love central to progymnasmata of Nikephoros Basilakes

Danaë under golden shower

Today, many highly educated persons have little understanding of love. Those persons haven’t been properly educated. In medieval Byzantium, education in persuasive speech centered on love. Particularly influential in Byzantine education were the rhetorical exercises (progymnasmata) of the twelfth-century Byzantine intellectual Nikephoros Basilakes.[1] He was a rhetoric teacher associated with the church of Hagia Sophia and the orthodox patriarch in Constantinople. Basilakes’s progymnasmata draw on both classical and biblical stories of love. For persons wishing to be properly educated about love, Basilakes’s progymnasmata remain eminently worthy of study.

Basilakes forthrightly recognized a wide range of amorous interactions. For example, worldly persons might know what a “golden shower” now means. Drawing upon classical literature, Basilakes recounted that a golden shower came over the virgin Danaë and wet “the great meadow of her beauty.”[2] The story begins with Danaë’s father, who internalized contempt for men’s sexuality, hiding Danaë in a bronze chamber to keep her away from men. But all-seeing Zeus perceived her beauty, beauty which was “like the moon at night, like a rose in bud, like purple in a murex shell, like a pearl in an oyster.” Zeus devised a way to enter Danaë’s bronze chamber:

he changed his own form into gold, so that as gold he might be stronger than bronze and as a god wiser than a human, and he might become a golden lover to the girl who was golden in her beauty. The virgin girl embraced the god-turned-gold who flowed down from the ceiling.

Danaë admired Zeus’s seductive techniques and honored him with three types of honors. Yet she also recognized that sexual desire trumps all:

O Zeus, highest of the gods and plaything of Love, you who hold power over all men but are defeated by a virgin, long ago Love made you winged like a bird and convinced you to sing like a swan; long ago he fitted you with hooves like an ox and compelled you to bellow like a bull; and now he has colored your skin like gold and presented you as a gift. I venerate you as Zeus. I adore you as gold, and I embrace you as a lover. [3]

Possibilities in sexual desire are beyond understanding. Educated persons should understand that.

Pasiphaë, the wife of King Minos, urgently sought to have sex with a bull, which has an anatomy similar to that of a donkey. Teaching this story from classical literature, Basilakes narrated Pasiphaë exclaiming:

What a thing I saw, O gods, and how much did I suffer in my soul! An all-beautiful wonder of a bull dazzled my eyes, a bull as beautiful as a statue, entirely charming, entirely lovely … He perceives his own beauty, and is not unaware that he is handsome. Indeed, arching his neck, he struts somewhat haughtily, and leaps about in the thick woods, walking rhythmically and moving like a dancer. [4]

Pasiphaë imagined having sex with the bull and creating a joyful life for him:

this finest of all the bulls has come to me; he has come to me. Touch your lover, and become a lover of humans. I will endure erotic bellowing; just respond to my voice. If I cry, console me with a tender leap. If I wish to embrace you, lower your head gently and let this be a sign of your kiss. … I will lavish upon you whole crops of food, and you will cavort without restraint and live sumptuously in freedom. I will grant to you all the herds of cattle, and you will rule over all the bulls

Few men have enjoyed such amorous generosity from women. Yet Pasiphaë couldn’t turn her imagination into reality. She spoke softly and seductively to the bull. He in response bellowed dreadfully. When she smiled longingly at him, he seemed not to notice. Love faced off against nature:

Love drove Pasiphaë mad for a bull, but it was impossible for her to consummate her desire. Though human, she loved a bull, and the bull became a woman’s beloved. Their love was in all ways mismatched. … The bull’s beauty was beguiling Pasiphaë, but the unnatural character of her love was causing her grief. She longed to gaze upon him because he was a spirited beast. She prayed to take on the appearance of a cow, so that she might entrap the bull with her disguise, but the gods did not consent. [5]

Poor Pasiphaë, wife of King Minos, couldn’t consummate her passionate love for a bull.

Fortunately, a man invented a device by which Pasiphaë could realize her desire. The famous inventor and craftsman Daedalus cast out of bronze a hollow cow with cleverly placed openings. Through a hidden hole in its belly, the naked Pasiphaë could enter into the bronze cow. When the bull saw the bronze cow, he mounted it and thrust into it. He was actually thrusting into the delighted Pasiphaë. The take-away for those acquiring a classical education is that, no matter what women desire, men, misunderstanding love, will strive to help women to realize their desires.

