BMCR 2020.09.05

A companion to Byzantine poetry

, , , A companion to Byzantine poetry. Brill's companions to the Byzantine world, volume 4. Leiden: Brill, 2019. xiv, 576 p.. ISBN 9789004391086 €215,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The volume under consideration is the fourth in the series Brill’s Companions to the Byzantine World to appear in print. Its three editors, representing three generations of research on Byzantine poetry at the University of Vienna, collaborated with 19 other specialists in this field in order to give a comprehensive overview of poetic production in Byzantium, both as a literary and cultural phenomenon.

After a general introduction by Nikos Zagklas, where Byzantine poetry is aptly defined as “a broad field of rhetorical composition that includes all works that conform to the rules of a metre” (p. 5) and as “the other self of prose” (p. 6), the book is divided into five main parts: 1) Preliminaries: Contexts, Language, Metrics and Style; 2) Periods, Authors, Social and Cultural Milieus; 3) Poetry in Byzantium and Beyond; 4) Transmission and Circulation; and 5) Particular Uses of Verse in Byzantium.

Marc Lauxtermann’s essay that begins the first part introduces us to the three main environments/settings that form the context of poetry in Byzantium: the imperial court, the literary theatra, and the religious sphere. Lauxtermann un­derscores the dialectical link between texts and contexts (in his own words “no text without context, no context without text” – p. 19), as well as the ever-changing contexts of the texts, since every new use of a text constitutes a new context.

The next two chapters deal with the external form of Byzantine poetry, as this is sha­ped by means of language and metre. Martin Hinterberger discusses some features of Byzantine poetic language, which, he admits, is “fairly representative of the general linguistic situation of Byzantine literature” (p. 40). Special emphasis is placed on the use of newly coined composite words and alternative forms, as well as the mixture of different linguistic registers in both learned and vernacular texts. Michael Jeffreys’ contribution explores the transition from hexameter to political verse, the two most important metres in the history of Greek poetry with an oral origin. It is on the links of political verse to the oral tradition that Jeffreys focuses; based on the evidence from twelfth- and thirteenth-century fifteen-syllable verses, he postulates a double oral background: the templates of the folksong tradition, which he further associates with Asianic prose rhythms, and the formulaic patterns lying behind long verse compositions such as the Chronicle of Morea and the War of Troy.

Since rhetorical cola have already been linked to Byzantine metrical practices,[1] it is clear that rhetoric also affected this kind of Byzantine literary production. Aspects of the relations between poetry and rhetoric are examined by Elisabeth Jeffreys in the last chapter of the first part of the book, with special emphasis on the use of elements from rhetorical handbooks and tropes.

The next part could be read as a “history” of Greek poetry from the fourth century to the end of Byzantium. It is divided into seven chapters, dedicated either to certain periods or to authors whose work dominated the poetic production of their times. Gianfranco Agosti deals in the first chapter with late antique innovations in poetic genre (e.g., epic panegyric, didactic poetry, verse paraphrases, ekphraseis, ethopoiiai, epigrams/verse inscriptions) mostly related to the interconnection between poetry and rhetoric. The so-called “modern style” of the school of Nonnos and its reception by and influence on later authors, such as John Geometres, Theodore Prodromos, and Maximos Planudes, are also discussed in this framework.

The transition from late antiquity to Byzantium in the field of poetry is marked by the work of George of Pisidia. Ioannis Vassis analyses the main features of Pisides’ “poetic idiom” that ensured his Nachleben in the centuries to come, primarily the “Christianisation” of epic panegyric and the transformation of the classic iambic trimeter into the Byzantine dodecasyllable.

If George of Pisidia consciously experiments with ancient tradition, this is not the case with Theodore Stoudites, the main representative of poetry, both liturgical and nonliturgical, in the ninth century. Kristoffel Demoen seeks to prove that “ancient literature has hardly left any traces in Theodore’s work” (p. 171), and this applies also to his Iambs on Various Subjects, which primarily served purposes related to the Stoudios monastery and Theodore’s role as an abbot and theologian. Then we move to end of the tenth century, around the year 1000, and the focus is on the poetic production of John Geometres, a “poet and soldier” in the words of Marc Lauxtermann.[2] The versatility of his work, both at the level of metre and subject matter, is explored in an essay by Emilie van Opstall and Maria Tomadaki, concluding with an interesting proposal about the possible use of Geometres’ prima facie non-liturgical Hymns in public religious settings.

