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!

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