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“Basil’s Thunderbolt: Niketas Ooryphas and the Portage of the Corinthian Isthmus” David K.

Pettegrew, Messiah College ************************************************************** 37th Byzantine Studies Conference Chicago, Illinois Session 1B: Middle Byzantine History October 21, 2011 ************************************************************** I. Introduction In 872 AD, the Byzantine admiral Niketas Ooryphas allegedly portaged a fleet of dromons over the 6 km Isthmus of Corinth and gained a smashing victory over his enemies in the Corinthian Gulf. The remarkable story of the admiral and his defeat of the pirates was an enduring one in Byzantine history, reappearing in chronicles spanning the 10th to 16th centuries. The origin of the story, however, can be traced to a single source, the mid-10th century Vita Basilii, preserved in the collection of chronicles known as Theophanes Continuatus. In this Vita, commissioned or even composed by Basil’s, grandson Constantine VII, we meet the hero Ooryphas and hear of his surprising portage. Niketas surfaces in the document as one of the emperor’s capable generals and naval commanders who engage enemies of the state and restore order after the disastrous reign of Michael III. Michael’s neglectful rule has left the west in a state of disorder and anarchy. Italy and Sicily have been overcome by pirates from Carthage; formerly Byzantine regions of the Adriatic have asserted their autonomy; and once Christian populations have rejected their baptisms. With the ascension of Basil to power, Niketas is sent as the emperor’s agent to deal forcefully and decisively with both Muslim pirates and Christian renegades.1


For modern accounts of these campaigns and the chronology, see Runciman 1988, 212-216; Nicol 1988, 30-33; Tobias 2007, 124-126, 154, 160-163, 311 n.47-50, 323 n.87-90; Treadgold 1997, …-457. Tobias argues (p. 124?) against Vasiliev’s later date in the early 880s because (p. 124?) Nasar had replaced Niketas by 880 AD as droungarios.


The document ascribes to Niketas three naval campaigns that are usually dated to the late 860s to early 870s. In the first, we hear that “Hagarenes” from Carthage are pirating the coastal towns of Dalmatia and have laid siege to its metropolis Ragusa. The desperate inhabitants resist and send a delegation of elders to beg the Emperor to aid those under control of the Christdeniers. Basil responds graciously by fitting out a fleet of 100 ships under the charge of the patrician Niketas, called Ooryphas, who was the drougarios of the fleet and a man “distinguished above all others by shrewdness and experience.” The king sends out the commander like a burning thunderbolt against his enemies, and news of his imminent arrival to Ragusa causes the brigands to scurry away to menace other places. Niketas’ second campaign follows in the subsequent chapters of the life discussing the reduction of Italy by the same Saracen plunderers. Bari is now under siege. The emperor Basil prudently recognizes the difficulty of the war in Italy and arranges an alliance with the Pope and King of the Franks, also enlisting the subject peoples of the Adriatic. This great force gathered together is under the control of Niketas. While the narrator tells us little about the admiral’s actions, he does note that it was because of his superior “manly spirit and judgment” that the city was so easily retaken. Subsequent chapters of the Vita survey the intrigues of Soldan in Italy, and Esman, emir of Tarsus, at Euripos, before turning to the final campaign of Niketas. A new whirlwind of pirates has afflicted the empire, this time from Crete, sent out by the Emir Saet (Sael), the son of Abu Hafs. Under the leadership of a formerly Christian rebel named Photius, this fleet of large decked ships and smaller pirate galleys plunders, kidnaps, and kills throughout the Aegean. Niketas meets the enemy first near the Thracian Chersonese, devastating the Cretan squadron with Greek fire, burning 20 ships and killing the barbarians onboard. Those who escape regroup, but Niketas is sent again with fiery vengeance. With favorable winds, he reaches the Peloponnese within a few days, and coming to anchor at Kenchreai, he learns of the pirates wreaking terror in the west near Methone, Patras, and Corinth. Then the narrator notes,2 “He devised a plan both brilliant and skillful. For he did not wish to circumnavigate the Peloponnese, rounding Cape Malea via the sea and covering a distance of thousands of miles while losing valuable time. But in the position he held, at night with many hands


Bekker 1838, p. 300.


