Wednesday, December 4, 2019


Denis Sullivan, The Rise and Fall of Nikephoros II Phokas: Five Contemporary Texts in Annotated Translations. Byzantina Australiensia, 23. Leiden: Brill, 2018. Pp. viii, 252. ISBN 9789004382206. €153,00.

Reviewed by Brian McLaughlin, Royal Holloway, University of London (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

This volume provides annotated English translations, with facing Greek, of five texts related to the career of Nikephoros II Phokas, first as a military commander and later as emperor (r. 963-969). Phokas is an interesting figure, far from the popular stereotype of a Byzantine emperor: he was intensely militaristic, undiplomatic, and expressed his piety through a personal austerity bordering on asceticism. Phokas' death, however, conformed rather more closely with popular stereotype, since he was brutally murdered by a court conspiracy led by his nephew and his own wife. These five texts offer new perspectives on Phokas' life—and death—to a wider audience. They comprise three extracts from longer historical chronicles, an encomiastic epic poem, and an akolouthia or liturgical office for a new saint. The chronicles narrate the reigns of Nikephoros' two imperial predecessors, Constantine VII (r. 944-959) and his son Romanos II (r. 959- 963); all three break off before Phokas' own ascent to the throne. The poem tells of the Byzantine re-conquest of Crete, which Phokas led as domestikos ton scholon for Romanos II. The akolouthia was apparently composed soon after Phokas' death as part of an attempt to have the deceased emperor recognised as a martyr. All five texts have previously been edited and introductory notes for each are kept short, commenting on authorship, circumstances of composition and major themes, while providing comprehensive references to the more detailed studies. Annotations to the translations are similarly brief and concentrate on textual and interpretive matters, with the reader frequently referred to the bibliography for detail on historical issues. The Greek of each is a direct reproduction of a previously published edition whereas the translation itself reflects a somewhat revised text, with the corrected Greek given in footnotes to the translation. Since most modifications are minor, this is rarely obtrusive and, for the first of the five, Sullivan has himself gone back to the manuscript to resolve certain problems.

The first and longest text is the sixth book of Theophanes Continuatus. Although it terminates in 961 and provides the least information directly regarding Phokas, the many similarities of content and language with the other chronicles fully justify its inclusion. The second text consists of the final chapters of the revised chronicle of Symeon the Logothete. These initially cover much the same material as Continuatus, albeit in a more compressed fashion, but carry on the narrative until 963, terminating just as Phokas' army is about to proclaim him basileus. Symeon, during his revision of his work, also added a number of interpolations to earlier chapters (which are not included in the present volume) concerning Phokas' grandfather, also named Nikephoros, and clearly intended to redound to the greater glory of his grandson. These interpolations are collected into an appendix. The third text, the chronicle of Pseudo-Symeon, much more briefly covers the years 944-962. It is apparently derived from the same, unknown source as the two other chronicles but contains some unique additional details among the repetitions, such as details of the triumph awarded to Phokas for his victories on Crete.

The relative syntactic simplicity of the chronicles facilitates and deserves close translation. Sullivan's prose is correspondingly clear, fluent and faithful. It is a little unfair to niggle at such a consistently excellent translation, but Romanos II cavorting with his 'young mates' (p. 65, for ὁμηλίκων) struck an oddly colloquial note for this native of UK English and the phrase 'God-controlled empire' (p. 69, for θεοκυβερνήτου βασιλείας), rather than 'God-guided', seemed overly deterministic. The only—very minor—mistake I noticed was the transliteration of κλεισούρας as kleisourai (Byzantine military districts centred around passes, as stated in the glossary) on p. 71 when, in the context of fleeing Cretan Arabs seeking refuge, the chronicler surely intended the simple geographical sense of 'passes'. Most probably this was the result of an over-zealous search and replace at the editorial stage. The footnotes are clearly not intended to provide a full commentary but they are occasionally a bit too sparse for readers not already conversant with the period. Little information is provided regarding individuals, although their PmbZ1 numbers are listed in the glossary, along with a list of court titles and technical terms.

