BMCR 2021.02.32

Byzantine Poetry from Pisides to Geometres: Texts and Contexts

, Byzantine Poetry from Pisides to Geometres: Texts and Contexts. Volume 1. Wiener byzantinische Studien 24/1. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2003. Pp. 389. ISBN 9783700131502 €96.00.
, Byzantine Poetry from Pisides to Geometres: Texts and Contexts. Volume 2. Wiener byzantinische Studien 24/2. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2019. Pp. 431. ISBN 9783700181262 €59.00.

Open access (volume 1)

How did Greek poetry evolve after late antiquity? Marc D. Lauxtermann’s two-volume survey, now finished after a sixteen-year interval, provides a definitive and accessible account of its genres, modes, meters, themes, authors, manuscripts, and contexts. Indeed, the first volume, focusing on epigram, has long since provided an interpretive framework for much subsequent scholarship on Byzantine poetry, and the second volume now extends that framework to other genres and modes. The book focuses chronologically on the seventh-to-tenth centuries, or from George Pisides (the court poet of the emperor Herakleios) to John Geometres (a soldier-poet and then monk who had a number of court patrons in the later tenth century). As the years 641-780 are rather bare, most of the material comes from the ninth and tenth centuries. Moreover, Lauxtermann frequently looks forward to the poets of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This, then, is the place to start if you want to learn about Greek poetry of the middle Byzantine era. Lauxtermann is a friendly guide who will explain everything clearly to you from the ground up, with just enough humor in both the texts and the analysis to keep it from becoming dry. He also provides a technical appendix on how meter, prosody, and stress changed in this period, which is a small book in its own right (2:265-383).

Volume 1 is about epigram, which accounts for 30-50% of surviving poetry (1:33). Lauxtermann breaks with the Renaissance definition of epigram, based on Martial, as a short poem with a witty end (1:23), and hews to its literal Byzantine sense as a poem that is “inscribed upon,” introduces, or accompanies a monument or work of art (ch. 5), book (ch. 6), or epitaph (ch. 7), with a separate discussion of inscribed gnomic epigrams (ch. 8). These poems were sometimes assembled into book-collections, such as those that eventually became the Palatine Anthology. Lauxtermann meticulously discusses the process of collection, insofar as it can be recovered, in chapters 2-3 (and classicists should take note especially of ch. 3, as it provides essential reconstructions of how their most important repository of ancient poems was created). As it happens, there are few “matches” between epigrams that survive in their original inscribed context and in anthologies (1:31-33, 150). Two appendices (VIII-IX) itemize those that are known to have survived in their original context, but the book draws its examples from all epigrams, no matter how they survive. This is not to say that all epigrams that survive textually were necessarily once inscribed somewhere. Many were free-standing from the start, but were written as if they were part of such an original inscribed context (1:152), so they too need to be interpreted within those parameters.

Volume 2 treats all other genres of middle Byzantine poetry: encomium and historical epic (ch. 10); ekphrasis and periegesis (ch. 11); ethopoieia (ch. 12); monody (ch. 13); songs of love and marriage (ch. 14); satire and invective (ch. 15); diatribic experiments, i.e., essays and polemics (ch. 16); hymns and prayers (ch. 17); didactic and paraenetic poems (ch. 18); metaphrasis, i.e., the rewriting of a poem from one linguistic register into another (ch. 19); and oracles, riddles, and dream keys (ch. 20). It is only from a distance that some of these may be perceived as “genres” (1:7). Diatribe, for example, “is more of a style than a genre” (2:147). Classicists who believe otherwise should read Lauxtermann’s introduction to chapter 16, as he singles out their discipline for perpetuating obsolete uses. Likewise, encomium and ekphrasis are “discursive modes” more than genres: while they may appear on their own, in “pure” but less interesting forms, they often appear within texts that are in other genres (2:19, 2:61). Lauxtermann views encomium and ekphrasis as well as ethopoieia (impersonation) and diegesis (vivid narration) as “archigenres”—Genette’s neologism—that “are in command, marshalling the troops (the genres, the subgenres, the sub-subgenres, the mixed genres…), deploying them on the literary battlefield” (2:61). The move away from fixed genres—the bane of so much analysis of Byzantine literature—to more fluid “modes” is wise, as it avoids classifications that are too rigid and fragile. However, the Big Four are not always in command. Sometimes encomium takes a back seat or merely opens the door for the text’s real purposes. For example, Lauxtermann himself points out that Pisides’ great poem on Creation, the Hexaemeron, has been misread as a primarily political text by scholars who look only at its opening encomium of the patriarch Sergios and not the 1,600 verses that follow (2:217 n. 101). In the end, genres and subgenres served at the pleasure of the immediate goals of the text and author.[1]

