December 11, 2019

The Veneration of Emperor Nikephoros Phokas on the Island of Crete and His Cross in Cortona, Italy

Nikephoros II Phokas was Roman Emperor from 963 to 969. His brilliant military exploits contributed to the resurgence of the Roman Empire during the tenth century. His administrative policy was less successful, as in order to finance these wars he increased taxes both on the people and on the Church, while maintaining unpopular positions and alienating many of his most powerful allies. These included his nephew John Tzimiskes, who would take the throne after killing Nikephoros in his sleep on 11 December 969.

Nikephoros joined the army at an early age. He was appointed the military governor of the Anatolikon Theme in 945 under Emperor Constantine VII. In 954 or 955, Nikephoros replaced his father, Bardas Phokas, as Domestic of the Schools, who consistently and disastrously lost battle after battle both to the Hamdanids and to the Abbasids, essentially taking charge of the eastern Roman army. From 955, the Hamdanids in Aleppo entered a period of unbroken decline until their destruction in 1002. In June 957 Nikephoros managed to capture and destroy Hadath. The Romans would continue to push their advantage against the Arabs until the collapse of the Hamdanids, however, from 960-961, the army turned its focus to the reconquest of Crete.

The fall of Crete at the hands of the Arabs was a matter of paramount importance, since it essentially changed the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean. The Arab invasions in the area put at risk not only the sovereignty but also the Roman presence itself on the Aegean islands and coasts. The Roman state, realizing the seriousness of the situation, repeatedly attempted to recapture the island from the Arabs. Four major campaigns were organized for this purpose, 829, 843, 911 (or 912) and 949 (or 956) and others of lesser importance, but all of them ended up failing and at great cost to the Roman army.

From the ascension of Emperor Romanos II in 959, Nikephoros and his younger brother Leo Phokas were placed in charge of the eastern and western field armies respectively. In 960, 27,000 oarsmen and marines were assembled to man a fleet of 308 ships carrying 50,000 troops. At the recommendation of the influential minister Joseph Bringas, Nikephoros was entrusted to lead this expedition against the Muslim Emirate of Crete. Nikephoros successfully led his fleet to the island and defeated a minor Arab force upon disembarkation near Almyros. He soon began a nine-month siege of the fortress town of Chandax. Following a failed assault and many raids into the countryside, Nikephoros entered Chandax on 6 March 961 and soon wrested control of the entire island from the Muslim Arabs.

Statue of Nikephoros Phokas in Prophet Elias

In Constantinople Nikephoros was met as a victor at the Hippodrome. The Roman general and his soldiers marched in front of the emperor; followed by Emir Abdal-Aziz, the son of Anemas, all the members of his family and his relatives, the other Saracen rulers, the endless array of spoils. Romanos bestowed upon Nikephoros great gifts and honors.

The re-occupation of Crete by Nikephoros Phokas in 961 is undoubtedly the most important event in the reign of Romanos II and one of the most significant successes of the Romans against the Arabs in the second half of the tenth century.

Leo the Deacon narrates in his work History, the richest source of the 960/1 events about Crete, this battle with a few more interesting details. After Nikephoros Phokas divided the army into three parts, thickening the formation, he ordered the True Cross to lead the army, then after a war cry they attacked the enemy. This portion of the True Cross that led the Roman army to recapture Crete has survived, and today rests in the Church of San Francesco in Cortona, Italy.

When Nikephoros became emperor, in thanksgiving to God for his victory over the Arabs in Crete, he gave thanks to God by offering the True Cross that was carried in the battle to the Church of Hagia Sophia. The keeper of the treasures of Hagia Sophia, Stephen, had this relic brought to the Monastery of Saint Euphemia also in Constantinople. In 1243 Baldwin II, the last Latin Emperor of Constantinople (1228-1261), gave it as a gift to the Franciscan Friar Elias Coppi of Cortona, a close disciple of Saint Francis of Assisi. Friar Elias was sent by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1220-1250) on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople with the aim of contributing to the peace negotiations between Baldwin II the Latin Emperor of Constantinople and John II Vatatzes the Roman Emperor of Nicaea. A year later, in 1244, Friar Elias brought the True Cross of Nikephoros Phokas to Cortona in Italy and placed it behind the altar of the Church of San Francesco, where it can still be seen today.

In Crete today Emperor Nikephoros Phokas is still honored with celebrations on his feast day, which is December 11th. Locations are also associated with Nikephoros Phokas, such as the village of Kalonychtis, meaning "Good Night", which was named after the victorious army of the Roman general rested the night there. At Prophet Elias he also built a fortress called Temenos for the protection of Heraklion. It was one of the largest fortresses in the east of the time. In the center of Prophet Elias a statue of Nikephoros Phokas was inaugurated by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on June 15, 2002.

One of the greatest contributions of Nikephoros Phokas for the island of Crete was that he had the island placed under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, since previously it had been under the Pope of Rome. This allowed for the island to be Orthodox following the Great Schism a century later instead of Roman Catholic. Furthermore, after he conquered the island, holy missionaries established the island in its Orthodoxy, such as Saint John the Stranger and Saint Nikon Metanoete. In the historic Church of Saint Nektarios in Chania there is beautiful icon depicting the arrival of Nikephoros to the island of Crete along with the holy missionaries that followed. His icon is also found in the Church of Saint Titus in Heraklion, since Nikephoros Phokas built this church after his victory.

Nikephoros Phokas was a holy figure. Under his imperial garments, he wore a monastic schema. He was an ascetic who slept on the ground. When he was younger he wanted to become a monk under the spiritual guidance of Saint Athanasios the Athonite, but politics eventually won him over. When he liberated Crete, he sent to Saint Athanasios a part of the spoils he received from the Arabs for the founding of the Monastery of the Great Lavra, the first historical monastery of Mount Athos. He also sent him two castle doors of Chandax which are still used today. According to historians, when he was murdered in his sleep, he died praying to the Mother of God. His veneration as a saint came early, judging from an old Divine Office dedicated to him among the manuscripts of Mount Athos. The current Metropolitan Kyrillos of Rhodes has also composed a service in his honor.

Front and back of the True Cross