Byzantine Literature

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The importance of the contribution the Byzantines made to modern civilization by protecting western Europe from barbarian invaders for more than 1,000 years and by creating a new kind of art is universally recognized. In appraising Byzantium as a cultural force, however, emphasis is usually laid on what the Byzantines did rather than on what they wrote. The customary verdict is that Byzantine literature is more significant for the information it contains than for its own sake. This judgment, though valid in general, is not altogether unassailable, and leaves out of account a number of significant facts, which are reviewed in this article.


It should be noted at once that, except for a large number of fragments on papyrus and the Persians of Timotheus (which has been preserved almost intact on a papyrus nearly contemporary with its author), virtually all of our texts of the ancient Greek classics were literally saved from destruction by the diligence of the Byzantine scholars who studied them and laboriously transcribed them. If it had not been for this Byzantine interest, the pagan Greek classics would have perished long ago, and the whole shape of modern life would have been profoundly altered. Moreover, the Byzantines achieved aesthetic distinction of a high order in some areas, especially in the liturgy and in historiography.

Scope of Byzantine Literature. Strictly speaking, Byzantine literature includes the entire literary production, in all genres, of the occupants of the Byzantine Empire from the beginning of the reign of diocletian (284) to the fall of the empire on May 29, 1453. Hence, in a survey of Byzantine literature one should presumably consider texts written not only in Greek but also in Latin, Syriac, and Arabic. Accordingly, a strong case could be made for the inclusion under this rubric of such Latin writers as lactantius (fl. c. 317), who was the tutor of Crispus, Emperor constantine i's eldest son.

Similarly, it would not be inappropriate to discuss here such works as the Corpus Iuris Civilis, despite the fact that only one of its four major divisions (the so called Novels, Νεαραί) was written in Greek. For the other three parts of this extraordinary code of laws, though derived directly from preexisting Latin texts and codifications of the law, represent Byzantine legal thought and practice as reflected in the additions, omissions, and emendations made by Tribonian, Emperor justinian i's chief adviser in such matters, and the other jurisconsults of his staff.

Nevertheless, for the sake of simplicity, this article is limited to the materials written in Greek, which was the dominant language of the empire, at least from the time of Justinian I. Even Emperor Constantine I, whose native language was Latin, used Greek in addressing the bishops at the first ecumenical council (nicaea i, 325). Still, Latin persisted in the eastern portions of the empire as late as the time of Emperor heraclius i (610641), who apparently was the first to make Greek the official language of the Byzantine court and chancery, as it had always been of the Greek Churches in the East, which were the direct descendants of the Greek-speaking communities that had produced the New Testament, carried the Gospels to the West, and left their mark upon Rome through the first popes, all of whom had written and spoken in Greek until the time of victor i (c. 189198).

Byzantine Greek. The form of the Greek language that the Byzantines used varied greatly. The standard of most serious writers was the usage that prevailed in ancient Athens. That is, they were Atticizers. But not even the most determined classicists were able to reproduce this ancient language with complete fidelity, and their use of the Attic idiom invariably fell short of their ideal. Moreover, new vocabulary and usages, which are always associated with a living language, turned up regularly not only in the nonliterary texts of the years following upon the death of Alexander, but also with even greater frequency in the Christian period as a result of the birth and growth of the Christian Church.

In general, however, the intelligentsia clung to the traditional language of antiquity, so far as it was possible for them to do so. But inevitably in their hands the language underwent great changes, marked principally by the simplification of syntax that resulted from such phenomena as the disappearance of the dative case, the loss or misunderstanding of the optative and subjunctive moods of the verb, and the breaking down of the more complicated conjugations and declensions. At the same time there developed a simplification of the vowel and diphthong system which radically altered pronunciation and incidentally rendered the ancient patterns of syllable length, vital for verse composition, irrelevant. These transformations were unavoidable. At the same time, however, the determined classicism of the Atticizers, aided by the concentration of authority in Constantinople, the major cultural center of the empire, had a unifying effect linguistically, and succeeded in eradicating the ancient non-Attic dialects, which now had almost completely disappeared. Provincialisms of various kinds were always to be found, but they rarely penetrated into literary circles. Nor did they ever become truly separate types of speech that could be described as dialects.

What is called the κοιν διάλεκτος (the "common language") was essentially the neo-Attic type of Greek that resulted from the strenuous but never altogether successful efforts of writers to reproduce the idiom of ancient Athens. In the course of its history, this Atticizing language had to make concessions on a large scale to modernisms of many sorts (originating in the speech of the people, the army, imperial chancery, etc.). But the resulting changes affected syntax and vocabulary rather than morphology.

Besides their success in eliminating the non-Attic dialects, the Atticizers won another fundamental victory, for the influence of the imperial court and of the liturgy (which was always under the domination of the Atticizers), as well as the conservative instincts of the people, served to keep the Greek language as such alive, and prevented its disintegration into new linguistic creations like the Romance languages of the West (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French), which came into being during the Middle Ages. Indeed, in the last three and a half centuries of its history, the very period during which the Byzantine national existence was gravely threatened (by the Crusaders and foreign enemies of all sorts who invaded and occupied its territories), the common language was strengthened by new and vigorous classical revivals. Naturally, the common language was not the spoken language of the people, but the latter never had the strength to drive out the former. In the West, on the other hand, popular usage corrupted classical Latin and made of it what was called Vulgar Latin, which then, sometime between the 7th and 10th centuries, disappeared entirely (except for the survival of the ancient idiom in the Roman liturgy and in the works of scholars), and was supplanted as a spoken tongue by the new Romance languages. In Byzantium the metamorphosis of the spoken form of Greek into anything resembling Romance never took place. Instead, there was, and remained in modern Greece officially until 1976, a duality of languages: the "common" or literary language (of the Atticizing writers known in modern times as the καθαρεύουσα) and, over against this, the popular or "demotic" language of the people. But both were, and are recognizably Greek in form and structure. see greek language, early chris tian and byzantine.

General Character of Byzantine Literature

Though it is rarely prudent to generalize concerning an entire people, there are a few traits of Byzantine literature as a whole that may be regarded as characteristic. Above all, the medieval Greeks, like their ancient ancestors, whose literature they cherished, had a fierce sense of cultural pride that left its mark in every phase of their activity. Their emperor, who was, according to them, chosen by God himself, was the ruler of the whole of the inhabited world; and the Byzantine Church was in their sight the divinely appointed custodian and champion of the only true faith, just as their language was the sole respectable medium for communication.

In some important respects the Byzantines were the heirs of the Hellenistic age, i.e., of the Greek culture that flourished for 600 or 700 years between c. 350 b.c. and the middle of the 4th century of the Christian Era. It is from this period, from the school of alexandria, that the Byzantines inherited their flair for scholarly works of all kindsfor the transcription, critical revision, and excerpting of the ancient texts; for the compilation and collection of literary materials of every description; for philological studies; for their predilection for the ekphrasis (a description, long or short, in prose or verse, of a person, place, object, work of art, etc.); and for the annotation, exegesis, and appraisal of ancient literature of all kinds.

Dominance of Rhetoric. Adherence to the educational practices of late antiquity led to an addiction to rhetoric, which colored everything the Byzantines said and wrote. They avoided ordinary and customary words, invented a bewildering array of new sesquipedalian monstrosities with the aid of prefixes of various kinds, and constantly strained after novel modes of expression. The result is that the modern reader has often to cut his way through tangled webs of tortuously constructed sentences, which are not always fully comprehensible.

Fortunately, a great many writers, especially in the earlier centuries, were free from this passion for rhetorical embellishment. St. Athanasius, for example, and most of the theologians of the period of the ecumenical councils cultivated a simple, unadorned style that usually offers no difficulties, and was often uninfluenced by classical standards. But more erudite authors, men such as Photius, Psellus, or Metochites, struggled so earnestly to write in the elevated manner that they became all but unintelligible.

Lack of Originality. Paradoxically, despite these frantic efforts to achieve originality of form, the Byzantines had no problems about paraphrasing or even copying out whole paragraphs and pages from the works of other authors without acknowledgment or fear of censure for so doing: plagiarism is a meaningless concept in a Byzantine context.

The Byzantine lack of sensitivity in such matters is probably to be explained by ingrained acceptance of authority, imperial and ecclesiastical, and also by the traditional convention of imitation. An emperor's decree or the dogma formulated by one of the ecumenical councils might be copied, annotated, or discussed. It could not be altered. This attitude of obeisance was transferred to literary, philosophical, and scientific texts, and is reflected in the innumerable Byzantine compendia, anthologies, excerpts, and paraphrases. It was further reinforced by an education system which, aiming at inculcating a good literary style, taught this by careful study of the masters from the past.

But few felt the need to begin afresh or to develop a new system of thought and belief. Even the neopagan George Gemistos plethon (c. 13551452), who sought to overthrow the Christian religion, confined himself in his scheme for a new pagan state to summarizing and weaving together a great variety of sources, mostly Platonic and Neoplatonic. He did not depart from the paths laid down in the ancient tradition.

Hence, even when they fail to cite the authors whom they copy or follow, Byzantine writers had no intention to deceive. Thus, john damascene in the Fountain of Knowledge (Πηγ γνώσεως) disarmingly confesses that he was wholly dependent upon his authorities, and had made no attempt to present ideas of his own.

Being overpowered by the weight of tradition and predisposed to follow models of one sort or another, the Byzantine writers felt free to write in as many media as they chose. Before the Hellenistic Age, no writer (except Ion of Chios in the 5th century b.c., and possibly Plato, if the poems attributed to him are genuine) expressed himself in more than one literary genre. The historian confined himself to history, the lyric poet to lyric poetry, the dramatist to drama, and the philosopher to philosophy. But in Byzantium many writers tried their hands at a variety of styles, and wrote in every conceivable literary form: history, philosophy, mathematics, and poetry. As a result, the novelty they achieved was usually in expression rather than in ideas.


Byzantine civilization turned around two foci: the Church and the emperor. There is hardly a phase of Byzantine activity that can be considered apart from these two vital factors. Though the emperor dominated all phases of Byzantine life and even exerted control over the Byzantine Church, the Byzantines felt no special urge to write about political theory or on the relation between Church and State. There are, of course, important Byzantine treatises on this subject, but they are greatly outweighed in both bulk and number by the works of the theologians, who concerned themselves with all the major problems of theology, especially those involved in the Trinitarian and Christological controversies [see trini ty, holy, controversies on; christology, contro versies on (patristic)]. These were the principal subjects on the agenda of the seven ecumenical councils (nicaea i, 325; constantinople i, 381; ephesus, 431; chalcedon, 451; constantinople ii, 553; constanti nople iii, 680681; nicaea ii, 787) that produced the official creeds of the Church. [see councils, general (ecumenical), history of.]

These documents, especially the so-called nicene creed (more technically described as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, to distinguish it from that of 325, which it closely resembles) and the Creed of Chalcedon provide the basic definitions of the doctrines of the Trinity and of the person of Christ, respectively, as these are understood in most of the Christian Churches throughout the worldRoman, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant.

From the point of view of the enormous influence of these creeds on the entire history of the Christian world, therefore, the theologians who drafted, expounded, and defended them deserve a place in intellectual history hardly, if at all, below that of the ancient Greek philosophers. Aesthetically and liturgically, as well as theologically, the creeds themselves merit careful study.

Moreover, on the evidence of the New Testament, in which Christ is represented both as a divine being (i.e., one who performed miracles, conquered death, and rose to heaven) and as a true man (who ate, drank, slept, wept, etc., like other men), the theological definitions contained in these creeds are logically inevitable. In other words, the heretics were not condemned because they made use of pagan philosophy, terminology, and logic, as some contend, but primarily because, in one way or another, they failed to take adequate account of the New Testament portrayal of Jesus Christ.

