WI: Phocas Triumphant

Let's say that Phocas, the one who usurped Maurice, managed to reign ably and well. He was in his fifties when he became emperor anyway, so what would the reign of a Phocas who manages to retain territorial stability and somewhat establish himself look like?

What would need to be done for Phocas to do better? And most of all: What would be the consequences of this?

Edit: He gets lucky as well, I imagine. He defo needs luck to hold the throne.
 
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Foreward: I am not a fan of Phokas.

OTL was essentially Phokas triumphant, he just pissed it away by inaction and his almost comedic inability to manage his public image. He did some good things, like improving relations with the Papacy, but all that's overshadowed by his galaxy-brain level actions like 'appointing his idiot brothers to vital tasks', 'threatening to execute his heir over a statue of his wedding' and 'seizing an enemy leader under the flag of truce and burning him at the stake, thus losing whatever credibility he had'. In other words, I don't think Phocas could have a successful reign, he was just too much of a self-centered jackass.

That said, there could be a successful !Phokas. Have someone else take charge of the revolt, then you might be able to get something done. This isn't my area of expertise, so I'll pass it off to someone else.
 
Foreward: I am not a fan of Phokas.

OTL was essentially Phokas triumphant, he just pissed it away by inaction and his almost comedic inability to manage his public image. He did some good things, like improving relations with the Papacy, but all that's overshadowed by his galaxy-brain level actions like 'appointing his idiot brothers to vital tasks', 'threatening to execute his heir over a statue of his wedding' and 'seizing an enemy leader under the flag of truce and burning him at the stake, thus losing whatever credibility he had'. In other words, I don't think Phocas could have a successful reign, he was just too much of a self-centered jackass.

That said, there could be a successful !Phokas. Have someone else take charge of the revolt, then you might be able to get something done. This isn't my area of expertise, so I'll pass it off to someone else.

None of these things are really bad per se, one of the greatest emperors of all time, Constantinus, killed his own first born in what is one of the most obscure affairs of Roman history, mostly appointed his own relations to positions of power and had his brother in law killed after promising he’d spare his life.

Phokas was forced to be as harsh as he was exactly because of who he was, a lowly centurion with no connections or significant supporters who, somehow, was raised by his comrades as emperor. Man like him was bound to have very few friends among Byzantine aristocracy. He probably didn’t fall to a coup much sooner because he killed all his opponents before they could do anything.

That said, his military incompetence, his lack of diplomatic skill and his personal crassness probably didn’t make matters easier for him. A successful Phokas would have to personally lead his army against Khosrow II and somehow salvage the Eastern frontier, that would give him some much needed military prestige. Another wise thing to do would have been to replace, or at least cultivate, the Exarchs of the West.

Also, ditching Leontia for a more prestigious wife would have certainly helped, as well as naming a heir palatable enough for the aristocracy.
 
The major issue with Phocas is that accounts of his reign were written by people with a vested interest in demonising him.
This. Everything we know about Phokas's reign has to filtered through the lens of the fact that the guy who overthrew him wrote about it. I think its fairly clear that his reign was a disaster for the Eastern Empire. Given the way the war went early on though it seems fairly likely that most of Syria is going to be lost, including Antioch before the whole mess is over. Without an African revolt though the Romans might be able to punch back enough to get Khosrow overthrown, which does seem to more or less be a requirement if they want peace in the East under any circumstances. Now whether Phokas could accomplish that...eh?

I don't really see a path for him to be super successful, but I mean Heraklios lost the entire East after taking power. Twice.
 
I agree that Phokas has perhaps received more than his fair share of criticism (or slander). But making him into another Heraclius, or even Maurice (at least in regards to foreign policy success) is rather difficult.

