Niketas Portages the Isthmus (and exacts fierce vengeance)

Over the next week, I’ll be providing translations of all the Byzantine passages narrating Niketas Ooryphas’ transshipment of vessels over the Corinthian Isthmus in the early 870s AD.  Today’s installment is Theophanes Continuatus Chronographia (pp. 300-301 in the Bekker 1838 edition), which narrates the life of the Emperor Basil I.   See Paul Stephenson’s brief explanation of this source.  This passage dates no later than the mid-10th century and thus occurs within 75 years of Niketas’ portage event.  It proved foundational for John Scylitzes’ later narrative and subsequent editions of the story.

If you read to the end, you’ll see that Niketas Ooryphas was not someone to mess around with!  This translation will live on the following page:

“60.  Thus when the cloud had been scattered, opposing winds again blew from Crete.  For when Saet, son of Apochaps, was governing the island and had as his colleague Photius, a warring and zealous man, twenty-seven kombaria (large military vessels) appeared on Crete.  There was added to these an analogous multitude of myoparones andpenteconters, which people are accustomed to call “saktouras” and “galleys”.  Sailing out with these against the Roman empire and plundering all of the Aegean, they often made attacks as far as the Proconnesus in the Hellespont and captured and killed many people.

Niketas the patrician, mentioned before, who was appointed to command the Roman fleet, made an attack on the Cretan navy.  Engaging in a mighty battle with the enemy, he immediately burned 20 Cretan vessels with liquid fire; as for the barbarians onboard, sword, fire, and drowning were differently apportioned.  Those remaining procured safety by flight—as many as escaped the danger from the sea.

61.  But although the Cretans in this manner were beaten and had turned away in their misfortune, they were not content to remain quiet but again lay claim to affairs through the sea.  With that Photius mentioned above as their admiral, they again troubled and plundered the parts far from the royal city, namely, the Peloponnese and the islands below it.  Therefore, the same Niketas Ooryphas was sent with the Roman fleet against this man.  Niketas by good fortune benefitted from favorable sailing winds and reached the Peloponnese within a few days.  Coming to anchor in the harbor of Kenchreai, and learning that the barbarian fleet was ruining the western part of the Peloponnese, Methone, and Patras, as well as the land near Corinth, he devised a plan both brilliant and skillful.  For he did not wish to circumnavigate the Peloponnese, rounding Cape Malea via sea and covering a distance of thousands of miles while losing valuable time.  But in the position he held, at night with many hands and much experience, he immediately undertook the deed of carrying his ships over dry land across the Corinthian Isthmus.

And he suddenly appeared to his enemies not yet aware of the fact about this move, and confounding their calculations with terror, and on account of the fear from the earlier battle as well as the unforeseen route of approach, he did not allow them at all to get themselves together and to remember their strength, but burning some of the the enemy ships and sinking others, and destroying some of the barbarians with the sword and making others drown in the deep, and killing their leader, he forced the rest to be scattered over the island.  Whom netting them later and catching them alive, he subjected them to different punishments.  For some he tore away the skin of the flesh, especially those having denied their Christian baptism, saying that this skin that was separated from them was not their own; of others he most painfully dragged strips of skin from their head to their ankles; lifting others by some beams, then lowering them down and thrusting them from a rope into kettles filled with pitch, he was saying that a uniquely painful and gloomy baptism had being given them.  And so, having railed violently in this way, exacting fitting punishments for their deeds, and in campaigning through the Roman empire he struck no small amount of terror.”

Drag Your Fleet: Portaging Military Vessels over the Corinthian Isthmus

As I noted in a previous post, I will be giving a paper next week at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America on the subject of “Niketas Ooryphas Drags his Fleet: Portaging the Corinthian Isthmus in 883 AD.”  This remarkable transfer of military vessels in the 9th century is the first known instance of the movement of ships over the Isthmus in some 900 years, and the last known episode of dragging ships over the Corinthian Isthmus.  To get ready for that presentation, I have been combing ancient Greek and Latin literature for ship-dragging episodes both on the Corinthian Isthmus and elsewhere.

The references have been listed many times, but by running complex word searches with Greek and Latin databases TLG and Packard Humanities Institute corpus of Latin literature,  I think I’ve got them all.  I revised the page “Ancient and Byzantine Texts” with hyperlinks to the sources and some discussion of the evidence.