There follow three chapters corresponding to equal periods of Byzantine poetry: the eleventh century (1025-1081), the “long twelfth century” (1081-1204), and the late Byzantine era (1204-1453). Michael Psellos and his contemporaries, especially John Mauropous and Christopher Mitylenaios, gave, according to Floris Bernard, a new boost to poetic production. Self-assertiveness and a combative tone, resulting from the competition among members of the intellectual and power elite or between schools, are distinctive features of poetry in this period. In the twelfth century, poetry functions to a great extent as a means of social promotion through patronage, as Nikos Zagklas convincingly argues in the next chapter. The imperial court, being the main patron of poetic production, along with the school environment and literary theatra constituted the three, closely interrelated pillars that held up the work of poets such as Nicholas Kallikles, Theodore Prodromos, and Constantine Manasses. Of these three pillars, patronage continued to play the most important role in the production of poetry even after the sack of Constantinople in 1204, under the empire of Nicaea and during the Palaeologan period. It is in this vein that Andreas Rhoby surveys cases of poets of this later period, including Nikephoros Blemmydes, Manuel Holobolos, Maximos Planudes, Theodore Metochites, John Chortasmenos, John Eugenikos, and, of course, the “poet on commission par excellence” (p. 276), Manuel Philes.[3] Rhoby sees in the almost uninterrupted relationship between poets and the court and aristocracy a thread running through the continuous development of poetry during the Byzantine era (p. 294).

The third part of the book explores the links of Byzantine poetry to other languages and cultures. In the early period, poetry written in Greek co-existed with poetry in Latin, both serving imperial propaganda to a great degree. Kurt Smolak discusses in the first chapter the epic panegyrics of Priscian for the emperor Anastasius I and those of Flavius Cresconius Corippus for the magister militum per Africam Iohannes Troglita and Justin II. Smolak notes, among others, that Corippus’ poems, especially his Laudes Iustini minoris, are rich in information about court ceremonies and public life in early Byzantine Constantinople, complementing those found in the De ceremoniis in the tenth cen­tury (p. 326). He concludes with a section on the “revival” of Latin poetry by Greek speaking poets after the end of Byzantium, as reflected in the case of Michael Tarchaniota Marullus (Μαρούλης).

The contribution of Eirini Afentoulidou and Jürgen Fuchsbauer that follows is concerned with a middle Byzantine poem whose popularity transcended the boundaries of the Byzantine world: the Dioptra of Philippos Monotropos, a poem consisting of over 7000 political verses, finished in 1095. Afentoulidou focuses on the “innovative” character of the text (at first sight a simple didactic poem offering instruction on the main subjects that concerned a educated pious Byzantine), which anticipates the poetic trends of the Komnenian era, especially the use of political verse along with a certain degree of fictionality for long-scale poetic compositions. Fuchsbauer analyses the basic fea­tures of the Slavonic (middle Bulgarian) translation of the Dioptra, which was made around 1350 and survives in 198 manuscripts.

The third contribution of this section moves us to the multicultural environment of Norman Sicily in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Carolina Cupane surveys authors and texts mostly linked to the court of Roger II and his successors, in order to place them in the broader context of contemporary Byzantine literature. The Anonymous Malta, which seems to reflect the predilection for “novelisation” in Byzantine literary production of the eleventh and twelfth centuries (p. 363), and the work of the high court official Eugenius of Palermo, are at the heart of the investigation. There is also a section on the “Salentine School” of Greek poetry that flourished in the first half of the thirteenth century and owed much to the activity of several private schools that maintained cultural contacts with Byzantium.

The ways through which Byzantine poetry circulated and has come down to us is the subject of the fourth part of the book. Beginning with the manuscript transmission, Foteini Spingou examines, according to the classification proposed by Marc Lauxtermann,[4] the two basic types of poetic compilations in Byzantium, i.e., collections and anthologies, and highlights the role of the compilers in the reception and further transmission of poetry, as well as the role that such compilations played in the formation and preservation of the literary canon.

Another aspect of the relationship between poems and manuscripts, the basic medium for their circulation, is discussed in the next chapter, focusing on the so-called “book epigrams,” are defined as “inscriptions on books” (p. 405). Floris Bernard and Kristoffel Demoen stress the twofold character of these texts, both functional and literary, and present five main categories for the classification of the existing material, corresponding to the five main roles involved in book production: author, patron, scribe, reader, and the text itself. Finally, there is a section on poetry inscribed on materials or objects other than books: stone, metalwork, frescos, icons, seals, etc. The function of this kind of poetic text is analysed by Ivan Drpić and Andreas Rhoby. These poems animated the object on which they were inscribed, affected the viewers’ response to it, and enhanced the communicative capacity of both verbal and visual media.

The last part of the book focuses on poetic texts with a particular function: didactic, liturgical, and narrative. Poetry as a means of instruction is examined by Wolfram Hörandner, who discusses examples of such texts classified according to their subject (antiquity, astrology/astronomy, chronography, grammar, jurisprudence, mathematics, medicine, morality, rhetoric, theology,[5] zoology, and botany). Antonia Giannouli concentrates on poems with a primarily liturgical use, that is the various forms of Byzantine hymnography (which could itself be the subject of a separate volume); non-liturgical hymns, meant for teaching, praise, or even satire, and commentaries on well-known hymns are also taken into account. Poems with a narrative function are treated in the final two chapters. Ingela Nilsson focuses on the two Byzantine verse chronicles, the Synopsis Chronike of Constantine Manasses and the early fourteenth-century Chronicle of Ephraim, and analyses the differences between the two works, with regards to verse form and the concept of history that the convey, in association with their sociocultural milieu. In both cases, the authors carefully distinguish between content and form, although they see no clear distinction between history and poetry-literature. Verse form was also used for the composition of romances, a practice initiated in the twelfth century. Roderick Beaton traces the evolution of this genre from the Komnenian to the Palaeologan period, and even after the end of Byzantium, an evolution that reaches its high point, in his view, with Erotokritos.

