In the mid-10th century, two travelers entered the city of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and caused quite the stir. The pair were conjoined twins, and their unexpected arrival at the city was initially met with shock, and then hostility. John Skylitzes, an 11th-century historian, mirrored the feelings of his ancestors in his own statements about the event: “In those days a monstrous thing came to the imperial city from Armenia…males sharing a single belly, but they were driven out of the city as an evil portent” (Synopsis of Byzantine History, chapter 11, section 38). As for the date of the twins’ entry and exit from the city, Skylitzes only divulged that the event took place near the end of the reign of Emperor Romanos I (r. 919-944). Given the threats faced by the empire at the time—their precarious relationship with the Bulgarians, the raids of the Magyars into imperial lands (beginning around 934), and an attack by the Rus in 941—it is no wonder that the people of Constantinople wanted to rid themselves of whatever they perceived could cause bad luck.
After the conjoined twins left Constantinople, there was a power shift in the empire. Romanos’ predecessor was a child-emperor named Constantine VII who ascended to the throne in 913, reportedly at the age of seven. As the emperor was young, the empire was ruled by a regency council. Romanos I, who eventually became Constantine’s father-in-law, came to dominate the regency and usurped power in 919, pushing Constantine VII further and further into the background as the decades passed. In 944, however, Constantine VII backed a successful plot by Romanos’ sons to oust the old usurper, their father. Constantine followed up this success by rallying his supporters and arrested Romanos’ sons in 945, finally taking his rightful place as the sole emperor of Constantinople.
The conjoined twins from Armenia returned to Constantinople sometime after Constantine VII (r. 944-959) regained power. This time, the twins were more openly received. Instead of recoiling in horror and shock, the people of Constantinople now were apparently more curious than frightened and allowed the twins to live the rest of their days in the city. Eventually, one of the conjoined twins died, and intrigued physicians from Constantinople eagerly volunteered to separate the surviving conjoined twin from his deceased sibling. John Skylitzes recorded their bittersweet results: “When one of the twins died, some experienced doctors tried to excise the dead portion—and they were successful, but the living twin survived only a short while and then died” (Synopsis of Byzantine History, chapter 11, section 38).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (16th century painting of Constantinople by Sebastian Münster (–1552), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- A Synopsis of Byzantine History by John Skylitzes (c. 1040-1101), translated by John Wortley (Cambridge University Press, 2010).