So, here are the specific known instances in chronological order.  Note this list leaves off the “general references” like Pliny, Strabo, and Aristophanes.

428 BC: The Peloponnesians prepare the roadway to transfer ships, but no portaging results.

412 BC: The Pelonnesians cart 21 ships over the isthmus.  This is the only known portage of ships during the Peloponnesian War.

220 BC: Demetrius of Pharos transfers 50 ships over the Isthmus.

217 BC: Philip V transfers 38 ships; his 12 decked ships were too large to be transferred over and have to sail around Cape Malea.

172 BC: A mostly dead King Eumenes is transferred over with his fleet.

102-101 BC: Corinth Inscription published in Corinth VIII.2 no. 1, records Marcus Antonius, grandfather of the famous Mark Antony, dragging a fleet across.  Number

30 BC: Octavian drags ships over the Isthmus allegedly because of the winter weather.  Number of ships unknown.

873 AD: The Byzantine commander Niketas Ooryphas drags his fleet over the Isthmus and catches his enemies, Cretan pirates, by surprise in the Corinthian gulf.  The

Portage of Unknown Date: A fragment of Polybius preserved in the Byzantine Suda references a portage of keletes and hemiolias over the isthmus.  This event apparently refers to a portage over the Isthmus of Corinth but is different from others known from Polybius.

Apostolos Papaphotiou, in his book, Ο διολκος στον Ιστημο της Κορινθο, refers on pp. 124-125 to two western sources of 12th century date but neither provide clear evidence for the movement of ships overland.   The first source, a testimony by Enrico Tino about a boat from the west that ended up in Constantinople, does not state that the boat went over the isthmus.  The second source, Edrisi’s Geographie, appears to be a restatement of Strabo 8.2.1.

My paper basically deals with the chronological problem: why is Niketas Ooryphas the first since Octavian in 30 BC to drag ships?  Why suddenly is a Byzantine admiral dragging ships over the Isthmus?  More soon!

Corinthian Olive Oil

Want some real Greek olive oil produced in the Corinthia?  The Corinthian Olive Oil Company has launched a website for their Agros Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  The oil is processed entirely from Corinthian olives and is simply excellent.

Here’s the blurb from their website:

Agros Extra Virgin Olive Oil was established in 2008 by Tasos Kakouros and his
brother-in-law Sotiris Apostolopoulos.  Tasos had the idea to create Agros when he
visited his wife’s family in the US for the first time and gave them olive oil from the
Corinthia, his region of Greece.  Everyone was impressed by the oil and Tasos decided
to start his own brand of olive oil and to expand his reach to other people and places.
Tasos, together with Sotiris, decided to introduce Agros to chefs and gourmet food
stores, as well as to individual customers. Agros has become a success.

Tasos and Sotiris choose the highest quality extra virgin olive oil from their area of the
Corinthia, only from Manaki olives and only from select farmers.  Each year, after the
harvest of the olives is completed, Tasos and Sotiris personally visit these farmers to
sample the oil, for both taste and acidity (they also take each oil for testing), and collect
the oil and bottle it themselves.  Tasos and Sotiris then export it directly to the Corinthian
Olive Oil Company, founded by Tasos’ in-laws in Elkton, Maryland.  Because each step
in this process is overseen by Tasos or his father-in-law, they can ensure that Agros
Extra Virgin Olive Oil comes directly from the harvest to you.

Intro to Corinth Educational Video (with diolkos)

Thanks to Will Rutherford who pointed me to this Intro to Corinth educational video created by St. Paul enthusiast Russ Wessley to set the scene for St. Paul in Corinth.

The video called “Introduction to Corinth – Part 1” is the first of a series designed to establish the relationship of Paul to Corinth.  The video includes an introduction (start to :54), overview of geography (:54-5:27), history overview (5:28-7:30), and Paul in Corinth overview (7:30-end).

The video is basic but useful for showing the principal conception of the commercial facility of the isthmus.  It also contains some good satellite images and video clips including a fun clip from the History channel of men and animals transporting ships over the diolkos in a light-paced jog! (starting at 4:00).  Can anyone identify the specific History Channel video?

One inaccuracy in the video: Corinth is not “on the wrong side of the line” as he notes in 4:03.

Corinth at the Archaeological Institute of America – January 2011

The annual meeting of the AIA in San Antonio is now only 3-1/2 weeks away.  As usual, there will be a range of papers related to the archaeology of Corinth and the Corinthia.  A summary below, and I include abstracts when available.

