Nicephoras Phocas’ Troops Storm Aleppo

“This day in 962 witnessed a decisive conquest in the long-running Arab-Byzantine Wars, when the Syrian city of Aleppo was stormed by Byzantine forces under the command of Nicephorus Phocas. It was the culmination of a fearsome campaign that signalled the resurgence of Byzantium after years of domination from its Arab counterpart.

Nicephorus Phocas, born into a noble Byzantine family around 912, was a brilliant general and military tactician who gained a considerable reputation for a series of significant victories. His father Bardas Phocas was also a revered general, as was his brother Leo, who was in charge of Byzantium’s western armies.

Nicephorus became the toast of Byzantium in 961 after leading a successful campaign to re-establish Byzantine rule on the island of Crete. Crete had been sacked by the Saracen hoards as early as 828, and was established as a Muslim Emirate. Nicephorus’ forces lay siege to the strategically important island, knowing that its recapture would strengthen Byzantine influence in the eastern Mediterranean. After playing a long waiting game, the Byzantine armies invaded the island’s capital Chandax (modern-day Heraklion), ultimately restoring Byzantine rule to the whole island and in the process cementing Nicephorus’ reputation as a fearsome and ruthless military leader.

Almost immediately after his heroic exploits in Crete, Nicephorus was redeployed on Byzantium’s eastern borders, in command of a vast and well-equipped army. He was tasked with recapturing cities in Asia-Minor and reducing Arab influence in the region. He captured the city state of Cilicia before marching into Syria, where he led his armies in a series of successful advances. His greatest victory came in December, as the Byzantines reached the city of Aleppo, which had fallen into Arab hands in 937. With a vastly superior force, he swept into the city, leaving the remains of the enemy’s army cowering in the citadel. The Byzantine troops ransacked the vanquished city, removing everything of value and leaving the Arab enemy beaten and humiliated. According to one historian’s account, the alleged battered tunic of St John the Baptist was among the spoils.

Only a year after the capture of Aleppo, Nicephorus Phocas’ stock rose even further when he became Emperor of the Byzantine Empire. Romanos II died suddenly in 963, perhaps the victim of a poisoning plot organised by his wife Theophano. He had stipulated that his sons should occupy the throne, but as the eldest was only five at the time of his death, a power vacuum was left that Nicephorus could fill. He courted favour with Theophano, and enjoying the support of the army was able to manoeuvre himself into a position of considerable power. He was crowned Emperor in August 963, with Theophano becoming his Queen.

Byzantium continued to flourish militarily under the rule of Nicephorus Phocas, but his leadership was destined to be short-lived. In 969, he fell victim to an assassination plot contrived by his wife and her lover, Nicephorus’ own nephew, John Tzimiskes.”