Grottaferrata Digenis Akritis: self-consciousness under gynocentrism

gynocentrism: the big picture

The Grottaferrata version of the medieval Greek epic Digenis Akritis encompasses subtle self-consciousness of men’s position under gynocentrism. Romanos the Melodist’s sixth-century kontakia on Mary at the foot of the cross reflects gynocentrism, but uncritically. The kontakia’s representation of gynocentrism seems to result mainly from particular circumstances of symbolic competition. Major literature of men’s sex protest such as Lamentationes Matheoluli directly confronts gynocentric dominance with unruly men’s recalcitrance. Unlike either, the Grottaferrata Digenis Akritis has a gynocentric orientation that’s both self-conscious and complex.

Consider the exchange of oaths between Digenis and the girl who became his wife. He declared to her:

In you is my every beginning and my end
that had its beginning with God, until my death;
and if ever I should wish to grieve you, my soul,
and if I do not preserve untroubled your love for me
and your most pure desire until my death,
may I not die a Christian, may I not prosper,
may I not win my parents’ blessings;
and may you, high-born girl, preserve the same feelings. [1]

Like Ruodlieb’s nephew pledging to his bride reciprocally “constant and enduring faith,” Digenis offered a reciprocal pledge to his beloved: “may you … preserve the same feelings.” She in response implicitly rejected gender symmetry in love and expressed ungenerous suspicion:

Leaving parents, brothers and household,
I entrust myself to you, youngster, with God;
grant me him as a witness that you will not grieve me
but make me your lawful wife till the end.
For many lovers have set aside their words,
despite having previously shown themselves passionate to the girls they desire.

Digenis had invoked a curse upon himself if he should grieve her. He had asked her to preserve the same feelings. She didn’t. Instead, she called on him to swear again before God that he would not grieve her. Digenis acquiesced, but with a complaining coda:

By the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,
I will never grieve you, highest-born of girls,
but I will make you mistress of my possessions and my lady,
my wife and spouse until the end of my life,
if you keep your desire for me pure,
as I said to you before, my dearest soul.

She said nothing further. The mighty warrior Digenis thus submitted to his future wife’s degrading conditions. He didn’t ask her to swear before God not to grieve him. He didn’t declare to her that many women betray their words to men. The narrator observed, “they had bound each other well through their oaths.”[2] That observation is best understood as a subtle, ironic critique of gynocentrism.

Digenis himself behaved ambivalently with respect to gynocentric imperatives and values. Under gynocentrism, women amorously favor the man who acts like the bigger jerk. When Digenis suddenly realized that imperative from the love affair of Aploravdis’s daughter, he raped her. He subsequently deeply regretted being such a jerk. When the Amazon Maximou came to behead him, Digenis fought her in accordance with the gynocentric value that only men should be killed. Digenis subsequently became furious with himself for upholding that gender injustice. He returned to slay Maximou. Digenis came from a prominent family in a matriarchal society. While he honored his parents, he chose to leave matriarchal society and live only with his wife. They never had children.[3]

While Digenis sought to live apart from gynocentrism, he never appreciated his own intrinsic value as a man. Digenis on his deathbed recounted to his wife his many heroic deeds:

{heroic deeds}
it was out of my boundless love for you, my dearest,
that I did all this, so that I could win you.

{more heroic deeds}
I dared to do these things for love of you,
for I preferred death to your grieving in any way.

{more heroic deeds}
These deeds I performed for the sake of your love,
to which I preferred neither the world nor life.

{another heroic deed}
And this deed I performed out of the excess of my love
for you, my very dearly beloved girl, so that I could win you.

{another heroic deed}
And many more other things for love of you, my soul,
I achieved, so that I might win you,
and I missed my aim, I failed in my expectations;
for know for certain that I am dying. [4]

Underscoring the folly of men orienting their life wholly toward winning a woman’s love, Digenis died young from a sickness he caught while taking a bath at home in a pleasure garden. That’s a most unheroic death. Digenis Akritis is a subtle tale of a man’s troubled and ultimately failing struggle to escape gynocentrism.

