All the Slavs of the Miracles of Saint Demetrius – Book I

The Miracles of Saint Demetrius come in two books.  The first one was written by Archbishop of John (the second) of Thessalonica sometime in the early 600s.  It is a collection of, what appear to be sermons, amongst which there is a description of a siege of Thessalonica undertaken by a Slavic army.  Since John describes himself as walking the battlements during the siege and since he was archbishop of the city during 603-610 and again during 617-626, the siege presumably took place at that time.  The second book of miracles was written by someone else towards the end of the seventh century.  The primary scholarly edition of both of these books was that of Paul Lemerle (Les plus anciens recueils des miracles de saint Démétrius et la pénétration des Slaves dans les Balkans – which also contains a French translation).  We begin with the first book.  Its “Slavic” passages are contained in Chapter 12, 13 and 14 (there are fifteen total “miracles”/chapters).

Chapter 12
Of the Fire of the Ciborium and the Surprise Attack by the Slavs

[At night during the celebrations of Saint Demetrius’ day, barbarians set fire to the basilica’s ciborium and everyone was called to arms]

“All the people having heard this call, rushed to their houses and armed went to man the walls.  From there they glanced in the plain in front of the sanctuary of the Holy Matron, a throng of barbarians, albeit not too large, estimated at about five thousand, but of great strength for the all were selected and battle-hardened warriors.  They would not have assaulted this city great city were they not possessed of greater might and bravery than those [denizens of the city] who had never defeated them [the barbarians].”

“It was with the coming of the dawn that the townsfolk spotted the enemy from the walls, raised a cry and many of them ran down and through the open gates stepped outside.  Aided by Christ and the Victorious Demetrius] they joined battle with the enemies who, full of battle rage, had by then already breached the sanctuary of the three holy martyrs: Chiona, Irene and Agappa, which sanctuary, as you know, was found in the vicinity of the town walls.  The sides continued in battle throughout most of the day and the hosts of Demetrius, with great risk, once chased the enemy, then gave way to it, because, as is told, the enemy brought out the elite flower of the entire Slav tribe.  Eventually, thanks to the martyr’s [Demetrius’] aid, on that day the barbarians were driven out and retreated in smaller numbers than they arrived with.  In this way ended this unexpected and wild assault.”

Chapter 13
Of the Siege of the City by the Avaro-Slavs

“It is said, that the then ruler of the Avars decided to send emissaries regarding a certain matter to Maurice who was, with God’s choice, then wielding the scepter of the Byzantines. But since his requests did not bring desired results, he fell into an uncontrollable rage, feeling that he must not refrain from causing great harm to the one who so casually listened to his demands, pondering in what manner he could cause him [Maurice] the greatest harm and concocting the most terrible things, which then, however, came to pass.  He realized that the God-honored capital of the Thessalonicans stood out from amongst all cities of Thrace and Illyricum by reason of its diverse riches and pious, wise and most humble people; that is, to put it simply, he knew that the above-mentioned city was dear to the Emperor’s heart for it shines everywhere with its accolades; so that if suddenly it found itself in some kind of danger, the Byzantine Empire would suffer for it.”

“So he called to his side the entire wild tribe of the Slavs – this nation was subordinate to him at that time – and joining with them barbarians from other tribes, ordered them all to set out against Thessalonica.  This was the greatest host that had been seen in our day.  Some estimated it at over one hundred thousand armed men, others at a little bit less, and others yet at much more.  Since the exact truth could not be ascertained due to the countless numbers [of the enemy], the people looked to the eyewitnesses [to guess the numbers of the enemy]… We heard of rivers and streams by  which these armies stopped, about all the country which they traversed and which, as in [writing] of the prophet [Joel] ‘were put out to waste.’  This numerous army was ordered to cross the lands at such a pace that we did not become aware of its arrival until the immediately prior day.”

“This [news] was relayed to us on Sunday, the 22nd of September.  While the denizens of the city were pondering whether the enemy would take the city after four days or later and for this reason the city guard were not adequately prepared, that very same night [they] silently approached the city walls.  It was then that the praiseworthy martyr, Demetrius, aided [the city] for the first time, confusing them during that night so that they spent many hours about the fortress of the praiseworthy Matron martyr, thinking that they had arrived at the city itself.  When it finally dawned and they realized that the city is nearby, they set out for it in unison, roaring like lions.  Thereafter, they attached siege ladders to the walls which ladders they had brought with them, ready to ascend them….”