SESSION 1D: Colloquium: Travel to Greece between Antiquity and the Grand Tour (Friday, Jan 7, 8:30 AM-11:30 AM)
“Niketas Ooryphas Drags his Fleet: Portaging the Corinthian Isthmus in 883 A.D.” (David K. Pettegrew, Messiah College)


In 883 AD, the Byzantine admiral Niketas Ooryphas dragged a fleet of ships over the Isthmus of Corinth in a naval engagement with Arab pirates.  The episode, preserved in the chronicles of Theophanes Continuatus and the Chronicon Maius of George Sphrantzes, has always created problems for scholars interpreting the use of the Archaic-period diolkos road between the Corinthian and Saronic Gulfs.  Did Niketas actually portage 100 ships in the ninth century AD on the road built by Periander?  Or is the account a literary invention by clever Byzantine writers aware of their ancient history?  If the former, the portage road remained in semi-use for a period of 1,600 years since its construction; if the latter, the texts suggest nothing about the actual operation of the trans-isthmus road.

In this paper, I explore the meanings of this portage episode in terms of literary contexts, the historical tradition of ship transfers, and the physical remnants of the diolkos road.  On the one hand, the accounts state that Niketas constructed a way across the isthmus that suggests he did not use Periander’s road; we will consider his remarkable feat in light of the texts and physical landscape.  On the other, the chronicles highlight the heroic accomplishment of Niketas dragging his fleet and the strategic role of the isthmus for deciding naval engagements.  The episode fits within an ancient literary tradition of using ship portaging as a device for highlighting brilliant tactical maneuvers at key points in historical narration.

“Medieval Pilgrimage to Corinth and Southern Greece” (Amelia R. Brown, University of Queensland)


Today Christian pilgrims often travel to Corinth and southern Greece in the footsteps of Saint Paul. This modern pilgrimage developed only in the last century, alongside archaeological excavation and mass-market tourism to Greece. The Medieval pilgrims who preceded these modern ones, however, are barely studied at all, though sources for them do exist. In this paper, I explore the textual, epigraphic and archaeological evidence for Christian pilgrimage to Corinth and southern Greece from Late Antiquity into the Middle Ages. Though southern Greece generated few saints or monks, the cults of Corinthian martyrs Leonidas and Quadratus each drew pilgrims from outside of Greece to their basilicas. Awareness of Paul’s ministry is also apparent in Corinthian epigraphy, letters of Byzantine bishops, and the placement of churches at Corinth and Athens. Though southern Greece did not compete with the Holy Land or Constantinople as a pilgrimage destination, Corinthians and Athenians did successfully construct both churches and local stories over several centuries to attract Christian travellers. The tangible results of their efforts deserve study, shed new light on the Byzantine cities of Corinth and Athens, and illustrate the phenomenon of Christian pilgrimage to Medieval Greece.

SESSION 1G: Corinth  (Friday, Jan 7, 8:30 AM-11:30 AM)

“Showing Off for the Neighbors: Wealth and Display in Archaic Corinth” (Angela Ziskowski, Bryn Mawr College)

“The Archaic Temple in Roman Corinth: Civic Identity in the Capital of Achaia” (Ann Morgan, University of Texas at Austin)

“Pre-Roman Remains at the East End of the Forum of Corinth: Recent Findings” (Paul Scotton, California State University Long Beach)

“Urbanization and Roman Residential Architecture Southeast of the Forum at Corinth” (James Herbst, ASCSA Corinth Excavations)

“Further Notes on the South Stoa at Corinth: The Roman Interior Colonnade and the Monumental Entrance to the South Basilica” (David Scahill, University of Bath)

“The Captives Facade at Ancient Corinth” (Aileen Ajootian, University of Mississippi)

SESSION 2F: Greek Pottery (Friday, Jan. 7, 12:30-2:30 PM)

“Kraters and Drinking Practices in Hellenistic Corinth” (Sarah James, University of Texas at Austin)

SESSION 6H: Water Systems and Baths (Saturday, Jan. 8, 2:45-5:15 PM)

“Old Excavations and New Interpretations: Recent Investigations in the Sanctuary of Poseidon on the Isthmus of Corinth” (Jon Frey, Michigan State University, and Timothy Gregory, Ohio State University)