Rebellion of Bardas Skleros, 976 - 979

1. Historical context

When Emperor John I Tzimiskes died (January 10, 976), the two sons of Romanos II (959-963), Basil II (976-1025) and Constantine VIII (976-1028) came into power once more. The two scions of the Macedonian dynasty had been crowned co-emperors by their father, after whose death, as heirs in nonage, they had been placed under the regency of Nikephoros II Phokas and John Tzimiskes, members of the military aristocracy. In January of 976, Basil, having had his 20th birthday, was finally in an age that allowed him to carry out his imperial duties. The young emperors had been sidelined for a long period of time and was politically weak, as a result the running of the state was essentially controlled fully by his uncle Basil Lekapenos, an illegitimate son of Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos, who held the office of parakoimomenos and had access to the administration of state affairs. Basil Lekapenos, aware of the widespread belief that the young kings were incapable of effectively running the empire and that power should return to the hands of a strong representative of the military aristocracy, wished to protect the status quo in which he held a leading role. Thus he took measures to curtail the power of the wannabe contender to the throne Bardas Skleros, who was brother-in-law to John Tzimiskes and head of the prominent family of the Skleroi. Bardas, who held the office of domestikos ton scholontes Anatoles (= of the East)1 and was supreme commander of the army, was during that time at Constantinople.2 Basil Lekapenos appointed him doukas of Mesopotamia, wishing to keep him away from the capital and keep him busy facing with the Arab raids, while he also held his son hostage at Constantinople.

2. The rebellion of Bardas Skleros

2.1. The outbreak of the rebellion

Soon after his appointment as doukas of Mesopotamia (early 976), Bardas Skleros left Constantinople to assume his post. His first action was to secure the release of his son, Romanos, from the capital, which was carried out by his confidante Anthes Alyates. Skleros, very popular among the army, obtained the support of the troops of Mesopotamia, as well of the tagma of the army commanders, on which, apparently, he continued to exert significant influence.3 Finally, late in the spring of 9764 he was proclaimed emperor by his troops at the region of Harput. Many Armenians (who represented the majority of his army) participated in this venture from the start.5 His most important Armenian allies were the rulers Taron Gregorios and Bagarat, the ruler of Moqk Zaphranik and the patrikios Romanos Taronites. The rebel’s main concern was securing finances to organize his rebellion. For this reason he appropriated the taxes of the region under his control, as well as the money in the Melitene6 royal treasury, which he stormed and captured, meeting no real resistance. He chose the fortress of Harput as his headquarters and staging grounds, where he amassed all the money he had acquired and installed a strong garrison. Then, he took care to establish the alliances that would allow him to freely move against Constantinople without having to worry about his rear. Thus he made a treaty with the Muslim rulers whose domains bordered his own, the Hamdanid emir of Mosul Abu Taglib and his liegeman, emir of Amida Abu Dulaf, securing financial and military support. The central government, on the other hand, continued to enjoy the support of the rest of the troops and the noble families of Asia Minor.

2.2. Submission of south Asia Minor to Bardas Skleros

By the summer of 976, Bardas Skleros in Mesopotamia was ready to launch his campaign against Constantinople. Basil Lekapenos realized the threat and made a double defensive move. He sent Stephanos, synkellos of Haghia Sophia and metropolitan of Nicomedia, to convince Skleros to surrender, and at the same time he ordered the stratopedarches of the East Petros, the doukas of Antioch, Michael Bourtzes and the strategos of Tarsus Eusthathios Maleinos to assemble their troops at Caesarea of Cappadocia in order to check Skleros’ advance. Stephanos’ embassy failed, and the first engagement took place in the fall of 976 at the narrow pass named Koukou Lithos.7 A vanguard of Skleros, led by Anthes Alyates, faced a contingent of the imperial army under Eustathios Maleinos.8 The imperial forces were victorious and Alyates fell in the battlefield. The forces loyal to the emperors then blockaded all the major passes. Skleros’ forces, led by the Armenian strategos Sachakios Brachamios, who defected to the rebel’s camp,9 advanced to Lapara or Lycandus. There they clashed with the imperial army, achieving an important victory which placed Skleros at a great advantage. After this turn of events, the rebel moved against the city of Tzamandos, which surrendered without offering resistance. These successes attracted the doukas of Antioch, Michael Bourtzes, doukas Andronikos Lydos and his two sons, Christophoros Epeiktes and Bardas Moungos joining the rebel's camp. At the same time, the soldiers of the theme of Kibyrrhaiotai rebelled against their commander and placed the fleet of Attaleia at the rebel’s disposal, who sent Michael Kourtikios to assume its command. By the late 976, Skleros had managed to place under his control the larger part of southern Asia Minor.

