This curious image comes from the 12-century Skylitzes Matritensis manuscript of the Synopsis Historion by John Skylitzes (c. 1040-1101). The scene above features a peculiar priest of Herakleos named Themel, who became caught up in the wars between Emperor Constantine VII of Constantinople (sole rule 945-959) and Emir Sayf al-Dawla of Aleppo (r. 945-967). Themel’s time in the limelight came when marauders coming from the direction of Aleppo or Tarsus appeared in Herakleos. The priest, it was said, grabbed a sturdy beam instrument called a semantron, and used it to bludgeon the raiders away from the town. John Skylitzes narrated the tale in his history, writing, “A priest named Themel was offering the unbloody sacrifice when he learnt that the Saracens were approaching. He interrupted his liturgy and went out in the vestments he was wearing, seized the church’s semantron in his hands and repelled the attackers with it. He wounded many, killed a few and put the rest to flight” (Synopsis Historion, section about the sole rule of Constantine VII, chapter 8). Although this tale, re-created in the artwork above, portrays Themel as a militant champion for Christianity, he would turn out to have a much different fate. As the story goes, he eventually defected to Constantinople’s enemies and renounced his faith. For more on the bizarre adventure of Themel, read our article HERE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- A Synopsis of Byzantine History by John Skylitzes (c. 1040-1101), translated by John Wortley (Cambridge University Press, 2010).