Featured The Usurper Phokas

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by ancient coin hunter, May 11, 2020.

  1. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Basileus Megalos

    I recently acquired this coin of Phokas. But before sharing the coin I wanted to go into some of the history behind this lesser-known, and often poorly understood ruler who was able to topple the author (or benefactor) behind the Strategikon of Maurice military treatise.

    Phokas (Latin: Flavius Focas Augustus; Greek: Φωκᾶς, Phokas; c. 547 – 5 October 610) was Byzantine emperor from 602 to 610. The early life of Phokas is largely unknown and buried in obscurity, but he rose to prominence in 602, as a leader in a revolt against Emperor Maurice Tiberius. Maurice had ordered the troops in the Balkans to campaign against the Avars across the Danube during the onset of winter, a very unpopular move. Also, there were deficiencies in their pay. Declaring the standard of revolt, a low ranking military officer named Phokas was raised on a shield and acclaimed emperor by the soldiers.

    Phokas marched on Constantinople with his army. He captured Constantinople and overthrew Maurice on 23 November 602, and officially declared himself emperor on the same day. Maurice and his sons Tiberius and Theodosius tried to flee, but were captured and executed.


    The Execution of Maurice Tiberius

    After assuming the purple, Phokas proclaimed chariot races in honor of his elevation and had his wife Leontia escorted to the city as his new Empress. They had already been married for some time. Phokas, reminiscent of Maximinus Thrax, deeply distrusted the military and political elite of Constantinople, and therefore he installed relatives in high military positions while brutally purging his opponents. Phokas was an incompetent leader, both of the administration and army, and under him the Byzantine Empire was threatened by multiple enemies on every side, with frequent raids in the Balkans from the Avars and Slavs, the Sassanid invasion of the eastern provinces, and the incursion into Italy by the Lombards. Ancient historians were unkind to Phokas’ legacy. Phokas was, and to a certain extent remains, one of the most maligned of all Byzantine emperors. Reasoning that "speaking of suffering is itself suffering," the Byzantine historian George of Pisidia who chronicled Heraclius’ reign thought it better to avoid mentioning Phokas' name whenever possible. On those occasions when he did refer to Phokas, George of Pisidia used such unflattering titles as "the terrestrial leviathan" and "the Gorgon-faced." The Byzantine author Theophlact Simocatta was just as unkind. Among other things Theophlact called Phokas a barbarian half-breed, a Cyclops and a Centaur.

    In an interesting parallel with the earlier revolt of the Gordians in Africa during the time of Maximinus, Phokas’ incompetence and brutality led the Exarch of Africa, Heraclius the Elder, to rebel against him. After mustering an army Heraclius the Elder's son, the future emperor Heraclius I advanced on Constantinople, taking the City on the 5th of October in the year 610. Phokas’ feeble support evaporated, and he was executed on the same day as Heraclius himself dealt the fatal blow with his sword before declaring himself emperor. The fate of the Augusta Leontia is unknown.

    An interesting development of the Phokas’ era was the re-introduction of the beard. Earlier Byzantine emperors had always been clean shaven. From then on rulers including Heraclius mostly were depicted in art and on the coinage wearing a beard with rare exceptions down to the end of the Empire. Phokas’ reign has yielded one remaining piece of architecture - the Column of Phokas in the Roman Forum, which stands 44 feet tall and is the last classical structure to be placed in the Forum during the age of Late Antiquity.


    Column of Phokas, adjacent to the Arch of Septimius Severus

    The inscription on the statue reads as follows:

    “To the best, most clement and pious ruler, our lord Phokas the perpetual emperor, crowned by God, the forever august triumphator, did Smaragdus, former praepositus sacri palatii and patricius and Exarch of Italy, devoted to His Clemency for the innumerable benefactions of His Piousness and for the peace acquired for Italy and its freedom preserved, this statue of His Majesty, sparkling from the splendor of gold here on this tallest column for his eternal glory erect and dedicate, on the first day of the month of August, in the eleventh indiction in the fifth year after the consulate of His Piousness.”

    He also managed to erect a colossal statue of himself in Constantinople which has not survived to the present day.