Literary scholars have failed to appreciate the profound, critical perspective on men’s lives in Digenis Akritis. The psychologically complex Digenis has been superficially derided as “violent and boorish.”[5] A subtle tale of a man’s struggle with gynocentrism had been crudely misrepresented as:

the philistine fantasy world of Digenes Akrites, a man’s man who lived in the country, never met an intellectual, and devoted himself to sex and violence.[6]

While disparaging “a man’s man,” intellectuals studying Digenis Akritis have engaged in lengthy, tedious tribal battles over the merits of the Grottaferrata version relative to the Escorial version. Few persons would be interested in meeting such intellectuals. A concluding comment to a book-length study subtitled “New Approaches to Byzantine Heroic Poetry” observed:

specifically literary study of Digenes Akrites, in any of its versions, remains a neglected area. [7]

More significant than neglect of literary study of Digenis Akritis has been lack of literary appreciation for men’s lives under gynocentrism. Digenis Akritis can be adequately appreciated only with sympathetic understanding of men in relation to women.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Digenis Akritis, Grottaferrata version, 4.555-62, from Greek trans. Jeffreys (1998) pp. 99, 101. The subsequent two quotes are from 4.570–5 and 4.578-83, id. p. 101. For “my every beginning and my end,” cf. Revelation 22:13.

[2] Digenis Akritis, Grottaferrata version, 4.584, trans. Jeffreys (1998) p. 101. In the Escorial version, the girl first makes a vow ending with “my God find you out, my lord, if you cause me pain.” Digenis then makes an oath in response to that concern:

Benevolent Lord God, creator of the ages:
if I think of causing you pain,
may wild beasts tear me apart
and may I not take pleasure in my youthfulness, my prodigious bravery,
and may I not be buried as a Christian and may I never prosper,
may I never inherit my mother’s blessing
and may I never take pleasure in your prodigious love,
if ever I think of causing you pain.
But you, dark-eyed one, see that you give no offence.

Digenis Akritis, Escorial version ll. 902-10, trans. Jeffreys (1998) p. 307. In the Escorial version, the girl doesn’t implicitly reject Digenis’s call for reciprocity. Digenis also more directly insists on the girl’s reciprocal obligation. These differences suggest that the Grottaferrata’s version of the oaths represents a sophisticated literary choice.

While both version represent Byzantine matriarchy, the Escorial version is more directly matriarchal than the Grottaferrata version. For the curse, the Escorial declares “may I never inherit my mother’s blessing”; the Grottaferrata has “may I not win my parents’ blessings.” The Escorial has lengthy prayers of Digenis’s mother for him before he went to abduct the girl who became his wife. It also states that Digenis attacked the guerillas “on foot supported only by my mother’s blessing.” Escorial 811-23 (mother’s prayers), 1212 (attacking with mother’s blessing). Neither of those features is in the Grottaferrata version.

[3] Trilling interprets the childlessness of Digenis and his wife with a crude allegory:

In allegorical terms he has no children because his life, however remarkable in itself, leads nowhere.

Trilling (2016) p. 159. Byzantium was a Christian society in which celibate men and women were highly honored. Celibacy, which in a strict form implies childlessness, was a well-recognized path to holiness. Moreover, being a warrior didn’t exclude a childless quest for holiness. Digenis Akritis explicitly invoked childless military saints: Theodore of Heraclea, Theodore of Amasea, George, and Demetrios of Thessaloniki. The childlessness of Digenis is better understood as setting him apart from the familial relations of matriarchy and gynocentrism.

[4] Digenis Akritis, Grottaferrata version, 8.63-124, trans. Jeffreys (1998) pp. 221, 223. Both l. 8.123 and 8.124  begin with καί; l. 8.124 could also be translated as “and know for certain that I am dying.” In any case, Digenis failure wasn’t necessarily that he didn’t win the girl’s true, worldly love. His aim and his expectation may well have been to have a long life in love with the girl. By dying young, he failed in that aim and expectation. Cf. Galatariotou (1987) pp. 65-6.

[5] Kaldellis (2007) p. 269.

[6] Magdalino (1984) p. 69.

[7] Ricks (1993) p. 170.

[image] Detail from Cameo Shores by Austin Neill. Available from unsplash under a Creative Commons Zero license.


Galatariotou, Catia. 1987. “Structural Oppositions in the Grottaferrata Digenes Akrites.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 11 (1): 29-68.

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

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

Magdalino, Paul. 1984. “Byzantine Snobbery.” Pp. 58-78 in Angold, Michael, ed. The Byzantine aristocracy, IX to XIII centuries. Oxford, England: B.A.R.

Ricks, David. 1993. “Digenes Akrites as literature.” Ch. 14 (pp. 161-70) in Beaton, Roderick and David Ricks, eds. Digenes Akrites: New Approaches to Byzantine Heroic Poetry. Center for Hellenic Studies, King’s College, London.

