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.

John Tzetzes: Byzantine classicist of classicists

I want to be a tanner, a stone-cutter,
or follow any other craftsman’s art.
Even a cobbler too, an ignorant inn-keeper
who still can’t say a single syllable,
but when he speaks he pours out buckets of spit,
a disgraceful, utterly brainless clod,
who makes his progress down the middle of the street
furnished with a royal escort,
vomiting up a lot of arrogant talk,
while a reverend soul, well-bred in discourses
goes about homeless, poor, wretched.
I see the deranged in the Senate,
the brilliant dishonored, the dull piled high with honors:
For it’s gold now that talks, everyone admires it. [1]

ruins of Parthenon in Athens

The twelfth-century Byzantine classicist John Tzetzes was “a man soaked in Homer, a man revelling in Homer.” Study of ancient Greek texts and even composing poetry in Attic Greek were highly respected in twelfth-century Byzantium. Yet like many classicists throughout history, Tzetzes struggled to avoid poverty.[2] He desperately sought teaching jobs and solicited grants. Being a classicist has never been rational, nor do the lives of classicists exemplify order and harmony. Wildly, passionately committed to scholarly learning, John Tzetzes exemplifies classicists as they really are.

Tzetzes despised the willfully ignorant and dismissed mediocre students. He condemned those who ignorantly criticized him:

Ignorant abominations, babble-twisters,
men who have barbarized the art of letters
by not minding books, where all wealth lies.
Their nectar is the stink of the dunghill
— pigs do not want to eat the bread of angels. [3]

In a virtuoso scholarly performance, Tzetzes followed up that invective with “a modern Greek obscenity previously unrecorded.” To the father of one of his students, he wrote a blunt, two-sentence letter:

I don’t like a father to be sad because of the uselessness of his son. Why not put some sense into him yourself, if you really are his father? [4]

To the father of another slow student, Tzetzes wrote: “I am deeply sorry for you.” A father could have no worse fortune in Tzetzes’s mind than a son who didn’t progress in learning.

Tzetzes was pragmatic and flexible in mundane matters. When paid per written page, Tzetzes shifted to writing with double and triple spacing. When paying for his own paper, he was “obsessed with wasting paper”:

He apologizes for unnecessary comment on some lines of Aristophanes, but explains that he would otherwise have had to leave empty space on the page. [5]

In sixth-century Byzantium, Joannes Lydus lamented government documents being issued on cheap paper. John Tzetzes’s concern about paper was more pragmatically economic.

Tzetzes didn’t offer classical learning as a leisurely activity to flatter the egos of the wealthy. Tzetzes himself imprudently rejected the sexual advances of the wife of his wealthy and prominent employer. She retaliated with a false accusation that cost Tzetzes’s his job and his horse and plunged him into poverty. Tzetzes ingeniously interpreted that terrible injustice as ensuring that what he wrote was useful:

we who lack many things and only write what is useful in a sensible manner, let us skip the rest due to lack of paper. For already during eleven years we are pressed by a disgraceful woman’s wily-minded devices. From the deeds of
darkness she made the beggar, the pollution of this life, the man flowing with ulcers into her husband’s associate in work, in mind, in family and appearance, in trustworthiness greater than that deranged man. But us she chokes with many devices making us enemy slaves to her husband, truly such as the judgment of God sees. For these reasons I live in great poverty, and my ways are not those of a man living in luxury and thus I only write what is useful on paper. [6]

Tzetzes was a grammarian who wrote explanatory notes for works of Homer, Pindar, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, and Thucydides. Tzetzes believed that true knowledge of ancient Greek language and literature was useful and sensible.[7]