and much experience, he immediately undertook the deed of carrying his ships over dry land across the Corinthian Isthmus.” This surprise attack left his enemies so terrified, confounded, mixed up, that they forgot their courage and could not group themselves for battle. The result was a complete victory for the patrician and awful deaths for the enemies. The narrator notes that Niketas easily overwhelmed the hostile fleet, burning some ships and sinking others, killing some men by sword and drowning others. Killing their commander, he sent the survivors in flight across the Peloponnese. But like a hunter with wild animals, he netted the escapees and caught them alive, subjecting them to awful punishments that are disturbing in their explicit narration of religious violence. He flayed the former Christians among the group who had denied their baptism, telling them that their skin did not belong to them. He attached others to beams and dipped them in kettles of pitch, telling them that a gloomy baptism had been alloted them. The last image that we have of Niketas Ooryphas is a man contriving fitting punishments for Christian apostates and burning the enemies of the state with terror. In rapidly executing strategy and delivering punishment, the admiral appears as a burning thunderbolt who has struck his enemies with sudden and painful punishments for their crime.

The Realities of Portaging Modern scholars who have surveyed the political history of the middle Byzantine centuries have often passed over the portage of Niketas as unworthy of comment, or simply repeated it as an historical fact in a skeleton chronicle of the ninth century. This unproblematized reading of the account of the portage has followed the seamless narrative, which glosses in only two sentences the admiral’s brilliant strategic maneuver. But this literal reading also reflects the problematic modern notion that it was relatively easy to move a wooden ship over a narrow land bridge in the premodern era. The idea that portaging ships was an ordinary activity reflects scholarly opinion about the archaeological monument known as the diolkos of Corinth, the ancient trans-Isthmus road running between Corinthian and Saronic Gulfs. The predominant modern interpretation of the diolkos is that it functioned as a route for regular ship portaging—as though galleys and sailing vessels were transferred overland daily, or even hourly—much like modern ships passing through the canal. When the story of Niketas Ooryphas’ portage is read against an imagined operation of constant transfer of ships, it hardly 3

appears abnormal. Niketas’ maneuver is only unusual in so far as it marks a chronological outlier to the recorded portages of antiquity. However, this literal read of the Niketas episode immediately falters when the realities of moving large wooden vessels six to seven km over land are considered. In the ancient and Byzantine world, it was never easy to move out of water vessels 20-30 m long, 4.5 m wide, 4 m high, and over 20 tons in weight—about twice the length and width of an 18 wheeler tractor trailer truck. Indeed, the designers of the Olympias, the modern replica of an ancient trireme, calculated that a full crew of 150 men could lift and move a 20-25 ton trireme no more than 1030 cm out of the water by strength alone. A law in classical Athens even prohibited launching triremes with fewer than 120 men or hauling up triremes with less than than 140. Ancient and medieval galleys were simply too large and too heavy to move long distances by physical strength alone. Equipment was necessary, as was a major supply of labor, and with them time and money. The transfer of fleets over isthmuses demanded an extraordinary and heroic operation. The topographic realities of the Corinthian Isthmus, in particular, made portages of this land bridge especially marvellous. The narrowest part of the land bridge spans 6,000 meters and climbs steeply from sea level to an elevation of 80+ meters at the spine, rising and climbing at an average slope of 2-3%. Our handful of ancient accounts of military galleys being transferred over the Isthmus suggest laborious, costly, and time-consuming endeavors that were extraordinary in their day. Thucydides, for example, notes that in 428 BC, an army of Peloponnesians had to prepare special dragging devices called holkoi for hauling ships over the land bridge; the Spartans, the historian notes, worked zealously in making preparations for a portage that never even occurred. Polybius tells us that Demetrius of Pharos’ transfer of vessels in 220 BC came only after some significant outlay of money used to prepare for the transfer. A remarkable inscribed poem from Corinth records the transfer of the Roman proconsul Marcus Antonius’ fleet in 102-101 BC as an athletic feat that no one had ever before achieved; Marcus Antonius and his colleague Hirrus boast that the portage followed great planning, demanded only a few days, involved only limited confusion, and resulted in no injury or death. Such accounts demonstrate that dragging a fleet over the Corinthian Isthmus was a protracted enterprise that required, minimally, some apparatus for moving the vessels, some labor supply, some days time, and a well thought out plan. 4

The notion that Niketas Ooryphas transferred 100 ships in the darkness of a single night is impossible to accept given what we know about the Isthmus, ancient comparative episodes of portaging, and logistics required for such an operation. While one could argue that there is some kernal of truth to the story that was later elaborated and embellished, it is much easier to view the portage itself as an invention of a 10th century author well aware of his ancient history.

