Byzantine bride-shows: mothers dominate sons in choosing wives

bride show in 19th-century Russia

A seldom-recognized historical antecedent to today’s beauty pageants is bride-shows that occurred early in the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine bride-shows selected from a wide-ranging search the bride for the Emperor or the Emperor’s heir. After becoming Empress, she sometimes went on to rule in her own right. The Byzantine bride-show thus provided a remarkably open opportunity for a woman to gain a place at the top of society.[1] In relation to ordinary person’s lives, Byzantine bride-shows suggest risks in a mother dominating the choice of her son’s wife even in a relatively tolerant society.

Men in pursuing intimate relationships are usually attracted to beautiful women. Today, that preference tends to be disparaged. For being attracted to a woman who was not fat, one young man recently was called bigoted and mean, and he was slapped. At a much higher level of social salience, the Harvard men’s soccer team recently had their whole season canceled because some team members were privately rating the attractiveness of members of the women’s soccer team. Simply stating that young, slender, warmly receptive women are much more sexually attractive than old, fat, bitterly men-hating women is well on its way to becoming a criminal offense in modern, democratic societies.

Compared to such societies, medieval Byzantine society was more tolerant and allowed greater personal freedom. In the fourteenth-century Byzantine romance Belthandros and Chrysantza, the King of Eros ordered Belthandros to select the most beautiful woman from among forty noble women. Belthandros told one that she had “flabby and superfluous flesh.” After she stepped forward for his judgment and stepped back from his rejection, her body was “drenched with much perspiration.” Belthandros rejected other women for having a frigid mind, red and bleary eyes, a unibrow, an improperly proportioned body, bad teeth and hairy hands. The woman Belthandros selected as the most beautiful he described as having fallen from the bosom of the moon:

Her hair is the color of gold and matches her figure. Its thickness is like that of the grass of Paradise or of celery in a garden. All the graces of the world seem to sit upon her and make her their dwelling. Certainly, beyond any doubt, her forehead bears your {the King of Eros’s} imprint of mottled gold. If a man casts a glance at her eyes, they immediately tear at the roots of his heart. In the depths of their lake tiny cupids swim, shoot their arrows and sport. Art created her jet-black eyebrows and with consummate skill made them bridges. The Graces forged the fair one’s nose and to the Graces belong her mouth and her pearly teeth. Her cheeks are rose-red, her lips have the color of nature. Certainly, her mouth is perfumed. Her chin is round in shape, she is tall and her arms are white and delicate, her neck is as from a lathe. Her waist is slender and shows the great skill of the one who fashioned it like a thin reed. As for the angle of her neck and her litheness! Indeed, her body is so perfect in composition that the Graces seem to come from her. Her bosom is a paradise of love. The apples {of her breasts} shine even on a casual glance. Her look and gait are miraculous. When she walks with confidence and glances up and down, she ravishes your senses and tears at discretion. [2]

This description strangely omits the women’s buttocks. Nonetheless, Belthandros and Chrysantza indicates that men in medieval Byzantium had considerable freedom of expression in judging women’s beauty.

The marriage of Sophia of Montferrat and John VIII Palaiologos in Constantinople in 1421 underscores the importance to men of a bride’s appearance. John agreed to marry Sophia, sight unseen, as part of a grand strategy to build a political alliance and gain military aid for Constantinople. However, aspects of Sophia’s appearance turned out to be unpleasant:

The young woman was extremely well-proportioned in body. Her neck was shapely, her hair blondish with braids flowing down to her ankles like glimmering golden streams. Her shoulders were broad and her arms, bosom, and hands well-proportioned. Her fingers were transparent. She was tall in stature and stood very straight — but her face and and lips, the condition of her nose, and the arrangement of her eyes and eyebrows were extremely unpleasant. In general, she may be described in the words of the vulgar adage: “Lent from the front and Easter from behind.” [3]

John never slept with his wife Sophia. After five years of sexless marriage, Sophia returned home and became a nun in the Dominican convent at Trino.

Byzantine mothers recognized men’s interest in women’s beauty. The Emperor’s wife Eudocia in 882 arranged a bride-show for her son Leo. She selected twelve beautiful women from her own native city. She interviewed them and then narrowed the group to three for closer examination:

All the rest she ordered to go home, after she had provided them with many presents and much money. Only these three she took with her to the Palace. Examining them in a bath and finding that the saint {Theophano} by far surpassed the other two in beauty, she dressed her in imperial garments, took her by the right hand and went in to see her husband the Emperor Basil. Throwing her at his feet, she proclaimed her a worthy bride for their son. [4]

At his wife’s behest, the Emperor forced their son Leo to marry Theophano. While Theophano apparently was quite beautiful in the nude, Leo found her unattractive in other ways. He complained, “{I} did not marry her of my own free will, but out of fear of my father, and greatly distressed.”[5] Soon after marrying Theophano, Leo took a mistress. About five years after their marriage, Theophano retired to a convent and lived as a nun. After she died, Leo promptly married his mistress.[6] Even if a mother makes a thorough inspection of a potential wives in a bride-show, her son’s marital pleasure isn’t ensured.

In Byzantine bride-shows, the royal mother dominated the selection of her son’s wife. For example, the Byzantine Empress Irene in 788 organized a bride-show for her eighteen-year-old son Constantine VI. Under her orders, envoys searched across the full expanse of the Empire for suitably beautiful women. The envoys carried an imperial measure, an ideal portrait, and a shoe to evaluate women’s height, facial appearance, and feet.[7] Thirteen promising candidates were brought to the Byzantine capital. Empress Irene and Stauracius, the head of government, reviewed the women. They judged Maria of Amnia to have the most beauty, intelligence, and grace.[8] Constantine VI, however, disliked the choice of Maria of Amnia for his wife. He soon came to hate her. He even claimed that she was trying to poison him. In 795, Constantine sent Maria and her daughters to live in convent. He then remarried in the following year.[9] In remarrying, he presumably chose his own wife.

Men deserve the right to choose freely a beautiful wife according to their own sense of beauty. In four out of the five historically documented Byzantine bride-shows, the mother of the groom organized the bride-show and either chose or effectively rigged what sort of woman became her son’s wife. In the remaining bride-show, the mother couldn’t dominate because she apparently was dead.[10] A leading historian of the Byzantine bride-shows observed:

bride-shows generally served the imperial parents well, even if they served the imperial bride-grooms rather less well. … In most cases the wishes of the bridegrooms were ignored. [11]

Today, parents who understand the extent of anti-men discrimination in family courts might well encourage their sons not to marry. But if a man wants to get married, he should be able to have a bride-show, judge the participants as he considers appropriate, and make his own free choice.

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[1] On the historicity of the bride-shows, Treadgold (2004). On women at the top of Byzantine society, see the highly regarded gynocentric scholarship of Judith Herrin, e.g. Herrin (2001) and Herrin (2013). Men’s opportunities to ascend to the top of society are much more tightly circumscribed than women’s are.

Today, beauty pageants privilege women who are already extraordinarily privileged in attractiveness. These beauty pageants are relatively insignificant gynocentric spectacles.

[2] Belthandros and Chrysantza, from Greek trans. Betts (1995) p. 18. The previous short quotes are from id., pp. 15-7. Belthandros went on to marry the woman he selected as most beautiful, but that marriage didn’t follow directly from the beauty pageant.

[3] Doukas (fifteenth-century Byzantine historian), Fall of Constantinople, from Greek trans. Magoulias (1975), quoted and revised by Gilliland Wright (2013) p. 135. The vulgar adage, “Lent from the front and Easter from behind” suggests the frigidity of death and Boccaccio’s sense of the resurrection of the flesh. A current, less cultured version of that adage is, “She’s a butterface {but-her-face}.”

[4] Life of Saint Theophano, excerpt, from Greek trans. Rydén (1985) p. 185. Treadgold (1979) p. 407 provides a similar translation. The Life of Saint Theophano was written after 900 GC, probably by Magister Slocacas, a relative of Theophano. Alexakis (1995).

The bride selection process described in Esther 2:2-18 involved the king sleeping with each candidate successively. That rather modern selection process goes further than having one’s mother inspect naked wife-candidates. Both procedures help to lessen a concern expressed in Theophrastus’s Golden Book on Marriage.

[5] Vita Euthymii, excerpt trans. Treadgold (1979) p. 408.

[6] Theophano died about 897. Leo VI’s mistress and subsequent wife was Zoe Zaoutzaina. She died about 899. Leo then married Eudokia Baïana, who died in 901. Despite strong church opposition, Leo married a fourth time (to Zoe Karbonopsina).

All of Leo’s wives were “immortalized by unofficial sainthood and by imperially sanctioned art.” Gerstel (1997) p. 707. A contemporary commenter related the popular adoration of Theophano to Lucian’s account of Alexander’s attempt to deify his close friend Hephaestion:

the same thing has also happened in our time and everybody is seized by a hysteria characteristic of women so as to proclaim the emperor’s {late wife} Theophano a saint.

Scholiast, attributed to Magistros Slokakas, from Greek trans. Alexakis (1995) p. 47.

[7] The specific characteristics of the imperial measure (βασιλιχóν μéτρον), the ideal portrait (λαυρᾶτον), and the shoe (τζαγχιον) aren’t known. The original Greek terms are given in Rydén (1985) p. 175.

[8] Women in the bride-shows were not judged merely on beauty. Treadgold (1979) pp. 409-10. Cf. Vinson (2004) pp. 105, 119: “the winner was chosen solely on the basis of physical appearance”; Byzantine bride shows defined “beauty as the sole measure of a woman’s worth.” Vinson nonetheless declares:

This heart-wrenching disparity between the fictionalised ideal of courtship and the lived reality of elite women should instill in us a healthy sense of caution as we approach the problem of Byzantine bride shows.

Id. p. 105.

[9] For the evidence on the bride-show for Constantine VI, see Treadgold (1979), pp. 397-400, and Rydén (1985), pp. 175-6.  The account of this bride-show indicates the challenges of maintaining solidarity among women:

The merciful man’s granddaughter {Maria of Amnia} suggested to the others, “My sisters, let us make an agreement among ourselves of the kind called sisterhood by adoption that the one of us who becomes empress should take care of the others.” But Gerontianos’ daughter, who was very rich and good-looking, answered, full of conceit, “I know for certain that I am the richest and noblest and best-looking and that the emperor will choose me.” Maria blushed and said no more.

From Nicetas of Amnia, Life of St. Philaretos the Merciful (dated 821/22), from Greek trans. Rydén (1985) p. 175. Rydén (2002) provides a full critical edition. Solidarity among women is more easily maintained in oppressing men.

jury for 1973 Miss Ansterdam beauty pageant

[10] On Stauracius’s mother apparently being dead, Treadgold (1979) p. 409. In three of the five bride-shows, the father was dead. Here’s a table of the bride-show participants and parents. Two facts underscores mothers’ dominance in organizing and running the bride-shows: a mother (Irene) organized the first one, and a mother (Eudocia Ingerina) dominated the bride-show in which the father was also living. Vinson (1999) discusses how bride shows affirmed traditional gender roles.

