Roman Emperors Dir Nicephorus I
Nicephorus I A. D. 802-811
Sul Ross State University
Nicephorus I can be considered one of the Byzantine Empire's more controversial emperors, reigning in a period more turbulent than usual. Nicephorus' policies, which were aimed at strengthening the Byzantine State, were viewed extremely critically by Theophanes, the main chronicler for the period. Theophanes objected strongly to Nicephorus' tolerance towards the iconoclasts, his desire to make the church subordinate to the state once again, and his financial policies which affected the church. This would lead to Nicephorus having an unflattering and frequently unfair portrayal in the historical record of the time. Since Theophanes was the main chronicler working during this period, and the one whose work is the most intact, his viewpoint has tended to dominate the historical record, despite the more favorable, but fragmented accounts in the Chronicle of Monemvasia and the non-Byzantine sources such as Bar Hebraeus and Michael the Syrian. Additionally, the Chronicle of 811 offers a more grounded critique of his military abilities and his final campaign. Early modern historians such as Edward Gibbon, and even to a degree George Finley, accepted Theophanes' account at face value, leading to a rather negative view of Nicephorus. In the late nineteenth century Charles W. C. Oman, in his popular history of the Byzantine Empire and later in his history of the Dark Ages, gave one of the first balanced accounts of Nicephorus' reign. However, due to the vast span of history to be covered, Oman was only able to devote a few paragraphs to his reign. Beginning with J. B. Bury in his History of the Eastern Roman Empire, and Charles Diehl with his contribution to the original Cambridge Medieval History, other historians have re-examined the evidence and have discovered instead a farsighted, but flawed ruler who laid the foundation for the Byzantine Empire's prosperity in the Macedonian period.[]
Background and Early Career
The Empire in A. D. 802
The coup d'état against Irene
After his coronation Nicephorus met with Irene, who recognized Nicephorus as emperor. Nicephorus allowed Irene to stay in the Palace of Eleutherius in return for revealing where she had hidden most of the Imperial treasury. However, even though Irene had revealed the location of the treasury, she was too dangerous to be allowed free reign of the capital. According to some sources Irene was involved in a coup d'état attempt against Nicephorus and, because of this, was exiled to the island of Principo, where she became the Abbess of the Convent of the Mother of God, which she had founded some years earlier. She would live there until she died roughly a year later.[]
A. D. 802-811: Internal Affairs and Policy
At this time Byzantine control over Greece was limited to the coastal regions, mountainous areas and a few cities.[] During the reign of Irene the eunuch Stauracius conducted a raid through the hinterland of the Hellas theme and into the Peloponnese which overawed the local Slavic tribes; no attempt, however, to reconquer the area was undertaken until Nicephorus reign.[] Under the command of the strategos Sclerus of the Hellas theme the Byzantine army moved quickly into the interior of the peninsula, crushing what resistance there was and bringing the local tribes under Imperial control. By the end of the year, A. D. 805 Sclerus was able to communicate the re-conquest of the entire region to Nicephorus, who was quite naturally delighted at the ease of the expedition, but immediately set to work on how to keep the province in the empire s hands.[] Upon learning of communities within the empire who traced their heritage back to towns within the Peloponnese, Nicephorus began the process of resettling Greece with voluntary homesteaders.[]
However, despite the ease with which the strategos had taken the area, the Peloponnese still was not subdued. Shortly afterwards, between A. D. 805 and 807, the Slavs in the region near Patras, on the Northern Peloponnese, revolted and, with the aid of Moslem forces from North Africa, laid siege to the town. Though the revolt would be put down swiftly, the need for greater Imperial control over the area was evident.[] To cover this need Nicephorus created the Theme of the Peloponnese from the Theme of Hellas, as a new administrative unit for military and fiscal purposes.[] To help protect the area from the sea Nicephorus also created a naval theme out of the Archontate of Cephalonia, guarding not only the western approaches of Greece but also the Imperial holdings in Dalmatia and Venice. [] Later, around A. D. 809, two additional themes were created in the Balkans, Thessalonika and Dyrrhachium. Thessalonika was created to help protect Byzantine advances into the Balkans and to guard against Moslem raiders, while Dyrrhachium was to act as a shield against Frankish attempts to assume control over Imperial territories and against Moslem raiders from the North African states. The military forces of these themes would be based partially on land forces and partially upon naval forces.[]
