Stories from Byzantine Scholarship of Lesvos

The stories below were sampled from current Byzantine scholarship of Lesvos by SFU MA Student Nina Houle.

Over the centuries Lesbos played host to a variety of interesting people. Most were born on the island, some settled on it, and others merely passed through for a short period of time. There are many travelers whose adventures went unrecorded and have been lost to history. Luckily, plenty of fascinating stories have survived, despite the ravages of time.

Here I would like to focus on a few colourful characters from the Byzantine era. Spanning roughly a millennium, the Medieval Roman polity that we call Byzantium encompassed extensive and varying territory. Lesbos itself was part of an imperial province for most of Byzantium’s history. Its relative proximity to the imperial capital at Constantinople and its position along several trade routes made it an important site for economics, politics, and cultural exchange. This means that many of Byzantine Lesbos’ inhabitants lived interesting lives, but also that the island hosted many major players in the history of Byzantium as a whole. I focuse here on a few of the less famous characters, their stories mostly drawn from the wonderful work of prosopography by Anthony Kaldellis and Stephanos Efthymiadis, The Prosopography of Byzantine Lesbos, 284-1355 A.D.: A Contribution to the Social History of the Byzantine Province (Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2010).

Saewulf: Traveller from a Cold Climate

Saewulf was an Anglo-Saxon traveler from what is now the UK, who passed through Lesbos twice in the early 12th century (Efthymiadis & Kaldellis, 107). He was visiting the crusader states in the Near East and first set foot on Lesbos, specifically to Mytilene, in 1102, stopping by on his way to Palestine. He visited again in 1103 while sailing from the crusader states to Constantinople. Saewulf’s story, minimal as it is, demonstrates some under-appreciated truths about the Medieval Mediterranean. Travel was more expensive, time-consuming, and risky in the 12th century than it is today. However, this did not stop people like Saewulf from leaving their homes for extended periods of time. The Aegean Sea in the Middle Ages was full of travelers from Europe, Asia, and Africa, visiting for trade, for political purposes, or, like Saewulf, to participate in war.

Saewulf’s presence in Mytiline also speaks to the noteworthy role of islands in Medieval Aegean travel. While he stopped in Lesbos on his way to the mainland, he would have enjoyed fresh water and food, as well as solid ground and much more space to move around than what was available on a ship. Perhaps he enjoyed the Greek island sunshine, or maybe it would have felt stiflingly warm to him. I wonder what he might have thought of the local people, and what they would have thought of him. The people of Lesbos at the time were no strangers to visitors from afar, but would Saewulf have been their first (maybe only) encounter with an Anglo-Saxon traveler?

Nisiris: Pirate Fleet Commander

Another foreign visitor, Nisiris (also called Nasr or Nasir), arrived on Lesbos sometime around the year 850 (Efthymiadis & Kaldellis, 104). “Arrived” is in fact an understatement: Nisiris raided Lesbos around 850. He was an Arab pirate commander operating out of the island of Crete. From there, he led his fleet on raids. Nisiris’ raid on Lesbos is particularly memorable because he took captives, among them an 18-year-old girl named Theoktiste. She was captured by Nisiris’ pirates in a village near Methymna (modern day Molyvos), on the northern tip of Lesbos and the pirates planned to sell her as a slave on the island of Paros. When they arrived on Paros, Theoktiste escaped into the woods (even today Paros has some Green patches) while the pirates were negotiating the price of their captives. After this traumatic event, Theoktiste’s story has a happy ending, at least by Byzantine standards. She lived the rest of her life as a hermit on Paros and was canonized as St. Theoktiste of Lesbos (Efthymiadis & Kaldellis, 113). Nisiris, in contrast, drowned in a shipwreck. Nisiris’ visit to Lesbos speaks to the dangers of life in the Medieval Mediterranean. The 800s were a particularly tumultuous time for the Byzantine empire; that being said, pirates were a threat throughout the empire’s entire history. Even though some elements of his and Theoktiste’s lives might have been fabricated, her story is based on a harsh, frightening reality that would have resonated with many Aegean islanders in the Middle Ages.

Konstantinos Dalassenos: Ruler of the Seas

Konstantinos Dalassenos was a naval commander, like Nisiris. Unlike Nisiris, he was not a pirate, but worked for the authorities in Constantinople (Efthymiadis & Kaldellis, 72). For his success in this important role, Dalessenos came to be known as Thalassokrator, which roughly translates to “Ruler of the Seas.”

Dalassenos ruled the seas in the late 11th century, landing on Lesbos around 1091. Our earliest record of Dalassenos dates to circa 1086, when he was working as the governor of Sinope, a port city on the Black Sea. It’s likely that he landed this position because of family connections: the Dalassenoi (that’s the plural of Dalassenos) were rich and influential, major players in Constantinople at the time. Dalassenos might have been offered a naval command because of his privileged roots, but he went above and beyond to earn his place as an admiral. He spent his time as governor of Sinope fighting against Seljuk Turks and claiming territory for the Byzantines. It was the Seljuk Tzachas, the Emir of Smyrne, who brought Dalassenos to Lesbos.

While Dalassenos was active in Sinope, Tzachas was busy defeating the Byzantine naval fleet in the Aegean. Having heard of his skill for military command, the emperor Alexios Komnenos, perhaps after the suggestion of his mother, Anna Dalassene, appointed Konstantinos commander of the Byzantine forces in the Aegean. Dalassenos worked in tandem with the leader of the Byzantine army, another Konstantinos by the name of Opos. His most memorable mission was to join the reconquest of Mytilene, which brought Lesbos back under Roman rule. After the Byzantine victory at Mytilene, Tzachas tried to retreat to Smyrna; however Dalassenos’ fleet intercepted him and destroyed most of his ships. Konstantinos Dalassenos returned in triumph to Constantinople. Writing in the 12th c. Anna Komnene describes him as Thalassokrator.

An Anonymous Pig, and Anonymous Owner

Our final story comes from the early 9th century. It does not feature emperors, or saints, or grand fleets of ships. It’s a simple story about a pig behaving badly (Efthymiadis & Kaldellis, 122). This pig lived in Mytilene with her owner, who let her roam freely through the town. This wasn’t a problem, until the pig started damaging fields and their crops. Her bad behaviour escalated until, one day, she went to the local church of St. Theodora and pushed open the door with her nose. She stepped on the synthronon, which is a semicircular structure at the back of Orthodox churches, tracing mud and filth through the sacred space. The townspeople of Mytilene were shocked and horrified by what the pig had done; some even saw it as an evil omen, even a harbinger of the end of Christianity. Christianity survived the incident just fine, but our sources say the pig had her tailed docked as punishment. There’s a chance the pig is an allegory for a new bishop, whom the people of Mytilene didn’t approve of; however, it could also just be a small-town story that managed to survive the centuries. I, for one, find it charming to encounter such a local, daily life story in our historical sources, among all the saints, the emperors and the generals.

Image of Byzantine pig reproduced by permission of Avishai Teicher. Location: Kibbutz Hanita.