This brings us to the methodology of the book: context is king here, and specifically the original context of each text. Lauxtermann attempts to read each poem against the immediate social and material background of its production, inscription, or performance, as the case may be. Each poem is “a literary moment in time” and “not written for eternity,” even if it was later copied and preserved in a manuscript. A poem so preserved is but a frozen image of a past literary moment, and “documents a single event… which can often be reconstructed by reading the text attentively.” Moreover, these poetic moments, even when we array them in a chronological sequence, do not form a literary history as we might imagine it, that is of one moment laying the foundations for the next in a continuous evolution of poetic tradition. That did not normally happen in the history of Byzantine literature. Its authors were trained in the classics, both pagan and Christian, and recursively responded to those, rarely to their immediate predecessors. Thus, the preserved poetry of the middle Byzantine period “presents a random collection of snapshots: instantaneous exposures of non-recurring literary moments” (1:59, 61, 65). Not even the Greek Anthology, once compiled, seems to have influenced the ongoing production of epigrams in Byzantium (1:118-119).

Therefore, when they appear in manuscripts poems are out of context (unless they are book epigrams); they acquire “a totally new dimension as literary texts,” and tend to “dematerialize” (1:66). Specifically, “poems are no longer in rapport with the immediate situational context for which they were composed. Verse inscriptions are brutally separated from the object they used to accompany, and occasional poems that were once intended to be declaimed, unfortunately become mute on paper” (1:74). Interesting things could happen to a poem once it was adrift. An epigram by Theodore of Stoudios (the great monastic reformer of the early ninth century) that was originally a verse inscription on the image of a saint was copied later to function as a book epigram for the homilies of Gregory of Nazianzos, thus effectively switching genres (1:170-173). Inscribed poems became literary epigrams (1:140-141) and could then be reinscribed in a different context.

Lauxtermann does not deny that poems had such a literary afterlife or that they deserve to be studied as such, but his book is devoted to finding the keys that will unlock their original context (1:7). It is, in this sense, a project of recovery, and it is expertly done. For every type of poem, he offers close readings of well-chosen specimens, wherever possible retracing their history from the manuscripts in which they survive back to their original context and then extrapolating the historical and social dynamics that brought the poem into being in the first place. This recovery is then followed by a close philological and literary reading of the poem itself. Most of Byzantine Poetry consists of such case-studies. The presentation is always clear and accessible, and driven by a desire to understand and explain. Poems that are discussed in detail are presented in both Greek and in translation.[2] Lauxtermann’s joy at teasing out the nuances of context from the poems themselves is infectious. The arguments rely not on jargon-laden theory (Genette appears only once) but on “common sense, intuition and intelligent reading” (1:215, 1:60). Technical terms such as “intentional fallacy” are rare and always defined (1:37).