Concerning matters of classical philology, Tzetzes insisted on correctness. When a critic wrongly challenged Tzetzes’s gloss on a rare term for a moth in Aristophanes’s Frogs, Tzetzes called him “possessed and epileptic, a moonstruck son of a goat.” A bitterly divisive issue of the day was the question of dichronic vowels in Homer. Confronting a scholar who asserted the existence of dichronic vowels in Homer, Tzetzes called him “a ghostly presence, scabbed with camel disease, cat-faced, anchovy-eyed, with the voice of a weeping eunuch.”[8] A scholar recently commented perceptively on such words: “This is invective at its best.” Tzetzes, no hypocrite, criticized himself for use of dichronic vowels:

When I wrote this, I still used the dichronic vowels like the buffaloes {ignorant scholars}. [9]

Dichronic vowels are a matter of measured time. That’s as important as the heartbeats that measure out the length of every human life.

everything useful in the text should be said,
as much as is relevant for the allegorization of needful matters.
And if we go on at length, blame Homer, who,
because of his very dense thought and haste, was forgetful,
and wrote the last things first and mixed things up again,
and because of the hidden depth of his ideas,
forced Tzetzes to write simply, concisely,
and then with extemporaneous speech to compose words
which no one dared, neither the ancients nor the moderns,
unless perhaps someone, after recomposing my words,
was mendacious enough to say that he himself composed it,
as they often do with my other compositions. [10]

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[1] Michael Haploucheir, Dramation ll. 67-80, from Greek trans. Andrew White, Dumbarton Oaks (2010) p. 39. Michael Haploucheir was a Senator in late-twelfth-century Byzantine. Ptochoprodromos (Poor Prodromos), Poem IV, similarly depicts a scholar’s struggles in twelfth-century Byzantine. See Alexiou (1986).

[2] Quote on Tzetzes and Homer from Morgan (1983) p. 186. In twelfth-century Byzantine:

members of the royal house itself were active writers in the classical style and even concerned themselves specifically with topics of classical scholarship. Alexius Comnenus, at the beginning of the century, had written classical iambics of Advice to a Son. His daughter Anna Comnena’s great work, the Alexias — more a historical novel than a history — is in an atticizing style. … Her quotations from Homer are almost as frequent as her quotations from the Bible, and they are more accurate. Her husband, Nicephorus Bryennius, writes a more sober, and still atticizing, history. Her brother, Isaac, actually writes essays on Homer, as well as original poetry in classical and Byzantine meters.

Id. p. 165. As indicated above, the Byzantine Senator Michael Haploucheir wrote the play Dramation. Despite these propitious intellectual circumstances, Tzetzes struggled:

He {Tzetzes} was the leading interpreter of Homer, and he still could not make a living. The leading commentator on Homer, the prodigious compiler Eustathius, certainly did make a living, but he made it by virtue of his office as Archbishop of Salonica: Byzantine archbishops looked after themselves pretty comfortably.


[3] Tzetzes, Histories (Chiliads) 12.223-7, from Greek trans. Morgan (1983) p. 169. Tzetzes wrote all his work in Greek. In Psalm 78:25, the bread of angels feeds the Hebrews in the desert. The subsequent quote is Morgan’s statement at id.

[4] Tzetzes, Letters 62, trans. Morgan ( 1983) p. 170. The subsequent quote is from Tzetzes, Letters 22, trans. id.

[5] Jeffreys (1974) p. 149 , referring to Tzetzes, Scholia in Aristophanes 183.16-20. On Tzetzes double and triple spacing, Morgan (1983) p. 173.

[6] Tzetzes, Exegesis on Porphyry’s Eisagoge, excerpt, trans. Cullhed (2015) p. 58.

[7] Tzetzes, Commentarii in Aristophanem 835.9, and Scholia in Aristophanem 43.21-44.2, trans. Garland (2007) p. 186. The subsequent comment is from Garland at id.

[8] Tzetzes explained:

not even if you had read Homer and Stesichoros,
Euripides, Lykophron, Kollouthos, and Lesches,
and Diktys’s well-written Iliad,
Triphiodoros and Quintus, even a hundred books, not
even then would you have learned the story in greater detail,
since I have incorporated everything in abbreviated form,
so that anyone who wishes may seem to the masses
to have read whole libraries with minimum effort.