Antiheretical Polemics. The reasoning by which the doctrines set forth in these creeds were evolved becomes a matter of the highest interest. The earliest monuments of this doctrinal development (after the New Testament itself, the writings of the apostolic fathers, of the apologists, of Pope dionysius i and dionysius of al exandria, and of theologians such as irenaeus, clem ent and origen of Alexandria, and tertullian of Carthage), fall outside of the chronological limits of this essay.

Within our scope, however, comes alexander, pa triarch of alexandria, and, even more significantly, his successor, St. athanasius (bishop, 328373), the chief defender of the Nicene theology in the first half of the 4th century, to whom we owe three Orations Against the Arians, as well as letters and other treatises that rank among the chief sources for our knowledge of the transactions of the first ecumenical council and of much of the subsequent development down to 381. In addition, Athanasius occupies a place of importance in the history of monasticism for his Life of St. Anthony (251356), the first of the great hermits and one of the spiritual ancestors of Byzantine asceticism (see anthony of egypt, st.).

In the next phase of the Arian controversy, down to and including the second council (381), the chief authorities were the three Cappadocians, St. basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia (d. 379), his younger brother gregory of nyssa (d. 394), and their friend Bishop gregory of nazianzus (d. 389 or 390).

In his letters as well as in his works Against Eunomius and On the Holy Spirit Basil refuted the arguments of the Arians. His major contribution was the formulation and dogmatic defense of the Trinitarian formula, μία οσία ν τρσν ύποστάσεσι:, one substance (or essence, i.e., one divinity) in three hypostases (i.e., three persons). Moreover, Basil was the founder of Byzantine monasticism, his regulations for which exerted influence also in the West. His nine homilies on the Hexaemeron (the Biblical account of creation) are noteworthy as a statement of Christian principles of cosmology, which drew freely upon pagan authorities, such as Plato, Aristotle, Poseidonius and plotinus. Gregory of Nyssa carried on the attack against the Eunomians and the Macedonians (see sabellianism; monarchianism), continued his brother's study of cosmology with a treatise On the Creation of Man (De Opificio hominis ), and produced a host of works on other subjects. He relied extensively upon Plato. Gregory of Nazianzus, known as "the Theologian" because of his five theological orations, was less prolific than Gregory of Nyssa. He wrote some 400 poems and, among other things, a bitter treatise against Emperor Julian.

Another refutation of Julian's polemic against the Christians was that of cyril of alexandria (bishop, 412444), whose chief importance, however, lay in his interpretation of the relation of the two natures (the divine and the human) in Christ. Actually, his famous Christological formula, μία φύσις το[symbol omitted] Θεο[symbol omitted] Λόγου σεσαρκωμένη [one incarnate nature of God the Word (Logos)], was taken over from Apollinaris (the heretic, c. 310390) in the mistaken belief that it had been enunciated by Athanasius (see apollinarianism). The "strict" Chalcedonians, including theodoret of cyr (d. c. 466) and nestorius (fl. 428), objected that this phrase was Monophysitic and signified that Christ had only one nature instead of two. The Cyrillian theologians, in turn, insisted that, by stressing the fact that the "one nature" was "incarnate," this formula fully safeguarded the integrity and reality in Christ of two natures, as orthodox theology required.

The chief defenders of the strictly Chalcedonian dyophysite Christology were hypatius of ephesus (fl.532) and leontius of byzantium (fl. 543), the latter of whom wrote against both the Nestorians and the Monophysites.

Taking a position midway between the strict Chalcedonians and the Monophysites were the so-called Neochalcedonians, who attempted to reinterpret the creed of 451 in Cyrillian terms. The most interesting as well as the most powerful of the theologians of this group was Emperor Justinian I (527565), who, besides several pronouncements in the Corpus Iuris Civilis on theological matters, is credited in the manuscripts with three erudite doctrinal dissertations. His chief aim was to vindicate the theology of Cyril against its critics. This he succeeded in doing at the Council of 553 by interpreting Cyril's Chris-tological formula and other aspects of the Cyrillian system, which the Chalcedonians had found objectionable, in harmony with the creed of 451.

At the same time, however, the Neochalcedonians continued to attack the Monophysites despite the fact that many modern critics fail to find much difference between Neochalcedonianism and the so-called "monophysit ism" of Bp. severus of antioch (512538), who devoted his considerable talents to the defense and exposition of the Cyrillian position. For this reason, many have doubted whether he can be properly classified as a Monophysite. Nevertheless, the orthodox prejudice against him was so great that very little of what he wrote is extant, save in Syriac translation. His chief offense, perhaps, was that he polemized against the Creed of Chalcedon, which he took to be Nestorian. On the other hand, another Monophysite of the 6th century, julian of halicarnassus, is not easily defended, and was attacked even by Severus of Antioch for Aphthartodocetism.

In the conflict with Monenergism and monotheli tism, the great champion of the doctrine that Christ had two energies and two wills (as set forth eventually by the sixth ecumenical council), was maximus the confes sor (580662), the author of numerous dogmatic and polemical treatises and letters on various theological subjects, including commentaries on the pseudodionysius, an allegorical interpretation of the liturgy, and a series of so-called Centuries. At the end of the 7th century the struggle against heresy was continued by an astasius sinaita (d. c. 700), who polemized against the Monophysites in his Hodegos (Guide), and wrote a commentary on the Biblical account of creation.

Despite their condemnation at the Councils of 451, 553, and 680 to 681, the Monophysites persisted in the struggle to obtain an ecumenical decision in their favor, and in the 8th and 9th centuries sought to circumvent the strict dyophysitism of 451 by calling for the condemnation of the images of Christ, Mary, and the saints, which they deemed sacrilegious (see iconoclasm). The iconoclasts were led by Emperors leo iii (717741), constan tine v (741775), and leo v (813820), but in the end they were defeated, largely through the efforts of Empresses irene (in 787) and theodora (in 843). The chief defenders of the images were Patriarch germanus i of Constantinople (715730; d. 733), John Damascene (the greatest theologian of his day; d. c. 753), Patriarchs tarasius (784806) and nicephorus i (806815) of Constantinople, and theodore the studite (759826).

John Damascene is celebrated not only for his Three Orations Against the Iconoclasts, a number of Biblical commentaries, and some liturgical poems of high merit, but above all for his great theological encyclopedia, the Fountain of Knowledge (Πηγ γνώσεως). John exerted great influence on theology both in Byzantium and in the Latin West (to which parts of the Fountain were made available in Latin translations of the 12th and 13th centuries). But he made no claim to originality and was dependent upon his sources, pagan and Christian, which he often copied verbatim.

In the second iconoclastic period (815843), the leading figure was Theodore the Studite, an uncompromising champion of images, whose intransigence on this subject thrice drove him into exile. Besides his polemical writings in favor of images, he is known for two collections of Catechetical Precepts (on the duties of monks), an extensive correspondence, homilies, panegyrics, his epigrams (see below), and a notable group of liturgical poems.

Mystical Theology. Hardly less characteristic of Byzantium than the dogmatic decrees of the ecumenical councils was the Byzantine interest in mystical theology, which is closely connected with ascetical practices of various kinds. Alongside the early Biblical type of mystic union with Christ as set forth in the Pauline Epistles, the early Fathers, and Basil of Caesarea, there was the more intellectual type, which was dependent upon philosophical sources, mediated by Origen (c. 185254) and evagri us ponticus (346399). This latter form of mysticism is best known in its most developed form as presented by the pseudo-dionysius the Areopagite (fl. 500), who was deeply influenced by proclus, the Neoplatonist, and served as one of the major channels by which Neoplatonic ideas were transmitted to the later Middle Ages (see neoplatonism). Apart from heterodox variations of mysticism like that of the Messalians [combated by dia dochus of photice (d. before 486)], the Byzantine tradition was best represented by john climacus of Sinai (d.c. 670), Maximus the Confessor (580662), Theodore the Studite (759826), symeon the new theologian (9491022), and nicetas stethatos (fl. 1054). Finally, in the 14th century, differences of opinion on various aspects of mystical theology led to the Hesychast controversy, which ended in the triumph of the Hesychasts, such as Gregory palamas and Emperor john vi can tacuzenus, against their opponents, barlaam of cala bria, nicephorus gregoras, and others (see hesychasm).

After the final settlement of the iconoclastic controversy in 843, the most fruitful period in the history of Byzantine theology came to an end. The production of theological works continued as in the past. But the questions discussed after 843, though often hotly contested, were not so significant as the dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation, to the definition of which the ecumenical councils had addressed themselves. Even some of the earlier questions had reverberations in the later centuries, and Photius, for example, near the end of the 9th century, still found it necessary to polemize against the iconoclasts. Similarly, manichaeism rose up in new forms (paulicians and bogomils) which called forth new refutations. But the interests and literary activity of the theologians of the later period were most actively engaged in dealing with the question of the proposed union of the Churches of Rome and Byzantium, the problem of Hesychasm, and the polemic against Islam. The proponents of union with Rome were greatly aided by the Greek translations of Latin theological masterpieces that were made by Demetrius Cydones (c. 13241397 or 1398). The most important of these were of Thomas Aquinas's Summa contra Gentiles and Summa theologiae (the latter of which was completed by Demetrius's brother Prochorus), the donation of constantine, and Anselm's De processione spiritus sancti.

In the middle of the 15th century the leading theologian, next to bessarion (the Greek champion of union with Rome) and Abp. Mark of Ephesus (a resolute foe of the union), was George Scholarius (Patriarch gennadius ii of Constantinople, 1454), who was mildly in favor of union with Rome until 1443 or 1444, when he began to polemize against it. He defended the Palamites, wrote against the Jews and Plethon, and produced a number of valuable Greek translations of Latin theological classics.

Theological Encyclopedias. Appearing as compendia of the total Byzantine effort, theological encyclopedias were a favored form of synthesis, and several of them were remarkably successful. The Byzantines found this type of scholarly activity particularly congenial, and many theologians had devoted a great deal of energy to encyclopedic résumés or analyses of various kinds. (See for the earlier period, the Stromata of clement of alex andria, Eusebius of Caesarea's Praeparatio and Demonstratio, epiphanius of constantia's Panarion, Theodoret's polemic against the pagans, the 8th-century Sacra Parallela (Holy Parallels) and the great theological encyclopedia of John Damascene.)

In the later period the most noteworthy example of this genre was the Dogmatic Armory (Πανοπλία δογματική) of Euthymius zigabenus, which was written to please Emperor alexius i comnenus, and to serve as an arsenal for orthodox theologians in their debates against the heretics. The first 22 sections are taken up with a consideration of early heresy with special emphasis on the post-Nicene era. In this section Zigabenus is dependent entirely upon quotations from the leading theological authorities of early times (Athanasius, the Cappadocians, John Damascene, Photius, etc.). But the concluding portions (bks. 2328) in which he treats the heretics of his own time (the Armenians, Paulicians, Messalians, Bogomils, and Muslims) have independent value as historical source. Zigabenus is known also for his commentaries on the Psalms and the Gospels.

Of similar scope but different plan is the Holy Arsenal (ερà πλοθήκη) of Andronicus Camaterus, dedicated to Emperor manuel i, c. 117075. The first division of this Arsenal begins with a dialogue between the Emperor and the Roman Kardenalioi (cardinals) on the procession of the Holy Spirit, in which the Byzantine doctrine on the "single" procession is supported by quotations from the Bible and the Fathers, and fortified by syllogisms taken from the writings of earlier Byzantine opponents of the Latins. The second part of the work is directed against the Armenians, whom the Byzantines condemned as Monophysites, and is made up of an attack on heretical views of a Monophysitizing tendency (i.e., not only on Monophysitism itself, but also on Monotheletism, the theopaschite doctrine, and aphthartodocetism). Only a small part of the Arsenal has been published.