Events of the next two years would distract Nicephorus and kept him from focusing solely on Greece. In addition to problems with the Arab Caliphate , Nicephorus also had to choose a new Patriarch upon the death of the very popular Patriarch Tarasios in early February 806. Nicephorus choice was a learned layman, also named Nicephorus, who represented a moderate wing of the church that was less likely to try to pursue policy counter to that of the emperor. Nicephorus ascension to the Patriarchate was challenged by the abbots Theodore and Plato, the leaders of the Studites. The Studites were members of the church who comprised the more hardline ecclesiastical position, and claimed that it was not proper for someone not in the clergy to rise so quickly. However, they were in the minority opinion and Emperor Nicephorus was able to secure the Patriarchal throne for his candidate. Later, when these two were involved in a dispute over a priest who had officiated at the second marriage of Constantine VI, Emperor Nicephorus took advantage of the situation to convene a synod to consider the case. The ruling from the synod was in favor of the priest and in the process he exiled the abbots.[]
Shortly after picking the new Patriarch, Nicephorus planned to lead an expedition into Bulgaria in 807. However, after Nicephorus discovered evidence of a high-level conspiracy involving senior military and political personnel, he turned the expedition back to Constantinople without reaching Bulgaria. There, Nicephorus was able to find the main conspirators and punished them by whipping, confiscating their property and exiling them.[] More serious was the mutiny of the army at Sardica when Nicephorus attempted to have the troops rebuild the city.[] The army, which was composed of the elite tagmata and the thematic army of Thrace, had not yet been paid and as a result protested strenuously at being ordered to do heavy labor and proceeded to mutiny against Nicephorus. Nicephorus stood his ground and was able to end the mutiny peacefully, but after identifying the principal mutineers had them exiled after being whipped and shorn.[] Both of these events show that dissatisfaction with Nicephorus policies was reaching high levels in the Imperial court and in the army.
Shortly after the mutiny at Sardica, during the years of 809-810, Nicephorus enacted possibly his most controversial edicts. Called the vexations by Theophanes, these edicts were concerned with military, economic and fiscal reform. Many of the edicts were actually aimed at reducing the corruption and essentially tax-dodging by the clergy and the upper class. Others focused upon increasing the military and civilian presence in the newly-reclaimed territories in Greece and Macedonia. The first vexation was a variation of Nicephorus earlier policy of voluntary transplanting of Byzantine citizens to the newly reoccupied lands of Greece. However, this time Nicephorus transferred soldiers and their families from the great themes of Anatolia to Greece and Macedonia. By effecting a population transfer on this scale, W. Treadgold estimates possibly 70,000 combined men, women and children were moved; Nicephorus was not only protecting his newly conquered territory militarily, but changing Greece from a primarily Slavic land back to Greek. This action is also seen by W. Kaegi as a means of removing potentially rebellious soldiers from the Asiatic themes by stationing them with different units, cutting down on the possibility of revolt[]
The second and ninth vexations are essentially aimed at increasing conscription among the thematic armies from the peasants who earlier would not have been able to afford the costs of equipment needed to join the armed forces. Now the costs were covered by the peasants wealthier neighbors. The ninth vexation was aimed at the naval themes, wherein the peasant farmers would owe service in the naval forces rather than the land forces. The other vexations are aimed at fiscal reform; vexation three increased taxes and provided for a new census of the Empire, while vexation four removed all previously extended remissions of taxes (in part or whole) from the books, forcing monasteries to pay their full amounts again, as well as through vexation five their back-taxes. Vexations six, seven and eight, which affected both rich and poor alike, respectively (in order) extended the scope of the Imperial inheritance tax and extended the length of time during which anyone who found treasure had to turn said treasure over to the fisc.[]
The final vexation seems to have been designed to help boost the native Byzantine merchant marine and stimulate commerce and trade. In this edict reputable ship-owning or shipbuilding firms were forced to accept loans of 12 lbs of gold at 16% from the state. In order for the firms to pay back the loan they would have to expand their trade, thus increasing the amount of revenue going into the Imperial fisc.[] These edicts were designed to strengthen the Byzantine state and, in the more immediate term, prepare the Empire for war against the Bulgarians. In the long run they helped to lay the foundation for the prosperity of the Macedonian period of the Byzantine Empire.
