A Commoner Who Killed An Emperor, Became An Emperor and Was Killed By An Emperor

(Coin of Phocas, via Creative Commons and Classical Numismatic Group)




The Incredible Story of the Byzantine Emperor Phokas (Ruled 602-610)

When we usually think of ancient and medieval history, we rarely imagine that there was much social mobility. Historians and numerous historical sources support that bleak assumption. In those days, the nobility had almost unquestionable power and the development of serfdom kept commoners figuratively chained to the land for generations. That stereotypical view of the ancient and medieval world—though often accurate—was not always true. Sometimes, people could truly break the mold and live a unique life. One such person was a man named Phokas (or Phocas), who was born in the Byzantine Empire around 547. He was born a commoner and died an emperor—here is his story.

Likely growing up somewhere around modern Bulgaria, Phokas grew of age and joined the section of the Byzantine army stationed in the Balkans. He eventually found himself under the command of General Philippikos. Phokas, though a commoner, arose to the lower-ranking officer position of centurion, which made him responsible for anywhere from 80 to 100 other soldiers.

While he was under the command of General Philippikos, Phokas and his fellow soldiers were dissatisfied with the lives they lived on the Balkan front.  The Balkan army began to show signs of unrest, stemming from issues over wages and working conditions. Annoyance turned into grumbling, which became insubordination and finally, mutiny. Phokas found himself in a leadership position among the angry soldiers and he was reported to have voiced the complaints of the army to local officials—only to be humiliated via a slap to the face. Shortly after the slap, the Balkan army transitioned into a full rebellion. Phokas, previously a commoner and a centurion in charge of only 100 men, somehow found himself proclaimed an emperor by his comrades in the Balkan army. Phocas, with a brand new imperial title and a passionate military force behind him, moved toward Constantinople to challenge the then reigning Byzantine Emperor, Maurice.

The Balkan army was able to wrest Constantinople out from under Emperor Maurice, leaving Phokas as the emperor of the Byzantine Empire, while Maurice fled to a monastery. Though the former-emperor Maurice publicly abdicated his position of power, Rome never gained a reputation for benevolent politics. Emperor Phokas had all of Maurice’s male heirs, possibly 6 in total, rounded up along with Maurice, himself. Phokas and his supporters executed the former Emperor Maurice, but not before making the condemned man watch the execution of his own sons. The corpses were then decapitated—if they had not already been decapitated during the execution—and the heads were displayed as proof of Emperor Phokas’ power. The bodies were disgracefully tossed into the waters of the Bosphorus Strait. At this point, it probably will not surprise or shock you to know that Emperor Phocas has and will forever be remembered in history as a tyrant.


(Column of Phocas in Roman Forum (Photographed in 2005), via Creative Commons)


By 602, Phokas had transitioned from a lowborn centurion, to a rebel leader and finally to an emperor of the vast and wealthy Byzantine Empire. Though his emperorship was tyrannical, Phokas accomplished his fair share of goals for the empire. He was able to gain the friendship of Pope Gregory I and was able to nullify the threat of the powerful nomadic Avars, though this was done through the unstable means of bribery and tribute. Despite his gains, however, Emperor Phokas’ positives were outweighed by his negatives.


(Approximate borders of Byzantine and Persian Sassanid Empires in 600 CE, via Creative Commons (user Getoryk))


As the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and there were few powers more absolute in the 7th century than the Byzantine Empire. He persecuted his Jewish population and also tried to cleanse the empire of non-orthodox Christian sects. The Byzantine Empire’s eastern provinces were particularly enraged by Phokas’ mistreatment of the Monophysites (a Christian group that believed Jesus was only divine, and not at all human). The empire began to crack as more tensions were placed upon the realm. On top of the loss of face from paying tribute to the Avars, a Persian force invaded the Byzantine region of modern eastern Turkey. All of these pressures culminated in a general sense of unrest, which led to riots and mobs forming within many imperial cities.

By 608, the Byzantine Empire was thrown right back into rebellion; this time, it was Emperor Phokas who faced a challenger to his throne. The rebellion began in a North African province of the empire. For two years, the civil war raged, but events came to a climax in 610, when Heraclius, the son of the North African provincial governor, arrived in Constantinople.

With the empire in chaos, Heraclius was able to sway powerful officials and bureaucrats in the capital to his side, stripping Emperor Phokas of all power except the imaginary authority bestowed by his imperial title. Legend claims that Heraclius challenged Emperor Phokas with the words, “Is this how you have ruled, wretch?” To which, Phokas spat back, “And will you rule better?” After this outburst, in a moment of ironic karma, Heraclius executed and decapitated Emperor Phokas and proclaimed himself emperor.


(Colossus of Heraclius (photographed 2006), Creative Commons (User Marcok))


Though Emperor Phokas ruled for only 8 years, his reign remains one of the most unique in history. He was born a commoner and died an emperor. He won and lost his throne to rebellion and, interestingly, can be called a Byzantine emperor who killed, and was killed by, other Byzantine emperors.


Written by C. Keith Hansley


Sources and Links

  • Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
  • History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.
  • Michael J. Decker. The Byzantine Art of War. Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing. 2013.

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