A third theological encyclopedia following those of the Comnenian period, the Treasury of Orthodoxy (Θησαυρòς ρθοδοξίας), came from the pen of the historian nicetas choniates (brother of Michael Choniates), who supplemented the Panoplia of Zigabenus, and concentrated on a survey of the older heresies, which the latter had not discussed. It is probably to be assigned to the years between 1204 and 1210, when Nicetas was in Nicaea; it is still only partially published. (See history below.)

Canon Law. If Justinian's Corpus Iuris Civilis has been excluded from discussion on linguistic grounds, the same should not be done for the more amorphous collections of canon lay, and in particular their commentaries, all of which were written in Greek. While Byzantine civil and ecclesiastical law were never separated, civil law was subject to repeal and amendment while canon law, derived from the acts of ecumenical councils before the 9th century, was deemed immutable and remained a constant reference point. The most widely used collection was that of the Nomocanons in Fourteen Titles, which, combining the text of the canons with material from the secular law codes, went through several developments between the seventh and the eleventh centuries. There were two periods in which commentary flourished: the twelfth century with the work of Alexios Aristenos, John zonaras and Theodore balsamon, and the fourteenth century when the key figures were Matthew blastares and Constantinus Harmenopulos, whose writings were widely disseminated. The commentaries can offer illuminating insights into contemporary problems.

Homiletics. The Byzantines produced a vast number of sermons, which are marked by their fondness for rhetorical display; many of the major theologians have left large homiletic collections. The best known of the Byzantine preachers is the archbishop St. John Chrysostom of Constantinople (d. 407), one of the most prolific authors of the Byzantine period (the author of 18 volumes in the Patrologia Graeca ), the greater part of whose extant writings consists of sermons usually delivered in the form of commentaries on various books of the Bible. Chrysostom suffered for his outspokenness as censor of morals. But he was enormously popular with the people of Constantinople, who were so captivated by his oratory, that, to his annoyance, they often interrupted him by applause.

Of interest also in this genre, to choose only one example out of many, was Abp. Michael Choniates (Acominatus) of Athens (c. 11751204; d. c. 1220), whose sermons and letters illuminate the literary and cultural history of Athens in this period. Michael deplored the low state of learning in the Athens of his day, the cultural level of which had fallen so low, he complained, that his style had been corrupted as a consequence.

Hagiography. Saints' lives are a branch of literature that is peculiar. They take many forms, almost invariably in prose, and vary in length from a paragraph in a service book to a bulky volume in a modern edition. Written to edify and encourage the faithful to a more virtuous life, they range over gruesome accounts of martyrdoms, hair-raising descriptions of desert asceticism to tales of quiet monastic piety. Many are anonymous, though some notable writers, for example Theodore Prodromos, have tried their hand at the genre. Though long ignored by historians of literature, it is now appreciated that saints' lives are of undoubted interest in their own right, offer many insights into Byzantine society, and often provide valuable historical information.


In the field of history, the Byzantines continued the ancient Greek tradition with notable success, and produced a great historical literature. The extant texts are regularly divided into two types: histories and chronicles, though the distinction between the two is often blurred.

Historians and Chroniclers. Chronicles and histories differed from each other in many respects. The writers of chronicles, often but by no means always members of the clergy, looked upon history as a kind of homiletical exercise, by which they were enabled to justify the ways of God to man. Their chief concern was to champion their own brand of orthodoxy, making use of the most convenient sources at hand, which they excerpted freely or reproduced verbatim, with special emphasis upon the bizarre and the unusual. They had a special fondness for miracles, ice storms, comets, floods, and other phenomena that might prove interesting or edifying and exemplify God's benevolent chastisement of errant mankind.

Since the writers of the chronicles were not connected with the highly educated elite, most of them wrote in the popular idiom; and their works thus often preserved specimens of the vernacular language of their period. Though more derivative than the historians, the chroniclers are by no means devoid of significance. Many reported events at firsthand as eyewitnesses, or covered subjects, persons, and places ignored by the historians; and several have proved to be the only available sources for the information that they supply. Moreover, not a few of the chronicles, like that of john malalas, for instance, which deals primarily with the history of anti och, preserve local information and traditions, concerning which the Constantinopolitan writers were uninformed.

The chroniclers set out to cover the entire history of the world from the creation on, and prefixed to the treatment of their own special period a section on the creation of the universe, together with a survey of ancient history, Biblical and classical. After this introductory sketch of early times, the chroniclers then went on to deal with the events of their own day. The historians, on the other hand, except for Laonicus Chalcocondyles and Ducas, made no place for the history of their remote forbears and concentrated, instead, on their own times. Moreover, most, but not all, of the chroniclers contented themselves with a very cursory summary of each period of Biblical or ancient history, and with a short paragraph, often not exceeding a few sentences in length, for each year of later history.

In contrast with this straightforward method, the historians gave lengthy and detailed accounts of the eras with which they were primarily concerned. Most of them were laymen of high social position and excellent education, who either were themselves active participants in the events they described or were indirectly involved as ambassadors, generals, or members of the royal household. They wrote for people like themselves, often at the emperor's command, and had access to excellent sources: letters, archival material of various kinds, and texts in many languages, as well as the testimony of eyewitnesses. Though they prided themselves on their disinterestedness and undertook, like the ancient models they imitated, to investigate and expatiate upon the causal relations of the facts they reported, this claim should usually be treated with caution.

The historians were strongly influenced by the great historical writers of antiquity (Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Polybius), whom they constantly sought to emulate in language, style, and method. For this reason, they usually avoided contemporary nomenclature and have confused modern students by insisting upon the geographical designations current in the ancient writers. [Scythians, rather than the current name, Rosoi (ο [symbol omitted]ς or [symbol omitted]σοι) for Russians].

Similarly, in the effort to reproduce the manner and syntax of their ancient models, the Byzantine historians often used recondite words and complex constructions with the result that many sentences are so twisted as to be incomprehensible. Their attempted emulation of ancient rhetoric was often more ambitious than successful. Not all of the great corpus of Byzantine historians is extant. But from the histories that have been preserved it can be seen that the historians provided what is almost a continuous, uninterrupted account of the Byzantine world from the time of Diocletian (284305) until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Normally, one historian took up the thread of the narrative where his predecessor left off. Usually, whether by chance or design, there was one historian for each period, and only one. Hence, except as noted below (in the 14th and 15th centuries, in which special conditions prevailed), there were no surviving rival historians, and we have only one major authority among the historians for each chronological division.

The interpretation of history thus presented would be extremely one-sided if it were not possible, as it usually is, to compare the views of the historians with contemporary chronicles, legal documents, theological treatises, the typika (foundation charters of monasteries, etc.), letters, and the historical works of non-Byzantine writers (Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, Latin, and others). This generalization is applicable only to the portions of each history upon which the historian concentrated as his own special province, not to the introductory sections in which he reviewed the events of preceding years by way of preface.

Ecclesiastical History. One of the fields in which the Byzantine historians excelled was ecclesiastical history.

Eusebius. The first and greatest representative of the historians was Eusebius of Caesarea in Palestine (c. 263340), who exerted an enormous influence on subsequent writers in this genre, despite his leanings toward arianism and iconoclasm. His chief works were his panegyric on, or, as it is usually designated, the biography of, Constantine I and his invaluable history of the early Church (from the beginning to 324). The former (in four books), when allowances are made for its adulatory tone, is an absolutely indispensable key to the understanding of Constantine's reign, and in recent times has been strongly defended against the attacks certain modern critics had made against it.

The latter, in ten books, which is no less monumental in significance, preserves in excerpt a mass of historical records that otherwise would have perished. Eusebius is memorable also as the first to have popularized, on the basis of the efforts of Ammonius of Alexandria, an elaborate scheme for tabulating the parallel passages in the Gospels (where two or more Gospels are similar or identical) and the material peculiar to each of them by dividing the Gospels into numbered sections, which he listed under rubrics or headings, now known as the Eusebian canons or sections. These canons, which were taken over by Jerome in the Vulgate translation, are found in many medieval Gospel Books and New Testaments (both Greek and Latin), and are usually adorned with handsome representations of animals, flowers, arcades, arches, columns, and with decorative patterns of many types.

Of his numerous other works on related subjects, special interest attaches to his Praeparatio evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel ), in 15 books, which is an elaborate and erudite refutation of pagan religion and mythology (based on hundreds of quotations from the classics) and a glorification of the teaching of the Old Testament. In the Demonstratio evangelica (Proof of the Gospel ), originally written in 20 books, of which ten and a fraction are extant, Eusebius explained why the Christians accept the Old Testament (in which he found numerous prophecies of the appearance of Christ) but reject the Mosaic Law.

Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History served as the model for later Church historians in the Greek East as well as in the Latin West. rufinus (d. 410) rendered it into Latin and expanded it with certain, not always felicitous, additions of his own (which carried the history down to 395). More successful was St. jerome's (d. 419 or 420) translation of the Chronicon (Eusebius's Chronicle ), to which he added some new material and a supplement on the period from 324 to 378. Eusebius's work was not free from weaknesses and defects; his style is dry, humorless, and far from inspiring. Nevertheless it is doubtful whether any of his medieval successors ever attained the high standard of historical research that he set.

His Successors. His history was continued in the following century by socrates the historian, sozomen, and Theodoret, who dealt with the periods 305 to 439, 324 to 439, and 325 to 428, respectively. Some 100 years later, at the suggestion of Cassiodorus (d. c. 583), the renowned scholar, theologian, and adviser to King Theodoric, these three works were put into Latin and woven into a continuous narrative entitled Historia ecclesiastica tripartita by a certain Epiphanius. This tripartite history, in 12 books, though ineptly translated from the Greek, and unskillfully plaited together, was the principal Latin handbook of early ecclesiastical history, and circulated widely in the West throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Epiphanius's text represents the orthodox point of view, as does Gelasius of Cyzicus, who in the last quarter of the 5th century produced an Ecclesiastical History of the Constantinian Period, which has little independent value except for the use of two illuminating but otherwise unknown sources.

On the heterodox side of the great theological debates of this era, however, there is not much information. Except for a few scraps, most of the heretical apologiae have fallen victim to the intolerance of the Byzantine government, which ordered them destroyed and meted out stern punishment to theologians temerarious enough to try to evade imperial proscription. Thus, for the Arian version of the Trinitarian controversy, we are reduced to the few remaining fragments of the Ecclesiastical History (on 300425) by the radical Arian philostorgius.

Similarly, the history of Christology seen through the eyes of Nestorius's allies and written by Irenaeus of Tyre (c. 450457) has survived only as quoted by the Orthodox Rusticus Diaconus (565) in his so-called Synodicon adversus tragoediam Irenaei. Despite this loss, we are, so far as Nestorius is concerned, the beneficiaries of the accident that has preserved the so-called Bazaar of Heracleides, Nestorius's minutely detailed defense of his position against Cyril, the Greek original of which was struck down by imperial decree. What we have is the Syriac version that happily found a haven in a Nestorian community, and has thus come down to the present day virtually intact.

Among the victims of imperial persecution were the valuable ecclesiastical histories of the Monophysites John Diacrinomenus (John the Heretic) and Basil of Cilicia, the former of which covered the years 429 to 518, and the latter, c. 450 to 540. In addition, time and accident, not the orthodox or imperial relentlessness, are responsible for the loss of many precious sources, such as theodore lector's Historia tripartita (of which two out of four books have disappeared) and the same author's Ecclesiastical History (on the years 450527), which circulated in a popular Epitome of the 8th or 9th century.

