A TYRANT ON THE THRONE: PHOCAS THE USURPER, AND THE COLLAPSE OF THE EASTERN FRONTIER.

Author:Konuk, Siiha
  1. Introduction

    The western-focused policy of Emperor Justinian left his successors in Italy and North Africa with remote, difficult-to-defend lands, and an exhausted economy on the verge of collapse. In addition, the first major plague outbreak in the Mediterranean region around 541 CE was another significant challenge that gnawed at the empire from the inside. The Byzantine Empire, which found itself by the late sixth century quite fatigued and weary, was in the hands of Maurice, the commander of the army, who was declared Caesar shortly before the death of Emperor Tiberius in 582. Maurice was originally from Cappadocia and was a skilful soldier as his own writings on warfare and strategy, called the Strategikon, give evidence. Maurice had over twenty years of military success (582-602), which included fierce struggles along the borders of the empire.

    Furthermore, Maurice ended a period of royal infertility from the time of Emperor Arcadius and baptized a male heir named Theodosius. He reformed the Byzantine administration in Africa and Italy, leaving these regions to a military governor called 'Exarchos' (Whitby 1988: 12). Throughout his rule, Maurice followed a successful military strategy against the Sasanians in the east that eventually established a level of military superiority over the Persian army, particularly by making use of the civil war in the region. He made an important agreement along the eastern frontier in 591 that made significant gains for Byzantium. By supporting Khusro II who was overthrown by a young commander named Bahram Chobin, Maurice gave assistance to the exiled Persian king to help him regain his throne. As part of this agreement in 591, Maurice gained the Arzanene region in the Upper Tigris, which was very important for the Sasanians. In the West, even if the situation was not as bright, the circumstances in Italy and the Balkans nevertheless proved advantageous in a few respects. While the Lombards were eliminated, the first wave of attacks from the Avars and Slavs in the Balkans were resisted with a measure of success. By the end of the Persian war in 591, the Byzantine forces increased at the border of Danube and the Avars and Slavs were forced to halt their advance.

    Although accounts of the success and the decline of Emperor Maurice seem to be highly contradictory, the process leading to his decline is clear. His aggressive military policy across the frontier was not cheap. Imperial finance and tax revenues were no longer able to handle the burden of his wars. Part of the explanation of this weak financial condition was how Maurice intended to pay a part of the soldiers' wages with various goods instead of money (Theophylact Simocatta: 7.1.8.). According to Mitchell's research, unlike the loot from the Persians on the border of Mesopotamia, there was no sign of looting in the Balkans and this was already an important source of discontentment within the army (Mitchell 2014: 608). Furthermore, Maurice ordered the troops in Thrace to organize a winter campaign in 602. As he recorded in his tactical handbook Strategikon, this winter raid was promising in terms of military success but offered limited loot and little prestige. (1) Roman soldiers began ignoring the orders of the emperor and they were increasingly showing signs of mutiny. Although the commander asked the emperor for permission to spend the winter back in their homeland, Maurice apparently insisted they press on and the commanders had to desperately continue the campaign. In the meantime, the frustrated soldiers discussed the issue for a few days and subsequently declared a man named Phocas as their new emperor, inaugurating him with the traditional shield ritual (Theophylact Simocatta: 8.7.1-7).

    While rumours of rebellion spread among the people, news also came to the capital. The emperor organized a horse race at the Hippodrome and tried to gain both the public's trust and the support of the two main Hippodrome factions called the Blues and the Greens. Meanwhile, Phocas and his soldiers gathered at Hebdomon, just outside the capital. The rebels contacted Theodosius, the emperor's son, and Germanus, Theodosius's father-in-law, and began negotiations. According to the request of the rebels, if Theodosius or Germanus would overthrow Maurice and succeed him, they would be prepared to legitimise him. But this created an additional tension point from the inside that had consequences for the rebels. Earlier, the rebels declared Phocas as their emperor, but when they came to the capital, they were in a sense offering the empire to Maurice's son Theodosius and his father-in-law Germanus. It is clear that there either existed a concern that Phocas himself could not get support from the capital or perhaps there was a lack of confidence in Phocas' leadership that had caused this situation. Thus, the rebels must have wanted to consider better options. Germanus accepted the rebels' offer and when Maurice heard this, he summoned Germanus and ordered him to kill himself. Germanus instead fled to his house on the street of Mese and then to the church of the Virgin Mary. At night Germanus regrouped and his armed men went to the Hagia Sophia. While a huge crowd gathered outside the church, the hippodrome factions joined the crowd and things began to get out of hand. Frightened, Maurice, in disguise with his family, fled to the church of St. Autonomus in the south of Propontis (Sea of Marmara). Then Maurice ordered his sons Theodosius and Constantinus to escape from the region and ask for help from the restored Persian king Khusro II (Theophylact Simocatta: 8.7.8-9.12).

    After Maurice' escape, it was unclear who the emperor would be, but the hostility of the Greens to Germanus was effective in determining the new emperor. A delegation from the Greens proclaimed Phocas as emperor on 25 November 602 in the Church of John the Baptist, Hebdomon (modern Bakirkoy). Two days later Maurice and his family were arrested and brought back to Chalcedon. A man, close to Phocas named Lilius, was given the task of executing Maurice and his sons. On November 27, in front of Maurice, first his sons were killed and then Maurice himself was decapitated. Before their bodies were thrown into the sea, their remains were shown to Phocas' soldiers and the people (Theophylact Simocatta: 8.9.13-12.12). Theodosius was the only family member who managed to escape this massacre. However, some sources record that he had returned to the church of Saint Autonomous and was allegedly killed by an officer named Alexander who was sent by Phocas (2) (Theophylact Simocatta: 8. 13.1-6).

    Nevertheless, after the bloody coup and massacre, as his father had hoped, rumours were spreading among the people that Theodosius had managed to escape to Khusro and took refuge in his palace. Even some Armenian and Syriac sources in the east have confirmed this information. Accordingly, Theodosius was welcomed with honour by Khusro, crowned by Nestorian Catholicos as the rightful Roman emperor and even given an army by Khusro under his command to invade the Roman Empire and take back his throne (Sebeos: 106, 110, Anon. Guidi, 10).

  2. On the sources

    The end of Theophylact Simocatta's narrative has led to some difficulties in understanding the events, particularly the events following the overthrow of Maurice. The absence of a Byzantine source, which might have included a detailed account of the events that followed Phocas and his rule, effectively interrupts the chronological narrative of the cities that fell one after the other on the eastern border. This is the most important reason why historians prefer the term 'approximate' when explaining the events during this period. Nevertheless, it is possible to compensate for this information gap, as it were, with available eastern sources. The first is a contemporary Syriac source called the Chronicle of Khuzistan, also known as the Guidi S Chronicle. This work, written by an anonymous Nestorian writer in the country of Persia within the seventh century, looks at events from the perspective of a Nestorian Christian living in Persia...

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