Those who win victory can, and sometimes do, distort the memory of the factions that they triumphed over. This reality can be found in the Synopsis of Byzantine History by John Skylitzes, a historian who thrived during the reign of Emperor Alexios Komnenos (r. 1081-1118). In his synopsis of the history covering the reigns of emperors throughout the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, Skylitzes gave little-to-no sympathy to the proponents of Iconoclasm—a Christian movement that condemned the use of ‘icons,’ such as images and sculptures, claiming that the veneration of these items constituted idolatry. Empress Irene almost eradicated the movement in 787, but Iconoclasm recovered and was only defeated decades later, on the instigation of Empress Theodora in 843. John Skylitzes, despite writing centuries after the fall of Iconoclasm, apparently still held a grudge against the last Iconoclast Patriarch (religious leader) of Constantinople—John VII “the Grammarian.” In his history, Skylitzes accused John the Grammarian of almost every horror imaginable.
Not much is actually known about the real John the Grammarian, but between the scandal and rumor recorded about the man in the Synopsis, Skylitzes did leave behind some valuable information about the patriarch. We know he was of Armenian descent, from the Morocharzanioi line. He participated in the resurgence of Iconoclasm during the reign of Leo V (r. 813-820), but only came to prominence in the reign of Michael II (r. 820-829), in which he was appointed as the tutor of Michael’s son, Emperor Theophilos (r. 829-842). Theophilos allegedly used John the Grammarian as a trusted agent, supposedly sending him as an ambassador to Syria, although this is disputed. Less dubious, however, is that sometime around the mid 830s, Theophilos helped John the Grammarian become the Patriarch of Constantinople. When Theophilos died in 842, leaving the imperial throne to his wife, Theodora (acting as regent to her son, Michael III), John the Grammarian was already well into old age. When Iconoclasm was ended in 843, Methodios I replaced John VII as Patriarch of Constantinople. As of the publication of this article, the above is the majority of what can be deemed factual about the life of John the Grammarian.
Skylitzes’ Alternative History of John the Grammarian
John Skylitzes’ peculiar account of John the Grammarian is much more lively, albeit filled with salacious rumors and anti-Iconoclast propaganda. As a lesson in the biases of old sources, and for the always-welcome purpose of entertainment, let’s look at Skylitzes’ bizarre (and obviously exaggerated) descriptions of John the Grammarian’s life and character.
Skylitzes accused John the Grammarian of being a master of all sorts of wizardries and divination. Like a true villain, John the Grammarian apparently built an underground lair, where he performed the darkest of rituals. This is what Skylitzes wrote about what went on in the wizard’s evil lair:
“Sometimes nuns were kept there to be coupled with, or other women distinguished by their beauty in whose ruin he participated; sometimes heptoscopy [i.e. the literal inspection of livers], dish-divining [i.e. lecanomancy], magic and necromancy were practiced there, by which (with the cooperation of demons) he was often able to foretell some of the things that were going to happen.”
- John Skylitzes, A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811-1057, chapter 5, section 4.
John Skylitzes followed this witchy description with an extraordinarily odd tale about a plot that John the Grammarian hatched against Methodios I, the man who replaced John as the Patriarch of Constantinople. According to Skylitzes, John the Grammarian and other conspirators bribed a woman to publicly announce that she had an affair with the new patriarch. When the woman made the announcement, a grand tribunal of local religious authorities was convened to decide the fate of Methodios I.
In front of the tribunal, the bribed woman regurgitated the lurid speech that the conspirators had coached thoroughly into her memory. According to Skylitzes, the members of the tribunal were almost persuaded by her story, when Patriarch Methodios decided to use an audacious, but invincible, defense against the woman’s accusation of an affair. In too much detail, Skylitzes wrote that Methodios stripped away all of his clothes and stood naked before the tribunal. At the sight of the nude patriarch, the religious court had no choice but to deliver a verdict of not guilty, for Methodios’ genitals were “atrophied by some disease and totally incapable of performing their natural function” (Skylitzes, Synopsis, chapter 5, section 4).
That disturbing picture aside, the strangest part of the story is how Methodios lost the use of his manhood—according to John Skylitzes it was due to none other than a holy miracle. As the story goes, Methodios was besieged for days on end by succubi demons, which were trying to tempt him into lust. Methodios knew he was losing his battle of desire, so he prayed for Apostle Peter to take away his earthly desires. Unfortunately for Methodios, the apostle was all too happy to oblige. Speaking as Methodios I, Skylitzes wrote, “Coming to me by night, he burned my genitals by applying his right hand to them, assuring me that henceforth I would no longer be troubled by the appetite for carnal delight” (Skylitzes, Synopsis, chapter 5, section 4).
In the end of the bizarre tale, the woman whom John the Grammarian had bribed eventually betrayed all of the conspirators when she was threatened with the use of torture. Even though the conspirators against Methodios were ousted, Skylitzes wrote that John the Grammarian was let off easy. Apparently he merely had to attend an annual religious feast and its following ceremonial procession for the rest of his life—an incredibly light sentence for a man Skylitzes would have us believe was a necromancer and a defiler of nuns.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- John Skylitzes. A Synopsis of Byzantine History: 811-1057, translated by John Wortley. Original text c. 11th or early 12th century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.