Poisonings were nothing new in Byzantium, and the empress Theophano was well known for her grasping ambition, but to have killed her husband would have been an act of sheer folly for such an intelligent woman.* Romanus’s death (as she must surely have known it would be) was a disaster for her. Their son Basil II had been crowned, but he wasn’t yet six years old, and, as recent imperial history so strongly demonstrated, it was all too easy for an ambitious man to displace a rightful young heir.
With her husband gone, Theophano desperately needed a protector for Basil II, and she secretly wrote to Nicephorus Phocas, begging him to return to Constantinople. The great general was by now the most popular man in the empire by a comfortable margin, and his military reputation was unparalleled. The book he had written on tactics and strategy was already viewed as a classic among the ranks of the army and would, in fact, be quoted for centuries as the authority on countering Arab attacks. The imperial court, however, sniffed at his origins and uncouth manner, and was horrified that the empress would consider relying on such a man. Opposition soon crystallized around the powerful figure of the head chamberlain, Joseph Bringas, who had effectively been wielding power behind the scenes during Romanus’s reign and didn’t intend to let some provincial general displace him. Determined to prevent Nicephorus from entering Constantinople, Bringas issued a decree banning him from the city and ordered the gates shut.
It soon became apparent that Bringas had overplayed his hand. Nicephorus was a popular general who had spent his career in service to Byzantium, and no amount of proclamations from a scheming court could convince the populace otherwise. Mobs took to the streets loudly demanding that the general be admitted to the city, and the panicked chamberlain was forced to back down. Desperate to get rid of Nicephorus, Bringas tried to assassinate him, but once again the general’s popularity saved him. Marching into the Hagia Sophia the moment he caught wind of the threat, Nicephorus loudly announced that his life was in danger. The patriarch hastily summoned the Senate, and its members took oaths before the packed congregation to make no major decision without him. Bringas had no choice but to sullenly add his consent. At last satisfied that he was secure, Nicephorus left to make arrangements with his army in Anatolia.
Joseph Bringas was now a desperate man. He had made no secret of his disgust for the swarthy general, and he knew that the moment Nicephorus returned to claim the throne, his days were numbered. Resorting to the only thing he could think of, the chamberlain wrote to John Tzimisces, offering to make him emperor if he would only betray his uncle. A fall from power might be inevitable for Joseph Bringas, but at least he could bring Nicephorus Phocas down with him.
Unfortunately for the eunuch, Tzimisces brought the treacherous letter directly to his uncle. There was no longer any reason for the general to hesitate. At dawn the next day, in a ceremony that stretched back to the half-forgotten glory days of imperial Rome, his soldiers raised him on a great shield under the open sky and proclaimed him emperor. They then struck camp and marched on Constantinople, but when the army arrived at the Asian side of the Bosporus, they found two unpleasant surprises waiting for them. The first was that Bringas, in a fit of spite, had thrown Nicephorus’s family—including his eighty-year-old father—into prison. Second, and more serious, the chamberlain had removed every last vessel—from the humblest fishing boat to the largest ferry—from their side of the shore.
With no way to transport his troops across the narrow stretch of water, there was nothing for the fuming Nicephorus to do but sit down and wait for something to develop. Fortunately for him, events were swiftly overtaking the beleaguered head chamberlain. Nicephorus’s brother, Leo, managed to escape from Constantinople by climbing through some drainage pipes, and his octogenarian father somehow slipped from Bringas’s clutches and fled to the sanctuary of the Hagia Sophia. When the unpopular chamberlain’s guards arrived and tried to seize the elderly man, the congregation erupted in a rage. Grabbing anything that was handy—including bricks, rocks, and demolished pews—they came roaring out into the streets and began skirmishing with the imperial guards. Pushed back into the surrounding streets, the chamberlain’s forces held their own until a well-aimed flowerpot, launched by a woman from a nearby roof, struck the captain in the head, killing him instantly.
