John Choiroboskos

1. Biographical information

The little that is known about John Choiroboskos is fragmentary information that have survived in the historical work Syngraphikai Historiai (Συγγραφικαί Ἱστορίαι) by George Pachymeres. The Byzantine historian mentions that John was a youth of Bulgarian descent whose name was Matzoukatos1and who was also called Choiroboskos2 because of his prior occupation.

Around 13033 John assembled a battalion of around three hundred men and volunteered to serve under co-emperor Michael IX Palaiologos in the war against the Muslims in Asia Minor, although the battalion consisted of men without any military experience. This somewhat unexpected proposal caused the suspicions of the Byzantine emperor and his advisors; not out of fear for the possible death of the members of the inexperienced men but mostly out of concern for the turmoil that the appearance of a group of armed peasants could arise among the Byzantine rural population.4 Therefore, as a precaution, John Choiroboskos was arrested and put in prison for nine months.

2. Activity

2.1. Activity in Asia Minor

John Choiroboskos however managed to escape and he even made use of same sort of ecclesiastical immunity to stay free. Moreover, instead of lose his courage to his arrest, he went on to organize a new battalion, gathering refugees from Asia Minor. It is clear that he was an unusual individual, combining the temperament of a peasant, of a warrior and an adventurer.

Later, as leader of his troupes, he headed to Asia Minor where he fought against the Ottomans. These conflicts took place mainly in the area around the Scamander River. After its initial success however, Choiroboskos’ battalion disbanded and he himself was imprisoned. For a second time in a short period, he lost his freedom. But it seems that this did not daunt him either.

2.2. Activity in the area of Thessaloniki

About Choiroboskos’ subsequent fortune, Pachymeres offers two versions: according to the first he was murdered, while according to the second, which the Byzantine historian considers more likely, John Choiroboskos managed to escape from captivity and returned to the Balkans.

For a second time he offered his services to the emperor Michael IX, visiting him at his camp. This time the situation was different: the Empire facing the threat of the raids of the Catalan mercenaries who had sided with the Muslims, the emperor accepted Choiroboskos’ offer.

John was honoured with the title of sebastos, which during the late Byzantine period was given to the commanders of foreign mercenaries,5 and in this way he entered into the service of the Byzantine army. With permission from the emperor he assembled a battalion of a thousand men to fight against the Ottomans, and carried out his operations in the area of Thessaloniki.

These events took place around 1307 and definitely not before this date. It appears however that Choiroboskos’ battalion very quickly became a gang which terrorized the outskirts of the second largest Byzantine city.6At this point the traces of John Choiroboskos are lost and Pachymeres provides no more information about him.

1. The family name Matzoukatos is not unknown in late Byzantium. See Prosopographisches Lexikon der Palaiologenzeit, 7 (Wien 1985), no. 17276-17279, p. 148.

2. We know of a Byzantine scholar from the early 9th century by the name of George Choiroboskos, while from the late Byzantine period survives information about a certain foreigner, Drazos Choiroboskos from Macedonia (1320), see Prosopographisches Lexikon der Palaiologenzeit, 7 (Wien 1985), no. 30875, p. 222.

3. During this period Michael IX was in Asia Minor (spring of 1302 – January 1304). See Georges Pachymérès Relations Historiques, A. Failler (ed.), IV (Paris 1999), pp. 484-485, note 55.

4. Божилов И., Българите във Византийската империя (София 1995) [Božilov, I., Bŭlgarite vŭn Vizantijskata imperija, Sofia 1995], no. 449, p. 355.

5. Ahrweiler, H., «Le sébaste chef de groupes ethniques» in Polychronion. Festschrift F. Dölger (Heidelberg 1966), pp. 34-38.

6. Laiou, A., Constantinople and the Latins. The Foreign Policy of Andronicus II, 1282-1328 (Cambridge Mass. 1972), p. 192.