Flavius Phocas Augustus, Byzantine Emperor (reigned 602-610), is perhaps one of the most maligned figures to have held the Imperial title in the long history of Byzantium. He usurped the throne from the Emperor Maurice, and was himself overthrown by Heraclius after losing a civil war.
Almost nothing is known of Phocas's early life. He was probably a native of Thrace. By 600, he was a non-commissioned officer in the Byzantine army that served in the Balkans, and apparently was viewed as a leader by his fellow soldiers: he was a member of a delegation sent by the army in that year to Constantinople to submit grievances to the government about Comentiolus, the army's commander. The delegation's complaints were rejected, and, according to several sources, Phocas himself was mistreated by prominent court officials at this time.
In 602, Maurice ordered the Balkan army, then campaigning against the Avars, to winter on the north side of the Danube; the army almost immediately revolted and marched on the capital, with Phocas at its head. Within a month, Maurice's government had collapsed and the various factions in Constantinople acclaimed Phocas as emperor. He was crowned in the Church of St John the Baptist and his wife Leontia was invested with the rank of Augusta. Maurice fled the city, but was soon captured and killed along with most of his sons. It is said that he had watch as his sons were butchered in front of his eyes. However, Phocas made arrangements for a Christian burial for his dead predecessor.
Phocas's rule was welcomed at first by many because he lowered taxes, which had been high during the reign of Maurice. But he also faced great opposition and was regarded by many as a usurper; his coup was the first violent regime change in Constantinople since its foundation by Constantine the Great. He is reported to have responded to this opposition with extreme cruelty, allegedly killing thousands in an effort to keep control of the government. This was probably an exaggeration: no histories actually written under Phocas survive, and thus we are dependent for information on historians writing under his succesors, who had an interest in blackening Phocas' reputation.
Phocas is the dedicatee of the last monument erected in the Roman forum. In Phocas's reign, the Byzantines were sovereign over the city of Rome, although the Pope was the most powerful figure resident in the city. Phocas tended to support the popes in many of the theological controversies of the time, and thus enjoyed good relations with the papacy. Phocas gave the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV for use as a church; in thanks, Boniface erected in the forum the so-called Column of Phocas, which featured an inscription on its base in the emperor's honour. The fluted column, the Corinthian capital atop it, and the marble plinth on which it sits were all scavenged from other monuments. The column still stands today.
It was during Phocas's reign that the traditional frontiers of the Eastern Roman Empire began to collapse. The Balkans had been for some years subject to raiding by Avars and Slavs; with the removal of the army from the Danube, these attacks worsened, and enemy forces penetrated as far as Athens. In the east, the situation was even more grave. The Persian King Chosroes II had been helped onto his throne years earlier by Maurice during a civil war in Persia; now, he used the death of his erstwhile patron as an excuse to break his treaty with the empire. He received at his court an individual claiming to be Maurice's son Theodosius; he arranged a coronation for this pretender and demanded that the Byzantines accept him as emperor. He also took advantage of the chaos that Phocas' usurpation had sowed in the Byzantine military: he came to the aid of Narses, a Byzantine general who refused to acknowedge the new emperor's authority and who was besieged by troops loyal to Phocas in Edessa. This expedition was part of a war of attrition Chosroes waged against Byzantine forts in northern Mesopotamia, and by 607 or so he had advanced Persian control to the Euphrates.
In 608, the Exarch of Africa and his son, both named Heraclius, began a revolt against Phocas, issuing coins depicting the two of them in consular (though not imperial) regalia. Phocas responded with the executions, among them of the ex-Empress Constantina and her three daughters. Nicetas, a nephew of Heraclius the Elder, led an overland invasion of Egypt; the younger Heraclius began to sail westward with another force via Sicily and Cyprus. With the outbreak of civil war came serious urban rioting in Syria and Palestine; Phocas sent his general Bonosus to quell the disturbances and reconquer Egypt. Bonosus dealt with the eastern cities so harshly that his savagery was remembered centuries later; he then took almost the entire eastern army with him to Egypt, where he was defeated by Nicetas after some hard fighting. The Persians took advantage of this conflict to occupy a significant part of the eastern provinces and even begin a penetration into Anatolia.
By 610, the younger Heraclius had reached the vicinity of Constantinople, and most of the military loyal to Phocas had gone down in defeat or defected. Some prominent Byzantine aristocrats came to meet Heraclius, and he arranged to be crowned and acclaimed as Emperor. When he reached the capital, the Excubitors, an elite imperial guard unit led by Phocas's own son-in-law Priscus, deserted to Heraclius, and he entered the city without serious resistance. Phocas was captured and brought before Heraclius, who asked, "Is this how you have ruled, wretch?" Phocas replied, "And will you rule better?" Enraged, Heraclius personally killed and beheaded Phocas on the spot. Phocas's body was mutilated, paraded through the capital, and burned.
The Politics of Usurpation in the Seventh Century: Rhetoric and Revolution in Byzantium, David Michael Olster (Adolf M Hakkert, 1993, ISBN 9025610102)