Michael too had been suborned by the Empress and returned to report that he had found nothing untoward.

Darkness came early during those December days, and as night fell there arose a dreadful blizzard. The conspirators remained in hiding in the darkened Palace. They dared not act without John Tzimisces - but would he be able, in such weather, to make his secret journey across the Bosphorus? Meanwhile it was for Theophano to allay her husband's suspicions and to make sure that there would be no problems of access when the moment came. She had decided, she told him, to pay a quick visit to the two little Bulgar princesses, to see if they were comfortable in their new accommodation. She would not be gone for very long, so he must be careful not to shut her out: they could lock up properly after her return. Nicephorus raised no objection. For some time he continued to read one of the devotional works of which his library was full; then, as usual, he settled down to his prayers. At last, with his wife still absent, he wrapped himself up in his uncle's hair-shirt and stretched himself out on the floor to sleep.

Outside, the storm continued. It was bitterly cold, and snowing hard; the wind had whipped up the waves on the Bosphorus and John Tzimisces, making his way from Chalcedon with three trusted friends in an unlit boat, had had a long and perilous crossing. It was not until eleven o'clock that his accomplices heard the low whistle by which he had promised to announce his arrival. Silently a rope was let down from a window of the Empress's apartments, and one by one the conspirators were drawn up into the building. Tzimisces was the last to enter. Once inside, they lost no time. A eunuch was waiting to lead them straight to the Emperor's bedchamber. There was a moment of alarm when the bed was found to be empty, but the eunuch quietly pointed to the far corner of the room where their victim lay on his panther-skin, fast asleep.

The last minutes of Nicephorus's life, dwelt upon with relish by the chroniclers, do not make pleasant reading. Awoken by the noise, he tried to rise; at the same time the taxiarch Leo Balantes struck him a violent blow with his sword. It was aimed at the neck, but the Emperor's sudden movement deflected it; he received its full force diagonally across the face. Streaming with blood, he called loudly upon the Holy Virgin Theotokos for aid while he was dragged to the foot of the great bed, on which John Tzimisces was sitting as if in judgement. There they tried to make him kneel, but he fell to the ground and lay motionless as his former companion-in-arms cursed him for his injustice and ingratitude, kicking him savagely and tearing out handfuls of his hair and beard. After Tzimisces had finished it was the turn of the others. Each had his own private score to settle. One smashed his jaw; another knocked out his front teeth with the end of his scabbard. At last - we do not know by whom - he was run through with a long, curved sword. It was thecoup ie grace. Nicephorus Phocas was dead.

The news spread fast. Minutes after the deed was done Tzimisces's men were out in the snow-covered streets of the city, shouting 'John, Augustus and Emperor of the Romans!' at every corner; they were soon joined by others, led by the Chamberlain Basil himself, on whose instructions they shouted also for the two child-Emperors Basil and Constantine but were otherwise no less vocal in their support of the new regime. Meanwhile in the Palace complex itself - which never slept - the duty guard of Varangian Vikings, axes in hand, hurried down to the Bucoleon. There by the light of flaming torches they saw the head of Nicephorus, struck from his body and held triumphantly aloft at a window by one of the assassins. At once they were still. Had he been alive, they would have defended their Emperor to the last breath; dead, there was no point in avenging him. They had a new master, and that was that.

As to the identity of that new master, there too they were faced with a fait accompli. As soon as the deed was done, John Tzimisces had made his way to the Chrysotriclinium, the great golden throne room of the Palace, pulled on the purple buskins and decked himself in as much of the imperial regalia as he could find; already he was seated on the throne, Theophano and her two sons at his side, while his fellow-conspirators and a growing crowd of court officials hailed him as Emperor of the Romans.

Throughout the next day the city lay silent and apparently deserted. Basil - who was henceforth to be ever at John's right hand, his most experienced and trusted lieutenant - had proclaimed a curfew. The citizens were so far as was possible to stay at home; those obliged to venture abroad were forbidden to congregate or to make the slightest disturbance, on pain of instant execution. By now the wind had dropped. The storm had been succeeded by an eerie soilness, the fog hung thick over the Marmara - and the body of Nicephorus lay below the window from which it had been flung, an obscene bundle on the bloodstained snow. After such a death there could be no question of a state funeral. Instead, when night had fallen, it was picked up, thrown on to a makeshift wooden stretcher, covered with a rough blanket and carried quietly through the empty streets to the Church of the Holy Apostles, where it was laid in one of the marble sarcophagi ordered by Constantine the Great six centuries before. It was an honourable resting-place; but Nicephorus Phocas, the White Death of the Saracens, hero of Syria and Crete, saintly and hideous, magnificent and insufferable, had deserved a better end.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!