Allegories of the Iliad, Prolegomena 480-7, trans. Goldwyn & Kokkini (2015) p. 37. Tzetzes took great pride in his work:

I say freely that not even if there were a hundred Homers, Musaeuses, Orpheuses, Hesiods, Antimachuses, and Linuses, or indeed all the other poets and authors of theogonies, would they have written better on this subject matter.

Tzetzes, Theogony 26-30, trans. Budelmann (2002) p. 152.

[9] Tzetzes, Histories, scholia to 3.61, trans. Jeffreys (1974) p. 149. See also id. p. 156-7.

[10] Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad 18.643-54, trans. Goldwyn & Kokkini (2015) p. 379.


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.

Budelmann, Felix. 2002. “Classical Commentary in Byzantium: John Tzetzes on Ancient Greek Literature.” Ch. 7 (pp. 141-69) in Gibson, Roy K., and Christina Shuttleworth Kraus. The classical commentary: histories, practices, theory. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.

Cullhed, Eric. 2015. “Diving for pearls and Tzetzes’ death.” Byzantinische Zeitschrift. 108 (1): 53-62.

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.

Garland, Lynda. 2007. “Mazaris’s Journey to Hades: Further Reflections and Reappraisal.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 61: 183-214.

Goldwyn, Adam J. and Dimitra Kokkini, trans. 2015. John Tzetzes. Allegories of the Iliad. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 37. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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

Morgan, Gareth. 1983. “Homer in Byzantium: John Tzetzes.” Pp. 165-88 in Rubino, Carl A., and Cynthia W. Shelmerdine, eds. Approaches to Homer. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Adam’s mistake in kontakion of Romanos the Melodist on the nativity

Romanos the Melodist and the Virgin Mary

A kontakion of Romanos the Melodist boldly proclaims a new ruler of the world. Mary the mother of Jesus declares:

I do not cast aside the grace I took from you, Lord,
nor do I obscure the worth I gained in bearing you,
for I rule over the world.
Since I carried your might in my womb I have might over all things. [1]

Jesus the Lord is the nominal head of the Christian Church. His mother Mary rules over the world in everyday life.

Mary has been interpreted as the new Eve. In Romanos’s kontakion on the nativity, the old Eve speaks before Adam does. She orders him to arise from his “deathlike slumber.” She tells him to “listen to me, your wife.” Adam made the mistake of marrying. Eve knew of Adam’s disappointment, depression, and anger:

Whenever he recalls delectation he turns against me
crying out — Would you had not sprung forth from my side;
better not to have taken you as my aid,
for I would not now have sunk to these depths [2]

Adam continues to appreciate women’s sensual appeal. Yet he cannot forget what his wife has done to him. Moreover, he resents his wife issuing him commands as if he were a slave, particularly while he is taking a nap:

Adam hearing the words his wife wove him
at once shook off the weight from his eyelids,
lifting his head as if from sleep
opening the ear blocked with deafness cried out:
— I hear sweet warbling tones of delight
but the melodist’s chant no longer enchants me.
It is a woman, and I fear her voice,
for I have known and shrink from the feminine sex.
The sound draws me, it is clear,
but the instrument fills me with fear, lest as of old she lead me astray. [3]

This was long before modern totalitarian sex regulation. Men today have much stronger reasons to fear women than Adam did.

Adam turns to Mary for salvation from gynocentric oppression. He tells Eve that he is leaving her:

I have felt the breath of life, wife, of the giver of life,
dust as I am and soulless clay,
giving me soul; for now
made strong by her perfume, I’ll make my way to her who brought forth
the fruit of our life, full of grace. [4]

But Adam doesn’t follow the way of abundant life and joy. He abjectly pleads with Mary for mercy:

Aged in Hades, Adam, first-created as I am
take pity on me, daughter, your groaning father.
Behold my tears and have mercy on me,
lending kind ear to my wailings.

