Emperor Phokas became the ruler of Constantinople and its empire in 602, after successfully leading a military revolt that overthrew Emperor Maurice (r. 582-602). Yet, not all of the empire’s military leaders had been on board with ousting the former emperor, and as a Phokas was a usurper and an outsider, the validity of his claim to the throne was not secure. This made it inevitable that there would be revolts among the various governors and generals scattered around Constantinople’s empire, as well as the appearance of rival claimants to the throne. Fortunately for Phokas, no clear challenger for his crown emerged during the first year of his rule, but mutinies and regional revolts did occur. Of these early rebels, the most preeminent was a general stationed in the east, named Narses (not to be confused with the earlier Narses who served Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565)).
During the reign of the previous emperor, Maurice, this Narses had played an intriguing role in orchestrating military aid to the vulnerable Persian king, Khosrow II (r. 590-628), who had been expelled by a conspiracy at the beginning of his reign. Through the help of Maurice and Narses, Khosrow II was able to regain his throne, and a working relationship was cultivated between Constantinople and Persia. Yet, when Phokas usurped power and had Emperor Maurice and his family executed, the age-old conflict between Constantinople (the Eastern Romans) and Persia was primed to renew. Narses, based then in Edessa, immediately refused to acknowledge Phokas’ claim to the throne, and he allegedly corresponded with his old acquaintance, Khosrow II, encouraging the Persians to attack the Empire of Constantinople. Whether or not an invitation from Narses was the cause, Khosrow II did indeed declare war against Emperor Phokas, igniting a long and devastating period of war between the emperors of Constantinople and Persia that would last from 602-628.
When Emperor Phokas learned of Narses’ rebellion, he tasked a general named Germanos to deal with the rebels at Edessa. The general, however, was not able to complete his mission. Before Germanos was able to reach Edessa, he found himself intercepted by a Persian army and was defeated in battle around the year 603. Germanos was injured during the fight and died of his wounds about eleven days later.
After Germanos’ death, Emperor Phokas depended on a man named Leontios to be the chief military officer in the fight against Persia and Narses. The new general evidently prioritized defeating Narses over defending against the Persian invasion. Leontios marched an army to Edessa and besieged the city. Meanwhile, Khosrow II and the Persians made their way unopposed to Constantinople’s fortress of Arxamoun, which was quickly captured. Leontios, in contrast, was having less luck than his Persian adversaries. Narses had managed to break free of Leontios’ siege and successfully fled from Edessa to a new position at Hierapolis. For Emperor Phokas, the loss of Arxamoun and the escape of Narses was too much to be forgiven—Leontios was allegedly arrested and imprisoned around 604. In his stead, Emperor Phokas’ brother, Domentziolos, was elevated to become the next leading general in charge of dealing with Persia and Narses.
Domentziolos, like Leontios, would prove unable to effectively counter the Persians, but he did have more progress on the Narses problem. Whereas Leontios tried to physically capture or kill the rebel, Domentziolos instead opted for a diplomatic approach. What exactly occurred during the negotiations is unknown, but Narses ultimately turned himself in. Perhaps he was expecting a pardon, or even reinstatement in Phokas’ military, as he was a talented general who could be useful in the dire war against Persia. Whatever the case, there would be no mercy and forgiveness in the general’s future. As was hinted in the title of this article, Narses was doomed to a fiery end. What happened next was described in the Chronographia of the chronicler, Theophanes (c. 750-818):
“Domentziolos gave Narses a pledge and persuaded him with many oaths that he would not suffer a single unjust act from Phokas, then sent him off free to Phokas. But Phokas did not keep his word; he burned Narses alive. Since Narses had caused the Persians such great fear that Persian children shivered when they heard his name, the Romans were greatly distressed at his death, but the Persians joyfully exulted” (Theophanes, Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6097 (604-605 CE)).
Such, then, was the fate of Narses. He was executed, allegedly by being burned to death, sometime between the years 604 and 605. Despite Narses’ death, Emperor Phokas’ troubles with rebellion were not over. In fact, Phokas would reap what he sowed, sharing a similar fate with his predecessor, Emperor Maurice. Phokas’ reign came to an end in 610, when he was defeated and executed by Heraclius, son of the exarch (or governor) of Carthage. Heraclius became the next emperor of Constantinople, ruling from 610 until 641.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Solidus of Phokas (r. 602–10), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.