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Pettegrew_Niketas Ooryphas_BSC 2011

Pettegrew_Niketas Ooryphas_BSC 2011

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Published by: dpettegrew on Oct 24, 2011
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“Basil’s Thunderbolt:
Niketas Ooryphas and the Portage of the Corinthian Isthmus
 David K. Pettegrew
, Messiah College**************************************************************37
Byzantine Studies ConferenceChicago, IllinoisSession 1B: Middle Byzantine HistoryOctober 21, 2011**************************************************************
I. Introduction
In 872 AD, the Byzantine admiral Niketas Ooryphas allegedly portaged a fleet of 
over the 6 km Isthmus of Corinth and gained a smashing victory over his enemies in theCorinthian Gulf. The remarkable story of the admiral and his defeat of the pirates was anenduring one in Byzantine history, reappearing in chronicles spanning the 10
to 16
centuries.The origin of the story, however, can be tracedto a single source,the mid-10
Vita Basilii
, preserved in the collection of chronicles known as
Theophanes Continuatus
. In this
,commissioned or even composed by B
, grandson Constantine VII, we meet the heroOoryphas 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.
neglectful rule has left the west in a state of disorder and anarchy. Italyand Sicily have been overcome by pirates from Carthage; formerly Byzantine regions of theAdriatic have asserted their autonomy; and once Christian populations have rejected theirbaptisms. 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.
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?)aga
inst Vasiliev’s later date in the early 880s because (p. 124?)
Nasar had replaced Niketas by 880 AD as
The document
ascribes to Niketas three naval campaigns that are usually dated to the late860s to early 870s. In the first, we hear that
from Carthage are pirating the coastaltowns of Dalmatia and have laid siege to its metropolis Ragusa. The desperate inhabitants resistand send a delegation of elders to beg the Emperor to aid those under control of the Christ-deniers. Basil responds graciously by fitting out a fleet of 100 ships under the charge of thepatrician Niketas, called Ooryphas, who was the
of the fleet and
a man “distinguished
above all others by shrewdness and experience.
The king sends out the commander
like aburning thunderbolt 
against his enemies, and news of his imminent arrival to Ragusa causes thebrigands to scurry away to menace other places.Niketas
’ second campaign
follows in the subsequent chapters of the life discussing thereduction of Italy by the same Saracen plunderers. Bari is now under siege. The emperor Basilprudently recognizes the difficulty of the war in Italy and arranges an alliance with the Pope andKing of the Franks, also enlisting the subject peoples of the Adriatic. This great force gatheredtogether is under the control of Niketas. While the narrator
tells us little about the
actions, he does note that it was because of his
superior “
manly spirit and
that the citywas so easily retaken.Subsequent chapters of the
survey the intrigues of Soldan in Italy, and Esman, emirof 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 largedecked ships and smaller pirate galleys plunders, kidnaps, and kills throughout the Aegean.Niketas meets the enemy first near the Thracian Chersonese, devastating the Cretan squadronwith 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 thePeloponnese within a few days, and coming to anchor at Kenchreai, he learns of the pirateswreaking terror in the west near Methone, Patras, and Corinth. Then the narrator notes,
He devised a plan both brilliant and skillful. For he did not wish to circumnavigate thePeloponnese, 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 theircourage and could not group themselves for battle.The result was a complete victory for the patrician and awful deaths for the enemies. Thenarrator notes that Niketas easily overwhelmed the hostile fleet, burning some ships and sinkingothers, killing some men by sword and drowning others. Killing their commander, he sent thesurvivors in flight across the Peloponnese. But like a hunter with wild animals, he netted theescapees and caught them alive, subjecting them to awful punishments that are disturbing in theirexplicit narration of religious violence. He flayed the former Christians among the group whohad denied their baptism, telling them that their skin did not belong to them. He attached othersto beams and dipped them in kettles of pitch, telling them that a gloomy baptism had been allotedthem. The last image that we have of Niketas Ooryphas is a man contriving fitting punishmentsfor Christian apostates and burning the enemies of the state with terror. In rapidly executingstrategy 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 Byzantinecenturies have often passed over the portage of Niketas as unworthy of comment, or simplyrepeated it as an historical fact in a skeleton chronicle of the ninth century. Thisunproblematized 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 literalreading also reflects the problematic modern notion that it was relatively easy to move a woodenship over a narrow land bridge in the premodern era. The idea that portaging ships was anordinary activity reflects scholarly opinion about the archaeological monument known as the
of Corinth, the ancient trans-Isthmus road running between Corinthian and SaronicGulfs. The predominant modern interpretation of the
is that it functioned as a route forregular ship portaging
as though galleys and sailing vessels were transferred overland daily, oreven 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

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