The Significance of Portaging In the immediate context of its narrative, the portage marks an extraordinary and heroic action that enlivens and dramatizes Basil’s restoration of order in the Aegean through capable admirals. In this respect, it signals a continuity in the way that historians traditionally narrated the overland transfer of fleets in times of war. In the genre of ancient history, overland portages functioned as stratagems that drew attention to the skillful and clever military genius of generals and admirals, who deceived their enemy via quick retreats or surprise attacks. The Roman writer Frontinus, for instance, notes in his book on strategems that an admiral ought to know “how to escape from difficult situations.”3 He gives the example of Lysander the Spartan who, when blockaded with his entire fleet in one of the harbors of Piraeus, secretly disembarked his men and carted his fleet into an adjacent harbor. Polyaenus, another author of stratagems, provides as an example Dionysius I of Syracuse, who, when similarly blockaded in the harbor of Motya, laid down wooden rollers and transported out 80 ships in a single day. Thucydides and Polybius both describe the conveyance of ships over the Corinthian Isthmus as furtive strikes intended to catch the enemy unaware, while Cassius Dio notes that Octavian’s transfer over the same Isthmus enabled him to surprise and make gains on Antony and Cleoptra. For the writers of ancient history and books on strategy, portaging functioned to illustrate devices for dramatic attack, escape, and strategic maneuver that drew attention to the brilliance and capability of the general or admiral. To this end, ancient historians described portages over the Corinthian Isthmus in somewhat standard terms. They treat the Isthmus as a landscape separating two opposing forces in opposite gulfs. Since any reader would have recognized the overland movement of ships as extraordinary, they often provide some rationale for why the transfer occurred, or explain how it occurred without saying very much at all. They note the secrecy of the event and the intention of

Frontinus 1.5.7.


surprise attack, retreat, or evasion. They comment on the rapidity, immediacy, or diligence of the porters. And they note the result of the portage and relate it the character of the porters. Niketas’ portage over the Isthmus follows this general pattern. The author sets the scene by referring to the geography of the two gulfs, one occupied by the enemy, the other by the Byzantines, and he places Niketas’ fleet at Kenchreai. He ascribes to the admiral a good motivation, grounded in ancient conceptions of Peloponnesian geography: he did not wish to circumnavigate the Peloponnese, losing valuable time while rounding Cape Malea. The narrator summarily notes how the portage occurred without really explaining anything at all: “with many hands, with much experience.” He highlights the secrecy of the event by setting the portage in darkness and catching the enemy unaware, and he makes the immediate and rapid manner of action occur within a single night. The result of the portage is a complete victory for the Byzantines and glory for Basil. The narrator’s earlier comments about the character of Niketas are confirmed: he is as decisive and immediate as a thunderbolt, striking and dominating the enemy when least expected. As a stratagem, Niketas’ portage provides a good example of what Kaegi, Haldon, and others have described as the general middle Byzantine attitude to war: avoid pitched battles, minimize loss, launch surprise attacks, use deception when possible.4 The sources for Niketas’ stratagem, in fact, are not hard to track down. Collections of strategems and tactics that had circulated in the Roman and Late Antique periods were popular again throughout the 10th century. And the two principal historical sources for ancient portages over the Corinthian Isthmus, Thucydides and Polybius, were, of course, known to 10th century writers interested anew in the classical past.5 At the end of the century, we find commentary in the Suda on two Corinthian portages from Polybius as well as a scholion explaining a portage implicit from two lines in a play of Aristophanes. Niketas’ portage specifically calls to mind Polybius’ description of Philip’s transfer of ships into the Corinthian Gulf in 217 BC in an effort to catch an Illyrian fleet off guard. And even Niketas’ capture of the enemy—described in terms of a hunter netting wild animals—evokes passages like the one in Maurice’s Strategikon that depicts the best military strategy as a hunter making use of stratagems for scouting, stalking, and netting wild animals.