Having the father run the bride-show, which was less consistent with traditional gender roles, also didn’t serve the son’s interests. Nicephorus I, Stauracius’s father, organized and ran the bride-show for Stauracius in 807. Nicephorus reportedly debauched two participants. He married his son to Theophano, a less beautiful participant. Moreover, Theophano had already been betrothed and had already had sex with her betrothed many times. Treadgold (1979) p. 401.

[11] Treadgold (1979) p. 413, Treadgold (2004) p. 50. Serving to buttress dominate ideology, Vinson declares:

In creating the illusion of romance and equality, the accounts of the Byzantine bride shows conceal the darker truth that their focus on female beauty serves as a means of disempowering the bride and her family and placing the wife under the exclusive control of her husband. The marriages arranged in this manner can thus be seen as a reversion to a type of wedlock common in the old Roman republic

Vinson (2004) p. 120. For nineteenth-century American context relevant to Vinson’s perspective, consider Sanger’s influential work on prostitution and the Crabtree case.

[images] (1) Choosing a Bride for the Grand Duke. Oil on canvas painting by Ilya Repin, 1884-87. Held in the Perm State Art Gallery, Russia. The Grand Duke is probably Grand Duke Nikolay Nikolayevich Romanov of Russia (the Elder, 1831-91). Thanks to Wikimedia Commons; (2) Jury for the 1973 Miss Amsterdam beauty pageant. Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANeFo), 1945-1989, Nummer toegang Bestanddeelnummer 926-4364. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Alexakis, Alexander. 1995. “Leo VI, Theophano, a ‘Magistros’ Called Slokakas, and the ‘Vita Theophano’ (BHG 1794).” Byzantinische Forschungen 21 (Stephanos Efthymiadis, Claudia Rapp, and Dimitris Tsougarakis, eds. Bosphorus: Essays in the Honour of Cyril Mango): 45-56.

Betts, Gavin. 1995. Three medieval Greek romances. Garland Library of Medieval Literature, vol. 98. New York: Garland Pub.

Gerstel, Sharon E. J. 1997. “Saint Eudokia and the Imperial Household of Leo VI.” The Art Bulletin. 79 (4): 699-707.

Gilliland Wright, Diana. 2013. “The Brides of 1420: Men Looking at Women’s Bodies.” Ch. 8 (pp. 133-52) in Neil, Bronwen, and Lynda Garland, eds. Questions of gender in Byzantine society. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate,

Herrin, Judith. 2001. Women in purple: rulers of Medieval Byzantium. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Herrin, Judith. 2013. Unrivalled influence: women and empire in Byzantium. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Magoulias, Harry J. trans. 1975. Doukas. Decline and fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Rydén, Lennart. 1985. “The bride-shows at the Byzantine court: history or fiction?” Eranos: Acta Philologica Suecana. 83(1-2): 175-191.

Rydén, Lennart. 2002. The life of St Philaretos the merciful written by his grandson Niketas: a critical edition with introduction, translation, notes, and indices. Uppsala: Uppsala University Library.

Treadgold, Warren T. 1979. “The Bride-Shows of the Byzantine Emperors.” Byzantion: revue internationale des études byzantines
(Brussels). 49: 395-413.

Treadgold, Warren. 2004. “The Historicity of Imperial Bride-Shows.” Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik. 54: 39-52.

Vinson, Martha. 1999. “The life of Theodora and the rhetoric of the Byzantine bride show.” Jahrbuch Der Österreichischen Byzantinistik. 49: 31-60.

Vinson, Martha. 2004. “Romance and reality in the Byzantine bride shows.” Ch. 6 (pp. 102-20) in Brubaker, Leslie, and Julia M. H. Smith, eds. Gender in the early medieval world: East and West, 300-900. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

characterizing Mary at the cross in Byzantine competition for attention

Mary at the foot of the cross

In Byzantine culture, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a central figure. Byzantine laments for the crucifixion sometimes directed more attention to the weeping Mary than to the crucified Jesus.[1] In sixth-century Byzantine kontakia of Romanos the Melodist, realistic, emotional dialogue set within Christian salvation history richly characterizes Mary. These imaginative developments are best understood as a result of the Byzantine church intensely competing for attention with secular theater.

In Romanos’s kontakion On Mary at the Cross, Mary is an ordinary mother in extraordinary circumstances. Jesus the Christ set his face like flint to Jerusalem and resolutely went to his death according to the will of God the Father. Mary wearily followed her son Jesus to the cross. She insistently questioned him:

Why do you follow this swift path?
Is there another wedding in Cana,
And do you rush there to turn water into wine?
Should I go with you, my child, or should I wait for you?
Give me word, O Word, some word, and do not pass me by in silence [2]

Where are you going? Should I wait for you? Why don’t you talk to me? These are common questions of mothers to their children. Mary’s subsequent exclamation, “Woe is me,” is also a common refrain of women in gynocentric society and in tragedy.[3] Mary reminds Jesus that his men friends have forsaken him:

Peter does not accompany you —
he who said to you,
“I shall never deny you, even if I die.”
Thomas has left you — he who said: “Let us all die with him.”
And again the others, well-known and intimate friends [4]

Implicit in Mary’s recounting of Jesus’s missing friends is Mary’s presence. Mary implicitly reminds Jesus that she is more loyal to him than are his closest friends.

Mary argues with her son Jesus and doesn’t easily relent. Jesus urges Mary to stop weeping, to banish her grief, and to be joyful. He figuratively reminds her that she is the center of the church and that all those in the church will serve her. Mary responds:

I rub the tears from my eyes,
And I rub my heart still more,
But my thinking cannot be silenced.

She then reminds Jesus about what he has done in the past, and questions why he is behaving differently now and putting himself in peril:

Raising up the dead, you did not become dead
nor rest in a tomb, O my son and my life. Why, then,
do you say,
“If I do not suffer, Adam is not redeemed?”
Command, O Savior, and straightaway the cripple picking up
his bed walks.
Indeed, even if Adam had been buried deep in a tomb,
As you have raised up Lazarus from the tomb with your voice,
do even so with him.
All things serve you as the Creator of all.
Why, then, do you hasten, my child? Do not
hurry to slaughter;
Do not court death

Understanding women’s preferential concern for other women, Jesus tells Mary that he also seeks to save Eve. Even then Mary persists in objecting to Jesus following God the Father’s way. If Jesus continues in that way, when will she see him again? Will she no longer be able to visit him? In response to these implorings, Jesus promises to Mary that she will be the first to see him risen from the tomb. He promises to her that she’ll see Eve risen to her former life. He also declares that he must suffer to redeem all suffering and fallen persons. Mary finally acquiesces with self-focus and self-concern:

I shall conquer, child, I shall conquer my suffering

Grant that I come with you, for it helps me to look upon you

In Romanos’s kontakia, Mary isn’t an idealized, abstract figure. She has numerous roles, including God-bearer, intercessor, and protector. She also has the character of an “ordinary woman of the people,” a “suburban mum.”[5] Her character is unbounded (“well rounded”) in the sense of requiring empathetic understanding. Mary reveals in Romanos’s imagined dialogue the complex, engaging emotions of a living mother.

Romanos’s characterization of Mary includes large emotional swings. In the kontakion On Mary at the Cross, the refrain “my son and my God” evokes the Apostle Thomas declaring “my Lord and my God.” Thomas sought simple, objective evidence of Jesus’s resurrection. When he touched the wounds of the crucified Jesus, Thomas jumped to the wholly different mode of encountering Jesus as a personal relation to the divine. Mary continually moves between mundane sense and divine sense with the refrain “my son and my God.” Underscoring emotional lability, Jesus tells Mary, “do not lament, Mother, but rather cry with joy.”[6]

Romanos’s kontakion On the Annunciation similarly characterizes Mary as a vital, unbounded person and evokes rapidly shifting emotions. Mary is the blessed virgin:

Hail, virgin undefiled, hail, maiden called of God,
Hail, chaste, and beautiful and delightful virgin,
Hail, virgin full of grace, who did not know a seed time, chaste,
Hail, mother who knew no man,
Hail, virgin wife. [7]

This characterization disparages men’s sexuality and idealizes Mary’s distance from ordinary sexual relations with men. Yet when the angel Gabriel comes to announce Mary’s forthcoming pregnancy, she responds with worldly suspicion and shrewdness. She declares to Gabriel:

Concerning what you have said, do not conceal from me where it was said.
Was this matter about me spoken of in Heaven?
Why, then, do you not tell me that you are an angel and not human?

Mary treats Gabriel as if he might be an ordinary man trying to seduce her. She questions Gabriel further. With figurative language, Mary shows keen appreciation for heterosexual functioning:

As for the sea that you mentioned to me, the prophet
cleft it with his rod.
This miracle did not happen without some intermediary:
At first it was Moses, then prayers, and the rod were intermediaries

She confesses to Gabriel that “your beauty, your appearance, your voice” frighten her terribly. Nonetheless, she ultimately recognizes that Gabriel is sent to her from Heaven, and she rejoices in their encounter. With a lovely touch of ordinary, personal psychology, Mary later blames her husband Joseph for the affair:

Where were you, my wise husband?
Why did you not guard my virginity?

Like those to whom Romanos addressed his kontakia, Joseph represents the ordinary community of Christian believers. He responds with his sense of Mary’s emotional range and lability:

Both terrible and sweet does she appear
to me now, and it gives me pause.
I gaze upon burning heat in snow,
Paradise in a furnace,
I gaze upon a smoking hill, upon a divine flower with young freshness,
Upon an awesome throne, on a pitiable footstool!

Persons difficult to categorize simply are engaging characters. In Byzantine culture, Mary the mother of Jesus was such a character.

Byzantine homilies had techniques in common with theater. A recent scholarly book entitled The Necessity of Theater defined theater and characters broadly enough to make theater and characters unavoidable in any human society:

Theater is the art of finding human action worth watching, and it mostly does this by finding human characters worth caring about. [8]

A more subtle, historically engaged study distinguished orthodox ritual in Byzantium from theater:

As a solo performer confronted with a virtual sea of hundreds if not thousands of people, some of them easily distracted, the priest relied on the principles of classical rhetoric to keep the laity both engaged and informed. … Of particular interest for theatre scholars is the use of ēthopoieia, “characterization,” by the clergy. In the context of an exegetical homily, ēthopoieia often took the form of a fictional dialogue involving two or more biblical characters. In the past, homilies with dialogue have been ideologically positioned as proto-dramatic on the naïve assumption that all ritual, being primitive, represented a lower-order of cultural development. But the clergy’s long acquaintance with theatre, their theological objections to play-acting; and above all the conservative mode of self-presentation assumed in classical rhetoric argue heavily against this theory. Even when reciting dialogue “in character” as it were, the clergy worked within a carefully constructed regime of diction and gesture, transmitted orally and visually for centuries, which they regarded as distinct from theatre. [9]

Orthodox ritual in Byzantium presented human characters worth caring about from a Christian perspective.[10] More generally, theatrical techniques have long contributed to Christian understanding. The biblical story of Jesus and the Canaanite women makes best sense when understood dramatically. De Maria Magdalena, written in Latin about 1200, is meaningfully interpreted as theatrical lectio divina. Using theatrical techniques while disdaining theater is eminently feasible.

