ancient Constantinople statues identified virgins & cuckolded men

ankh within female-male couple above snake

For good evolutionary reasons, men throughout history have been interested in the sexual fidelity of women. Unlike a woman, a man in the absence of modern DNA testing lacks certainty whether a child is his biological offspring. Parental knowledge thus naturally features vitally significant gender inequality. Yet today, discussion of paternity establishment tends to be trivialized and suppressed. That wasn’t the case in Byzantium.

Theodore Prodromos’s twelfth-century Byzantine novel Rhodanthe and Dosikles suggests the extent of men’s concerns about women’s sexual fidelity. Distraught over long separation from her beloved, Rhodanthe declared:

I will not be false to my oath, nor to my pledge;
I will not defile my ardour, nor my love;
I will not outrage my gifts of kisses;
I will not shame our marriage that is of lips only
or the couch that permits only an embrace.
Have confidence, throng of fellow maidens,
who desire lovers, beloved young men
and who are desired by lovers, by beloved young men;
you will not be hated by those most dear ones,
who have suspected that women kiss duplicitously;
for I have now given a good example to women who are adored.
Emulate, yes, emulate me. [1]

Rhodanthe’s insistent disavowals suggests the salience of women’s betrayals. Her proclamation of her good example and her urging of other women to emulate her supports learned men’s suspicions. According to a romance of the twelfth-century French cleric Chrétien de Troyes, the bad example of the Byzantine Empress Fenice caused subsequent Byzantine emperors not to trust their wives. Fenice’s failure to emulate Rhodanthe deprived uncastrated men of the politically important opportunity to lobby personally the Empress.[2] More generally, women’s betrayal of men contributes to the weak political position of almost all men.

The first, great Christian Roman Emperor Constantine sought both to ensure well-regulated sexual services for men and men’s ability to identify sexually promiscuous women. According to the popular tenth-century Byzantine text known as the Patria, Constantine the Great built a large brothel in Constantinople. It was then the only brothel in Constantinople. Moreover, Constantine decreed that sexually promiscuous women in Constantinople could live only in that brothel.[3] Drawing upon Solon’s wise public policy to improve men’s sexual welfare, Constantine apparently sought to help men identify which women were sexually promiscuous and which weren’t. Constantine’s brothel aptly came to be known as the hospital of Theophilos.

Constantine’s initiative helping men to identify women who engage in extra-marital sexual relations apparently failed. Some women not working in the brothel engaged in extra-marital sex. A new initiative shifted from Constantine’s statutory requirement to a statue of Aphrodite:

The statue was a touchstone for chaste women and virgins, both rich and poor, who were held in suspicion. If someone defiled a girl’s virginity, and many or few of them did not admit this, their parents and friends would say to them: “Let’s go to the statue of Aphrodite, and you will be tested as to whether you are chaste.” When they approached the place below the column, if she was without blame, she passed by unharmed, but if she was defiled or her virginity destroyed, a sudden apparition would confuse her, reluctantly and against her will, as soon as they approached the column with the statue, and lifting her dress in front of all, she would show her genitals to all. A similar phenomenon befell married women, if they had secretly committed adultery. And all were amazed, and all believed when the women confessed the adultery they had committed. The sister-in-law of the former kouropalates Justin smashed this statue, for her genitals too had been revealed when she had committed adultery and had passed by on horseback [3]

The truth can be painful to learn. That’s why some seek to suppress it.

Another statue in Constantinople served men more directly. A bronze arch had at its top a statue with four horns on its head:

if someone suspected that he was cuckolded, he would go there and approach the statue. If it was as he had assumed, the statue immediately turned around three times. If it was not as he suspected, it stood quietly, and in this way the cuckolded men were revealed. [4]

This statue in Constantinople should be regarded as an ancient precursor to modern DNA paternity testing. Yet like DNA testing for paternity, such statues never became widely used around the world. Few persons today even know that such a statue reportedly existed in Byzantium.

Women’s sexual fidelity and the cuckolding of men should be considered seriously now just as these issue were in Byzantium.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles ll. 7.112-23, from Atticizing Greek trans. Jeffreys (2012) pp. 114-5. For brief background on Prodromos and this novel, see note [1] to my post on Kratandros and Chrysochroe.

[2] On Empress Fenice, Chrétien de Troyes, Cligès ll. 6746-66. For an English translation from the French, Raffel (1997) p. 213.

The annals of Niketas Choniates makes clear the importance of courtiers’ personal interaction with the empress. In 1195, immediately after Alexios III Angelos seized the crown from his brother Isaac II, courtiers personally sought favor with Alexios’s wife Euphrosyne:

they prostrated themselves before the alleged emperor’s wife and placed their heads under her feet as footstools, nuzzled their noses against her felt slipper like fawning puppies, and stood timidly at her side, bringing their feet together and joining their hands.

Niketas Choniates, from Greek trans. Magoulias (1984) p. 250.

[3] Patria 2.65 states:

Lovers went there and consorted with the adulterous women living there, for there were no other brothels than this house nor such adulterous women elsewhere.

From Latin trans. Berger (2013) p. 95. The Patria was written / compiled about 990. A relatively popular work, it has survived in more than sixty manuscripts. Id. pp. xii, 281.