Phokas seemed to be a rather competent person, as he was chosen to lead the revolt. The problem was that he was a mere centurion (iirc), therefore a foreigner to the Constantinopolitan elite. This might have led some members of the aristocracy or the elite in general to start thinking that they themselves might be a better candidate for the throne than what they would most likely consider an upstart no one. There were already signs that Phokas' rule wouldn't be so easily accepted, as Narseh's revolt in Edessa (which offered Khosrau II the opening he sought in order to start revising the settlement of 591 to his advantage); perhaps (other) conspiracies took place later on, which made Phokas feel increasingly threatened and therefore led him to adopt increasingly harsh measures to quell dissent.

But even if we make Phokas be an almost universally accepted emperor, there are larger forces at play, which Phokas can't deal with effectively, not because he is Phokas, but because almost no one could. The effects of the plague of 541 were still felt, as the empire's tax and manpower base still suffered by the countless deaths caused by this event, and which made it even more difficult for the empire to regain its financial well-being after Justinian's reign. The prestige of the emperor had been steadily declining since 565, due to various factors, the empire was facing constant pressure on almost all fronts and couldn't respond to all these threats effectively, as, again, the plague had irreversibly damaged the empire to a large extent, and was suffering from internal turmoil. In 602, the empire was in a relatively strong but also rather precarious position; a shock like the revolt of the armies of the Danube, the overthrow and the execution of an emperor (which was in many ways the first time something like that would happen in Constantinople) would only serve to destabilise the situation further, meaning that it would become even more difficult keeping all the cats marching straight in the future.

However, we might manage to pull a more competent Phokas (with some luck of course): let's say that Maurice fell very ill shortly after the rebellion broke out and died shortly before Phokas reached Constantinople. Phokas is made emperor, there are still some grudges, but the process is still seen as somewhat legitimate and not as an outright and violent coup. We also gain three things :

  • Khosrau II doesn't have the casus belli he was offered accidentally by Phokas when the latter executed Khosrau's "patron" and the man who defied the rather vehement opposition of the Senate in 590 in order to support him in his fight against Bahram. This doesn't mean that Khosrau will be fully ready to accept the new status quo, but it means that he can't move at least in the near future; the treaty of 591 still holds, at least for the time being.
  • This in turn means that the Byzantines are able to maintain a large military presence in the Balkans, although there would be a scaling back of the operations there (certainly no winter camps across the Danube). The Constantinopolitan government could therefore be in a better position, at least in the first years, to fend off the Avar raids.
  • Narseh most likely doesn't rise up in revolt; this is rather important, for IOTL, Narseh's rebellion could be considered to be the beginning of the problems: it opened Mesopotamia to the Persians, which was the beginning of the Persian penetration of the empire's eastern provinces; it also led to the weakening of the empire's military, as it forced Phokas to first send most of the eastern armies to deal with the uprising (but the Persians managed to ambush the Romans and inflicted them terrible losses - including the magister militum, Germanus) and later on order the transfer of the entire army of Europe to the east, only for this second force, to be ambushed yet again by the Persians in Arxamoun and be almost annihilated.
Therefore, Phokas is offered some respite. If he lowers taxes somewhat and provides the soldiery with better condition and higher pay, then he has most likely secured the support of the army. If he adopts a more moderate policy and instead of reverting to full Chalcedonian Christianity, he makes some moves towards that directions and makes some concessions to the papacy, he might manage to keep most in "controllable discontent", which is infinitely better than continuous strife.

Now, I don't think that this "honeymoon" would last for long; perhaps by 605-606, the Persians would start making some noises. But ITTL, the empire is (far) more stable, the army is far stronger and the empire perhaps still has a couple of rather competent, if not talented, commanders at its service, while a more confident Phokas might not rush to fill all senior positions with members of his family, meaning that we could probably avoid seeing Domentziolus as general and Komentiolus as curopalates - and as a result, have a more effective military and civilian administration. Although this would most likely not be enough to keep everything as it is, we would most likely see a rerun of the reigns of Justinus II and Tiberius II, as the Persians make some gains in Armenia and Mesopotamia but just that and the empire's defences don't crumble and the Avars continue their raids, but apart from that, they do little else. If Phokas manages that and then dies in the 610s (illness, getting too drunk, I don't know), then whoever succeeds him will definitely be in a far better position than the one Heraclius found himself in when he became emperor.
 
