Byzantine literature may be defined as the
Greek literatureof the Middle Ages, whether written in the territory of the Byzantine Empireor outside its bordersEncyclopaedia Britannica - "Greek literature: Byzantine literature"] . It forms the second period in the history of Greek literature, though "popular" Byzantine literature and early Modern Greek literature, which begin in the 11th century, are indistinguishable ["The Modern Greek language in its relation to Ancient Greek", E. M. Geldart] .
Many of the classical Greek genres, such as drama and choral lyric poetry, had been obsolete by late antiquity, and all medieval literature in the
Greek languagewas written in an archaizing style, which imitated the writers of ancient Greece. This practice was perpetuated by a long-established system of Greek education where rhetoricwas a leading subject. A typical product of this Byzantine education was the Greek Church Fathers, who shared the literary values of their pagan contemporaries. Consequently the vast Christian literature of the 3rd to 6th centuries established a synthesis of Hellenicand Christianthought. As a result, Byzantine literature was largely written in a style of Atticistic Greek, far removed from the popular Medieval Greekthat was spoken by all classes of Byzantine society in their everyday lives. In addition, this literary style was also removed from the Koine Greeklanguage of the New Testament, reaching back to Homerand the writers of ancient Athens.
In this manner, the culture of the
Byzantine Empirewas marked for over 1000 years by a diglossy between two different forms of the same language, which were used for different purposes. However, the relations between the "high" and "low" forms of Greek changed over the centuries. The prestige of the Attic literature remained undiminished until the 7th century AD, but in the following two centuries when the existence of the Byzantine Empire was threatened, city life and education declined, and along with them the use of the classicizing language and style. The political recovery of the 9th century instigated a literary revival, in which a conscious attempt was made to recreate the Hellenic-Christian literary culture of late antiquity. Simple or popular Greek was avoided in literary used and many of the early saints' lives were rewritten in an archaizing style. By the 12th century the cultural confidence of the Byzantine Greekslead them to develop new literary genres, such as romantic fiction, in which adventure and love are the main elements. Satire made occasional use of elements from spoken Greek. The period from the Fourth Crusadeto the Fall of Constantinoplesaw a vigorous revival of imitative classicizing literature, as the Greeks sought to assert their cultural superiority over the militarily more powerful West. At the same time there was the beginning of a flourishing literature in an approximation to the vernacular Modern Greek. However the vernacular literature was limited to poetic romances and popular devotional writing. All serious literature continued to make use of the archaizing language of learned Greek tradition.
Byzantine literature has two sources: Classical Greek and Orthodox Christian tradition. Each of those sources provided a series of models and references for the Byzantine writer and his readers. In occasion, both sources were referred to side by side, for example when emperor
Alexius Comnenusjustified his actions of seizing church property to pay his soldiers by referring to the earlier examples of Periclesand the biblical king David.
The oldest of these three civilizations is the Greek, centered not in
Athensbut in Alexandriaand Hellenistic civilization. Alexandria through this period is the center of both Atticizing scholarship and of Graeco-Judaic social life, looking towards Athens as well as towards Jerusalem. This intellectual dualism between the culture of scholars and that of the people permeates the Byzantine period. Even Hellenistic literature exhibits two distinct tendencies, one rationalistic and scholarly, the other romantic and popular: the former originated in the schools of the Alexandrian sophists and culminated in the rhetorical romance, the latter rooted in the idyllic tendency of Theocritusand culminated in the idyllic novel. Both tendencies persisted in Byzantium, but the first, as the one officially recognized, retained predominance and was not driven from the field until the fall of the empire. The reactionary linguistic movement known as Atticismsupported and enforced this scholarly tendency. Atticism prevailed from the second century B.C. onward, controlling all subsequent Greek culture, so that the living form of the Greek language was obscured and only occasionally found expression in private documents and popular literature.
Alexandria, the intellectual center, is balanced by Rome, the center of government. It is as a Roman Empire that the Byzantine state first entered history; its citizens were known as Romans ("Rhomaioi"), its capitol as New Rome (Constantinople). Its laws were Roman; so were its government, its army, and its official class, and at first also its language and its private and public life. The organization of the state was very similar to that of the Roman imperial period, including its hierarchy and bureaucratic elite.
