1. Historical context
Following his victory over Bardas Skleros during the rebellion of 976-979, Emperor Basil II (976-1025) remained in power, always under the guardianship of the Basil Lekapenos, who was the real ruler of the state. The tes Anatoles (= of the East) Bardas Phokas played a significant role in the administration; following his victory over Skleros (979), he remained supreme commander of the army and handled all military affairs. Following his defeat, Skleros had sought refuge in the court of Baghdad accompanied by 300 of his comrades. There the Adud ad-Daula, and then Samsam ad-Daula and Saraf ad-Daulam, kept him under confinement for a considerable amount of time, until late in 986. The Byzantines had sent two embassies requesting Skleros be handed over, but no such agreement was made. Late in 985, in a surprise move Basil II had banished the parakoimomenos Basil Lakapenos and had taken the administration of the state into his own hands. At the same time he demoted Bardas Phokas from domestikos ton scholon tes Anatoles to of Antioch,1 seeking thus to curtail his power and influence among the troops. For this reason he personally led a campaign against the Bulgarians in the spring of 986. The defeat of the imperial forces by Samuel in August of 986 at Triaditsa (modern Sophia) was a major blow to his prestige. The dire situation in the interior of the empire, due to the military nobility’s disgruntlement at Basil’s attempts to limit their power, was compounded by Skleros’ return. Believing that the time was ripe for him to reassert his claims to the throne, Skleros made an agreement with Saraf ad-Daulam (December 986 or January 987) and, having pledged the surrender of fortresses and the release of Arab prisoners inside the Byzantine dominion, he left Baghdad.
2. The rebellion of Bardas Skleros
2.1. The outbreak of the rebellion
Bardas Skleros together with his brother Constantine, his son Romanos and 300 comrades, having secured during his departure from the caliphate the alliance of some Arab tribes, invaded in February of 987 the Byzantine lands. Initially he captured the city of Melitene, where he arrested its governor, Kulaib, and appropriated the treasury and seized military equipment. He then proclaimed himself emperor (spring of 987). Apart from his Arab helpers, he managed to secure the support of the Armenians, who had also been his allies during the revolt of 976-979, as well as that of the Kurdish of Amida, who reinforced him with a considerable number of troops. Basil, due to the unfavourable conditions that prevailed in the empire’s interior, restored (between April and May of 987) Bardas Phokas to his post as domestikos ton scholon tes Anatoles, aiming to use him against Skleros, as he had done during the latter’s earlier rebellion (976-979). Phokas, however, was still displeased over his earlier displacement. He came to an understanding with many persons belonging to the aristocracy of Asia Minor, and having collected a significant number of troops in the theme of Charsianon, under the pretence that he intended to face Skleros, he asked to enter negotiations with the rebel in the summer of 987. Skleros, realizing that he was in an unfavourable position, as Phokas controlled most of the empire’s eastern troops, accepted the proposal and sent his brother Nikephoros to propose to Bardas Phokas an alliance and the partition of the empire. He probably wished to keep the largest part of the empire’s eastern section for himself.2 At the same time, though, he dispatched his son, Romanos Skleros, to Emperor Basil II: they had agreed that his son was to feign desertion in order to gain access to the imperial camp in case the rebellion failed.
2.2. Suppression of the rebellion
Bardas Phokas accepted Skleros' alliance proposal and ceded to him the regions of Antioch, Phoenike, Syrian Koile and Mesopotamia, where he was most popular and powerful. Thus, Skleros arrived to Cappadocia (probably early in September of 987) in order to join forces with Phokas and wage a combined campaign. Phokas, however, who had in the meantime proclaimed himself emperor in the estates of Maleinos in Cappadocia (August 15, 987),3 in a surprise move arrested Skleros and his brother Constantine together with his followers, and confined them to the fortress of Tyropoios.4 From there, Skleros was forced to follow the unfolding of the events for a considerable amount of time as an onlooker. On April 13, 989 Bardas Phokas was killed in Abydos, following his defeat by the troops of Basil II, and his army was disbanded. After this development the widow of Bardas Phokas released Skleros, who proclaimed himself emperor again, and attempted to rally the remnants of Phokas’ army, a part of which, under Phokas’ son Nikephoros, returned to Tyropoios. At the same time, he tried to gain the support of another son of Phokas, Leo, who was still governor of Antioch. He also sought to enter into a new alliance with the Arabs, as well as with the Iberian and the Armenian allies of Phokas. The emperor's conciliatory initiative, in which the emperor’s brother Constantive VIII played a key role, resulted in Skleros renouncing his claims and accepting the office of . The main reason behind the rebel’s final submission (October 989) was, apart from his advanced age, the change in the political scene in the caliphate of Baghdad,5which no longer allowed him to rely on his Arab allies.
The outbreak of Bardas Skleros’ rebellion occurred in a critical for Basil II period, when the emperor was fighting to rid himself of his political guardians and take the administration of the empire into his own hands. Skleros’ return shortly after Basil’s defeat by Samuel (August 986) on the one hand forced the emperor to neglect the Bulgarian front once more, while it also placed him in a difficult position vis-à-vis the powerful representatives of the military nobility and especially Bardas Phokas, who he had tried to sideline by curtailing their power and influence among the troops. The need to face Skleros resulted in the emperor’s temporary renouncement of his policy of curtailing the nobility’s strength, which left him vulnerable and allowed Bardas Phokas the opportunity to launch his own rebellion. The suppression of Bardas Skleros’ rebellion in October of 989 signals the end of a period during which the powerful representatives of the military nobility of Asia Minor dominate the political scene, playing a key role in the administration of the state and challenging the rightful authority of the Macedonian dynasty rulers and especially of Basil II. With the submission of Skleros and the death of Phokas, Basil manages to finally subdue the two great aristocratic families, the Skleroi and the Phokas, who thanks to their links with the imperial throne had been the main source of challenges to Basil’s rule. Henceforth, the administration of the empire comes exclusively under the purview of the emperor, who now remains the sole and indisputable political and military leader.
1. This piece of information is drawn by the Arab historian Yahya b. Sa'id. See Forsyth, J., The Byzantine-Arab Chronicle (938-1034) of Yahya b. Sa'idAl-Antaki (Ann Arbor 1977), p. 429.
2. Seibt, W., Die Skleroi: Eine prosopographisch-sigillographische Studie (Byzantina Vindobonensia 9, Wien 1976), p. 52.
3. The Arab historian Yahya b. Sa'id dates the proclamation of Phokas as emperor to September 14, 987, following Skleros’ arrest. See Forsyth, J., The Byzantine-Arab Chronicle (938-1034) of Yahya b. Sa'id Al-Antaki (Ann Arbor 1977), p. 430.
4. This is the name of the fortress in the Chronicle of John Skylitzes. For more information on its appellation, see Seibt, W., Die Skleroi: Eine prosopographisch-sigillographische Studie (Wien 1976), pp. 53-54.
5. The death of Caliph Saraf ad-Daulam inaugurated a period of renewed civil conflict within the caliphate. Seibt, W., Die Skleroi: Eine prosopographisch-sigillographische Studie (Wien 1976), p. 55.