Some 77 years ago, at the Third International Congress of Byzantine Studies held in Athens, Ioannes Sykutres, among the most promising Hellenists of his generation, made a case for the careful and appreciative study of Byzantine epistolography, a neglected and then much maligned genre of mediaeval Greek literature.1 Ironically, Sykutres noted, amid long-standing charges of abject imitation and unoriginality levelled at so much Byzantine literature, letter-writing stood out in his opinion as a genre which Byzantine writers had made their own, wresting some features from their more ancient predecessors, but adding their own linguistic sensibility and manner of composition until the Byzantine letter became something distinct from anything which came before, or after it.
Attempts to study the letters have been sporadic, though a few notably salutary contributions by some scholars (Margaret Mullett, Peter Hatlie, and Antony Littlewood) have suggested potentially rich veins for prospective work.2 Nearly all who have recognized the potential of Byzantine epistolography as not simply a generally disappointing source of historical realia in the old sense of the term, but rather as a genre or class of literature with its own compositional integrity, its own ‘poetics’, in the current academic vernacular, have also lamented the absence of modern critical editions of some important letter collections on which any future comprehensive studies depend. That call has been taken up increasingly in recent years. Following upon her exemplary edition of the letters of Michael Choniates, a correspondent and former pupil of Eustathios, for the Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae, Foteini Kolovou has now published a first-rate critical edition of the letters of Eustathios of Thessalonike, one of Byzantium’s most accomplished and prolific intellectuals.
At first glance Kolovou’s edition will seem conventional. Anyone familiar with the De Gruyter series for the Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae will recognize the format: an introduction covering questions of genre, dating, literary style, as well as matters pertaining to the collation of extant manuscripts, and what may be termed the editor’s preferred modus operandi. Then follows a common European practice known as the ‘Regesten’, a variously detailed and occasionally lengthy paraphrase of each letter’s contents, including remarks about the date and identity of the correspondent. After this come the letters themselves, numbered as they appear in the one manuscript, Paris.gr.1182, which contains all 48 of them (with corrections or alternative readings supplied for some of the letters by the partial witness of an Escorial ms.). There follow, finally, six useful indices ( Index nominum propriorum, Index eorum ad quos Eustathii epistulae scriptae sunt, Index verborum ad res Byzantinas spectantium, Index verborum memorabilium, Index graecitatis, and an Index locorum) as well as a rarer and useful Initia epistolarum, and finally a table correlating the numbers of the letters in Kolovou’s edition to those in Tafel’s.
The 48 extant letters by Eustathios, whose erudition and rhetorical ingenuity was unrivalled among men of letters of his day—he was the leading philologist of the 12th century and is known to classicists for his monumental compilation of commentaries on the Homeric epics—have long languished in an edition of 1832 by T.L.F. Tafel, resembling rather more a transcription than a critical edition.3 The letters of Eustathios possess a significance belied by their numbers. Kolovou is keenly aware of this and makes a convincing case for reading these letters as something of a watershed in Byzantine epistolography, and as part of a wider shift in literary sensibility during the latter part of the Komnenian age.
The number of letters preserved is notably small4 from an author who took such obvious delight in their composition and whose official duties and acquaintances in the society of the empire’s capital would perforce have required him to maintain a much more active correspondence. Kolovou offers a number of explanations for the small number, the least plausible of which in my opinion is that Eustathios wrote few letters, perhaps because he may have been averse to writing letters (which he hints at in one letter, though I think in typically disingenuous modesty). Perhaps he wrote few he cared enough to see disseminated. It is more likely that the planned edition of his letters at the time when his other writings were collected was not completed, or that we are missing the manuscript. As with other letter collections, the criterion of inclusion for copying and possible circulation was largely literary, though not so rigorously as to disqualify a number of occasional letters whose style and manner of composition are relatively unremarkable, though these, too, may have served as models of eloquent matter-of-factness.
Although Kolovou adheres to most of the formal conventions of current editorial practice, her work transcends the usual boundaries of technical works such as this. A number of decisions contribute to this. Perhaps the most important is her willingness to concentrate on what the letters in fact contain, rather than dwell on the absence of information which earned Byzantine epistolography a reputation for barren preciousness (an “impenetrable fog of verbiage” according to A. Kazhdan, who represented the most sympathetic camp of scholars until recently).5 In the sections of the introduction that profile the corpus of letters, Kolovou studiously elaborates such aspects as “Ironie und Humor” or “Amphoteroglossia”, both interesting elements of Eustathios’ epistolary style. She rehearses well-known aspects of Byzantine letter writing but expands on the dimensions of this particular collection with “Die Zitierweise des Eustathios”, in which she attempts to reveal some of the inner workings of citation and appropriation adopted in letters brimming with references and playful allusion to history, myth, and most of all, ancient literature. There is praise and appreciation throughout these sections. She likes her author and believes others might, too, if they should come to understand and share the aesthetic sensibility he helped create and satisfy.