In the midst of all these losses, we are fortunate to have the Syriac translation of zachary the Rhetor's Ecclesiastical History (in the original Greek, on 450491), which (in Syriac) extends to 568 or 569. Zachary, who ended his days as bishop of Mytilene (d. before 553), was a convert from Monophysitism to Neochalcedonianism, and the author of a biography of Severus (the Monophy-site bishop of Antioch) as well as a polemic against the pagan doctrine of the eternity of the universe. The Life of Severus is preserved only in Syriac; but the polemic is extant in Greek.

Evagrius Scholasticus. The fullest and best history of the Church in this period (431593), however, is that of evagrius scholasticus, a Syrian Greek. Despite a tendency toward prolixity, Evagrius's Ecclesiastical History is well written (in Greek), and imitates the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. It is a history, not a chronicle, and treats extensively of secular affairs (like the Persian wars of its times).

After Evagrius, ecclesiastical history as such seems to have disappeared almost entirely, save for that from the pen of Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopulus (c. 1320), who used the best sources available to him but did not, in the extant portion of his work, get beyond 610. For the later history of the Church, therefore, we have to depend upon chronicles, secular histories, the acts of councils, letters, archival records, and similar materials.

Secular History. In secular history, however, the materials are more abundant.

Early Period. For the earliest period, we have the pagan Eunapius of Sardis, whose Lives of the Sophists (on 270404) is extant complete. But only fragments remain in his Historical Memoirs (on 270404), as of the works by the pagan Olympiodorus of Thebes in Egypt (on 407425), the pagan(?) Priscus of Panion (on c. 411472), the Christian sophist Malchus from Philadelphia in Palestine (on the period 306 to 480), and the Christian Candidus from Isauria (on 457491). In addition, a few extracts have survived from the Chronicle of Hesychius Illustrios of Miletus, who was apparently a pagan; the Chronicle recounted events of the period from the Babylonian Bel to 518.

More interesting is the Historia nova of Zosimus, an imperial fiscal officer (fl. c. 450501), who set out to prove that the fall of the Roman Empire was to be ascribed to the neglect of the ancient pagan religion. The villain in this drama was Emperor Constantine I, because he granted toleration to Christianity, and the hero was Emperor Julian (361363), who had attempted to restore paganism. Zosimus did not fail to touch upon the great Greek victories over the Persians at Marathon (490 b.c.) and Salamis (480 b.c.). But his chief emphasis was on Roman history from the victory of Augustus Caesar (31 b.c. a.d. 14) in the battle of Actium in 31 b.c. to the accession of Diocletian in 284 (bk. 1), and from 284 to 410 (bks. 26).

Procopius. The best known and most important of the Byzantine writers of history was procopius (from Caesarea in Palestine), the historian of the age of Justinian I (527565), the most glorious era of the Byzantine Empire. Since he was (from 527) adviser and secretary to the great general belisarius, it was natural that Procopius should have occupied himself seriously with the History of the Wars (against the Persians, Vandals, and Goths: in eight books, principally on 527553). But he did not neglect internal history and, in his six books On Buildings, which he intended as a panegyric, reviewed the unparalleled program of new buildings and engineering projects of every description, which Justinian devised and brought to completion throughout the empire. In the Anecdota ("Unpublished Documents"), however, Procopius abandoned adulation for vituperation and gave himself up to paroxysms of rage, in which he heaped abuse on Justinian and Empress theodora. He not only blamed them personally for earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters, but also berated them for all manner of debauchery and vice. Procopius's reasons for this astounding volte face can only be conjectured. His style, though dominated by the customary classicizing tendencies, is forceful and clear.

Agathias, Menander Protector, and Theophylactus. Procopius was followed by two historians of importance, Agathias, who put out five books on the years 552 to 558, and Menander Protector, of whose history on the period from 558 to 582 only fragments have been preserved. Agathias, whom Menander and many later writers imitated, wrote in a style with many poetic overtones and rhetorical devices. Rather more overblown was theophylactus simocatta, whose eight books on the reign of Emperor maurice (582602) are marred by fanciful language and excessive rhetorical extravagances. Despite these stylistic defects, his history was highly esteemed by later Byzantine writers for its accuracy and objectivity.

The historical continuity was broken after Theophylactus, from 602 to 813; and the sequence of historical books was not resumed until the mid-tenth century when two writers picked up the thread again. These were Joseph Genesius, a historian at the court of Emperor Constantine VII (reigned 912959), with his history of the empire from the time of Leo V to the death of leo vi (813886) and the set of anonymous imperial biographies, covering the same period and also commissioned by Constantine VII, that go under the name of Theophanes Continuatus. The reason for the interruption in the historical record between 602 and 813 has not been determined. It may perhaps be attributable to the Persian wars, the Arab invasions, or the iconoclastic controversy, which took place during this interval. But this is by no means certain; and it is not at all inconceivable that new sources may eventually come to light that will fill this gap, at least partially.

Constantine VII and the Golden Age of Byzantine Historiography. In the 10th century, however, formal historical research flourished as never before in the Byzantine Empire. The inspiration for this outburst of activity came from Emperor constantine vii porphyrogeni tus, who was in his own right a classicist and historian of note. During the years that he was excluded from actual power by his father-in-law, Emperor romanus i leca penus (920944), he set his subordinates the task of assembling, excerpting, and summarizing documents, while he and his most trusted collaborators collected intelligence from ambassadors, merchants, and spies. These were the materials that formed the basis for the great historical compendia he and his aides produced.

He himself was possibly the author of the Life of Basil I (867886), which forms Book 5 of the collection known as Theophanes Continuatus. Since Constantine was writing of his grandfather, this work, although constituting a valuable source, must be used with caution because it was an encomium rather than a critical biography. More significant is his De administrando imperio, a manual on foreign and domestic policy intended by him for the guidance of his son and successor, Romanus II (959963). It is a great treasury of geographical, ethnological, and historical information, written in a popular style, and therefore more comprehensible than many of the Atticizing historical works. It may be compared to a modern summary of foreign intelligence, and was undoubtedly reserved for private circulation among the most reliable members of the imperial court.

Equally official but less confidential in nature was the imperial book of ceremonies (De ceremoniis ), an invaluable description of the rituals, religious and secular, of the imperial court. A third unit in this historical series, On the Themes (De thematibus ), in two books, which outlined the geographical boundaries of the military and administrative districts into which the empire was divided, is somewhat disappointing because it was taken not from the latest information available in the imperial archives, but almost verbatim, in the typically Byzantine manner, without acknowledgment, from the geographical works of Stephen of Byzantium (fl. probably 5th century) and Hierocles (6th century). But Constantine himself (c. 933934), the compiler of the first book, and an unknown hand in the second (c. 998) added the names of the frontiers as they were known in the 10th century.

In addition, Constantine's staff put together a vast historical encyclopedia of 53 volumes of excerpts from books of history. Constantine believed that an abridgment of this kind was necessary in order to simplify the study of history, the bulk of which, he felt, had grown to such enormous proportions that it was impossible for any ordinary person to encompass or understand it. Unfortunately, most of this great anthology has disappeared, except for 24 of the 53 titles and two printed volumes On Embassies (De legationibus ), two On Virtue and Vice (De virtutibus et vitiis ), one On Plots against the Emperors (De insidiis ), one On Opinions (De sententiis ), and a few fragments of some others. Many of the excerpts preserve valuable texts, ancient and medieval, which otherwise would have perished.

Besides engaging in these herculean projects, Constantine's associates commented on the great legal code, the Basilica, which was based upon the Digest, Codex, and Novels of Justinian, as compiled in the time of Basil I (867886) and Leo VI (886912). Their editorial activity was expended also, c. 950, on the Geoponica (a treatise on agronomy, based upon materials of the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries); and Theophanes Nonnus, a physician at Constantine VII's court, turned out a medical handbook based upon the Epitome, which Oribasius had compiled c. 350.

None of the extant historians fills the gap between the years 886 and 959 except in part through John Cameniates's eyewitness description of the capture of Thessalonica in 904 by Leo of Tripoli. However, if the boundaries between history and chronicle are blurred, as they probably should be, then the work of Symeon Logo-thetes (covering 842948 and surviving in many versions) gives valuable insights. After Constantine's death, the historical series was taken up again by leo dia conus, who in ten books related the history of the empire between 959 and 976, on the basis, as he says, of his own experiences and the reports of authorities close to the events portrayed. The style resembles that of Agathias and Theophylactus.

Michael Psellus and 11th-century Historiography. After Leo Diaconus came Michael Psellus, one of the greatest of the Byzantine polymaths (1018c. 1096), to whom we are indebted for a fascinating portrait of the emperors and the court from 976 to 1077. In large part, Psellus drew upon his own reminiscences of his association with the emperors, all of whom, from 1028 to 1077, were his close personal friends. He had nothing to say about foreign affairs, but compensates for this serious omission by full and accurate reporting of the lives and characters of the emperors and their families. In spite of his intimate association with the members of the royal entourage, he managed to retain his objectivity, except in regard to his pupil, Emperor Michael VII Parapinakes (107178), whom he could not find it in his heart to criticize.

But concerning constantine ix (104255), whom he had intended to eulogize, he allowed himself to make some unfavorable observations, especially with regard to what he considered the Emperor's prodigality in utilizing the empire's resources. He did not refrain from calling attention, also, to Constantine's eccentric behavior in introducing his mistress Sklerena into the palace, crowning her empress, and persuading his wife, Zoë, not only to remain in the palace in the bedchamber next to his, but also to give written consent to this ménage à trois in a document witnessed by the senate.

Psellus seems not to have overlooked the tragicomic overtones in these somewhat bizarre details in the life of the Empress, who, in these unpleasant surroundings, was nevertheless able to console herself by gathering herbs and brewing fragrant unguents, while her younger sister, Theodora, who had been joint empress with her for three months in 1042, and was to be sole ruler of the empire (105556), amused herself, as did Zoë herself, by collecting gold coins. Psellus was one of the most brilliant of the Byzantine historians, none of whom had greater narrative power than he. But his brand of the Atticizing style is not easy to read, and his memoirs of life at the court, though scintillating and in their way unexampled, need to be supplemented at many points by other sources.

From the 11th century we have the Strategikon of Cecaumenus (c. 1071), the advice of a father to his son on how to pursue a career in the army and the imperial service. Then, after another brief interruption, the historical continuum was taken up once again by Michael Attaliates (from Attalia in Pamphylia), who wrote on the period between 1034 and 1079. His work was colored by the rhetorical, poetizing style that had become fashionable in historiography since the time of Agathias, but he was a skilled and reliable historian.

From this period, too, we have the Synopsis historiarum of John Scylitzes, an eminent but obscure legal official, which covers the years 8111057 (with a continuation probably by a different author) in a technique that once again hovers between chronicle and history proper.

Anna Comnena. A new era in historical writing began with the accession of Alexius I Comnenus (10811118) to the throne. The Emperor's son-in-law, Nicephorus Bryennius, wrote a personal, romanticized sketch of Alexius's life from 1070 to 1079. But the court historian par excellence of the day was Alexius's daughter, and Nicephorus's wife, Anna Comnena, whose Alexiad, though an unabashed panegyric of her father and family (on the years 10691118), presents a gripping account of Alexius's rise to power and of the relations between the Byzantines and the Latins during his reign. Her style, which is heavy, pedantic, and pretentious, is often extremely difficult to unravel. Notwithstanding her passionate Byzantine patriotism and contempt for the Latins, she did not distort the facts. Nor did she minimize the victories and triumphs of the "barbarians." Her zeal for the truth, which shines through in spite of her prejudices, her sense of drama, and her narrative skill make the Alexiad a masterpiece of medieval literature that ranks with the best.

