The Most Excellent Strategem of Niketas Ooryphas (Part IV)

Today I deliver the final segment of this interpretation of Niketas Ooryphas , the clever and mighty Byzantine admiral who shocked Aegean pirates in the Corinthian Gulf.  As Basil’s thunderbolt, he certainly did not drag his feet in 872 AD, but did he actually drag his fleet?  On Friday, I presented a series of arguments against the historicity of the portage event.

The question of whether he actually portaged the isthmus is, in fact, probably the wrong question to ask.  If we ask, rather, the question of the meaning of the portage within its narrative context, we find a way forward.

The account of ship dragging fleet functions within the narrative of the Life of Basil in two particular ways.  First, carrying ships allows Niketas a direct attack on the enemy that avoids the long navigation around Malea and sets him up to deliver a shocking strike on an enemy totally unaware.  And second, the account, in turn, reinforces the description of Niketas Ooryphas as a shrewd, brilliant, energetic, and decisive admiral.  As someone experienced and knowledgeable in the art of naval war and its devices, he contrives clever and decisive tricks like transporting ships over the isthmus and he shocks and awes the enemy.

The sort of military action that we encounter in the Life of Basil is summed up by the Greek term “strategem.”  A strategem was a skillful and clever military action used by a commander for purposes such as concealing plans, spying, setting ambushes, distracting the enemy, creating panic, retreating, and making surprise attacks.

What is important to highlight is that ancient and Byzantine writers explicitly and implictly recognized the overland movement of ships as a type of strategem.  In some cases, moving ships overland could be used to hasten retreat (e.g., Frontinus 1.5.7), as   Lysander the Spartan did when blockaded in one of the harbors of Piraeus.  Dragging fleets could be used also for surprise attacks on enemies.  Thucydides, Polybius, and Cassius Dio all provide examples of strategic strikes over the Corinthian Isthmus intended to catch the enemy unaware.  And moving ships overland was also heroic extraordinary action, which is why it was associated in antiquity with individuals like Hannibal, Dionysius, the Argonauts, and Alexander the Great.

Niketas Ooryphas dragging his fleet fits the strategem mold quite well: secretive, strategic, heroic.  Byzantine historians themselves understood the event in this way.  In Makarios Melissenos’ later account of the Longer Chronicle, Niketas is depicted as “a man marvellously strong, energetic, and experienced in all forms of warfare of land and sea, who knew devices like no one else.”  In his discussion of the trans-isthmus fortification wall, he refers to Niketas’ portage as a “great strategem and splendid deed worthy of memory” (p. 236).  At another point in his narrative, Melissenos considers the strategem of the Sultan Mehmet II who, in his siege of Constantinople, built a wooden slipway and greased it with animal fat by which he rolled his fleet into the harbor.  This “amazing deed and most excellent strategem of naval fighting” makes Melissenos think that Mehmet was imitating Octavian’s crossing of the Isthmus in his campaign against Mark Antony, or perhaps the patrician Niketas who had repeated the move in his engagement with the Cretan pirates.

Reading the Niketas event as a literary invention, a strategem, fits well the 10th century age of encyclopedic pursuits and the intellectual circle of the emperor Constantine VII, a man remembered for his scholarly and historical interests.  Literary collections of strategems and strategy became popular again in the 10th century when the Taktika of Leo VI and Nikephoros Ouranos, among others, made them available.  The author of the Life of Basil shows clear knowledge of not only the fact that moving ships represented strategem but that the Corinthian Isthmus in particular was a fitting arena to stage such a maneuver.

The Corinthian portage accounts of ancient history were, in fact, well known in the 10th century as evident in direct quotes from them in the anonymous encyclopedia known as the Suda.  And the author of the life of Basil exhibits clear ability to write about portaging ships over the Corinthian Isthmus.  We find all the ingredients common to ancient historical sources: rounding Cape Malea, docking at Kenchreai, the Corinthian Isthmus, a rapid crossing, the deception of enemies, and attempts for direct attack.

The reappearance in 10th century literature of the Isthmus of Corinth —the first contemporary reference in Greek documents to the land bridge in 500 years— reflects the place of Greece and the Isthmus of Corinth in engagements with the west.  The new portage episode reflects the intellectual interests of the court of Constantine VII and an awareness of historical and tactical texts.  As in times past, here we find the Isthmus being used as an arena for situating dramatic naval maneuvers of Niketas Ooryphas, Basil’s thunderbolt, one of the great naval commanders of the 9th century.

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Categories: Byzantine, Isthmus, Sites, Diolkos

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