Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.19

Giovanna Pace (ed.), Giovanni Tzetzes, La poesia tragica. Edizione critica, traduzione e commento (2nd edition; first published 2007). Speculum, 27.   Napoli:  M. D'Auria editore, 2011.  Pp. 178.  ISBN 9788870923193.  €30.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Przemyslaw Marciniak, University of Silesia (

“Tzetzes was vain, loquacious and quarrelsome, and he was far from being the expert scholar whose contributions to his subjects excuse personal foibles” – that is how one modern scholar characterizes the author of the treatise under review.1 Pace’s book, however, in my opinion contributes to our better understanding of this still understudied Byzantine scholar.

John Tzetzes, among other things, authored three treatises, Στίχοι περὶ διαφορᾶς ποιητῶν, ἴαμβοι τεχνικοὶ περὶ κωμῳδίας and περὶ τραγικῆς ποιήσεως — which in fact were meant as one work, as Pace aptly notices.2 Giovanna Pace edited only one treatise, or perhaps it is better to say, only one part of this tripartite work — περὶ τραγικῆς ποιήσεως. It is not the only edition of this text; others include Koster’s from the 1970s. But this one is by far the best, in my opinion. What I find very useful is the fact that whenever a different reading is possible, Pace explains and justifies her choice (see for instance the commentary on lines 7 and 55).

It differs from the previous editions in many aspects. Unlike Koster’s edition Pace lists all scholia, not just a couple of them. Even more importantly this relatively short text is accompanied by an introduction covering the general issues — metrics and the manuscript tradition — as well as a commentary (almost ninety pages!) on the text, not to mention a very useful bibliography.

A short but very informative Introduction covers for the most part the issue of the metrical compositions in Tzetzes’s treatise, starting from the explanation regarding the difference between the ἴαμβοι ἄτεχνοι and τεχνικοί, a difference between what is called the Byzantine dodecasyllable and iambic trimeter.3

Pace offers the reader some very important information concerning the text, such as the sources used by Tzetzes. I think that she is absolutely right in backing up Koster’s theory that Tzetzes simply made up the ancient characters he claims to consult. Such a practice does not seem so unusual in Byzantium. After all, this treatise, and the two others, must have been meant for students, as Pace aptly notices. I wonder, however, whether the words identified by her in the περὶ τραγικῆς ποιήσεως and in the other two texts (such as ἄνθρωπος, νέος, τέκνον, ἀκούω, γινώσκω etc.) should be viewed as simply conventional phrases, or perhaps, in light of our growing knowledge of public performances of the texts in Byzantium, we may assume that these texts were first presented orally by Tzetzes during some meeting (theatron?). Tzetzes himself describes such a gathering in his scholia to the Ranae.

There is one thing that Pace does not touch upon at all, the issue of Byzantine understanding of drama (however controversial it is). To some extent it is obvious: Tzetzes composed a technical text, so to speak, dealing with specific questions relating to ancient drama, which was dead long before the Byzantine period. Nonetheless, I think that careful reading of works like Tzetzes’ treatise may help us further comprehend how the Byzantines understood and defined various things related to the performative aspect of their culture. Tzetzes at the beginning of the text explains that he will touch upon various issues and amongst them “πράξεις” translated as “le azioni rappresentate”, while in the Στίχοι περὶ διαφορᾶς ποιητῶν he spoke about πάθη in tragedies. It would be interesting to compare his use and understanding of these terms with, for instance, the famous introduction to the so-called Cyprus Passion Play where the following phrase can be found “καὶ μὴ ὀργισθῇς ἡμῖν τοῖς βουλομένοις πραγματικῶς ἐπιδείξασθαι τὰ ζωηρά σου πάθηματα”. In all fairness it must be said that Pace’s book might be used in such research, but its primary aim is different.

The text is reproduced, as far as I can see, flawlessly; the only error I managed to spot (to my relief, I must say) is the lack of iota subscript in ὠδήν in the scholion to line 39 (p. 59). This confirmed for me that Tzetzes’s treatise was in very good hands indeed.

This is a wonderful book, proving that even though Tzetzes might have been vain and loquacious there is still a lot we can learn from him. And Pace is to be thanked for this.


1.   N. G. Wilson, Scholars of Byzantium, London: Duckworth 1983, 192.
2.   - “Le tre opera di Giovanni Tzetzes […] si susseguono in quest’ordine nella tradizione manoscritta e constituiscono nelle intenzioni dell’autore una trattazione unitaria” (p. 9). Koster, another editor of the piece, seemed to link together only the treatises on comedy and tragedy “unum carmen continuum” (p. 79): W. J. W. Koster (ed.), Prolegomena de comedia. Scholia in Acharnenses, Equites, Nubes . Fasc 1A continens Prolegomena de comoedia. Groningen: Bouma’s Boekhuis, 1975.
3.   “I trimetri ἄτεχνοι si differenziano da quelli τεχνικοί fondamentalmente perché nei primi Tzetzes si attiene in linea di massima alla prassi compositiva dei dodecasillabi bizantini in uso presso i suoi contemporanei, mentre nei secondi si propone di avvicinarsi maggiormente alle regole, sia prosodiche sia metriche, che caratterizzano i trimetric giambici di età classica” (p.31).

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