Anna's Successors in the 12th and 13th Centuries. Anna's story was continued by John Cinnamus in his Epitome, which carried the history of Byzantium from 1118 to 1176. He had intended to devote his principal attention to the reign of Emperor manuel i (114380), for whom he had great admiration, but he seems never to have reached the end of his narrative. He was extremely conscientious in all matters, and did not allow himself, because of his dislike for the Latins, to misrepresent the facts. He was less learned than Anna, but his style is clearer and more intelligible.

More significant were nicetas choniates's 21 books on 1118 to 1206, which are notable, among other things, for a vivid description of the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 (bk. 19) and a whole book (21) on the statutes of Constantinople. (See theological encyclopedias above.)

The Chronike Syngraphe of George Acropolites (121782) has as its theme the history of Constantinople from the time the Crusaders attacked the city in 1203 until its recovery by the Byzantines in 1261 (see latin em pire of constantinople). A great part of his narrative depends on his own personal observation as a general and high imperial official. He gave an objective, unvarnished account of his period in a simple if somewhat pompous style.

The continuation of Acropolites we owe to George pachymeres (12421310), who rose to high rank in the imperial service, and carried the narrative from 1261 (in part from 1255) to 1308. A man of great learning and versatility, he was the author, among other things, of a Quadrivium (Syntagma ton tessaron mathematon; i.e., on arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy), and an outline of the philosophy of Aristotle. He was one of the great polymaths of his age. He used many transliterations from Latin and non-Greek terms, such as κομμέρκιον and φρέριος (from frères ). At the same time he carried pedantry so far as to use the Attic names of the months instead of the customary Christian designations.

Nicephoras Gregoras and the Last Historians of Byzantium. The next century produced perhaps the greatest scholar of the last two centuries of the Byzantine Empire. This was Nicephorus Gregoras (1295c. 1359), who spared only seven out of the 37 books of his Roman History for the years 1204 to 1320, and lavished 30 on the 40 years from 1320 to 1359. Throughout, he focused attention upon theological questions, especially upon Hesychasm, of which he was a determined but unsuccessful opponent. He experimented with every form of literary medium and not only wrote on nearly every conceivable subject, but even, in his astronomical work, anticipated Pope gregory xiii's reform of the Julian calendar (in 1582).

Emperor John VI Cantacuzenus (134754) was a partisan of Palamism and the Hesychasts against Gregoras, for whose defeat and discomfiture he was responsible. But, when in 1354 he was forced to abdicate by Emperor John V (134176), whom he had himself dethroned, he retired to a monastery, as the monk Ioasaph, and there busied himself with scholarly works. The chief fruit of this activity was his four books of history (on 132056, with some references extending as far as 1362). He confined himself to matters that he knew at first hand, and castigated his predecessors (especially Gregoras) for deliberate suppression of the truth.

Actually, Gregoras and Cantacuzenus must at all points be supplemented by each other, not only for correction of bias but also in subject matter, since Cantacuzenus (who was an Aristotelian) limited himself to domestic history, while Gregoras (a Platonist) was concerned with foreign affairs as well. Cantacuzenus wrote clearly and forcefully. But he and his friends always occupied the center of the stage, and his history was in effect an elaborate apologia pro vita sua.

In 1422 Murad II laid siege to Constantinople but was unable to enter the city. His defeat was attributed to the intervention of the Virgin Mary, as we learn from John Cananus, who left an account of the siege and the repulse of the Turks in this year. In 1430, however, the Byzantines were less fortunate, and lost Thessalonica. The fall of this, the second city of the empire, was described at some length in the usual literary style of the Atticizing historians by John Anagnostes, who is to be contrasted in this respect with Cananus. The latter wrote in the idiom of the people, in simple, vernacular language, with few concessions to the classical mannerisms in which the more professional historians delighted.

The last unhappy days of the Byzantine Empire, culminating on May 29, 1453, in the collapse of Constantinople, and of the Byzantine Empire, formed the subject for four excellent historians, each of whom wrote from a different point of view. The first of these, Laonicus Chalcocondyles, was one of the few Athenians who figured prominently in Byzantine history. He paid scant attention to chronology as such but sought instead, on the basis of Turkish and Greek sources, to explain how it was that the Turks rose to power. In his ten books (on 12981463), to which, like the chroniclers, he prefixed a summary of universal history, it is the Turkish Empire, not Byzantium, which occupies the center of the stage. This was a most unusual approach for a Byzantine, as was also his conclusion that the Turks took Constantinople to avenge themselves for the fall of Troy. Chalcocondyles consciously imitated Herodotus and Thucydides, and in so doing sedulously avoided using foreign words and place names, which he either ignored altogether or tried to translate into the appropriate ancient equivalents.

Byzantium returned to the center of attention in the history of Ducas, who, however, like Chalcocondyles, opened with a sketch of universal history from Adam to the Palaeologi. He then paused to consider the expansion of the Ottoman Empire down to 1402. But he skimmed rapidly over these matters and the history of the second half of the 14th century in order to pass on to a more extended treatment of the reigns of the last three emperors (from 13911453) and of the capture of Lesbos in 1462 by Muammad II, with which he brought his history to a close. He wrote in the popular language, avoided rhetorical excesses, and strove after accuracy. He had a flair for the dramatic, and was able because of his own close observation to give a moving account of the empire's last days.

The third of the historians, George Sphrantzes, had been taken prisoner by the Turks in 1453 and led away with his family into captivity. He ended his days as the monk Gregorius on the Island of Corfu, on which in 1477 he completed his Chronicon in four books (on the years 12581476), the most important of which are the second (on 142548), the third (on 144853), and the fourth (on the struggles of the Palaeologi in the Peloponnesus). He wrote from deep, personal knowledge and with considerable passion against both the Turks and the Latins, the latter of whom, he complained, regarded the fall of Byzantium as punishment for heresy, although political history, in his opinion, had nothing to do with orthodoxy. He closed with an examination of ancient prophecies on the duration of the Turkish Empire. Standing stylistically between the artificial archaisms of Chalcocondyles and the simple, unadorned prose of Ducas, Sphrantzes had a fluent, easy style. He made occasional concessions to the popular language of his day, without abandoning altogether the traditional Atticizing manner of the historians.

Apparently before 1470, the fourth of the historians in this group, Critobulus, a Greek of good family from the Island of Imbros, composed a panegyrical history of the Sultan Mohammed II from 1451 to 1467. He imitated Thucydides as far as he was able in style and in the arrangement of his material, but was notable chiefly because of his subservience to the Turks. Since Critobulus, alone of the four historians, lived under Turkish jurisdiction at the time he wrote his history, it is perhaps understandable that he felt called upon to flatter the sultan and adopt the Turkish point of view.

Chronicles. The chroniclers are here listed by name, with a brief note on the extent of each chronicle:

  1. John Malalas (491578) of Antioch in Syria: Creation to 563 (probably originally went to 565 or 574)
  2. John of Antioch (in fragments): Creation to 610
  3. Chronicon Paschale : Creation to c. 627
  4. george syncellus (d. 810/811); Creation to 284
  5. theophanes the confessor: 284813 (continuation of G. Syncellus)
  6. Theophanes Continuatus: 813961
  7. Nicephorus (d. 829) Historia syntomos (the Brevarium ) and Chronographikon syntomon : Creation to 829
  8. Georgius Monachus: Creation to 842
  9. Symeon Metaphrastes and Logothetecontinued by Leo Grammaticus to 1013 (Theodosius Melitenus): Creation to 948
  10. John Skylitzes: 811 to 1079
  11. George Cedrenus: Creation to 1057
  12. John zonaras: Creation to 1118
  13. Constantine Manasses (in political verse): Creation to 1081
  14. Michael glycas: Creation to 1118
  15. Joel: Creation to 1204
  16. Synopsis chronike (of Sathas [Skoutariotes?]): Creation to 1261
  17. Ephraem (in iambic trimeters, c. 1313): Julius Caesar to 1261
  18. Michael Panaretus of Trebizond: 1204 to 1426
  19. Chronicle of the Morea (see romance, below)
  20. Chronicle of the Tocco : 13751422


The meters of classical poetry had been based upon quantity, i.e., upon the length of vowels and of syllables. Some Byzantine poets followed the ancient prosody, mostly in iambic trimeters, less commonly in hexameters, elegiac distichs, or anacreontic verse. But even the writers who accommodated themselves to these norms took many liberties in the observance of quantity and caesura (pause), in a way which would not have been done in antiquity. They also introduced innovations, such as putting the stress accent on the 11th syllable of the iambic trimeter, which in the classical form of this meter was always unaccented.

In addition, Byzantine poets created a number of new vehicles of their own. In most liturgical poetry they abandoned the quantitative system altogether and introduced rhythm on the basis of accent. They also ignored the classical insistence on fixed limits on the length of the lines. The liturgical poets had great freedom in this respect, and imposed restraints only through the use of the heirmos (ερμός) or model strophe, which could assume almost any shape the poets wished, but which, once it was chosen, determined the pattern of all the strophes it governed; every strophe had to be identical with it, not only in the number of lines, but also in musical mode (echos, [symbol omitted]χος), in the number of syllables per line, and in the position of the accents and caesura in each line. Thus, all strophes in a poem based upon and following the heirmos had to conform with it in every respect. Deviations from this arrangement of syllables and accents were not normally tolerated, and occurred infrequently.

Perhaps the most common and characteristic form of Byzantine poetry was the 15-syllable "political" verse. The origins of the political verse remain a matter of debate. The earliest datable examples are from the early 10th century when it was used for imperial funerary laments, while isolated instances can be observed in the kontakia of Romanos (see below). There is no agreement as to whether it is a traditional meter taken over by erudite poets or a learned innovation.

Liturgical Poetry. The practice of singing hymns in the Christian service, which began in the earliest times and made an impression on the pagans, as we learn from the Younger Pliny's famous letter to Emperor Trajan, is undoubtedly to be traced to Jewish customs. Similarly, the structure of the later Byzantine liturgical hymns is said by some to have been derived from Semitic prototypes. Hymns of various kinds are attested from every age of the Church, but in this article attention is focused on those that were built around the troparion (ο[symbol omitted]κος i.e., stanza) in the Byzantine liturgy (see hymnology).

Romanus Melodus. The greatest and most renowned of the Byzantine liturgical poets was romanus me lodus, who was born in Emesa in Syria. According to legend, he was a convert to Christianity from Judaism, and went to Constantinople during the reign of Anastasius I (491518). He was said to have invented the kontakion and was alleged to have composed "thousands" of poems of this type. The kontakion, as we know it from the extant kontakia ascribed to him, consists of from 18 to 30 or more troparia. Each troparion varies in length from three to 13 lines, and all of the troparia of each kontakion follow the pattern of a model stanza (the heirmos ).

At the beginning of each kontakion stands a separate troparion, which is metrically and melodically independent of the heirmos (and thus of all the other troparia of the kontakion). This separate troparion is known as the prooimion or kukulion, and is connected with the kontakion by means of the refrain (ephymnion ) with which each of the stanzas ends, and by the musical mode (echos ). The stanzas of the kontakion are linked together by means of an acrostic or by the successive letters of the alphabet. That is, the initial letters of the first line of each of the stanzas form a sequence either in regular alphabetical order (from alpha to omega, etc.) or spell out an acrostic. Thus, in the Akathistos Hymnos (the hymn sung unseated, i.e., standing), the most celebrated of all the kontakia, and one which has often been ascribed to Romanus although it is almost certainly not by him, each of the troparia begins with a letter of the alphabet from alpha to omega.

Romanus's kontakia deal with the Nativity, the massacre of the Innocents, the presentation in the Temple, Epiphany, the woman of Samaria, the man possessed by devils, the woman with an issue of blood, Pentecost, the Last Judgment, etc. They are noteworthy for their lively expression and vivid dialogues with vigorous characterization.