In its rhetorical context, the claim that there were no adulterous women elsewhere (outside of the brothel) suggests a statutory requirement. With respect to history, the story about Constantine building the brothel apparently isn’t historical:

The original legend about this house, as contained in the Chronicle of Symeon Logothetes, claims that it was first built by Isidoros, a patrician who had come from Rome with Constantine the Great, served later as a brothel, and was turned into a hospital by Leo III (717-741)

Id. p. 301, n. 86. The story about the statue of Aphrodite “has no historical background.” Id. p. 301, n. 87.

[4] Patria 3.179, trans. Berger (2013) p. 213. The statue with horns on its head was reported to be appropriately on top of the Keratoembolin (“horn-shaped portico”) along the bay of the Neorion harbor. Id. p. 321, n. 181.

Cuckolded men probably constituted a significant share of men. Andronikos I, who rejected men’s gender role as soldiers subject to violence, ridiculed cuckolds in Constantinople:

the horns of the deer that he had hunted and which excited wonder because of their height, he suspended from the arches of the agora {of Constantinople}, ostensibly to show the size of the wild beasts that he had caught but in actuality mocking the citizenry and defaming their wives for their incontinence.

Niketas Choniates, Annals 322, trans. Magoulias (1984) p. 178.

[image] Hieroglyphs on doorway in Memphis, Egypt (Palace of Merenptah). From Dynasty 19, Reign of Merenptah (1213 – 1204 BGC). Penn Museum (University of Pennsylvania, PA), item E13554A-C, detail. Photo by Douglas Galbi.

The top left hieroglyph is an ankh. It represents life, and thus tends to be associated with women. The meanings of the other hieroglyphs are obvious in context.


Berger, Albrecht, ed. and trans. 2013. Accounts of medieval Constantinople: the Patria. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 24. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jeffreys, Elizabeth, trans. and notes. 2012. Four Byzantine novels: Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles; Eumathios Makrembolites, Hysmine and Hysminias;  Constantine Manasses, Aristandros and Kallithea; Niketas Eugenianos, Drosilla and Charikles. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

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

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Cligès. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Prodromos with Dosikles challenged instrumental valuation of men

Lysippos sculpture of Hermes as exemplar of masculine beauty

Many men feel they must work and achieve to be manly (virtuous). That oppressive social construction of manhood is pervasive historically — from ancient Greece and ancient Rome to present-day societies. Social depreciation of men’s intrinsic value is associated with acute sexual welfare inequality by gender. Critical responses to these social injustices are regrettably rare. About two millennia ago, the eminent Roman historian Titus Livius (Livy) provided a brief, subtle critique of social instrumentalization of men’s bodies. In twelfth-century Byzantium, the brilliant literary writer Theodore Prodromos in his novel Rhodanthe and Dosikles more transgressively asserted that men and women have equal intrinsic bodily beauty.

Close to the beginning of the first book of his nine-book novel Rhodanthe and Dosikles, Prodromos described a girl’s beauty. The banality of describing feminine beauty implied the need for extraordinary rhetoric to be interesting. The narrator described the maiden Rhodanthe:

The girl’s beauty was something extraordinary,
an august figure, a replica of a divine image,
wrought in the form of Artemis.
Her flesh mimicked white snow,
the congruence of her every limb was consistent,
each dexterously linked to the other
and every one fitting together gracefully.
Her eyebrows were naturally well-drawn
in the graceful imitation of a half-circle,
her nose somewhat hooked and her pupils deep black,
circles were inscribed on her cheeks,
four on both but two on the one spot;
of which the outer and more extensive
one might say were snow drifts
while the inner were, as it were, glowing
with the self-combusting coals within.
A mouth that was quite narrow and closely compressed;
elbow, arm and harmony of fingers
were wrought by a natural craftsman;
the posture of her ankles was trim, a support for her legs,
the foundation one might say of the structure.
And all else was proper, and every feature beautiful. [1]

When a savage barbarian robber captured Rhodanthe, he was so overwhelmed with her beauty that he thought she was a goddess. He freed her from all her chains, for he didn’t want to risk the danger of keeping a goddess in chains. But he kept her captive.[2] Most men want to have a beautiful woman.

Dosikles, who loved Rhodanthe, compared himself to her. He described her face as beautiful and his own face as not repulsive:

Rhodanthe’s complexion is beautiful;
for it is not possible to remove or add anything
from its excellent and perfect composition,
for the geometer nature had constructed it
beautifully and according to the rules.
But neither is my face besmirched,
nor is my appearance strange and repulsive.

Dosikles depreciated his own beauty. He was, according to the narrator, a “comely youth.” The barbarian robber chief appreciated upon first sight of Dosikles and Rhodanthe the beauty of both:

The robber chief saw Dosikles,
and then saw Rhodanthe immediately afterwards.
He could not have been more astonished,
for both were so handsome in appearance.
Astounded by the grace of their countenances,
“This lovely couple,” he said

In contrast to the barbarian, the learned Hellenist Dosikles, imbued with social instrumentalization of men, differentiated beauty by gender. He associated masculine beauty with violence against men:

For masculine beauty has a different quality of steadiness,
powerful strength, bravery in battle,
unshakeable might, a sturdy right arm,
a steadfast resistance in the face of battle,
a blade reddened with enemies’ blood,
a sword satiated with hostile flesh.
If someone were to make a judgment on beauty by masculine standards,
he would consider me handsome to look at.
For often in many battles
I have received gloriously many crowns.
The bronze-dipped tip of my dagger has fed
on much flesh from many enemies,
has quaffed copious streams of blood,
and has feasted on the deaths of many barbarians.

