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Phokas family

Author(s) : Krsmanović Bojana (11/28/2003)
Translation : Daskalaki Photini

For citation: Krsmanović Bojana, "Phokas family ",
Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World, Asia Minor
URL: <http://www.ehw.gr/l.aspx?id=10110>

Φωκάδες (2/15/2010 v.1) Phokas family  (2/21/2006 v.1) 

1. Generally about the origin of Phokas family

Phokas family was one of the most powerful families of Asia Minor’s aristocracy. They appear in the historical sources for the first time in the second half of the 9th century. For five generations they held the highest military and administrative ranks, while one of their members rose to the imperial throne. Most important of the many families with which they became related were the Maleinos and the Skleros families.

According to the legendary genealogy of the family, recorded (and possibly created) by Michael Attaleiates, historian of the 11th century, Phokas family descended from the Phabii, an old Roman aristocratic family.1 Their real origins, though, must be sought in Cappadocia, with which Phokas family was closely related both economically (because of their estates) and politicaly.2 Through the history of the Phokas lineage one can observe the process of the appearance of the great land owners and its consequences on the internal politics.

2. The rise of the family

The emergence and rise of Phokas family are dated back in the times of the Macedonian dynasty, as the first representatives of the family are mentioned in the sources during the times of Basil I. The first known Phokas was a common soldier, of humble origin, who was appointed tourmarches in 872, probably in the theme of Cappadocia.3 His son, Nikephoros Phokas (mentioned as the Old by modern researchers), had a long and successful career, thanks to which he reached the highest military positions , those of the general (strategos) and the domestic of the schools. Evidently, Nikephoros’ position in the military hierarchy gave his posterity the ability to rise to the highest classes of Byzantine society. Thus, his son Leo Phokas is first mentioned in the sources as a domestic of the schools already in 917, which means that his career must have started much earlier, while in the same period his other son, Bardas, was a general.4

3. Phokas family under Romanos I Lekapenos’ disfavor

In the first half of the 10th century, the rise of Phokas family was significantly slowed down. During the reign of Romanos I Lekapenos, the representatives of the third generation of Phokas family, the above mentioned Leo and Bardas, fell out of the emperor’s favor.

During the regency of empress Zoe (913-919), mother of under aged Constantine VII Porphyrogennitos (913-959), magistros and domestic of the schools Leo Phokas was one of the most distinguished personalities of the state and he was appointed with the supreme command in the war against Symeon’s Bulgarians. But the defeats of the byzantine army in 917, first in the battle of Anchialos and subsequently in the Katasirtes of Thrace, weakened both Leo Phokas and empress Zoe’s position. The military defeats accelerated Zoe’s fall and gave the opportunity to admiral (droungarios tou ploimou) Romanos Lekapenos to take the throne. As Leo Phokas was favoured by the empress (who considered marrying him),5 he was bound to come across Romanos and his supporters, who appeared as defenders of Constantine VII’s legal rights. In 919, Leo Phokas attempted to seize authority, but was defeated by Lekapenos and paid for his political ambition with the loss of his sight. After that, his traces are lost in the historical sources.

The political change of 919-920 also affected the career of Leo’s brother, Bardas Phokas, a personality who attributed greatly to the strengthening of the Phokas family. In the beginning he was not given high positions and honorific titles, but that was just a temporary phase of his career and by the end of Romanos I’s governing Bardas appears in the sources as a patrician with high position in the military.

4. The policy of establishing family relations

By the late 9th century or the beginnings of the 10th, the Phokas family had established relations by intermarriage with the Maleinos family, when Bardas Phokas married the daughter of Eudokios Maleinos, descendant of a family from Charsianon, older and wealthier than the Phokas family. Offspring to this marriage were Nikephoros, who would later become emperor, Leo and Constantine Phokas.

The family relation between the Phokas and the Maleinos families had versatile consequences. First of all, both families were financially strong. Secondly, this relation is also evident in the politics. Since that time, The Maleinoi loyally followed and supported the political aspirations of their relatives from Phokas family, in such an extent that the rise and fall of the two families were interrelated.

The Phokas and the Maleinos families became the core of the lineage that was developed around them with the addition of other, less eminent families. Among those, the Parsakoutenos family stands out, as its representatives participated for a period of time in the rebellions of the subsequent members of the Phokas family. Other than that, the Phokas family also established relations by intermarriage with the Skleros family, one of the most powerful families of Asia Minor, with which they had a conflict in the last decades of the 10th century, over the seizure of authority. They were also related by marriage to the Kourkouas family, through Bardas Phokas’ daughter, mother of the subsequently emperor John Tzimiskes.

