The Case of Conjoined Twins in 10th Century Byzantium

Aug 2014
There are very few known cases of conjoined twins from the Middle Ages. What did medieval people think of these strange cases and how did they treat the twins? We can take a look at what happened with two conjoined men from 10th century Byzantium, which also happens to be the earliest known attempt to surgically separate two individuals.

Leo the Deacon, writing in his History, provides his firsthand observation of seeing the conjoined twins, sometime during the mid-940s:

At this time male twins, who came from the region of Cappadocia, were wandering through many parts of the Roman Empire; I myself, who am writing these lines, have often seen them in Asia, a monstrous and novel wonder. For the various parts of their bodies were whole and complete, but their sides were attached from the armpit to the hip, uniting their bodies and combining them into one. And with the adjacent arms they embraced each other’s necks, and in the others carried staffs, on which they supported themselves as they walked. They were thirty years old and well developed physically, appearing youthful and vigorous. On long journeys they used to ride on a mule, sitting sideways on the saddle in the female fashion, and they had indescribably sweet and good dispositions. But enough about this.

Other chronicles from the tenth and eleventh centuries add more details. The boys were born in Armenia, but soon came to Constantinople during the reign of Romanus I Lecapenus (919-944), where in the words of Theophanes Continuatus “they resided for a long time in the City and were admired by everybody as a curiosity but later were exiled because it was believed that they were a bad omen.”

Judging by the remarks of Leo the Deacon, the twins moved around the Byzantine Empire, perhaps their in the same way as the traveling ‘human freak shows’ of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The pair likely got the similar reactions that the chroniclers had – many would see them as a wonder or as a monster. However, the report by Leo also suggests that the two brothers were also physically and mentally well.

During the reign of Constantine VII (944-59) the twins returned to Constantinople. Theophanes Continuatus explains what happens next:

When one of the twins died skilled doctors separated them cleverly at the line of connection with the hope of saving the surviving one but after living three days he died also.

This is the earliest known attempt to surgically separate conjoined twins, and the fact that the second person survived for a even a few days showed that it was at least partly successful. There would not be another case of conjoined twins being separated until the year 1689.

The Synopsis of Histories by John Scylitzes, written in the 11th century also includes a similar account as well as a page of illustrations showing the twins and the surgery:

For more information, see ‘A Surgical Operation performed on Siamese Twins during the Tenth Century in Byzantium,’ by G.E. Pentogalos and John G. Lascaratos, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol.58:1 (1984)

From: The Case of Conjoined Twins in 10th Century Byzantium

The extraordinary event of the surgery of the conjoined twins reveals the level of the science of medicine and the capabilities of the doctors in Byzantium at that time. The next successful surgery of this kind would be centuries later in 1689.
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Ad Honorem
Apr 2013
Home of Ringing Rocks
I'm not sure I've ever thought about what happens when one dies before the other. Thanks for sharing.

Love your avatar btw. Welcome.:)
Aug 2014
I'm not sure I've ever thought about what happens when one dies before the other. Thanks for sharing.

Love your avatar btw. Welcome.:)
Thank you and the rest who posted their replies. Yeah it was a rare event back then in the 10th cent, the people were very curious about the appearance of those conjoined twins. It is being mentioned in Byzantine sources like the "Synopsis of Histories" of John Skylitzes. When one of the twins died experienced doctors tried to save the other by performing a surgery in order to separate the two brothers. It was the first successful surgery of this kind.

Detail of the surgery of the conjoined twins from the Synopsis of Histories ([ame=""]Madrid Skylitzes[/ame]) of John Skylitzes.


Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
Canada, originally Clwyd, N.Wales
I quite enjoyed this myself as well, thankyou!

It is an interesting question. I know even today in some remote areas such mutations are treated with superstition...such as the case of the little boy in Nepal who was born stillborn after suffering from a genetic disorder where his skull was too small for his brain, and they worshipped his body as an avatar of a local god.

There's always those stories of Dogheads and the wonders if some of these cases were actually mangled reports of people with deformity.