There are gems in here for historians, art historians, paleographers, and students of Byzantine literature and society. I pick out some at random: Lauxtermann’s discussion of how some “poems” were actually lyrics for musical performance (at funerals—the famous “ritual lament”—or at the imperial court: 1:127, 2:94); the many surviving drafts of a poem for a bowl owned by Dalassenos, governor of Antioch in the eleventh century, which rearrange the same words and offer fascinating glimpses into the relations between poets and patrons (1:42-43; cf. 1:159-160); mediocre template poems of praise with the name of the honorand to be filled in (1:47-48); a redating of AP 9.815 to refer to the emperor Michael II and Euphrosyne, whose names are discerned in the poem (1:155-157); and a convincing argument that Leo III was praised in the original of Theodosios the Grammarian’s epinikion about the Arab siege of 717-718 (2:40-41).

Volume 1 focuses more on the material contexts in which poetry appeared and volume 2 on the social and court occasions when it was performed, incidentally casting much-needed light on what Byzantines did when they got together. There is one social ritual that he misses. The “throwing down” of libelous pamphlets as a challenge to those defamed in them was not “quite exceptional” for this kind of literature (2:134), but a standard practice attested in early Byzantium.[3] It must have survived during the intervening centuries, because it is hard to imagine its revival as a deliberate archaism. Another point that may require reinterpretation are the victory odes by Pisides and Sophronios of Jerusalem for Herakleios’ victory over the Persians. Pisides attributes the victory to the emperor and Sophronios to the True Cross, and Lauxtermann interprets this difference in part based on where the emperor was present during those years (2:35-36). However, the chronology has been revised by Constantin Zuckerman, and the performative circumstances have to be rethought.[4] As a general rule, I expect that the emperor would get the credit when he was present (which is one of the reasons why Lauxtermann restores Leo III to the poem of Theodosios in 718); conversely, this was how the Virgin reaped credit for victory in 626 over the Avars (Herakleios was absent).[5] These are trivial points.

There is no way to do justice here to the wealth of insight, detail, and good sense that is present in this book. Instead, I would like to raise the question of where we go from here in the study of Byzantine poetry, as a subset of Byzantine literature, in the aftermath of Lauxtermann’s avowedly “historicizing approach” (1:24), in which context is king. Specifically, is the meaning and value of these texts so inextricably bound to their original context that reading them apart from it, as non-specialists must, is an exercise doomed to misunderstanding and loss? Can these texts speak in a relatively authentic way to later audiences and, if so, how do we support such readings? To put the question in an extreme form, is it possible to present at least some of these poems before a modern general audience and expect them to appreciate and even enjoy them, as they can with so many ancient and medieval poems sub specie aeternitatis, without that enjoyment stemming from creative but arbitary misunderstanding? Is the field laying the groundwork for making these poems available as “literature”?

Clearly, the first steps toward such a view were taken by the Byzantine themselves when they removed these texts from their contexts and yet still expected that they would be meaningful to book readers. In fact, it is likely that epigrams were meant to circulate as independent texts right from the start, with context only implied.[6]

Later excerptors and readers paid attention to the literary character of the poems and not the original context, which had been lost (1:66), which means that it should theoretically be possible to reconstruct a Byzantine literary poetics. Some anthologists were so intent on content and literary value that they did not bother to record the name of the poem’s author (1:75). This argues for an abstraction of value from context. Lauxtermann concludes from this that Byzantine authors did not enjoy the same prestige in the eyes of their reading public as the ancient classics (pagan and Christian), but can we not flip this around and see it as an interest in preserving intrinsic literary merit independently of big-name context? These poems were preserved because of what they were and not who they were by. Finally, we must assume that many Byzantine readers were able to use their imagination to reconstruct the original context of a poem that they came across in a book, or as much of it as was necessary to understand the point, certainly better than we can without scholarly training. Literature is precisely about activating the imagination, and the Byzantines had at hand more of the relevant cultural coordinates for their own poetry.