It was in Alexandria that Graeco-Oriental Christianity had its birth. There the
Septuaginttranslation had been made; there that that fusion of Greek philosophy and Jewish religion took place which culminated in Philo; there flourished the mystic speculative neo-Platonismassociated with Plotinusand Porphyry. At Alexandria the great Greek ecclesiastical writers worked alongside pagan rhetoricians and philosophers; several were born here, e.g. Origen, Athanasius, and his opponent Arius, also Cyril and Synesius. On Egyptian soil monasticismbegan and thrived. After Alexandria, Antiochheld great prestige, where a school of Christian commentators flourished under St. John Chrysostomand where later arose the Christian universal chronicles. In surrounding Syria, we find the germs of Greek ecclesiastical poetry, while from neighboring Palestinecame St. John of Damascus, the last of the Greek Fathers.
Greek Christianity had of necessity a pronounced Oriental character;
Ptolemaic Egyptand Seleucid Syria are the real birthplaces of the Graeco-Oriental church and Byzantine civilization in general. Egypt and Syria, with Asia Minor, became for the autochthonous Greek civilization a place where hundreds of flourishing cities sprang into existence, where energies confined or crippled in the impoverished homeland found release; not only did these cities surpass in material wealth the mother country, but soon also cultivated the highest goods of the intellect (Krumbacher). Under such circumstances it is not strange that about nine-tenths of all the Byzantine authors of the first eight centuries were natives of Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Asia Minor.
The following account classifies Byzantine literature into five groups. The first three include representatives of those kinds of literature which continued the ancient traditions: historians and
chroniclers, encyclopedists and essayists, and writers of secular poetry. The other two include new literary genres, ecclesiastical and theological literature, and popular poetry.
Historians and annalists
The two groups of secular prose literature show clearly the dual character of Byzantine intellectual life in its social, religious, and linguistic aspects. From this point of view historical and annalistic literature supplement each other; the former is aristocratic and secular, the latter ecclesiastical and monastic; the former is classical, the latter popular. The works of the historians belong to scholarly literature, those of the annalists (or chroniclers) to the literature of the people. The former are carefully elaborated, the latter give only raw material, the former confine themselves to the description of the present and the most recent past, and thus have rather the character of contemporary records; the latter cover the whole history of the world as known to the Middle Ages. The former are therefore the more valuable for political history; the latter for the history of civilization.
Classical literary tradition set the standard for Byzantine historians in their grasp of the aims of history, the manner of handling their subjects, and in style of composition. Their works are thoroughly concrete and objective in character, without passion, and even without enthusiasm. Ardent patriotism and personal convictions are rarely evident. They are diplomatic historians, expert in the use of historical sources and in the polished tact called for by their social position; they are not cIoset-scholars, ignorant of the world, but men who stood out in public life: jurists like
Procopius, Agathias, Evagrius, Michael Attaliates, statesmen like Joannes Cinnamus, Nicetas Acominatus, Georgius Pachymeres, Laonicus Chalcondyles; generals and diplomats like Nicephorus Bryennius, George Acropolites, Georgius Phrantzes; and even crowned heads, like Constantine Porphyrogenitus, Anna Comnena, John VI Cantacuzene, and others. The Byzantine historians thus represent not only the social but also the intellectual flower of their time, resembling in this their Greek predecessors, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Polybius, who became their guides and models. Sometimes a Byzantine chooses a classic writer to imitate in method and style. The majority, however, took as models several authors, a custom which gave rise to a peculiar mosaic style, quite characteristic the Byzantines. While often the result of a real community of feeling, it effectively prevented development of an individual style.
Had such a preëminent historian as Procopius modeled his work after Polybius rather than Thucydides, Byzantine histories may have followed a natural continuity in style and method with the Hellenic era. The Hellenistic "Atticists" however had impressed their tastes thoroughly on later centuries, celebrating the style of the Athenian golden age. It is no accident that military characters like Nicephorus Bryennius (eleventh and twelfth centuries) and Joannes Cinnamus (twelfth century) emulated Xenophon in the precision of their diction, or that a philosopher like Nicephorus Gregoras (thirteenth century) took Plato as his model. On the other hand, it is doubtless due to chance that writers trained in theology like
Leo Diaconusand Georgius Pachymeres chose to emulate Homeric turns. On the whole it is in the later historians that the dualism of Byzantine civilization—ecclesiastico-political matter in classical form—becomes most apparent.