Byzantine circumstances of reception plausibly drove emphatic characterization and emotional lability in Byzantine homilies. The extent of empathetic characterization and emotional lability is generally associated with the intensity of competition for attention relative to competition for acclaim. Christian ritual in Byzantium was heavily engaged in competition for attention:

most if not all of his {John Chrysostom’s} congregation came to {church} services after years of attending theatrical shows year-round, and lacked the training or appreciation for rhetoric Chrysostom took for granted. Chrysostom couldn’t help but notice how restless his flock was every time he stepped up to speak, competing as he did with everything from social climbers to the occasional pick-pocket. … competition between clergy and mimes for audiences was clearly intense. What developed throughout late Antiquity was the equivalent of a media war in which the ambo {platform from which clergy addressed the church congregation} served as the launching pad for anti-theatrical invective while the public stage responded with biting clerical critiques. Both venues enjoyed an avid following, and the popularity of Christian satire was so great that as late as the sixth century Emperor Justinian still had to remind his subjects that it was illegal to masquerade as church folk [11]

Empathetic characterization and emotional lability aren’t necessarily related to any specific medium or abstract form. Byzantine clerics could reject liturgical drama, yet embrace empathetic characterization in homilies. On the other hand, liturgical drama could present scripturally circumscribed, static, indicative characters rather than unbounded, dynamic, empathetic characters like Mary in Romanos’s kontakia. Byzantine icons plausibly generated a stronger sense of personal presence than did many conventional, realistic images.[12] In late eighteenth-century Europe, competition for attention in print was associated with empathetic characterization and romantic sensibility of the sublime in proliferating novels. The nature of symbolic competition, rather than the abstract form of expression, drives the extent of engaging characterization and emotional dynamics.

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[1] Alexiou (1974) p. 62. In the Epitáphios Thrénos, “she {Mary}, rather that Christ, is the central figure.” Id. p. 65. That lament is known to have existed from the fourteenth century. It continues to be performed within the liturgical calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church. Id.

[2] Romanos the Melodist, On Mary at the Cross, st. 1, excerpt, from Greek trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 1, p. 196. In this and subsequent quotations, I have modernized the English of Carpenter’s translations to make the text more accessible to ordinary readers. Lash (1995) provides an alternate English translation.

On Jesus setting his face like flint to fulfill the Father’s will for him in Jerusalem, see Luke 9:51 and Isaiah 50:7.

[3] Alexiou has astutely observed:

when “religion” passes from church to hearth, from liturgy to dance and song, from Communion to family meal, women do not only mediate — they take over. … Through tales, songs, and dances, women have been at least equal partners in the transmission of Greek language, myth, and metaphor.

Alexiou (2002) pp. 406, 412. The phrase “at least equal partners” is consistent with seldom-discussed gynocentric dominance. On deep roots of gynocentrism in Jewish and Christian tradition, consider Genesis 2:24.

Tradition known from about the ninth century figures Mary as inspiring Romanos. On Christmas Eve, Mary gave Romanos a papyrus scroll and ordered him to eat it. The textual food from Mary inspired Romanos to preach and sing melodiously. Thus, on Christmas Eve, Mary symbolically gave birth to Romanos as a sacred homilist and poet. Gador-Whyte (2013) p. 77, provides an English translation of the relevant text. Cf. Revelation 10:9-11, Ezekiel 3:3.

[4] Romanos the Melodist, On Mary at the Cross, st. 3, excerpt, trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 1, p. 197. The subsequent three quotes from this kontakion are likewise st. 7, p. 199 (I rub the tears…); st. 8, pp. 199-200 (Raising up the dead…); st. 15, p. 202 (I shall conquer…).

[5] “Mary reacts to her son’s theological arguments not as a woman who is divinely inspired, but as an ordinary woman of the people.” Alexiou (1974) p. 63. Romanos depicts Mary as an “ordinary, caring mother”; “ordinary human being”; “loyal mother.” Gador-Whyte (2013) pp. 77, 87, 90. Gador-Whyte attributes to Roger Scott the sense of Mary as “suburban mum,” but doesn’t provide a specific citation. See id. pp. 87, 91.

Men, most of whom are ordinary human beings, aren’t mothers. Men, however, are often caring human beings. Most men are also loyal to their families despite facing acute anti-men sex discrimination in family courts. Romanos’s characterization of Mary isn’t constrained by gender stereotypes. His characterization of Mary is more like describing an ordinary, caring, loyal father.

[6] Romanos the Melodist, On Mary at the Cross, st. 3, excerpt, trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 1, p. 198. The refrain “my son and my God” occurs at the end of every strophe of the kontakion. For the apostle Thomas’s exclamation, “my Lord and my God,” John 20:28.

[7] Romanos the Melodist, On the Annunciation I, st. 1, excerpt, from Greek trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 2, p. 9. The Akathistos, which Carpenter attributes to Romanos, alternates strophes with long lists of hails to Mary. For a translation, id. pp. 300-9.

Subsequent quotes from On the Annunciation are from st. 6, pp. 11-2 (Concerning what you have said…); st. 9, p. 13 (As for the sea…); st. 11, p. 13 (your beauty…); st. 12, p. 14 (Where were you…); st. 13, pp. 14-5 (Both terrible and sweet…).

[8] Woodruff (2008) p. 22.

[9] White (2015) pp. 59-60. For Byzantine homilies interpreted as proto-drama, see, e.g. Bogdanos (1976). On the sources and influence of Romanos’s dramatic techniques, Cunningham (2008).

[10] Romanos constructed himself within his homilies as one such person. Gador-Whyte has observed:

As a preacher, Romanos is concerned to make his congregation follow this call {to live according to Christ’s example}. One way he does so is by vivifying the Gospel events, creating dialogues for characters and presenting them as believably real and believably sixth-century characters. He makes the Gospel present. … The congregation is encouraged to identify with Romanos’ personae on a number of levels, so that he need only place himself within the story to make the congregation feel that they too are participating in it.

Gador-Whyte (2011) p. 36.

[11] White (2015) pp. 61, 74. Dialogue in homilies “seem to represent at least a ‘wake-up call’ to the audience.” It served the need to “engage the listener’s attention.” Carpenter (2003) pp. 112-3. White (2015), p. 72, states:

priests distrusted applause and regarded it as their duty to enlighten their congregations, not entertain them.

Priests may have supported such ideology, but surely they needed to get persons to attend church and listen to homilies in order to enlighten them. Disliking and distrusting competition for attention isn’t sufficient to free persons from it.

[12] On (eastern) icons in relation to (western) liturgical drama, Maguire (2003). Introductions to some medieval Byzantine vernacular Greek romances underscore the popular appeal of emotional lability. Here’s the introduction to Belthandros and Chrysantza:

Come! Attend a moment all you young people. I wish to tell you the fairest tale, a beautiful and usual story. Whoever wants to taste of its sadness and joy will also wonder at its account of daring and bravery.

Trans. Betts (1995) p. 5. The introduction to Kallimachos and Chrysorroi similarly declares:

Joy and grief are mixed, even blended together. … if you read this tale and learn the matter of its verses, you will see the workings of Love’s bitter-sweet pangs.

Id. p. 37. Likewise Livistros and Rodamini:

come now and hear with me of love’s passion in the fair story which I shall tell. … I am going to tell a wonderful tale of love and of the terrible sufferings endured by a man of many trials and woes whom Love persecuted.

Id. p. 95.

[image] Icon of the Crucifixion, Novgorod School, c. 1360. Held in Musée du Louvre, Paris. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Alexiou, Margaret. 1974. The ritual lament in Greek tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Betts, Gavin. 1995. Three Medieval Greek romances. New York: Garland.

Bogdanos, Theodore. 1976. “Liturgical Drama in Byzantine Literature.” Comparative Drama. 10 (3): 200-215.

Carpenter, Marjorie, trans. & ed. 1970. Kontakia of Romanos, Byzantine melodist. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Cunningham, Mary. 2003. “Dramatic device or didactic tool? The function of dialogue in Byzantine preaching.” Ch. 7 (pp. 101-13) in Elizabeth Jeffreys, ed. Rhetoric in Byzantium: papers from the thirty-fifth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Exeter College, University of Oxford, March 2001. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Cunningham, Mary B. 2008. “The reception of Romanos in middle Byzantine homiletics and hymnography.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 62: 251-260.

Gador-Whyte, Sarah. 2011. “Self-Construction: ‘Auto-Ethopoeia’ in Romanos’ Kontakia.” Melbourne Historical Journal. 39(2): 23-37.

Gador-Whyte, Sarah. 2013. “Changing Conceptions of Mary in Sixth-Century Byzantium: The Kontakia of Romanos the Melodist.” Ch. 5 (pp. 77-92) in Neil, Bronwen, and Lynda Garland, eds. 2013. Questions Of Gender In Byzantine Society. London: Ashgate Publishing Group.

Lash, Ephrem, trans. 1995. Romanos the Melodist. On the life of Christ: kontakia. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers.

Maguire, Henry. 2003. “Byzantine rhetoric, Latin drama and the portrayal of the New Testament.” Ch. 14 (pp. 215-34) in Elizabeth Jeffreys, ed. Rhetoric in Byzantium: papers from the thirty-fifth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Exeter College, University of Oxford, March 2001. Aldershot: Ashgate.

White, Andrew Walker. 2015. Performing Orthodox ritual in Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woodruff, Paul. 2008. The necessity of theater: the art of watching and being watched. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kassia redeemed classical culture with repentance of fallen woman

By now the Huntress had reached Olympus heights
and made her way to the bronze-floored house of Zeus.
And down she sat on her Father’s lap, a young girl,
sobbing, her deathless robe quivering round her body.
But her Father, son of Cronus, hugged her tight
and giving a low warm laugh inquired gently,
“Who has abused you now, dear child, tell me,
who of the sons of heaven so unfeeling, cruel?
Why, it’s as if they had caught you in public,
doing something wrong ….” Wreathed in flowers
the one who halloos the hunt cried out at once,
“Your own wife, Father! The white-armed Hera beat me!
This strife, this warfare plaguing all the immortals —
Hera’s all to blame!” [1]

Artemis sought comfort in the arms of the Father. Perhaps she had been caught behaving in public in the manner of Mary of Egypt. Could that be, she who seemed impervious to Eros and despised men gazing on her? No matter. The Father God Zeus, infinitely merciful to women, wreathed her in flowers. He hugged her tightly and gently suggested that men had abused her. This Father, a master of deceptions, knew how to seduce women.

