BMCR 2021.08.15

Screditare per valorizzare: Giovanni Tzetze, le sue fonti, i committenti e la concorrenza

, Screditare per valorizzare: Giovanni Tzetze, le sue fonti, i committenti e la concorrenza. Pleiadi, 24. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2020. Pp. xii, 200. ISBN 9788893594639 €30,40.

Martina Savio’s monograph is a welcome addition to the burgeoning scholarly discussions revolving around John Tzetzes, one of the major intellectuals of twelfth-century Byzantium. In recent years, Tzetzes has been the subject of several publications, which focus on his social and professional status, his authorial persona, and his sophisticated use of ancient sources. Following in the footsteps of these studies, Savio seeks to dispel the “classicist bias” which, until recently, prevented modern readers from appreciating Tzetzes’ work on its own merits. In the introduction and first chapter, Savio also asserts that her approach makes important headway in understanding the agenda behind Tzetzes’ writings. In her opinion, while finally starting to reassess the work of this Byzantine author, scholars have often failed to see the main drive behind his oeuvre, the rhetorical complexity of which has been underestimated. Far from being the expression of “autobiographical outbursts” or the manifestation of “literary-aesthetic concerns”, Savio contends, Tzetzes’ works were driven by a constant attempt at “commercial self-promotion,” which, in turn, was strictly dependent on his condition as a professional writer.

To prove her point, Savio proceeds to examine Tzetzes’ relationship with his patrons (chapter three). Through the analysis of different texts Savio argues that, despite being a commissioned writer with no “stable” courtly or ecclesiastical appointment, Tzetzes constantly underlines both his independence from his sponsors and the superiority of his intellectual “products.” Chapter four focuses on Tzetzes’ attacks against his Byzantine rivals, including the eleventh-century polymath Michael Psellos and his contemporary Eustathios of Thessaloniki. According to Savio, all the texts considered in this section display a constant set of themes. Indeed, by critiquing his rivals’ incompetence and by describing his difficult financial situation, Tzetzes created a recognizable “trademark.” Chapter five analyzes a number of passages where Tzetzes criticizes his predecessors, with the aim of both identifying the polymath’s models and describing how he used them. Here, Savio introduces another important argument: in her opinion, the more Tzetzes chastises a predecessor, the more dependent he is on this very source. The chapter ends with a few more nuanced considerations on this topic and is directly followed by bibliography and indexes.

Savio’s arguments are based on a wide array of sources, ranging from Tzetzes’ early production to some of his later works. Thanks to this selection of passages, the reader appreciates the variety of Tzetzes’ writings, from the lengthy Chiliades to shorter iambic compositions addressed to both his contemporaries and predecessors. Savio also discusses some hitherto neglected texts, such as four polemical verses against Lycophron that do not appear in Scheer’s edition of Tzetzes’ scholia on the Alexandra.

Another instructive feature of the book is the discussion of Tzetzes’ sources (chapter five). Through the analysis of the authors mentioned – and criticized – by Tzetzes, Savio reconstructs the kinds of sources that the Byzantine scholar and his “colleagues” likely had at hand. The footnotes provide additional details on the authors and works examined, supplying bibliographical information for further reading.

In this same chapter, Savio presents some interesting considerations on Tzetzes’ reuse of his models. For instance, when dealing with his treatment of Demo, Savio focuses on the representation of the female exegete as a Sphinx. The reader learns that the connection with this mythical creature was not simply aimed at stigmatizing the intricacy of Demo’s work. Rather, the comparison was likely meant to debase her morally and socially. As stated by a passage from Athenaeus that Tzetzes was probably familiar with, “Sphinx” was a nickname adopted by prostitutes, who were adept at speaking in an allusive way. This analysis enriches our understanding of Tzetzes’ tendency to combine literary criticism with harsh invectives, often coated with iambic-comic overtones. Indeed, his reuse of Athenaeus is reminiscent of the motifs characterizing his attacks against schedographers, who are often associated with a low social background.[1] Similar observations apply to Savio’s analysis of the epithet κομπολάκυθος, which Tzetzes uses for many “competitors.” Her investigation of the sources illustrates the multilayered nature of this compound, which blends Aristophanic flavor with pointed allusions to a long-standing tradition of literary criticism.

