610: Phocas, “will you rule better?”

Add comment October 5th, 2014 Headsman

It was on this date in 610 that the Byzantine Emperor Phocas was overthrown and put to summary execution — by the very hand, legend says, of his successor Heraclius.*

Perhaps Byzantium’s most anathematized emperor — one Byzantine historian elided his whole 8-year reign because “speaking of suffering is itself suffering” — Phocas’s own rise to the purple owed itself to extrajudicial executions.

That gentleman was a mere army officer of no regal proximity during the previous emperor’s campaigns to ward off the incursions of the Slavs and Avars into the Balkans. While this campaign on the whole enjoyed its successes, Phocas enters the historical scene about 600 as the leader of a delegation sent from the legions to Constantinople to object when the cash-poor imperial court refused to pony up ransom money for comrade soldiers taken prisoner. Phocas was abused at court, and the Avars executed their hostages.

By 602 the policy of having the soldiery take it in the braccae (soldiers’ own allotments had also been pinched by the same budget strictures) blew back when the foul-tempered army was ordered to winter on the far side of the remote Danube. The government collapsed in the face of a military mutiny; Phocas was crowned emperor; and he executed the former emperor Maurice, plus Maurice’s six sons. Much as we are accustomed to think of the old Roman emperors ever on the edge of violent overthrow, this event was for its contemporaries a great novelty and a dangerous precedent. There had not been a regime change by coup d’etat in Constantinople since that city’s namesake set it up as his capital nearly three centuries before.

This fact is a small part of Phocas’s vile reputation for later historians. But — and we will come to this — that reputation is also heavily colored by the perspective of the regime that would eventually overthrow Phocas himself. For Phocas’s subjects, while he had subjects, he was very far form universally hated. He found particular favor with the church, delivering the gorgeous pagan Pantheon to the pontiffs for use as a church. When touring Rome, you might learn that the very last imperial monument in the Forum is the Column of Phocas.**


Erected in gratitude by the Exarch of Ravenna.

Phocas’s reign, however, was defined by war with the Persians. And it was in the time of Phocas that King Khosrau, who actually owed his throne to previous Roman support, started breaking through the weakened Byzantine frontiers and tearing off huge pieces of territory.

By the last years of Phocas the Persians had taken Upper Mesopotamia and Armenia, and begun pressing into Anatolia where resistance collapsed with frightful ease. A Persian raid reached as far as Chalcedon in 608. There’s just something about having an enemy army in the suburbs of your capital that tends to overwhelm the value of any goodwill you got from cozying up to the pope.

In that same year (and this was surely a factor in the Persians’ shocking penetration into Anatolia) the Exarch of Africa began a revolt against the former centurion wearing the purple. From his position he was able to cut off grain shipments to the capital from the empire’s breadbasket, Egypt, which put Phocas in a truly desperate position. This exarch’s name was Heraclius but it was the man’s son, also named Heraclius, who would do the usurping.

Approaching the capital in 610, the Heraclii were able to quickly gather allies. Even the Excubitors, Constantinople’s Praetorian Guards under the leadership here of Phocas’s own son-in-law, saw where the winds were blowing and deserted immediately.

The rebels took Constantinople without a fight, and two patricians seized Phocas and presented him to the new sovereign.

“Is this how you have ruled, wretch?”

To which Phocas sneered,

“And will you rule better?”

Heraclius wasn’t in in the mood to be upstaged by his doomed predecessor, and got the latter’s execution, together with his own immediate coronation, enacted straighaway.

his right arm was removed from the shoulder, as well as his head, his hand was impaled on a sword, and thus it was paraded along the Mese, starting from the Forum. His head was put on a pole, and thus it too was paraded around. The rest of the body was dragged along on the belly, and was brought in the direction of the Chalce of the Hippodrome … And about the ninth hour of the same Monday, heraclius was crowned emperor in the most holy Great Church by Sergius patriarch of Constantinople. And on the following day, Tuesday … the head of Leontius the syrian [the former finance minister] was brought in and burnt in the Hippodrome, along with the image of Phocas which during his lifetime, foolish men wearing white robes had conducted into the Hippodrome with lighted candles. (Chronicon Paschale, as quoted here)

As if in retort to Phocas’s dying taunt, Heraclius held power for 30 distinguished years — “the brightness of the meridian sun,” in the estimation of Gibbon, for “the honor of Rome and Heraclius was gloriously retrieved by the exploits and trophies of six adventurous campaigns” that rescued Byzantium from the brink of destruction, drove back the Persians, enlarged the empire, and even returned the True Cross to Jerusalem. Heraclius himself commanded the army in the field, a practice long out of fashion for emperors. “Since the days of Scipio and Hannibal, no bolder enterprise has been attempted than that which Heraclius achieved for the deliverance of the empire.”