Dosikles then all but exposed war-wounds on his chest. He described his father Lysippos, named after a classical sculptor of beautiful figures, as an excellent tutor in martial skills. Rhodanthe’s mother was Phryne. In classical Greek literature, Phryne was a courtesan who, while being tried on a capital charge, bared her breasts to the jurors. They then regarded her as like a goddess and acquitted her. With contrasts in parental names and his own rhetoric, Dosikles affirmed classical gender valuations of men and women.

Dosikles subsequent action showed that he was far from the programmed warrior-drone of a Spartan mother. Another barbarian group conquered the city where Dosikles and Rhodanthe were held captive. The raiders placed the captive women and men on separate ships. Being again separated from Rhodanthe in incredible events of serial brutality and captivity drove Dosikles to deep despair:

When Dosikles realized the division
he said, “But if you tear me away
from my maiden sister {Rhodanthe}, leader of the satraps,
I shall put an end to the drama of my fate
by throwing myself into the midst of the sea.”

That’s a more human reaction than to respond with attempted violence as a unarmed captive facing overwhelming armed forces. Warriors nurtured on the ethos of Spartan mothers wouldn’t be captured alive. They wouldn’t express despair within utterly hopeless circumstances. The contrast between Dosikles and an inhumane brute is explicit in the immediately subsequent lines:

As he {Dosikles} said this an uncouth barbarian
who was standing nearby, a huge ruthless giant,
struck the handsome young man in the face
and threw him against his will into the middle of the vessel.

The barbarian wounded Dosikles face, yet Dosikles didn’t lose face with Rhodanthe. She grieved for his injury. With his words and actions, Dosikles implicitly showed that he too had an emotionally capable heart.[3]

Rhodanthe valued Dosikles’s beauty and his natural amorous initiatives. Rhodanthe explained in confidence to the maiden Myrilla:

There was in my country a noble youth,
Dosikles by name, comely in appearance,
with his beard just blooming on his chin
and his face gracefully surrounded
by the first down on his jaw,
with hair, ye gods, beautiful to see
(how it curled!); the blond hue —
its beauty is amazing; his whole complexion —
incredible beyond description; his whiteness —
quite astonishing; his redness —
altogether impossible. What should I say
of his eyes, his cheeks, his eyebrows, his lips,
his sturdy, well-proportioned figure
close kin to a cypress,
his shoulders, his ankles, his hands, his feet

Descriptions of beautiful woman in classical and medieval literature typically proceed from the top down (from hair, forehead, or brow). The narrator’s earlier description of Rhodanthe had that direction. Rhodanthe herself, in describing Dosikles’s beauty, apparently was too emotionally agitated to follow that order. She joyfully imagined, as women continue to do despite present-day tyrannical college sex tribunals, her beloved making amorous initiatives without first asking for affirmative consent:

his hand is beautiful, but much more beautiful
when it has made advances, moved by forces of nature
(I blush to speak of advances,
but yet I am in love, Myrilla, and what have I to lose?),
and it is clinging enthusiastically to my neck.
His lips are lovely, but so too is his mouth;
and when they move and make sounds,
calling and laughing and kissing me,
oh indeed how great is their beauty.
But why should I go on and why should I speak at length?
His whole bearing was that of a god.

Rhodanthe didn’t associate masculine beauty with martial prowess. She described Dosikles’s beauty much like a man would describe a woman’s beauty. Unlike Dosikles himself, Rhodanthe valued Dosikles’s intrinsic bodily beauty.

Other maidens responded to Dosikles’s beauty as did men to Rhodanthe’s beauty. When Rhodanthe and Dosikles finally returned to their home city, the city held a celebratory procession and festival. The narrator observed:

the entire throng of maidens in the procession
who gazed at Dosikles with wide-open eyes
received a massive arrow in their souls
(the kind that Eros always shoots —
poisoned, bitter and enflaming hearts).
For one, abandoning modesty,
came up close and gazed at him with insatiable eyes,
as if by looking from close by she would really see clearly;
another came up and touched his tunic,
and received a second arrow from the contact;
another, in a far greater frenzy than the other two,
breaking all the restraints of decency
and losing her sober wan complexion,
came up and kissed the youth,
and was pierced in every part of her soul.

Men typically enjoy gazing upon beautiful women. A particularly bold man might kiss a beautiful women without her affirmative consent. However, the male gaze and male amorous initiative have become subject to oppressive censure, if not actual criminalization. At the same time, women gaze upon men and amorously assail men without men’s affirmative consent, yet that can scarcely be said in respectable public discourse today. With amazing boldness, Rhodanthe and Dosikles represented women and men’s bodily beauty as similarly moving men and women.[4]

A man’s virtue exists in his having the intrinsic bodily beauty of a man. A man’s value shouldn’t be reduced to being an instrument for fighting wars and providing resources to women and children. In his brilliant twelfth-century Byzantine novel, Theodore Prodromos offered that critical perspective on gender. It remains deeply relevant today.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles ll. 1.39-60, from Atticizing Greek trans. Jeffreys (2012) pp. 21-2. For background on Prodromos and this novel, see note [1] to my post on the thwarted amorous meeting of Kratandros and Chrysochroe. Byzantine novels are highly rhetorical. Roilos (2005) Ch. 2. Ekphrasis was a well-established rhetorical practice.