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However, we might manage to pull a more competent Phokas (with some luck of course): let's say that Maurice fell very ill shortly after the rebellion broke out and died shortly before Phokas reached Constantinople. Phokas is made emperor, there are still some grudges, but the process is still seen as somewhat legitimate and not as an outright and violent coup.
Maurice has multiple heirs, including an adult son. As such Phokas being made Emperor still gives the Persians their war if Khosrow wants it, and he does.
 
Maurice has multiple heirs, including an adult son. As such Phokas being made Emperor still gives the Persians their war if Khosrow wants it, and he does.
I agree, but if Maurice isn't killed by Phokas and the rest of the family is isolated, then Khosrau doesn't have as good a casus belli to intervene as IOTL (to avenge the death of his benefactor, to whom he owed so much) and perhaps the the situation in the east doesn't develop in a way that basically allows the Persians to start winning without serious opposition, as there isn't something like a three year long civil war involving one of the best Roman commanders in the area and resulting in the annihilation of a large part of the empire's army in the span of a year (iirc).
 
Foreward: I am not a fan of Phokas.

OTL was essentially Phokas triumphant, he just pissed it away by inaction and his almost comedic inability to manage his public image. He did some good things, like improving relations with the Papacy, but all that's overshadowed by his galaxy-brain level actions like 'appointing his idiot brothers to vital tasks', 'threatening to execute his heir over a statue of his wedding' and 'seizing an enemy leader under the flag of truce and burning him at the stake, thus losing whatever credibility he had'. In other words, I don't think Phocas could have a successful reign, he was just too much of a self-centered jackass.

That said, there could be a successful !Phokas. Have someone else take charge of the revolt, then you might be able to get something done. This isn't my area of expertise, so I'll pass it off to someone else.
I agree phokas was a justinian II but on steroids compared to him i mean narces who started this whole war quickly new he messed up and while killing him would not be uncommon burning him was extreme
While the later Heraclians were baised i always use this his inner circle and the city did not put much a a figth when heraclius entered the city which tells you a lot
 
None of these things are really bad per se, one of the greatest emperors of all time, Constantinus, killed his own first born in what is one of the most obscure affairs of Roman history, mostly appointed his own relations to positions of power and had his brother in law killed after promising he’d spare his life.

Phokas was forced to be as harsh as he was exactly because of who he was, a lowly centurion with no connections or significant supporters who, somehow, was raised by his comrades as emperor. Man like him was bound to have very few friends among Byzantine aristocracy. He probably didn’t fall to a coup much sooner because he killed all his opponents before they could do anything.

That said, his military incompetence, his lack of diplomatic skill and his personal crassness probably didn’t make matters easier for him. A successful Phokas would have to personally lead his army against Khosrow II and somehow salvage the Eastern frontier, that would give him some much needed military prestige. Another wise thing to do would have been to replace, or at least cultivate, the Exarchs of the West.

Also, ditching Leontia for a more prestigious wife would have certainly helped, as well as naming a heir palatable enough for the aristocracy.
So in other words he needs to win the battle of dara in 605 the bad thing about this is that phocas position is uneasy and he could rightfully fear a coup while he is in the east
 
I agree, but if Maurice isn't killed by Phokas and the rest of the family is isolated, then Khosrau doesn't have as good a casus belli to intervene as IOTL (to avenge the death of his benefactor, to whom he owed so much) and perhaps the the situation in the east doesn't develop in a way that basically allows the Persians to start winning without serious opposition, as there isn't something like a three year long civil war involving one of the best Roman commanders in the area and resulting in the annihilation of a large part of the empire's army in the span of a year (iirc).
He does if they flee to him
 
So in other words he needs to win the battle of dara in 605 the bad thing about this is that phocas position is uneasy and he could rightfully fear a coup while he is in the east

Phokas could rightfully fear a coup at every moment of his reign. A resounding victory over the Persians would at least make his position a little safer than before.
 
