In 877 and 878, the Sicilian city of Syracuse was besieged for nine months by the Aghlabids, an Arab dynasty that ruled the lands known today as Tunisia and Algeria. When word of the siege traveled to Greece, Emperor Basil I of Constantinople (r. 867-886) dispatched a patrician named Adrian with a fleet to aid the Syracusans against the Arabs. Adrian, however, never reached Sicily—he anchored his fleet in the harbor of Hierax, near the city of Monebasia, on the southeast end of the Peloponnesus. While there, he procrastinated for months, supposedly waiting for a favorable wind. When Syracuse was finally seized and pillaged by the Aghlabids on May 21, 878, Adrian and his fleet were unfortunately still loitering in Greece.
In the account of this event written by the 11th-century historian, John Skylitzes, there was an interesting piece of folklore included in the text. According to the tale, some shepherds near Sparta had an odd encounter while tending to their flocks on May 22. It was a day after the fall of Syracuse, but they had no idea that the city had fallen, for the news had allegedly not yet reached Greece. While the shepherds were in the wilderness, they supposedly encountered a group of strange creatures, which they later identified as demons. The creatures apparently had a better communication system than the humans, for the shepherds heard the demons cackling about the downfall of Syracuse.
As the story goes, the shepherds told their friends about what they had seen and heard. The demon sighting and rumors about the demise of Syracuse quickly became the talk of the town, and the conversation eventually weeded its way into the camp of Adrian, who still had his fleet anchored in the Peloponnesus. When Adrian heard the rumors, he was distraught—after all, the emperor had tasked him with saving Syracuse from the Arab siege. He allegedly held a private interview with the shepherds to see if the rumors were true. When they corroborated the story, Adrian supposedly had the shepherds bring him to the spot where they had seen the demons. According to John Skylitzes’ peculiar account, the demons were still there when Adrian arrived and they confirmed that Syracuse had, indeed, fallen to the Arabs. The patrician allegedly kept his calm until three days later, when Peloponnesian Mardaites from the defeated garrison of Syracuse returned to Greece, spreading the story of the city’s grisly capture.
Now certain that his mission had ended with catastrophic failure, Adrian quickly sent his fleet home to Constantinople, but he personally fled to the sanctuary of a church. When Basil I heard of what happened, he had the disgraced patrician dragged out of the sanctuary and sent Adrian into exile.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (The demons of Helos inform the Byzantine admiral Adrianos of the fall of Syracuse to the Arabs, painted c. 13th century, [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.