Trilling, James. 2016. “Re-Introducing Digenis Akritis: A Byzantine Poem of Strength, Weakness, and the Disturbing Absence of God.” Viator. 47 (3): 149-170.

Timarion learned that intellectual life is better in Byzantine Hell

Byzantine icon: harrowing Hell

Vomiting and diarrhea gripped Timarion. Completely drained and unable to produce any publishable articles, he attempted to sleep. Two spirits came to conduct away his soul. One said to the other:

Here is the man who lost the fourth of this constituent elements by vomiting up all his bile. He cannot be allowed to go on living on the strength of his remaining three. Aesculapius and Hippocrates have said as much in the decree they wrote down and posted in Hades whereby no man, even if his body be in good shape, shall go on living if he has been deprived of one of his four elements. [1]

Which of the two types of bile Timarion lost isn’t worth a bitter argument. Timarion was dead according to the decree of leading medical authorities. The spirits thus pulled his soul out of his body through his nose and mouth, as through a yawn, and conducted it to the abode of the dead. Yet Timarion wasn’t actually dead. Moreover, public reason in Byzantine Hell was good enough to restore life wrongly taken from a corpse.

In Byzantine Hell, Timarion brought suit against the officials who had conducted his soul to Hades. Called before a judicial panel to defend their actions, those spirits testified:

As for the poor devil Timarion, we had observed him in the process of losing through dysentery his fourth element all the way from Thessalonica to the greatest river in Thrace. Acquainted as we are with the law laid down by the greatest medical brains to the effect that no man shall violate the law of nature by living on the basis of three elements, when we saw all his bile emptied out over a space of thirty days, we went to his bed and summoned forth his soul, since it was not lawful for it to remain in a body so deprived. But, your most worshipful judges, it is for you to render your verdict; we will submit ourselves to the law. [2]

Declaring that the case required expert medical knowledge, the judges summoned Aesculapius and Hippocrates. They in turn called for Erasistratus. With the most revered medical authorities in Hell attending, how could the case not be judged rightly?

The medical authorities quickly displayed their expertise. They demanded that the defendants diagnose the disease and the state of Timarion’s soul. The defendants responded:

Greatest of the physicians, we have in no way disobeyed or dishonored your regulations. After all, it was you and your colleagues on earth who established the hard and fast rule that no one should keep on living or breathing who was not fully comprised of the four elements — blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile — and that whoever happened to be deprived of one of these four should under no circumstances be allowed to live.

Therefore, in fulfillment of our allotted duty in the upper world, on seeing this poor wretch continuously coughing up bile mixed with blood for thirty days and nights, we perceived on the basis of our medical expertise that he could not be allowed to live any longer. We ask you, how could he possibly have had any of this elemental humor left in him after coughing it up in such quantities for so many days? You may then rest assured that we had no need to use force to separate his soul from his body. Quite the contrary, we went in gently through the nostrils and drew it up with a light sucking action. It put up no resistance, since his body was by that time completely exhausted from its continuous secretions.

Timarion’s advocate Theodore of Smyrna rose in rebuttal:

Your Honors, and you, too, presidents and executive members of the medical association, you have just heard the babbling excuses of these accursed devils and the pathetic and illogical pretense of an argument they have attempted to string together. Now, in rebuttal, I shall show how they have hoisted themselves with their own petard.

Theodore pointed out that a soul is rightly conducted to Hades only after proper religious rituals have been performed. For Christian souls, funeral rites are performed on the third, ninth, and fortieth days after death. Timarion received no such rites before being conducted to Hades. Moreover, Timarion’s soul still had bits of living flesh sticking to it. Theodore called for “some officials with good eyesight” (not leading physicians or leading theologians) to examine thoroughly the state of Timarion’s soul.[3] Two officials did so and reported to the court:

External examination shows the entire soul to be defiled by gore, of a color commonly found on men who fall in battle, the result of sweat mixing with blood. But our detailed internal investigation discloses that some parts of the soul are still suffused with pure blood and still emit some particles of living breath. Furthermore, some pieces of flesh are stuck to it, containing blood and the essence of life.