    The bronze coinage of Phokas is fairly plentiful in the lower denominations but often crude in style whereas the solidi evidence better workmanship. In many cases rather than the large M, folles are primarily engraved with four X’s representing 40 nummi as in the example below.


    Crawford, Peter (2013). The War of the Three Gods: Romans, Persians and the Rise of Islam. Pen and Sword

    Gregory, Timothy E. (2005) A History of Byzantium, Blackwell Publishing

    Grierson, Phillip.(1968). Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and the Whittemore Collection: Vol II, Phocas to Theodosius III 602-717. Dumbarton Oaks

    Norwich, John Julius (1997). A Short History of Byzantium, Alfred A. Knopf

    Ostrogorsky, George (1969). History of the Byzantine State. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press

    Parnell, David Alan (2016). Justinian's Men: Careers and Relationships of Byzantine Army Officers, 518-610. Springer.

    Treadgold, Warren T. (1997). A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford University Press

    Treadgold, Warren T. (1995). Byzantium and Its Army, 284-1081, Stanford University Press

    Whitby, Mary.(1998). “Defender of the Cross: George of Pisidia on the Emperor Heraclius and his deputies,” in The Propaganda of Power: The Role of Panegyric in Late Antiquity, pg. 247-273, Brill

    And now, onto the coin:

    Attribution: Sear Byzantine 665 KYZB (Cyzicus) mint

    Date: 608 AD

    Obverse: DN FOCAS PERP AVG, crowned, mantled bust facing, holding mappa and cross, cross in left field

    Reverse: Large XXXX, ANNO to left, regnal year to right, mintmark KYZB

    Size: 30.16 mm

    Weight: 11.4 grams



    Thanks for looking! And as my old professor of Byzantine History at Berkeley Dr. Treadgold always said - "Best of Wishes from the Byzantine Empire."

    Please share any coins of Phokas or Heraclius or whatever is relevant from this most intriguing period in history.
    Last edited: May 11, 2020
    Scipio, svessien, Andres2 and 29 others like this.
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  3. Valentinian

    Valentinian Supporter! Supporter

    Here is a Phocas of year 1:
    32-29 mm. 13.32 grams.
    Phocas and his wife Leontia
    Constantinople mint, ANNO I
    Sear 639
    Last edited: May 12, 2020
  4. Roman Collector

    Roman Collector Supporter! Supporter

    Fantastic write-up, @ancient coin hunter ! Entertaining and informative. I hope it's chosen to be a feature.

    I have one of these year one coins from Constantinople, too:
    Phocas and Leontia follis Constantinople.jpg
    Phocas, AD 602-610 and wife Leontia.
    Byzantine Æ Follis,28.4 mm, 13.35 g, 7 h.
    Constantinople, AD 602/603.
    Obv: δmFOCA ЄPPAVG, Phocas and Leontia stg. facing. The Emperor holds globus cruciger, the Empress, nimbate, holds cruciform scepter.
    Rev: Large M, surmounted by cross; ANNO to left, I (regnal year 1) right, CONB in exergue.
    Refs: Sear 639; MIBE 129, 60a; DOC 163, 24b.
  5. furryfrog02

    furryfrog02 Well-Known Member

    Great write up @ancient coin hunter!
    FFIVN and I have one Phocas in our collection but I am currently eyeing a follis with him and his wife on the obverse.
    This coin has a special place in our collection, as it was a gift from a very generous forum member who has done so much to help us in our ancient coin collecting journey. It was also one of our first Byzantine coins.
    The pictures are terrible because I was just starting out. I need to reshoot it.

    40 Numni
    607-608 AD
    Obverse: d m FOCA PER AVG, Crowned bust facing, wearing consular robes, holding mappa and cross, crown with pendillia
    Reverse: XXXX; above, ANNO, to right G, NIKOB below
    The host coin can still be sort of seen on the reverse. Most notable is the large "M".
    Focas 607-608 AD 40 Nunmi.jpg
  6. AussieCollector

    AussieCollector Moderator Moderator

    Great write up @ancient coin hunter

    And lovely coin!