2.3. March to Constantinople

Basil Lekapenos, seeing Skleros advance, dispatched early in 977 the protovestiariosLeo and the patrikios Ioannes to Asia Minor. Leo had been fully authorized to act in the name of the emperors and aimed at luring away the supporters of the rebel by offering gifts and offices. The two men travelled to Kotyaion, where they met the stratopedarches of the East Petros with the imperial army. The protovestiatios’ main goal was to move east and manoeuvre his army to the rebel’s rear, in order to wrench part of the supporters that had not entered in the rebellion willingly, but at sword-point. Skleros realized this danger and sent against him a contingent under Michael Bourtzes and Romanos Taronites. Against their orders, the two commanders clashed with the imperial army (probably in the summer of 977) in the area of Oxylithos and were defeated. This forced Skleros to hasten his attack on the imperial forces. In a battle in the area of Rageai in the fall of 977 the rebel won an important victory. Petros and patrikios Ioannes fell on the battlefield, while protovestiarios Leo was taken prisoner. Skleros was now the master of most of Asia Minor; with the imperial army weakened, he was marching towards Constantinople. Basil Lekapenos, wishing to redeem the situation, appointed Theodors Karantenos droungarios tou ploimou and sent him against Michael Kourtikios, commander of the rebel fleet, who had been pillaging the Aegean islands and was preparing to lay siege to Abydos. By land he sent the patrikios Michael Erotikos to defend Nicaea. Notwithstanding the heroic defence of its garrison, the city was captured following a siege by Skleros early in 978. The imperial fleet defeated that of the rebels at Phokaia (possibly late in 978) thus stopping Skleros from laying a complete siege to the capital.

2.4. The end of the rebellion

In the first months of 978 Basil Lekapenos had recalled Bardas Phokas to the capital (he had been banished after his defeat by Bardas Skleros in 969-970, when he had rebelled against John I Tzimiskes). Phokas received the title of magistrosand the office of domestikos ton scholon, and was dispatched to face the rebel. Initially he headed for Caesarea of Cappadocia, aiming to rally all the forces still loyal to the central government. There he found Eustathios Maleinos; Michael Bourtzes, who abandoned the rebel, joined forces with them. With this army, Phokas moved west, towards Amorion, in order to strike at the enemy’s rear. Leaving Nicaea, Skleros also moved towards Amorion, and on June 19, 978 he defeated Phokas in a battle close to Pangaleia. Phokas retreated to the theme of Charsianon, and rebuilt his army. In the fall of 978 Phokas was defeated in battle by Skleros for the second time in the area Basilika Therma. The central government, seeing its successive defeats, sent an embassy led by the Athonite Georgian monk Tornikios to the Georgian prince David of Tayk asking for reinforcements.10 The Byzantines finally received a contingent of 12,000 Georgian horsemen, under the orders of Ioannes Tornikios and the Georgian lord Djodjik. This army joined the army of Phokas at the theme of Charsianon and, in the spring of 979, Phokas launched a surprise attack against the rebel, whose army had been severely weakened: some of his Arab allies had left while many of his Armenian troops had returned to their homeland during the winter. On March 24, 979 Skleros suffered a crushing defeat in the theme of Charsianon.11 The rebel’s army fell apart, and Skleros himself originally fled to Martyropolis, and very soon after, to the court of thecaliphof Baghdad. Some of his supporters remained in the Byzantine lands and barricaded themselves in fortressesin the theme of Thrakesionrefusing to submit to the imperial authorities until the fall or winter of the same year.

