Phokas (602–610)

Phokas (602–610)

Discontent with an unpopular military order initiated Phokas’s tumultuous reign. When the emperor Maurice’s brother Peter failed to retract the order to winter north of the Danube, the Danubian troops revolted, and Phokas, a kentarchos (centurion) of modest origin, was proclaimed exarch. After seizing Constantinople, Phokas was proclaimed emperor and his predecessor was executed. Maurice was not the only one to suffer. Initially popular with the senate, Phokas saw assassins and conspirators everywhere, and initiated a reign of terror in order to suppress dissent.

Phokas's rise to power was accompanied by an immediate end to the peace with Persia and victorious advance in the Balkans that Maurice had labored over for decades. The Persian king Chosroes II used the overthrow of his benefactor to invade the East in a series of campaigns that would see the fall of Byzantine Mesopotamia, Armenia, and parts of Anatolia in just a few years. A Persian army even marched as far as the shore opposite Constantinople. In the Balkans the Avars and Slavs occupied territory at will as the imperial forces abandoned the inhabitants to their own defences.

In religious matters Phokas, a staunch Chalcedonian, began persecuting Monophysites again, a move which caused violent outbursts in the east of the empire. The Chalcedonian patriarch of Antioch was murdered, an action for which the Nestorians incurred bloody reprisals. Later Phokas wrote to the pope, supporting his position as head of the Church over the other patriarchs, a move which briefly united Chalcedonians and Monophysites in opposition to the emperor. Under Phokas the rioting of the circus factions that had been endemic under Maurice became even worse. Phokas's bloody reprisals against all on whom suspicion of disloyalty fell resulted widespread disaffection and frequent revolt. The result was that after eight years on the throne the only supporter Phokas had left was the papacy. Eventually in 608 the exarch of Carthage revolted and sent his son Herakleios to Constantinople, where he took the capital and ordered Phokas beheaded.

The seals, and also the coins, of Phokas include a striking imperial image, evidently intended as a genuine portrait. He has shaggy hair and a short, pointed beard. This move away from the generic portrait of earlier emperors has been seen as an attempt by the usurper to identify himself with the imperial office. Another idiosyncracy: as on coins struck between 602 and 607, the reverse inscription begins with ON, rather than DN. Phokas preserved the image of the Mother of God holding the Christ child, in use since the reign of Tiberios II, on the reverse of his seals.

 
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