Artemis the Huntress spent her time hunting in the woods rather than studying the liberal arts. She lacked learning in the dominant ideology and was less easily duped. She inadvertently blurted out the truth: the ruling goddess Hera viciously perpetrated domestic violence and incited war. The Father God, on his throne in the ethereal heights, laughed deep in his heart. While carrying out his many amorous affairs, he delighted in seeing female and male gods engaging in all-out conflict.

Among mortals, the gender structure of violence was less just than among the gods. The harlot Helen of Tory incited men and gods to seek to kill each other in the long and terrible Trojan War. In intense fighting, the goddess of wisdom Athena struck the god of war Ares in the neck with a huge boulder. Helen merely watched men kill other men. So it has long been in earthly violence, as if a matter of divine indifference.

Kassia repented for Helen and Trojan War

Deeply engaged in classical culture, Byzantine intellectuals pondered the Judgment of Paris and the Trojan War. An account of the bride-show for Emperor Theophilos in Constantinople in 830 alluded to these events. Theophilos’s mother instructed him to give a golden apple to the woman with whom he was most pleased. The beauty of the young, noble woman Kassia struck Theophilos. With acute awareness of the matter of Troy, he said to her:

Through a woman the common evils flowed.
{διὰ γυναικὸς ἐρρύη τὰ φαῦλα.} [2]

Byzantine culture combined classical Greek culture and Christian culture. Kassia responded:

And also through a woman superior things well up.
{ἀλλὰ καὶ διὰ γυναικὸς πηγάζει τὰ κρείττω.}

Utterly shocked by what Kassia said, Theophilos passed by her and gave the golden apple to another woman. Kassia used the present tense in describing a woman’s effect. Superior things cannot begin in merely recalling the events of ancient Greek epic.[3]

A highly learned woman and a leader of a convent, Kassia reformed classical culture and repented women’s role in violence against men. Among Kassia’s maxims:

I hate the one who does everything for the sake of vainglory.

It is better to be defeated than to win unfairly.

It is better to possess grace from the Lord, than beauty and wealth that does not gain grace. [4]

Ancient Greek men competed for glory and strove to be heroes. Kassia hated classical men heroes. Drawing upon the celebrating cunning of Odysseus, the Greeks defeated the Trojans with the trick of the Trojan horse. Within Kassia’s values, it would have been better for the Greeks to have been defeated. While Kassia recognized that a woman’s bodily beauty provides consolation, she regarded that beauty as less important than a woman being an instrument of grace from the Lord.

Most importantly, Kassia utterly re-figured the relation of women to God. Invoking terms from classical Greek tragedy — woe to me (Οἴµοι) and lamentations of my heart (στεναγµοὺς τῆς καρδίας) — she recognized women’s culpability in the tragic fate of men. She recognized that women, like men, cause harm through desire for wrongful behavior (ἔρως τῆς ἁµαρτίας). She appreciated a man’s sacrifice for her, to the extent of his giving up his life for her. With specific acts of love, the woman repents of her behavior that has caused so much harm to men. Rejecting the privilege of special paternal solicitude for women, she humbly appeals for mercy in the judgment of God.[5]

Lord, the woman fallen
into many sins,
recognizing your Divinity,
rises to the status of myrrh-bearer,
and mourning brings to you myrrh
before your burial.
Woe to me, she says,
for night holds for me
the ecstasy of intemperance
gloomy and moonless,
a desire for sin.
Accept the springs of my tears,
you who with clouds spread out
the water of the sea:
bend down to me
to the lamentations of my heart,
You who made the heavens incline
by your ineffable humiliation.
I will tenderly kiss your sacred feet,
I will wipe them again
with the hair of my head;
the feet whose sound
Eve heard in Paradise
in the afternoon,
and hid in fear;
who can delineate
the multitude of my sins
and the depths of your judgment,
my Redeemer, savior of souls?
Do not disregard me, your servant
you, whose mercy is infinite. [6]

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Homer, Iliad, 21.577-90, from Greek trans. Fagles (1990) p. 536. The line numbers are for Fagles’s English translation, but are close to the line numbers of the Greek text.

[2] Kassia’s name occurs in numerous variants, including Kassiani and Cassiane. This and the subsequent quote are from the chronicle of Symeon the Logothete, Greek text of Kazhdan, Khronika Simeona Logofeta, Viz. Vrem. XV (1959), as cited in Afinogenov (1997) p. 11. The twelfth-century Byzantine historian Ioannes Zonaras provides a nearly identical Greek text (see 3.354 in Ioannis Zonarae, Epitomae Historiarum, libri XIII-XVIII, ed. Th. Büttner-Wobst, Bonn 1897). The translation is mine, drawing upon Rydén (1985) p. 187, Afinogenov (1997) p. 11, and Silvas (2006) p. 21. The phrases occur in a homily written between 431 and 530. Afinogenov (1997) p. 11, citing Patrologia Graeca 50.791-6 and 10.1171-77.

An alternate text for the exchange between Theophilos and Kassia is:

Through a woman evils came to man.
{Ἐκ γυναικὸς τὰ χείρω.}
Through a woman better things began.
{Kαὶ ἐκ γυναικὸς τὰ κρείττω.}

Greek text of Leo Grammaticus (Bonn ed., (1824), pp. 213-4), trans. Treadgold (1979) p. 403. Id., n. 29, notes comparison with the Greek text of Pseudo-Symeon (“Symeon Magister”), Bonn. ed (1838) pp. 624-5. The above text seems to have been relatively influential. It appears in Bourboulis (1953) pp. 3-5, the Wikipedia entry for Kassia, and McLees (2011) p. 57. Treadgold (2004) p. 43, n. 17, observes that the text “is still not properly edited.” The couplet may have become well-known in variant forms. The form cited above seems to me more classically poetic.

[3] Scholars have facilely associated the couplet with the contrasting figures of Eve and Mary, the mother of Jesus:

In the dialogue Theophilos refers to the story of the Fall in the Old Testament. Kassia, on the other hand, reminds him of the incarnation through the Virgin Mary, and thus reveals his primitive state of mind.

Rydén (1985) p. 188. “The references, quoted in verse, are of course to Eve and the Virgin.” Treadgold (2004) p. 43. From a Byzantine perspective, the incarnation through the Virgin Mary was a specific event in history and would invoke the past tense. Cf. the rationalizing effort of Silvas (2004) p. 21, n. 10. Moreover, there’s no apple, no less a golden one, nor a beauty contest in the Genesis account of the serpent seducing the innocent Eve. The matter of the Trojan War deeply infused learned Byzantine culture. The Judgment of Paris and Kassia’s troparion on the woman’s repentance are the most relevant contexts for interpreting the dialogue.

[4] Kassia, Maxims and Gnomic verses, from Zugravu (2013) pp. 210, 216. Id. provides a slightly modified version of the Greek texts and translations of Tripolitis (1992).

[5] Literary scholarship, along with culture in general, has tended to obscure men’s distinctive gendered being. One result has been terrible misunderstandings. Consider, for example, the obfuscation of men’s being in an influential interpretation of Kassia’s troparion on the fallen woman:

the individual expectation of salvation becomes extended to all mankind; the specific vice is blurred, and Mary’s cry of the heart is the expression of everyman’s {sic} psychological suffering: I am a sinner but God is merciful.

Kazhdan, Sherry & Angelidē (1999) pp. 319-20.

[6] Kassia, “Κύριε, ἡ ἐν πολλαῖς ἁµαρτίαις” (“The Fallen Woman”) sticheron idiomelon sung presently in Orthodox liturgy for Holy Wednesday, from Greek trans. Zugravu (2013) p. 234, following Tripolitis (1992). Here’s an easily accessible online Greek text, an alternate English translation, and performed versions in Greek and in English.

[image] “Great deeds! Against the dead!” Los desastres de la guerra, plate No. 39 (1st edition, Madrid: Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, 1863). By Francisco Goya, 1810-20. Thanks to Museo del Prado (Spain) and Wikimedia Commons.


Afinogenov, Dmitry. 1997. “The Bride-show of Theophilos: Some Notes on the Sources.” Eranos: Acta Philologica Suecana. 95: 10-18.

Bourboulis, Photeine P. 1953. Studies in the History of Modern Greek Story-Motives. Thessalonike: Etaireia Makedonikōn Spoudōn.

Fagles, Robert, trans. and Bernard Knox, intro. and notes. 1990. The Iliad. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking.

Kazhdan, Alexander P., Lee Francis Sherry, and Christina Angelidē. 1999. A history of Byzantine literature. Vol. 1. 650-850. Athens: National Hellenic Research Foundation, Institute for Byzantine Research.

McLees, Nectaria Mother. 2011. “Byzantine Bride-Shows and the Restoration of Icons: A Tale of Four Iconophile Empresses.” Road to Emmaus 51:34-69.

Rydén, Lennart. 1985. “The bride-shows at the Byzantine court: history or fiction?” Eranos: Acta Philologica Suecana. 83: 175-191.

Silvas, Anna M. 2006. “Kassia the Nun, c.810-c.865: An Appreciation.” Ch. 2 (pp. 17-39) in Garland, Lynda, ed. Byzantine women: varieties of experience 800-1200. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Treadgold, Warren T. 1979. “The Bride-Shows of the Byzantine Emperors.” Byzantion: revue internationale des études byzantines
(Brussels). 49: 395-413.

Treadgold, Warren. 2004. “The Historicity of Imperial Bride-Shows.” Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik. 54: 39-52.

Tripolitis, Antonia, ed. and trans. 1992. Kassia: the legend, the woman, and her work. New York: Garland.

Zugravu, Gheorghita. 2013. Kassia the Melodist. And the Making of a Byzantine Hymnographer. Thesis (Ph.D.) — Columbia University, 2013.

men’s voices in Romanos the Melodist’s kontakia on the resurrection

angel of the dawn: woman in imagination of resurrection

Across nearly two millennia of literature, Joseph of Arimathea is relatively silent. Joseph took Jesus’s dead body down from the cross and wrapped it in his own linen. Another man, Nicodemus, provided about a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to preserve Jesus’s body. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus together placed Jesus’s body in a tomb.[1] In literature invoking Christian figures, why haven’t these men been given more significant voices?