Through these and other examples, Savio seeks to illustrate the rhetorical complexity of Tzetzes’ works. In her opinion, this aspect has mostly been neglected by modern scholars, who have often taken Tzetzes’ texts at face value. While the rhetorical refinement of his works is undeniable, Savio’s very conception of “rhetoric” is somewhat problematic. Inter alia, her tendency to oppose “rhetoric” and “reality” appears to be rather schematic and cannot fully account for the multilayered-ness of twelfth-century literary production. As recent studies on Byzantine literature have shown, trying to distinguish between what is historically or objectively “true” and what is just the result of a “rhetorical strategy” may prove to be a pointless endeavor, which ends up projecting onto the texts categories and distinctions that did not belong to their authors. A meaningful example of the problems raised by this interpretive stance is Savio’s discussion of Tzetzes’ decision to pass off his scholia on Lycophron as the work of his brother Isaac. According to Savio, through this false attribution Tzetzes sought to draw further attention to his own work. As a consequence, his contextual celebration of brotherly love should be reconsidered, since it would be “overridden” by his need for self-promotion. Not only does this interpretation reintroduce some pernicious aspects of the very “classicist bias” that Savio set out to dispel, but it does not take into account recent studies on the polysemy of the Byzantine text, presenting a rather monolithic view of both the author and his agenda.[2] Similarly, the comparison between Tzetzes and his contemporaries overlooks important works on twelfth-century authors,[3] which could have contributed to a more nuanced presentation of Tzetzes’ supposedly unique tendency to create a recognizable trademark.

Another problematic feature of the book is the complete lack of translations: the lengthy Greek extracts are only cursorily paraphrased in the body of the discussion. As a result, the volume is hardly accessible to a non-expert audience. Furthermore, the absence of translations makes it difficult to appreciate Savio’s interpretation of the texts, which, in some cases at least, appears to be debatable. Apart from some misunderstandings of the Greek,[4] the most relevant issue is the lack of consideration for the context in which the selected passages appear.[5]

A case in point is Savio’s discussion of a series of passages where Tzetzes criticizes Palaephatus’ etymological explanation of the name Kentauros, which, in the polymath’s opinion, could not stem from the terms ταῦρος and (κατα)κεντεῖν. If this were the case, Tzetzes argues, we would be talking about “Kentotauroi” and not “Kentauroi”. In Savio’s opinion, this passage is a perfect illustration of Tzetzes’ tendency to harshly criticize his sources for minor inaccuracies, a strategy that would allow him to downplay his heavy reliance on them. Firstly, the very assumption underlying this entire argument is questionable: Tzetzes and his contemporaries would hardly have considered a wrong etymological explanation a “minor detail.”[6] Secondly, Savio’s theory relies on a partial reading of the texts. For one, Tzetzes does not “limit himself to cursorily reprimanding his predecessor” without adding anything new. On the contrary, at the end of the first passage considered by Savio (Chil. 7 hist. 99, 34–39 Leone2), Tzetzes does propose an alternative etymological explanation for the name Kentauros, which would stem from the verb κεντεῖν and the noun αὖρα (a synonym for δούλη). Far from considering this interpretation a secondary minutia, Tzetzes is quite proud of his witty explanation (see also Chil. 9, hist. 273, 456–63). The discussion of the other extract dealing with the Centaurs is equally problematic. Savio is right to remark that, this time, Tzetzes presents an additional argument against Palaephatus’ interpretation. However, when it comes to commenting on the text, she appears to misunderstand Tzetzes’ reasoning. While the polymath is trying to demonstrate that the Centaurs could not have invented horseback riding, since they lived three generations after Ixion, whose nephew Polypoetes took part in the Trojan war, Savio’s reading subverts Tzetzes’ thinking and ends up placing the aforementioned Ixion three generations after the Greek expedition at Troy. Similar observations apply to her analysis of Tzetzes’ interpretation of the myth of Cadmus and Drakon: once again, the polymath’s innovations with respect to Palaephatus’ etymological explanations are inexplicably sidelined. According to Savio, Tzetzes would employ this strategy of “recycling with variatio” also when it comes to Demo. Unfortunately, however, she does not provide any examples, which are to feature in a forthcoming publication. Until then, Savio’s proposed method of source reconstruction should be followed with some caution.

