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Nicephorus Phocas was born on December 10/11 912 in Cappadocia, the son of Bardas Phocas, an important Byzantine general in Anatolia, on the borders of the empire. He quickly embraced a military career of arms and as a young patrician distinguished himself at his father's side in a war against the Hamdanid Arabs in the East. In 954-955 the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus named him commander in chief of the armies of the East, to replace the aging Bardas. Nicephorus proceeded to restructure the army to reinforce discipline and improve recruiting. At this point he probably wrote the treatises on military tactics that are attributed to him, although proof is lacking.
The emperor Romanus II named him commander of a wartime expedition to liberate Crete (which had been controlled by the Arabs ever since 826), at great cost to Aegean populations and international commerce. This enterprise mobilized the entire Byzantine fleet and close to 24,000 men. Nicephorus gained the island with the capture of Chandax, now Iráklion, on March 7, 961. In a general massacre, the inhumanity of which revealed his fierce nature, he broke all Arab resistance. Aided by the monks, among whom was Athanasius, his spiritual director and founder of the Greek Orthodox monastery on Mt. Athos, Nicephorus achieved the reconsolidation of Christianity. He then returned to Constantinople with 'Abd al-'Aziz, the last amir of Crete, as his captive. This exploit, sung by the poet Theodosius the Deacon, realized the Byzantine dream (after dozens had failed to liberate Crete) of imperial mastery of the eastern Mediterranean. Later, as emperor, Nicephorus could state proudly that he controlled the seas. By that time, however, he had recovered Cilicia and the island of Cyprus and had captured other Muslim naval bases.
At the beginning of 962, Nicephorus attacked the Arabs of Cilicia and Syria, capturing more than 60 fortresses. After the death of Romanus II on March 15, 963, the situation in the capital changed. The Emperor's will had left a eunuch, Joseph Bringas, in charge of the affairs of state and the 20-year-old empress, Theophano, as acting regent for the legitimate emperors, Basil and Constantine, aged six and three, respectively. These circumstances do not seem to have tempted Nicephorus.
Nicephorus II Phocas