(Byzantine Emperor Theophilos (r. 829-842), surrounded by dignitaries of his court. Illustration from the Madrid Skylitzes (Fol. 42v), c. 12th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Fact can truly be more entertaining than fiction. John Skylitzes’ work, A Synopsis of Byzantine History: 811-1057, may have a dull title, but the history within—though sometimes exaggerated—actually contains many a historically-based story that can rival the best of fictional novels. Take, for instance, Emperor Theophilus (ruled 829-842 CE). Personally, John Skylitzes could not stand Theophilus because of religious differences (Theophilus was the last Iconoclast Byzantine Emperor to outlaw religious artwork and icons), but once the historian was done venting, he wrote a hearty chapter about Theophilus’ imperial reign, and of all the highly entertaining adventures therein.
For the most part, Theophilus is remembered as a decent emperor. He excelled in governing, administrating, and establishing law and order. The emperor was not a reclusive man; between sessions of court, he would explore his capital, investigating the market and the docks, or just observing his countrymen. He sent effective governors to manage his domain, and enlisted highly competent ambassadors to interact with his neighboring countries. In particular, his ambassador, John the Grammarian, whom he sent to Syria, was a great success. While John served as a diplomat, he was well respected and liked by the locals.
Theophilus was at his best when he was a peacetime emperor, but for much of his reign, he was at war with the Abbasid Caliphate. If John Skylitzes’ accounts of Theophilus’ battles can be taken for truth (though, often chronologically confused), the emperor was, unfortunately, a poor military leader. Nevertheless, he was able to stay alive and enjoy some success in war. This was, however, mainly because of a few skilled officers he had in his employ. Skylitzes often mentioned two men, Manuel and Theophobos, who advised the emperor and led wings of his army. Theophilus, however, would often ignore their advice, find himself surrounded in battle, and only survive because Manuel or Theophobos would rescue the emperor from his military mistakes.
For around a decade, Theophilus fought against the Abbasid Dynasty. It all began in 830 CE, when the Caliph Ma’mun crossed into Roman territory. The forces of Constantinople successfully defended against the invasion, and pushed the Arab invaders back into their own sphere of influence. Ma’mun, however, was soon replaced as caliph by his half-brother al-Mu’tasim, who would prove much more capable of marching against Theophilus in battle. In 837, when the Abbasids were cleaning up a major rebellion, Theophilus seized upon the chance to strike his foe when they were distracted. He invaded and won himself territory all the way to Melitene, but Caliph al-Mu’tasim had already crushed his rebellion and was preparing a response to Theophilus. Al-Mu’tasim marched against Theophilus, defeated the emperor in a major battle at Dazimon (one of the occasions the emperor allowed himself to be surrounded), and captured the major cities of Ankara and Amorion.
Theophilus’ war efforts did little to help him gain glory, but they did leave a legacy of two great stories that were remembered for centuries and recorded by John Skylitzes—the story of the joust and the parable of a soldier’s prized horse.
The tale of the joust likely occurred around 831 CE, when Theophilus and his troops resisted an invasion from Caliph Ma’mun. In one of the battles, the Roman emperor may have captured as many as 20,000 prisoners.
One of the prisoners in particular was a crowd pleaser—an immensely strong horseman. Theophilus happily let the prisoner put on shows for the crowd; the masses were impressed with the Abbasid horseman, but they were even more impressed that their emperor was able to catch the man.
The horseman had a particular trick he displayed to the amazed crowd—he would ride upon his horse while wielding two lances. Thephilus and the people of Byzantium were all spellbound by the display of strength.
While everyone else was marveling at the horseman, a eunuch named Theodore Krateros, who was a part of Emperor Theophilus’ entourage, scoffed at what he saw. The eunuch denounced the act as mere showmanship and without any real merit in combat. Krateros admitted he could not recreate the feat of using two lances on horseback, but he rejected the strategy and claimed that using two lances was foolish and in no way practical. Even more, he told the rest of the emperor’s retinue that if given a steady horse and a single, sturdy lance, he, himself, could defeat the Abbasid horseman in a joust.
The Emperor Theophilus, who heard Theodore Krateros’ comments, challenged the eunuch to live up to his bravado. According to John Skylitzes, Theophilus even threatened to have Krateros executed if he could not defeat the horseman, but, again, Skylitzes was no fan of Theophilus.
Theodore Krateros agreed to test his mettle against the horseman with the dual lances. There is little description about the setting of the joust; no mention of armor or the location of the bout was recorded. Nevertheless, Krateros indeed climbed onto a steed, grabbed a lance, and thoroughly knocked the strong Abbasid horseman from his mount. With the eunuch’s words proven, Theophilus could only congratulate Krateros and bestow him with a prize of praise and clothing.
The Emperor, The Horse, and the Horse Thief
This parable-like story likely occurred around the time when Theophilus and al-Mu’tasim were at war in the late 830s. Much like the last tale, there were very few recorded names, and the plot, again, revolved around a horseman.