In summary, Savio’s book makes instructive contributions to our understanding of Tzetzes’ (re)use of his sources and has the merit of pointing out some recurrent motifs characterizing his self-advertising strategies. However, the volume and its arguments would have benefited from a more careful analysis of the Greek texts and a more accurate reconstruction of the twelfth-century literary and socio-historical background.


[1] As recently shown by Aglae Pizzone, ‘Self-Authorization and Strategies of Autography in John Tzetzes: The LogismoiRediscovered’, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 60.4 (2021) 652–90.

[2] See, most recently, Ingela Nilsson, Writer and Occasion in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Authorial Voice of Constantine Manasses, Cambridge 2021, with discussion of previous scholarship.

[3] For instance, the comparison with Eustathios and Manasses would have benefited from the works by Baukje van den Berg and Ingela Nilsson, respectively. Savio’s treatment of Byzantine rhetoric would have been enriched, inter alia, by Stratis Papaioannou, Michael Psellos: Rhetoric and Authorship in Byzantium, Cambridge 2013. Similar observations apply to her presentation of the socio-historical background of Tzetzes’ career: see, e.g., the simplified presentation of the so-called Patriarchal School, along with the problematic identification of the unnamed “rival” whom Tzetzes berates in his Chiliades and “Iambs” with the Gregory mentioned in Letter 89 (on this issue, see Panagiotis Agapitos, ‘John Tzetzes and the Blemish Examiners: A Byzantine Teacher on Schedography, Everyday Language and Writerly Disposition,’ Medioevo Greco 17 (2017) 1–57, here 22–24 with n. 121).

[4] See, e.g., pp. 42–43: σχεδὸν οἱ πάντες σοφοί is not an ironic expression alluding to the ignorance of these “wise men”(translate as: “almost every wise man [dealt with Homeric exegesis]”); pp. 102–103: ἵνα μικρὸν ἀστεΐσωμαι ≠ “to cut it short” (the verb ἀστεΐζω introduces Tzetzes’ subsequent playful remark); p. 126: τῶν λοιπῶν ἱστορικῶν ἱστορικώτεροι καθεστήκαμεν: Tzetzes is not saying that he “restored” the historians’ ideas, but that he is a better historian than all those who came before him; p. 152: with the expression τοῖς ἀποκαθάρμασι τοῦ λόγου τῆς οἰκίας Tzetzes is not stating that his Allegories of the Odyssey have been “purified” from the mistakes of “vulgar speech” – quite the contrary, he is advertising his ability to use all kinds of styles.

[5] See, e.g., p. 35: the presentation of Tzetzes’ correspondent as a “tax-collector” seems to stem from the misinterpretation of a joking remark featuring in Ep. 75, 111, 20–23 Leone; pp. 52 (with n. 38) and 61: the passage discussed here does not refer to Tzetzes’ enemies at the so-called Patriarchal school; just as in the preceding lines, Tzetzes is criticizing Hermogenes, adding a quick reference to the other “authorities” scrutinized in his Logismoi (on which see now Pizzone 2021, as in footnote 1 above); p. 62 (with n. 72): in this passage Tzetzes is not apologizing for the mistakes caused by his lack of books, but is alluding to the unfair behavior of his former employer (the “barbarisms and solecisms” mentioned here have a figurative meaning).

[6] Savio’s interpretation of Byzantine literary practices through anachronistic or incongruous categories affects other sections of the book. A case in point is her problematic dating of Tzetzes’ verses on Psellos, based on the notion that Tzetzes would willingly set aside his iamboi technikoi to compose what he clearly considered to be defective verses. On the importance of Tzetzes’ compositional technique for the dating of his works, see, e.g., Eric Cullhed, ‘Diving for Pearls and Tzetzes’ Death,’ Byzantinische Zeitschrift 108.1 (2015) 53–62, here 56–58.