5. The “golden era” of Phokas family

Romanos I’s fall in 944 was the beginning of Constantine VII’s reign (945-959). This political change was followed by a “golden era” for the Phokas family, which had played an important role in the reinstatement of the legitimate representative of the Macedonian dynasty to the throne. During Constantine VII and his son Romanos II’s reign (959-963), the Phokas family held, as if by right of succession, the highest military positions and they commanded the entirety of the Byzantine armed forces, mainly in the war against the Arabs on the eastern front.

Since the beginning of 945 and until 955, Bardas Phokas held the position of the domestic of the schools, while his first-born son, Nikephoros, was general of Anatolikon. Leo Phokas was appointed general of Cappadocia and Constantine Phokas general of Seleukeia. When in 955 Bardas Phokas retired from the position of the domestic of the schools (because of old age and his defeats by the Arabs), the Phokas family did not lose its influence: Nikephoros became domestic of the schools, while his brother Leo was promoted to general of Anatolikon (their younger brother, Constantine, had been captured by the Arabs two years earlier and died in prison). Nikephoros and Leo continued to command the armed forces during Romanos II’s reign. As domestic of the schools, Nikephoros reconquered Crete, which was under Arabian occupation, in 960-961, and in the following year he conquered Aleppo in Syria. Leo Phokas, domestic of the schools of the West, was distinguished in the wars against the Hungarians in the Balkans, while later (960) he repelled a major Arabian invasion in Andrasus.

6. The peak of Phokas family’s power

The high position of Phokas family in the military and social hierarchy during the previous decades gave a distinguished member of the family the opportunity to seize authority in 963.

After Romanos II’s death, magistros Nikephoros Phokas was pronounced emperor by his troops, under the pretext of protecting the rights of the under-aged emperors Basil and Constantine. Nikephoros Phokas’ aspirations were supported by the members of his family, as well as by other relatives, his nephew John Tzimiskes being one of them. The usurper also had the support of the empress Theophano, Romanos II’s widow, and of the patriarch of Constantinople, Polyeuktos. In the August of 963, Nikephoros Phokas was enthroned, married Theophano and assumed authority as protector of the under-aged successors to the throne.

During Nikephoros Phokas’ reign, the Phokas family rose rapidly to the top of the hierarchy of the court: the emperor’s father, Bardas, was awarded the title of caesar, while his brother, Leo Phokas was given the title of kuropalates and the high position of logothetes tou dromou. Also, Leo’s sons and other relatives of the Phokas family held important administrative and military positions in the provinces of the state.

Nikephoros II’s reign was the summit of the sovereignty of Phokas family. Nikephoros II’s murder (969, was the beginning of a new era for the family. Since then and until the end, the representatives of Phokas family, not wanting to compromise with their loss of authority, appear more and more often as rebels and conspirators.

7. The Phokas family as rebels

7.1. During John I Tzimiskes’ reign

The attempt of Phokas family to recover the throne brought its members into a conflict with the subsequent emperors, beginning with John I Tzimiskes, Nikephoros II’s murderer.

As soon as he resumed authority, Tzimiskes attempted to politically isolate the Phokas family, by sending its most important members in exile, an act that caused Bardas Phokas, son of Leo and nephew of the previous emperor, to rebel in the autumn of 970. As a result of the failure of the rebellion, which had been supported by his father and his older brother Nikephoros, Bardas was exiled, curopalates Leo and Nikephoros were blinded, and their property was confiscated. Even though, the family’s power was not significantly affected, as the subsequent events show.

7.2. During Basil II’s reign

The times of Basil II (976-1025) are generally characterized by numerous conflicts between representatives of the powerful aristocracy of Asia Minor.6 As soon as he resumed authority, the emperor had to encounter the rebellion of Bardas Skleros, a former associate of Tzimiskes and relative by marriage of the Phokas family (his brother had married Sophia, rebel Bardas Phokas’ sister). In order to repress the rebellion, in 978 Basil brought Bardas Phokas back from his exile and appointed him domestic of the schools of the East. Even though Phokas finally achieved to repress the rebellion, the emperor was trying to keep him away from the highest military positions. Unable to accept such a policy, the last powerful representative of the Phokas family became a rebel himself. In the August of 978, he was proclaimed emperor in Cappadocia, in the house of his relative Eustathios Maleinos. Many representatives of the old and powerful families of Asia Minor, such as the Maleinos family, the Melissenos family and others, were present in this proclamation. This rebellion, which was rather dangerous for Basil II, ended in the April of 989, when Bardas Phokas lost his life (under unusual circumstances) in Abydus, fighting against the imperial armed forces.

Despite the repression of their movement, the power of Phokas family remained significant even after 989, as it is evident by the fact that Basil II imposed harsh measures against the remaining members of the family, while he was keeping them away from public positions. When the emperor consolidated his authority, he began to apply even more strict policy to the powerful families of Asia Minor, attempting to limit their financial power. Accordingly, the Phokas and the Maleinos families are specifically mentioned in Basil II’s Novel (dated back to 996), through which the emperor declares against “dynatoi”, who had become wealthy by plundering lands from the farmers.7 The publication of the “novel” was followed by an almost complete confiscation of Phokas family’s lands. This way, without wealth, titles and positions (that would really give them authority), the social status of the Phokas family was lost.