See Kaegi 1983; Haldon 1999, pp. 34-42; Pryor and Jeffreys, 2006, 382-406 on naval strategy and secret stratagems. 5 Kazhdan 2006, 314-315; Kaledellis 2007, 180-181.


The stories about Niketas Ooryphas, then, show an awareness of historical and tactical texts that were suitable to the literary climate of the mid-10th century when the court of Constantine VII showed, as Kazhdan noted, a certain nostaligia for the classical past. The portage, of course, only makes sense in light of real Byzantine engagements and failures in the Aegean in the 9th and 10th centuries. Crete had fallen to Muslims in the 820s and was virtually out of control until the conquest of Nikephoras Phokas in 961, this despite repeated campaigns to reclaim the island.6 The reference to the Isthmus of Corinth in the Vita is the first recorded instance of the phrase in Greek documents in some 500 years and indicates that the landbridge has become a strategic arena again between east and west. The portage of Niketas over the Isthmus marks a brief moment of spectacular and heroic naval success during a generally inconsistent period of Byzantine naval affairs in the Aegean. Beyond the 10th century, the story of the cunning and heroic admiral upsetting the enemy proved a popular one re-presented and reinterpreted in later chronicles. The story appears slightly rephrased in John Skylitzes’ Synopsis of Histories, with only a couple of minor additions and a single ommission,the line about Niketas comparing torture with rebaptism. On the other hand, punishment was the compelling aspect of the story as represented in the illustrated manuscript of John Scylitzes in Madrid. Here, we can see Niketas represented as a man sitting and dispensing clever and horrific tortures; the artist has even imagined punishments that the narrative does not mention. At roughly the same time, John Zonaras provides a concise summary, reducing the length of the account by over half. The portage is described in a single sentence, and the horrible punishments have disappeared: Niketas is simply a man skilled in war. The final representation of the Niketas legend appears in the 16th century Longer Chronicle of Pseudo-Sphrantzes, usually ascribed to Makarios Melissenos. In this account, written in years under Ottoman rule, the author draws freely from earlier sources, repeating many phrases, but also elaborating in interesting new ways like locating the site of the portage. The pirate enemy of earlier accounts is no longer a mixed group of formerly Christian rebels and Muslims controlling Crete, and Photius, the ex-Christian antagonist of the earlier stories, has disappeared entirely. The enemy now consists of a homogeneous Muslim Hagarenes who are menacing Christians. And Niketas has grown in significance as a “a man marvellously strong,


Tobias 2007, 125, has noted eight separate campaigns from the 820s to 950 to reclaim Crete . This list includes 820s, 843, 866, 911, and 949.


energetic, and experienced in all forms of warfare of land and sea, who knew devices (μηχανὰς) like no other.” These devices include especially the portage of the Isthmus, which marked a “great strategem and splendid deed worthy of memory.” Melissenos notes this portage three times, the final as a tangent to his account of the Ottoman siege of Constantinople, in which Mehmet II built a wooden slipway over the Galata peninsula and rolled his fleet into the Golden Horn. This “amazing feat” and “most excellent strategem” makes Melissenos think that Mehmet was imitating Octavian Augustus’ crossing of the Isthmus in his campaign against Mark Antony, or perhaps the patrician Niketas who had repeated the move in his engagement with the Cretan pirates. In fact, Melissenos himself may have been thinking of two altogether different portages: the Carthaginian Hannibal’s transfer of ships via greased rollers from the city of Tarentum to its harbor in 212 BC, and the portage in 907 AD of Prince Oleg, who, in besieging Constantinople, allegedly outfitted 2,000 ships with wheels, hoisted the sails, and caught a favorable wind that carried his fleet into the Golden Horn. Whether or not any of these related portages actually occurred, or were themselves as legendary as the portage of 872, it is clear that the admiral’s brilliant accomplishment—the crossing of the Isthmus with ships—fit perfectly within a historical tradition for narrating dramatic overland portages. Like the portages of antiquity, the transfer of fleets in 872 marked a brilliant stratagem that provided an immediate and tangible proof of the admiral’s strength—like a bolt of thunder sent by the emperor.