Livistros and Rhodamne shows men under despotic Eros in Byzantium

Eros and Psyche

In the mid-thirteenth-century Byzantine romance Livistros and Rhodamne, Rhodamne learns that her long-lost husband, the Latin knight Livistros, is alive. She exclaims:

My doubts are many and my disbelief great. A dead man come back to life — who will believe it? If he is really alive, which I doubt, how has he come to me? [1]

Byzantine writers could hardly express such doubts openly with respect to Christ in thoroughly Christian Byzantine society. That’s also true with respect to the legitimacy of gynocentrism. In Livistros and Rhodamne, Love (Eros) is God. He rules heaven and earth despotically. Men’s position of abjection within that despotism ineluctably inspires doubts.

Livistros and Rhodamne begins with the story of a MGTOW nightmare. Livistros recounted his original bliss as a single man:

Joy was my companion, serenity my friend. Never was there any happiness or pleasure which I lacked. And amid so much joy, amid so many pleasures, amid all my wealth and prosperity, amid the many luxuries and delights which I possessed and had at my command and in which I took pleasure, no concern for love ever came to me. My mind was completely free of passion. The thought of love did not enter my mind. I lived unsubdued, in freedom, without Love’s tortures, and beyond desire. [2]

One night, Livistros dreamed that a squadron of winged, armed men arrested him. They took him before the three-faced God Love, who sat on a throne flanked by two women. Love set before Livistros the choice of servitude or death: he could either become enslaved to Love, or have his head cut off.[3] Livistros begged Love for mercy. Forgiving Livistros for his prior life of bliss, Love gave Livistros passion for the beautiful princess Rhodamne, daughter of the Emperor Chrysos. Livistros did obeisance to Love and swore an oath of servitude. He thus was enthralled with love for Rhodamne.

Livistros went in search of Rhodamne just like a man would in today’s Dark Age of ignorance, bigotry, and superstition. He spent two years searching for her. After he finally found the Silver Castle where she lived, he didn’t just knock on the door and introduce himself. He camped outside her castle and wrote to her daily. He would tie his letters to arrows and shoot them over the castle wall. For six months she didn’t reply.

Modern master-teachers of love would probably grade Livistros’s love letters as meriting an omega grade for seductive savvy. Consider his first love letter to Rhodamne:

If your soul had learnt of me, if you knew who I am and for whom I suffer, if there were anywhere a person to tell you how much time I have spent for you, how many dangers I have run and woes I have endured, what manner of things have happened to me because of you — I think that if you had feelings of stone and a heart of iron you would take pity on me when you learnt what I suffer. I have no-one who could tell you of me. I have only Love and I have confidence in him. I hope that he puts concern for me into your heart. He is slow to act. He is sluggish in what he promised me. I have no-one to whom I can tell my sufferings. Believe me, my heart is being torn by my troubles. Here now is my letter, read what I suffer. Know whose message it is. Have mercy on him. Pity him. For two years now he has been wandering because of desire for you.

Is there any question about what would be most women’s reaction to this? Pathetic. Cringe-worthy. Ridicule him to your girlfriends. Livistros wrote like this daily for six months without a reply.[4] That shows as little empirical sense as believing that “violence against women is the most pressing human rights problem remaining in the world.” At least Rhodamne didn’t declare that she feared that Livistros was stalking her and have a restraining order imposed on him.

Rhodamne’s closest advisor, a eunuch, finally responded to Livistros’s letters. He represented the interest of scribes, but wrote with a frankness that few academics today would dare venture:

Know that the lady sighs with desire for you. She has fallen in love with you and suffers for your woes. But young women give themselves a haughty air. If she has not yet yielded to you, do not think that she does not desire you. This is through the haughtiness of the lady who was born of the sun. But write, write, Livistros, write. Do not be indolent. She has your earlier letters. She keeps them and reads them. She examines them word by word and her soul reflects on your misery of two years.

Livistros followed the eunuch’s advice and kept writing love letters to Rhodamne. Showing no understanding of biblical wisdom about the undesirability of a leaky roof, Livistros wrote:

They say that if a drop falls constantly on a rock, whatever the nature of the drop and the nature of the stone, the steady beating bores through the stone because the water’s dripping cannot be averted. I used to find this extraordinary. I was always amazed how a drop can pierce stone.

But when I examine the matter I do not believe what men say. I do not think that a drop can bore through stone. My passion, as it beat on the rock of your heart, should have worn it away. For drops my passion has these many letters, my messages, my words of love. I think that if my letters’ words had fallen on stone, even though it were rooted in Hades, the stone would have been wrenched up and would have come to understand my letter; however lifeless it was, it would have been transformed into intelligence.

So a drop is powerless against stone. It does not have the quality they say and their words are lies. A virtuous women’s heart surpasses a rock in hardness. The dew of my soul is now powerless and the spring of my heart cannot drip. It remains for me to beseech you, for me to confide my heart’s woes to you. It has submitted to the judgment of your love, my lady, and the courtesy of your mind. [5]

The lady finally wrote a reply letter to Livistros. He was overjoyed. He responded with a request for a token from the lady: “I shall regard it as I would you.”

