Niketas Ooryphas in the Chronicon Maius (16th century)

Here’s the final installment of the translation of later Greek texts about the 9th century Byzantine admiral, Niketas Ooryphas.  Most scholars who have worked on the diolkos have cited Pseudo-Sphrantzes’ Chronicon Maius (“Longer Chronicle”) as the only later evidence for Niketas dragging his fleet.  But as previous posts on the Life of Basil, John Skylitzes & George Kedrenos, and John Zonaras indicate, the stories about Niketas are early ones that go back to the 10th century Life of Basil (in Theophanes Continuatus), and the 11-12th century Skylitzes / Kedrenos versions of those stories.

Pseudo-Sphrantzes’ Chronicon Maius (Longer Chronicle) is based on George Sphrantzes’ 15th century Chronicon Minus (Shorter Chronicle) but has been expanded significantly by a later 16th century author, almost certainly  Makarios Melissenos, the metropolitan bishop of Monemvasia in the late 1500s.  The evidence that scholars typically cite for Niketas crossing the isthmus, then, comes from Makarios Melissenos’ Chronicon Maius. This 16th century account gives us yet another version of the story of Niketas’ dragging his fleet, as well as two additional comments in other parts of the text.  My translation of these texts will live here

Melissenos’ first reference to Niketas occurs on p. 236 of the Bekker 1838 edition.  While discussing the construction of the trans-isthmus Hexamilion wall, Melissenos notes that:

“The patrician Niketas called Ooryphas was also once in this place.  After transporting the ships, that is to say, the triremes of the Romans, across the dry land of the Isthmus from the Helladic Sea to the western Gulf, he put to flight the Cretan Hagaranes.  But how and why this great strategem and deed notable and worthy of memory had happened, I will not omit, but will make known later in the narrative.”

.It’s interesting that Melissenos reads the event  as a “great strategem” and heroic and memorable deed.  This was not, in Melissenos’ mind, an ordinary event.

The full version comes on p. 242, and here I set the Chronicon Maius text in parallel with the Life of Basil.

Vita Basilii, in Theophanes Continuatus,  Chronographia (10th century) 

60.  Thus when the cloud had been scattered, opposing winds again blew from Crete.  For when Saet, son of Abu Hafs, 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 myoparonesand penteconters, 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.”

Makarios Melissenos, Chronicon Maius (16th century) 

The Hagarenes held authority over such a large island [Crete], in the manner, which we noted, making long ships and ruling the sea, imitating in this way Minos, they were pirating and plundering the Cycladic islands.  And they were wreaking much havoc daily against the Christians.  And when 407 years had passed, when Basil the Macedonian was king, Sael was the ruler of Crete, son of  Abu Hafs, the one who had taken Crete, he made use of long pirate ships (which are now called galleys), numbering about 300 triremes, 22 komparia (larger ships), and other pirate ships. Setting out from Crete, he was pirating the islands in the Aegean Sea. Then he overtook the island of Pelops and grieved the islands below it, Zakynthos and Kephallenia.  This was made known to this king through the post.  And having equipped a sufficient force he sent it against them, appointing as droungarion of the powerful fleet the patrician Niketas, a man marvellously strong and energetic and experienced in all forms of warfare of land and sea, who knew devices like no other.

On account of the most pleasant north wind, he reached the Peloponnese within a few days.  And having arrived in the harbor of Kenchreai, as it is said, learning then that the enemy ships were pirating the western part of the Peloponnese, Methone and Pylos and Glarentzaas and Patras and the other lands thence, he devised a plan brilliant and skillful in thought.  And the plan and reason and deed happened straightaway.  For dizzying at the thought of circumnavigating the Peloponnese around Taenarus and Epidaurus and Cape Malea and Netaros, a difficult voyage, and to sail around covering a distance of thousands of miles and losing valuable time, so he held to this straight course: on this night across the Corinthian Isthmus, close to the moat where the wall of the Isthmus had run, a multitude of hands at work, he transported his ships over dry land.  Loading on board the ships the people and his warring men beyond the sufficient number, as much as he was able, he undertook the deed.

And the enemy Cretans expecting nothing—for at Malea they positioned their quick ships to guard by day and night for any of the Roman fleet coming against them—and in this way he suddenly made an attack on them and confounding them and throwing them into confusion, they turned to escape.  And so some of the enemy ships he burned with liquid fire, others he sunk, others he captured.  And the barbarians he killed by sword and drowning, and executing the admiral and ship master, the rest he compelled to be scattered across the island, and capturing them all alive and netting them, he inflicted different punishments on them.

And in this way the Cretan Hagarenes appearing exceedingly afraid, being amazed at the strategy and devices of the Romans.  And suffering such sudden destruction, being afraid and lacking courage, they were quiet for some time and were compelled to offer tribute to King Basil.  And about 10 years passing the barbarians again did not cease to carry out their customs and pirate the islands, and they ignored and did not send the tribute promised to those ruling.


Melissenos mentions Niketas only one other time, in his description of the siege of Constantinople in 1453, when Mehmet II built a road made of wooden planks between the Bosporus Strait and the Golden Horn.  Having greased it with animal fat, he transported his fleet into the harbor.  The event makes Melissenos think of Octavian and Niketas:

“And this was an amazing deed and most excellent strategem of naval fighting.   I believe that in this he imitated Caesar Augustus who, after his battle with Antony and Cleopatra, was unable to sail around the Peloponnese on account of the tossing sea and the opposing winds.  He came rather across the isthmus, dragging his fleet to the eastern shore of the Helladic Sea, and he quickly passed to Asia.  Or perhaps he was imitating the patrician Niketas who, also having crossed his triremes over the Isthmus from the Helladic Sea into the western gulf, put to flight the Cretans at Methone and Pylos.

Well then, the emir brought his triremes in a single night, and they were discovered within the harbor in the morning.”

Some initial observations and questions on these three passages:

1. Makarios Melissenos interpreted the Niketas Ooryphas transfer as a great military strategem that also called to mind the crossing of Octavian.  This was no ordinary portage but brilliant strategic maneuver.

2. Melissenos’ version is the most developed of all the editions since the 10th century Life of Basil.  Toponyms appear that are not in earlier versions of the story: Zakynthos,  Kephallenia, Epidaurus, Netaros.  One feels that Melissenos has added some texture in Peloponnesian geography.

3. Is Melissenos comparing Mehmet II with Hannibal, who also invents this strategem at Tarentum during the 2nd Punic War?  That event certainly comes to mind.

4. Melissenos is the first to place the crossing near the Hexamilion wall, a monument that  appears repeatedly in both the Chronicon Minus and Chronicon Maius.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: