The Bizarre Tale About A Magic Statue Linked To The Death Of Simeon I Of Bulgaria

 

Simeon I became ruler of the Bulgarians in 893 and greatly contributed to his peoples’ military and cultural ascendance. Showing no fear of his powerful neighbors in Constantinople, Simeon declared war on Emperor Leo VI as early as 894 in order to protect the trade rights of his Bulgarian merchants in Constantinople. From that time on, Simeon frequently declared war against Constantinople, expanding his own power and influence at their expense. Romanos I of Constantinople was finally able to bring Simeon into a semblance of peace in 924, and the Bulgarian leader took the opportunity to focus his efforts against the Serbs and Croats. In 927, Simeon’s impressive military career was dealt a heavy blow, when his army suffered a significant defeat in Croatia. Not long after that disappointing campaign, still in the year 927, Simeon I of Bulgaria suffered from heart failure, or of a heart attack, and died on May 27.

Common heart failure may be the traditional, accepted, and most likely cause of Simeon’s death, yet another version was recorded by the medieval historian, John Skylitzes (c. 1040-1101). Skylitzes’ account, mind you, is unlikely, far-fetched and folkloric, but the tale is nevertheless an enjoyable read.

According to Skylitzes, a certain astronomer (or more likely an astrologer) named John met with Emperor Romanos I (r. 919-944) in 927 and, based on whatever omens he could read from the alignment of the stars at that time, gave the emperor instructions on how to bring supernatural doom on Simeon I. The aforementioned John (the astrologer, not the historian) somehow determined that the life of the Bulgarian ruler was magically linked to a single statue that stood near the heart of Byzantium. This statue, John claimed, was none other than the statue of Arkadios, which could be found in a forum built on a hill to the west of the city of Constantinople. In order to harm Simeon, Emperor Romanos supposedly needed only to deface the statue. In particular, the mysterious astronomer or astrologer suggested that the emperor chop off the statue’s head. John Skylitzes tied this peculiar piece of folklore into the traditional story of Simeon’s death in the following way:

“An astronomer named John came to the emperor and said that if he would send someone to cut off the head of the statue standing above the apse of the Xerolophos and facing west, Simeon would immediately die—for his fate was magically linked to that of the statue. Convinced by this speech, [Romanos] had the head of the statue cut off and in that very same hour (as the emperor precisely discovered) Simeon died in Bulgaria, carried off by a heart attack” (Synopsis of Byzantine History, chapter 10, section 17).

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: Painting of a temple and Trajan’s Column painted by Hubert Robert (1733–1808), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons

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