A. D. 802-811: Foreign Policy-Arab, Frankish and Bulgarian
Taking advantage of the Caliph s preoccupation with events in Khurasan,
Nicephorus spent part of the campaigning season of A. D. 805 rebuilding
and strengthening fortresses along the Arab-Byzantine border at Ancyra
[in Galatia], Andrasus and Thebasa. Nicephorus then followed
this up with a rapid series of raids into Cilicia. []
The response from the Caliphate was not long in coming. In response to
Nicephorus s activities the year before, in A. D. 806 Caliph Harun launched
a massive razzia into the Empire, taking Heraclea [Cappadocia] while his
subordinates raided through the region, taking several border fortresses
in the process, as far as Ancyra.[]
With an Arab army reputably 135,000 strong swarming over the Eastern frontier,
Nicephorus sued for peace and after protracted negotiations was able to
agree to terms with Caliph Harun. In the treaty Nicephorus
agreed to pay 30,000 nomismata immediately, and then pay the same amount
annually, of which 3 nomismata were a head tax for Nicephorus and 3 for
his son Stauracius. In addition,
Nicephorus pledged not to rebuild the border fortress that had been taken
by the Arabs during the razzia. In return Harun evacuated his
troops from Byzantine territory.[]
However, shortly after the Caliph s withdrawal Nicephorus quickly broke
the peace and began rebuilding the lost border fortresses, apparently never
sending the tribute again. In A. D. 807 the Caliph sent a force to raid
into Byzantine territory that was defeated at the Cilician Gates; a second
force withdrew inconclusively as the Caliph rebuilt and repopulated Tarsus
as a base to check any Imperial advance into Cilicia. A raid on the island
of Rhodes followed in A. D. 808, but the Admiral in charge of the raid
failed to take the town. The death of Caliph Harun in AD 809 relieved the
pressure on the Eastern front and enabled Nicephorus to focus his attention
on matters in the West.[]
~Relations with Charlemagne~
Charlemagne in return was willing to consider himself at peace with Nicephorus and the Byzantine Empire, while freely recognizing the Byzantine claims to Venice and Dalmatia, but still considered himself an Emperor. When Charlemagne s response made it to Nicephorus the next year, it was never replied to so that the Empire would not have to recognize Charlemagne as an emperor, which responding to the letter would have done tacitly.[] Three years later, in A. D. 806, the Dukes of Venice, which was still technically a Byzantine territory, sent a fleet to force the leaders of the Dalmatian ducates to follow Venetian policy and paid homage to Charlemagne. This put Venice and the Dalmatian ducates under the control of the Frankish Empire.[] Despite his preoccupation with events in the east at this time, Nicephorus would not stand idly by and let Imperial territory be lost in the west and so he sent the Fleet from the Theme of Cephalonia to retake Venice and the Dalmatian cities. Under its Admiral, Nicetas, the fleet quickly restored Byzantine control over the Dalmatian cities, prompting the Venetian Dukes to recant their allegiance to the Franks and restored the situation in the Adriatic to the former status quo.[] Later, in A. D. 809 or 810, to strengthen Byzantine control over the Dalmatian coast, Nicephorus made the Ducates of Dalmatia into the Archontate of Dalmatia, which had a larger number of troops allotted to them.[]
In A. D. 810 the Venetian Dukes changed sides yet again, submitting
to Charlemagne s son Pepin who then proceeded to take the city. However,
by late spring of A. D. 810 the fleet of the strategos of Cephalonia arrived
off Dalmatia, prompting Pepin to withdraw to the mainland, where he soon
died. A legate was dispatched first to Venice, where he deposed the turncoat
dukes, before continuing on to Aachen to negotiate peace with Charlemagne.[]
Charlemagne proved cordial and recognized Byzantine authority over Venice
and Dalmatia, while at the same time dispatching envoys of his own to negotiate
a permanent peace. Peace in the Adriatic would allow Nicephorus to focus
fully on the Bulgarian Kingdom.