While Byzantine historians were mostly dependent on foreign models, and seem to form a continuous series in which each succeeds the last, they do not blend into a uniform whole. Most of the historians come in either the period embracing the sixth and seventh centuries during the reigns of the East-Roman emperors, or that extending from the eleventh to the fifteenth century under the
Comneniand the Palaeologi. At its zenith under the Macedonian dynasty (the ninth and tenth centuries) the Byzantine world produced great heroes, but no great historians, excepting the solitary figure of the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus.
The first period is dominated by Procopius because of his subject matter and his literary importance. Typically Byzantine, his "
Anekdota" depreciates Emperor Justinian Ias emphatically as his " Peri Ktismaton" apotheosizes him. In literature and history though, he follows classical models, as is evident in the precision and lucidity of his narrative acquired from Thucydides, and in the reliability of his information, qualities of special merit in the historian. Procopius and to a great degree his successor Agathias remain the models of descriptive style as late as the eleventh century. Procopius is the first representative of the ornate Byzantine style in literature and in this is surpassed only by Theophylaktos Simokattesin the seventh century. Despite their unclassical form, however, they approach the ancients in their freedom from ecclesiastical and dogmatic tendencies.
Between the historical writings of the first period and those of the second, there is an isolated series of works which in matter and form offer a strong contrast to both the aforesaid groups. These are the works under the name of the Emperor
Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus(tenth century), dealing respectively with the administration of the empire, its political division, and the ceremonies of the Byzantine Court. They treat of the internal conditions of the empire, and the first and third are distinguished by their use of a popular tongue. The first is an important source of ethnological information, while the last is an interesting contribution to the history of civilization.
The second group of historians present a classical eclecticism veiling an unclassical partisanship and theological fanaticism. Revelling in classical forms, the historians of the period of the Comneni and Palaeologi were devoid of the classical spirit. While many had stronger, more sympathetic personalities than the school of Procopius, the very vigor of these individuals and their close ties to the imperial government served to hamper their objectivity, producing subjective, partisan works. Thus the "
Alexiad", the pedantic work of Princess Anna Comnena, glorifies her father Alexius and the imperial reorganization he began; the historical work of her husband, Nicephorus Bryennius, describes the internal conflicts that accompanied the rise of the Comneni in the form of a family chronicle (late eleventh century); John VI Cantacuzene self-complacently narrates his own achievements (fourteenth century). This group exhibits striking antitheses both personal and objective. Beside Cinnamus, who honestly hated everything Western, stand the broad-minded Nicetas Acominatus(twelfth century) and the conciliatory but dignified Georgius Acropolites(thirteenth century); beside the theological polemicist Pachymeres (thirteenth century), stands the man of the world, Nicephorus Gregoras (fourteenth century), well versed in philosophy and the classics. Though subjective in matters of internal Byzantine history, these and others of this period are trustworthy in their accounts of external events, and especially valuable as sources for the first appearance of the Slavs and Turks.
Unlike the historical works, Byzantine chronicles were intended for the general public; hence the difference in their origin, development, and diffusion, as well as in their character, method, and style. While the roots of the chronicle have not yet been satisfactorily traced, their comparatively late appearance (sixth century) and total remove from Hellenistic tradition places their origins as fairly recent. The chronicle literature is originally foreign to Greek civilization, the first of which was composed by uneducated Syrians. Its presumable prototype, the "Chronography" of
Sextus Julius Africanus, points to an Oriental Christian source. Unconnected with persons of distinction and out of touch with the great world, it follows models bound within its own narrow sphere. The ninth century saw the zenith of the Byzantine chronicle, during the nadir of historical literature. Afterwards it declines abruptly; the lesser chroniclers, seen as late as the twelfth century, draw partly from contemporary and partly, though rarely, from earlier historians. In the Palaeologi period no chroniclers of note appear.
Not only important sources for the history of Byzantine civilization, the chronicles themselves contributed to the spread of civilization, passing Byzantine culture to the arriving Slavic, Magyar, and
Turkic peoples. Depicting as they did what lay within the popular consciousness—events wonderful and dreadful painted in glaring colours and interpreted in a Christian sense—their influence was considerable. The method of handling materials is primitive—beneath each section lies some older source only slightly modified, so that the whole resembles a patchwork of materials rather than the ingenious mosaic of the historians. They are a rich store for comparative linguistics, as their diction is purely the popular tongue, bespeaking the poor education of author and audience.