To be sure, sometimes those coordinates could be highly specific, making it difficult for poems to travel well outside their original context, for example the poem addressed to Leo VI that makes subtle use of the works of Xenophon that it accompanies in order to make equally subtle points about various personages at the court. “The Xenophon epigram is absolutely fabulous. It is Byzantium at its best” (1:208-212), but its meanings are also limited to scholars (indeed, classicists). But not all poems were so context-bound. There is a great deal of Byzantine religious poetry that is potentially capable of moving most Christian, or even secular readers attuned to religious sensibilities. The same is true of some of the erotic and philosophical poetry discussed in the book. Gnomic epigrams also cross cultural lines. If modern audiences can appreciate Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, as they appear to do, they might also like Byzantine poems that deal with sin and are also addressed eis eauton: these too aimed “to transcend the level of the purely individual and express a universal truth” (2:182). Enough of the context may be evident in the poem itself to allow it to still work, for example Geometres’ lament for his father, which Lauxtermann calls “masterful” (1:220). The right translation might reanimate his other poem on how Christ prevented him from masturbating after an especially vivid dream (2:183-184).

If we want Byzantine literature to make the leap from scholarship to a general audience, it will have to be presented as something that can actually be enjoyed, which means that we will eventually have to codify its literary aesthetics in terms that resonate widely. This may seem like a tall order for a field that was founded on the explicit denigration of “late” Greek literature, where derogatory attitudes persisted until the end of the twentieth century. Lauxtermann, refreshingly, enjoys many of the texts that he analyzes. He not only historicizes them but occasionally appraises them too, as we have seen (“fabulous, “masterful”). One of Symeon the New Theologian’s hymns he deems “magnificent love poetry. Its sensuality, sheer beauty and celebration of love [with God] are without parallel in Byzantine poetry” (2:190), and the analysis goes on to document those virtues in the poem. Arsenios’ ekphrasis of spring is “one of the most beautiful ever written” (2:63-64). A poem by Anastasios the quaestor is “splendid” for its “impeccable elegiacs, a sublime and elevated style of writing, and epigrammatic concinnity” (1:197). Other verdicts are negative, for example Ignatios the Deacon’s dramatic Verses on Adam, which is rightly skewered (2:84-86). Perhaps the standards that inform these judgments contain, in aggregate, the seeds of a poetic aesthetics that we can use for Byzantium.

As this is BMCR, it would remiss not to mention that the aforementioned derogatory attitudes stemmed in part from the prejudice of classical scholars who looked down on and mocked the metrical “errors” made by Byzantine poets, as if the rules of ancient prosody should apply timelessly to a language that, centuries before the period covered in this book, had lost vowel lengths and diphthongs. Lauxtermann offers a useful corrective on this count (in the Appendix Metrica of volume 2, where all metrical changes are explained in detail). For both classicists and Byzantinists, Byzantine Poetry is the best gateway into a fascinating body of literature that still needs expert tending. If its liberation from scholarship has not yet arrived, that day is now much closer.


[1] Cf. P. Odorico, ed., La face caché de la littérature byzantine: Le texte en tant que message immédiat (Paris 2012).

[2] For clarity, I would revise the translation of Kassia’s epigram on gratitude (1:242) as follows: “A small favor is deemed great if a friend is grateful / but by the ungrateful, a great boon is deemed tiny.” Cf. Lauxtermann: “A little is the most, if the friend is grateful; but to the ungrateful, the most is the least.” Also, ἐσώρευσα (2:108) is not just “I gathered” but “I heaped up.”

[3] Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae 20.4.10-11; Julian, Letter to the Athenians 283B-C; Eunapios, History fr. 29.1 (ed. Blockley); Zacharias of Mytilene in PG 85: 1143-1144.

[4] C. Zuckerman, ‘Heraclius and the Return of the Holy Cross,’ Travaux et mémoires 17 (2013) 197-218.

[5] A. Kaldellis, “A Union of Opposites”: The Moral Logic and Corporeal Presence of the Theotokos on the Field of Battle,’ in C. Gastgeber et al., eds., Pour l’amour de Byzance: Hommage à Paolo Odorico (Frankfurt am Main 2013) 131-144, here 143-144.

[6] E.g., A. Cameron, Porphyrius the Charioteer (Oxford 1973) 113.