Despite their deep engagement with rhetoric, writers in Byzantium described female beauty more truthfully than is generally acceptable today. See the epigram on Archeanassa of Colophon, the social construction of misogyny, and Marciniak (2015).

The subsequent quotes above are from Rhodanthe and Dosikles (cited by line numbers and pages in Jeffreys’s translation): 2.246-52, p. 43 (Rhodanthe’s complexion…); Dedication l. 18, p. 20 (comely youth); 1.441-6, p. 33 (The robber chief…); 2.253-66, pp. 41-2 (For masculine beauty…); 6.177-81, pp. 101-2 (When Dosikles realized…); 6.182-5, p. 102 (As he {Dosikles} said this…); 7.213-27, pp. 117-8 (There was in my country…); 7.228-38, p. 118 (his hand is beautiful…);  8.195-209, p. 132 (the entire throng of maidens…).

[2] Rhodanthe and Dosikles ll. 1.61-70.

[3] Roilos recognized the irony in Dosikles’s self-presentation, but mis-interpreted it:

Dosikles indulges in a pompous and detailed enumeration of his heroic achievements in a manner recalling Daphnis’ naive self-acclamation in Longos’ novel. Seen, though, in retrospect from the narrator’s point of view, Dosikles’ self-praise appears as a proleptic ironic delineation of his ēthos. … Dosikles’ future actions prove him unworthy of his self-encomium. In book six, when Artapes separates the two lovers, Dosikles’ heroism is reduced to a timorous threat of suicide, which is responded to with a strong strike by a giant barbarian (6.182–186). This incident constructs a real and therefore conclusive anaskeuē (refutation) of Dosikles’ verbose rhetorical self-presentation.

Roilos (2005) p. 67 (Ch. 2). The point isn’t that Dosikles is “unworthy of his self-encomium.” His self-encomium echoes the dominant, oppressive social construction of masculine beauty. Dosikles’s actions, as well as the actions of others in relation to him, refute that oppressive social construction of masculine beauty.

Prodromos himself seems to have been highly capable of emotional expression. Consider an apparently autobiographical poem by Prodromos:

The poet’s powerful invective against the illness concludes with an almost elegiac expression of his weariness and of the dejected conditions of his body, which have been aggravated by years of poverty and exhausting studies …. he manages to express feelings and to convey a sense of his world, sometime with strong emotions, very often with wit and intelligence.

Bazzani (2007) pp. 7, 11.

[4] The Byzantines recognized men’s physical beauty. Hatzaki (2009) esp. pp. 29-32. Sexual symmetry is a distinctive characteristic of the ancient Greek novels. Konstan (1994). Rhodanthe and Dosikles, which drew significantly on the ancient Greek novels, addressed that distinctive characteristic critically.

Western literature has tended to instrumentalize men more than eastern Roman literature has. Ovid influentially declared: “Neglected appearance befits men {Forma veros neglecta decet}.” Ovid, Art of Love {Ars Amatoria} 1.509. A twelfth-century French author declared: “praise for women’s beauty should be expansive; for men’s beauty, properly more sparing {in femineo sexu approbatio formae debet ampliari, in masculino vero parcius}.” Matthew of Vendôme {Matthaeus Vindocinensis}, Art of Versification {Ars versificatoria} 1.67

[image] Statue of Hermes. 2nd century GC copy of a fourth-century BGC sculpture by Lysippos. Called the Hermès Richelieu, the statue is held in the Louvre (Paris), item Ma 573 (MR 272). The statue’s missing penis aptly represents historical disparagement of men’s penises, including by men’s own wives. Photo thanks to Marie-Lan Nguyen and Wikimedia Commons.


Bazzani, Marina. 2007. “Theodore Prodomos’ Poem LXXVII.” Byzantinische Zeitschrift. 100 (1): 1-12.

Jeffreys, Elizabeth, trans. and notes. 2012. Four Byzantine novels: Theodore Prodromos, Rhodanthe and Dosikles; Eumathios Makrembolites, Hysmine and Hysminias;  Constantine Manasses, Aristandros and Kallithea; Niketas Eugenianos, Drosilla and Charikles. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Hatzaki, Myrto. 2009. Beauty and the Male Body in Byzantium: Perceptions and Representations in Art and Text. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. (review)

Konstan, David. 1994. Sexual symmetry: love in the ancient novel and related genres. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Marciniak, Przemysław. 2015. “Prodromos, Aristophanes and a lustful woman: A Byzantine satire by Theodore Prodromos.” Byzantinoslavica (Prague) 53(1-2): 23-34.

Roilos, Panagiotis. 2005. Amphoteroglossia: a poetics of the twelfth-century Medieval Greek novel. Hellenic Studies Series 10. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

saintly Fenice in Cligès shows scope of medieval Latin literature

Bodhisattva Guanyin, Song Dynasty, China

In Chrétien de Troyes’s late-twelfth-century Arthurian romance Cligès, Empress Fenice represents a saint in the Latin tradition of Saint Marina. Other motifs and structures in Cligès apparently came from Latin literature connecting to Byzantium and the Islamic world. Although Chrétien wrote Cligès in the vernacular (French), he built Cligès upon the broad scope of medieval Latin literature.