Representative Byzantine chronicles are the three of
Joannes Malalas, Theophanes Confessor, and Joannes Zonaras, respectively. The first is the earliest Christian Byzantine monastic chronicle, composed in the Antioch in the sixth century by a hellenized Syrian and Monophysitetheologian. Originally a city chronicle, it was expanded into a world-chronicle. It is a popular historical work, full of historical and chronological errors, and the first monument of a purely popular Hellenistic civilization. The chief source for most of the later chroniclers as well as for a few church historians, it is also the earliest popular history translated into Old Bulgarian(ca. early tenth century). Superior in substance and form, and more properly historical, is the "Chronicle" of Theophanes, a ninth-century monk of Asia Minor, and in its turn a model for later chronicles. It contains much valuable information from lost sources, and its importance for the Western world is due to the fact that by the end of the ninth century it had to be translated into Latin. A third guide-post in the history of Byzantine chronicles is the twelfth-century "Universal Chronicle" of Zonaras. It reflects somewhat the atmosphere of the Comneni renaissance; not only is the narrative better than that of Theophanes, but many passages from ancient writers are worked into the text. It was translated not only into Slavic and Latin, but into Italian and French as well ( 16th century).
Encyclopedists and essayists
The spirit of antiquarian scholarship awoke in Byzantium earlier than in the West, but begun by lay theologians, not laymen. For this reason it always had a scholastic flavor; the Byzantine humanistic spirit savored of antiquity and the Middle Ages in equal proportion. Primarily directed to the systematic collection and sifting of
manuscripts, a pronounced interest in the literature of Greek antiquity first manifested at Constantinople in the late ninth century. With the twelfth century begins the period of original works imitating antique models, a revival of the Alexandrian essayand rhetorical literature, a number of writers showing vigorous originality. Quite isolated between the two periods stands Michael Psellus(11th century), a universal genius who bridges the periods. While the humanism of the ninth and tenth centuries retained a theological coloring and a hostile attitude towards the West, the twelfth to the fourteenth century saw several writers seeking to break away from orthodox classicism to attain a true humanism, becoming the forerunners of the Italian Renaissance.
The new spirit first found expression in an academy founded for classical studies at Constantinople in
863. About the same time the broadly trained and energetic Photius, patriarch of the city and the greatest statesman of the Greek Church (820-897), enthusiastically collected forgotten manuscripts, revived forgotten works of antiquity, and re-discovered lost works; his attention was chiefly directed to prose works, indicative of his pragmatism. Photius made selections or excerpts from all the works he discovered, forming the beginning of his celebrated "Biblitheca" ("Library"), which while dry and schematic remains the most valuable literary compendium of the Middle Ages, containing trustworthy summaries of many ancient works now lost, together with good characterizations and analyses such as those of Lucianand Heliodorus. This encyclopedic activity was more assiduously pursued in the tenth century, particularly in the systematic collecting of materials associated with Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. Scholars also formed great compilations, arranged by subject, on the basis of older sources. Among these was a now-fragmentary encyclopedia of political science containing extracts from the classical, Alexandrian, and Roman Byzantine periods. These, with the collection of ancient epigrams known as the " Anthologia Palatina" and the scientific dictionary known as the " Suidas", make the tenth century that of the encyclopedias.