Three days of furious fighting followed, during the course of which Bringas completely lost control of the city. In the chaos, an illegitimate son of Romanus I Lecapenus named Basil was able to seize the imperial fleet and send it to pick up the waiting Nicephorus. At the sight of the great general riding through the Golden Gate on a massive white horse, dressed in his finest golden armor, the fury of the mob turned to cheers. Escorting Nicephorus to the Hagia Sophia, the crowd watched him dismount and kneel before the high altar as the patriarch gently placed the imperial crown on his lowered head.
The new emperor of Byzantium was one of the most qualified men ever to sit on the imperial throne and seemed to have been born to lead. Still energetic in his early fifties, he had held the supreme command over the army for the last nine years and was used to giving orders and getting results. He unfortunately wasn’t gifted with a single ounce of charm, barking commands at his courtiers and insulting everyone he disagreed with, but the empire needed a firm hand at the helm, and there was no one better to steer the rudder. Unpleasant, boorish, and rude he may have been, but (if only by virtue of the fact that they didn’t know him yet) he was extremely popular with his subjects, and Theophano welcomed him as her children’s protector.
Their relationship must have been somewhat awkward. Strictly religious to the point of asceticism, Nicephorus couldn’t have been less suited to the pleasure-loving twenty-two-year-old Theophano, but he soon fell hopelessly in love and, ignoring a previous vow of chastity, proposed to her within the month. Whether she actually loved him or not, Theophano needed him, and she gratefully accepted, taking her place beside him on the throne.
Marital bliss, however, could only keep the emperor in Constantinople for so long. He was always happiest on campaign, and, in any case, there were too many enemies on the frontiers to relax his vigilance. The caliphate was showing encouraging signs of weakness, and now was the time to press the advantage. Earlier that year, Nicephorus had sent his brilliant nephew John Tzimisces probing into Syria, and the young man had met exemplary success. Impatient to join him, the emperor gathered his army and set out, alerting his nephew by lighting a series of signal fires that carried news of the advance to the distant Taurus Mountains within a few hours. The first target was the ailing emir of Aleppo, who had been raiding imperial territory for decades. The Muslims took one look at the size of the imperial army bearing down on them and tried to negotiate, but Nicephorus ignored the panicked offer of tribute and stormed his way into Cilicia to conquer Tarsus. That same summer, the imperial forces cleared the Arabs from Cyprus. Two years later, Nicephorus brought the city of Aleppo to its knees, reducing the once-powerful emirate into a vassal state.
The emperor returned in triumph to the capital with a glittering reputation and a new confidence in the empire’s power and prestige. He had humbled those who raised swords against him in the East and had demonstrated clearly enough that Byzantium was not to be trifled with. Unfortunately for the empire, however, it had enemies on all sides, and the very traits that had served Nicephorus so well in the East would betray him in the West and bring nothing but disaster.
Against the forces of Islam, it was war to the death—something for which Nicephorus’s grating personality was perfectly suited—but when it came time to deal with the Christian powers to his west, his complete lack of tact became a glaring weakness. When diplomats from the German emperor Otto I mistakenly addressed him as king of the Greeks, Nicephorus had them thrown into a dungeon, nearly plunging both empires into a war. Things went from bad to worse when ambassadors from the Bulgarian king Peter arrived in Constantinople asking for their traditional small tribute.* Asking incredulously if they thought he was a slave who needed to pay tribute to a “wretched” people, the emperor had them slapped rudely in the face and told them to go back to their boorish king. Tell him, Nicephorus said, that I will soon come in person to pay you the tribute you deserve.
The emperor immediately gathered his army, ignoring the frantic appeals from the Bulgarian king. Several fortresses along the Bulgarian frontier were stormed, but one look at the dense woods and twisting ravines of Bulgaria was enough to give Nicephorus second thoughts. Advancing into such territory was asking to be ambushed; there were other ways to punish the uppity Bulgarians without risking his own troops. Sending messengers armed with a copious amount of Byzantine gold to Russia, Nicephorus bribed the Russians to do his fighting for him.