~Relations with Bulgars~
Then, before Nicephorus could put a new expedition together, the Bulgar Khan Krum struck first. In A. D. 808 the Bulgars launched a surprise attack on the Byzantine Headquarters on the Strymon River, where the strategos was distributing the payroll for the Thematic soldiers. Taking the camp utterly by surprise, the Bulgars killed the Macedonian strategos, along with most of the men before stealing the payroll (1,100 lbs of gold) and the baggage. Shortly afterwards in early A. D. 809, the Bulgar Khan Krum marched an army to the town of Sardica and through treachery managed to take the town. Krum then killed almost all the soldiers, who numbered around 6,000 strong, along with a large number of townspeople, before withdrawing.[] Nicephorus quickly marshaled an army constructed out of the tagmata and the thematic army of Thrace and marched into Bulgaria, where he took the capital of Pliska, plundering and possibly burning it before returning to Sardica. There Nicephorus planned to have the army rebuild the city and its fortifications, but a mutiny among the tagmatic soldiers, partially over pay and in part due to being asked to take part in heavy labor, ended that plan. After returning to Constantinople, Nicephorus began planning a massive campaign against Bulgaria and began putting into motion policy changes (see above under Internal Affairs and Policy) to help effect a victory against the Bulgars.[]
A. D. 811: Campaign against the Bulgar Khan Krum and Death
Desperate, Krum reinforced his remaining armies by arming the Bulgarian
women and recruiting Avar and Slavic mercenaries. Despite these measures,
his army still was not large enough to challenge Nicephorus on even terms,
so instead Krum laid a trap for the Byzantine army in the mountains. On
their return march the Byzantine army was trapped in a small valley by
large wooden palisades erected by Krum s forces at either end. After two
days the Bulgars launched an assault on the emperor s camp, during which
Nicephorus was killed, leaving his remaining bodyguard, tagmatic troops
and Imperial dignitaries to flee the battlefield. Shortly after, the themes
joined the rush to escape as well, turning the battlefield into a rout.
The rout cost the Empire an immense number of soldiers from both the tagmata
and the thematic armies, along with a number of senior level commanders
and dignitaries. Nicephorus s son Stauracius,
suffering from a near-mortal wound to the spine, was evacuated to Adrianople,
where a struggle over the succession would develop. For the moment both
the Bulgarians and the Empire paused to regroup from their losses, but
the war was far from over.[]
However, in terms of foreign policy and military matters, Nicephorus does not have the best record. In simple terms Nicephorus was not a great general and frequently misgauged the mood of his troops, something that the many mutinies and put down rebellions of the reign can point towards. His attempts to push the Imperial border beyond the Tarsus and Anti-Tarsus mountains only provoked several retaliatory raids from the Abbasid Caliph. Even though these raids came to nothing and the Empire lost no territory, they caused considerable hardship for the borderlands and gained nothing in territory. His avoidance of a definite peace treaty with Charlemagne because of the appropriation of the title of Emperor for the west in part led to military skirmishes that possibly could have been avoided. And finally, the military campaigns against the Bulgars were to prove disastrous for Nicephorus, leading to his death, the destruction of a large portion of the armed forces and precipitating a succession crisis due to the injury of his son. However, his military setbacks would ultimately only have a short?term impact on the Empire, while the changes to the provincial administration, and the economic reforms he put into place, would make the State stronger and give later Emperors a sound foundation upon which to expand the Empire.