A typical representative of the period appears in the following century in the person of the greatest encyclopedist of Byzantine literature, Michael Psellus. Standing between the Middle Ages and modern times, he is a jurist and a man of the world with a mind both receptive and productive. Unlike Photius, who was more concerned with individual philosophic arguments, Psellus does not undervalue the old philosophers, and is himself of a philosophic temperament. He was the first of his intellectual circle to raise the philosophy of Plato above that of Aristotle and to teach philosophy as a professor. Surpassing Photius in intellect and wit, he lacks that scholar's dignity and solidity of character. A restless brilliance characterized his life and literary activity. At first a lawyer, then a professor; now a monk, now a court official; he ended his career the prime minister. He was equally adroit and many-sided in his literary work; in harmony with the polished, pliant nature of the courtier is his elegant
Platonic style of his letters and speeches. His extensive correspondence furnishes endless material illustrating his personal and literary character. The ennobling influence of his Attic models mark his speeches and especially his funerary orations; that delivered on the death of his mother shows deep sensibility. Psellus had more of a poetic temperament than Photius, as several of his poems show, though they owe more to satirical fancy and occasion than to deep poetic feeling. Though Psellus exhibits more formal skill than creativity, his endowments shone forth in a time particularly backward in aesthetic culture. The intellectual freedom of the great scholars (" polyhistores"), both ecclesiastical and secular, of the following centuries would be inconceivable without the triumph of Psellus over Byzantine scholasticism.While among his successors—such as Nicephorus Blemmydesand Hyrtakenos—are natures as corrupt as Psellus' own, the majority are marked by their rectitude of intention, sincerity of feeling, and their beneficently broad culture. Among these great intellects and strong characters of the twelfth century several theologians are especially conspicuous, for example Eustathius of Thessalonica, Michael Italicus, and Michael Acominatus; in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries several secular scholars, like Maximus Planudes, Theodorus Metochites, and above all, Nicephorus Gregoras.
The three theologians may best be judged by their letters and minor occasional writings. Eustathius seems to be the most important, writing learned commentary on Homer and
Pindaralongside original works that are candid, courageous, and controversial, intent upon the correction of every evil. In one of his works he attacks the corruption and intellectual stagnation of the monastic life of that day; in another polemic, he assails the hypocrisy and sham holiness of his time; in a third he denounces the conceit and arrogance of the Byzantine priests.
The rhetorician Michael Italicus, later a bishop, attacks the chief weakness of Byzantine literature, external imitation; this he did on receiving a work by a patriarch, which was simply a disorderly collection of fragments from other writers, so poorly put together that the sources were immediately recognizable.
The pupil and friend of Eustathius, Michael Acominatus (twelfth and thirteenth centuries) Archbishop of Athens and brother of the historian
Nicetas Acominatus. His inaugural address, delivered on the Acropolis, exhibits both profound classical scholarship and high enthusiasm despite the material and spiritual decay of his times. These pitiful conditions moved him to compose an elegy, famous because unique, on the decay of Athens, a sort of poetical and antiquarian apostrophe to fallen greatness. Gregoroviuscompared the inaugural address with Gregory the Great's to the Romans, and this with the lament of Bishop Hildebert of Tourson the demolition of Rome by the Normans( 1106). His funeral orations over Eustathius ( 1195) and his brother Nicetas, though wordier and rhetorical, still evinced a noble disposition and deep feeling. Michael, like his brother, remained a fanatical opponent of the Latins. They had driven him into exile at Ceos, whence he addressed many letters to his friends illustrating his character. Stylistically influenced by Eustathius, his otherwise classical diction sounded an ecclesiastical note.
With Theodorus Metochites and Maximus Planudes we come to the universal scholars (polyhistores) of the time of the Palaeologi. The former displays his humanism in his use of hexameter, the latter in his knowledge of the Latin; both of which are otherwise unknown in Byzantium, and foreboding a broader grasp of antiquity. Both men show a fine sense of poetry, especially of nature poetry. Metochites composed meditations on the beauty of the sea; Planudes was the author of a long poetic idyll, a genre uncultivated by Byzantine scholars. While Metochites was a thinker and poet, Planudes was chiefly an imitator and compiler. Metochites was more speculative, as his collection of philosophical and historical miscellanies show; Planudes was more precise, as his preference for mathematics proves. Contemporary progress in philosophy was at a point where Metochites could openly attack Aristotle. He deals more frankly with political questions, such as his comparison of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. While his breadth of interest was large, Metochites's culture rests wholly on a Greek basis, though Planudes, by his translations from the Latin (
Cato, Ovid, Cicero, Caesar, and Boethius), vastly enlarged the Eastern intellectual horizon.
This inclination toward the West is most noticeable in Nicephorus Gregoras, the great pupil of Metochites. His project for a reform of the calendar ranks him among the modern intellects of his time, as will be proven if ever his numerous works in every domain of intellectual activity are brought to light. His letters, especially, promise a rich harvest. His method of exposition is based on that of Plato, whom he also imitated in his ecclesiastico-political discussions, e.g. in his dialogue "Florentius, or Concerning Wisdom." These disputations with Barlaam dealt with the question of church union, in which Gregoras took the Unionist part. This brought him bitter hostility and the loss of his teaching living; he had been occupied chiefly with the exact sciences, whereby he had already earned the hatred of orthodox Byzantines.