3. Consequences

The failure of Bardas Skleros’ rebellion did not signal any substantial change in the political landscape of Byzantium. The two young emperors, Basil II and Constantine VIII, remained on the throne, but they continued to be under the control of Basil Lekapenos and could essentially not rule independently or take any initiatives. On the contrary, the parakoimomenos reinforced his position further, as he was now the sole and undisputed administrator of imperial power, next to the two emperors. Bardas Phokas was also strenghtened, as his recall from exile and his active participation in the suppression of the rebellion signalled his return to the political fore allowing him the right to claim a share in power. The rebellion, however, had dire consequences for the Balkan Peninsula. As the central administration was completely occupied with the efforts to face Bardas Skleros it allowed the insurgency of the Kometopouloi, the four sons of a Bulgarian official who had rebelled early in 976, to grow developing into a protracted war between the Byzantines and the Bulgarians. Finally, the suppression of the rebellion heralded the end of the feuds between powerful nobles over the guardianship of the young emperors and the control of power. This particular feud had begun with the
rebellion of Bardas Phokasagainst John I Tzimiskes in 969 and was continued with the rebellion of Bardas Skleros in 976-979. Until Skleros’ next rebellion(987), the political landscape had been altered drastically, as Lekapenos' guardianship came to an end in 985, when Basil II removed him from power, assuming his imperial duties. From now on the emperor himself will face the claims of powerful aristocratic families of Asia Minor, which continued to seek a part of the imperial power.

1. Seibt, W., Die Skleroi: Eine prosopographisch-sigillographische Studie (Byzantina Vindobonensia 9, Wien 1976), p. 37.

2. Forsyth, J., The Byzantine-Arab Chronicle (938-1034) of Yahya b. Sa'id Al-Antaki (Ann Arbor 1977), p. 375, relying on the Chronicle of Yahya b. Sa'id, argues that Bardas Skleros was not in the capital during this period.

3. Seibt, W., Die Skleroi: Eineprosopographish-sigillographische Studie (Byzantina Vindobonensia 9, Wien 1976), p. 37.

4. Kamer, S., Emperors and Aristocrats in Byzantium 976-1081 (Ann Arbor 1983), p. 32; Forsyth, J., The Byzantine-Arab Chronicle (938-1034) of Yahya b. Sa’id Al-Antaki (Ann Arbor 1977), p. 376.

5. On the massive participation of Armenians in the rebellion of Skleros see Adontz, N., Etudes armeno-byzantines (Lisbon 1965), p. 150, and Honigmann E., Die Ostgrenze des byzantinischen Reiches von 363 bis 1071 (Bruxelles 1935), pp. 149-150.

6. The money the rebel received from the financial official of Melitene is estimated to 40,000 golden coins. Forsyth, J., The Byzantine-Arab Chronicle (938-1034) of Yahya b. Sa'id Al-Antaki (Ann Arbor 1977), p. Eine prosopographisch-sigillographische Studie (Byzantina Vindobonensia 9, Wien 1976), p. 37.

7. On the location see Seibt, W., Die Skleroi: Eine prosopographisch-sigillographische Studie (Byzantina Vindobonensia 9, Wien 1976), p. 38, n. 98.

8. Forsyth, J., The Byzantine-Arab Chronicle (938-1034) ofYahya b. Sa'id Al-Antaki (Ann Arbor 1977), p. 378, and Kamer, S., Emperors and Aristocrats in Byzantium 976-1081 (Ann Arbor 1983), pp. 37-38, relying on the Chronicle of Yahya b. Sa'id, report that the first clash took place immediately after the capture of Melitene, when Constantinople sent against Skleros Michael Bourtzes and Eustathios Maleinos, who were, however, defeated by the rebel close to Melitene and retreated.

9. Kamer, S., Emperors and Aristocrats in Byzantium 976-1081 (Ann Arbor 1983), p. 391, n. 39, considers it more likely that Sachakios Brachamios participated in the revolt on the side of Bardas Skleros from the beginning.

10. There is a second account, according to which Bardas Phokas led a part of his army to Iberia to seek the support of David. As Kamer, S., Emperors and Aristocrats in Byzantium 976-1081 (Ann Arbor 1983), pp. Seibt, W., Die Skleroi: Eine prosopographisch-sigillographische Studie (Byzantina Vindobonensia 9, Wien 1976), p. 37. 44-45.

11. This view has been erroneously supported by certain scholars, who, relying on Skylitzes, argue that the battle did not take place at Pangaleia; at this point the Byzantine chronicler confuses the final battle of March 24, 979 (which was fought in an area mentioned in a Georgian inscription as Sarvenisni and is identified with the Roman place-name Aquae Saravenae) with the battle of Pangaleia in the June of 978. Seibt, W., Die Skleroi: Eine prosopographisch-sigillographische Studie (Byzantina Vindobonensia 9, Wien 1976), p. 37. 47-48, and Forsyth, J., The Byzantine-Arab Chronicle (938-1034) of Yahya b. Sa'id Al-Antaki (Ann Arbor 1977), p. 386.