In sum, this is a well conceived and organised book, covering a wide ran­ge of subjects concerned with Byzantine poetry, that will prove a useful tool for scholars of all levels. The individual contributions take into account the most recent developments in the relevant scholarship and are bibliographically up to date (some minor omissions are indicated in the endnotes), thus offering a good starting point for further research. In some cases, new questions are posed to, and enhance this prospect.

Table of Contents

Preliminaries: Contexts, Language, Metrics and Style
Marc D. Lauxtermann, Texts and Contexts (pp. 19-37).
Martin Hinterberger, The Language of Byzantine Poetry: New Words, Alternative Forms, and “Mixed Language” (pp. 38-65).
Michael Jeffreys, From Hexameters to Fifteen-Syllable Verse (pp. 66-91).
Elisabeth Jeffreys, Byzantine Poetry and Rhetoric (pp. 92-112).
Periods, Authors, Social and Cultural Milieus
Gianfranco Agosti, Late Antique Poetry and Its Reception (pp. 115-148).
Ioannis Vassis, George of Pisidia: the Spring of Byzantine Poetry? (pp. 149-165).
Kristoffel Demoen, Monasticism and Iconolatry: Theodore Stoudites (pp. 166-190).
Emilie van Opstall and Maria Tomadaki, John Geometres: a Poet around the Year 1000 (pp. 191-211).
Floris Bernard, The 11th Century: Michael Psellos and Contemporaries (pp. 212-236).
Nikos Zagklas, “How Many Verses Shall I Write and Say?”: Poetry in the Komnenian Period (1081-1204) (pp. 237-263).
Andreas Rhoby, Poetry on Commission in Late Byzantium (13th-15th Century) (pp. 264-304).
Poetry in Byzantium and Beyond
Kurt Smolak, “Accept a Roman Song with a Kindly Heart!”: Latin Poetry in Byzantium (pp. 307-330).
Eirini Afentoulidou and Jürgen Fuchsbauer, Philippos Monotropos in Byzantium and the Slavonic World (pp. 331-352).
Carolina Cupane, Byzantine Poetry at the Norman Court of Sicily (1130-c.1200) (pp. 353-378).
Transmission and Circulation
Foteini Spingou, Byzantine Collections and Anthologies of Poetry (pp. 381-402).
Floris Bernard and Kristoffel Demoen, Byzantine Book Epigrams (pp. 404-429).
Ivan Drpić and Andreas Rhoby, Byzantine Verses as Inscriptions: the Interaction of Text, Object, and Beholder (pp. 430-455).
Particular Uses of Verse in Byzantium
Wolfram Hörandner, Teaching with Verse in Byzantium (pp. 459-486).
Antonia Giannouli, Hymn Writing in Byzantium: Forms and Writers (pp. 487-516).
Ingela Nilsson, The Past as Poetry: Two Byzantine World Chronicles in Verse (pp. 517-538).
Roderick Beaton, Byzantine Verse Romances (pp. 539-555).


[1] See, e.g., M.D. Lauxtermann, The Spring of Rhythm. An Essay on Political Verse and other Byzantine Metres. Vienna 1999, 69-86 (with references to the classic study of W. Hörandner, Der Prosarhythmus in der rhetorischen Literatur der Byzantiner. Wiener Byzantinistische Studien, 16. Vienna 1981), and V. Valiavitcharska, Rhetoric and Rhythm in Byzantium: the Sound of Persuasion. Cambridge 2013, 56-89.

[2] Cf. M.D. Lauxtermann, John Geometres: a Poet and Soldier. Byzantion 68 (1998) 356-380.

[3] Special mention is made to Philes’ 12 tomb poems for John Cheilas, on which see recently D. Samara, Ἐπιγραφῆναιτῇ σορῷ σου τὸν φθόνον. Ioannes Cheilas in the funerary epigrams of Manuel Philes, Parekbolai 8 (2018) 1-13. The article probably appeared at the time of printing of the volume.

[4] Cf. M.D. Lauxtermann, Byzantine Poetry from Pisides to Geometres. Wiener Byzantinistische Studien, 24/1. Vienna 2003, 61.

[5] In this category Hörandner discusses, among other poems, the Verses on the Holy Sunday ascribed to a certain Arsenios (p. 474); for a new critical edition of this text, along with an extensive commentary, see C. Crimi, I “Versi per la Domenica di Pasqua” di Arsenio. Testo, traduzione, commento, Rivista di Studi Bizantini e Neoellenici, n.s. 52 (2015) 33-91.