While the Byzantine essayists and encyclopedists stood wholly under the influence of ancient rhetoric, still they embodied in the traditional forms their own characteristic knowledge, and thereby lent it a new charm.
Poetry likewise had its prototypes, each genre tracing its origins to an ancient progenitor. Unlike the prose, these new genres do not follow from the classical Attic period, for the Byzantines wrote neither Iyrics nor dramas, imitating neither Pindar nor Sophocles. Imitating the literature of the Alexandrian period, they wrote romances,
panegyrics, epigrams, satires, and didactic and hortatory poetry, following the models of Heliodorusand Achilles Tatius, Asclepiadesand Posidippus, Lucian and Longus. Didactic poetry looks to an earlier prototype by pseudo- Isocrates. The poetic temperament of the Byzantines is thus akin to that of the Alexandrian writers. Only one new type evolved independently by the Byzantines—the begging-poem. The six genres are not contemporaneous: the epigram and the panegyric developed first (sixth and seventh centuries), then, at long intervals, satire, next didactic and begging poetry, finally the romance. Only after the twelfth century, the period of decay, do they appear side by side. The epigram was the only form of secular poetry that had an independent revival in Byzantine literature, and this at the very time when ecclesiastical poetry also reached its highest perfection, in the sixth and seventh centuries. This age is therefore the most flourishing period of Byzantine scholarly poetry; its decline in the twelfth century is contemporary with the rise of popular poetry. The chief kinds of poetry during the period of the decline (eleventh to thirteenth century) were satire and parody, didactic and hortatory poetry, the begging-poem, and the erotic romance. In form this literature is characterized by its extensive use of the popular forms of speech and verse, the latter being the "political" verse (Greek ἡμαξευμένοι στίχοι, called "that abominable make-believe of a metre" by Charles Peter Masonin William Smith's "Dictionary"), an iambic verse of fifteen syllables, still the standard verse of modern Greek popular poetry . In content, however, all this literature continues to bear the imprint of Byzantine erudition.
The epigram suited the Byzantine taste for the ornamental and for intellectual ingenuity. It corresponded exactly to the concept of the minor arts that attained high development in the Byzantine period. Making no lofty demands on the imagination of the author, its chief difficulty lay rather in technique and the attainment of the utmost possible pregnancy of phrase. Two groups may be distinguished among the Byzantine epigrammatists: one pagan and humanistic, the other Christian. The former is represented chiefly by
Agathias(sixth century) and Christophorus of Mitylene(eleventh century), the latter by the ecclesiastics Georgius Pisides(seventh century) and Theodorus Studites(ninth century). Between the two groups, in point of time as well as in character, stands Joannes Geometres(tenth century).
The chief phases in the development of the Byzantine epigram are most evident in the works of these three. Agathias, who has already been mentioned among the historians, as an epigrammatist, has the peculiarities of the school of the semi-Byzantine Egyptian
Nonnus(about AD 400). He wrote in an affected and turgid style, in the classical form of the hexameter; he abounds, however, in brilliant ideas, and in his skillful imitation of the ancients, particularly in his erotic pieces, he surpasses most of the epigrammatists of the imperial period. Agathias also prepared a collection of epigrams, partly his own and partly by other writers, some of which afterwards passed into the " Anthologia palatina" and have thus been preserved. The abbot Theodorus Studites is in every respect the opposite of Agathias, a pious man of deep earnestness, with a fine power of observation in nature and life, full of sentiment, warmth, and simplicity of expression, free from servile imitation of the ancients, though influenced by Nonnus. While touching on the most varied things and situations, his epigrams on the life and personnel of his monastery offer special interest for the history of civilization. Joannes Geometres combines aspects of the previous two. During the course of his life he filled both secular and ecclesiastical offices and his poetry had a universal character; of a deeply religious temper, still he appreciated the greatness of the ancient Greeks. Alongside epigrams on ancient poets, philosophers, rhetoricians, and historians stand others on famous Church Fathers, poets, and saints. Poetically, the epigrams on contemporary and secular topics are superior to those on religious and classic subjects. His best works depict historical events and situations he himself experienced, and reflect his own spiritual moods (Krumbacher).
