In the year 872, Sa’id, the Arab ruler of Crete at the time, sent a naval commander named Photios to ravage the lands controlled by Constantinople, the imperial seat of power that ruled the remnants of the Roman Empire in the east. With a reported fleet of well over thirty heavy and light ships, Photios pushed deep into the Aegean Sea, raiding as far as the Hellespont, now known as the Dardanelles. The demographic composition of his crewmen is largely unknown, but medieval sources often described his armada simply as being a Cretan fleet. Similarly, the vessels he used were of Greek design, such as the koumparia (a warship/merchant freighter hybrid), myoparon (heavy, rounded ship) and galleys. Using this fleet, Photios ravaged the coast, capturing wealth and enslaving people as he went.
While the rampaging fleet was still in the northern Aegean, the imperial navy made its response. A fleet led by Niketas Ooryphas intercepted Photios near the Gallipoli Peninsula, at a place called Kardia. There, the imperial navy employed its famed super-weapon, Greek Fire, to deal a catastrophic blow to Photios and his raiders. The Greek Fire, a virtually inextinguishable liquid flame that could burn even on water, reportedly destroyed twenty of the Cretan ships. Photios, however, was not one of the dead—he and other survivors of the battle escaped from the imperial navy and headed toward the Peloponnesus.
Despite his defeat, Photios still had fight left in him. By 873, he had rebuilt a makeshift fleet, supposedly by recruiting pirates or commandeering their ships. With this revived force, Photius began raiding the western coast of the Peloponnesus. When news of the raids reached Constantinople, Niketas Ooryphas was sent once again to hunt down the Cretans. Ooryphas supposedly hauled his ships onto land and carried them across the Isthmus of Corinth in order to surprise Photios by approaching from the north instead of the south. Some historians doubt if Ooryphas actually crossed the Isthmus of Corinth, but, whatever the case, he did catch the Cretans by surprise.
The second battle between Photios and Ooryphas was even more devastating for the Cretans than the first. This time, the destruction of Photios’ fleet was total—his ships were burned or sunk, with Cretan survivors swimming to shore in hopes of escaping the clutches of the imperial navy. Nevertheless, Niketas Ooryphas captured the bulk of the scattered Cretan crewmen, including Photios, himself.
The captives would face a much worse fate than those who had perished in the earlier battles. Niketas Ooryphas apparently had the captured Cretans executed using several hellish methods. Some he supposedly flayed or ripped to death. Others he reportedly lowered into boiling pitch.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (12th-century Image from an illuminated manuscript, the Madrid Skylitzes, showing the Byzantine navy use Greek fire against the fleet of Thomas the Slav, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- 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.