The kontakion was a melodic homily and was crowded out of the liturgy from about the end of the 7th century by the kanon, the first example of which was said to have been composed by Andrew of Crete (c. 660740). The kanon is made up of nine odes, each of which at first consisted of from six to nine troparia (i.e., stanzas). Later on, only three of the troparia of each ode were sung in the liturgy; and there are odes of four, three, or two troparia. The nine odes of every kanon were patterned upon the Nine Canticles from the Scriptures, and were intended as hymns of praise or exaltation. The kanons usually have a different heirmos (or model strophe) for each ode, i.e., a total of eight or nine heirmoi for each kanon. This scheme made for great variety of structure within each kanon, as contrasted with the greater rigidity of the kontakion, in which all the troparia were based upon the same heirmos.

The most famous of the kanons is the Great Kanon of Andrew of Crete, which has 250 troparia divided into four sections. After Andrew, the leading composers of kanons were the theologian john damascene (c. 675753) and his foster brother cosmas the melodian of Jerusalem, also described as "of Maiuma" in Phoenicia because of his being made bishop of that city in 743. John Damascene and Cosmas were less passionate in language and more obscure than Romanus. John delighted in elaborate poetic structure and reverted, in part, to quantitative verse in the iambic trimeters he wrote for his kanons on Christmas, Epiphany, and Pentecost. At the time of the second iconoclastic controversy flourished Joseph the Hymnographer (c. 816886), who was born in Sicily and was then driven by circumstances all over the Mediterranean world. An earlier contemporary of his, Methodius of Syracuse, was the last poet to write a kanon on the basis of 12-syllable iambics.

Other Liturgical Poets. In the 9th century the great center for liturgical poetry was the monastery of studion in Constantinople, with which a number of important liturgical poets were associated, notably Theodore the Studite (759826) and the brothers Theodore and Theophanes, known as "the branded" or "inscribed" (γραπτοί). The two brothers were so designated because Emperor Theophilus (829842) was said to have punished them for their resistance to iconoclasm by having 12 iambic trimeters branded upon their foreheads. When he issued the order for this outlandish punishment, the Emperor is reported to have said, "Don't worry if the verses are no good." The poems of the two poets themselves were not of the highest quality and were characterized by a fondness for neologisms created by tacking on prefixes and suffixes to ordinary words.

More distinguished than they was the poetess Kasia (b. c. 810), who, on being rejected as a candidate for his hand by Emperor Theophilus because of her pertness and lack of docility, founded a convent and composed a number of poems that found their way into the service books.

After the end of the 10th century, only a few writers continued to compose hymns, since the liturgy was fixed and was generally closed to new compositions. But the church historian Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopulus wrote a liturgy for the Virgin that was admitted into the Pentekostarion. A curiosity of the later period was a kanon on St. thomas aquinas, called Thomas γχίνους (the regular Greek translation for Aquinas, i.e., the "sharpwitted").

As inspiration and opportunity for the production of hymns declined, the commentators rushed in to fill the gap. Bishops Cosmas of Maiuma and nicetas david expounded upon the poems of Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Damascene produced a commentary on the trisa gion. Most of these exegetical efforts were expended upon the more obscure poets, while hymnographers like Romanus Melodus, whose works offered no special difficulty, were rarely commented upon. Commentaries of one kind or another on liturgical poetry have been attributed to Theodore Prodromus (who at least regarded himself as a poet), the philosopher nicephorus blemmy des, and Abp. Eustathius of Thessalonica.

The modern critic occasionally has difficulties with the tediousness of some liturgical poetry, its repetitiousness and artificiality of manner. But these defects arise in part from the convention that required the poet to stretch his poetic fancy over 24 or more strophes, all of which dealt essentially with the same subject. All in all, it must be conceded that the best of the poets showed great ingenuity in adapting themselves to these requirements and commendable inventiveness in finding in the few bare facts with which tradition supplied them sufficient material for the construction of the hundreds of poems the liturgy contains on the religious festivals of the Church and the exploits of the saints.

Secular Poetry and Nonliturgical Religious Poetry. Although Byzantine literary production rarely, if ever, reached the level of the great classical writers, this was not because of lack of excellent training in ancient literature. Many Byzantine scholars acquired a great intimacy with the classical texts and knew Homer and the tragic poets almost by heart.

The theologian gregory of nazianzus (c. 330 c. 390) was the author of more than 400 poems, some of which are of great interest historically. But none of them has any unusual metrical, lyrical, or melodic distinction.

On the other hand nine or ten hymns of Synesius (c. 370c. 413), the Neoplatonizing Christian bishop of Ptolemais the author of treatises On Kingship, On Baldness, On Dreams, and of 156 letters, were in classical meters that exhibit intense religious feeling and a lyrical spirit of high order, expressed in a mélange of pagan and Christian symbolism.

nonnus of panopolis (b. c. 400), another pagan poet from Africa, who was later converted to Christianity, composed while he was still a pagan a work called the Dionysiaca in hexameters. It contains 48 books (i.e., as many as the Iliad and Odyssey combined) and is the longest extant poem in Greek. It was written in Alexandria and describes the mythical journey of the god Dionysus to India. It is very probable that the author was the same Nonnus who became a Christian and then wrote, again in hexameters, a Paraphrase of the Gospel according to St. John (in 21 books).

Somewhat later, Empress Eudocia (d. c. 460), daughter of the Athenian philosopher Leontius, and originally named Athenais ("Maid of Athens"), but baptized Eudocia at the time of her marriage to Emperor Theodosius II (408450), produced a most extraordinary Homeric canto. She had such control over the text of Homer that, working on materials assembled by others, she composed a poem of some two thousand lines, each of which was taken almost intact from the Iliad and Odyssey. She made only minimal changes, but, nevertheless, out of the Homeric lines she had stored in her head, she wove together an impeccably orthodox treatise on theology. Her poem is divided into 50 parts: Paradise and the serpent, the Annunciation, the birth of Christ, the star and the shepherds, the Magi, Herod, the flight into Egypt, John the Baptist, the betrayal, the burial, the Resurrection, the doubting Thomas, etc.

Virtuosity of this sort with ancient Greek was not uncommon. Psellus (101896) had committed the whole of the Iliad to memory when he was 14; Anna Comnena made effective use of quotations from Homer; and Eustathius, Archbishop of Thessalonica (1175c. 1194), wrote a huge commentary of seven volumes on the Homeric poems.

George of Pisidia. The best secular poet of the Byzantine period was George of Pisidia, deacon of the church of hagia sophia, who flourished in the reign of Emperor heraclius (610641), and celebrated the latter's exploits in iambic trimeters of Byzantine style. He was so skilled in the use of iambics that in the 11th century critics could ask whether he or Euripides was the greater poet. His three historical poems dealt with (1) Heraclius's successful campaign against the Persians; (2) the Byzantine victory over the Avars, who stormed the gates of Constantinople in 626, and the Virgin Mary's protection of the city during this crisis; and (3) Heraclius's final triumph over the Persian king Chosroes (628). Of much greater length is his commentary on the Biblical account of the creation, a theological work in which, however, he found opportunity for many allusions to contemporary events. He also wrote a hexameter poem, On Human Life.

The Greek Anthology. In addition to the better poems of the liturgy, special mention must be made of the Byzantine compilation known as the Greek Anthology, which now amounts to 16 books, containing some 4,000 epigrams and approximately 25,000 lines, extending in date from the 6th century b.c. to the 10th century of the Christian Era. The Byzantine epigrams are both in the conventional ancient form (consisting of alternate dactylic hexameters and pentameters, in the so-called elegiac couplet) and in iambic trimeters.

The first major collection of poems of this kind was made by Meleager of Gadara (c. 60 b.c.), who brought together some of the choicest bits of ancient poetry (from the works of Archilochus, Anacreon, Sappho, Simonides, etc.). Meleager had many successors in the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods. In the age of Justinian, for example, appeared a number of epigrams by Paulus Silentiarius, who, however, was more celebrated for his two ekphraseis (mostly in hexameters), one on the church of Hagia Sophia and the other on its ambon. More productive in this genre was Paul's contemporary Agathias the Historian who not only wrote hexameter poems and about 100 epigrams, but also put together a collection of contemporary epigrammatists.

Of the later editions of epigrammatic poems the most indispensable for the constitution of the text of the Greek Anthology in its present form were those of Constantine Cephalas (c. 900, known from a later recension of c. 980, the famous Anthologia Palatina, so-called from the Bibliotheca Palatina in Heidelberg in which the manuscript containing it was housed) and Maximus planudes (c. 12601310). Cephalas arranged the poems according to subject, and Planudes carried this division still further. The modern editions of the Greek Anthology consist of the Palatine Anthology, plus the "Planudean Appendix" (bk. 16) of 388 additional poems, which were derived principally, it seems, from lost MSS of Cephalas's recension and of the Palatine Anthology. Apart from a host of anonymous pieces (adespota ), some 364 poets are represented by compositions primarily in epigrammatic verse but also in a great variety of other meters.

Representative Successors of George of Pisidia. Some 200 years after Agathias, the epigram was revived by Theodore the Studite (759826) in a series of poems (mostly in iambic trimeters) on the monastic life, in which he celebrated the monastic calling itself and did not disdain to mention individually not only the hegumenos (the abbot) of the monastery but also the tailor, the shoemaker, the monk who awakened the brethren in the morning, the doorkeepers, the cells of the monks, the hospice for wayfarers, etc. In choice of theme and freshness of treatment Theodore was strikingly original. More conventional, but also interesting, are his epigrams on the parts of a church (in which he called attention to the altar, the gate of the narthex, the shrine, etc.), on icons, on various saints, and on himself.

Unpoetic, but historically noteworthy iambic trimeters on the state of the empire, on the Roman months, on animal fights in the circus, etc., are ascribed to Emperor Leo VI (886912), who is said to have been the author also of peculiar palindromes, which he called crabs (καρκίνοι) because they could be read either backward or forward, like: [symbol omitted] γένος [symbol omitted]μόν, ν [symbol omitted] μέσον γώ.

Not long after the death of Leo, Constantine of Rhodes, who held high posts in both State and Church, wrote (between c. 931 and 944) an ekphrasis in which he described the no-longer extant Constantinopolitan Church of the Holy Apostles and its mosaics. The verses themselves, in iambic trimeter, are far inferior to the poetic ekphrasis of Paulus Silentiarius. Constantine was endowed with neither expository nor lyric skill, but his poem is an altogether unique source, highly prized by archeologists.

More distinguished than Constantine of Rhodes was his contemporary John Kyriotes (known also as John the Geometer), who composed trimeters, hexameters, elegiac distichs, and hymns on poets, politicians, philosophers, historians, theologians, and saints, not to mention cities, historical events, myths, etc. He often managed to achieve poetic imagery of high order, but also displays the usual Byzantine addiction to plays on words and the ornate style.

One of the most elegant of the Byzantine poets was Christopher of Mytilene (c. 10001050), from whose hand we have 145 poems (14 in hexameters, the rest in iambic trimeters) addressed to the chief personages of the Byzantine court of his day, on ants, sparrows, the four seasons, the baptism of Christ, the saints, a bronze statue of a horse in the Hippodrome, a painting of the 40 martyrs, etc. His inscriptions for gravestones and riddles are better than ordinary. He even had a sense of humor, as can be seen in the complaints he made against the mice that scampered all over his house and devoured everything edible they could find, not excluding his books and papers. It was in retaliation for his verses on this subject, we may suppose, that the same creatures, or their descendants, ate up one half of the sole surviving manuscript of his poems.