In a sixth-century kontakion of Romanos the Melodist, the guards at Jesus’s tomb offer profound insight into gender hierarchy. The guards were ordinary working men. They followed orders, endured dangerous, demanding work, and one turned over a large share of his earnings to support his ex-girlfriend and her child. The guards understood the prevailing gender hierarchy:

he {Jesus} was approachable by the women,
And to us wretched men he was not approachable,
that fiery one.
He conversed with them; he threatened death to us.
Them he strengthened; and humbled us with fear,
and overtaking us, he buried us.
To the women he was gay; with us he became as one
rather haughty,
And he mortified us, but he nerved them [2]

One guard exclaimed:

I have seen the Lord, Christ God
uttering the word “Hail” to the myrrh-bearing women,
and one of them was a whore.
I beg to be raised up from crushing child-support payments,
I’m no silent, stoic Joseph,
and my Mary isn’t like his Mary! [3]

The guard wept. Men aren’t supposed to weep. Another guard taunted him, saying:

Man up! Stop complaining! It’s your fault!
You’re a misogynistic, slut-shaming, privileged man.
If you didn’t want to be forced to pay, you shouldn’t
have had sex with a woman.

Men live in cages that they themselves guard. Few dare ask for social justice for men:

At this the holy men, fear-stricken, said,
— For what reason has he not been seen by us?
Perhaps he thought our liberty too great?

Our liberty has turned to daring,
our boldness deemed contempt.
Perhaps that is why we have not seen him, for we are unworthy. [4]

Men lack confidence in their own worthiness. Men don’t understand that they are as much God-bearers as women are.[5]

Unlike men, women sense that they are highly favored. For example, Mary Magdalene didn’t regard herself as a harlot. She also had enough self-confidence to tell Jesus what to do:

Behold, you are three days dead, you, who make all things new.
You, who raised Lazarus after four days,
you, who made a swift runner of him bound with bandages,
you lie in the tomb — if I only knew where you were buried,
so I might like the harlot wet with my tears
not only your feet but yes, your whole
body and tomb,
saying, “Lord, as you raised up the
widow’s son, so raise yourself;
you who brought to life Jaeirus’ daughter,
why linger longer in the tomb?
Arise, stand by, be manifest to those who seek you,
who offer raising-up to the fallen. [6]

Men need not go as far as telling God what to do. But men must have the courage to speak to women and men about men’s wants and men’s concerns.

Jesus appreciated the need for women to instruct men. After he rose from the dead as Mary Magdalene instructed, Jesus told Mary:

So let your tongue, women, utter aloud these things,
explaining them to the sons of the kingdom
who wait for me to rise, the living one.
Make haste, Mary, and gather the disciples.
For I shall use you as a loud-voiced trumpet:
ring out peace to the fear-stricken ears
of my friends in hiding [7]

Mary responded, “Like Moses I am glorified!” So she was. Mary urged the apostles (all men) to be strong, courageous, and joyful:

Why so downhearted? Why cover your faces?
Lift up your hearts — Christ is risen.
Stand in line for the dance, and say with us
“The Lord is risen.”
He who was born before the dawn has shone out,
so cease glowering looks, send forth new shoots.
Spring is here: blossom forth branches,
in fruitfulness, not in vexation.
Let us all clap our hands and say “He is risen
who offers raising-up to the fallen.”

Romanos the Melodist included Mary Magdalene among “wise women,” “God-bearing women,” “full of wisdom.” Men should listen to her. Spring is here. Blossom forth. Men should speak out full of confidence in their own redemption.

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] John 19:38-42.

[2] Romanos the Melodist, On the Resurrection II, st. 18, excerpt, from Greek trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 1, p. 269. The guards’ insight can be further appreciated by comparing the differing responses of angels to Zechariah and the virgin Mary respectively questioning angelic prophecies. Compare Luke 1:20 to Luke 1:35.

[3] This stanza and the following one are my interpretations in the spirit of ancient kontakia. The former includes a quote from Romanos the Melodist, On the Resurrection I, st. 1, trans. Alexiou (2002) p. 431. Carpenter (1970), vol. 1, pp. 314-25, translates this kontakion under the title On the Resurrection VI.

[4] Romanos the Melodist, On the Resurrection I, st. 4-5, excerpts, trans. Alexiou (2002) pp. 435-7.

[5] Emphasis on the virgin birth of Jesus tends to distance men from the divine. At the same time, the privilege of the blessed virgin Mary has been readily generalized to all women, including whores. For example, in a homily he delivered early in the fifth century, Proclus of Constantinople declared:

What we celebrate is the pride of women and the glory of the female, thanks to the one who is both mother and virgin. Lovely is the gathering! … Let nature leap for joy, and let women be honored!

Homily 1, On the Holy Virgin Theotokos 1, excerpt, from Greek trans. Constas (2003) p. 137.

[6] Romanos the Melodist, On the Resurrection I, st. 8, trans. Alexiou (2002) pp. 437-9. On bodily expansion of action with water, cf. John 13:9. Carpenter (1970), vol. 1, pp. 314-25, translates the refrain line as “He who offers resurrection to the fallen.” Alexiou emphasizes more Jesus’s specific agency with the translation “he who offers raising-up to the fallen.”

[7] Romanos the Melodist, On the Resurrection I, st. 12, excerpt, trans. Alexiou (2002) p. 441.  The subsequent two quotes are from st. 14, p. 443 (Like Moses…) and st. 22, id. p. 449 (Why so downhearted…). The ensuing short quoted phrases are from st. 2 and 3, id. p. 433.

[image] Angel of the Dawn. Oil on canvas painting by Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1919. Held in St. Anselm Abbey School, Washington D.C. Gift of Mrs. Charles Plunket. Image thanks to the Albany Times Union. Wikimedia Commons has a smaller version. Abbott Handerson Thayer painted many women angels while recognizing the grave danger men vastly disproportionately face in war.


Alexiou, Margaret. 2002. After antiquity: Greek language, myth, and metaphor. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Carpenter, Marjorie, trans. & ed. 1970. Kontakia of Romanos, Byzantine melodist. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Constas, Nicholas. 2003. Proclus of Constantinople and the cult of the Virgin in late antiquity: homilies 1-5, texts and translations. Leiden: Brill.

poor Prodromos: an abused husband in 12th-century Byzantium

abused husband

In twelfth-century Byzantium, the poet Theodore Prodromos appealed to the Emperor John II. Prodromos, a forerunner of oppressed husbands crying out in marital wilderness, implored:

Although I seem, lord, to laugh and play at once,
I am oppressed by endless grief and burdensome affliction,
by grave indisposition and suffering — what suffering!
Hearing of suffering, don’t suppose I have a rupture,
or any of your graver and less obvious troubles:
it’s no eyesores, plain to see, nor shivering fever either,
it isn’t heartburn, nor inflammation of the lung,
no gut-knot shit-face, no dropsy, no bronchial troubles ..
No, I have a nagging wife whose tongue wags on and on,
pugnaciously parading parapets and predictions,
redundantly recounting me the rightness of her cause. [1]

Men’s keen sense of competition with other men makes them reluctant to complain about their wives. If husbands do complain, lack of compassion for men tends to compound their hurt. Prodromos, a highly sophisticated poet, found in a plea to the Byzantine Emperor a rare opportunity to make a pioneering first-personal literary account of a husband’s suffering from his abusive wife.

Just as gender norms teach men not to cry, men learn to be afraid to express fear. Yet within the particular circumstances of his appeal, Prodromos openly expressed fear:

I will make manifest this woman’s spitefulness,
yet, lord, I fear those more brazen fellows,
lest they should hear me, and go to my home
and write reports about me unexpectedly.
I would far rather, lord, they buried me alive,
and put me in the earth, and dug me into it,
than she should learn of what has just been written.
For I fear her cackling and fury, I fear
her threats and invective. It would take little
for the idea to pop into her head, and here we go,
she orders her servants and her nurse to grab me,
put me out and throw me in the street and
bash me in the head in three places. Who
will avenge me and get rid of such a shrew? [2]

Prodromos’s fear of his wife throwing him out of their house should be interpreted as realistic. Today men can be thrown out of their homes with a standard-form ex parte restraining order, or through gender-profiling men for domestic violence arrest. The same gynocentric social forces realistically would enable Prodromos’s wife to have him thrown out into the street. At the same time, the Byzantine Emperor was imagined to be all-powerful. A plea for relief from gynocentric oppression was thus figuratively appropriate to direct to the Byzantine Emperor.[3]

Prodromos’s wife complained about Prodromos in a way thoroughly realistic to men today. She complained:

You sit in my house, but pay no heed to upkeep:
the marbles are worn and faded, the floor has sagged,
the tiles are dangling loose, the roof’s completely rotten,
nothing is left of all the lettering, plaster, glass,
nor of marble cornices nor finely-wrought mosaics,
the walls are tumbling down, the garden has run wild,
while the doors have all turned inside out from warping,
the banisters are hanging loose from end to end,
the outside parapets have fallen inward to the garden.
You’ve never changed a door, there isn’t a sound floorboard,
you’ve never changed a tile, nor yet repaired a wall;
you haven’t even called a builder in to fix it,
nor bought a single nail to knock into a floorboard! [4]

Men must do more than merely earn enough money to provide a woman with a luxurious house. Men must also maintain the house through completing home-maintenance tasks that their wives assign to them on a to-do list. Modern scholarly studies of gender-egalitarian marriage don’t count such work as housework. With similar reasoning, Prodromos’s wife complained that she did almost all the housework:

As for me, I do your housework, direct
your servants, and take care of your children
better than would the best of nurses. I watch
over your business, I run around, get tired,
beat myself up, wearing a linen and cotton
dress made by my own hands. I am both your house
manager and your servant. I spin and weave
the wool, spin and work the linen, make shirts
and pants, and stitch together cotton. I serve
the church as deacon and sexton, head
of the chorus and notary, while like a chick,
you stay with open mouth for pecking and
pass your days waiting for when I will be able
to serve you well. [5]

Like Matheolus’s wife Petra, Prodromos’s wife complained that he didn’t serve her well according to traditional standards of chivalry:

That’s why I wonder what I need from you
and what you do for me. If you don’t
have the courage to stroke effectively,
it isn’t necessary to throw yourself
into my wetness, but continue to lead your
little, placid, quiet and nonchalant life,
scratch your leprosy, and leave me in peace. [6]

Even though his wife disparaged him, Prodromos remained fond of her and meals. Like most fathers, Prodromos also deeply loved his children and especially enjoyed eating meals with them.

Just as family courts today regularly deprive men of contact with their children, so too did Prodromos’s wife. Prodromos recounted one such occasion:

My wife took the children, returned with them
into the apartment and locked the door.
I could do nothing but go to bed alone,
without sexual or culinary comfort,
in darkness and despair. Awake early,
I headed straight to her room and, hand
on the doorknob, I shouted to her: “I wish
you good morning, my wife,” and “Will you not
open for me, my sweetheart? Do you not want
to see me?” I exhaled three deep sighs, but
heard no echo, no response, not a word,
not a murmur. I went back to sit down
and cry. When mealtime came, Sire, I went
to bed and fell asleep. But, in my sleep,
smell of stew came over my eyelids.
I jumped out of bed, and getting up hastily
and sniffing with more flair than a bloodhound,
I saw stew in the middle of the room.
The children were gathered and seated
for the meal, the table had been set and
covered with a tablecloth. Seeing this, your servant
could not contain his rejoicing, hoping that
he would be invited to sit down and share a meal.
But time passed and I saw nothing for me. [7]

Such circumstances drive men to despair. Is it any wonder than four times more men than women commit suicide?