Men must stop begging women for mercy. The Latin poem Lucis orto sidere, written about 1200, depicts both men’s folly and men’s redemption. Creation waits with eager longing for men to embrace their being as children of God. Men must be active agents of incarnation.[5] While the labor may be painful, the fruits of men’s liberation will be as numerous as stars in the sky and sand on the seashore.

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[1] Romanos the Melodist, On the Nativity II, 2.1-4, from Greek trans. Alexiou (2002) p. 417. Carpenter (1970), vol. 1, pp. 13-21, describes the manuscript sources and provides an alternate translation. An English translation of Romanos’s On the Nativity I is available online. Romanos wrote in early sixth-century Constantinople.

Underscoring wives’ dominance of their husbands, Potiphar’s wife declares to Joseph, “Your master {Potiphar}, as you know, obeys my wish in everything.” Romanos the Melodist, On Joseph II, 15.3, trans. Carpenter (1970) vol 2, p. 110.

[2] Romanos the Melodist, On the Nativity II, 9.5-8, trans. Alexiou (2002) p. 423. The previous short quotes are from  4.2-3, id. p. 419. Subsequent quotes from On the Nativity II are (with page numbers in id.): 5.1-10, pp. 419-21 (Adam hearing…); 7.7-11, p. 421 (I have felt…); 8.5-8, p. 423 (Aged in Hades…). I’ve made a few, minor changes to the translation, e.g. not placing in quotes the refrain tag, “full of grace.” Carpenter (1970), vol. 1, p. 17 similarly doesn’t quote “full of grace.”

Appealing to Mary, Eve declares that Adam’s weepings cause her to suffer more than him:

you see how much more
my soul is afflicted in misery because of Adam’s weepings.

9.3-4, p. 423. That’s like the claim that women suffer more from war, because their husbands, fathers, and and sons are killed and women are thus deprived of help and support.

[3] The “sweet warbling tones of delight” that Adam hears are those of Mary, not those of his wife.

[4] Mary the mother of Jesus has been highly venerated from the time of early Christianity. The kontakion’s refrain, “full of grace,” is similar to the more expanded refrains of rejoicing with Mary in the Akathistos. Carpenter attributes the Akathistos to Romanos. Id p. 13, n. 2. In any case, the Akathistos is an early and highly influential Christian hymn centered on Mary.

[5] In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night 1.3, Sir Toby Belch urges Sir Andrew Aguecheek to engage Maria. Toby implores, “Accost!” The underlying problem today is culturally systemic.

[image] The Virgin Mary instructs Romanos the Melodist. Illumination from the Menologion of Basil II. Dated 985 GC. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


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.

Achilles in women’s clothing: Tzetzes’s allegorical interpretation

Achilles discovered in women's clothing on Skyros

“For the most powerful and most Homeric queen” — so John Tzetzes in twelfth-century Byzantium dedicated a work to “Lady Irene of the Germans.” The description “most powerful and most Homeric” suggests enormous, terrible violence against men. Yet in Greek, which was the language of Byzantine intellectuals, Irene means “peace.” Tzetzes re-interpreted Homer to present strong, independent women rejecting the gender structure of violence against men and insisting that men’s lives matter.

Homer’s Iliad is commonly read with the understanding that men’s lives don’t matter. The Iliad describes horrendous violence against men:

Screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath,
fighters killing, fighters killed, and the ground streamed blood.

the savage work went on, Achaeans and Trojans
mauling each other there like wolves, leaping,
hurtling into each other, man throttling man.