[Demetrius appears under the guise of a Thessalonican soldier and defeats the barbarians climbing the siege ladders]

“…All the barbarians, who were present there in great numbers, filled with terrible dread, instantly moved away from the walls; that night there were few sentries on the walls and [many] had headed home for it was believed that the throng of barbarians would not appear until a few days from then.”

“When day finally came, these wild animals tightly surrounded the city walls so that even a bird could not fly away beyond the gates, nor enter the city from the outside.  They girded the city from the endings of the eastern wall reaching the sea to the western wall, like a deadly wreath and not a scarp of land was to be seen by virtue of the [density of the] barbarians.  In lieu of the ground, the grass and the trees all that could be seen were the heads of the enemy, one behind the other, all angry and threatening us with death by tomorrow.  And it was strange that on that day not only did they surround the city as if [they were] the sands but also many of them took up spots in the suburbs and fields surrounding the city [proper], destroying everything, consuming and pommeling all, and all that was left trampling with their feet, just as the beast did in Daniel’s vision.  They did not even need to build a stockade around the city or any trenches; rather, their shields formed an impassable palisade  one after the other and a stockade was made of their bodies tightly woven together like a fisherman’s net.”

Chapter 14
About the Recitalist Actor After the Siege by the Avaro-Slavs 

“Many of them, having lost hope of a quick victory in the next few days, went to the city masters and confessed through a translator [as follows]:  “The leader of the Avars sent us having received exact reports from many people [spies] that the city had only a few militiamen, for it had only recently been touched by a plague, and he assured us that we would take it the very next day. But when we arrived we saw many soldiers, who exceeded our armies in numbers and in bravery.  From that moment we stopped believing in our victory and decided instead to seek safety with you.”

“But that only happened later.  Instead on that day [when the Slavs arrived] when they found themselves at the walls, they busied themselves with provisions, prisoners and booty which they carried with them.  But all the grains and other crops (which agricultural produce, even if harvested in prior years, it was customary at that time to keep outside [of the city]) stolen by them would only last them through that day [and] till morning on the day following.  And thereafter, they ate fruits, tree branches and tree roots as well as all manner of vegetables, then grass, wild herbs and the so-called thistle plant – until, eventually, they were devouring dirt and they were hungry still for the Earth did not, as it is written, did not withstand their onrush.”

“In the evening of the first day they gathered brushwood and set up campfires around the city… Then, by this terrible fire there issued from them an even more terrible cry, of which it is said in the prophesies that the ‘Earth shook and the the heaven sent down rain.'”

“Throughout the whole night we heard around us much rumble and on the next morrow we saw that they set up siege engines, iron battering rams, huge stone throwers and the so-called turtle shields which they along with the stone throwers covered with hard leather.  Then, they covered them with the skins of freshly killed cattle and camels so as to protect them from fire and hot tar [of the defenders].  And in this matter they came closer to the city walls and starting on the third day they began to gather on the other side [of the city walls] stones which in their size were reminiscent of mountain boulders and their bowmen were issuing hails of arrows so that no one from the city could stick themselves out or to look outside.* They attached [protective] lids/covers on the other side of the walls while they used rods and war axes ceaselessly trying to break through the [wall] foundations….”

* note: presumably while the stone gatherers were picking them up at the outside of the city walls.

“We have said already that during the first and second day of the siege, the enemy was gathering provisions and getting ready all kinds of terrible machines against the city.  Between the third and the seventh day (for the blessed martyr did not suffer the siege to last longer) they brought to the city walls siege towers, battering rams, stone throwing catapults and wooden mantlets.  First they brought out a battering ram with a head of iron and set it in front of Cassandra’s gate but when they saw a grappling iron hanging over the gate that’d been put up there by the citizens, though it was small and harmless as a child’s toy, they were filled with dread and they spurned their great contraption – I speak of the ram – and burning it down as well as other similar ones and not having achieved their goals, they departed for the day to their tents…”

