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John Skylitzes, Chronicle of

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology

Jonathan Shepard

John Skylitzes, Chronicle of 

Around the turn of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, John Skylitzes, a Byzantine senior judge who held top office in Constantinople in the 1090s, wrote his Synopsis of Histories, addressing primarily the milieu of his employer, Alexios I Komnenos (1081–1118). Byzantium had recently lost most of Asia Minor and Syria, and suffered revolts from Slavic-speaking populations in the Balkans, while across the Adriatic were the pugnacious Normans. Soldierly virtues were at a premium, together with background data on relevant military and political history. Skylitzes catered for this interest through recounting emperors’ reigns from 811 on. He eventually took his story up to the reign of Alexios’s predecessor, Nikephoros III Botaneiates (1078–1081); the section from 1057 onward follows Michael Attaleiates’ Chronicle closely, and Skylitzes probably added it to a first version of his work that ended in 1057. Other sources of Skylitzes include Genesios’s account of Michael III’s reign (842–867) and, most extensively, the work known as “Theophanes Continuatus,” which recounts imperial deeds for much of the ninth and earlier tenth century. Comparison of “Theophanes Continuatus” with Skylitzes’ text reveals a “cut-and-paste” technique, with Skylitzes sometimes incorporating entire sentences from his source. Subject matter of lesser interest such as religious history and encomia of civilian emperors is condensed, whereas coverage of rebellions, regime change, and operations in Byzantium’s borderlands is quite full. Skylitzes edits more actively his sources from the mid-tenth century onward, the era of military expansionism and then failure. He collates diverse materials to brief his readers about the three major assailants on mid-eleventh-century Byzantium: the Pechenegs, Turks, and Normans. Among Skylitzes’ hypothetical sources are an account of the military rebellions against Basil II in the 970s and 980s and the memoirs of the mid-eleventh-century general Katakalon Kekaumenos. Skylitzes refashioned his sources into fairly digestible prose, concluding stories with stock phrases and saws, a style of instruction popular with Byzantine middlebrow officeholders.

Although an armchair strategist, and apt to muddle chronology when using different sources for the same event, Skylitzes shows serious interest in how campaigns unfolded. He sometimes describes minutiae of tactics or offers rival explanations for disasters. Thus, he provides avowedly alternative accounts of the Anchialos debacle: (1) the Byzantines, initially victorious, panicked at the sight of the riderless horse of their general, Phokas, which had bolted while he was washing from a spring; (2) instead of liaising with the Byzantine army as instructed, Romanos Lekapenos sailed off to seize the throne; Phokas, having initially routed the Bulgarians, withdrew to camp to learn more about Lekapenos’s movements; mistaking withdrawal for flight, his army broke up. Skylitzes recounts defeats and inconclusive warfare at least as often as victories, noting that the outcome of John I Tzimiskes’ battling against the Rus’ on the Danube in 971 was unsure almost to the last, and indicating that Basil II’s final subjugation of the Bulgarians in 1018 owed as much to diplomacy and luck as to battles or sieges. Reviewing defeats and betrayals served practical ends: Skylitzes was writing when “barbarians” were at Byzantium’s gates and past feats in the empire’s service deserved recollection.

[See also Anchialos, Battle of (917); John I Tzimiskes; Katakalon Kekaumenos; and Romanos I Lekapenos.]


Holmes, Catherine. Basil II and the Governance of Empire (976–1025). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

    Roueché, Charlotte. “The Rhetoric of Kekaumenos.” In Rhetoric in Byzantium, edited by Elizabeth Jeffreys, pp. 23–37. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2003.Find this resource:

      Skylitzes, John. John Scylitzes: A Synopsis of Histories. Translated by John Wortley. Belfast: Belfast Byzantine Texts and Translations, forthcoming.Find this resource:

        Stephenson, Paul. The Legend of Basil the Bulgar-Slayer. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

          Jonathan Shepard

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