Even the best writers often could not escape composing the official panegyrics on emperors and their achievements. Typical of this kind of literature are the commemorative poem of
Paulus Silentiariuson the dedication of the church of St. Sophia, and that of Georgius Pisideson the glory of the prince. Unfavorable conclusions must not be drawn as to the character of these poets, for such eulogies were composed by not only courtiers like Psellus and Manuel Holobolos(thirteenth century), but also by independent characters like Eustathius and Michael Acominatus. It had become traditional, and so handed down from imperial Rome to Byzantium as a part of ancient rhetoric with all the extravagance of a thoroughly decadent literature (F. Gregorovius). It was a sort of necessary concession to despotism; popular taste was not in general offended by it.
The father of Byzantine satire is
Lucian. His celebrated "Dialogues of the Dead" furnished the model for two works, one of which, the " Timarion" (twelfth century) is marked by more rude humour, the other, " Mazaris" (fifteenth century), by keen satire. Each describes a journey to the underworld and conversations with dead contemporaries; in the former their defects are lashed with good-natured raillery; in the latter, under the masks of dead men, living persons and contemporary conditions, especially at the Byzantine Court, are sharply stigmatized. The former is more a literary satire, the latter a political pamphlet, with keen personal thursts and without literary value, but with all the greater interest for the history of civilization; the former is in a genuinely popular tone, the latter in vulgar and crude [Cf. Tozer in "The Journal of Hellenic Studies" (1881), II.233-270; Krumbacher, op. cit., 198-211.]
Two popular offshoots of the "Timarion", the "Apokopos" and the "Piccatoros" are discussed below. Another group of satires takes the form of dialogues between animals, manifestly a development from the Christian popular book known as the "
Physiologus". Such satires describe assemblages of quadrupeds, birds, and fishes, and recite their lampooning remarks upon the clergy, the bureaucracy, the foreign nations in the Byzantine Empire, etc. (Krumbacher, 385-390).
Here belong also the parodies in the form of church poems, and in which the clergy themselves took part, e.g. Bishop
Nicetas of Serrae(eleventh century). One example of this sacrilegious literature, though not fully understood, is the "Mockery of a Beardless Man," in the form of an obscene liturgy(fourteenth century). (Krumbacher, 337.)
Didactic poetry found its model in the dialogue "To Demonikos", erroneously ascribed to Isocrates. The greatest example of this type of literature in Byzantium is the "Spaneas" (twelfth century), a hortatory poem addressed by an emperor to his nephew, a sort "Mirror for Princes". Some few offshots from this are found in the popular literature of Crete in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, handed down under the names of Sahlikis and Depharanus. Here also belong the ranting theological exhortations resembling those of the Capuchin in
Schiller's "Wallenstein". Such, for instance, are that of Geogillas after the great plague of Rhodes (1498) and the oracular prophecies on the end of the Byzantine empire current under the name of Emperor Leo (886-911). (Krumbacher, 332, 336, 343, 352, 366.)
A late Byzantine variety of the laudatory poem is the begging-poem, the poetical lament of hungry authors and the parasites of the court. Its chief representatives are
Theodorus Prodromusand the grossly flattering Manuel Philes, the former of whom lived under the Comneni (twelfth century), the latter under the Palaeologi (thirteenth century). For historians such poetical wails of distress as Prodromus addressed to the emperor are of value because they give interesting pictures of street and business life in the capital. (Cf. Krumbacher, 324, 333.)
The ancient Greek novel was imitated by four writers of the twelfth century: Eustathius Macrembolites|Eustathius Makrembolites, Theodorus Prodromus, Nicetas Eugenianus, and
Ecclesiastical and theological literature
The first flowering of ecclesiastical literature of Byzantium is Hellenistic in form and Oriental in spirit. This period falls in the fourth century and is closely associated with the names of the Greek Fathers of Alexandria, Palestine, Jerusalem, Cyrene, and
Cappadocia. Their works, which cover the whole field of ecclesiastical prose literature—dogma, exegesis, and homiletics—became canonical for the whole Byzantine period; the last important work is the ecclesiastical history of Evagrius. Beyond controversial writings against sectarians and the Iconoclasts, later works consist merely of compilations and commentaries, in the form of the so-called "Catenae"; even the "Fountain of Knowledge" of John of Damascus(eighth century), the fundamental manual of Greek theology, though systematically worked out by a learned and keen intellect, is merely a gigantic collection of materials. Even the homily clings to a pseudo-classical, rhetorical foundation, and tends more to external breadth, not to inwardness and depth.