Cligès explicitly describes Empress Fenice as a saint. When Fenice apparently died, persons all around the city of Constantinople wept and lamented that Death had killed “the best, most saintly woman”. She was “someone better / Than best, better than them all.” The craftsman John built a magnificent tomb intended to hold “the remains of some holy saint.” John told the Emperor that Empress Fenice could be buried in that tomb:

By placing her body there,
Surely it would hold a saint. [1]

The Emperor agreed:

We’ll bury her body with those
Of the other saints, in front of
Saint Peter’s holy cathedral.

Fenice was thus positioned as a saint to be venerated for her holiness.

Fenice’s death was a deception that she designed to enable her to live with her lover Cligès. A woman cuckolding her husband wasn’t regarded as a saintly in the Middle Ages. Yet Cligès is more than a romance featuring a false saint and a duped populace.

Fenice experienced torture like that which martyr-saints suffered. While in her potion-induced death-like state, Fenice was slapped, hit, and kicked. She was whipped on her bare back. Blood ran freely from the lines cut into her flesh. Molten lead was then poured onto her palms. Finally her entire body was to be roasted on a grill.[2]

Three “wizened doctors” from Salerno administered these tortures. Salerno was where, late in the eleventh century, Constantine the African had translated Arabic medical texts into Latin. The most learned doctor of the three began the treatment of Fenice by placing his hand on her chest. That suggests sexual healing like the young medical student applied to a beautiful woman’s corpse in the Latin Apollonius of Tyre. The literature of Christian martyrdom, Salerno, and sexual healing all point to Latin literature.

Moreover, the Latin Solomon and Marcolf seems to have informed two aspects of the story about the torturing doctors. Cligès states:

These clever doctors remembered
Solomon’s wife, who hated
Her husband so much she pretended
Death to deceive him.

The story of Solomon’s wife faking death to deceive her husband is part of the Solomon and Marcolf tradition.[3] Just as in Solomon and Marcolf, a mob of women storming the nominal center of ruling power pushes the story in Cligès forward:

Women poured through the palace
Door like a charging army

Acting without respect to formal political authority, the women administered “natural” punishment to the doctors for torturing Fenice. The women gave:

The three doctors what they’d asked for,
Not waiting for the emperor to return
Or any of his stewards. They threw
the doctors through the open
Windows, down to the courtyard
Below, where all three died,
The necks broken, and their ribs,
Their arms, and their legs. No woman’s
Work was ever better
Done! The three doctors
Had earned the wages they’d gotten,
And the mob of women had paid them.

The earliest Latin manuscript of Solomon and Marcolf dates to 1410, but the story of Solomon and Marcolf seems to have been well-known no later than 1000.[4] The Latin text of Solomon and Marcolf has a peculiar literary form that points to Hebrew literature created in the ninth-century in the Abbasid Caliphate. Solomon and Marcolf likely existed as Latin literature when Chrétien wrote Cligès.

The literary scope of Cligès has tended to be under-appreciated. A romance written in French and infused with Frankish customs, Cligès also has strong Byzantine elements. A large section of its plot is set in Constantinople, with emperors, empresses, eunuchs, and court intrigue. The double-romance structure of Cligès is the same as that of the slightly earlier twelfth-century Byzantine novels. Fear that subsequent Byzantine empresses would emulate Fenice might relate to a peculiar passage in the Byzantine novel Rhodanthe and Dosikles. A medieval scholar has suggested that Chrétien used as a source “a Byzantinized version of the Persian tale of Vis and Ramin.”[5] Such a broad literary scope is consistent with Cligès’s use of Solomon and Marcolf. Just as with Solomon and Marcolf, Latin literature is the most plausible medium connecting Chrétien to literature across western Eurasia.[6]

In sharp contrast to courtly glorification of women, Cligès presents the saintly Empress Fenice as a flesh-and-blood human being. Social appearance, rather than saintly values, largely motive Fenice’s actions. Unlike a saint, Fenice complains of her fleshly suffering as a martyr under the three doctors’ tortures:

I can’t believe I’m still
Alive: those doctors hurt me.
They beat me and tore at my flesh.

The saintly, adulterous Fenice incorporates appreciation for women well-known through the Indian Sukasaptati and the western Eurasian Sindibad / Seven Sages corpus. Fenice points forward to the comedic humanism of Boccaccio’s Corbaccio.[7] Underneath it all, Fenice is a figure of the transgressive and subversive humanism and cosmopolitanism of medieval Latin literature.

Love had committed no crime,
joining these two together,
For when they lay in each other’s
Arms, hugging and kissing,
Their joy, their pleasure, seemed
To make the world a better
Place. Can one ask for more?

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Cligès ll. 6076-7, from Old French trans. Raffel (1997) p. 192. I cite quotes from Cligès using line numbers and pages from Raffel’s translation. Raffel’s line numbers are close to the Old French line numbers.