    I feel a little for Phocas. I think we can all agree that he was an incompetent administrator, and "being a good solider" has rarely translated to "being a good ruler".

    Having said that, the history about him was largely written by those with vested interests against him, so they can hardly be considered 100% accurate.

    I love this podcast of Phocas, which tries to present a balanced view. It is appropriately named "In Fairness to Phocas":

    Here is my Phocas/Focas coin:


    Byzantine Empire
    602 - 610 A.D (603 - 607 A.D)

    I was really pleased with the state of this coin, so was happy to trade the overall state for some graffiti.
  7. Clavdivs

    Clavdivs Supporter! Supporter

    Excellent write up and some amazing coins on this thread.
    Phokas is just so maligned that I just need to add him to my collection at some point.
    ancient coin hunter likes this.
  8. zumbly

    zumbly Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana Supporter

    Great writeup! I'm not a huge fan of Byzantine coinage, but I do enjoy the history. I picked up this Phocas because of the interesting cut flan that I think rather resembles a thumb.

    BYZANTINE - Phocas AE Decanummium Quartered 3636.jpg
    AE Decanummium. 1.93g, 20.7x15.3mm. Constantinople mint, AD 602-610. Sear Byzantine 646. O: DM FOCA-S PP AVG, crowned, cuirassed bust facing, holding cross on globe and shield. R: Large X, cross above.
  9. Marsyas Mike

    Marsyas Mike Well-Known Member

    Great write-up and nice Cyzicus follis. By coincidence, I just got one in a lot last week - it is pretty rough, but I didn't have one from this mint, so for now...

    Byz - Phocas Cyzicus follis lot May 2020 (0).jpg

    Phocas Æ Follis
    Year 3 (604-605 A.D.)
    Cyzicus Mint

    DN FOCAS [PЄRP] AV[G], crowned facing bust wearing consular robes, holding mappa and cross, cross in left field (?) / Large XXXX, ANNO left, III right, KYZA in exergue.
    Sear 665; DOC 72b; MIB 76.
    (10.90 grams / 29 x 26 mm)

    From the same lot, almost as nasty (or nastier), came one from the "other" Phocas, Nicephoros II Phocas. My first for this emperor:

    Byz - Nicephorus II Phocas follis lot May 2020 (0).jpg

    Nicephorus II Phocas Æ Follis
    (963-969 A.D.)
    Constantinople Mint

    NICIFR [bASIL] RW, crowned bust facing in loros, holding labarum and cross on globe / +NICHF-EN QEW bA-SILEVS RW-MAIWN in four lines.
    Sear 1782; DOC 8.
    (4.36 grams / 25 mm)

    Phocas should get a little credit for presenting the Pantheon to the Catholic Church, thereby perhaps saving it from destruction. Otherwise, he seems to have been pretty awful. From Wikipedia:

    "In 609, the Byzantine emperor Phocas gave the building to Pope Boniface IV, who converted it into a Christian church and consecrated it to St. Mary and the Martyrs on 13 May 609: "Another Pope, Boniface, asked the same [Emperor Phocas, in Constantinople] to order that in the old temple called the Pantheon, after the pagan filth was removed, a church should be made, to the holy virgin Mary and all the martyrs, so that the commemoration of the saints would take place henceforth where not gods but demons were formerly worshipped."[33] Twenty-eight cartloads of holy relics of martyrs were said to have been removed from the catacombs and placed in a porphyry basin beneath the high altar.[34] On its consecration, Boniface placed an icon of the Mother of God as 'Panagia Hodegetria' (All Holy Directress) within the new sanctuary.[35]"
  10. Magnus Maximus

    Magnus Maximus Dulce et Decorum est....

    Very nice write up!
    I feel as if the death of Maurice and rise of Phocas is one of those seminal events that people really underestimate. What if Maurice was more in touch with the politics of Constantinople; what next!?
    Certainly a Byzantine empire at full strength would have been able to hold their own against the Arabs in the 620’s.
    I also don’t think that the Lombards in Italy would be long for this world had Maurice not lost his head.