Even when a daughter rapes her father, powerful males will speak out in support of the daughter. Basilakes narrated for students the classical Greek story of Myrrha. Although students today are commonly taught to despise their oppressive fathers, children in most cultures have been instructed to honor their parents. Parents historically have usually included fathers. Myrrha both honored her father and unnaturally loved him:

she grazed upon her father with desiring eyes and lavished too much attention on his handsome appearance, and while she pretended to hug him as a father, in reality she embraced him as a lover. Thus she played the maid to Love in the bedchamber of her soul, for bringing her feelings to light held out the prospect of no small danger. [6]

Myrrha got her father drunk and had sex with him. A man cannot consent to sex when he is drunk. Myrrha, in other words, raped her father. The gods, however, felt sorry for her. So that she wouldn’t have to face her father’s rightful anger at her raping him, the gods transformed her into a myrrh tree. The gods also enabled her as a tree to give birth to a beautiful mortal son named Adonis. When a woodcutter sought to cut down the tree Myrrha, the god Love intervened. Love exclaimed to the woodcutter:

Hold your ax, O woodcutter! Hold on! Do not whet the blade against Myrrha! It is not an oak, a tree of Pan who lives in the mountains, to be chopped down by woodcutters, nor is it an ash, a tree dear to Ares, to be cut down with the blade and be furnished, in turn, with a point. But it is a drama of Love, a stage for Aphrodite, a beautiful girl who put on the mask of a tree. She fears her father’s threat and has assumed a nature that feels nothing. [7]

When a woman says she’s afraid, men rally to her defense and feel justified in doing anything to assuage her fear. The god Love exonerated Myrrha for raping her father:

Myrrha, then, was beautiful, and her father was no less beautiful than his daughter, but he obeyed the laws of nature and did not comply with mine. He was ignorant of how Love brings forth nature and how all creation comes from Love. … He did not look upon the girl as a lover would, but as a father he kept his daughter locked away. In response, I made Bacchus an ally of the girl and divided the war with a double fire, so that the child would burn in her soul with desire for her father, and her father, though chaste, would be driven by wine to a frenzy for his daughter. And when the war devised by me had reached its conclusion, I set up the girl herself as a trophy, and so anyone who sees this Myrrha in the form of a tree will recall this battle and marvel at its general.

As a good classical education makes clear, love motivates men to rationalize women’s actions, no matter how heinous the crime a woman has committed.

In educating students about love, Basilakes depicted through the biblical story of Joseph shocking shifts from love to hate. The biblical Joseph was beautiful and blessed above his brothers. Their envy turned brotherly love to hate. They caused Joseph to become a slave in Egypt. Joseph’s Egyptian mistress-owner pressured him for sex. He rebuffed her, running away leaving her holding his tunic. She then retaliated against him through the criminal justice system. Joseph explained:

the love that remains in her is angry at its defeat; it marches out a second time, and presenting the tunic as spoils from rape, it cobbles together another sort of battle to augment the scheme. She turns what happened upside down, and brings charges of rape and a licentious intent against one who is chaste, one who has been violated, one who has suffered. She exhibits as evidence what I left behind to preserve my chastity. After this, I became a prisoner and now am suffering the fate of criminals, though I have engaged in no crime, and I am paying the penalty for wicked acts that I have not committed. [8]

A serious problem now commonly trivialized, false accusations of rape are well-attested throughout world literature. Many universities have established tyrannical sex-crime tribunals thoroughly biased against men. For their own understanding and safety in such circumstances, students should know the story of Joseph.

Basilakes encouraged men to shed their delusions about love. Societies historically have disposed of men’s bodies in war without respect for men’s choices and feelings. Both through social ideology of courtly love and men’s own personal delusions, love can be for men a horror like war:

the earth carved out a trench like a mouth and gaped underneath with a broad throat, not so that some stream of water, issuing clear from many springs, would gush forth for a parched city, a symbol of sweet Love, but so that an Argive soldier would be swallowed up, weapons and all. Alas, this evil furrow! No farmhand worked it, no ox turned it, no plow dug it, but Poseidon opened it with his trident and buried within it a wise prophet instead of a seed. [9]

Here disastrous war figuratively displaces heterosexuality. Hear these words: promote good literary education to help society avoid that catastrophe!

In deeply Christian Byzantium, education in speaking centered on love. From a Christian perspective, God’s love for the world was expressed in God’s word being incarnated in God’s only son Jesus Christ. Many classical scholars today consider that to be a ridiculous story. But those classical scholars are narrow-minded and have little critical perspective on classical literature itself. The best classical scholars, like the Byzantine Nikephoros Basilakes, bring classical literature on love together with Christian and other literature on love.[10] In teaching students to speak persuasively, good classical scholars teach well about love, the central concern of life.