The three previous short quotes are from Cligès, l. 5782, p. 182 (the best…); ll. 5830-1, p. 184 (someone better…); l. 6073, p. 192 (remains of some holy saint). Subsequent quotes are from ll. 6079-81, p. 192 (We’ll bury…); ll. 5788-9, p. 183 (wizened doctors from Salerno); ll. 5857-60, p. 185 (These clever doctors…); ll. 6014-5, p. 190 (Women poured…); ll. 6024-35, p. 190 (The three doctors…); ll. 6255-7, p. 197 (I can’t believe…); ll. 6317-23, p. 199 (Love had committed no crime…).

[2] Cf. e.g. the martyrdom of Saint Juliana of Nicomedia.

[3] Ziolkowski (2008) pp. 288-98 (ABE 2: alternate ending of Latin text), p. 334 (SAT 16: Cligès references), pp. 339-42 (SAT 19: Middle High German Salman und Morolf), 355-6 (SAT 30: fourteenth-century German poem Salomon und Markolf (Spruchgedicht)). Regarding the parallel between the wife’s feigned death in Solomon and Marcolf and Cligès, “This parallel is one of a few indications that strongly suggest a Byzantine origin for the motif.” Id. p. 296.

[4] Ziolkowski (2008) pp. 6-9.

[5] Grimbert (2005) p. 123, citing Polak (1974). Ziolkowski observed that Cligès “seems indebted in several of its major motifs to Eastern sources.” Ziolkowski (2008) p. 334.

Agipitos presents a rather different view. “Needless to say, no Medievalist ever saw the Byzantine color of the Cligès as an indication of the text’s ‘Byzantine character’.” Agapitos (2010) p. 161. What would constitute “Byzantine character” is unclear. More generally, Agapitos sees only a late, narrow channel for interaction between medieval Greek and Latin literature:

If examined dispassionately and with due consideration for the available evidence, the only time where some form of cultural osmosis between the Greeks and Latins could take place under Byzantine administration was the Laskarid empire of Nicaea after its stabilization and the first six decades of the Palaiologan government in Constantinople, in other words the hundred years between 1220 and 1320.

Agapitos (2012) p. 331. This view seems to me to greatly under-estimate the extent of cultural osmosis.

[6] Green noted:

Where, before Chrétien’s works, we do find more than episodic or incipient fiction, informing the whole structure and permitting invention without ties to historicity, is in such medieval Latin epics as Ecbasis Captivi and Ruodlieb (to these Ysengrimus could possibly be added). However few these ‘forerunners’ may be, they suggest that here, too, Latin literature, although soon to be overtaken by the vernacular, was still in the lead. … In acting as a bridge between Latin and the vernacular, the French poet {Chrétien de Troyes} was performing one of the culturally most important tasks of the cleric at the court of the lay aristocracy.

Green (2012) p. 61. The cleric not only bridged Latin and the vernacular, but also cultures separated spatially by long distances.

[7] Beaton concluded:

there is a balance of probability that Boccaccio really was acquainted with aspects of Byzantine and ancient Greek fiction through the mediation of contemporaries active in the Frankish-controlled regions of Greece and the Levant.

Beaton (2013) p. 220.

[image] Photo of a wooden figure of the Bodhisattva Guanyin. China, Song Period (960-1279 GC). Item 54-6-6 in the Penn Museum (University of Philadelphia, PA). Photo by Douglas Galbi. I’ve modified the image to remove some background clutter.


Agapitos, Panagiotis A. 2010. “From Persia to the Provence: Tales of Love in Byzantium and Beyond.” ACME: Annali della Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia dell’Università degli Studi di Milano. 63(2): 153-69.

Agapitos, Panagiotis A. 2012. “In Rhomaian, Frankish and Persian Lands: Fiction and Fictionality in Byzantium and Beyond.” Pp. 235-367 in Agapitos, Panagiotis A., and Lars Boje Mortensen, eds. Medieval narratives between history and fiction: from the centre to the periphery of Europe, c. 1100-1400. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

Beaton, Roderick. 2013. “Boccaccio and the Greek World of his Time: A Missing Link in the ‘True Story of the Novel.'” Pp. 212-20 in Brownlee, Marina Scordilis, and Dimitri Gondicas, eds. Renaissance encounters: Greek East and Latin West. Leiden: Brill.

Green, Dennis H. 2012. “The Rise of Medieval Fiction in the Twelfth Century.” Pp. 49-61 in in Agapitos, Panagiotis A., and Lars Boje Mortensen, eds. Medieval narratives between history and fiction: from the centre to the periphery of Europe, c. 1100-1400. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

Grimbert, Joan Tasker. 2005. “Cligés and the Chansons: A Slave to Love.” Ch. 10 (pp. 120-36) in Lacy, Norris J., and Joan T. Grimbert, eds. A companion to Chrétien de Troyes. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Polak, Lucie. 1974. “Tristan and Vis and Ramin.Romania. 95 (378): 216-234.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Cligès. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M., ed. and trans. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

damsel instructed hero on how to slay dragon

Digenis Akritis slays dragon

Dragon Castle was filled with gold, precious stones, and sumptuous furnishings. Yet the place seemed to be bereft of human beings. Amid all the splendor, Kallimachos felt lonely.

