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.

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