He was ignorant of how Love brings forth nature and how all creation comes from Love. Zeus is the father of both men and gods, but I {Love} am the forefather of Zeus himself, more ancient than Cronus, more primal than Uranus. Zeus received the sky as his lot, Poseidon the sea, and Hades rules the underworld. But I rule all these places together and am known as the god who dominates everyone, as the inescapable winged one, the invincible archer, the all-seeing torchbearer. [11]

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[1] Basilakes lived from about 1115 to some time after 1182. Like other creative and insightful scholars, he served for a time in government bureaucracy, probably as an imperial notary. As an instructor of rhetoric, Basilakes was appointed about 1140 to the ecclesiastical post “Teacher of the Apostle {Paul}.” Beneker & Gibson (2016), Introduction, p. vii.

Basilakes was a highly influential Byzantine educator. Roilos observed:

In his Prologue (Πρόλογος), written as an introduction to an anthology of his works, Nikephoros Basilakes boasts of his success as a teacher of schedographia (educational compositions). He was so successful that his methods were broadly known as basilakizein. He emphasizes the innovative character of his style and method, which most probably consisted of a combination of the “old” and “new” schedographia, while he describes his rivals as ignorant, ridiculous, and solecistic.

Roilos (2005) p. 31 (Ch. 2), internal notes omitted. In their concern for emotion, first-person subjectivity, fictionality, and rhetoric, Basilakes’s progymnasmata are similar to roughly contemporaneous writings of Michael Psellos and four surviving Byzantine novels. Papaioannou (2013) pp. 247-9, Roilos (2005) pp. 40, 112. Not adequately appreciating the vast disparity between Byzantine texts and surviving Byzantine texts, Papaioannou declared:

Basilakes’s rhetorical exercises on erotic topics are the first instances of this new discourse: his erotic progymnasmata are the first Byzantine erotic fictional texts since late antiquity

Papaioannou (2007) p. 358. Many Byzantine instructors throughout Byzantine history more probably wrote progymnasmata concerning love in both classical and biblical stories, but those progymnasmata, being much less famous than Basilakes’s, haven’t survived.

[2] Nikephoros Basilakes, Progymnasmata Narrations 5 (“The Story of Danaë”), from Greek trans. Beneker & Gibson (2016) p. 29. The subsequent two quotes (like the moon…; he changed his own form into gold… ) are from id. p. 31. All subsequent page numbers in reference to Basilakes’s Progymnasmata refer to id.’s translation.

[3] Basilakes, Progymnasmata Ethopoeiae 17 (“What Danaë would say after she lost her virginity to Zeus, who had transformed himself into gold”) p. 251. Here are classical sources about Danaë.

Zeus adopted different forms to have sex with women. He transformed himself into a swan to have sex with the spartan queen Leda. Zeus transformed himself into a bull to carry off Europa for a sexual affair.

Young women themselves were capable of overcoming confining circumstances to pursue sexual affairs. A persuasive speaker might reasonably state in discussing Atalanta’s sexual experience:

if she was at home she would not have avoided the evil {of sex with men}, but instead she could have escaped her mother’s watchful gaze and easily deceived the servants who were her chambermaids. As a result, how could the women’s quarters have protected her any more effectively? It is possible, then, that although kept in the women’s quarters, an imprudent girl might feel the passion of love, and a chaste girl, in fact, might protect herself even though she went out to hunt.

Basilakes, Progymnasmata Confirmation 1 (“That the story of Atalanta is plausible”) p. 117. Here are classical sources on Atalanta.

[4] Basilakes, Progymnasmata Ethopoeiae 25 (“What Pasiphaë would say after falling in love with a bull”) p. 307. The subsequent quote is from id. p. 309.

[5] Basilakes, Progymnasmata Narrations 12 (“The Story of Pasiphaë”) p. 47. Here are classical sources on Pasiphaë.

[6] Basilakes, Progymnasmata Narrations 16 (“The Story of Myrrha”) p. 57.

[7] Basilakes, Progymnasmata Ethopoeiae 22 (“What Love would say when he sees a woodcutter attempting to chop down Myrrha while she was still pregnant with Adonis”) p. 281. The subsequent quote is from id. p. 283. Here information about classical stories about Myrrha (also known as Smyrna).

