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!

{ δαιμόνι᾽ οὐ μὲν καλὰ χόλον τόνδ᾽ ἔνθεο θυμῷ,
λαοὶ μὲν φθινύθουσι περὶ πτόλιν αἰπύ τε τεῖχος
μαρνάμενοι: σέο δ᾽ εἵνεκ᾽ ἀϋτή τε πτόλεμός τε
ἄστυ τόδ᾽ ἀμφιδέδηε: σὺ δ᾽ ἂν μαχέσαιο καὶ ἄλλῳ,
ὅν τινά που μεθιέντα ἴδοις στυγεροῦ πολέμοιο.
ἀλλ᾽ ἄνα μὴ τάχα ἄστυ πυρὸς δηΐοιο θέρηται. }[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!

{ δᾶερ ἐμεῖο κυνὸς κακομηχάνου ὀκρυοέσσης,
ὥς μ᾽ ὄφελ᾽ ἤματι τῷ ὅτε με πρῶτον τέκε μήτηρ
οἴχεσθαι προφέρουσα κακὴ ἀνέμοιο θύελλα
εἰς ὄρος ἢ εἰς κῦμα πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης,
ἔνθά με κῦμ᾽ ἀπόερσε πάρος τάδε ἔργα γενέσθαι. }[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:

Achilles then 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. All have been facing perils. … A lasting peace – that was the need. For the sake of one woman, Achilles 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 Phrygius wrote, was 866,000 men. The number of the Trojans who fell was 676,000 men.

{ Achilles vulgo queritur, unius mulieris Helenae causa totam Graeciam et Europam advocatam esse, tanto tempore tot millia hominum periisse. tot pericula adiri. … perpetuam pacem fieri oportere: tanta pericula unius mulieris causa fieri, libertatem periclitari, tanto tempore diffidere: pacem expostulat, pugnam renuit. … diurna indicant, quae Dares Phrygius descripsit, DCCCVI. millia hominum ad oppidi proditionem. Ex Trojanis CCLXXVIII. millia hominum. }[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 Venus in Cythera. 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 Paris, the leader of the Phrygian nation. … 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.

{ loquax fama, que multas uires aquirit eundo, vicinas iam dispersa per partes ad aures Helene de pulcritudine Paridis ad templum Veneris accedentis multa relacione peruenit. Quod postquam eidem innotuit Helene, uarie uoluntatis desiderabilis appetitus, qui mulierum animum consueuit subita leuitate corripere, Helene animum inconsulta flagrancia concitauit vt optaret ad ipsius festiuitatis sollempnia se conferre gaudia uisura festiua et inspectura ducem Frigie nacionis. … tu Helena, speciosissima mulierum, quis te rapuit spiritus ut in absencia uiri tui tua desereres tam leui relacione palacia, exires eius claustra ignotum uisura hominem, que te compescere habena freni facili potuisti ut seruares pudica ieiunia intra regia sceptri tui? O quam multas adduxit ad labem iter et reditus et facilis ad uulgaria loca discursus! … Optasti ergo tu, Helena, tuam exire regiam et uisere Cythaream ut sub pretextu uoti soluendi virum posses uidere barbaricum et ut pretextu liciti ad illicita declinares. }[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.

{ O quam multas impudicissimas mulieres ad impudicos subito traxere collapsus ludorum spectacula et iocorum huiusmodi uisiones, vbi iuuenes confluentes suas exercent illecebras et raptos animos mulierum ex dissolucionibus gaudiorum ad sui pudoris crimen subita rapacitate seducunt, cum habentes iuuenes habilitatem commodam uidendi puellas et multo ius alias ad mundana deliramenta promotas, nunc oculis, nunc tacitis blandiciarum sermonibus, nunc tactu manuum, nunc signorum instinctu mulierum animos se de facile mouentes cecis sophismatibus et dulcium fallaciarum argumentacione concludunt. }[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 the one perish who first brought it about that young women and young men whom the women do not know dance together. That 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 follow.

{ Pereat ille qui primus inuenit inter mulieres iuuenes et adolescentes ignotos instituisse coreas, que manifesta sunt causa multi perpetrati pudoris. Propter quas multe eciam iam pudice ad proditorias infestaciones hominum enormiter corruerunt, vnde multociens orta sunt scandala et multorum necis causa sequta. }

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 6.326-31, ancient Greek text from Murray (1924), English translation from Fagles (1990) p. 206. 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 6.344-8, ancient Greek text from Murray (1924), English translation from Fagles (1990) p. 207.

[3] Dares Phrygius, History of the Fall of Troy {De excidio Trojae historia} sections 27, 30, 44, Latin text from the Latin Library, English translation (modified slightly) from Frazer (1966). Cornil (2011) provides a less literal, more fluid translation. 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, History of the Destruction of Troy {Historia Destructionis Troiae} Bk. 7, Latin text from Griffin (1936), p. 70, English translation (modified insubstantially) from Meek (1974) pp. 68-9.

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, Latin text from Griffin (1936) p. 70, English translation (modified insubstantially) from Meek (1974) p. 68. The subsequent quote above is similarly sourced subsequently.

[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.

{ O quam grati feminis esse debent earum domorum termini et honestatis earum fines et limites conseruare! Nunquam enim nauis sentiret dissuta naufragium si continuo suo staret in portu, in partes non nauigans alienas. }

Bk. 7, Latin text from Griffin (1936) p. 71, English translation from 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.

Murray, A. T., trans. Revised by William F. Wyatt. 1924. Homer. Iliad. Loeb Classical Library 170 and 171. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Alternate source for Murray’s translation.

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.