The Viking prince of Kiev, Svyatoslav, eagerly led his shambling horde across the border, crushed the Bulgarian army, captured King Peter, and impaled twenty thousand of those who resisted for good measure. Unfortunately for the empire, this rather easy victory only whetted the Russian appetite, and the prince of Kiev was soon hungrily eyeing Byzantine territory. In his anger, Nicephorus had merely exchanged a weak neighbor for a strong, aggressive one; but by the time he realized what he had done, it was too late.
In any case, Nicephorus Phocas was now distracted by a quarrel with the church. He had been aware of its growing worldliness for some time (while marching on campaign through Byzantine lands, it was hard to miss the vast, uncultivated ecclesiastical estates) and numerous discussions with his best friend—a monk named Athanasius—convinced him that something needed to be done. Nicephorus had been annoyed at the patriarch ever since the man had refused to consider his request that soldiers who died fighting the Muslims should be considered martyrs, so, with his typical abruptness, the emperor promulgated several sweeping decrees.* The sprawling wealth of monastic houses had denied the state its due tax and corrupted the church for long enough. No longer would military veterans (or anyone else) be allowed to donate their land to huge ecclesiastical estates. The monks who had taken vows of poverty should live as their ancestors did in simple monasteries located in remote corners away from the hustle and bustle of busy life, not in sumptuous houses filled with breathtaking frescoes and surrounded by vineyards and fields tilled by serfs. The emperor sent his loyal friend Athanasius to Greece to endow a monastery on the slopes of Mount Athos, as an example of what a monastic community should be.† Then, as a final twist of the knife, he made it autonomous of the patriarch, answering directly to the throne.
With his domestic affairs thus put in order, the emperor left once again for the East in 968. This time his aim was to eliminate the Muslim power that kept trying to take over Armenia. Marching into the little Armenian town of Manzikert, he annihilated the Arab emirate and liberated the province. Turning south, he swept into Syria, easily taking the major cities of Emesa and Edessa, and in 969 managed to reconquer Antioch—the ancient capital of Syria and seat of one of the five great patriarchates of the Christian Church. Not since the reign of Heraclius had an emperor set foot in the city, and it’s fitting that Nicephorus—whose name meant “bringer of victory”—would be the one to recover it. Gazing south, he briefly considered marching on to the Holy City, Jerusalem, but the campaigning season was nearly over, and a famine was plaguing both Byzantine and Arab lands. After twelve years of unbroken success, he could afford to postpone the conquest of Jerusalem for another year. It would still be there with the spring, and surely he deserved a rest. Swinging his great army around, the emperor marched wearily—but triumphantly—to his capital.
Yet for all his victories, Nicephorus was increasingly unpopular at home. In addition to his naturally abrasive personality, his attacks on ecclesiastical wealth had alienated the church, while the crippling taxes he levied to pay for his unending wars had lost the support of everyone else. His hated brother, Leo, had already been caught trying to artificially increase the price of wheat during a famine, and it was now widely believed that he was plotting to murder Theophano’s young sons, Basil and Constantine. The emperor may not have been personally involved with these charges, but he took no action against his brother, further tarnishing his damaged reputation. Widely blamed for the rising cost of food and (rather unfairly) a poor harvest, Nicephorus became a virtual recluse. Alarmed by a prophecy that he would be killed in the Great Palace by one of his own citizens, he built a large wall separating it from the city, barricading himself inside. When he ventured out onto the streets at all, he had to brave torrents of abuse and even the occasional (poorly aimed) brick thrown at his head. Trying to reduce tensions, the emperor scheduled a mock battle inside the Hippodrome, but a rumor spread that he intended to slaughter the population, and the sight of drawn swords sparked a stampede, which left several hundred spectators crushed in its wake. Not surprisingly. Nicephorus escaped the oppressive climate of the capital at every opportunity, but this in turn earned him an enemy more formidable than any he had met on the battlefield.