[8] Basilakes, Progymnasmata Ethopoeiae 1 (“What Joseph would say after being accused by the Egyptian woman and thrown into prison”) p. 147. The story of Joseph is in Genesis 37-50. While Basilakes recognized Heracles enslavement under Omphale, he didn’t discuss Omphale’s domestic violence against Heracles. See Ethopoeiae 19 (“What Heracles would say while serving as a slave to Omphale”). Basilakes did recount Delilah’s abuse of Samson. See Ethopoeiae 3 (“What Samson would say when, as his hair begins to grow back, he is about to shake to the ground the house that is packed with Philistines drinking with Delilah”).

[9] Basilakes, Progymnasmata Ethopoeiae 8 (“What Adrastus would say after the Thebans were victorious but did not allow the fallen Argives to be buried”) pp. 293, 295. Showing concern for violence against men, Basilakes included the story of Achilles wearing women’s clothing to avoid being coerced into fighting in the Trojan War. See Narrations 8 (“The Story of Achilles”).

[10] Kaldellis dismissed Basilakes’s interest in classical stories of love as “only a manner of speaking”: Byzantine educators “liked pretending to be pagan masters of rhetoric.” Kaldellis (2007) pp. 257, 260. That views seems to me to misunderstand fundamentally Basilakes’s Christian sensibility. Papaioannou more crudely echoed today’s dominant academic discourse: “Neither masculinity nor discourse are for Basilakes stable, uncontested, easily definable practices.” Papaioannou (2007) p. 373. Papaioannou projected today’s dominant academic discourse onto Byzantine scholars:

It is, thus, at the juncture of freedom and constraint where Basilakes’s progymnasmata are ultimately located. The rhetorical exercises remain for him exercises. The progymnasmata offer to the Byzantine rhetor possibilities of play, yet not so that he might remain in the playing, but so that he might learn the rules of rhetoric. These prescribed rules, whether adhered to or not, are none other than the rules of his culture: the androcentric and anti-performative rules of Byzantium.

Id. p. 376. Academia today offers little playful yet deeply serious scholarly work transgressing gynocentric rules and the rigid intellectual status hierarchy of today’s dominant culture.

[11] Basilakes, Progymnasmata Ethopoeiae 22 (“What Love would say when he sees a woodcutter attempting to chop down Myrrha while she was still pregnant with Adonis”) p. 283.

[image] Danaë receiving golden shower. Oil on canvas painting by Gustav Klimt, 1907. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons. Danaë receiving a golden shower also appears on a Boeotian red-figure bell-shaped crater dating from 450 to 425 BGC (held at Louvre Museum, Paris, accession # CA 925).


Beneker, Jeffrey, and Craig Alan Gibson, ed. and trans. 2016. The rhetorical exercises of Nikephoros Basilakes: progymnasmata from twelfth-century Byzantium. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library v. 43. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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

Papaioannou, Stratis. 2007. “On the stage of Eros: two rhetorical exercises by Nikephoros Basiliakes.” Pp. 357-376 in Grünbart, Michael, ed. Theatron Rhetorische Kultur in Spätantike und Mittelalter / Rhetorical Culture in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Berlin / Boston: De Gruyter.

Papaioannou, Stratis. 2013. Michael Psellos: rhetoric and authorship in Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Mango on Byzantine literature and Byzantine anti-feminism

Cyril Mango as Alypius the Stylite

Cyril Mango’s 1980 book Byzantium: The Empire of the New Rome influentially described Byzantine literature and Byzantine anti-feminism. Mango published this book from his lofty position as Bywater and Sotheby Professor of Byzantine and Modern Greek Literature at the University of Oxford. Mango’s introduction recognized that “Byzantine” inaptly labels the continuation of the Roman Empire. Yet Mango’s descriptions of Byzantine literature and Byzantine anti-feminism are much more misleading.

Misunderstanding largely defines popular western understanding of the fall of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire didn’t fall in the fifth century in accordance with the influential myth of eighteenth-century English historian Edward Gibbon. The Roman Empire continued at its capital Constantinople until western European crusaders took Constantinople in 1204. Common use of the terms “Byzantium” and “Byzantine” to identify the post-fifth-century continuation of the Roman Empire began only from the time of the European Renaissance.[1] The issue isn’t merely the historical pedigrees of particular terms. Separating the Roman Empire from Byzantium separated classical culture from its eastern Christian continuation. That conceptual separation has contributed to learned misunderstanding and cultured bigotry.