Indeed, this last point, Eustathios’ alleged influence on the epistolary genre comes early on in the introduction and tacitly informs much of what Kolovou has to say in later sections. Kolovou claims a innovatory status for many of these letters and for Eustathios as an “Archegeten einer neuen Art des Briefschreibens…[der] hebt sich mit dieser neuerung von allen seinen Vorgängern ab.” She does not substantiate the claim here; this is not a monograph on Byzantine letter-writing but an edition. Byzantinists will have to decide for themselves whether such a generous appraisal is in fact borne out by the contents of the letters, especially as regards the credit Eustathios is given for opening up the epistolary genre to “alltäglichen Sachen” and an attendant “neue, wärmere und menschlichere Züge.” If Eustathios’ achievement in his letters remains open to debate, Kolovou’s own achievement in presenting the letters with painstaking and fastidious attention to every detail necessary to read them with something approaching the sensibility of a Byzantine audience is beyond any doubt. There are some fine readings in selected passages from the letters offered as illustrations of Eustathios’ wit and virtuoso compositional rhetoric.
Nowhere is this sympathetic meticulousness more apparent, or more necessary, than in the generous and judicious provisions of the apparatus accompanying each letter, the basis for which is established in the introductory sections dealing with the nature and purpose of citation. Readers of many a difficult Byzantine text containing multiple allusions and citations of diverse ancient literature, pagan and Christian, have often had to contend with cipher-like references to equally rarefied passages of texts cited only by title and line number in the apparatus. As part of the larger effort to reveal some of the mechanics of skillful and imaginative appropriation by an author like Eustathios, Kolovou quotes relevant passages at some length. Most helpful of all, perhaps, she gives the full lemma from Eustathios’ detailed commentaries on the Iliad and Odyssey, a store of material that he tailored and fit to novel situations and subjects. As the reader reviews the original context from which Eustathios drew his threads he is able to see the fine quality into which it is spun in the letter to produce something arguably new.
As a further amplification of her break with conventional editorial practice, Kolovou routinely includes in the apparatus reference to post-Byzantine or modern Greek parallels or vestiges of expressions found in the letters under the heading ‘ad sermonem Graecum hodiernum admonet’, an interesting addition to the usual understanding of the function of the apparatus fontium e testimoniorum, since it not only directs attention to the potential of post-Byzantine Greek to elucidate anterior usage, but, just as importantly, it forces us to ask how so many stock expressions found in ‘high’ style literature, which purportedly shunned the vernacular and colloquial, have demotic cousins in more popular registers and genres. All this suggests a variety of sociolinguistic explanations, including the elevation of vernacular expressions (themselves perhaps adapted at some point from higher register origins) and woven seamlessly into writing of an otherwise complex syntactical and lexical character. The only difficulty occasioned by Kolovou’s apparatus is that, while she cites copiously from Eustathios’ commentaries to Homeric epic as a kind of linguistic and literary workshop in which he acquired much knowledge and inspiration, she does not address the vexing issue of how the commentaries were in fact produced, composed or collated, which significantly affects any understanding of the relationship of the letters to Eustathios’ academic activity.
In the Regesten, which might have more conveniently accompanied their respective epistles, Kolovou adroitly parses each letter and guides the reader through the sometimes bewildering constitutive elements of erudition and possible intention which underwrote the highbrow contests of wit and rhetorical flair. The letters, she persuasively argues, were meant at once to delight and impress the correspondent and the literati who formed the audiences (as well as participants) in these contests of rhetorical ingenuity. Kolovou’s characterization of correspondence as an “‘agon’ um den Briefpartner zu übertreffen” has much to recommend it as a manner of reading the letters as a literary game.