That day ranks of Trojans, ranks of Achaean fighters
sprawled there side-by-side, facedown in the dust. [1]

In the man-slaughtering combat, a spear pieced a man’s temple and his brains splattered out within his helmet. The violence against men is both utterly conventional and grotesquely brutal in its bodily specificity:

a spearhead punched his gullet under the chin
and the bronze point went ripping through his nape

the spearhead punched his back between the shoulders,
gouging his flesh and jutting out through his ribs

he let fly
with a bronze-tipped arrow, hitting his right buttock
up under the pelvic bone so the lance pierced the bladder.
He sank on the spot, hunched in his dear companion’s arms,
gasping out his life as he writhed along the ground
like an earthworm stretched out in death, blood pooling,
soaking the earth dark red.

Whether as leaders or followers in business or politics, men lean in to do violence against men:

there man killed man in the pell-mell clash of battle

his turn next, Menelaus
rose with a bronze lance and a prayer to Father Zeus
and lunging out at Euphorbus just dropping back,
pieced the pit of his throat — leaning into it hard,
his whole arm’s weight in the stroke to drive it home
and the point went slicing through his tender neck.

Violence against men in the Iliad tends to be understood without gender-specific understanding of man. In the U.S. today, about four times as many men suffer violent deaths as do women. That reality attracts no more public concern than pervasive discrimination against men in criminal justice systems, in family courts, and in reproductive rights. Men’s lives don’t matter in gynocentric society, nor in dominant readings of the Iliad.

Under the patronage of Lady Irene of the Germans, John Tzetzes allegorized the Homeric matter of the Trojan War. Lady Irene was Queen of the Byzantine Empire. She had been Bertha von Sulzbach, sister-in-law of Conrad III, King of Germany. In 1142, with Roger II of Sicily threatening the Byzantine Empire, Manuel I Komnenos, the Byzantine Emperor’s son, was pressed into marriage with Bertha. The Byzantine objective for the marriage was to build a political alliance with the Germans. Bertha reportedly had “the natural trait of being unbending and opinionated.” Not surprisingly, Manuel I wasn’t passionately enthusiastic in his arranged marriage to Bertha. For a number years after their marriage, Manuel I didn’t sleep with her. Instead, he engaged in numerous affairs with other women. When his father died in 1143, Manuel I became the Byzantine Emperor. Lady Irene became the Queen of Byzantine. John Tzetzes probably allegorized the Homeric matter of the Trojan War for Irene shortly thereafter.[2]

Seeking to simplify for Irene the subtle Homeric treatment of men, Tzetzes recounted strong, independent women rejecting the dominant gender structure of violence against men. In ancient Greek myth, the goddess Thetis was the mother of Achilles. The prophet Chiron informed Thetis that Achilles would die in battle. In response, she dressed Achilles in women’s clothing and sent him to live among the daughters of King Lycomedes on the island of Skyros. Thetis thus rejected the life-depriving gender position of men for her son.[3]

Tzetzes emphasized that Thetis’s action represented maternal love prevailing over the central Homeric concerns of glory and honor. In Tzetzes’s account, Chiron’s prophecy was clear:

Thetis, my little daughter, hear your father’s words:
your son Achilles, should he stay in his fatherland,
will live many years, but without glory;
but, should he sail with the Greeks against the Trojans,
he will become glorious and radiant, but will die soon. [4]

Gynocentric society throughout history has favored the example of the Spartan mothers. They violently insisted that their sons fight to death. After hearing Chiron’s prophecy, Thetis treated her son much more humanely:

And so Thetis, learning this from her father {Chiron’s prophecy},
wanting him {Achillles} to have an inglorious but long life,
did not want to send him off on the expedition at all,
but held him back with her fervent maternal love,
which the myths call women’s clothing.

Achilles wasn’t disguised in women’s clothing. He was wrapped in a mother’s love for her son against a society that devalued men’s lives. Tzetzes called “nonsense” accounts of Achilles dressed in women’s clothing and working spindles. According to Tzetzes, those stories merely allegorized Thetis’s fervent, socially conscious maternal love for Achilles. If all mothers showed such love, societies would recognize that men’s lives matter.