Mango’s Byzantium shows the extent of learned misunderstanding and cultured bigotry. Mango described the four surviving Komnenian-era Byzantine novels as “unbelievably tedious.”[2] That’s a grave misunderstanding. Rhodanthe and Dosikles offers intriguing psychological insight. Drosilla and Charikles remains profoundly relevant today for overcoming prudery and understanding the complexities of passionate engagements. Hsymine and Hysminias provides an engaging, transgressive perspective on sexual harassment. Aristandros and Kallithea, although surviving only in fragments, provides a critical perspective on men’s disposability and women’s advantages in fighting. These four Komnenian-era Byzantine novels are far less tedious than Mango’s own book.[3]

Mango’s failure to appreciate Byzantine literature goes well beyond the Komnenian-era Byzantine novels. With respect to the wildly creative Prodomic poems, Mango declared, “as literature they are pretty {sic} disappointing.” The romance Kallimachos and Chrysorroi includes an outrageously funny parody of dragon-slaying and a profound fable about men having to earn love. Mango described Kallimachos and Chrysorroi as “nearly all verbiage.” Mango generally found in Byzantine writers “no real conception of ancient Greek literature.” The classicist of classicists John Tzetzes, a Byzantine writer who produced lengthy scholarly commentaries and interpretations of ancient Greek literature, might respond that a anyone believing such a claim must be “possessed and epileptic, a moonstruck son of a goat.”[4] The progymnasmata (rhetorical exercises) of twelfth-century Byzantine teacher Nikephoros Basilakes are a far better resource for studying classical literature than almost any work from the mass of narrow-mindedly cliquish recent classical scholarship.

Overall, Mango’s view of Byzantine literature is a crude caricature. Mango declared:

To a modern observer this literature appears deficient in many respects. It has irony, often heavy-handed, but practically no humour. With very few exceptions, it is not concerned with love, other than sacred or parental love. It has no ribaldry and no joie de vivre. Byzantine literature is solemn, even sombre, in tone and is probably at its best when describing death, disasters, and the instability of human existence.

Early Byzantine hymnist Romanos the Melodist would imagine Mary ordering Jesus to call down woes upon Mango. The Byzantine satirist Mazaris or one of the articulate animals in the Byzantine Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds might say that a potato stuck in Mango’s ass is causing his head to filled with crap. The Byzantine scholar John Italos probably would punch Mango in the face. Is it any wonder that Mango imagined a Priapic ass-driver statute in Constantinople to be a bath attendant wearing a loincloth and a helmet?

Worst of all, Mango’s risible description of “Byzantine anti-feminism” disparaged men’s intelligence. Mango declared:

Anti-feminism was a fundamental tenet of Byzantine thinking until the sporadic introduction of western ideas of romantic love in about the twelfth century. The sight of a woman, we are told, is like a poisoned arrow: the longer the poison remains in the soul, the more corruption it produces. There was, of course, such a thing as a virtuous woman: it was the one who never showed her face to a stranger. Generally, however, she was a crawling worm, the daughter of mendacity, the enemy of peace. The catalogue of her vices and weaknesses is endless: she was frivolous, garrulous and licentious. Above all, she was addicted to luxury and expense. She loaded herself with jewelry, powdered her face, painted her cheeks with rouge, scented her garments and thus made herself into a deadly trap to seduce young men through all their senses. No amount of wealth was sufficient to satisfy a woman’s desires. Day and night she thought of nothing but gold and precious stones, of purple cloth and embroidery, of ointments and perfumes. Were it not for sexual desire, no man in his right mind would wish to share his house with a woman and suffer the consequent injuries, in spite of the domestic services she performed. That is why God, knowing her contemptible nature, provided her from the beginning with the weapon of sexuality.

Oblivious to the sorrows that awaited them, Byzantine men continued to marry … if marriage was delayed a young man would have recourse to prostitutes and develop a taste for laughter, flippant speech and indecorous behaviour. A woman of good family would refuse to satisfy such yearnings with the result that the bridegroom would begin neglecting her after a couple of nights.