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[]. Bury 1-16; Christophilopoulou 201, see also n. 6; The Chronicle of 811 210-216; Diehl 27-48; Finlay 92?107; Gibbon 192; Oman 201?204; Theophanes. See also Charles W. C. Oman. The Dark Ages: 476-918. In Periods of European History. (London, UK: Rivingtons, 1893.) 478-81
[]. Bury has accepted the non-Byzantine accounts ( Bury 8), Treadgold accepted them provisionally depending on whether or not they were true ( Treadgold  127), whereas Niavis simply laid them out against Theophanes account for the reader to see (Niavis 40-41).
[]. Michael the Syrian 9 ; Theophanes A. M. 6283 (Turtledove accidently reverses who was proclaimed the new strategeos of the Armeniac Theme, it should be Alexios not Nikephoros); Treadgold (1988) 96
[]. The Opsician, Thracesian, Bucellarian and Anatolic themes. See E. W. Brooks, Arabic Lists of the Byzantine Themes, Journal of Hellenic Studies, 21 (1901), 67-77 for more information based on the Arabic sources.
[]. Anastos 92; Charanis (1950) 141?166, 148 (Charanis article includes a translation of a key excerpt from the Chronicle. The entire chronicle has been translated into french by Paul Lemerle in La Chronique improprement dite de Monemvasie: Le Contexte historique et legendaire, Revue des Etudes Byzantines 21 (1963), 5-49); Charanis (1946), 75?92, 80-82; Charanis (1970), 13-23; Niavis 79-80; For a careful and detailed summary of the issues relating to the Slavic penetration of Greece and the different historical approaches see Christophilopoulou 425-459.
[]. Please note that the dates for the establishment of these themes are not set in stone. See Christophilopoulou 355; Niavis 77; Treadgold (1988) 161 for varying interpretations and review of older material.
[]. Anastos 92-93; Charanis (1970) 32; Christophilopoulou 454, 457-458; Kaegi 258?59; Niavis 82?91; Toynbee 94-95; Treadgold (1988)162-63; Theophanes A. M. 6302 [All vexations with complete descriptions may be found in Theophanes A. M. 6302. See Christophilopoulou, Niavis and Treadgold for full and complete discussion of the vexations.]
[]. Bar Hebraeus 132; Brooks. (1900) 745-46; Bury 250 n 2; Christophilopoulou 211; Michael the Syrian 16; Niavis 212; Treadgold (1988)145; Theophanes A. M. 6298 [Note that both Bar Hebraeus and Michael the Syrian are both rather garbled in their accounts and seem to have reversed the roles of Nicephorus and Harun.]
[]. Bar Hebraeus 133-35; Brooks (1900) 746-47; Brooks (1894) 228; Bury 251; Christophilopoulou 211; Michael the Syrian 17-21; Niavis 212-13, 216-217; Treadgold (1988) 147-8; Theophanes A. M. 6298, 6299.
[]. Anastos 94; Bar Hebraeus 135-136; Bury 343-44; Christophilopoulou 213; The Chronicle of 811. 212-216; Michael the Syrian 17; Niavis 237-243; Shepard 235; Treadgold (1988) 171-172; Theophanes A. M. 6303.
[] . Anastos 94; Bar Hebraeus 135-136; Browning 29; Bury 344-45; Christophilopoulou 213-214; The Chronicle of 811. 210-212; Michael the Syrian 17; Niavis 237-243; Obolensky 490; Shepard 235; Treadgold (1988) 172-174; Theophanes A. M. 6303.
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