Further valorizing strong, independent women committed to gender equality, Tzetzes added to the Homeric matter an account of Hiera and the Mysian women responsibly fighting alongside their men. When Odysseus, King Nireus, and other Greeks, with help from Achilles, attacked Mysia, they encounter the fierce resistant of a strong, gender-equitable society. Tzetzes explained:

there would have been a total rout of the Greeks
had not the king of the Mysians, Telephos himself,
the son of Heracles and Auge, the daughter of Aleos,
been wounded by Achilles with a spear in the thigh;
had not Nireus killed Telephos’s wife,
called Hiera, as she was fighting in a chariot,
a woman who surpassed Helen in beauty
as much as Helen surpassed all other women. [5]

Not only Queen Hiera, but also all the Mysian wives took up onerous responsibilities associated with being truly equal partners for their husbands:

the wives of the Mysians, standing upon scythed chariots,
were also waging battle,
with their queen taking the lead of them all;
when Nireus slew that woman, he brought the battle to an end.
Immediately lamentations and cries went up from the Mysians and the Greeks,
when they saw such ineffable beauty suddenly cut down

Many men deeply appreciate the physical beauty of women. Yet men value women for more than just their physical beauty. Men deeply appreciate women who act to lessen historical injustices against men such as the vastly gender-disproportionate exposure of men to bodily violence.

Unlike Helen of Troy, the Mysian queen Hiera had both outer and inner beauty. Helen directly contributed to horrendous violence against Greek and Trojan men. After doing so, she sat in a palace watching while those men brutally fought with each other. Hiera, in contrast, didn’t incite men into violence against men. Moreover, Hiera and the Mysian women joined Telephos and the Mysian men in fighting to defend their city. Ancient readers of the Iliad would have recognized that Homer omitted all mention of Hiera.[6] They would have recognized, as John Tzetzes did, that Hiera was far more beautiful than Helen.

Throughout history, few readers of Homer have been as perceptive, socially conscious, and courageous as John Tzetzes. Himself a victim of a woman’s devastating false accusation, Tzetzes understand that all but the most elite men are subordinate to women in gynocentric society. Rejecting go-along get-ahead collegiality and obeisance to entrenched interests, Tzetzes fearlessly criticized falseness and corruption:

Tzetzes is … always taking issue with something or somebody: fraudulent holy men, conniving clerics, fornicating bishops, ungrateful students, stingy and philistine patrons, even the emperor, and most of all fellow intellectuals, who are airily dismissed as “buffaloes,” or paranoically indentified as the “gang” (κουστωδία) out to get Tzetzes. Even ancient authors are harangued like silly schoolboys. [7]

Most importantly, Tzetzes brought ancient texts to life in his own time:

in his cultural surroundings the ancient text is not just something to be explained but also ready source material for something new. … Most criteria used in the scholarly interpretation of classical texts today are based on the perception that the ancient text is far away and not really “ours.” History, for instance, or form are more easily discerned from afar. Byzantine writers of the twelfth century did not simply take the opposite view. They, too, knew that Homer had died a long time ago. But much more than we today, they felt that the gap could sometimes be bridged, and felt that the ancient material was still alive. [8]

In our time, lack of attention to Homer’s sophisticated marginalization of Hiera and Palamedes has deadened reading of the Iliad. Even more pernicious has been reading the Iliad as if men’s lives don’t matter. John Tzetzes provided Queen Irene with a Homeric interpretation in which strong, independent women affirm that men’s lives matter. Tzetzes’s work should also instruct us.

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[1] Homer, Iliad, 4.521-2, 544-6, 629-30, from Greek trans. Fagles (1990). The book.line numbers are for Fagles’s English translation. They are close to the line numbers of the Greek text. The subsequent two sets of quotes are from id. 13.452-3, 5.45-6, 13.749-55 and 16.361, 17.50-5. The man getting his brain splattered out is from id. 20.451-4.