According to Mango, everyone in Byzantium knew that women were horrible, but men were so stupid that they continued to marry women even given the availability of pleasing prostitutes. Mango further disparaged men by blaming them for sexless marriages. Such irrationality and anti-men animus has sadly become pervasive among scholars.[6]

According to Mango, marriage meant misery. Roman men were reluctant to marry. Why would Byzantine men be willing to marry? Many scholars pretend to believe that men throughout the ages have treated their wives as property.[5] Yet acquiring a wife, according to Mango, wasn’t beneficial in Byzantium:

No matter what precautions were observed, marriage was a source of endless turmoil. It was a kind of mutual enslavement, made only worse if the spouses were of unequal fortune. It destroyed tranquillity by the presence of children and by financial worries. If a man sought an escape by involving himself in civic activity, he would inevitably be soiled by sin: he would get irritated at his fellow-citizens, endure insults, adopt insincere postures. The evils of a second marriage were correspondingly greater: unseemly in itself, it created discord in the family so that even the ashes of the departed spouse became a source of envy.

Byzantium didn’t impose the “four seas” law of paternity on husbands. Child support and spouse support laws were probably less biased against men in Byzantium than they are in many countries today. Marriage in Byzantium probably wasn’t on average more miserable for men than marriage is today.

Mango’s Byzantium fallaciously describes Byzantine literature and Byzantine anti-feminism. The recent non-scholarly documentary movie the Red Pill much more convincingly depicts anti-meninism. Along with much other somber, authoritative scholarship in recent decades, Mango’s Byzantium is a work of comedy and tragedy. Byzantine literature is both delightful and instructive. As for anti-feminism, Byzantines knew nothing about that anachronistic concept.

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[1] Mango (1980) pp. 3-4. Regional Byzantine leaders took Constantinople from the western crusaders in 1261. The Roman Empire thus arguably continued to exist until the Turkish overthrow of Constantinople in 1453.

[2] Mango (1980) p. 237. Subsequent quotes are from id. p. 251 (as literature they are pretty disappointing), p. 253 (nearly all verbiage), p. 281 (no real conception of Greek literature), p. 254 (To a modern observer…), pp. 225-6 (Anti-feminism was a fundamental tenet…), p. 227 (No matter what precautions were observed…).

[3] Reviewing Mango’s Byzantium, David Withun wrote:

the book is immensely boring. Most of it is little more than long lists of relatively unpronounceable names and dates no one will remember even a few seconds later. He makes no attempt to make the history interesting, to introduce narrative, or to paint the “characters” of history in dynamic, truly human ways. Instead, for Mango, there is no narrative, no individual stories, really no cause and effect. And there is most certainly no humor.

[4] Tzetzes, Commentarii in Aristophanem 835.9, and Scholia in Aristophanem 43.21-44.2, trans. Garland (2007) p. 186.

[5] Margo Wilson and Martin Daly have been banefully influential proponents of the “women as men’s property” delusion. For brief analysis and references, see note [4] in my post on primatology and criminalization.

[6] Mango’s claim “Anti-feminism was a fundamental tenet of Byzantine thinking” has been cited as a broadly accepted, authoritative pronouncement. See, e.g. Taft (1998), p. 28, and White (2003) p. 39. Galatarioutou declared a variant:

Misogyny was a fundamental tenet of Byzantine thinking.

Galatariotou (1984) p. 66. Here’s analysis of misogyny in relation to the myth of patriarchy.

The influential Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (ed. Kazhdan, 1991) includes a subject heading “women,” but not a subject heading “men.” That highlights Byzantine scholars’ failure to take seriously men as distinctively gendered persons. The Dictionary’s entry for women describes “misogynist vocabulary”:

gynaikodoulos, a man enslaved to women; gynaikotraphes, a man reared by women and therefore effeminate (John Chrysostom, PG 61:278.54); and gynaiazo, being addicted to women (Theodore of Stoudios, PG 99:1368A).

Rather than being bad words, these perceptive terms point to effects vitally important for understanding men’s social position and literature of men’s sexed protest.

[image] Eminent seventh-century Byzantine thinker Alypius the Stylite in his lofty seat. Illumination from the Menologion of Basil II, Vatican Library, Ms. Vat. gr. 1613, f. 985r. Thanks to the Vatican Museum and Wikimedia Commons.


Galatariotou, Catia S. 1984. “Holy Women and Witches: Aspects of Byzantine Conceptions of Gender.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 9 (1): 55-94.

Garland, Lynda. 2007. “Mazaris’s Journey to Hades: Further Reflections and Reappraisal.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 61: 183-214.

Mango, Cyril. 1980. Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Taft, Robert F. 1998. “Women at Church in Byzantium: Where, When — And Why?” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 52: 27-87.