The fourth text, the Capture of Crete, conventionally known as De Crete capta, was composed by a deacon named Theodosios. He was probably attached to the court in Constantinople and wrote with the apparent intent of flattering Romanos II. Although Sullivan doggedly attempts to draw out what the text can tell us about the military operations on Crete, it was obviously not intended to report the actual events of the campaign in any but the loosest sense. Its chief historical value arguably lies in the attitudes revealed by Theodosios' portrayal of his patrons and the foe, themes which Sullivan highlights in his introduction. Theodosios celebrates both a decisive Byzantine victory and the concomitant slaughter of Cretan Muslims, men, women, and children alike; the tone throughout is of vengeful and bloodthirsty 'holy war'. Phokas naturally looms large in his role as commander and Theodosios' desperate efforts to shoehorn Romanos II into events—whether in the form of inspirational visions appearing to his soldiers or through a reprimand addressed to Phokas by a subordinate officer, for failing to praise his emperor sufficiently—suggest that there was considerable anxiety at court that the credit for victory would accrue to the commander rather than his sovereign. Consequently, it is hard not to smile at the embarrassment evident in the dedicatory proem, which indicates that Romanos died before the work could be presented and that it was therefore hastily rededicated to Phokas, even without removing the reprimand. Phokas, addressed as magistros, could not yet have been emperor but must have been an obvious contender at that time.

Sullivan is more interested in the historical than the literary value of the text and accordingly translates Theodosios' verse into prose. Although Theodosios repeatedly admonishes Homer for writing about deeds that he deems trivial compared to the campaign on Crete, he wisely declines to measure his own literary skills against those of his poetic predecessor. Sullivan's translation is once again clear and faithful, and the occasional awkward English phrase, such as 'ballistic fiery heat' (p. 149, p. 187), is generally a reflection of a similarly awkward Greek simile, in this case φλεγμονὰς πυρεκβόλους. Sullivan follows the suggestion of Panagiotakes' 1960 edition that Theodosios in a number of instances employed στρατηγοί or στρατηγέται to indicate common soldiers. This may be the case on a few occasions, particularly for στρατηγέτης, but sometimes I felt a looser interpretation as 'commanders' or 'officers', rather than restrictively as 'generals', produced a satisfactory meaning without supposing Theodosios could not distinguish a στρατηγός from a στρατιώτης.

The fifth text, the akolouthia for St Nikephoros Phokas, provides fascinating evidence for an organised attempt to elevate Phokas to sainthood. Frustratingly the author is unknown; Sullivan rejects the hypothesis that Theodosios was again the author and makes a persuasive case that a monastic, and maybe even an Athonite, origin is possible. The verses, more restrained than De Creta capta, are translated into elegant prose by Sullivan and, through the introduction and glossary, he helpfully outlines the complex structure of the office for those not conversant with liturgy. The text emphasises Phokas' pious life and death—through his asceticism, forgiveness of his murderers, and acceptance of his demise—and reports that his tomb exuded miracle-working myron, or holy oil. It also celebrates in passing his virtue as a warrior for his faith against Islam. Phokas' well known, but unsuccessful, attempt to persuade the Church to declare his fallen soldiers martyrs for the faith tends to be regarded as an unusual outlier in Byzantine history, where evidence for militant religious passion is quite weak when compared to the crusading outpourings of the Latin world. Yet this and the previous text suggest such attitudes were relatively common in the mid-tenth century, even if they did not develop substantially thereafter.

In summary, Sullivan has performed a valuable service for scholars of Byzantine history and literature by making these texts accessible to a wider audience. It is hard to shake the impression that the volume's title leads the reader to expect something slightly different than it actually delivers, since the five texts presented here do not offer a narrative or even an overview of Phokas' career. This is compounded by the absence of even a summarised biography of Phokas—while the volume is clearly intended for specialists, such an addition would have been welcome if only for reference purposes. It does, however, provide selective, fascinating insights into contemporary attitudes towards the Phokas family and towards Nikephoros himself. The three chronicles, moreover, are of obvious utility to anyone interested in tenth-century Byzantium and, researchers of Byzantine attitudes towards religious warfare will find much to ponder here as well. The book thus contrives both to fall short of and to exceed its promised subject, which is not a criticism of the author or the work but simply of the choice of title. The volume is handsomely presented and has been produced to a high standard; typographical errors are few and trivial. Sullivan's work is a welcome and deserving addition to the Byzantina Australiensia series.


1.   Prosopographie der mittelbyzantinischen Zeit Online. Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften. Nach Vorarbeiten F. Winkelmanns erstellt. 2013. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. Retrieved 10 Sep. 2019, from De Gruyter's preview.

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