[2] The two short quotations in the first paragraph of the above post are from John Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Preface to Prolegomena, from Greek trans. Goldwyn & Kokkini (2015) p. 3. The biographical information in the above paragraph is from id., Introduction, and Annals of Niketas Choniates, from Greek trans. Magoulias (1984) p. 32. The short quote is from 2.1 of the latter.

[3] Thetis also rejected suppression of men’s sexuality. When Achilles was deeply despondent, Thetis compassionately urged him to have sex with women. That’s similar to ancient treatment for lovesickness.

[4] Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Prolegomena 446-50, trans. Goldwyn & Kokkini (2015) p. 35. Subsequent quotes will be cited by line number and translation page in id. The subsequent quote is from ll. 451-55, p. 35. Tzetzes’s declaring as “nonsense” stories of Achilles in women’s clothing among spindles (at the loom) is from l. 437, p. 35.

The title Allegories of the Iliad obscures that Tzetzes highlighted matter that Homer omitted from the Iliad. Given Homer’s poetic genius, such omissions should be considered as deliberate poetic choices. Tzetzes explicitly sought to teach his patron about Homer. Tzetzes thus took a different approach:

by simplifying and analyzing, he has made it possible for everyone to traverse the difficulties of Homer.

Morgan (1983) p. 175. On the need for Tzetzes to provide students with low-level instruction, Budelmann (2002) pp. 162-3.

[5] Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Prolegomena ll. 1005-12, p. 77. The subsequent quotes is from ll. 1017-22, p. 77.

[6] Philostratus, Heroicus 23.26 recognizes that Homer excluded Hiera from the Iliad.

[7] Magdalino (1993) pp. 402-3. Intellectuals can be extraordinarily vicious. A gang of intellectuals may well have sought to persecute Tzetzes. Id. p. 397 adds:

Tzetzes deplored the fact that the chains and fetters of bogus holy men were more highly prized in aristocratic chapels that “icons of saintly men by the hand of some first-rate artist.”

The quote is cited to one of Tzetzes’s letters.

[8] Budelmann (2002) p. 164. Tzetzes’s work was regarded as an important, distinctive contribution. His name was attached to his work, he was identified as a grammarian, and in Byzantium he was among those “whose commentaries were treated not just as reworkings of older material but as new works.” Id. p. 150. Yet Tzetzes wasn’t a popularizer who lacked respect for his source material:

He {Tzetzes} tried to understand ancient writers on what he took to be their own terms. Byzantine Hellenism had matured. It had come a long way from the demonization of Hellenism that prevailed in past centuries. A shift in values among the political and intellectual elites, and the rise of professional classicism, had conveyed scholars almost to the opposite extreme. Homer was idolized and one could have a mental life immersed in the classics.

Kaldellis (2007) p. 307. Tzetzes was a professional classicist with a commitment to enlightened public life.

[image] Fresco depicting Achilles between Diomedes and Odysseus at Skyros. Buried in first-century GC in House of the Dioscuri in Pompei. Thanks to Olivierw, Themadchopper, and Wikimedia Commons.


Budelmann, Felix. 2002. “Classical Commentary in Byzantium: John Tzetzes on Ancient Greek Literature.” Ch. 7 (pp. 141-69) in Gibson, Roy K., and Christina Shuttleworth Kraus. The classical commentary: histories, practices, theory. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.

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

Goldwyn, Adam J. and Dimitra Kokkini, trans. 2015. John Tzetzes. Allegories of the Iliad. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 37. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2007. Hellenism in Byzantium: the transformations of Greek identity and the reception of the classical tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Magdalino, Paul. 1993. The empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Magoulias, Harry J. trans. 1984. Nicetas Choniates. O city of Byzantium: annals of Niketas Choniatēs. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Morgan, Gareth. 1983. “Homer in Byzantium: John Tzetzes.” Pp. 165-88 in Rubino, Carl A., and Cynthia W. Shelmerdine, eds. Approaches to Homer. Austin: University of Texas Press.