In the 12th century there flourished at the court of Manuel I Comnenus and the lesser courts of the aristocrats of Constantinople thatra, or salons, at which well-educated young men, future bishops or secular administrators, jostled for attention and displayed their literary wares in prose and verse. A topos at this time was that they were underappreciated and underpaid: hence the set of begging poems by "Ptochoprodromos" (Penniless Prodromos), who is possibly to be identified with Theodroe Prodromos, and the constant complaints of John Tzetzes, as they sought financial assistance from the Emperor or some patron. (For Tzetzes, see section below on Byzantine scholarship and philosophy.) The Ptochoprodromic poems, in political verse, were devoted to seriocomic recitations of how the speaker suffered at the hands of his nagging wife and of two abbots in the monastery to which he had fled to find peace. He bewailed his unhappy lot as a teacher and cursed the day he first went to school.

Prodromos was a prolific and versatile writer. His chief poetic work is a verse romance in 4,614 iambic trimeters entitled Rodanthe and Dosicles (on which see romance and satire below). In another work of his, the Battle of the Cat and the Mice (Galeomyomachia ), a parody in 384 trimeters of the Homeric Batrachomyomachia, the mice, led by their King Kreillos and Queen Tyrokleptes ("Cheese-thief"), snatched victory from certain defeat, when a beam fell suddenly from the ceiling and slew the all but triumphant cat. He also wrote much occasional verse to celebrate imperial military triumphs as well as domestic events at court.

Very similar to Theodore Prodromus in lively language, grim humor, and passionate complaints about poverty was Michael Haplucheir, who flourished at the end of the 12th century and was responsible for a socalled Dramation in 122 iambic trimeters, in which a rustic, a wise man, fate, the muses, and a chorus were the dramatis personae.

One of the most prolific of the Byzantine poets was Manuel Philes (c. 12751345), who confined himself, as did very few others, almost exclusively to this medium. Nearly all of his more than 20,000 verses were iambic trimeters, in which he sedulously avoided hiatus. In addition to poems On the Characteristics of Animals, and a short description of an elephant, he wrote three poems in dialogue form (two of them to console families that had suffered bereavement, one a panegyric), several on theological subjects, a number of epigrams on works of art (a marble statue of St. George, an equestrian statue of Emperor Justinian I), and a host of occasional poems soliciting favors, and expressing gratitude for gifts to leading officials and churchmen. In general Philes was a alaeologan reincarnation of Theodore Prodromus, whom he resembled in choice of subjects, method of treatment, and preoccupation with what he deemed his sad lot.

Approximately at the end of the 13th century appeared a moralizing poem in 3,060 political verses, written by a certain Meliteniotes, and dedicated to Moderation (sophrosyne ), personified as the poet's guide on a long and perilous journey to a magic palace set in the midst of a fabulously beautiful garden (Paradise). The entrance to the palace was barred by seven obstacles, which represented the snares that block the path to virtue. The journey gave opportunity for all kinds of miscellaneous learning, mineralogical, mythical, and historical, which the author sedulously collected from his sources.


A phenomenon that is intriguingly parallel to that of the West, though initially independent, is the writing of romances. There were two phases, in the mid-12th century and in the late 13th to 14th centuries. Amongst the first to appear was the epic-romance of Digenis Akritas, of which several recensions survive, all in political verse. The kernel of the story goes back to the wars on the Arab-Byzantine frontier c. 860-960, though it has acquired many romantic overtones as it tells of the exploits of the hero of Double Descent (Digenis) as he wins his bride before his tragically early death.

In the 12th century, besides Theodore Prodromus's Rhodanthe and Dosicles, appeared Nicetas Eugenianus's Drosilla and Charicles, which owes much to Prodromus's romance in structure and meter. Both of these are in nine books and in iambic trimeters, and are closely related to the contemporary Hysmine and Hysminias (in 11 books), a romance in prose by Eustathius Macrembolites. A fourth, Aristandros and Kallithea, by Constantine Manassses survives only in excerpts. All are adaptations from the works of Heliodorus, Achilles Tatius, and Longus and have similar plots involving lovers who were separated, became involved with pirates, and eventually were reunited. Recent criticism has begun to see in these interesting reflections of the literary taste of the time.

More immediately comprehensible are the romances of the later period. In Callimachus and Chrysorrhoe (in political verse), for example, dating from the late 13th century, the hero and the heroine, after a series of adventures with a magic apple (which could kill or raise from the dead), a dragon, and a sorceress, finally triumph over adversity.

In Belthandros and Chrysantza Belthandros came upon an enchanted palace built of sardonyx and there, in the Castle of Love, was by magic informed that he was destined to fall in love with Chrysantza, daughter of the King of Antioch. Later on, he found her and discovered that she was the girl to whom in the Castle of Love he had presented the prize for beauty. Caught after his first tryst with her, he pretended that his intention was to pay court to her maid, whom he was then required to marry. Under cover of this marriage, he continued to make love to Chrysantza, and escaped with her to Constantinople, where they were married by the patriarch. Lybistros and Rhodamne (in political verse), which dates perhaps from the 14th century, was apparently influenced by both Callimachus and Chrysorrhoe and Belthandros and Chrysantza, or by their sources, as well as by the 12th century romances.

Very different from these three in originality and execution were Byzantine paraphrases of Western tales like Phlorios and Platziaphlora and Imberios and Margarona, both of which were written in political verse. The former, a free Greek version of the Provençal romance of Flore and Blanchefleur, of which several versions exist in French and Italian, dates from the late 14th century or the early 15th. Similarly, the second of these, which was derived from the old French romance Pierre de Provence et la belle Maguelonne, exists in several versions, both unrhymed (15th century) and rhymed (16th century).

On the other hand, the three above-named romantic tales, though apparently at several points influenced by the French Chansons de geste, have points of contact with Oriental poetry; and there are many features that are obviously Greek in origin. This mélange of characteristics is what might be expected of poetry produced in the latter part of the Byzantine period, when the Greeks lived in close contact with the Crusaders and their descendants, on the one hand, and with the Muslims on the other.

This same blend of culture is illustrated by the Chronicle of the Morea, especially in the Greek version, which was composed in the popular, nonliterary idiom, and indicates that by c. 1388 or so, the date of its composition, many Latins in the Morea had become Hellenophones. This Chronicle, which was written in political verse and exists in French, Spanish, and Italian, as well as in Greek, gives a summary of the history of the first Crusade and of the capture of Constantinople in 1204, but devotes its principal attention to the Peloponnesus from 1205 to 1292. The major Greek version, which was intended for Latins who spoke Greek, is anti-Greek in tone and includes some data on the 14th century.

A further instance of this blending can be seen in the 14th century interest in the legends of Troy. Thus the War of Troy (over 14,000 lines of political verse), which perhaps comes from the same environment as the Chronicle of the Morea, is a close translation of Benoit de Ste Maure's Roman de Troie (c. 1170).


The Byzantines were far less interested in satire, which was undoubtedly inhibited by the absolutistic character of the imperial power. But this genre was not altogether neglected. For example, in the Philopatris, a satire cast in the form of a dialogue, there is an exchange of views between a Christian and a pagan. The unknown author wrote c. 969, and was so successful in imitating the ancient satirist Lucian that the Philopatris was once included among the latter's works.

Another imitation of Lucian, the Timarion, which is also anonymous, dates from the early years of the 12th century. Taking Lucian's Necyomantia as his model, the author described his death, journey to the underworld, and conversations with Emperors Theophilus (829842) and Romanus IV Diogenes (106871), with Michael Psellus, and many others. The Timarion reveals a sense of humor, which is exceedingly rare in Byzantine literature. Both the Philopatris and the Timarion direct some of their satirical shafts at the Church.

A third Byzantine imitation of Lucian, Mazaris's Journey to Hades, was written by a certain Mazaris (c. 141416). It is coarser and less elegant than the Timarion, but nevertheless a useful source for the early years of the 15th century.


The art of letter writing was much cultivated throughout the Byzantine period and many often voluminous collections survive. Theoretical analyses in handbooks of rhetoric recommend that letters should be modeled on an elegant conversation with a friend. However, the fact that in most cases the real message was conveyed by the messenger has ensured that elliptical density of expression prevails and many letters are extremely opaque.

Some of the most attractive and readable examples come from the Cappadocian Fathers in the 4th century while the growing numbers of the educated elite in the 11th through the 12th centuries saw an increased interest in the genre. John Tzetzes wrote a verse commentary (discussed below) to elucidate the classical allusions in his carefully arranged and edited correspondence.

Byzantine Scholarship and Philosophy

An unbroken thread of serious scholarly interest in texts from the ancient world was maintained throughout the Byzantine period. If they themselves did not produce creative works that, aesthetically considered, rival Homer and the other great monuments of ancient literature, they at least were uniquely responsible for all that have survived. They not only avidly collected these texts, but also, as we easily forget, rescued them from the fragile papyrus on which they had originally been written by copying them to the more substantial parchment. They also saw to their transcription from uncial to minuscule in the 9th to 10th centuries, when a change in writing style rendered earlier exemplars incomprehensible and obsolete. Every classical text made its debut in an edition prepared by some Byzantine editor, who corrected the errors he perceived in the work of his predecessors.

In the early centuries, many of the best scholars were pagans rather than Christian. Among the rhetoricians, the late offspring of the ancient orators and the Alexandrian grammarians, cross-fertilized by Greek philosophy, were Libanius, Himerius, and Themistius, all three of whom flourished in the 4th century. Close to this circle was Emperor Julian (361363), who made an unsuccessful attempt to revive the pagan religion, and wrote an anti-Christian polemic (Against the Galilaeans ), as well as a number of orations and letters.

Platonism and Neoplatonism. Greater significance attaches to the successors of plotinus (c. 205270), the Neoplatonist philosophers porphyry (d. c. 304), iam blichus (c. 250325), and proclus (410 or 412485), who were important thinkers both in their own right and because of the influence they exerted upon medieval philosophy in general. The platonism of the Middle Ages was thoroughly Neoplatonized, and Proclus was the model for the Pseudo-Dionysius's mystical theology. The latter, in turn, was so widely read in Byzantium as well as the West (to which it was available through four medieval translations) that mysticism as a whole, medieval, Renaissance, and modern, has a Neoplatonic coloration.

The Byzantine interest in Platonism, especially in the 4th, 5th, 6th, 11th, and 15th centuries, was an important factor in the survival of the text of Plato. Similarly, much of the credit for the preservation of Aristotle belongs to the great Byzantine commentators and philosophers of the 6th century, especially to Olympiodorus, Simplicius, and john philoponus, the last of whom was a Christian, not a pagan, and the author of a number of important theological treatises. Actually, Platonic and Aristotelian studies were pursued virtually without interruption through the whole of the Byzantine period.

An aberrant member of this learned circle, Cosmas Indicopleustes by name, repudiated the cosmological and astronomical notions of the ancient Greeks in favor of the Mosaic concept of the universe. According to this Biblical scheme, Cosmas believed the earth lay at the bottom of a cosmos, which resembled a two-storied house, and in which night and day, as well as lunar and solar eclipses, were caused by a high range of mountains to the north.

John Stobaeus. Scholarly activity of a somewhat different nature is associated with the name of John Stobaeus (fl. c. 500), who was one of the most extraordinary anthologists in history. He was a native of Stobi (hence his name) in Macedonia and compiled a huge collection of excerpts in four books known variously as the Eclogae or the Anthologion. Only about half of this work (which originally contained 208 chapters of varying length divided into four books) has survived but this portion of it fills five stout volumes in the modern edition and preserves countless texts and authors (ranging in date from Homer to Themistius) that would, but for Stobaeus, have disappeared.