He entered a room made of gold. The gold and pearls of its ceiling depicted the heavens; the ruler Chronos, the father of castration culture; and the white planet of Zeus, Chronos’s son who would depose him. The star of Aphrodite glowed alluringly. The figure of Ares seemed to be frolicking with her. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, also appeared in the ceiling. Her figure apparently prompted the narrator only then to notice a solitary girl hanging from the ceiling by her hair.

My senses reel, my heart quivers! By the hair! Perverse invention of Fortune! She was hanging by the hair! Words fail me. I am speechless. I write this with a heavy heart. The girl in all her charms was hanging by the hair. [1]

After surveying the ceiling and upon seeing the girl hanging from her hair, Kallimachos froze in place like a stone. He was like a person viewing art:

He simply set his eyes on her and he stood there looking. He told himself that she too was one of the paintings. Such is the power of beauty to uproot the soul, to bewitch the tongue and voice, and to overwhelm the heart. Kallimachos stood gazing intently at the woman, at the many graces and great beauty of the maiden. His heart was wrenched. Saying nothing, he stood gazing at her with conflicting feelings. He was amazed at her beauty but he pitied her grief. In his shattered soul, he could only groan.

The girl hanging from her hair didn’t berate Kallimachos for the crime of the male gaze. She offered him practical, life-saving instruction:

This is the house, the abode of a man-eating dragon. Don’t you hear the thunder? Don’t you see the lighting? He’s coming! Go now, hide yourself. He is a dragon and he is strong. He is the offspring of a man-eater. If you conceal yourself in a hiding place and take care, with luck you will live. Look, you see the silver vessel lying there? Get down and crawl underneath it. Perhaps you may escape the dragon’s boundless strength. Go! Get down! Hide and keep quiet! He’s coming now!

As men generally do, Kallimachos followed the girl’s directions. From his hiding place, Kallimachos observed a fearsome dragon enter the room. The dragon flogged the girl from head to toe, ate a large, sumptuous meal, and then fell asleep.

Once the dragon was completely asleep, the damsel gave the hero further instructions. She spoke to the still-hiding Kallimachos:

Sir, are you still alive in your fear or are you dead? Do not be afraid! Show more courage! Come out. Abandon your fear if by chance you have survived the sight of my many tortures and the terror of the dragon. Come out now and quickly slay the beast.

The terrified Kallimachos emerged from his hiding place. He was silent and passive. The lady said to him:

Show no cowardice. This is your chance to kill the beast while it sleeps. and, for a start, to save your body and soul. You are wearing a sword. Draw it and strike the man-eater. Slay in your turn the one who has slain many human lives. Slay the bane of my entire heart.

Kallimachos followed the lady’s instructions:

Kallimachos stood up, sighed, and with a noble gesture valiantly raised his sword. He smote the sleeping dragon with all his might but the blow did not even wake him.

The maiden sighed disdainfully at the performance of Kallimachos’s sword. Then she gave him further instruction:

Throw away that wooden sword of yours or we’ll be slaughtered. Take the key on the pillow. You see the dragon’s cupboard there? Open it. You’ll find his sword. It has a magnificent ruby hilt. If you have the strength to draw it, if you do not tremble from fear but stand and strike with it, you will cut the monster in two.

Channeling his inner Odysseus, Kallimachos succeeding in drawing the dragon’s sword.[2] He struck the dragon with it and cut him in two. Kallimachos then freed the damsel hanging from her hair.

Kallimachos subsequently spent considerable time trying to chat up the girl. She, who was nude, was tearful and off-putting. Finally the lady said to him:

You see my poor body naked. First bring some of the clothes which the dragon hung up inside and kept after receiving them from my parents, and cover me with them. And carry out the greedy creature’s body as I hate to see its corpse even in death. Light a fire, turn it into fine ash, and then you will learn of my family, of my land and where I was born.

An enduring structure of gender oppression is requiring men to take out the trash, as if men as a gender are essentially connected to trash. Kallimachos lacked meninist consciousness. He thus followed the lady’s orders without a word of protest. With some additional seductive labor, Kallimachos eventually won the love of that damsel, the lady Chrysorroi.

The romance of Kallimachos and Chrysorroi probably was written in Constantinople between 1320 and 1340. Its story of Chrysorroi instructing Kallimachos on how to slay a dragon is obviously a romantic parody.[3] Its humor is heightened in contrast to the story of Digenis slaying a dragon in the Byzantine epic Digenis Akritis. The latter story probably dates from no later than the tenth century.[4] Digenis slaying a dragon would have provided well-known context for interpreting Chrysorroi instructing Kallimachos to slay a dragon.