“Later, under cover of leather covers they tried, like vicious snakes, to destroy the ramparts, they say with axes and wooden poles.  And perhaps they would have achieved their desired goal, had not Providence shone down upon the inhabitants, armed their hearts with bravery and sent them out beyond the walls so as to terrify those, who shielded by the covers had almost manage to destroy all [ramparts].  For it had been [until then] not possible to toss anything at those protected below hidden by the walls so that they remained unseen from above.  Thus, armed men, filled with God-ignited fervor, came in front of the gate using a lowered so-called gangway, that had been damaged earlier.  When they approached the exterior walls, they caused panic among the enemies.  Filled with unspeakable fear, they left all their gear with which they had intended to destroy the exterior walls and escaped; this, even though the men who came out to the did not wield anything other than spears and shields…”

“When the enemy, by reason of a single divine decree escaped, leaving behind mantlets, poles, and pickaxes, no one gave chase after them; [and] on the next day they used stone throwers.These were rectangular, set on broad platforms, with their ends set with sharp tips on which sat broad cylinders covered at the ends with iron; to these there were nailed beams as in a palisade.  At the back they had suspended projectiles and in the front strong ropes, which, when pulled downwards, rumbled as they lifted the catapults. Those, in turn, when lifted high, tossed giant, massive stones, such that neither the ground nor city houses could withstand their fall.   Three sides of these rectangular stone throwers were secured with beams [designed] so that projectiles tossed from the walls would not injure those who were pulling on the [catapult ropes] inside [the contraption].  And if one of them were hit by [our] fire projectiles and burned down together with the beams, the [barbarians inside] were sent escaping together with their equipment.  The next day, they again brought these stone throwers, protected, as we said, with new skins and beams, and setting [the stone throwers] very close to the city walls, they tossed at us heaps of stones…”

[only one projectile hit the walls and on the very same day the barbarians departed to their camp]

“There came Sunday, the seventh and last day of the siege when [our] enemies were resting after the exhaustion of the preceding days.  They wanted to force a life and death battle on the very next day, aiming to surround the walls tightly from all sides and thereupon to frighten the battlement guards with a sudden onrush so as to cause them to abandon the walls so that none of them watching from the top could [see what was going on in front of the gates] and could not come out and try to undertake any effort to help the others futilely fighting [in front of the gates?], upon their [the enemy’s] appearance.  When they were talking among themselves – of which we were made aware by their deserters – all our [men] were terribly frightened awaiting for the assault planned for the next day.  Surprisingly though, that very day, around eight in the evening, all of the barbarians escaped as one man with a great cry onto a [nearby] hill, having abandoned [their] tents with their supplies.  They had been so frightened that some were running away unarmed and without clothes.  They spent the next three hours or so in the nearby hills, seeing that of which we learned only later [the figure of Saint Demetrius].  Finally, at the setting of the sun they returned to their tents, though by order of the triumphant [Christ], now robbing [and fighting] each other so that there were many wounded and some had even fallen.”

“When that night had passed in a great calm, quite different from the prior [night], then at dawn a rather large number of the enemy appeared at the gates, though from that uncounted multitude there remained not one [man].  The inhabitants, suspecting [some new] trick and treachery, neither opened the gates nor accepted any enemy deserters.  However, many of them loudly professed that all the enemies had quietly escaped during the night so that [finally] about five o’clock in the morning they were let in.  The [inhabitants immediately] queried them and demanded that [the men that had been let in] honestly reveal the enemies’ intentions and they confessed why they had escaped [to the city]: ‘We escaped to you so as not to starve but also knowing that you have won [this] war.  We realized that you had been hiding your armies in the city up until now and that only yesterday about eight did you have them issue forth against us in all their numbers at all the gates and so then you saw us escape into the hills.  When in the evening we found out then that the same army had come out of the gates, we abandoned [the hills].  The others argued amongst themselves robbing one another and when they eventually settled down then they [decided to and] escaped quietly throughout the night.  For they said that at dawn [your] armies would once again set out against them.  Thus, those others escaped while we remained behind.'”

[there follows here the explanation as to the nature of the mysterious army as also thanksgiving prayers]

“The inhabitants sent out riders and discovered that the enemies did in fact escape and that during the night they covered a great distance, fleeing in such terror and fear that they dropped/left behind them [their] clothes, equipment, animals and people.”

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September 5, 2017

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