Each of the chapters deals with a separate topic, and many of the topics are examined from several points of view. For example, in the section on marriage (4.22), passages are collected to show that marriage is best (4.22.1), that it is not good to marry (4.22.2), and that in marriage one should not seek high position or wealth but character (4.22.6). Stobaeus was fond of paradoxes, and he concluded his survey of this subject by reproducing a number of passages (4.22.7) that are sharply critical of the female sex, many of which were culled from Menander (342291 b.c.), the poet of the New Comedy, who, to judge from his plays and the gnomic utterances attributed to him, was one of the most irreconcilable misogynists of all time.

The philosophical and scientific production of the school of Alexandria had continued into the 7th century under Stephen, the astronomer and polymath. Reference should be made also to Paul of Aegina and Theophilus Protospatharios, the diadochoi in the 7th century of ancient Greek medicine, which had been well represented by Oribasius, Emperor Julian's physician, in the 4th century, as well as by Aetius of Amida and Alexander of Tralles, in the 6th. Still, the 7th century was for the Byzantine Empire a period of tragedy, frustration, and defeat. The 8th century brought revival under the iconoclastic emperors, the importance of whose military exploits against the Arabs even the orthodox historical writers grudgingly admitted. The reverses suffered in the West at the same time, culminating in the fall of Ravenna in 751 and the loss of north Italy, seem not to have affected literary production.

Photius. The most brilliant scholar of the Byzantine period was Patriarch photius (858867, 877886), whose importance in the history of literature is wholly independent of his polemical writings against the popes and the Paulicians. He was a learned exegete, a prolific epistolographer, and an erudite preacher, even if his congregation must at times have had difficulty with his highly ornate style. But he is chiefly memorable for his so-called Myriobiblon or Bibliotheke (Library), a huge corpus of Greek texts arranged in 279 sections (called codices), which contain excerpts from authors both pagan and Christian, many of whom are otherwise unknown. The Bibliotheke is therefore of inestimable value to students of both ancient and medieval literature, all the more interesting because of Photius's trenchant critiques of the writers from whom he made excerpts.

Almost every conceivable kind of writing, except poetry, is discussed. Photius's reading was so encyclopedic, so deep, and so varied that at nearly every turn he provides data otherwise unavailable. Of the 31 historians whose works he analyzed, for example, approximately 20 are known to us either solely or largely because of the Bibliotheke, and only nine of the 31 whose histories Photius had before him in their entirety and discussed in the Bibliotheke are extant in full today. Not more than four of the codices deal with philosophy as such, but Photius frequently referred to Plato and Aristotle, and was himself an Aristotelian. A companion volume to the Bibliotheke was the Lexicon, also compiled in the course of Photius' reading.

Photius's disciple, arethas, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia (c. 850944), is noted for his rich library of classical authors, and for the interesting information he provided on the cost of transcribing codices from uncial to minuscule. (see paleography, greek.) In addition, he was, together with a certain Oecumenius (6th century) and Andrew (an earlier archbishop of Caesarea, c. 563614), one of the few Byzantine exegetes to write a commentary on the Revelation attributed to St. John.

The Suda. One typical kind of literary activity to which the Byzantines were much addicted was the compilation of learned works and encyclopedias. The best of the encyclopedias, properly so-called, as contrasted with the anthologies and collections of excerpts, is that of the so-called Suda, once thought to have been a proper name, Suidas. But it seems likely that "suda" (meaning ditch, "catch-all" and thus encyclopedia) is the correct form. Aside from brief notices on lexicographical and etymological questions, often of great interest, the Suda includes articles on literature, history, philosophy, and science, the most significant of which, often in the form of biographies, provide data not always to be found in other sources on ancient and medieval authors and their works. The Suda fills many gaps in our knowledge and is indispensable for the student of Greek literature.

Michael Psellus. In the 11th century, the most active of the classical scholars was the polymath Michael Psellus (1018c. 1096), who, though he complained that men of learning were scarce in his day, nevertheless succeeded in locating an excellent teacher named John Mauropus, who proved to be a thoroughly competent in classical literature. Psellus was a Platonist, but his works reflect a wide classical learning; and his universal encyclopedia, the De omnifaria doctrina, offers information on a great variety of subjects drawn from the major classical authorities.

The philosophical tradition also was ably represented by john italus, Psellus's successor as dean of the School of Philosophy (πατος τ[symbol omitted]ν φιλοσόφων), who, however, in 1082 was removed from his post because, his enemies charged, he had lapsed into paganism. Actually, John Italus was a well-trained Hellenist and an Aristotelian in orientation. But there is no evidence that either he or his student, Eustratius of Nicaea (who commented on Aristotle and defended the Platonic theory of ideas), ever apostasized.

John Tzetzes and Eustathius. In the next century, the two major students of classical literature were John Tzetzes (c. 111285) and Eustathius (fl. 117595), both of whom, in contrast to most of the authors considered above, were concerned with poetry rather than prose. The former and less distinguished of the two was a man of insupportable vanity, who spent great energy heaping praise upon himself and denigrating his rivals. Like his contemporary, Theodore Prodromus, he overburdened his works with references to his poverty ("My head is my library, and I am too poor to buy books": Allegory on the Iliad, 15.87), with interminable complaints against the universe, which had failed to recognize his enormous talents, and with abject, servile flattery of the patrons who befriended him. Nevertheless, he had had an excellent education, and he cites most of the major ancient authors.

Unfortunately, not all the references in his letters and poems are trustworthy, despite his modest avowal that no man had ever had a more tenacious memory than he (Chiliades, 1.277). He wrote a prose Exegesis of the Iliad, a whole volume of political verses on the allegorical interpretation of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, hexameter poems on other Homeric subjects, a long prose commentary on Hesiod's Works and Days, and a poem in political verse on the traditional pagan Theogony. Of his numerous scholia on various other authors, including some 1,700 iambic trimeters on Porphyry's Eisagoge to the Categories of Aristotle, the most important are the elaborate introductions and annotations he wrote on the comedies of Aristophanes.

Most astounding of all are his Chiliades, a poem of 12,674 political verses, which he wrote as a commentary on his own letters, and then reissued with marginal annotations in prose and verse, dedicatory letters, and supplementary poems of abuse directed against his enemies. Pompous and arrogant as he was, Tzetzes deserves further study.

Rather more interesting than Tzetzes in every way was Eustathius (c. 11251193 or 1198), who rose to be archbishop of Thessalonica. In the history of scholarship he is chiefly noted for his huge commentary on Homer. In addition, he produced exegetical works on Pindar and Dionysius Periegetes. The most valuable part of the material he assembled is his extracts from the earlier scholia and from texts that would otherwise have been lost. Modern scholarship is forever in his debt.

His learned works were written in Constantinople before he went to the metropolitanate of Thessalonica, in which he distinguished himself as a reformer of lax monastic discipline. He was subjected to much abuse by his enemies on this account, but showed himself fearless and resolute both against his personal opponents and against the normans, who captured Thessalonica and held it briefly in 1185.

Nicephorus Blemmydes and Maximus Planudes. In the next century flourished Nicephorus Blemmydes (c. 11971272), a philosopher and theologian who wrote a lengthy handbook in two books on logic and physics, a treatise favoring the Latin doctrine of the double procession of the Holy Spirit, two short geographical essays, two autobiographical sketches, and several poems, one of them a very spirited and vituperative reply to slanderous charges made against him by one of his students. But he never lost the devotion of his most celebrated tutee, Emperor Theodore II Lascaris (125458), who was himself an accomplished scholar and the author, among other things, of a treatise on the underlying unity of nature despite appearances to the contrary, eight discourses on Christian theology, a polemic against the Roman doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and kanons on the Virgin Mary.

More memorable than Blemmydes was Maximus (born Manuel) Planudes (c. 12601310), who wrote poems on theological and secular subjects, essays on grammar, an Encomium of Winter, and an idyll in 270 hexameters in the form of a dialogue between two farmers, Cleodemus and Thamyras. Apart from his commentaries on Euclid's Elements and Diophantus's Arithmetica, his Psephophoria (a mathematical treatise in which he makes use of zero and the nine so-called Arabic numbers, which had occurred in Byzantium for the first time about 50 years previously), and his poems on Ptolemy's Geography, his major contribution was as scholiast, editor, and translator. He annotated Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod's Works and Days, and Aesop's Fables. Of his critical editions, the most celebrated was that of the Greek Anthology, which he augmented and improved by the use of manuscripts that are no longer accessible.

Likewise of great interest are his critical editions of Theocritus's Idylls and Nonnus's Dionysiaca. But he himself prized above all the work he did in establishing the text of Plutarch's Moralia, which he published in three editions. The most sumptuous of these (Parisinus Graecus 1672) contains all 23 of Plutarch's Parallel Lives (i.e., 46 in all: 2 × 23) and the 78 Moralia (including all that is extant of this collection except for some fragments). He was the best Latinist of his times in Byzantium, as can be seen in his Greek versions of Augustine's De trinitate, Pseudo-Augustine's De duodecim abusionum gradibus, Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae, Cato's Dicta, Macrobius's Commentum in somnium Scipionis, and Ovid's Metamorphoses and Heroides.

Highly as we prize the learning and acumen of the Byzantine textual critics of the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries, it must be admitted that in their enthusiasm they often made changes that were arbitrary, unnecessary, and erroneous. Many of their emendations indicate ignorance rather than subtlety. The scholars of the previous centuries, on the other hand, were more restrained in their methods and frequently, therefore, better witnesses to the original reading than their successors. Nevertheless, the classical scholars of the Palaeologan period (12611453) made important contributions, both in the exegesis of texts and in the preservation of materials, which otherwise would have been inaccessible.

Theodore Metochites, Demetrius Triclinius, and Plethon. The most important member of this group was Theodore Metochites (d. 1332), one of the leading statesmen of his day until the fall of his patron, andronicus ii in 1328. His major work was the Miscellanea philosophica et historica, which contains 120 essays on philosophical, ethical, political, aesthetic, and historical subjects, drawn for the greater part from ancient history and philosophy. He was very much interested in mathematics and astronomy, on which he wrote a number of treatises. Most of these have not yet been published, and only the Latin translation of his paraphrase of Aristotle is available in print. Metochites's contemporary (and antagonist) Nicephorus Chumnus (c. 12501327) also deserves mention among the classicists of this period.

The best philologist and textual critic of the Palaeologan era was Demetrius Triclinius (c. 12801340), who devoted himself to the principal poets of antiquity (Hesiod, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Theocritus), whom he studied, annotated, and edited. Triclinius was responsible for many misguided emendations, but he nevertheless deserves the esteem of classical scholars for his great erudition and tireless activity.

Of the numerous contemporaries of Triclinius who devoted themselves to classical studies, the most noteworthy were Manuel Moschopulos and Thomas Magistros, both of whom compiled lexica of Attic usage. In the next century, on the eve of the collapse of the empire, Byzantine classical scholarship rose to an even higher level. Manuel Chrysoloras (d. 1415), the most influential of the Byzantine professors who taught Greek to the Latins, was an avid collector of Greek manuscripts and initiated the Western humanists in the art of translating from Greek into Latin.

The greatest of the students of classical literature in this period were George Gemistus Plethon, an indefatigable excerpter, teacher of many of the leading scholars of his day, and Bessarion, his disciple, who became a partisan of union with Rome and was made a cardinal (1439). Plethon visited Italy (143839) during the Council of Ferrara-Florence, and was credited by Cosimo de medici with having inspired him with the project of founding the Platonic Academy of Florence. In the great debates on the relative merits of Plato and Aristotle, Plethon championed Plato, and was bitterly attacked for so doing by George of Trebizond, a partisan of Aristotle. Bessarion then joined the fray with his In calumniatorem Platonis, in which he took a mediating position in the controversy, and rebuked George of Trebizond for his abusive tone.

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[m. v. anastos/

e. m. jeffreys]