Patriarch Theophylact And The Luxurious Lives Of His Horses


Theophylact was a son of Romanos I, the emperor of Constantinople between 919 and 944. Emperor Romanos, a skilled political maneuverer, sent young Theophylact to apprentice under the Patriarchs of Constantinople in 924, when the boy was only seven years old. The emperor intended for his son to take up the highest church office in Constantinople, but, as the boy was far too young to hold the office, he had to wait as an assistant to three successive patriarchs from 924-931. When Theophylact reached fourteen years of age in 931, Emperor Romanos I arranged for the then Patriarch Tryphon to resign from his clerical office. Theophylact, however, was still too young to take the job, so Romanos schemed to keep the patriarchal throne vacant for two years. Finally, in 933, the emperor succeeded in having his son named patriarch of the church of Constantinople.

Despite being apprenticed under different patriarchs for more than half of his life, Theophylact was said to have remained a spoiled nobleman at heart. He was only sixteen when he became patriarch and, despite his new high and holy office, he still wanted to engage in typical teenage pastimes. It was an understandable wish, yet his behavior distressed and disturbed the clergymen who looked to him for leadership. Like worrisome parents, the clergy constantly criticized the teen’s behavior—too much dancing, too much singing, too much partying, and too little respect for tradition. As Theophylact grew out of his teenage years, his partying gave way to a passion for luxury, and collecting horses became his greatest obsession.

According to the historian, John Skylitzes (c. 1040-1101), Patriarch Theophylact eventually owned more than two thousand horses. On the great care that the clergyman showed these animals, Skylitzes wrote, “He was not satisfied with feeding them hay and oats, but would serve them pine-seeds, almonds and pistachios or even dates and figs and choicest raisins, mixed with the most fragrant wine. To this he would add saffron, cinnamon, balsam and other spices and serve it to each of his horses as food” (Synopsis historian, chapter 11, section 10).

Theophylact’s great affection for his horses caused a minor scandal when a prized mare in his herd was pregnant. The patriarch was said to have been in the middle of a church service when a messenger arrived to tell him that the horse had foaled. Theophylact was reportedly so eager to go see the newborn animal that he speed-read through the liturgy as if he were an auctioneer, and eventually ran off to see the foal after he had directed the congregation to begin singing lengthy hymns.  Once he greeted the new member of the horse herd, Theophylact rushed back to the church and was able to join his flock in singing the final hymn.

Besides simply caring for his horses, Theophylact also enjoyed galloping with them around the vicinity of Constantinople. In 954, one such ride took a deadly turn. While gallivanting by the seawall on one of his steeds, Patriarch Theophylact was thrown from his horse and he crashed violently to the ground, landing awkwardly or hitting an object in the dirt. He reportedly never recovered from the fall, but instead sickened and deteriorated, eventually dying in 956.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Two Horses and a chicken in a Stable by Wouterus Verschuur (1812–1874), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


  • A Synopsis of Byzantine History by John Skylitzes (c. 1040-1101), translated by John Wortley (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

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