White, Linda L. 2013. The ideology of the feminine in Byzantine historical narrative: the role of John Skylitzes’ Synopsis of histories. MA Thesis. Department of History, University of Manitoba. Winnipeg, Canada.

fine Byzantine invective: Mazaris to his friend Holobolos in Hades

last trumpet summons dead from Hades

While enduring disgrace in Constantinople in 1414, Mazaris found himself translated to Hades. Byzantines educated in the classics typically went to Hades only after they died. The misplaced Mazaris encountered in Hades his friend the recently deceased imperial secretary Manual Holobolos. Holobolos advised Mazaris to move from Constantinople to the Peloponnese (a region in southern Greece) to become famous and wealthy. When Mazaris returned to his proper place in the upper world, he followed his friend Holobolos’s advice.

Holobolos’s advice led Mazaris to misery. Moving from Constantinople to the Peloponnese would have been like moving from cosmopolitan New York City to the rural hollows of Appalachia. In the Peloponnese, Mazaris experienced even greater poverty and obscurity than he had endured in Constantinople. With bitter invective, he complained about the diverse mixture of Laconians, Italians, Peloponnesians, Slavs, Albanians, Gypsies, and Jews in the Peloponnese:

If they formed a single race and were encompassed in a single city, troubles would be lighter and of a simple nature and generally speaking the entire society here would be free from graft, political intrigue and meddling, and business would be carried on with due respect for law and justice. As it is, they are a helter-skelter hotchpotch of everything, and each will inevitably imitate the customs, laws, national character, social behavior — in short, the overall pattern of criminality prevailing in each of the other groups, just as it is impossible to keep company with a cripple without acquiring a slight limp. … A great man tells us that the virtues are corrupted by evil associations; now if the good is corrupted by the evil, what is to become of vices when they mix and associate with worse vices, or rather live with them and mingle with them, roll and wallow around with them like pigs in mud and mire? [1]

The local barons in the Peloponnese were a “turbulent, subversive crowd”:

men delighting in battles, riots and bloodshed, always full of deceit, treachery and falsehood, arrogant barbarians, fickle, perjured and forever disloyal to their Emperors and Despots, despicable wretches, but prouder than Tantalus, bums who think of themselves as epic heroes, though tainted with all kinds of excesses and unsavory practices.

Mazaris clearly has a keen sense of irony. The Peloponnese seems like an alternate perspective on cosmopolitan Constantinople. That’s a literary construct like Mazaris suddenly finding himself in Hades.

Mazaris harshly cursed Holobolos for his bad advice. He ranked Holobolos’s advice with the Lemnian deeds and the horrors of the Trojan War. In a letter to Holobolos that begins “My dearest friend,” Mazaris asked ironically for further advice as to whether he would be better off alive in the Peloponnese or dead in Hades. Mazaris concluded his letter to Holobolos:

I beseech Hermes of the Underworld, Persephone and Great Pluto himself, that because of your misleading advice, or rather because of the pressure you put on me to move to the Peloponnese with all my household, you may walk with thorns and thistles in Hades, that the water of the Styx may run dry for you and that you may never in all eternity drink the water of Lethe, so that you can brood night and day on the odious behavior of your rival, as well as on the legacy of gold coins which you were tricked into making over to the Fraudulent Friars. Have a rotten time in Hades, you crook, until the Last Trumpet, waiting for our joyful arrival, whenever it pleases God.

After the array of learned classical references (Hermes, Persephone, Pluto, etc.) come references to worldly debacles. The odious behavior of Holobolos’s rival (“that scion of the evil Angels, the aforesaid Philommataios”) was to usurp Holobolos’s bureaucratic function while he was busily engaged in a torrid sexual affair with “an old flame,” “a nun who had slept with a thousand men.”[2] The Fraudulent Friars were monks of the Xanthopoulon monastery. They had persuaded Holobolos to make them administrators of his estate.[3] The cursing ends with reference to the New Testament figure of the Last Trumpet and Christian eschatology. According to Pauline letters, when the Last Trumpet sounds, the dead will be raised to be with God.[4] Mazaris, as a good Byzantine Christian, didn’t presume to beseech God to let Holobolos forever rot in Hades.

Like Mazaris, the Byzantines in general were masters of invective. Byzantine society was far more liberal and tolerant in embracing communicative freedom than many Western, democratic societies today. Harsh invective in Byzantium could be no more than a matter of ordinary amusement:

Byzantine humor at all levels was always given to insults and abuse, and the more scholarly the writers the greater the abuse. Making fun of others was seen as a pleasant and relaxing way of exercising one’s wit: the twelfth-century archbishop Eustathios of Thessalonike recounts an incident in which two teachers of philosophy amused themselves on their day off by sitting by the roadside outside Constantinople and insulting travelers. [5]

With renewed emphasis on classical learning and the biblical tradition, humane, civilized societies should be able to practice invective as well as the Byzantines did.

