Phokas (also known as Phocas) was a military officer in the employ of Emperor Maurice of Constantinople (r. 582-602). He was stationed in the Balkans, where Phokas became well-liked by the army grunts garrisoned there. This affection evidently derived from Phokas positioning himself as a champion of the common warrior, advocating for better working conditions and pay. Yet, although Phokas had the admiration of the average foot-soldier, he did not have much influence on the imperial military command. Instead, leadership figures such as the army in the Balkans’ lead general, Philippikos, saw Phokas as an agitator and a dangerous influence on the troops. While the work conditions and pay should have been addressed, the high officials were quite right to fear the charismatic activist, for when the unrest in the army escalated into mutiny and rebellion, Phokas became the leader of the revolt. With a sizable rebel army behind him, Phokas marched on Constantinople and successfully usurped power from Emperor Maurice in 602.
In the history of kingdoms and empires, overthrown monarchs too often meet unpleasant ends. Unfortunately for Emperor Maurice, he fell victim to that deadly trend, as did his family. When Phokas seized control of Constantinople and its empire, he was able to capture Emperor Maurice, his empress, Constantina, and at least eight of their children—five sons and three daughters. The women were put under house arrest, but Maurice and his male relatives were used to send a message. Phokas wanted the empire to undisputedly know that a new emperor was in power, and he did this by executing Maurice, his brother, and at least five of Maurice’s sons. Yet, death was not the end, as Phokas had the bodies deliberately mutilated. The heads of Maurice and his sons were put on display at a place called the Camp of the Tribunal—the headless bodies were reportedly dumped in the sea. The execution of Marice and his sons, as well as the public parading of their heads, was mentioned in the Chronographia of Theophanes (c. 750s-818), who wrote, “In November Phokas became Emperor. As we said before, the rebel killed Maurice and his five sons. He ordered their heads placed in the Camp of the Tribunal for a number of days. The inhabitants of the city went out to look at them until they began to stink” (Theophanes, Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6095 (602-603 CE)). Although Maurice’s wife and daughters were initially placed under house arrest, they were not ultimately spared by the usurper. Emperor Phokas had them, too, executed around 606 or 607.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Solidus coin from the reign of Emperor Phocas (r. 602–610), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
- Michael J. Decker. The Byzantine Art of War. Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing. 2013.