Despite being deprived of a meal and the company of his children and wife, Prodromos didn’t succumb to despair. He recognized the importance of drama in women’s lives and acted accordingly:

I got up in haste, seized and put on my
mostly sleeveless jacket, wrapped myself in my
Tombritza nightgown, put on my head my wool
turban, grabbed my long stick and headed toward the room.
There I found a closed door, and I stayed on
the threshold. Then I started shouting incessantly:
“Hey, have mercy on me, my wife, do not leave
me outside!” My children, who weren’t informed
of anything, rushed forward, and immediately
armed themselves with cudgels, sticks, and stones,
and descended the stairs all four together.
But their mother, who had understood everything,
shouted to them: “Let him in, this is without
a doubt a poor wretch, a beggar, a pilgrim.”
Your servant was ecstatic because he was
hungry. The children returned to a better
disposition, and so I could climb the stairs
of my house along with them. I went in
and sat down without being asked, without
waiting for someone to invite me to the table.
As soon as I saw before me a plate
full of soup, salted meat, and large pieces of food,
I seized this dish with both hands, and this abundant
broth, these hearty dishes, warmed my heart.

Many husbands are no better than poor wretches and beggars in their own homes. Yet if they are willing to play along with their wives’ need for drama, they can still get a good meal. A husband’s stomach is more important to him than his heart.

Violence against men and social structures under which men are coerced into transferring resources to women are hazardous to discuss. Yet in his twelfth-century plea to the Byzantine Emperor, Prodromos addressed these issues forthrightly:

Such misfortunes, o crown-bearing overlord, have I suffered
from a combative and thrice-roguish wife,
when she saw me returning empty-handed to our house.
Should then your benevolence not reach me, o senior monarch,
and should you not satiate this insatiate woman with gifts and presents,
I tremble, I am scared, I fear lest I should be murdered before my time,
and you shall be deprived of your Prodromos – the best pronouncer of your praises. [8]

Courtiers in Byzantium, like courtiers in the ancient Islamic world, competed with poetry for imperial favor. Courtiers commonly produced poems praising a ruler. Prodromos alluded to that practice, but produced a much more sophisticated and innovative poem.

Poor Prodromos’s twelfth-century plea to the Byzantine Emperor is a literary pioneer of realism and the novel. Prodromos constructed a long, realistic but fictional poetic narrative of his mundane life. He positioned that narrative as having universal public significance. That’s essentially the literary strategy of the prose novels that rapidly proliferated in late-eighteenth century Europe.[9]

Like the medieval Latin lamentations of Matheolulus, Prodromos’s plea is an under-appreciated masterpiece of men’s sexed protest. Matheolulus’s work is more figurative, while Prodromos’s plea is more novelistic. Both provide vital insight into men’s social position. Both deserve more attention in socially conscious, critical literary studies that’s also fun.[10]

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[1] Ptochoprodromika I, “Prodromos, kyros Theodoros, to the Emperor Mavroiannes,” ll. 15-25, from Greek trans. Alexiou (2002) p. 131. The Emperor Mavroiannes {John the Black} was John II Komnenos (reigned 1118-43), who came to be called Kaloiannes {John the Good}. Id. p. 129. For the translation of l. 22, based on Alexiou (2016b) p. 53, I’ve inserted “gut-knot” so that the translation for σκορδαψόν is “gut-knot shit-face.” Id. notes:

the ailment involved obstruction of the intestines, with the result that the patient may shoot projectile faeces from the mouth

The above post should not be interpreted to imply that I suffer from such an illness.

The poem survives only in one thirteenth-century manuscript, Manuscript Bibliotheque nationale de Paris, grec 396 (additional manuscript description and bibliography). An image of the manuscript is freely available online. The manuscript poses significant editing challenges, including physical damage to the manuscript and indications of interpolations. Hesseling & Pernot (1910) is a well-regarded edition freely available online. The currently leading edition is Eideneier (1991). The French translation from the edition of Miller & Legrand (1875) is available online. The most detailed discussion of the poem in English is Alexiou (1999) pp. 93-102.

The author of the poem is commonly referred to as Ptochoprodromos (poor Prodromos). The poem is associated in style and manuscript collocation with perhaps three other poems (poem counts vary based on treatment of pieces as proems). Those poems together are known as Ptochoprodromika. For a review of the poems, Banev (2008).  Scholars dispute their attribution to Theodore Prodromos, a leading twelfth-century Byzantine literary writer. On Prodromos’s life and works, Bazzani (2007) pp. 211-4. Prodromos was “one of the most inventive Komnenian poets.” Zagklas (2016) p. 225. The treatment of men’s domestic concerns in the poem is highly inventive in its realism. Alexiou (1986), pp. 332-5, Alexiou (2002), p. 128, and Agapitos (2015), pp. 23-33, support attributing the Ptochoprodromika to Prodromos.

The Ptochoprodromika are written in vernacular Greek in fifteen-syllable accentual verse called politikos stichos (political verse). For a review of use of that verse form, Jeffreys (1974). The Ptochoprodromika have been confidently dated to 1140-1170. Agapitos (2015) p. 4.

Leading Byzantinist Margaret Alexiou has been working on an English translation and commentary of the Ptochoprodromika with a terminus ad quem securely datable to the early 1980s. Alexiou (1986) p. 301 noted that her article:

incorporates, inevitably, much of the collective work done during the course of the academic year 1983/4 by staff and postgraduate members of the Byzantine Text Seminar (Centre for Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham), which is preparing for publication a translation, glossary and full commentary on the four poems. Work on the fourth is nearing completion.

Readers eagerly awaiting that edition read in 1999:

This paper is based on research carried out for an edition of the Ptochoprodromic Poems, with Greek text and facing English translation, introduction, commentary,and glossary,to be completed in collaboration with Michael Hendy. … I am currently compiling a glossary for the bilingual edition under preparation by myself and Michael Hendy.

Alexiou (1999) p. 91, note; p. 108, n. 42. Ardent followers of Alexiou’s work read in 2002:

These questions {about the Ptochoprodromika} will be fully addressed in an edition I am currently preparing with Michael Hendy

In 2010, Alexiou was a Summer Research Fellow at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Her research project was “Ptochoprodromika: Edition, Translation, Commentary, with Introduction.” She reported:

This project aimed to bring as close to publication as possible the text, translation, and commentary of the Ptochoprodromika of Theodore Prodromos. A working text has been established for Poem I (MS G) (274 lines), Poem II (MS G) (117 lines) + (MS H) (150 lines), the so-called Maiuri Poem (65 lines), Poem III (MS H) (approximately 550 lines) + MSS CSA and g (approximately 200 lines), Poem IV (MS G) (167 lines), its Proem (MSS CSA) (56 lines), and the ending (MS g) (150 lines). Facing translation is now complete for all passages to be presented in the main section.

Dumbarton Oaks (2010) provides some additional translated sections of the Ptochoprodomika not available in other of Alexiou’s publications. Despite a mysterious blog excerpt, the full text of all the Ptochoprodomika seems not to have yet appeared in English translation. Those who deeply respect and closely follow Alexiou’s meticulous scholarship read in 2016 of “my forthcoming edition” and “my textual commentary (in draft).” Alexiou (2016a) p. 222; Alexiou (2016b) p. 53. Given the literary importance of the Ptochoprodomika, all men, women, and children should rally to Alexiou’s aid and provide her with all the support and encouragement necessary for her to complete this important work after more than thirty years of effort.

[2] Ptochoprodromika I, ll. 26-32 (trans. Alexiou (1986) p. 336), ll. 33-9, my English translation from the French prose translation of Bouchet (2012) p. 12. I lineate my translation from the French for consistency. All quotations from id. appear similarly.

[3] Like scholars in many other fields, Byzantinists have failed to recognize gynocentric oppression. Instead, Byzantine scholars have engaged with patriarchal myths:

In recent years some scholars have tended to imagine Byzantine women as living in a male-dominated environment, in a military society where men inevitably exercised power, under the oppression of “patriarchy.”

Kazhdan (1998) p. 1. Scholars who don’t recognize a wide range of injustices against men readily apparent today can hardly analyze credibly Byzantine history, society, or literature.

[4] Ptochoprodromika I, ll. 75-87, trans. Alexiou (2002) p. 136.

[5] Ptochoprodromika I, ll. 90-101, from Bouchet (2012) p. 14.

[6] Ptochoprodromika I, ll. 102-7, from Bouchet (2012) p. 14. Prodromos’s wife further told him:

If you wanted to play the fop, seduce
and marry a woman, you had only to choose
one of your condition, a tavern-keeper’s
daughter, freckled, lame, ragged and penniless,
or better a saleswoman of shameful herbs coming
from her village of Maninéa. Why did
you turn the head of the poor orphan that I
was by showing me sweet eyes and an assiduous
courting, you surrounded by the procession
of your male friends?

Id. ll. 108-13. In context, “shameful herbs” suggests sexual stimulants.

[7] This and the subsquent quote are from Ptochoprodromika I, ll. 221-67, from Bouchet (2012) pp. 17-8.

[8] Ptochoprodromika I, ll. 268-74, trans. Agapitos (2015) p. 28. Alexiou (2002) p. 132 provides an alternate English translation.

[9] The prominent late-eighteenth-century English historian Edward Gibbon called the Byzantines a “degenerate people.” Gibbon declared of Byzantine literature:

Their prose is soaring to the vicious affectation of poetry; their poetry is sinking below the flatness and insipidity of prose. The tragic, epic, and lyric muses were silent and inglorious: the bards of Constantinople seldom rose above a riddle or epigram, a panegyric or tale; they forgot even the rules of prosody; and with the melody of Homer yet sounding in their ears, they confound all measure of feet and syllables in the impotent strains which had received the name of political or city verses.

Gibbon (1781/1841) vol. 4, p. 26. That’s a failure of enlightenment, but not as culpable or damaging as failures of enlightenment today.

[10] A nineteenth-century Irish historian declared, “The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women.” Lecky (1869) p. 13. James (2010), p. 1, cites that quote and discusses it, but ignores the lack of attention to husbands. Id. p. 2, however, does acknowledge that Byzantine literature included fun.

More generally, it’s necessary to “rewrite the history of Byzantine literature.” Agapitos (2015) p. 41. More attention to men’s sexed concerns and comparative analysis with medieval Latin literature will be vital to such rewriting. For those who consider such a direction to be subversive, Alexiou (2013) offers lessons in the art of subversion. For a comparison of twelfth-century Greek and Latin begging poems, Kulhánková (2010).