His wife, Theophano, now twenty-eight and completely bored with an austere and absent husband, had fallen madly in love with his nephew John Tzimisces. The dazzling young general was everything that her husband wasn’t. Dashing and intelligent with blond hair and piercing blue eyes, he was gracious and charming, irresistible to women—especially the lonely, cloistered empress. When John fell out of favor and was relieved of his command, it was the work of a moment for Theophano to force her adoring husband to recall him to Constantinople. There, under the cover of darkness, the two lovers met in the empress’s wing of the palace and plotted one of the foulest murders in Byzantine history.
On a bitterly cold night, fifteen days before Christmas, the conspirators struck. Assassins slipped into the palace disguised as women and were hidden by Theophano in several unused rooms to wait for nightfall. Just before midnight, John arrived and was hauled over the walls in a basket, as a heavy snow began to fall. Drawing their swords, the assassins crept to the imperial bedchamber and burst into the room, only to discover the emperor’s bed empty. Thinking they had been betrayed, the group panicked, and several conspirators attempted to leap off an upper balcony into the sea below. Just as the rest were turning to flee, however, a traitorous eunuch pointed out the figure of the sleeping emperor. He was (as usual) stretched out on a leopard skin on the floor.
Rushing over, the conspirators began to kick Nicephorus awake, striking him in the face with a sword as he tried to rise. The confused emperor was sent sprawling backward into the icons surrounding his blankets, his face covered in blood. Trying unsteadily to gain his feet, he was hauled roughly from the floor and thrown in front of Tzimisces, who shouted abuse at the bleeding man and ripped out handfuls of his beard. Barely conscious, Nicephorus implored the Virgin Mary for mercy, but this only served to enrage his assailants further. Smashing his jaw with the handles of their swords, they knocked out his teeth, torturing him until John finally gave the order to dispatch him with a hammer.
After lopping off the head, the conspirators threw the rest of the battered corpse out of a window. While one of the assassins went running through the palace with the severed head to discourage any retaliation from the imperial guard, the rest spread out into the snowy streets shouting that the tyrant had been overthrown. John himself, meanwhile, headed to the imperial throne room and pulled on the purple boots reserved for the emperor. At the sight of him wearing the imperial regalia, whatever resistance was left collapsed. The imperial guards dropped their swords and knelt obediently, hailing Tzimisces as emperor of the Romans.
The next day, some manner of decorum was restored when Nicephorus’s headless corpse was quietly interred in the Church of the Holy Apostles. It was an ignominious end for a man who had served his empire so faithfully, but though few mourned him in the capital, posterity kept his name alive. His legend inspired generations of Byzantine and Bulgar poets, who celebrated his exploits in the epic poetry of the frontier. The church beatified him, and the monks of his monastery on Mount Athos continue to venerate him as their founder to this day.* Those who visited his tomb, tucked away in a quiet corner of the imperial mausoleum, could reflect that the great warrior emperor was summed up neatly with the wry inscription on his sarcophagus. Nicephorus Phocas, it proclaimed,YOU CONQUERED ALL BUT A WOMAN.
The lady in question made a show of being the grieving widow, but by now everyone knew how the emperor had died, and, in an unfortunate example of the vicious double standard in tenth-century Byzantium, blame for the entire sordid affair fell squarely on Theophano’s shoulders. The empress was by no means innocent, but she was hardly the femme fatale that popular opinion made her. Deeply in love with John and desperate to protect her son Basil II, she was profoundly shocked when her lover abruptly threw her out of the palace and had her shipped off to a lonely exile. The patriarch had made it quite clear to Tzimisces that if he wanted to be crowned, he must first get rid of the despised Theophano, and the ambitious young man was only too happy to comply.
