Basil’s Thunderbolt: Niketas Ooryphas, Part II

Today we continue the story of Niketas Ooryphas, a shadowy Byzantine admiral who appears on three occasions in the 10th century Life of Basil, a document praising the Emperor Basil I as  a restorer of order after the disastrous reign of the immoral and diabolical Michael III.  Niketas’ exploits, as I suggested yesterday, create real problems for interpreting the later use of the diolkos of Corinth, the trans-isthmus portage road.

In the Life of Basil, Basil comes to the throne and encounters anarchic conditions in the western territories of the Roman (Byzantine) empire.  Italy and Sicily are overcome by pirates from Carthage, the Adriatic regions have asserted their own autonomy, and the Aegean is plagued by marauding pirates from Crete.  Basil sends Niketas to deal forcefully with plundering Arab pirates and Christian renegades.  Niketas shows up three times in the Life.

In the first appearance, in about the year 868 AD, pirates were wreaking havoc on the coastal towns of Dalmatia and laying siege to the metropolis, Ragusa.  The inhabitants send a delegation to the Emperor Basil, who responds by equipping a fleet of 100 ships under the command of the patrician Niketas Ooryphas, a man “distinguished above all others by shrewdness and experience.”  Basil sends Niketas like a burning thunderbolt against the enemy.  News of his approach causes the pirates to scurry off to menance other places.

We next meet Niketas a year or two later in Italy coming to relieve the city of Bari which our pirates are now besieging.

Niketas’ third and final appearance in the Vita Basilii tells of successive engagements in 872 with Cretan pirates sent out by the Emir Saet, the son of Abu Hafs, under the leadership of a man named Photius, evidently an ex-Christian rebel.  With a fleet of large decked ships and smaller pirate galleys, Photius has been plundering, kidnapping, and killing in Aegean regions as far as the Hellespont.  In the first engagement near the Thracian Chersonese, Niketas devastates the Cretan squadron with Greek fire, burning 20 Cretan vessels.  Those who escape regroup, and, as the chronicle puts it,

“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 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 and much experience, he immediately undertook the deed of carrying his ships over dry land across the Corinthian Isthmus.”

Having crossed the Isthmus, Niketas confounded and terrified his enemies so much that they forgot their courage and could not group themselves for battle.  Niketas overwhelmed the pirates,  burning and sinking the ships, killing those aboard.  He also executed their admiral Photius and scattered his men in flight across the Peloponnese.  Like a hunter, he netted the escapees and caught them alive, devising horrible deaths that were fitting, the narrator notes, for those who had denied their Christian baptism.

The last image then that we have of Niketas Ooryphas, the patrician and admiral of the Roman fleet, is a man contriving clever tortures against Christian apostates and striking terror against the enemies of the Byzantine Empire.   One certainly gets the sense that Basil’s thunderbolt, Niketas Ooryphas, was not someone to mess with.

Tomorrow we’ll consider the question of whether Niketas actually portaged his ships over the Corinthian Isthmus.  For the problem that Niketas Ooryphas creates for interpreting the diolkos of Corinth, see yesterday’s post.

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