[image] A husband being verbally abused by his wife. Image from the Vinegar Valentine, Valentine Comics Series # 1, dated 1908. Images of husbands being physically abused by their wives were common in medieval Europe. Domestic violence against men continues not to be taken seriously today.


Agapitos, Panagiotis A. 2015. “New genres in the twelfth century: the schedourgia of Theodore Prodromos.” Medioevo Greco. 15(1): 1-41.

Alexiou, Margaret. 1986. “The Poverty of Écriture and the Craft of Writing: Towards a Reappraisal of the Prodromic Poems.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 10 (1): 1-40. Reprinted, pp. 301-35, in Nagy, Gregory, ed. 2001. Greek literature. Vol. 9. Greek literature in the Byzantine period. New York: Routledge. I cite pages numbers from the Nagy reprint.

Alexiou, Margaret. 1999. “Ploys of Performance: Games and Play in the Ptochoprodromic Poems.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 53: 91-109.

Alexiou, Margaret. 2002. After antiquity: Greek language, myth, and metaphor. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Alexiou, Margaret. 2013. “Literary subversion in Byzantium: A partial and personal perspective.” Ch. 15 Afterword (pp. 281-8) in Dimiter Angelov and Michael Saxby, eds. Power and subversion in Byzantium: papers from the 43rd Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Birmingham, March 2010. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Variorum.

Alexiou, Margaret. 2016a. “Of Longings and Loves: Seven Poems by Theodore Prodromos.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 69: 209-24.

Alexiou, Margaret. 2016b. “On σκορδαψός: gut-knot or eyesore? A tribute to BMGS.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 40 (01): 49-54.

Banev, Guentcho. 2008. “Ptochoprodromos.” Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World. World-wide web, from Constantinople.

Bazzani, Marina. 2007. “The Historical Poems of Theodore Prodromos, the Epic-Homeric Revival and the Crisis of the Intellectuals in the Twelfth Century.” Byzantinoslavica. 65: 211-228.

Bouchet, René, trans. 2012. Satires et parodies du Moyen âge grec. La roue à livres, 63e. Paris: Les Belles Lettres. (review)

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. 2010. Textual basis for  “Of Mice and Muses.” Byzantine Theatron performance on 29 July 2010, featuring Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Summer Fellows and colleagues as Muses, Slaves, and Chorus of Mice. Andrew White, Dramaturg.

Eideneier, Hans. 1991. Ptochoprodromos: Einführung, kritische Ausgabe, deutsche Übersetzung, Glossar. Köln: Romiosini.

Gibbon, Edward. 1781. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire: By Edward Gibbon, Esq; in six volumes. Dublin: Printed for William Hallhead.

Hesseling, D.-C. and H. Pernot, eds. 1910. Poèmes prodromiques en grec vulgaire. Amsterdam: Johannes Müller, 1910.

James, Liz. 2010. “Byzantium: A Very, Very Short Introduction.” Ch. 1 (pp. 1-8) in James, Liz, ed. A companion to Byzantium. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.

Jeffreys, Michael J. 1974. “The nature and origins of the political verse.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 28: 141-95.

Kazhdan, Alexander P. 1998. “Women at Home.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 52: 1-17.

Kulhánková, Markéta. 2010. “Vaganten in Byzanz, Prodromoi im Westen. Parallellektüre von byzantinischer und lateinischer Betteldichtung des 12. Jahrhunderts.” Byzantinoslavica 68: 241-256.

Lecky, William Edward Hartpole. 1869. History of European morals from Augustus to Charlemagne. Vol. 2 Vol. 2. New York: D. Appleton and Co.

Miller, E. and Emile Legrand, ed. and trans. 1875. Trois poëmes vulgaires de Théodore Prodrome. Collection de monuments pour servir à l’étude de la langue néo-hellénique, no. 7. Paris: Maisonneuve et Cie.

Zagklas, Nikos. 2016. “Theodore Prodromos and the use of the poetic work of Gregory of Nazianzus: Appropriation in the service of self-representation.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 40 (02): 223-242.

Guido delle Colonne described fundamental causes of the Trojan War

men fighting men in Trojan War

Prince Paris, who had eloped with Helen of Troy, hung back from entering the terrible, man-on-man violence of the Trojan War. Paris lingered in his bedroom with Helen. His brother Hector berated him:

What on earth are you doing? Oh how wrong it is,
this anger you keep smoldering in your heart! Look,
your people dying around the city, the steep walls,
dying in arms — and all for you, the battle cries
and the fighting flaring up around the citadel.
You’d be the first to lash out at another — anywhere —
you saw hanging back from this, this hateful war.
Up with you —
before all Troy is torched to cinder here and now! [1]

Paris explained that Helen had been urging him to battle. He said he would soon join the fighting. Helen in turn lamented to Hector:

My dear brother,
dear to me, bitch that I am, vicious, scheming —
horror to freeze the heart! Oh how I wish
that first day my mother brought me into the light
some black whirlwind had rushed me out to the mountains
or into the surf where the roaring breakers crash and drag
and the waves had swept me off before all this had happened! [2]

Helen spoke with acute personal and political insight. In an account of the Trojan War written about the fifth century GC, Dares Phrygius recounted Achilles’s protest against the war:

Thereupon Achilles complained, to any and everyone, that for the sake of one woman, that is, Helen, all Europe and Greece were in arms, and now, for a very long time, thousands of men had been dying. … A lasting peace – that was the need. For the sake of one woman, he said, the Greeks were risking their lives, endangering their freedom, and wasting a great deal of time. Thus Achilles demanded peace, and refused to reenter the fighting. … The number of Greeks who fell, according to the Journal that Dares wrote, was 866,000 {men}; the number of the Trojans, 676,000 {men}. [3]

Even given long-prevailing lack of concern for men’s lives, the colossal waste of men’s lives in the Trojan War is astonishing. What was the fundamental cause of the Trojan War? Why are men’s lives so socially devalued? What can be done today to ensure that a disaster like the Trojan War never occurs again? Guido delle Colonne’s thirteenth-century Latin work, Historia Destructionis Troiae, provides key insight into these vitally important questions.

Historia Destructionis Troiae points to men’s lack of sexual entitlement as the fundamental cause of the Trojan War. Guido forthrightly recognized women’s strong, independent sexuality:

a much talked-about rumor, which acquired great force as it went along, was spread about the neighboring regions. The rumor concerned the beauty of Paris as he entered the temple {of Cythera / Venus}. It reached the ears of Helen by many reports. After Helen had learned of this, the eager appetite of changing desire, which commonly seizes women’s hearts with sudden lightness, excited Helen’s heart with an ill-advised passion, so that she wished to go to the ceremonies of this festival in order to see the festive celebrations and to look at the leader of the Phrygian nation {Paris}. … Helen, loveliest of women, what spirit seized you so that in the absence of your husband you left your palace on such a frivolous account, and went through its gates to look at an unknown man, when you could have easily preserved your modest abstinence within the palace of your kingdom? Oh, how many women the coming and going and readiness to run about to common places bring to ruin! … You, Helen, wished to leave your palace and visit Cythera so that, under the pretext of fulfilling your vows, you might see the foreign man, and under the pretext of what is lawful, turn to what is unlawful. [4]

As is common under gynocentrism, Guido blamed men for seducing women:

oh, how often these kinds of spectacles have led many very shameless women to shameless ruin by the observation and sight of games and pastimes, when young men come and practice their charms and with sudden rapacity seduce the captivated hearts of women from the follies of the celebration to the peril of their honor. Since young men have an easy opportunity to see young girls and others urged very strongly toward worldly trifling, now by their eyes, now by soft speeches of flattery, now by touches of the hand, now by the encouragement of signs, they ensnare the hearts of women who are themselves easily moved by secret sophistries and the pleading of charming lies. [5]

According to Guido, the ultimate cause of tragedies like the Trojan War isn’t women’s strong, independent sexuality, but the “treacherous attacks of men”:

May he {sic} perish who first brought it about that young women and young men they do not know dance together, which is a manifest cause of many disgraceful acts. Furthermore, on account of these dances, many girls who were chaste till that time fall outrageously to the treacherous attacks of men, from which scandals often arise and the deaths of many {men} follow.

Ovid, the master teacher of love, counseled, “The only chaste woman is one who hasn’t been propositioned {Casta est quam nemo rogavit}.”[6] Men are burdened with propositioning women. Yet as Ovid well knew, men are also often required to perform complex and time-consuming strategies of seduction, at the risk of criminal prosecution, in order to have sex with women. Men’s lack of entitlement to sex and men’s sexual deprivation are both social injustices in themselves and fundamental causes of the deaths of many men in unnecessary wars.[7]

Avoiding future disasters like the Trojan War requires improving men’s sexual welfare. The ancient Greek lawmaker Solon wisely established public sexual services for men. Yet King Solomon’s humiliating experience after a rumor circulated that men would allowed to have seven wives points to the difficulty of improving men’s sexual opportunities. Many wives, despite vicious public propaganda disparaging their husbands as rapists, lovingly support a sexual entitlement for their husbands. Yet for broad, public progress, education is key. Colleges and universities should cease absurd, totalitarian oppression of men’s sexuality, encourage students to read ancient and medieval literature with compassion for men, and promote justice and peace.

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[1] Homer, Iliad, Bk 6, ll. 384-91, from Greek trans. Fagles (1990) p. 206. The line numbers, which refer to Fagles’s translation, are close to those of the Greek text. Paris initially fled from personal combat with Menelaus, Helen’s husband. In subsequent combat, Aphrodite saved Paris from death at the hands of Menelaus. Paris probably was angry at his fellow Trojans for not appreciating Aphrodite’s sound sense of justice.

[2] Homer, Iliad, Bk 6, ll. 407-13, trans. Fagles (1990) p. 207.

[3] Dares Phrygius, De excidio Trojae historia {History of the Fall of Troy} 27, 44, from Latin trans. Frazer (1966). Here’s a Latin text. Cornil (2011) provides less literal, more fluid translations. De excidio Trojae historia was probably written early in the sixth century GC. It was for medieval Europe the principle source on the full history of the Trojan War. Its casualty count shouldn’t be taken as literal truth. That thousands of men died in the Trojan War is undoubtedly true.

Achilles’s opposition to continuing the Trojan War was consistent with his mother Thetis’s anti-war values. The culture hero Palamedes apparently came to a similar view. However, Achilles opposed continuing the Trojan War only because he fell in love with the Trojan princess Polyxena. Some meninist philologists contend that Polyxena had sexual affairs with many foreign men.

[4] Guido delle Colonne, Historia Destructionis Troiae {History of the Destruction of Troy} Bk. 7, from Latin trans. Meek (1974) pp. 68-9. The Latin text is from Griffin (1936), p. 70 (available online). In this and subsequent quotations, I’ve made insubstantial changes in Meek’s translation to improve its readability.

