This is one of several translated excerpts from Byzantine sources produced and mounted with historical introduction and commentary by Paul Stephenson.

Leo the Deacon

Historiae Libri X, ed. C. B. Hase (Bonn, 1828), 84-8 [Book 5]

John Tzimiskes plots the murder of Nikephoros Phokas

(84.24) 6. Enchanting the emperor with these words, (85) as is reasonable, [the empress] bewitched him (for he gave her more favours than was suitable and was absolutely unable to resist her appearance) and persuaded him to let John [Tzimiskes] return quickly to Constantinople. When he had returned to the capital he presented himself before the emperor and returned daily to visit and be received at the palace, going to and fro before he went home. He did not stop visiting the imperial court. Seeing that he was a reckless man by nature and dared more than anyone else, and most recklessly attempted unusual deeds, he devised a plan to creep into [the palace] by certain secret passages prepared by the empress and come together to conspire with her, and to plot the purging of Nikephoros from the palace. Then he sent out to her at intervals robust men vigorous in matters of war, whom she received and hid in a shadowy chamber near her [room]. Then, having conceived together a conspiracy of evil, she laboured at the wicked injustice, she hastened to give birth to the unlawful crime. They assembled again in the customary way and determined to bring the emperor Nikephoros down from power. Returning home from there, John summoned Michael Bourtzes and Leo Pediasmenos and plotted with them behind locked doors the destruction of the emperor Nikephoros. It was 10th December [969].

(86) It is said that in the evening around the time of vespers a certain priest of the palace gave the emperor a note in which the following was written: “Let it be known to you emperor that tonight a fearful death will befall you. So that [you know] this to be the truth, let the women’s quarters be searched, in which armed men will be found who are going to execute your murder.” Well, when the emperor read the note, he ordered Michael, who presided over the chamber, to make a careful search for the men; but he, whether feeling in awe of the empress, or because he delayed, or even led astray by infatuation, left unsearched the room in which was the group of murderous men. When night was already approaching, the empress approached the emperor as usual and spoke about the maidens recently arrived from Bulgaria, saying: “I am going to check on their care, but I shall ‘visit’ you later. Leave the bed chamber unlocked, and don’t close it for now. When I return, I shall close it.” When she said this she left. The emperor then spent whole of the first vigil of the night in his customary prayers to God and applied himself to the study of holy writings. Then, when nature demanded sleep, he lay down on the floor before the holy icons of the God-man image of Christ, and of the Mother of God, and of the divine forerunner and herald [John the Baptist], on top of a leopard skin and scarlet felt.

(87) 7. John’s servants, whom the empress had received, leapt out of the chamber with swords drawn, to await his [John’s] arrival, watching from the roof terrace [or balcony] of the palace. Already the clock showed it was the fifth hour of the night [i.e. around 11pm], and a fierce wind from the north filled the air, and there was much snow. Then John came with his conspirators, sailing along the shore in a little boat and disembarking to land where the stone lion captures the bull. (The place is usually called Boukoleon.) Whistling, he was recognised from above by his servants on the roof [or balcony]. For he had given this signal to the murderers. Therefore, lowering a basket from above with ropes, one after another they raised all the conspirators, and then John himself. Rising, therefore, contrary to all human expectation, with swords bared, they entered the imperial bedroom. But coming across the couch, they found it empty with nobody lying on it, and were petrified with fear and tried to throw themselves down into the sea. But a certain wretched little fellow, from among the servants of the women’s quarters, led the way and pointed out to them the emperor as he lay sleeping. Forming a circle around him they swiftly began to kick him with their feet. When he woke up and propped up his head on his elbow, Leo Balantes struck down violently with a sword. He was severely wounded by (88) the blow( which landed across the brown to the eye, splitting the bone but not hitting the brain) and cried out in a louder voice “Mother of God, help me.” With blood flowing on all sides he was stained red. But John, sitting on the imperial bed, ordered his to be dragged to him. Thus dragged, he sunk down low on the floor (he was unable to rise to his knees for his great strength was sapped by the blow of the sword) and was interrogated threateningly thus: “Tell me, most senseless and malicious tyrant, was it not through my actions that you attained the heights of Roman power?  How therefore did you pay no regard to such a good service? How, blinded by malice and madness, did you thus not hesitate to remove me, your helper, from command of the army? You left me to languish with the rustics in the country like an unworthy vagrant; a man of such noble birth as I, finer than you. At whom the armies of enemies shudder, from whose hands there is not anyone who will now save you.”

Paul Stephenson, June 2003; revised January 2012