A representative of the Phokas family did not compromise with that situation: Nikephoros Phokas, magistros Bardas Phokas’ son, rebelled in 1022 against Basil II, assisted by Nikephoros Xiphias, former general of the emperor. But Nikephoros fell victim of Xiphias’ ambitions and was murdered. His death marked the end of the conflicts between emperor Basil II and Phokas family.

8. The last mention of Phokas family

Phokas family’s last attempt to end their political isolation was made in the times of Constantine VIII’s reign (1025-1028), when Bardas, usurper Bardas Phokas’ grandson, was accused of conspiracy. After his blinding, there is no more information on the activity of Phokas family in the historical sources. It is assumed that the family ceased to exist during the first half of the 11th century, in any case before 1078.88 Its glory, though, was preserved in the memory of their subsequent, as it is evident by the words of Michael Attaleiates, who wrote that emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates was related to the Phokas family “whose glory spreads all over the land and the sea.”9

1. It is considered possible that Michael Attaleiates, in his attempt to promote as much as he could the prestige of emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates, who he admired, created the genealogy, according to which Nikephoros III descended from the renowned Phokas family, who in turn descended from the Phabii. See Bekker, I. (ed.), Michaelis Attaliotae Historia (CSHB, Bonn 1853), pp. 217-218, 229. There are many speculations about the origin of Phokas family: esp. Djurić, I., “Porodica Foka”, Zbornik Radova Vizantoloskog Instituta 17 (1976), pp. 216-222.

2. Grégoire, H., “La carrière du premier Nicéphore Phocas”, in Προσφορά εις Σίλπωνα Π. Κυριακίδην (Ελληνικά, Παράρτημα 4, Αθήνα 1953), p. 250; Djurić, I., “Porodica Foka”, Zbornik Radova Vizantoloskog Instituta 17 (1976), pp. 223-227. Cheynet, J.-C., “Les Phocas”, in Dagron, G. – Mihăescu, H. (ed.), Le traité sur la guérilla (De velitatione) de l’empereur Nicéphore Phocas (963-969) (Paris 1986), p. 290, considers possible that the origin of Phokas family may have been partially Georgian, which would explain why the name Bardas appears so often in their family.

3. Cheynet, J.-C., “Les Phocas”, in Dagron, G. – Mihăescu, H. (ed.), Le traité sur la guérilla (De velitatione) de l’empereur Nicéphore Phocas (963-969) (Paris 1986), p. 291, considers possible that certain stamps may be attributed to the first Phokas, indicating that he rose to the rank of protospatharios, and besides being a tourmarches, he also had other responsibilities.

4. Leo Phokas was presumably appointed domestic of the schools after 913, namely after the murder of domestikos Constantine Doukas, whose rebellion had been fomented by patriarch Nikolaos Mystikos. See Polemis, D., The Doukai. A Contribution to Byzantine Prosopography (London 1968), pp. 23-24.

5. See Djurić, I., “Porodica Foka”, Zbornik Radova Vizantoloskog Instituta 17 (1976), p. 243.

6. For details on the conflicts between Basil II and representatives of the Byzantine aristocracy, see Cheynet, J.-C., Pouvoir et contestations à Byzance 963-1210 (Byzantina Sorbonensia 9, Paris 1990), pp. 27-37.

7. Svoronos, N., “Remarques sur la tradition du texte de la novelle de Basile II concernant les puissants”, Zbornik Radova Vizantoloskog Instituta 8:2 (1964), pp. 427-434, assumes that the records concerning the Maleinos and the Phokas families in Basil II’s Novel were added after 1001, Svoronos, N., Les novelles des empereurs macédoniens concernant la terre et les stratiotes (Athènes 1994), pp. 190-191, 303a.

8. It is known that Romanos III Argyros, after a failed expedition in the East, took refuge in “Phokas’ house in Cappadocia”, thus it is assumed that it was Bardas Phokas, who had been blinded by Constantine VIII in 1026. Subsequently, certain persons with the last name Phokas are mentioned, but there is no evidence that they are members of the particular aristoctaric family. See Djurić, I., “Porodica Foka”, Zbornik Radova Vizantoloskog Instituta 17 (1976), pp. 290-291.

9. Bekker, I. (ed.), Michaelis Attaliotae Historia (CSHB, Bonn 1853), p. 217: «Ἡ μὲν οὖν τοῦ γένους αὐτοῦ ἀνωτάτω καὶ πρώτη σειρὰ ἐκ τῶν Φωκάδων ἐκείνων ὥρμηται, Φωκάδων ὧν κλέος εὐρὺ κατὰ πᾶσαν γῆν τε καὶ θάλασσαν».


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