Phocas’s reputation did not profit from the comparison, and for Heraclius the last guy made a convenient foil to whom every evil of the realm could be attributed. We know Phocas almost exclusively through the accounts of later historians dating to this period, which is undoubtedly a factor in the black name our principal enjoys all the way to the present. The excellent History of Byzantium podcast attempts a balanced portrait of this era in an episode aptly named “In Fairness to Phocas”. The subsequent episode, “Heraclius to the Rescue”, deals with Phocas’s unpleasant exit from the scene.

* The new emperor personally executing his rival had a Roman precedent.

** Other Phocas achievement: he re-introduced the beard onto the imperial fashion scene. His predecessors had almost universally gone for the clean-cut look.

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602: Emperor Maurice and all his heirs

Add comment November 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 602 (although some sources prefer November 23, but that’s close enough for ancient history) the 20-year reign of Byzantine Emperor Maurice came to a most unpleasant conclusion.

No gangster of love, Maurice made his bones (and other bones) as a military commander in a running war with the Sassanids unproductively engaged by the forgettable successors of Justinian.

So successful was the progress of his arms that Emperor Tiberius II Constantine married his daughter to Maurice and set him up as the official heir, a sage expedient considering that Roman commanders had once been known to take the succession into their own hands.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened to Maurice.

As a reward for his many victories in the field, Maurice got to take charge of a badly stumbling state: war both east and west (Maurice made peace with the Persians and brought the Slavs and Avars to heel in the Balkans), the intractable intra-Christian Monophysite controversy (Maurice extended a politic religious toleration), the bankruptcy of his state (Maurice cleaned up the reckless prodigality of his predecessors). For twenty years Maurice managed as well as anyone a very messy situation that in clumsier hands might easily have consumed the state entirely.

In the end this might be his legacy, for good and ill: a manager, not a visionary. Byzantium maybe doesn’t even survive without Maurice, but he was not fated to be familiar to posterity’s every schoolchild like Octavian Augustus — merely to lose his job to office politics.

Maurice, says Charles William Previte-Orton, “was a better judge of policy than of men.” And while the emperor “saw the dire need of economy,” he “forgot that the army did not” and so fatally disregarded “the ferment among the overtried soldiery.”

Maurice had already irritated his Dacian legions by refusing to pay an Avar ransom for their captured brethren — that fiscal rectitude thing, always a dangerous virtue to exercise in proximity to armed men. Now, he provocatively dialed back their pay and then tried to keep them beyond the frontier in Avar territory rather than retiring to home winter quarters.

The legions mutinied, thrusting a mere centurion named Phocas (or Phokas) to their fore. As Maurice commanded neither love nor fear in his home precincts, Constantinople itself yielded readily to the rebels while the enervated erstwhile emperor crossed the Bosphorus and there resigned to his fate not only himself but the several sons he had been designating to succeed him on thrones East and West. Gibbon:

Phocas made his public entry in a chariot drawn by four white horses: the revolt of the troops was rewarded by a lavish donative; and the new sovereign, after visiting the palace, beheld from his throne the games of the hippodrome. … The ministers of death were despatched to Chalcedon: they dragged the emperor from his sanctuary; and the five sons of Maurice were successively murdered before the eyes of their agonizing parent. At each stroke, which he felt in his heart, he found strength to rehearse a pious ejaculation: “Thou art just, O Lord! and thy judgments are righteous.” And such, in the last moments, was his rigid attachment to truth and justice, that he revealed to the soldiers the pious falsehood of a nurse who presented her own child in the place of a royal infant. The tragic scene was finally closed by the execution of the emperor himself, in the twentieth year of his reign, and the sixty-third of his age. The bodies of the father and his five sons were cast into the sea; their heads were exposed at Constantinople to the insults or pity of the multitude; and it was not till some signs of putrefaction had appeared, that Phocas connived at the private burial of these venerable remains. In that grave, the faults and errors of Maurice were kindly interred. His fate alone was remembered; and at the end of twenty years, in the recital of the history of Theophylact, the mournful tale was interrupted by the tears of the audience.

Maurice’s widow Constantina and his daughters were suffered to live, but only for a few years more: they too were eventually put to death for plotting. It was the perfect way to kick off a calamitous century for the Byzantines.

Phocas wore the purple from 602 to 610. Just guess how his term in office ended.

The History of Byzantium podcast covers Maurice’s rough go at the top in episode 34, 35, and 36.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Byzantine Empire,Execution,Gibbeted,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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