This article was first published in the December 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
It was dark in Constantinople when Nikephoros Phokas, emperor of the Romans, retired to bed. For months the squat, heavy-featured emperor had been preoccupied by portents of death; to his advisors, he seemed gloomy, morbid and increasingly obsessed by religious literature.
Only a few months earlier, an unknown monk had handed Nikephoros a mysterious message: “O emperor, although I am but a worm upon the earth, it has been revealed to me that in the third month after this coming September you shall die.” Not surprisingly, the warning played on Nikephoros’s mind. Perhaps, even as he lay down to sleep on his panther-skin in a corner of his imperial bedchamber, wrapped in his hair shirt, a selection of icons only a few feet away, he remembered its threatening words.
Nikephoros’s stewardship of the Roman empire – the state we call Byzantium – had been a triumph. For six years this ascetic man had waged war against the Arabs and the Bulgars, earning the nickname ‘the White Death of the Saracens’. The empire had recovered from its early-medieval decline, and as a soldier since his teenage years, Nikephoros ensured that his armies wanted for nothing.
Yet not even his friends would have claimed that Nikephoros was a charming man. The emperor was “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,” wrote a visiting bishop, Liudprand of Cremona. All in all, Nikephoros was “one whom it would not be pleasant to meet in the middle of the night”.
Sometimes, looks do matter. Six years earlier, this grim military veteran had taken power by marrying the previous emperor’s widow, Theophano, a young woman of humble origins but great beauty. Theirs was no love match: Theophano had little time for her bristly husband, while, perhaps fortunately for her, he had sworn a vow of chastity. At 28, she was not yet ready to give up on her sex life, and her eye fell on Nikephoros’s nephew, the handsome John Tzimiskes. As luck would have it, John had recently fallen out with his uncle. And when Theophano suggested that he might make a rather better emperor himself, he jumped at the chance.
On the afternoon of 10 December, as snow fell across Constantinople, John’s men slipped into the imperial palace, disguised as women, swords hidden beneath their robes. One of Nikephoros’s agents warned him that there were rumours of a conspiracy, but when he sent his chamberlain to investigate, the latter had nothing to report. As it turned out, he was in on the plot, too. Even as Nikephoros was falling asleep, his nephew was crossing the Bosphorus in a rickety boat, braving the high winds and foaming waves. And at about 11 that night, John gave a low whistle outside the empress’s apartments, and his friends lowered the rope they had brought.
Even as the conspirators crept into his bedroom, Nikephoros slept on. He only woke at the first blow, which caught him across the head. Blood pouring down his face, he screamed to the Virgin Mary for help, but the plotters dragged him towards the bed, where John Tzimiskes was casually reclining. “Tell me, most senseless and malicious tyrant, was it not through my actions that you attained the heights of Roman power?” one chronicler records John saying. “How therefore did you pay no regard to such a good service? How, blinded by malice and madness, did you thus not hesitate to remove me, your helper, from command of the army?”
That John actually said anything quite so elaborate seems a bit unlikely. But there is no doubt what happened next. The conspirators took turns hitting and kicking the prostate emperor, ripping out his hair and beard, breaking his jaw, smashing in his teeth with their scabbards. Finally, one of them administered the coup de grace.
Poor Nikephoros’s head was hacked from his body and paraded in the streets on a spike. Thrown from the window, his torso was eventually buried at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, alongside those of other great Byzantine rulers, from Constantine and Theodosius to Justinian and Theodora. On the side was an inscription. “You conquered all,” it read, “except a woman.”
Dominic Sandbrook’s latest book is State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970–1974 (Allen Lane). He is a frequent guest on Radio 4’s Saturday Review.