    Maurice Tiberius AV Lightweight Solidus
    Constantinople mint 582-602 CE
    4.12 Grams
  11. Sulla80

    Sulla80 one coin at a time Supporter

    Thanks for an informative post, here is a 1.8g decanummium of Phocas 602-610 AD with empress Leontina:
    phocas decanummium.jpg
    Obv: d N FOCA NE PE AV. Phocas (left) and Leontia (right) standing facing; the emperor holds globus cruciger, the empress holds cruciform sceptre; between their heads, cross.
    Rev: Large X between ANNO - II; cross above; beneath, P.
  12. Julius Germanicus

    Julius Germanicus Well-Known Member

    Thank you for the interesting history!

    According to my Gorski and Packer (in their work on the Forum Romanum), the "Column of Phokas" was actually erected during the Tetrarchy and most probably was topped by a statue of Diocletian before it was re-dedicated to Phocas.
  13. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    Many coins of Phokas were overstruck on earlier coins. The appeal to me of this one is that the undertype is identifiable.
    Phocas year 4 Constantinople over Maurice Tiberius year 14 - both Constantinople mint - flan cut down to adjust weight
  14. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Basileus Megalos

    That would not be surprising!
  15. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    Great story! At least he had a good beard? Year one Phocas from Nicomedia:

    Screen Shot 2020-05-12 at 3.20.53 PM.jpg

    Someone at the Constantinople (?) mint did not think him worth more than a few seconds' worth of engraving work on this pentanummium!
    Screen Shot 2020-05-12 at 3.22.27 PM.jpg
  16. furryfrog02

    furryfrog02 Well-Known Member

    @Severus Alexander what is the obverse supposed to be? Is that a face? If it is, it looks worse than something my 4 year old draws :)
    AussieCollector likes this.
  17. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

  18. furryfrog02

    furryfrog02 Well-Known Member

    At least that one has a nose, chin, eyes, and an ear!
    Yours does have a certain "It's so ugly, it's cute" vibe though :)
  19. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    Ordinarily each April there was kindergarten registration for the Fall crop of 5 year olds. (This year was different.) I used to volunteer that day. One test they used for placement was to ask the kids to draw a person. It was 'graded' on how many of the body parts were included (expected to have arms but extra credit for fingers).
    The person who drew Lowly Worm the coin might qualify for special services but the coin Sev posted would be fast-tracked for the gifted program. We need to be careful not to be critical of style as opposed to lack of skill. My favorite example of this is my horse jital of Muhammad Qarlugh 1249-1259 AD.
  20. furryfrog02

    furryfrog02 Well-Known Member

    It has 4 legs, a tail, a face, and ears :)
    I like the abstract style. To be fair though, I didn't see the horse until you mentioned it ;)
  21. Voulgaroktonou

    Voulgaroktonou Well-Known Member

    What an interesting and informative write up. Thank you!
    My most recent Phokas: Ceremonial miliarense. Constantinople, 602-607. 1.21 gr. 19 mm. hr. 7. Sear 638A; Hahn 54. CNG E auction 437, lot 529.
    The Thessalonikan AES are often of competent style: A follis of Year 4: 605/6. 10.55 gr. 32 mm. hr. 6. Sear 653; Hahn 91; BNP 2-3.
    ...as opposed to that of this Kyzikene half follis, which is goofy. Year 2: 603/4. 6.50 gr. 26 mm. Hr. 6. Sear 670 var.; Hahn 79 var.; DO 79a var; BM 98 var; this variety, with the regnal year to the left of the mark of value is not noted. My wife uses coins like this to bolster her opinion that space aliens interbred with populations in the eastern Mediterranean in late antiquity. Who am I to say her nay?
    Several of the Antiochene folles and their fractions
    were engraved by a very talented artist, such as this one. I published in the Aug. 2000 Celator a better example of this type from a private collection of which I was then curator. That example is now in Dumbarton Oaks. This is mine: Year 7: 608/9. 10.56 gr. 30 mm. Hr. 5. Sear 672A; Hahn 84b.
    And a half follis, also Year 7: 608/9. 4.97 gr. 23 mm. Hr. 6. Sear 674; Hahn 86a; BNP 31-32. CNG E auction 335, lot 639.
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