The curious scene shown above can be found in the 12th-century Skylitzes Matritensis manuscript of the Synopsis Historion, written by John Skylitzes (or Ioannes Scylitzes, c. 1040-1101), now held by the Biblioteca Nacional de España. The painting depicts an intriguing piece of folklore contained in the history. On the left is Admiral Adrian (or Adrianos) and his entourage. Admiral Adrian had been dispatched by Emperor Basil I of Constantinople (r. 867-886) to rush to the aid of Syracuse, a city which was besieged by the Aghlabids of Tunisia and Algeria between 877 and 878. Unfortunately for the admiral and the city he intended to rescue, the defenders of Syracuse fell to the besieging army on May 21, 878, before Adrian had even left from Greece. According to legend and folklore, the area in which the admiral’s ships were anchored received news of the fall of Syracuse from a bizarre source—demons. Shepherds supposedly found these demons gloating about the downfall of the city. Admiral Adrian heard of this tale and, according to Skylitzes, “he went to the place with the shepherds and, putting a question to the demons by means of them, he heard that Syracuse was already taken” (Synopsis Historion, chapter about Basil I, section 37). To read a more in-depth account about this tale, read our article HERE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- 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.