A Brief History
On December 23, 962, Christian forces under Byzantine commander Nikephoros II Phokas stormed into the city of Aleppo in the Levant, earning the future Byzantine Emperor the title “Pale Death of the Saracens.”
The Byzantine Empire, headquartered in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) was basically the Eastern half of the Roman Empire and lasted until it was replaced by the Muslim Ottoman Empire in 1453.
Nikephoros sacked Aleppo (currently the largest city in Syria and now wracked by a horrible civil war resulting in mass destruction and death in the city). Nikephoros took for himself 1400 mules and 2000 camels, as well as 390,000 silver dinars. (We do not know how much money that represents today, but we reckon it is a lot!) This success and other military triumphs resulted in Nikephoros’s ascension to the throne. The new Emperor continued to direct military campaigns, and the resultant expense of keeping his army well fed and well equipped cost so much money that cuts had to be made elsewhere.
As usual, when cuts in government spending are made there are people disaffected by their perception of being shorted. These included the Church, which was disallowed from establishing new monasteries (so as not to divert donations to those) and thus had its power curbed, as well as some otherwise powerful people, including the emperor’s wife.
The wife of Nikephoros and her lover masterminded a coup in which the 57-year-old Emperor was murdered in his bed, only 7 years after achieving the throne. The assassins had dressed as women to sneak into the palace, and when word of the plot reached Nikephoros, the subsequent search neglected his wife’s quarters, where of course the killers were hiding. In the manner of the day, the now dead Emperor was beheaded and his now crownless head was paraded around town on a spike.
Nikephoros left a legacy of military writings about tactics, both conventional for the time and also guerrilla tactics for fighting a war against a greatly superior foe. Not all appreciated the Emperor, and this description by Bishop Liutprand of the Orthodox Church remains as a reminder of that lack of respect:
“a monstrosity of a man, a pygmy, fat-headed and like a mole as to the smallness of his eyes; disgusting with his short, broad, thick, and half hoary beard; disgraced by a neck an inch long; very bristly through the length and thickness of his hair; in color an Ethiopian; one whom it would not be pleasant to meet in the middle of the night; with extensive belly, lean of loin, very long of hip considering his short stature, small of shank, proportionate as to his heels and feet; clad in a garment costly but too old, and foul-smelling and faded through age; shod with Sicyonian shoes; bold of tongue, a fox by nature, in perjury, and lying a Ulysses.”
Question for students (and subscribers): What is your opinion of Nikephoros as an emperor? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Burns, Ross. Aleppo: A History (Cities of the Ancient World). Routledge, 2016.
Mansel, Philip. Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City. I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2016.
The featured image in this article, an AV Solidus (now the Histamenon Nomisma) (4.42 gm, 6h) from 963-969 AD of Nikephoros II (at right) and his stepson Basil II, originally uploaded to English Wikipedia by Panairjdde from Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (http://www.cngcoins.com), is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.