Tuesday, October 03, 2017

“Wretch! Is this the way you have governed the empire?” ~ The fall of Phocas the Tyrant, AD 610

The captured tyrant, Phocas, is delivered to Heraclius, AD 610.
On this date in late Roman history, the general Heraclius landed with his army a few miles outside the land walls of Constantinople. His mission—to topple the ghastly and corrupt regime of the usurper, Phocas.

For eight years, Phocas had mismanaged the empire’s affairs, having taken the crown in AD 602 after leading a successful soldiers’ rebellion against the Emperor Maurice. Now, with the frontiers collapsing and the people of Constantinople living in fear of the tyrant’s rapine tax collectors and murderous officials, Heraclius and his father, Heraclius the Elder, launched an insurrection from their base in Roman north Africa. It took their expedition two years to reach Constantinople, pacifying Egypt along the way.

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When the armies under Heraclius reached Constantinople on October 3, AD 610, the resistance of the forces loyal to Phocas was quickly suppressed. John of Nikiu, writing about 70 years later, picks up the narrative:
“When Phocas and Leontius the chamberlain became aware that they were sought with evil intent to slay them as they had slain the depraved Bonosus, the two arose and seized all the money that was in the imperial treasury which had been amassed by Maurice, and likewise that which had been amassed by (Phocas) himself from the Roman nobles whom he had put to death, and whose property he had confiscated, and likewise the money of Bonosus, and they cast it into the waves of the sea, and so thoroughly impoverished the Roman empire.” [page 177]
This spiteful act would cause much hardship in the coming years as Heraclius struggled to fight wars on two fronts with an empty treasury. But such an action was in keeping with the base, unscrupulous character of Phocas whose rule was marked by such avarice, lust and brutality that he was completely reviled even by the Green faction who had helped put him on the throne. According to the Chronicle of Theophanes, during the last year of his reign, the Greens mocked Phocas in the Hippodrome, chanting: “You are drunk again, and long ago lost your mind.” In response, Phocas set his soldiers upon them. The soldiers killed some, mutilated others and “hung their members in the sphendone” – the semi-circular end of the Hippodrome.

As a result of such atrocities, the people and nobility of Constantinople all nursed a grudge against Phocas which burst forth with the arrival of Heraclius. John of Nikiu continues:
“And thereupon, the senators and officers and soldiers went and seized Phocas, and took the imperial crown from his head, and (they seized) Leontius the chamberlain likewise, and conducted them in chains to Heraclius to the Church of S. Thomas the Apostle…”
At this point, a tradition exists that is not from any of the contemporary sources but is nonetheless recorded in every modern source. A dramatic scene unfolded aboard ship, as depicted in the image above. Looking with disgust upon the fallen tyrant, Heraclius rebuked him:
“Wretch! Is this the way you have governed the empire?”

Phocas replied: “And will you do better?” 
In a fury at this sarcastic response, Heraclius condemned Phocas and Leontius to immediate death:
“And they put both of them to death in his presence. And they cut off the privy parts of Phocas, and tore off his skin right down to his legs because of the dishonor and shame he had brought on the wife of [Photius] because she was consecrated to the service of God, for he had taken her by force and violated her, although she was of an illustrious family. And next, they took the bodies of Phocas and Leontius and Bonosus and they conveyed them to the city of Constantinople, and they burnt them with fire, and scattered the ashes of their bodies to the winds; for they were detested by all men.”
Thus the triumphant and tragic reign of Heraclius began with the bloody overthrow of a vicious tyrant. The execution of Phocas occurred on October 5, AD 610, and Heraclius himself was crowned emperor on the same day.

John of Nikiu’s Chronicle is an excellent source for this eventful period, particularly considering the paucity of primary sources for this era more generally. More details of this gruesome event may be found in the Chronicon Paschale and in Walter Kaegi’s superb scholarly biography, Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium.

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