Timarion’s advocate drew out the implications for the court:

There you have it, gentlemen, the vindication of my own argument. For if the soul was still managing to cling obstinately to the body, how could its fourth element have been entirely drained away? According to the theories of the most distinguished doctors, nature surrenders a soul without a struggle when it actually has lost an element. But in this case, it was not the element itself that was voided, but rather the food ingested every day was forcibly expelled when turned into a secretion that was bile-like but not real bile, as a result of inflammation of the liver. This is quite clear from the results of the second examination. That part of the soul of Timarion which was near to the liver when the bleeding began is all rendered down into bile. And, organically speaking, it is precisely there that our daily intake of food, once transformed into a bile-like substance, produces and gets rid of our bodily refuse which is equally bile-like. There can be only one conclusion. What was secreted was not pure elemental bile but ordinary bodily wastes that are voided along with bile, more than usual in this particular case because of the inflamed condition of the liver.

The judges, not surprisingly, ruled that the defendants had transgressed the laws of the dead in conducting Timarion’s soul to Hades. The judges ordered that the defendants be removed from their office and that Timarion be restored to life in his body. In short, judges in Byzantine Hell established that an authoritative decree should not be followed in contradiction to facts of life. That’s better quality public reason than typically prevails elsewhere, especially today.

Timarion’s advocate Theodore of Smyrna directly declared the superiority of intellectual life in Byzantine Hell. He stated:

Let me tell you, in the life above it was verbal dexterity and crowd-pleasing wit that counted. Down here, it is all philosophy and true culture, with less demagogic display. [4]

Theodore of Smyrna followed prominent Byzantine intellectuals Michael Psellos and Ioannes Italos in holding the title “Chief of the Philosophers” in Constantinople.[5] He participated in high-level political-ecclesiastical meetings and wrote learned commentary on Aristotle. Well-known for his resonant delivery and impressive size, he was the biggest sophist in Constantinople early in the twelfth century. In Byzantine Hell, a vegetarian diet greatly reduced Theodore’s size and improved his bodily health. His testimony to the superiority of intellectual life in Byzantine Hell carries great weight. His words should settle the matter in intellectual life today.[6]

Outside of Byzantine Hell, a man cries in despair at the public response to a woman kick-boxer assaulting her celebrity boyfriend. She punched him in the face, broke his nose, and split in his lip. In response, he promoted a fund-raising campaign for White Ribbon Australia. That’s the domestic violence organization that bullied the founder of the first modern domestic violence shelter because she refused to misrepresent the facts about domestic violence against men. Eminent authorities and their decrees dominate the reality of men’s lives in public discussion today. We would all have more reasonable lives in Byzantine Hell.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Timarion 13, from Greek trans. Baldwin (1984) p. 51. Two of the four constituent elements (humors in ancient medical theory) are bile: yellow bile and black bile. The Timarion never substantially distinguishes between these two bile elements.

The Timarion is generally thought to have been written in twelfth-century Constantinople. Its author isn’t convincingly known. For a brief, accessible review of thoughts on dating and authorship, Strain (2013) pp. 2-3.

The Timarion has survived in only one manuscript, Codex Vaticanus graecus 87. That manuscript also contains works of Lucian. The Timarion has considerable intertextuality with Lucian’s works. Lucian, however, surely didn’t write it. The Timarion contains many factual references to Byzantine history and real Byzantine persons.

All subsequent quotes from the Timarion will be cited by source section and page number in Baldwin’s translation. I’ve changed a few words to their standard spelling in American English.

[2] Timarion 35, p. 66. The conductors of souls reason like the Pharisees examining the blind man whom Jesus cured with mud on the Sabbath. John 9:1-41.

Subsequent quotes are from the Timarion 38, pp. 68-9 (Greatest of the physicians…); 39, p. 69 (Your Honors…); 40, p. 70 (External examination…), 40, pp. 70-1 (There you have it…) 24, p. 59 (Let me tell you…).

[3] The officials’ names transliterated into English are Oxyderkion and Nyktoleustes. Translated into English they are Sharpeye and Nightspy. Baldwin (1984) p. 127, n. 219, crediting Tozer (1881). Krallis observes:

The judges’ verdict appears based purely on a medical rather than moral diagnosis.

Krallis (2010) p. 222. The charge before the court turns on a medical, not moral issue. Yet none of the eminent medical authorities Aesculapius, Hippocrates,  Erasistratus, and Galen provides the medical diagnosis. It comes via officials whose only recognized credential is keen eyesight. That’s good satirical play in a work where the descent to Hades functions “as a platform where intellectual, authorial, and fictional issues may be displayed and discussed.” Nilsson (2016) p. 181. See also Bzinkowsky (2015).

