Archive for the 'Nicephorus Phocas' Category

What did a cataphract look like?

CataphractThe backbone of the Byzantine army when it dominated the Mediterranean was the feared cataphract. But what exactly- as Joseph asks- was a cataphract? The short answer is the Byzantine version of the knight on horseback. The Roman term was clibanarii which somewhat hilariously translates as ‘furnace’- probably an apt description of what it felt like to wear the armor on a sunny day.

There were three protective layers to bake in. The first (peristhethidion) was a padded leather jacket with short sleeves (a pair of greaves covered the arms) and a padded skirt faced with mail or scales to protect the legs. Over that was the klivanion, a mailed covering of the chest and shoulders, complete with a metal helmet hung with mail to cover the face (excepting the eyes). The final layer was the epilorikion, a padded cotton or thickly-stitched silk surcoat which would identify rank or unit. The poor horse- who had to carry this weight- was also covered with an iron headpiece and a thick ox-hide or laminated felt draping.

The cataphract carried a small round shield and a relatively short spear (roughly 8 feet long). In addition to this they carried two swords- one slightly curved, the other straight and double-sided. Some also carried a short bow or various kinds of maces and axes.

For the Roman empire they were never more than a small, peripheral force. The late 4th century document Notitia Dignitatum which records the administrative organization of the imperial armies mentions that there were 9 units of heavily armored knights, which means that they made up roughly 15% of the field army.

They seem to have gradually faded from use (completely vanishing by the 7th century) until their sudden emergence as the preferred troops of the terrifying emperor Nicephorus Phocas. In fact, most of what we know about them comes from the military manual that the emperor himself wrote (Praecepta Militaria) around the year 965 AD. But their renaissance proved short. Nicephorus’ (eventual) successor Basil the Bulgar-Slayer seems not to have used them, largely replacing them with his newly created Varangian Guard. After the military disaster of Manzikert in 1071, the imperial armies were largely mercenary and far less formidable. With the brief exception of the army of Manuel Comnenus, the empire never fielded a significant land force again.

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What happened to the Bulgar Slayer’s novel?

Calling all writers of historical fiction…

The other day I dusted off my copy of Colleen McCullough’s magnificent The First Man in Rome, a novel of historical fiction about Julius Caesar’s rise to power.  That got me thinking- ‘considering that it lasted for a thousand years longer, where’s the historical fiction about the Byzantine Empire?’  Currently there isn’t a lot to choose from.  The best is Harry Turtledove’s (writing under the pseudonym Turteltaub) Justinian, a fictionalized account of Justinian II’s vengeful return to power.  Turtledove, who has a PHD in Byzantine studies, certainly picked an interesting subject- the late 7th century emperor was overthrown, had his nose cut off and was exiled to a distant part of the Black Sea.  Undeterred, he started off the 8th century by having an artificial nose made of gold, escaped his captors, and snuck back into Constantinople through an unguarded Aqueduct to claim the throne again.

Aside from a young adult fiction about Anna Comnena, the only other author currently fighting the good fight is George Leonardos who in 2004 started a series about the final dynasty of Byzantium.  That’s pretty slim pickings.  So let me offer some suggestions to anyone looking for a good story to write down.

Emperor Nicephorus Phocas.  His nickname was ‘The Pale Death of the Saracens’, he made Byzantium the most powerful empire of the Mediterranean, and he won nearly every battle he fought.  And then he fell in love with a devastatingly beautiful woman who betrayed him, and he lost it all.  Modern connection: relatives of his still live in Greece where multiple streets and at least one battleship are named in his honor.

General George Maniaches.  This towering 11th century general was a throwback to the glory days of Byzantium.  He commanded an army which included the legendary Norman adventurer William Iron-Arm and the Viking beserker Harald Hardrada (who would later invade England in 1066 and bring to a close the age of Viking invasions).  The only thing he couldn’t control was his temper- when a rival seduced his wife and then got him fired, he had the man suffocated by smearing dung in his mouth, ears, and eyes; he then routed the imperial army but was killed in a fluke accident before he reached Constantinople.  His death sealed the decline of Byzantine power in Italy.  Modern connection: Sicily has several fortresses and a town named after him.

