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.”

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