While including real persons and events and satirizing actual practices, the Timarion is imaginative literature that draws upon conventional mythological and literary motifs such as katabasis. Krallis observes:

Given the medical staff present at the trial, and the information provided by Theodore of Smyrna on its members, we can draw a few conclusions about Timarion’s condition. Theodore’s fear of Galen is evidence that there was indeed a medical condition. … What could have excited Timarion enough to make him sick?

Id p. 238. Such analysis lacks both reason (its assertions have no necessary relation to each other) and imagination (the subject is fictional literature). Taking literally Konstantinos Akropolites’s letter conveying the Timarion is a similar mistake. See Kaldellis (2007) p. 277, Krallis (2010) p. 221.

[5] Nilsson recognizes the importance of this statement to the Timarion as a whole. She explains:

I read it in light of the situation and attitudes of twelfth-century professional rhetors, whose authorial personae expressed the idea that they were forced to exhibit qua entertain, which prevented engagement in “true” philosophy, i.e., paideia and logoi. Seen from this perspective, the Hades of the Timarion offers weary rhetoricians a rest from the constraints of their trade, reminiscent rather of the Isle of the Blessed where Homer was placed in Lucian’s True Histories. Such an interpretation does not exclude philosophical or political connotations; it simply puts the focus on the metaliterary potential and sociocultural significance of the work.

Nilsson (2016) p. 190.

[5] According to the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (ed. Kazhdan), Theodore of Smyrna was:

high-ranking official and scholar; born mid-11th C., died after 1112. He was magistros and judge in 1082 and later held the post of quaestor with the titles of protoproedros and protokouropalates (Laurent, Corpus 2, nos. 1118–19). After the deposition of John Italos, Theodore was appointed hypatos ton philosophon. In 1112 he engaged in discussions in Constantinople with the Latin theologian Peter Grossolano.

Other information about Theodore in the paragraph above comes from Baldwin (1984) p. 113, n. 149, and the Timarion itself.

The title hypatos ton philosophon {Chief of the Philosophers} was created for Michael Psellos about 1047. The title subsequently passed to Ioannes Italos (John Italos) and then Theodore of Smyrna. The Timarion refers to that title with the phrase “sophistic chair in Constantinople.” Timarion 23, p. 58. A more literal translation is “Throne of Sophistry in Constantinople.” The medieval Greek text of the Timarion doesn’t use the word philosophy. Its diction emphasizes that Theodore is a sophist. Krallis (2010) p. 229, n. 40.

[6] Educational institutions are part of the problem. Kaldellis observes:

The Timarion, in other words, presents a satirical but nevertheless serious history of education in Byzantium. … the text basically offers a politicized commentary on the history of higher education in late eleventh- and early twelfth-century Constantinople, one that I believe should be taken seriously today.

Kaldellis (2012) pp. 281, 287. Strain’s poignant conclusion should trouble academics today:

Those who can enjoy the entertainment {that the Timarion provides} are reminded that they are, perhaps, clever enough to serve and entertain their masters. But should they tell, or hide, from rulers and paymasters, the folly and fragility of the world they help them rule?

Strain (2013) pp. 14-5. A world in which authoritative knowledge claims dominate reality is foolish and fragile. Those paid to promote the dominant ideology hide from their paymasters the truth at their own peril.

[image] Harrowing of Hell. Detail from mid-15th century Byzantine icon. Attributed to Andreas Ritzos. Held in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (Russia). Thanks to Shakko and Wikimedia Commons.


Baldwin, Barry, trans. and commentary. 1984. Timarion. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Bzinkowsky, Michal. 2015. “Notes on eschatological patterns in a 12th century anonymous satirical dialogue the Timarion.” Eos. 102(1): 129-148.

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

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2012. “The Timarion: Toward a Literary Interpretation.” Pp. 275-288 in Odorico, Paolo, ed. 2012. La face cachée de la littérature byzantine le texte en tant que message immédiat: actes du colloque international, Paris, 5-6-7 juin 2008. Paris: Centre d’études byzantines, néo-helléniques et sud-est européennes, École des hautes études en sciences sociales.

Krallis, Dimitris. 2010. “Harmless satire, stinging critique: Notes and suggestions for reading the Timarion.” Ch. 12 (pp. 221-245) 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.