Praetorian Prefect Anthemius.  This well-connected 3rd century Consul served two playboy emperors but was the real power behind the throne.  Dedicated and hard working, he had to face the terrible Attila the Hun, and probably saved the east by deflecting him toward Rome.  Modern connection: The impressive walls he built (the so-called ‘Theodosian Land Walls’) are the most visible secular reminders of Constantinople at the height of its power, and are rightly regarded as the most impressive defensive fortifications ever built.  Though his ultimate fate is unknown, (sic transit gloria) for his efforts Anthemius has been called the ‘second founder of Constantinople’.

Princess Melissena.  Riches to Rags… to riches?  This mid-9th century princess was unbelievably well-connected, both to the hoi polloi of Byzantium and to foreign rulers like the Han Dynasty of China.  In her time she was the most eligible bachelorette on the international stage.  Unfortunately for her, it all came crashing down.  Her grandfather abdicated, her father was castrated, and she was married off to a Viking member of the imperial guard.  She travelled throughout western Europe on her way to her husband’s home, making a big impression especially in the courts of France.  Modern Connection: She is possibly the inspiration for the Starbucks logo (http://bit.ly/db2pPa)

The list could go on for quite some time: Anthemius the architect of the Hagia Sophia, Basil the Macedonian- the ultimate rags to riches story, Empress Theophano- the femme fatale of Nicephorus Phocas, etc.  The beauty of all of these is that they lived during the Byzantine ‘dark age’ which means it would be easy to remain faithful to the source material while having plenty of room to maneuver.  Best of all, the main story arc is already written- all you have to do is provide the details.  Anyone out there brave enough to take up the gauntlet?

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Secrets from the Stacks

Jan 03 2013 Published by under Byzantine,Emperor,Nicephorus Phocas,Stacks,Theophano

Today I happened upon a copy of the Synopsis of Histories, an 11th century chronicle by the monk John Skylitzes.  In it was the full inscription that the bishop of Melitene wrote on the sarcophagus of the great warrior-emperor Nicephorus Phocas.  (Usually only the final line is given- a reference to Phocas’ wife Theophano who betrayed him)  It’s quite a beautiful little poem, and judging from the end, was probably placed there several decades after the emperor’s grisly murder.

There is a nice symmetry to the poem.  It begins and ends with betrayal; in between it’s a kind of Byzantine Ozymandius- a wistful musing about greatness and the inevitable fate of man.  Most striking to me is when the tone changes to one of agonized pleading; begging the great emperor to either rise from the dead or make room in his grave.  It’s well worth the read.  I give it here in its entirety:

“Who once sliced men more sharply than the sword

Is the victim of a woman and a glaive.

Who once retained the whole world in his power

Now small, is housed in but a yard of earth.

Whom once it seemed by wild beasts was revered

His wife has slain as though he were a sheep.

Who chose to sleep but little in the night

Now sleeps the lasting slumber of the tomb.

A bitter sight; good ruler, rouse yourself!

Take footmen, horsemen, archers to the fight,

The regiments and units of your host

For Russians, fully armed, assail our ports,

The scythes are anxious to be slaughtering

While every people does your city harm

Who once was frightened by your graven face

Before the gates of your Byzantium.

Do not ignore these things; cast off the stone

Which now detains you here and stone the beasts,

Repel the gentiles; give us built in stone

A firm foundation, solid and secure.

Or if you would not leave your tomb a while,

At least cry out from earth against the foe

For that alone might scatter them in flight.

If not, make room for us there in your tomb

For death, as you well know, is safety and

Salvation for th’entire Christian folk,

Nicephorus, who vanquished all but Eve.”

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