Cursing over the Walls: The case of the Armenian warrior, Kostandin

Autumn, 1137. In what would prove to be one of the closing chapters in the Byzantine campaign against Armenian Cilicia[1], the emperor John II Komnenos personally led a Byzantine force in the siege of Vahka. During the siege, an Armenian aristocrat by the name of Kostandin[2] appeared on the ramparts, and, as Niketas Choniates has it, was “heaping contumely upon the emperor in the Hellenic tongue and vilifying his wife and daughters with obscenities[3]. This incident resulted in a duel between Kostandin and a Byzantine soldier[4], in which, predictably enough, the Armenian was defeated and retreated ignominiously back into the fortress. Captivity was soon to follow, after the fortress fell to the besiegers.  

The Homeric description of the duel and the prominent moral message it contains are only a few of the elements that cast doubt on the historicity of the event. Tellingly, the incident does not appear either in the other Byzantine sources (John Kinnamos, Michael Italikos, et al.) or the Armenian sources (Sparapet Smbat, Samuel of Ani, Vahram Rabout, et al).

So, is this a literary topos? This explanation would certainly be in agreement with the assertions of historians who have discussed similar incidents. Whately, for example, notes in his commentary on Procopius’ account of the Sassanid siege of Amida (502-3), that:

“Their immoral behavior (i.e., of certain women who would occasionally appear on the ramparts) – the lifting of their clothing to the Persian attackers- has three functions in this siege: it foreshadows the sack of the city…it highlights the role of the morality and the divine in a city’s or fortress’ sack or salvation…it marks a turning point in the war itself”[5].

Naturally, Amida is far from the only account of a siege with defenders appearing on the ramparts to hurl abuse, whether verbal or non-verbal, at the besiegers. In 780, during the siege of Samalu by Abbasid forces, an Abyssinian warrior insulted Caliph al-Mahdi’s son, Hārun al-Rashīd. The Arabs remembered this, and punished him in a truly horrific fashion after they had taken the fortress: he “was crucified on one of the towers of the fort”[6]. In 1147, during a crusader operation against Lisbon, the Muslims taunted the besiegers “for the infidelities they claimed the Crusaders’ wives were committing in their absence”[7]. The dozens of accounts of similarly abusive behavior in the medieval sources indicate that this is indeed a literary topos.

However, there might be another interpretation to this incident. According to the tactical snippeting method, when an action is described in multiple sources, it is quite likely to have indeed taken place[8]. It is only natural for people to tend to insult their adversaries in periods of wartime. Anyone unfortunate enough to be subjected to a modern football match in countries with rampant hooliganism (Greece, for example) will instantly spot the similarities between medieval insults and the chants of football fans; the required imagination is minimal, after all.

Thus, even if we reject the historicity of the duel, at least as described by Choniates, there is no reason to doubt that an Armenian commander did indeed direct a torrent of verbal abuse at the female members of the Imperial family. But why did he do it?  

Such behaviors clearly boosted defenders’ morale and instilled a sense of unity and confidence[9]. At the same time, enraging the enemy “had the added benefit of ensuring the defenders fought hard to avoid the wrath of those they so taunted”[10].  And this is, in my view, the answer to our question.

In medieval warfare, fortified positions were, more often than not, taken by capitulation of their defenders. Kennedy has correctly noted that, “when people did use fortifications, the result was more likely to be a period of negotiation rather than an assault”[11]. Medieval commanders wished to minimize risks and losses as much as possible, and often sought bloodless conquests. Tellingly, in all the aforementioned examples (Amida, Samalu, Lisbon, Vakha) negotiations took place between besiegers and besieged. Choniates notes that the Armenian defenders of Vakha had rejected the Byzantine overtures for surrender[12], despite their truly dire situation: Vakha was one of the final fortresses that remained under Rubenid control. The Byzantines had already conquered Tarsus, Mamistra, and Anazarbus[13].