For Digenis, slaying a dragon was merely a minor interruption to a mid-day nap. One day at noon, Digenis retired for a nap by a spring. His wife graciously sprinkled rose-water over him as nightingales and other birds sang. With Digenis sleeping soundly, his wife went to wet herself in the spring. A dragon attacked her and attempted to rape her. She shrieked, “Wake up, my lord, and rescue your dearest.” The sleeping hero responded to his damsel in distress:

The shriek rang in my heart,
and I promptly sat up and saw the intruder
(for the spring was straight in front of me on purpose);
I drew my sword and found myself at the spring,
for my feet ran swiftly like wings.
As I reached him he revealed a hideous apparition to me,
huge and terrifying to human eyes —
three gigantic heads, completely engulfed in fire;
from each it gushed out flame like lightning flashes;
as it changed its position it let out a thunderclap,
so that the earth and all the trees seemed to shake.
Thickening its body and drawing its heads into one,
growing thin behind and making a sharp tail,
at one moment coiling itself and then unfolding again,
it launched its whole attack against me.
But I, reckoning this spectacle as nothing,
stretched my sword up high with all my might
and brought it down on the ferocious beast’s heads,
and cut them all off at once. It collapsed on the ground,
twitching its tail up and down in its last spasms.
I wiped my sword and replaced it in its scabbard,
summoned my boys who where some way off
and ordered that the dragon be removed at once.
When this had been done at indescribable speed,
the boys ran back to their own tents,
while I went back to my couch to sleep once more,
for the sweet sleep I had been enjoying drew me back again
as I had not yet had my fill of it when I was first woken. [5]

As in Kallimachos and Chrysorroi, the dragon is associated with thunder and lightening. But unlike Kallimachos, Digenis responds quickly and acts on his own initiative. He slays the dragon easily, without the help of a woman’s instructions. He then directs a servant to dispose of the dragon’s body. Digenes wasn’t the sort of man who would act as woman’s servant in disposing of trash. Compared to Kallimachos, Digenis was a less modern sort of hero.

Men as a gender should not be assumed to have exclusive responsibility to slay dragons. The most dangerous dragons today are cultural. Women and men can best slay these dragons by recovering a sense of humor and being brave enough to laugh.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Kallimachos and Chrysorroi ll. 450ff, from medieval vernacular Greek trans. Betts (1995) p. 46. I’ve eliminated Betts’s parentheses and ellipses. Subsequent quotes are drawn from ll. 455-640, trans. id. 45-50.

[2] Cf. The suitors unable to string Odysseus’s bow in Odyssey, Bk. 21.

[3] Highly learned scholars have failed to recognize the parody. Cupane astonishingly declared, “Kallimachos is a hero and has to behave as one.” Cupane (2014) pp. 194-5. This misreading may have been driven by Manual Philes’s near-contemporary 161-verse allegorization of the story of Kallimachos and Chrysorroi. On that allegorization, id. pp. 196-7. Cupane more generally declared that the Byzantine vernacular romances are not parodies. Id. p. 193.

Byzantine literature has an undeserved reputation for tediousness. Kazhdan, Sherry & Angelidē (1999), Ch. 7, doesn’t do enough to dispel that misunderstanding. Alexiou (2002), pp. 129-48, on Ptochoprodromos provides better insight. Ptochoprodromos on an abused husband even rivals Lamentationes Matheolulus in raucousness and wit.

Haldon (2002) and Kyriakis (1973) provide more general reviews of the Byzantine comic sense. Haldon cites the Byzantine joke:

A man is walking down the street when a neighbour runs up to him and says, ‘Hey, your house is on fire!’ ‘Don’t worry,’ replies the man, ‘I’ve got the key.’

Haldon (2002) p. 64. Halsall, the editor of the associated volume of essays Humour, history and politics in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, declared:

This joke {is} possibly the best in this collection of essays (certainly that which got the biggest laugh at the conference where these papers were originally presented)

Halsall (2002) p. 1-21. Chrysorroi, while hanging by hair, instructing Kallimachos on how to deal with a dragon is surely funnier than that joke.

[4] The epic Digenis Akritis probably originated in an oral tale in Byzantium in the ninth or tenth centuries. The epic apparently never was established in a canonical text. Jeffreys (1998) pp. xxx-xli, lvi-lvii.

[5] Digenis Akritis (Grottaferrata ms.) 6.58-85, from medieval vernacular Greek trans. Jeffreys (1998) p. 157. The Grottaferrata manuscript of Digenis Akritis was written about 1300.

Kallimachos and Chrysorroi uses the word δράκων for the monster. Betts translates that word as “dragon.” For discussion of the translation issue, see Betts (1995) p. 35. For consistency in the above quoted translation of Digenis Akritis, I’ve substituted “dragon” for δράκον in place of Jeffreys’s “serpent.”

[image] Digenis Akritis fights dragon. Zeuxippus ceramic decoration, scratched on slip and under the glaze (sgraffito). Dated late-twelfth / early-thirteenth century. Found in Kherson, Ukraine. Preserved in Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia), inventory # X728. Image thanks to Qantara. I’ve modified the image to obscure some obtrusive photographic glare. Other images of Digenis fighting a dragon exist on a Byzantine dish and a Byzantine plate, both dating from the twelfth century.


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

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

Cupane, Carolina. 2014. “Other Worlds, Other Voices: Form and Function of the Marvelous in Late Byzantine Fiction.” Pp. 183-202 in Roilos, Panagiotis, ed. Medieval Greek storytelling: fictionality and narrative in Byzantium. Wiesbaden : Harrassowitz Verlag.

Haldon, John. 2002. “Humour and the everyday in Byzantium.” Ch. 2 (pp. 48-71) in Halsall, Guy, ed. Humour, history and politics in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jeffreys, Elizabeth, ed. and trans. 1998. Digenis Akritis: the Grottaferrata and Escorial versions. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Kyriakis, Michael J. 1973. “Satire and slapstick in seventh and twelfth century Byzantium.” Byzantina 5: 291-306

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