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[1] Mazaris’s Journey to Hades, from Greek trans. Seminar (1975) pp. 77, 79, 81 (the Greek is on facing pages). The “great man” is the Apostle Paul. Mazaris implicitly cites 1 Corinthians 15:33 in warning about evil associations.

The subsequent quotes from Mazaris’s Journey to Hades are from id. p. 83 (men delighting in battles…) and p. 89 (I beseech Hermes…).

Mazaris’s Journey to Hades is set between January 1414 and October 1415. It was probably written about that time. While Mazaris’s Journey is written in Attic Greek, it includes many foreign loan words, unusual expressions, and pervasive puns. Baldwin (1993) pp. 355-8, Garland (2007) pp. 2001.. Linguistically it seems to be in the tradition of Lucian’s Metamorphoses. Mazaris’s Journey draws substantively upon the “dialogue of the dead” tradition of Aristophanes and Lucian. It contains about fifty references to classical texts. It seems to have been intended for performance before a sophisticated, court audience. Garland (2007) pp. 205, 208. In addition, Mazaris’s Journey has many apparently contemporary, cryptic references, most of which now cannot be interpreted. The narrator calls himself Mazaris. The actual author of the work isn’t convincingly known. Mazaris’s Journey to Hades apparently was dedicated to Theodore II Palaiologos, despot of the Morea from 1407 to 1443. Id. p. 203.

[2] Mazaris’s Journey to Hades, trans. Seminar (1975) p. 21. Padiates, another of Holobolos’s rivals, referred to the nun as “that wanton, arrogant whore, the supposed nun Sister Frivolity.” Id. p. 31. Padiates disparaged Holobolos as “you driveling fool and idiot, All-Beef {pun on Holobolos}, who has been sodomized with a radish.” Garland (2007) p. 198. See also id. p. 197. Cf. Seminar (1975) pp. 25, 29, 105. Being sodomized with a radish was an Athenian punishment for men who committed adultery.

[3] Id. For the identification of the monks as monks of the Xanthopoulon monastery, see id. p. 104, note to 20.23.

[4] See 1 Corinthians 15:52 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16. Drawing upon a mixture of traditional Greco-Roman and Christian works was common in Byzantine literature. Baldwin (1993) p. 1993. The most prestigious Byzantine scholarship  imitated Attic Greek works and hence tended to avoid direct Christian references.

[5] Garland (2007) p. 186. Garland commented:

Rather than being an exercise in obscenity and abuse, the text gives us a picture of voluble, self-assertive, highly competitive, and outspoken professional rivals, unafraid of personal comment, and marked by a ready wit, presence of mind, and the ability to score off each other in public encounters. This tells us a great deal about officials at the fifteenth-century Byzantine court. What is generally taken as abuse in our text is in fact exuberant exhibitionism expressed in alliterative wordplay, highly flavored with sexual innuendo. The point of most of the references may be obscure to us, but allusions now lost may once have called forth sniggers or even gales of laughter from the auditors.

Id. p. 211. Like the Timarion, Mazaris’s Journey to Hades includes “intellectual satire and criticism against dominating literary fashions.” Leonte (2017) p. 230.

[image] Last (seventh) trumpet summoning the dead from Hades according to Revelation 11:15-19. Illumination from the Bamberg Apocalypse, commissioned by Otto II and created in the scriptorium at Reichenau between 1000 and 1020 GC. Bamberg State Library, Msc.Bibl.140. Image thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Baldwin, Barry. 1993. “The Mazaris: Reflections and Reappraisal.” Illinois Classical Studies. 18: 345-358.

Garland, Lynda. 2007. “Mazaris’s Journey to Hades: Further Reflections and Reappraisal.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 61: 183-214.

Leonte, Florin. 2017. “Dramatisation and narrative in late Byzantine dialogues: Manuel II Palaiologos’s On Marriage and Mazaris’ Journey to Hades.” Ch. 16 (pp. 220-236) in Cameron, Averil, and Niels Gaul, eds. Dialogues and debates from late antiquity to late Byzantium. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Seminar, Classics 600 at SUNY Buffalo. 1975. Mazaris’ Journey to Hades; or Interviews with Dead Men about Certain Officials of the Imperial Court. Greek text with translation, notes, introduction and index. Buffalo: Arethusa.