One of the soldiers in Theophilus’ army was highly distinguished, for he had in his possession a warhorse with all the qualities a cavalryman could dream up. The horse was brave, loyal and exemplary in strength, endurance and training. Understandably, other soldiers stared at the prized horse with accumulating envy as they watched the horseman constantly escape danger and death on the back of that horse.
Of all the men who were covetous of the model war horse, the soldier’s commander had the most leverage and clout. The commander tried to buy the horse for a more-than-fair price, but the soldier simply stated that the horse was not for sale. When buying the beast failed, the commander tried to force the soldier to part with the steed, using all of the pressures that a military commander can apply to an underling. When the soldier still refused to relinquish the horse, the commander leaked false charges to the governor, causing the soldier to be wrongly discharged from the military.
Now, Theophilus makes his appearance in the story. The emperor sent messengers throughout his realm requesting a magnificent horse to be sent to the emperor’s stables for the emperor’s personal use. The commander, either seeking favor with the emperor or revenge against the soldier, stole the horse from the ex-soldier. He then sent the talented horse to the emperor, who marveled over the magnificent mount.
Soon, the Romans of Byzantium found themselves at war with the Abbasid Dynasty. The year was likely around 838 CE, when Caliph al-Mu’tasim counter-attacked against Theophilus’ invasion. The emperor and his armies needed as much manpower as they could find—as such, the soldier whose horse was stolen was reenlisted into the military.
Without his horse, the soldier was a sad caricature of his former self. Without his brave steed, he found danger ever harder to escape. In one of the Byzantine Empire’s losses to al-Mu’tasim—either the Battle of Dazimon or the sieges of Ankara or Amorion—the soldier could no longer escape death without the aid of his horse and fell in the field of battle.
Though death is, physically, a singular event, the emotional toll of death reaches far and wide in a web connected by love, friendship and respect. Though the soldier lay dead in war-torn lands, his wife and children remained safe in the empire’s interior. When word of the soldier’s death first reached the new widow and her children, they could only think of grief and mourning, but soon all the energy of the widow became directed toward her desire for justice.
The widow pulled herself together, made sure her children were cared for, and then determinedly marched to the capital to seek out Emperor Theophilus. She was encouraged by the emperor’s reputation for upholding justice and prosecuting crime. She found the emperor while he was making his way to a church. When she saw him, she must have been rehearsing the tragedy of her husband’s death, of the commander who stole the horse, and of her husband who died without the brave mount to whisk him away to safety. As she made her way to the emperor, however, she saw the horse he rode—the very horse that belonged to her dead husband.
Seeing the emperor upon her husband’s old companion, she flew into a rage. She rushed to the horse and clung to its harness and straps, all the while shouting that the horse was hers, and slinging accusations that the emperor was complicit in the death of her husband. Emperor Theophilus, more shocked than angry, calmed the distressed widow and had her brought to his imperial palace.
In the luxury of his home, the emperor gave the widow his full attention as she laid out the whole sad story—the theft of the horse, the death of the soldier, and the identity of the horse being the very one on which the emperor had been riding. Theophilus acknowledged the plausibility of the story, so he had her hide, then summoned the commander who had given the horse to the imperial stable.
When the commander arrived, Theophilus questioned him about the horse in a subtle probe of the man’s guilt or innocence. He asked of the origin of the horse: Was it the commander’s or on loan from another? Was the horse raised, bought, or commandeered? The commander answered that the horse was his own property and maintained that specific angle during the entirety of the questioning. When the interrogation was concluded, and the commander remained adamant in his claim of ownership regarding the horse, Theophilus signaled for the widow to approach. When the commander spotted the wife of the dead soldier, he lost all composure and completely broke.
The commander collapsed before the emperor and confessed to forcibly taking the horse from the soldier. With the truth revealed, he groveled and begged at the feet of the emperor for mercy and forgiveness. Emperor Theophilus did, indeed, spare the commander’s life, but he still held the man responsible for the soldier’s death. The emperor, therefore, decreed that the widow and the soldier’s children would be legally equals to the commander. The commander, he decreed, also was required to care for the widow and the children as if they were his own siblings. Theophilus even gave the widow a claim on a large portion of the commander’s inheritance and estate. With the widow’s portion of the man’s inheritance and property made clear, Theophilus then ordered that the commander be removed from the military and exiled.
So ended the story of Theophilus, the soldier and the horse thief. The tale demonstrated the sense of justice held by the emperor, and also acted as a warning to envious people of power in his empire who may have been tempted to use their lofty positions for unjust goals. Strangely enough, however, the only loose end not tie up in the story was the fate of the coveted warhorse.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- John Skylitzes. A Synopsis of Byzantine History: 811-1057, translated by John Wortley. Original text c. 11thor early 12th century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.