Nilsson, Ingela. 2016. “Poets and Teachers in the Underworld: From the Lucianic katabasis to the Timarion.” Symbolae Osloenses. 90 (1): 180-204.

Strain, Michael. 2013. “How does satire work in the Timarion and whom/what it is aimed at?” Teaching Material for MA Byzantine Studies, Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham.

Konstantinos Akropolites burning the book of neo-pagan Timarion

book burning

The Byzantine Emperor promoted Konstantinos Akropolites to grand logothete in Constantinople about 1294. Akropolites thus became the administrative head of the Byzantine bureaucracy. As the son of Giorgos Akropolites, an eminent bureaucrat and historian who lived from 1217 to 1282, Konstantinos Akropolites undoubtedly had extensive knowledge of bureaucracy in action.[1] Such experience encourages indirect expression and a wry sense of humor. In a letter to a friend, Akropolites harshly disparaged the outrageously impious and amusing Byzantine literary work the Timarion. Akropolites’s letter should be read as sophisticated rhetoric testing intellectual broad-mindedness.

Like the ninth-century Arabic rhetorician al-Jahiz writing on misers, Konstantinos Akropolites engaged in subtle irony in disparaging the Timarion. Akropolites blandly praised the Timarion’s account of the festival of Saint Demetrius of Thessalonike:

I cannot imagine what motivated him to attack the Christian faith. It is all the more strange since, by starting with the festival of the famous martyr St. Demetrius, he did make a good and appropriately solemn start before degenerating into his quite unsuitable tale. [2]

Saint Demetrius was the patron saint of the western European crusaders who took Antioch from the Turks in 1098, and then brutally took Constantinople from the Byzantines in 1204. In Byzantine eyes the crusaders were barbarians. The barbarians enlisting Demetrius as their patron saint directly concerned Byzantium:

there is no doubt that Byzantium was very much on the minds of crusaders at Antioch. They had sound reasons to expect Emperor Alexius to come to their aid and grew increasingly disappointed when he did not. … the appearance of Eastern saints in two of the early narratives of the battle of Antioch was intended to make a powerful statement not only about the worthiness of the crusaders, but also about the unworthiness of Byzantium. When Demetrius and other saints joined the crusaders, they abandoned the Byzantines. … the claim that Demetrius intervened on the side of crusaders was conceivably a reproach to Emperor Alexius in person. [3]

The Timarion used the festival of Saint Demetrius in Thessalonike to represent political difference:

The staging itself of this story in Thessalonike inevitably highlights the crucial divide between the Western present of the empire and its Eastern past. Timarion is a Cappodocian visiting this city in the Western part of the empire. He draws his origins from lost Byzantine territory, which, at that time, lay beyond the empire’s eastern frontier. His presence in Thessalonike puts the loss of the east in stark relief. Timarion accentuate this loss by listing the nations visiting the fair. These are mostly Western Europeans, as well as “Greeks” from Boeotia and the Peloponnese. The few Eastern visitors are from areas outside the empire, like Egypt, Phoenica and the Black Sea. … If Thessalonike attracts the Western Byzantines and numerous foreigners, the representatives of the Byzantine East are to be found in Hades. [4]

Konstantinos Akropolites probably recognized the struggle for Saint Demetrius and the political differences that the Timarion represented in Thessalonike and Hades. Akropolites staunchly opposed Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos moving toward union with the Church of Rome. Akropolites’s praise of the Timarion’s “good and appropriately solemn start” — the tale of Timarion’s journey from Constantinople to Thessalonike and his experience of the worldly festival of Saint Demetrius there — creates suspicion of irony.

The conclusion of Akropolites’s letter makes its ironic rhetoric more clear. The Timarion probably was written in the twelfth century. Writing more than a century later, Akropolites describes the author of the Timarion as an “oldish barbarian who came late in life to catch up with things here in Constantinople.” That extra-textual assertion reverses the polarities of Timarion’s journey to Thessalonike. If the Timarion’s author actually was an “oldish barbarian” who migrated to Constantinople, he quickly gained detailed knowledge of Byzantine intellectual figures and culture. In any case, Akropolites then ostensibly moved toward an extremely crude form of intellectual interaction:

as soon as I had got to the end of his book {the Timarion}, I felt I should consign it to the flames so that in the future it would not fall into the hands of any Christian. And my intention would have become a fait accompli had not the sense of respect for a fellow believer which I have long maintained intervened to stop me. This held my hand, so to speak, and restrained me from my intent, thus saving this insane book from the fate which I think it so richly deserves.

