Nikephoros I

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Nikephoros I ruled during an era featuring the crudest illustration until the arrival of The Simpsons.

Nikephoros I (or Nicephorus or just Nickkie) was Byzantine Emperor from 802 to 811. His rule was a comparatively turbulent time, and his life is a reminder that the definitive history about us is never written by ourselves.


"Nikephoros" means "Bringer of victory," and for that reason, it was a popular name, given to three Byzantines, whether they brought victory or not; also to several minor despots in the centuries that followed.

Nikephoros I was a Ghassanid Arab, according to Arabic texts, something that non-Arabic texts carefully omit. A Byzantine apocalyptic text says Nikephoros was "from the race of Gopsin," and what that means is anyone's guess.

Nikephoros had two bits of posterity who are known to posterity, Staurakios (who succeeded him as emperor) and Prokopria (who married one). This sort of implies that he had a wife too. The kids' tendency to hang around the throne meant that Nikephoros had not just a reign but a dynasty.


Which future emperor are you?

The empress Irene appointed Nikephoros her finance minister. This is because the Empire had no skullduggery minister. Together, they administered a decades-long reign of treachery. On 31 October 802, the patricians and eunuchs agreed to dethrone Irene, installing Nikephoros in her place. This was a high-water-mark for the eunuchs, whose sole previous contribution had been to round out the soprano register in the cathedral choir. The conspiracy was brilliant; it waited until Irene was visiting a monastery, convinced the palace guard that Irene wanted Nikephoros to be Emperor, and once inside, acted as though it were a done deal. They kept Irene alive and intact so she could show them where she had hidden the empire's cash, but they didn't trust her, and eventually exiled her to the Island of Principo, where she didn't last long.

In 803, Nikephoros made his son Staurakios his co-emperor, nepotism in those days being de rigeur and not the eyebrow-raiser it would become in an era of ne'er-do-well sons from George W. Bush to Hunter Biden. Father and son got along fine; Nikephoros would never need to glance over his shoulder for approaching daggers.

The sailing got no smoother with Nikephoros on top. The first revolt was by General Bardanes. He was supported by other commanders, such as Leo V the Armenian, Michael II the Amorian, and Fred I the Accordion. The first two went on to be crowned emperors for their efforts, while Fred became Lawrence Welk. Nikephoros won them over and, once the rebel army dispersed, Bardanes submitted as well. So Nikephoros had him blinded and exiled.

The second revolt was a conspiracy headed by the patrician Arsaber. See above.


Nikephoros believed the Hellenization of Byzantium had gone so well that the Balkans should experience it too. He resettled Greeks from Anatolia to teach them how, supplying plenty of butter. But he was a guns-and-butter emperor, rebuilding the military by dramatically raising taxes. This unsurprisingly alienated his subjects, especially the clergy, especially as Nikephoros tried to put the church firmly under the thumb of the state. The clerics paid Nikephoros's extra taxes, but then paid him back: Historian Theophanes wrote his life story. It was not pretty.

Rebuilding the military to secure the peace made it irresistible to send them to war. In 803, Nikephoros concluded a treaty, called the Pax Nicephori ("My Little Peace") with Charlemagne. This should have been a no-brainer, as Charlemagne had taken the key position that Irene could not be emperor, by virtue of vagina, that greased the skids for Nikephoros to take over. Unfortunately, the treaty did not sufficiently suck up to Charlemagne, and the two leaders fought a war over Venice from 806 to 810. Another revolt occurred during this war, again the result of inattention to soldiers' pay; Nikephoros put it down, but it eventually led to frenzied re-drawing of borders across Italy.

Some accuse Nikephoros of "not using his head," but Krum (left) used it (right) well.

The Arabian front had been calm because Irene had agreed to pay a tribute to caliph Harun al-Rashid. However, during the time of Nikephoros, the checks began bouncing. In 806, a Muslim army of 135,000 invaded the Empire. Battle would be futile, but Harun was a moron. Nikephoros sued for peace by agreeing to pay a yearly tribute, despite not paying the last tribute the Empire had agreed to.

In 809, Harun died, Arabia was distracted by the ensuing power struggle, and Nikephoros was able to turn his attention to Krum, who had just conquered Sofia. In 811, Nikephoros invaded Bulgaria, defeated Krum, and unleashed a wave of atrocities including burning down the city and tying down small children and crushing them with stones. This was too much for even Krum. During the Byzantines' retreat, Krum ambushed and destroyed the army, ordered Nikephoros decapitated, and made a drinking cup of his skull, a pathbreaking feat, as when previous emperors lost noses or tongues, no creative use was made of them at all.

Son and co-emperor Staurakios got out alive, but paralyzed from the waist down and pissing blood. He returned to the capital to spend the little that was left of his life trying to have some influence, particularly on who the next guy would be.

Preceded by:
Byzantine Emperor
Succeeded by: