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.

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[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.

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