While the Regesten format allows the editor more room to comment on the contents of the letters as they are being set forth, it also risks couching a degree of interpretation and opinion in what purports to be a relatively transparent summary of the contents of each letter, thus unnecessarily narrowing the potential analysis or meaning of a given sentence, expression, or entire letter. The Regesten are a holdover from a time when the letters and other forms of Byzantine writings then thought of having little intrinsic literary value were usually sifted through for realia. In many instances, however, Kolovou’s paraphrasing of the contents comes very close to translation, which in my opinion would have been preferable, since the language of such texts remains beyond the reach of many potential readers, Byzantinists included. And quite apart from the problem of finding a publishing venue for future translation apart from their original texts, it is unlikely anyone will soon acquire the proficiency in Eustathios’ subtle manner of expression to the extent so obviously possessed by Kolovou.
Finally, the edition of the letters themselves is, to the extent this reviewer could ascertain without seeing the original manuscripts, flawless. Kolovou has apprenticed with some of the ablest philologists of Byzantine literature in Europe, and occasionally their suggestions for this or that difficulty in the text of the letters appear in the apparatus. For her part, she had already proven her abilities in her exemplary edition of the equally difficult letters of Michael Choniates, an accomplished author who, incidentally, credited Eustathios (in a funeral oration for his former teacher) with having given rhetorical teaching a new and more forceful footing, thus providing some corroborative evidence for Kolovou’s claim that Eustathios was engaged in a deliberate attempt to transform and renew epistolary rhetoric.
For the most part, Kolovou preserves most of the punctuation and accentuation of the manuscripts, even when these do not conform to the most common pre- or post-Byzantine practices. But in every case the explanation of her editorial practice in the introduction is sufficient to explain the divergences from conventional usage. And, given the often intricate arrangements of ‘marked’ and ‘unmarked’ citation and allusion of the letters, she exhibits rare patience and attentiveness—as the original readership/audiences would have had to—to the details of composition, and can thus offer an apparatus which helps even the most practiced reader of this register of Greek. There were, no doubt, practical considerations of space, but overall, Kolovou’s distinctly effective apparatus presses the question home to other philologists that we need to discuss and debate the nature of ‘critical’ editions for Mediaeval literature in a manner apt to the diverse texts themselves.
Writing in defence of his own authorial idiosyncracies, bred in part by an early start in classical philology, Nietzsche claimed for philology the prerogatives of a “venerable art … the leisurely art of the goldsmith applied to language: an art which must carry out slow, fine work, and attains nothing if not lento.”6 Nietzsche’s partial apologia ‘pro litteris suis’ could well have served as a credo not just for the rarefied epistolary culture of Byzantium, but also for the present edition of the letters of Eustathios so scrupulously edited by Foteini Kolovou. Indeed, I do not hesitate to write that Kolovou has produced a goldsmith’s edition, truly commensurate with the refinement and temperament of its contents.
1. J. Sykutris, “Probleme der byzantinischen Epistolographie,” in Actes du IIIe Congrès international d’Etudes byzantines (Athens, 1932), 295-310, following similar comments in his article “Epistolographie,” in RE, suppl. 5. Sadly, Sykutres died very young and the promise of his planned work on this and many other projects was never fulfilled.
2. M. Mullett, Theophylact of Ochrid: Reading the Letters of a Byzantine Archbishop,Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Monographs 2 (Birmingham, 1997); P. Hatlie, “Redeeming Byzantine Epistolography,” BMGS 20 (1996): 235-37); A. R. Littlewood, “The Byzantine Letter of Consolation in the Macedonian and Komnenian Periods,” DOP 53 (1999) 1-24.
3. The letters were included by Tafel together with numerous other works, including the fascinating account of the Norman conquest of Thessalonike in 1185, a number of sermons, the long funeral oration for the emperor Manuel I Komnenos, and a variety of other works by Eustathios under the misleading diminutive ‘Opuscula’. Eustathii Thessalonicensis Opuscula, ed. Tafel (Frankfurt, 1832).
4. By comparison, we have 564 letters from Theodoros Stoudites, 550 by Michael Psellos, and 181 by Eustathius’ near contemporary Michael Choniates.
5. A. Kazhdan and S. Franklin, Studies on Byzantine Literature of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Cambridge-Paris, 1984) 115.
6. Philologie nämlich ist jene ehrwürdige Kunst, welche von ihrem Verehrer vor Allem Eins heischt, bei Seite gehn, sich Zeit lassen, still werden, langsam werden—, als eine Goldschmiedekunst und -kennerschaft des Wortes, die lauter feine vorsichtige Arbeit abzutun hat und Nichts erreicht, wenn sie es nicht lento erreicht.—Friedrich Nietzsche, Morgenröte: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurteile (1881).