The epoch of Byzantine military resurgence from the mid tenth to the early eleventh centuries defined the climax of the Anatolian military aristocracy attaining mastery over the Byzantine state. The capstone of this consummation of power can be observed in the triumphant reigns of Nicephorus II Phocas, and John I Tzimiskes. Historian George Finlay dedicates a chapter of his History of the Byzantine Empire from 716 to 1057 to chronicle the feats of Nicephorus and John.
“Nicephorus proved an able emperor, and a faithful guardian of the young emperors; but his personal bearing was tinged with military severity, and his cold phlegmatic temper prevented his using the arts necessary to gain popularity either with the courtiers or the citizens. His conduct was moral, and he was sincerely religious; but he was too enlightened to confound the pretensions of the church with the truth of Christianity, and, consequently, in spite of his real piety, he was calumniated by the clergy as a hypocrite. Indeed, there was little probability that a strict military disciplinarian, who ascended the throne at the age of fifty-one, should prove a popular prince, when he succeeded a young and gay monarch like Romanus II.
“The standard of the coinage of the Eastern Empire, it must always be borne in mind, remained always the same until the taking of Constantinople by the Crusaders. The gold coins of Leo III and of Isaac II are of the same weight and purity; and the few emperors who disgraced their reigns by tampering with the currency have been branded with infamy. Perhaps there is no better proof of the high state of political civilization in Byzantine society.
“In the first year of his reign, Nicephorus endeavored to restrain the passion for founding monasteries that then reigned almost universally. Many converted their family residences into monastic buildings, in order to terminate their lives as monks, without changing their habits of life. The emperor prohibited the foundation of any new monasteries and hospitals, enacting that only those already in existence should be maintained; and he declared all testamentary donations of landed property in favor of the church void. He also excited the anger of the clergy, by forbidding any ecclesiastical election to be made until the candidate had received the imperial approbation. He was in the habit of leaving the wealthiest sees vacant, and either retained the revenues or compelled the new bishop to pay a large portion of his receipts annually into the imperial treasury.
“The high position occupied by the court of Kiev in the tenth century is also attested by the style with which it was addressed by the court of Constantinople. The golden bulls of the Roman emperor of the East, addressed to the prince of Russia, were ornamented with a pendent seal equal in size to a double solidus, like those addressed to the kings of France.
“With all his talents as a general, John does not appear to have possessed the same control over the general administration as Nicephorus; and many of the cities conquered by his predecessor, in which the majority of the inhabitants were Mohammedans, succeeded in throwing off the Byzantine yoke. Even Antioch declared itself independent. A great effort became necessary to regain the ground that had been lost; and, to make this, John Tzimiskes took the command of the Byzantine army in person in the year 974. He marched in one campaign from Mount Taurus to the banks of the Tigris, and from the banks of the Tigris back into Syria, as far as Mount Lebanon, carrying his victorious arms, according to the vaunting inaccuracy of the Byzantine geographical nomenclature, into Palestine.
*All excerpts have been taken from George Finlay’s History of the Byzantine Empire 717-1453, Quintessential Classics.
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