Surprisingly enough, given the excessive brutality and illegality of his rise, John’s coronation was a calm affair, unsullied by riots or protests. This undoubtedly had something to do with his announcement that rioting would be punished with instant death, but most of the subdued capital was genuinely quite fond of their charismatic new emperor. He was already known for his generosity—a reputation he improved by distributing his vast fortune to the poor as a condition of his penance—and when he rather disingenuously executed two of his coconspirators for the murder of Nicephorus, most citizens considered the matter at rest.
There was something irresistible about John Tzimisces. Having learned the art of war at the feet of his uncle, he combined Nicephorus’s military prowess with an infectious conviviality that endeared him to everyone he met.* There was a new vitality in the air, a feeling that anything could be accomplished now that the disagreeable emperor was dead and a true statesman had taken his place. The only ones who seemed to object to the change on the Byzantine throne were the Phocas family, but they did so more out of a sense of duty than passion. Nicephorus’s nephew Bardas Phocas raised the obligatory standard of revolt, but it failed to attract wide support, and when Tzimisces’ best friend Bardas Sclerus showed up with an army, Phocas quietly accepted exile on a pleasant Aegean island.
While his subordinates mopped up any traces of resistance to his rule, the emperor busied himself by drilling an army to deal with the mess his predecessor had left in the Balkans. The Russians were increasingly arrogant and bellicose, making no secret of the fact that they intended to invade Byzantine territory. “Don’t trouble yourself with coming to us,” they informed Tzimisces when they heard of his preparations, “we will soon enough be at your gates.”
If it was war the Russians wanted, John I Tzimisces was only too happy to comply. Leading forty thousand troops on a lightning march, he surprised a Russian advance force near the Bulgarian capital of Preslav and wiped it out, then put the city under siege. After a few days of lobbing pots of Greek fire over the walls, the Byzantines smashed their way in, liberating the captured Bulgarian king.* The furious prince of Kiev mustered a huge army, but a few months later John managed to surprise it as well, leaving forty thousand dead on the blood-soaked field. The humiliated prince withdrew from Bulgarian territory a broken man, leaving the ravaged country for the last time.† It didn’t remain free for long. Bulgaria had been a constant thorn in the imperial side ever since the terrible Krum had seemingly appeared out of nowhere several generations before, and John intended to end the threat once and for all. After a year spent forcing its main cities to submit, the emperor formally annexed Bulgaria, extinguishing the dynasty of Krum. Western Bulgaria still clutched a fragile independence, governed by four sons of a local governor collectively calling themselves the Sons of the Count, but they were surrounded and weak, and John left them in place as he turned to pressing business in the East.
The empire would undoubtedly have been better served if Tzimisces had finished the conquest of Bulgaria, but the emperor was deeply troubled by reports from Syria. The Fatimids of Egypt, by far the most dangerous of the Muslim powers, had largely filled the power vacuum left by the collapsing Abbasid caliphate and were now threatening imperial territory. After easily defeating a Byzantine army sent to check them, they put Antioch under siege in the fall of 972, hoping to absorb all of Syria. Clearly, the time had come to turn the Byzantine sword against the Saracen.