So, my godlike friend, I have disclosed to you what I think about the enclosed volume. In return, I want very much to have your opinion.

The Timarion has survived in only one manuscript. Imaging Akropolites having pulled back from throwing that manuscript into his fire isn’t reasonable. Akropolites almost surely wouldn’t have encountered the sole manuscript of a barbarian author who wrote more than a century earlier, and he wouldn’t have known extra-textual information about that author. The Timarion almost surely was a work that circulated in multiple manuscripts and gained some notoriety for its author. The Timarion almost surely fell into the hands of Christians many times before Akropolites encountered it.

Akropolites’s letter is literally unreasonable. After harshly and unequivocally condemning the Timarion for madly disrespecting Christian truths and reviving pagan myths, to his godlike friend Akropolites declared “I want very much to have your opinion.” If the Timarion truly offended Akropolites, or if he actually believed that outrageously impious work should be harshly repressed, he wouldn’t have circulated it further. With a literal reading of his letter, Akropolites sending the Timarion to his godlike friend and seeking his opinion makes no sense.[5]

Akropolites asserted that his piousness toward his godlike friend stayed his hand and stopped him from burning the Timarion. Backing away from burning a book is at the center of an elaborate, concluding rhetorical figure in the mid-fifteenth-century Spanish masterpiece of men’s sexed protest, The Archpriest of Talavera. Akropolites’s concluding rhetoric is best interpreted as figuratively drawing upon Abraham’s binding of Isaac.[6]

Here is the inner meaning of Akropolites’s letter about the Timarion. I send you an outrageously impious text. If you are a sophisticated intellectual, read it and enjoy it. No harm will come of this.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Biographical information about Konstantine Akropolites is from Baldwin (1984) p. 26 and the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (Kazhdan, ed.), heading Constantine Akropolites. He wrote more than thirty lives of saints. That shouldn’t be understood to mean that he was an austerely pious persons. Akropolites died in or before May 1324.

[2] Konstantine Akropolites, letter to a friend, from Greek trans. Baldwin (1984) pp. 25-6. All subsequent quotes from the letter are from id.

[3] Lapina (2009) pp. 106-7.

[4] Krallis (2010) pp. 230-1. The Timarion’s description of the Saint Demetrios festival in Thessaloniki rewrites the description of the festival at Delphi in Heliodoros’s Aithiopika. MacDougall (2016). MacDougall observes:

The shade of the hero Neoptolemos/Pyrrhus – who had been unjustly murdered at Delphi by Orestes – appeared when Delphi was attacked by the Gauls in 279 BCE. As a cultic hero and defender of the city, Neoptolemos is a parallel to the martyr Demetrios, whose cult and fame exploded precisely in response to his role in defending Thessaloniki from a different set of barbarian invaders from the North: the Slavs and Avars. It was in this guise – as a bulwark of the city against foreign invaders – that Demetrios was most well-known throughout Byzantine history, even as he is to the present day.

Id. p. 149. That account ignores the crusaders’ appropriation of St. Demetrios after their victory in the Battle of Antioch in 1098. Assuming that the author of the Timarion recognized the crusaders’ appropriation of St. Demetrios (which also implies that the Timarion was written after 1098) seems to me to better fit with the Timarion’s satire and Akropolites’s irony.

[5] Both Kaldellis and Krallis read Akropolites’s letter literally and give it considerable weight in their interpretations of the Timarion. Kaldellis (2007) p. 277; Krallis (2010) p. 221.

[6] Genesis 22:1-19.

[image] Book burning. Color-enhanced detail from oil-on-panel painting entitled St. Dominic de Guzman and the Albigensians. Painted by Pedro Berruguete from 1493 to 1499. Held in Prado Museum (Madrid, Spain) item P00609. Color-enhanced detail via derechoaleer. Full image thanks to the Prado Museum and Wikimedia Commons.


Baldwin, Barry, trans. and commentary. 1984. Timarion. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

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

Krallis, Dimitris. 2010. “Harmless satire, stinging critique: Notes and suggestions for reading the Timarion.” Ch. 12 (pp. 221-245) 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.

Lapina, Elizabeth. 2009. “Demetrius of Thessaloniki: Patron Saint of Crusaders.” Viator. 40 (2): 93-112.

MacDougall, Byron. 2016. “The festival of Saint Demetrios, the Timarion, and the Aithiopika.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 40 (01): 136-150.