The actual recipient of Kostandin’s abuse was not, therefore, John, but his own Armenian compatriots. He was thus making it clear that a likely surrender of the fortress would not come hand in hand with guarantees for their safety. Now, even if they should decide to surrender, there was a chance that the enraged emperor would seek to punish those who had besmirched his family’s honor. The Armenian warriors could not have been aware of the punishment suffered by the aforementioned Abyssinian warrior at Samalu, but the stakes were nonetheless clear. Kostandin’s plan ultimately paid off: the Byzantines were compelled to take Vahka by force.


Verbal and non-verbal insults directed by the besieged at the besiegers were doubtlessly a frequently used topos in medieval chronicles. They offered a clear moral message; in most cases the perpetrators of these insults were severely punished for their behavior. However, we must not reject the historicity of such references out of hand. After all, these were men who were sparing no effort to kill each other, and insults and other types of verbal abuse were part and parcel of the proceedings. The case of Kostandin demonstrates how historians may find ulterior motives in such behavior. Treason among the garrison was an ever-present danger during sieges, with traitors’ primary motive being to save their own lives from an impending disaster. Those in command of the defending forces hoped that, by displaying bravado and insulting the besiegers, they could dispel such notions from the minds of their men. By enraging the enemy, Kostandin stated to the defenders of Vahka, in no uncertain terms, that their only chance for survival lay in defending against the enemy to the last.

[1] Regarding this campaign, see e.g., A. Bozoyan, Byuzandiayi Arevelyan k’aghak’akanut’unə Ev Kilikyan Hayastanə 30-70-Akan t’vakannerin (Yerevan: HSSR GA hratarakchùtỳun, 1988), p.99ff. G. Dédéyan, Les Arméniens Entre Grecs, Musulmans et Croises: Étude Sur Les Pouvoirs Arméniens Dans Le Proche-Orient Méditerranéen (1068-1150), 2 vols (Lisbonne: Colouste Gulbenkian, 2003), p.588ff. A. Papageorgiou, John II Komnenos and His Era (1118-1143) (Athens: Irodotos, 2017), p.327ff. For an overview of the history of the Kingdom of Armenian Cilicia, see A. Savvides and V. Stepanenko, ‘Armenian Cilicia, Kingdom of’, Encyclopaedic Prosopographical Lexicon of Byzantine History and Civilization, ed. A. Savvides and B. Hendrickx (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), 1:375-380.

[2] On the identity of Kostandin, see Dédéyan, p.543.

[3] Nicetas Choniates, O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Choniates, trans. by H. Magoulias (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984), p.14.

[4] On this duel, see e.g., T. Maniati-Kokkini, ‘Η Επίδειξη Ανδρείας Στον Πόλεμο Κατά Τους Ιστορικούς Του 11ου Και 12ου Αι.’, in Byzantium at War (9th-12th c.), ed. by K. Tsiknakis (Athens: Ίδρυμα Γουλανδρή-Χορν, 1997), pp.239-259 (240-241).

[5] C. Whately, Battles and Generals. Combat, Culture, and Didacticism in Procopius’ Wars (Leiden: Brill, 2016), p.74.

[6] al-Balādhuri, Kitāb al-Futūh, trans. by P. Hitti (New York: Columbia University Press, 1916), p.264.

[7] B. Catlos, Muslims of Medieval Latin Christendom, c.1050-1614 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p.40.

[8] P. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p.193-196.

[9] On the effect of taunts and counter-taunts on morale, see, e.g., Leif Inge Ree Petersen, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD). Byzantium, the West and Islam, History of Warfare, 91 (Leiden: Brill, 2003), pp.318-319.

[10] J. Birkenmeier, The Development of the Komnenian Army: 1081-1180 (Leiden: Brill, 2002), pp.200-201.

[11] H. Kennedy, The Armies of the Caliphs: Military and Society in the Early Islamic State (London: Routledge, 2002), p.183. See also J. Bradbury, The Medieval Siege (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1992), p.325.

[12] Choniates, p.14.

[13] See, e.g., K. Takirtakoglou, ‘John II Komnenos’ Campaign in Cilician Armenia’, Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 114.3, pp.1329–50 (1337-1339).

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