Of what precise species this sea-monster was, is not mentioned. But as he destroyed ships, as well as for other reasons, he must have been a whale; and I am strongly inclined to think a sperm whale.

— Herman Melville, Moby Dick

The Gladises – a family of orcas likened to the combatants of the Roman Empire – have engaged in a string of boat attacks in Iberian waters for nearly four years. Their impressive string scuttled at least three vessels and damaged dozens more (at publication, their spree is ongoing).

Yet, they have many moons and battles ahead of them if they want to match the reign of terror of another behemoth of the sea. During the sixth century, a beast named Porphyrios prowled the Byzantine waters of the Bosporus Strait. The denizen harried warships, upset the economy, and attracted the wrath of Emperor Justinian I for 50 years!

The Bosporus Strait is highlighted in red - graphic by Thomas Steiner and Interiot

The Bosporus Strait (in red in the graphic above) connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, which is connected to the Mediterranean via the Aegean by the Dardanelles Strait (highlighted in yellow). To compare the Gladises and Porphyrios is more apropos than the sea-creatures-attacking-boats connection. Straddling the Bosporus is Istanbul. Istanbul was Constantinople, which just happened to be the seat of the Byzantine Empire, which just happened to be the remnants of the Roman Empire. The choice of naming orcas after Roman fighters fits in a nice, historical pedigree. Porphyrios is the first known account of a real rogue whale affecting human infrastructure.

Of course, modern historians believe Porphyrios was a whale, but the historian who ensured we know about the creature did not note it as a cetacean. Procopius of Caesarea and his contemporaries knew relatively little about whales; they simply knew monsters lived beneath the azure tints. In History of the Wars and The Secret History, Procopius mentions Porphyrios. Though we receive nothing like a scientific breakdown of the whale, Procopius provided specificity when it comes to the size of the beast: 45 feet long and 15 feet wide. That’s a big monster.

The whale’s name offers some additional insight. The etymology of the moniker is unclear, but several feasible possibilities exist. The first relates to a renowned charioteer of the era, named Porphyrius; the second stems from a mythological giant called Porphyrion, who waged wars against the Greek gods. Both examples are close and obviously endow the monster with a level of accolade. Modern historians, however, believe the name actually derives from a color, which goes by the term Porphyra. This hue is a deep purple, akin to Homer’s wine-dark sea. Perhaps Porphyrios had purplish skin, in which case the name simply described the whale’s appearance. One historian pegs the word Porphyrios to mean “purple boy,” a nice oxymoronic nomenclature akin to calling Hercules “tiny.” 

A sperm whale and her calf - photo by Gabriel Barathieu

The behavior and coloration of the whale lead most marine biologists to narrow the possible species to two: orcas and sperm whales. The consensus seems to lean toward sperm whales, as they are much larger than orcas and, traditionally, have caused more aggression toward humans. As you can see in the photo above, a typical sperm whale doesn’t exactly have purple skin; neither does the orca. However, both have dark complexions and sometimes ancient descriptions of colors seem to indicate some oddities with how the stories come down to us (see Homer’s lack of blue above). Further, certain individuals sometimes appear outside of the normal ranges of appearance within a species. The distinct patterns of orcas might lead one to believe 50 years of sightings would allow for a more accurate description. Still, the designation is not a lock due to one intriguing piece of evidence. Sperm whales usually do not frequent a spot like the Bosporus Strait. If a sperm whale turned up there today, it would certainly be noteworthy. Orcas, on the other hand, frequent the region. If Porphyrios was an orca, she was an Orca of Unusual Size and lived to be older than they typically do.

Whatever species Porphyrios was, she brought the heat to the region for half a century. The whale did not discriminate when it came to attacking vessels. Fishing boats, merchant ships, military craft, they all went down. The leviathan instilled so much horror in the region that people started to take new routes to their destinations, which greatly affected the economy of Constantinople. To Justinian, this monster had to go. He made the capture of Porphyrios a top concern, spending decades on the project. He and his top advisors attempted to devise all sorts of ways to snag the whale. Nothing worked. Sometimes the provocations would subside for periods and the populace would wonder if Porphyrios had perished, only for a fresh round of mayhem to erupt.

50 years is a long time.

Mosaic of Justinian I in Basilica San Vitale

Fortunately for the Byzantines and unfortunately for the whale, the reign of Porphyrios finally came to a conclusion, though not due to anything a human devised.

According to Procopius, the whale chased dolphins one day near the mouth of the Black Sea. Looking for a meal, Porphyrios beached herself, becoming stuck in some dense mud. Locals realized the mammoth on their shores was the famous terror and raced to kill her with axes and ropes. The axes did nothing to the great being, but the people pulled the whale higher onto the beach, where they finally managed to dismember the whale. The populace was so happy to see the end of half a century of attacks that some of them ate raw whale meat on the spot. Others were slightly more judicious with their bloodlust, taking the meat home to cook.

The tale became so notable that it featured in two disparate works of renown. Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had plenty of fodder to fill its numerous pages, but still stuck the rogue whale in for posterity. Slightly different in tone and intent, Herman Melville placed Porphyrios inside his masterwork Moby-Dick.

We’ll likely never know for certain if Porphyrios was a sperm whale or an orca. Melville has no qualms coming down on Team Sperm Whale. The lack of proper whales in the Bosporus does not disquiet his mind, as Ishmael writes: 

“Of what precise species this sea-monster was, is not mentioned. But as he destroyed ships, as well as for other reasons, he must have been a whale; and I am strongly inclined to think a sperm whale. And I will tell you why. For a long time I fancied that the sperm whale had been always unknown in the Mediterranean and the deep waters connecting with it. Even now I am certain that those seas are not, and perhaps never can be, in the present constitution of things, a place for his habitual gregarious resort. But further investigations have recently proved to me, that in modern times there have been isolated instances of the presence of the sperm whale in the Mediterranean. I am told, on good authority, that on the Barbary coast, a Commodore Davis of the British navy found the skeleton of a sperm whale. Now, as a vessel of war readily passes through the Dardanelles, hence a sperm whale could, by the same route, pass out of the Mediterranean into the Propontis.”

Sperm whales have the biggest brains by mass of any creature on Earth. Certainly, a cunning behemoth that could cut down hundreds of ships might find the gumption and ability to navigate the labyrinthine waters of the Mediterranean!

Further Reading and Exploration

The Tale Of A Monstrous Whale That Harassed Ships In the Age Of Justinian – The Historian’s Hut

Porphyrios: Monstrous Terror of the Roman World – Historic Mysteries

Works by Procopius – University of Pennsylvania

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