Leaving the president of the Senate (the same Basil Lecapenus who had enabled Nicephonus II Phocas to seize power) in charge of the city, John I Tzimisces marched out of the Golden Gate at the head of his army at the start of 974. Riding a powerful white charger, resplendent in his finest armor, with his “Immortals” streaming out behind, the emperor embarked on one of the most impressive military campaigns in the empire’s long history.* Starting in the northern part of modern-day Iraq, he forced the panicked emir of Mosul to pay him a hefty tribute, reducing the second most powerful emirate to the status of a client state. Not bothering to conquer the now-defenseless Baghdad, Tzimisces turned south into Syria, where the Fatimid army besieging Antioch fled in terror at his approach. But John hadn’t raised his great army simply to watch his enemies momentarily retreat, and he surged down the Mediterranean coast. One by one the cities of Syria and Palestine fell. Baalbek, Beirut, and Damascus opened their gates, and the coastal cities of Tiberias, Acre, Caesarea, and Tripoli sent enormous tribute. No stronghold or fortress could resist the power of imperial arms—after three hundred years in abeyance, the Byzantine eagle had returned, and it wasn’t in a conciliatory mood. After triumphantly entering Nazareth, the city where Jesus had spent his childhood nearly a thousand years before, Tzimisces rode the short distance to Mount Tabor, climbing its slopes to visit the site of Christ’s transfiguration. Like Nicephorus Phocas before him, the emperor considered pressing on to Jerusalem but decided against it. His main aim had been to weaken the Fatimids, not to add territory to the empire. When the time came to restore the Holy City to Christian control, he would return, but that was a task for another day. Making the momentous decision to turn his victorious army around, Tzimisces made his luxurious way home.
Had the emperor extended his hand and returned Jerusalem to Orthodox control, he could have accomplished the great dream of the eastern Christians in Palestine. Instead, they would wait in vain for more than a century, while imperial power failed and the West launched the Crusades to restore the city to Christendom.
In the fall of 975, however, Byzantium still knew only triumph, and John I Tzimisces was content to haul the spoils of his campaign back to the capital, secure in the knowledge that he had made the empire stronger than it had been for nearly four centuries. On every side, its enemies were cowed and fleeing, and nothing seemed beyond the ambition of its grasp.*
The triumphant return to Constantinople was spoiled by only one thing. When the emperor inquired about who owned the vast lands he was passing through, mile after mile the answer was always the same—the chamberlain Basil Lecapenus. The easygoing Tzimisces hadn’t been as assiduous as his predecessors at restricting the growth of aristocratic land, but the excessive wealth infuriated him, and he made it known that the moment he arrived at the capital, he would conduct a full investigation. Determined not to let that happen, the terrified chamberlain did the only thing he could think of. Welcoming the emperor with every show of enthusiasm, he slipped some poison into his food. Within days, it had done its work. John I Tzimisces had joined the ranks of his uncle and Julian the Apostate—emperors with such promise who had been cut down in their prime. The Christians of the Holy Land were left feeling bitter and abandoned, and, far away in Cairo, the Fatimids breathed a sigh of relief. The great conqueror was dead.
*It would also have been quite an accomplishment, since she had given birth two days previously and was still in bed recovering.
*The tribute was used to defray the cost of a Byzantine princess at the Bulgarian court, enabling her to live in a manner befitting her station.
*The patriarch’s refusal was the seminal moment in Byzantine history when it rejected completely the idea of “holy warriors.” The West, of course, would come to a different conclusion during the Crusades.
†The monasteries of Mount Athos—the “Holy Mountain”—survive to this day, an island of the Byzantine world untouched by time or the ravages of modern development. Set on the stunningly beautiful Athonite peninsula, these twenty monasteries form an autonomous community—and they still fly the eagle flag of Byzantium.
*Descendants of his family can still be found living in Greece and southern Lebanon.
*Tzimisces was known for his ability with the bow and—if his primary biographer is to be believed—he would also frequently perform the impressive feat of vaulting himself over three horses to land in the saddle of the fourth.
*His gratitude at being rescued was presumably tempered somewhat when John personally seized the crown jewels and renamed the city Joannopolis, after himself.
†On his return trip, the Russian prince was ambushed by the Pechenegs and, like the unfortunate emperor Nicephorus I, had his head made into a drinking cup.
*The Immortals were an elite cavalry unit chosen for their bravery and skill. They continued to be the backbone of the Byzantine army until the reign of Alexius I, more than a century later.
*Tzimisces had given his niece in marriage to the western emperor Otto II, and in doing so had succeeded in uniting the ruling dynasties of both empires for the first time since Theodosius I in the fourth century. The idea of restoring a single, undivided empire suddenly didn’t seem quite so far-fetched.