Guido’s work is a close Latin prose paraphrase of Benoit de Sainte-Maure’s Roman de Troie. Benoit wrote the latter in French probably between 1155 and 1160. Guido claims to have followed Dares’s De excidio Trojae historia and Dictys Cretensis, Ephemeridos belli Troiani libri. The later was a Latin text dating from the fourth century. In medieval Europe, Ephemeridos belli Troiani libri was thought to represent a soldier’s diary from the time of the Trojan War.

Historia Destructionis Troiae was the most influential history of the Trojan War in the European Middle Ages. Guido’s work survives in over 150 manuscripts. Eight editions of it were printed from 1473 to 1494. It was translated into Bohemian, English, Flemish, French, Italian and German before the eighteenth century. Meek (1974) p. xi; Benson (1980) pp. 1-10. On the influence of Historia Destructionis Troiae, Benson (1980), Simpson (1998), and Heavey (2008).

[5] Guido delle Colonne, Historia Destructionis Troiae, Bk. 7, trans. Meek (1974) p. 68.

[6] Ovid, Amores 1.8.43.

[7] In Historia Destructionis Troiae, the narrator interjects:

Oh, how pleasing to women should be the walls of their homes, how pleasing the limits and restraints of their honor! For an unrigged ship would never know shipwreck if it stayed continually in port and did not sail to foreign parts.

Bk. 7, trans. Meek (1974) p. 69. In a humane society that provided for men’s sexual and reproductive welfare, such restrictions on women’s liberty would hardly be an issue.

The story of the Trojan War circulated in medieval Europe in two streams. The first stream, in the prophetic mode of Virgil’s Aeneid, provided a subtle — too subtle — critique of gynocentrism. Guido’s factual, surface history, Historia Destructionis Troiae, was a second stream. Like Simpson (1980), Historia Destructionis Troiae shows no critical self-consciousness of men’s real social position.

Both Simpson (1980) and Heavey (2008) display the moralizing narrative voice associated with dominant gynocentric ideology. Both rhetorically construct an ostensibly objective, factual historical narrative. Both embrace the socially constructed concept of misogyny within patriarchy. Literary history needs to recover the critical, prophetic Virgilian perspective on the Trojan War.

[image]  Men fighting and dying in battle, scenes based on Iliad, Book 5. From the Ambrosian Iliad (Ilias Ambrosiana), thought to have been produced in Constantinople in the fifth century. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Benson, C. David. 1980. The history of Troy in Middle English literature: Guido delle Colonne’s Historia Destructionis Troiae in medieval England. Woodbridge {England}: D.S. Brewer.

Cornil, Jonathan. 2011-12. Dares Phrygius’ De Excidio Trojae Historia: Philological Commentary and Translation. Master’s Thesis, Faculteit Letteren & Wijsbegeerte. Universiteit Gent.

Fagles, Robert, trans. and Bernard Knox, intro. and notes. 1990. The Iliad. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking.

Griffin, Nathaniel Edward, ed. 1936. Guido de Columnis {Guido delle Colonne}. Historia destructionis Troiae. Cambridge: The Mediaeval Academy of America.

Frazer, Richard MacIlwaine, trans. 1966. The Trojan war: the chronicles of Dictys of Crete and Dares the Phrygian. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

Heavey, Katherine. 2008. “A ‘fressh and lusty qwene’: Remodelling Helen of Troy in the Middle Ages.” Kaleidoscope. 2(1): 4-22. (based on 2008 Durham University, UK, dissertation).

Meek, Mary Elizabeth, trans. 1974. Guido delle Colonne. Historia destructionis Troiae. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press.

Simpson, James. 1998. “The Other Book of Troy: Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae in Fourteenth- and Fifteenth-Century England.” Speculum. 73 (2): 397-423.

Joseph against Potiphar’s wife in kontakia of Romanos the Melodist

Joseph being sexually assaulted by Potiphar's wife

Early in the sixth century in the Byzantine capital Constantinople, Romanos the Melodist wrote two kontakia about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. Romanos forthrightly recognized that Potiphar’s wife attempted to rape Joseph. He also denounced her falsely accusing him of rape. Yet Romanos interpreted these crimes only in relation to Joseph’s virtue. He ignored how allegations of rape buttress tyranny.

Romanos partially attributed Potiphar’s wife’s sexual assault on Joseph to the traditional Roman god Cupid and the Judeo-Christian figure of the Devil. In ancient Greek culture, spirits entering the eye and Cupid’s arrows were causes for intense sexual passion. Potiphar’s wife apparently experienced both:

the queen entertained passionate feelings
For the lovely beauty of the young, virtuous Joseph.
As she looked at the young man with unchastened eyes,
She was wounded in spirit by his invisible glances.

Through her eyes she received the darts from the chaste quiver,
And, wounding her own dissoluteness,
She considered the wound a pleasure, the unhappy woman! [1]

The (Judeo-Christian) Devil also helped Potiphar’s wife commit adultery:

The Devil came as an escort of adultery
In order that he might aid the Egyptian woman,
And he said to her: “Courage, since you are an old and sturdy hook,
Make ready the bait and fish for the young man.
Arrange the curls of your hair,
like a net to catch him.
Beautify the appearance of your face,
Embellishing it all with rose-colored artifice.
Brighten up your neck with chains, with chaplets of gold;
Above all, clothe yourself in an elaborate gown,
Anoint yourself with powerful perfumes that weaken young men [2]

Roughly two centuries earlier, Tertullian had influentially denounced fancy apparel for women and associated men’s penises with the Devil and women’s vaginas with the Devil’s gateway. Romanos showed some of Tertullian’s biting wit in describing Potiphar’s wife as old and sturdy (heavy/fat) in contrast to the young and beautiful Joseph. The wounding from Cupid’s arrows and the Devil’s urging provide external causes for the behavior of Potiphar’s wife. Yet Romanos didn’t go as far as Sanger’s pioneering nineteenth-century social sentence and current criminal law in freeing women from responsibility for their sexual behavior.

Romanos analogized the woman’s sexual assault on Joseph to various difficult situations. When Joseph resolutely rejected her sexual advances, Potiphar’s wife violently attacked him:

The woman, beside herself, inflamed by his words,
Attacked the prudent young man,
And grasped his cloak, and violently pulled the worthy young man, saying,
“Obey me, dear one, and come, have intercourse with me.”
The Egyptian woman pulled at him from one side. Virtue claimed him
on the other side.
She cried out: “Sleep with me”;
And from on high, Grace called: “Be vigilant with me.”
Along with her, the Devil struggled mightily
And with violence held bound the noble athlete.

Today, rape of men tends to be ignored or treated as risible. Romanos treated the rape of Joseph seriously. Joseph was a boat being battered in a wild storm, a man thrown into a burning furnace, and an athlete struggling in a physical contest.[3]

After her sexual assault on Joseph failed, Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph of rape. As in many false accusations of rape, that false accusation produced a travesty of justice:

For the Egyptian woman, through a cruel trick,
Excited Potiphar with false accusations,
Pushing all the blame on the noble-minded youth.
Showing him the robe of Joseph,
Drowned in a sea of tears, because of her desire,
She persuaded him to send Joseph to prison as he cried:
“The Lord, our Savior, alone is mighty.”

Romanos explained, “The Egyptian woman attacked him as a terrible fox attacks the vine.” That’s an allusion to Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes. It figures a false accusation of rape as “sour grapes”, i.e. a deceptive re-interpretation of reality to rationalize an undesired outcome. A significant share of false accusations of rape probably result from such mental dynamics. Yet the social problem of false accusations of rape goes far beyond personal, mental problems.

Like many men, Potiphar didn’t rationally analyze a woman’s allegation of rape. Romanos observed:

If he had had wisdom, he would not have allowed the trick to deceive him.
You are a foolish judge! as evidence
You have Joseph’s robe; ask where it is,
And consider if she is to be trusted.
If she fled from him, then how does she possess his robe?
You think that the free slave {Joseph} is at fault,
But you will see him shine like light as he cries:
“The Lord, our Savior, alone is mighty.”

The problem goes far beyond Potiphar and Joseph. Major newspapers now run mendacious stories claiming that nearly a quarter of men admit to committing rape. Rape is at the epicenter of the collapse of reason.

For Romanos the Melodist, Potiphar’s wife’s sexual assault and false accusation of rape was a allegory for personal struggle with sin. Romanos concluded his kontakion on Joseph with first-personal questioning:

What, then, am I to do, miserable and condemned,
Since on all sides the hand of sin oppresses me?
Just as the Egyptian woman attacked Joseph,
Just so sin draws me to impure thoughts.
But I cry to Thee, All-Powerful,
“Save me, too, since I am ruled by a tyrant,
So that, through the intercession of the Virgin, I may be saved
Like Joseph, your faithful servant,
Since the eye that never sleeps observes all things.

The risk of tyranny is not just within persons. Today, the eye that never sleeps observes all things and weeps.

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[1] Romanos the Melodist, On Joseph II, 4.8-11, 5.5-7, from Greek trans. Carpenter (1970) vol. 2, pp. 104-5. All quotes from Romanos are cited in translation from id, by kontakion name, strophe.lines and page in id. (vol. 2). Subsequent quotes are from On Joseph II, 6.1-11, pp. 105-6 (The Devil came…); 18.1-11, p. 112 (The woman, beside herself …); On Joseph I, 13.5-12, p. 88 (For the Egyptian woman…); On Joseph II, 19.6, p. 113 (The Egyptian woman attacked him as a terrible fox…); On Joseph I, 14.6-13, p. 88 (If he had wisdom…); On Joseph II, 22.9-17 (What, then, am I to do…).

[2] With regard to the phrase “you are an old and sturdy hook,” Carpenter (1970) vol. 2, p. 105, n. 3 states:

The “you” is probably not directed just to the Egyptian woman, but rather to all women who, like Eve, cause man’s ruin.

Not all women are like that. Thetis and Hiera are among the many strong, independent women throughout history who have denounced injustices against men and defended and protected men. Within the specific context of Romanos’s kontakion, the emphasis on Joseph’s youth and beauty sets up a clear antithesis to Potiphar’s wife, an “old and sturdy” woman. In modern urban parlance, Potiphar’s wife was a cougar.

[3] Joseph the athlete is Romanos’s most extensive metaphor for Joseph resisting Potiphar’s wife. Romanos describes his kontakion as providing an “encomium of the noble athlete.” On Joseph II, 20.10, p. 113. Romanos also figures Joseph as a warrior who “wore an invulnerable armor / That destroyed the effect of all the engines of war of the passions.” Id. 21.12-13, p. 114.

[image] Potiphar’s wife sexually assaulting Joseph. Oil on canvas by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo in the 1660s. Thanks to Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons.


Carpenter, Marjorie, trans. & ed. 1970. Kontakia of Romanos, Byzantine melodist. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.