Phocas (Flavius Phocas Augustus), was born in 547 A.D. and was Byzantine Emperor from 602 to 610. He usurped the throne from the Emperor Maurice, and was himself overthrown by Heraclius after losing a civil war.
Phocas was a Greek-speaking native of Thrace, but little else is known. By 600, he was a junior officer in the Byzantine army serving in Maurice's Balkan campaigns. The Avars had defeated the Byzantines in 598, had taken a large number of prisoners, and demanded a ransom. Maurice refused to pay and all the prisoners were killed. Phocas was a member of a delegation sent by the army to Constantinople to complain to the government. The delegation's complaints were rejected.
In 602, to save money, Maurice ordered the Balkan army, then campaigning against the Avars, to winter on the north side of the Danube, rather than their more comfortable base. The army revolted and marched on the capital, with Phocas at its head. Within a month, Maurice's government had collapsed, the Emperor abdicated and fled the city, and Phocas was proclaimed as emperor.
Phocas was crowned in the Church of St. John the Baptist and his wife Leontia was invested with the title of Augusta. Maurice was dragged from his monastic sanctuary at Chalcedon, and killed along with his six younger sons. The bodies were thrown in the sea and their heads displayed in Constantinople.
Phocas's rule was broadly welcomed at first because he lowered taxes, which had been high during the reign of Maurice. He was on good relations with the Church, particularly with Pope Gregory in Rome. The Column of Phocas was the last Imperial monument ever to be erected in the Roman forum.
He soon showed his true nature. He was of grotesque physical appearance with tangled red hair, thick beetling eyebrows and a huge angry scar across his face. He was debauched, drunken and pathologically cruel. It was Phocas that introduced the rack, blindings and mutilations that were to cast a shadow over the succeeding centuries. He faced rising opposition.
The Persian King Khushru II had been helped onto his throne years earlier by Maurice during a civil war in Persia. He now used the death of Maurice as an excuse to break his treaty with the Empire. He came to the aid of Narses, a Byzantine general who refused to acknowledge the new Emperor's authority and who was besieged by troops loyal to Phocas in Edessa. This expedition was part of a war that Khosrau waged against Byzantine forts in northern Mesopotamia, and by 607 or so he had advanced Persian control to the Euphrates. Incredibly, Phocas attempted a forcible conversion of Jews within the Empire. The Jews of Antioch rose up and massacred Christians and both fled to behind the Persian lines.
Other frontiers of the Empire also started to collapse. The Balkans had been pacified under Maurice, with the Avars and Slavs kept at bay. With the removal of the army from the Danube after 605, new attacks started which were to put an end to the Byzantine Balkans.
In 608, the Exarch of Africa, a former general, and his son, both named Heraclius, began a revolt against Phocas. Phocas responded with 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, where he defeated Phocas's army under the cruel Bonosus and captured Alexandria before continuing his advance. Meanwhile, the younger Heraclius sailed with another force to Thessalonica where he collected more men and ships.
On October 3rd 610, the younger Heraclius had reached Constantinople, where most of the military loyal to Phocas had been defeated or had defected. Some prominent aristocrats came to meet Heraclius, and he arranged to be crowned and acclaimed as Emperor. Phocas's Imperial guard unit 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.