I agree, but if Maurice isn't killed by Phokas and the rest of the family is isolated, then Khosrau doesn't have as good a casus belli to intervene as IOTL (to avenge the death of his benefactor, to whom he owed so much) and perhaps the the situation in the east doesn't develop in a way that basically allows the Persians to start winning without serious opposition, as there isn't something like a three year long civil war involving one of the best Roman commanders in the area and resulting in the annihilation of a large part of the empire's army in the span of a year (iirc).

This rests on too much of a technicality however. Avenging Maurice was simply an excuse for Khosrow, if such excuse doesn’t exist any longer, he’d just find another, like claiming the throne for Maurice’s heirs, whether they’re still alive or not. For all intents and purposes, as far as Khusrow was concerned, any treaty with the Byzantine empire was null and void the moment Maurice died, no matter how he died. And any uprising that led a centurion like Phokas to become emperor would be marred by lots of spilled blood, regardless of the circumstances behind it.
 
This rests on too much of a technicality however. Avenging Maurice was simply an excuse for Khosrow, if such excuse doesn’t exist any longer, he’d just find another, like claiming the throne for Maurice’s heirs, whether they’re still alive or not. For all intents and purposes, as far as Khusrow was concerned, any treaty with the Byzantine empire was null and void the moment Maurice died, no matter how he died. And any uprising that led a centurion like Phokas to become emperor would be marred by lots of spilled blood, regardless of the circumstances behind it.
I agree (I didn't mean that Khosrau went to war simply in order to avenge the death of Maurice - although I do believe that Khosrau must have felt to be somewhat indebted to Maurice for his support when he needed help the most). But depriving him of such a casud belli could perhaps make Khosrau's operations less successful (although I am not very sure whether he had some degree of popular support IOTL. More importantly though, he can't jump to the war immediately; sure, he will at some time, but it won't be as early as IOTL (perhaps he may decide to make a move in 606-607), meaning that the empire has some time to reorganise its defences, which will most likely not be destroyed like they were in 603-605 IOTL.

(just my views)
 
I agree (I didn't mean that Khosrau went to war simply in order to avenge the death of Maurice - although I do believe that Khosrau must have felt to be somewhat indebted to Maurice for his support when he needed help the most). But depriving him of such a casud belli could perhaps make Khosrau's operations less successful (although I am not very sure whether he had some degree of popular support IOTL. More importantly though, he can't jump to the war immediately; sure, he will at some time, but it won't be as early as IOTL (perhaps he may decide to make a move in 606-607), meaning that the empire has some time to reorganise its defences, which will most likely not be destroyed like they were in 603-605 IOTL.

(just my views)

Yeah sure, you might be right, but personally I don’t see why he couldn’t just go to war right away in any case. Fighting for Maurice’s heirs is as good a pretext as avenging Maurice after all. And even if that weren’t the case, who could stop Khusrow, since he really wanted war?
 
Yeah sure, you might be right, but personally I don’t see why he couldn’t just go to war right away in any case. Fighting for Maurice’s heirs is as good a pretext as avenging Maurice after all. And even if that weren’t the case, who could stop Khusrow, since he really wanted war?
Yes, I think you are right (in fact, it would be interesting, since the parallels between this and his own life would be clear - the legitimate king is forced to abandon his throne in favour of an upstart military commander and seeks protection to the court of the ruler of the other great power of the East). What I am saying is that perhaps Phokas manages to neutralise the heirs and thus prevent them from trying to escape to Persia, in order to make it more possible to avoid a war erupting right after Maurice's death.

Also, again, I agree that Khosrau most likely wanted war - he must have viewed the concessions he made to Maurice (which basically undid almost 30 years of policy and wars) rather excessive later on. But without Maurice or the heirs, he might have waited for some time and struck one or two years after OTL, which could give the empire some more time to bolster its defences (if Phokas scales back the operations against the Avars, he might move part of the forces Maurice had transferred to Europe after the peace with the Persians back home, meaning that the Eastern armies would be in a somewhat better shape).
 
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