This illustration, painted for the Skylitzes Matritensis manuscript of the Synopsis Historion by John Skylitzes (c. 1040-1101), depicts an odd tale that supposedly occurred during the reign of Emperor Theophilos of Constantinople (r. 829-842). As the story goes, the man on the white horse in the center of the illustration was an Arab horseman captured around 831, during the emperor’s long-running wars against the Abbasid Dynasty. The prisoner soon astounded his captors with an interesting ability. This special talent of his can be clearly seen in the illustration—he could effectively wield two lances while on horseback. Due to his impressive physical strength and his showy ability with spears, the captive was placed in a leading position within a triumphal parade that was organized to be held in Constantinople. The historian, John Skylitzes, recorded the tale of the prisoner’s debut in the imperial city, writing, “…this captive led the parade. When the emperor saw him, beguiled by his glowing reputation, he ordered him to mount and be given two lances, so that his excellence and skill might be demonstrated to the entire city. The exhibition took place, to the delight of the less sophisticated” (Synopsis Historion, section about Theophilos, chapter 17).
Wielding two lances on a horse, although impressive to the eye, was not particularly useful in battle. According to the aforementioned historian, a warrior-eunuch named Theodore Krateros was challenged to compete against the captured horseman in a joust. Krateros accepted the task and faced down the Arab horseman’s two lances with a single lance of his own. The eunuch, it was said, defeated his opponent in the joust, dramatically even unhorsing the captive cavalryman from his horse.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- A Synopsis of Byzantine History by John Skylitzes (c. 1040-1101), translated by John Wortley (Cambridge University Press, 2010).