Rhodamne, who lived long before the time of the Apocalypse Opener, was furious at Livistros’s effrontery. She responded:

It is enough that you have the letter which I wrote and that you have now bent an inflexible mind to desire. As for your eagerness to obtain a token as well from me and receive in your hands a pledge of my love, I am amazed that you feel no shame when you say so. In writing this to me the violence of your passion had led you too far. You will not see another letter from me. As long as you try to make me give you a token, you will die waiting as far as a letter goes. You will certainly not see one.

Livistros replied that, when he read her letter, “I saw death incarnate leap out and imperiously strike down my entire heart.” He complained that she was killing him. Perhaps with some awareness of men’s lifespan deprivation relative to women, Rhodamne in turn felt sorry for Livistros. She subsequently declared that in another letter from her.

In an uncharacteristic display of gender leadership, Livistros sent Rhodamne a ring. The ring had a ruby stone and layers of iron, gold, and lodestone forming the ring. Rhodamne was delighted with that token. She in turn sent Livistros a token of her. It was a ring of intertwined iron and lodestone “clasping each other so tightly as to be never wrenched apart.”

Livistros then wrote the lady with a request to meet with her. College sex-tribunal inquisitors today might classify such a letter as attempted rape. Rather than calling down authoritative punishment upon Livistros, Rhodamne merely replied and harshly dismissed his request as not worthy of a reply:

It did not befit my heart, it did not become my mind for me to write a reply to this last letter of yours. My hands should have cut it up and banished it from the world. You would have learnt from this that, even if you do love, you should not be so brazen in showing it. You should have counted the time, you should have watched the days and attended to what was happening. This alone would have sufficed. You must now realize that your letter made my heart angry with you, fearsomely angry, that your soul was impatient to receive another message or token of my love.

In his reply letter to her, Livistros described Rhodamne’s letter as an executioner. He exclaimed: “you have killed the man who is dying for you.” The lady didn’t reply. After three days, Livistros wrote another groveling letter. Again Rhodamne didn’t reply. After another four days, Livistros wrote another pathetic, self-abasing letter to her.

Rhodamne ultimately agreed to meet with Livistros. They met at dawn on a wooded hill with countless trees blooming with various flowers. The hill was across from a meadow. Livistros saw Rhodamne riding across the meadow to their appointed meeting-place in the woods:

The horse she rode was as white as snow and its forelock and mane were plaited with tassels of red silk which blazed like fire. Her dress was in the Latin fashion. Over a red and gold garment she wore a brightly coloured cloak which trailed far back over the ground. In one hand she held a tame parrot, which sat there without constraint and said in a human voice, “This lady makes slaves of souls not yet possessed by passion, and she shackles hearts still free; she subdues the senses of those reared in the mountains and desolate places.” And I paused from gazing at that wondrous lady with her rare beauty and indescribable appearance, and marveled at how the bird had been enslaved and was able to tell of its servitude with a human voice.

The bird of course was talking about Livistros. But at least the lady wasn’t satisfied with the company of cats. Rhodamne and Livistros united in love:

Ask not how we embraced and with what love, how long we talked and on how many subjects, nor is it fit for me to tell you.

As Ovid understood, explicitly telling isn’t necessary. Who doesn’t know the rest of what happened?

Rhodamne arranged to have Livistros engage in men-on-men violence and also incited him to murder an old woman. Verderichos, the king of Egypt, loved Rhodamne. Her father preferred Verderichos to Livistros for her husband. She proposed that the men fight for her. She told her father:

I prefer Livistros; you Verderichos. Tell them to mount their horses and joust. I shall take the one who conquers with his arms. Combat will decide what is best.

The men tore into each other with no consciousness of the pervasiveness of violence against men in gynocentric society:

His tongue screeched out, “Swine, now you die! And I replied, “Now you die, dog!”

Livistros won the combat and thus Rhodamne for a wife. More importantly, neither man was killed. An old woman, disparaged as a witch,  was less fortunate. Drawing upon the diction of a witch, Rhodamne incited Livistros to kill the old woman:

I conjure you by the misfortunes you have suffered for me, I conjure you by my love and my passion — kill this foul and evil woman. Her magic art exiled me from you and rendered you lifeless.

Acting according to his wife’s wishes, Livistros drew his sword and decapitated the old woman. Fortunately Livistros was not arrested and did not become another man in the vastly disproportionate incarceration of men.

Like Chrétien de Troyes’s twelfth-century French romance Lancelot, Livistros and Rhodamne subtly critiques social devaluation of men’s lives. Eros in Livistros and Rhodamne has three faces for the boy, adult, and old man of men’s lives. Those faces all speak as one in an over-representation of eros.[6] Yet the rule of eros doesn’t exclude other faces of love. Livistros’s relationship with his friend Klitovon is an example of mutual friendship (philia). Christian understanding of a freely given gift of self (agape) appears as a shadow in relation to Livistros’s needy, pathetic expressions of eros. Livistros and Rhodamne raises doubts about the rule of eros. This romance calls for additional faces of love for men.

