23 December

Nicephorus II Phocas (c. 912 – 10–11 December 969) was Byzantine Emperor from 963 to 969. His brilliant military exploits contributed to the resurgence of the Byzantine Empire during the 10th century.

Nicephorus joined the army at an early age. He was appointed the military governor of the Anatolikon Theme in 945 under Emperor Constantine VII. When his father was wounded in battle in 953, Nicephorus was promoted to supreme commander on the eastern frontier. In the war with the Abbasid Caliphate under Al-Muti, Nicephorus began with a severe defeat in 954, from which he recovered in the following years with victories in Syria, starting in 957.

From the accession of Emperor Romanos II in 959, Nicephorus and his younger brother Leo 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, Nicephorus was entrusted to lead this expedition against the Saracen Emirate of Crete. After a 9-month siege, Nicephorus stormed Chandax and wrested control of the entire island from the Muslims in 961. Upon returning to Constantinople, he was denied the usual honour of a triumph, permitted only a mere ovation in the Hippodrome.

He soon returned to the east with a large and well-equipped army. In the campaigns of 962–963, he employed a brilliant strategy to conquer the cities of Cilicia and to advance into Syria. There he captured Aleppo, in collusion with his nephew, John Tzimiskes, but they made no permanent conquests. It was on these campaigns that he earned the sobriquet, “The Pale Death of the Saracens”. During the capture of Aleppo, the Byzantine army took possession of 390,000 silver dinars, 2,000 camels, and 1,400 mules.

Early in his life Nicephorus had married Stephano. She had died before he rose to fame, and after her death he took an oath of chastity. This would create problems later on.