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[1] Livistros and Rhodamne S2495f, from medieval vernacular Greek trans. Betts (1995) p. 170. Betts transliterates the heroine as Rodamni. The hero is also commonly transliterated as Libistros. Livistros and Rhodamne apparently was composed in the mid-thirteenth century (probably between 1248 and 1261) in the Laskarid court in Nicaea. Agapitos (1999) p. 112; Agapitos (2013) pp. 415-6.

Five manuscripts of Livistros and Rhodamne have survived. The manuscripts have corruptions and lacunae. In addition, they don’t seem to represent a common source text. Betts (1995) pp. 92-3 discusses the manuscripts. Agapitos (1999), Appendix, provides a preliminary critical edition of the dream sequence (N186 – N560). Bett’s translation represents the S manuscript, supplemented with other manuscripts where necessary.

For similar examples of provocative invocations of Christian concerns in twelfth-century Byzantine novels, Burton (1998).

[2] Livistros and Rhodamne N100ff, trans. Betts (1995) p. 96. Subsequent quotes, cited by approximate beginning text line and page in id., are: S160, p. 122 (If your soul has learnt…); S460, p. 128 (Know that the lady…); S520, p. 130 (They say that if a drop…); S660, p. 133 (It is enough…); S840, p. 136 (It did not befit my heart…); S1065, p. 141 (The horse she rode…); S1115, p. 142 (Ask not…); S1165, p. 143 (I prefer Livistros); E2312f, p. 144 (His tongue screeched…); S2760, p. 175 (I conjure you…).

[3] The two women personify Truth (socially constructed gynocentric truth) and Justice (men-criminalizing justice). On God providing a choice, cf. Deuteronomy 30:19.

[4] Men in love in Byzantium were astonishingly passive. In Belthandros and Chrysantza, the hero let two years and two months pass before he spoke to his beloved Chrysantza. He spoke to her only after she confessed aloud in a garden that she burned with love for him. Belthandros and Chrysantza l. 835ff, from medieval vernacular Greek trans. Betts (1995) p. 20.

[5] On biblical wisdom, cf. Proverbs 27:15.

[6] Livistros and Rhodamne N290, p. 104; P470, p. 105. In vernacular Byzantine romances, the God Eros is ideologically omnipotent like the Byzantine emperor. The God Eros is “lord emperor, master of all the earth, commander of the inanimate world, ruler of animate beings, examiner of every soul, judge of the law of desire, helper of love, friend of respect.” Livistros and Rhodamne N317-20, trans Agapitos (1999) p. 122. Betts (1995) p. 105 is similar. The depiction of Eros reflects contemporary imperial practice. Agapitos (2013) pp. 399-401.

Courtiers and patrons in the French court at Champagne and at the Laskarid court in Niceaea may have enjoyed and supported romances of men’s abjection in eros. Modern medieval scholars have celebrated men-abasing courtly love. Yet the abjection of men would have been significantly damaging to the lives of Byzantine men and women, just as it is today.

Christoforatou has recognized a critical perspective on eros:

we must allow for the possibility that the ongoing struggle between sovereign power {Eros} and human subject in the surviving {Byzantine} novels was seen for what it truly was: a shameless act of sovereign tyranny. … the authors of the Komnenian and Palaiologan novels manage to both condemn and justify the violent acts of their rulers through a dubious sovereign model that deprives the imperial figure of the most significant attributes of imperial governance: prudence (sophrosyne), temperance (phronesis), justice (dikaiosyne) and civility (eunomia). In so doing, they bring to the fore a sovereign figure that conflates the boundaries between the just and the violent, the private and the public, operating as a legitimate tyrant and basileus.

Christoforatou (2011) pp. 334, 337. That critical perspective becomes more focused when understood in terms of gynocentrism and men’s abjection in love.

[image] Eros and Psyche. Etching and aquatint. By Jean-Claude-Richard, Abbé de Saint-Non after François Bouche, 1766. National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), Accession No. 1984.57.3, Gift of Regina Slatkin.


Agapitos, Panagiotis A. 1999. “Dreams and the Spatial Aesthetics of Narrative Presentation in Livistros and Rhodamne.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 53: 111-147.

Agapitos, Panagiotis A. 2013. “The ‘Court of Amorous Dominion’ and the ‘Gate of Love’: Rituals of Empire in a Byzantine Romance of the Thirteenth Century.” Ch. 14 (pp. 389-416) in Beihammer, Alexander Daniel, Stavroula Constantinou, and Maria G. Parani, eds. Court ceremonies and rituals of power in Byzantium and the medieval Mediterranean: comparative perspectives. Leiden: Brill.

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

Burton, Joan B. 1998. “Reviving the Pagan Greek Novel in a Christian World.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies. 39 (2): 179.

Christoforatou, Christina. 2011. “Figuring Eros in Byzantine Fiction: Iconographic Transformation and Political Evolution.” Medieval Encounters. 17 (3): 321-359.

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