Only three kinds of ecclesiastical literature, which were as yet undeveloped in the fourth century, exhibit later an independent growth. These were the ecclesiastical poetry of the sixth century, popular lives of the saints of the seventh, and the mystic writings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The "Catholic Encyclopedia" suggests that classical forms were insufficient to express Christian thought to best effect: in several collections of early Christian correspondence it is not the rhythmic laws of Greek rhetorical style which govern the composition, but those of Semitic and Syriac prose.
Cardinal Pitrahypothesizes that the rhythmic poetry of the Byzantines originates in the Jewish Psalms of the Septuagint. This rhythmic principle accords with the linguistic character of the later Greek, which used a stress accent as it had already been developed in Syriac poetry rather than the classical tonal accent. Romanoswas the first great ecclesiastical poet of the Greeks to fully embrace the stress accent as a rhythmic principle. A contemporary and countryman of the chronicler Malalas, also a reformer of the Greek literary language, Romanos was a Syrian of Jewish descent, Christianized at an early age. What Malalas is to prose, Romanos is to the Christian poetry of the Greek Middle Ages. Though he did not go so far as Malalas, he released poetry from meters based on quantitative and tonal scansion; he brought it into harmony with the latest poetics prevailing in Syria as well as with the evolving character of the Greek language. Romanos soon went to Constantinople, where he became a deacon of the Hagia Sophia, and where he is said to have first developed his gift for hymn-writing.
Romanos borrowed the form of his poems, the material, and many of their themes partly from the Bible and partly from the (metrical) homilies of the Syrian Father Ephrem (fourth century). He wrote hymns on the Passion of the Lord, on the betrayal by Judas, Peter's denial, Mary before the Cross, the Ascension, the Ten Virgins, and the Last Judgment, while his Old Testament themes mention the history of Joseph and the three young men in the fiery furnace. He is said to have composed about a thousand hymns, of which only eighty have survived, evidently because in the ninth century the so-called "canones", linguistically and metrically more artistic in form, replaced much of his work in the Greek Liturgy. Thenceforth his hymns held their own in only a few of the remoter monasteries. Characteristic of his technique is the great length of his hymns, which are regularly composed of from twenty to thirty stanzas (τροπαρια) of from twelve to twenty-one verses each, very finely wrought and varied in metrical structure, and in construction transparent and diverse. They do not resemble contemporary Latin hymns so much as the oratorios of the early twentieth century, also using antiphonal rendering by alternative choirs. This also explains the dramatic character of many hymns, with their inserted dialogues and choric songs, as in "Peter's Denial", a little drama of human boastfulness and weakness, and the last part of the "History of Joseph", the "Psalm of the Apostles", and the "Birth of Jesus". Other pieces, like the hymn on the
Last Judgment, are purely descriptive in character, though even in them the rhetorical and dogmatic elements seriously impair the artistic effect.
Some, like Bouvy and Krumbacher, place him among the greatest hymn-writers of all times; others, like Cardinal Pitra, are more conservative. For a final judgment a complete edition of the hymns is needed. Compared to Latin church poets such as Ambrose and Prudentius, his surviving works tend towards a more rhetorically flowery, digressive, and dogmatic verse. He is fond of symbolic pictures and figures of speech, antitheses, assonances, especially witty "jeux d'esprit", which contrast with his characteristic simplicity of diction and construction. These embellishments interrupt the smooth flow of his lines, and often the sequence of thought in his hymns is clouded by the dragging in of dogmatic questions—in the celebrated Christmas hymn the question of the miraculous birth of Jesus is discussed four times, with a comfortable amplitude that betrays the theologian thrusting the poet aside. The theologian is also too evident in his allusions to the Old Testament when dealing with New Testament incidents; Mary at the birth of Jesus compares her destiny to that of Sarah, the Magi liken the star that went before the Israelites in the wilderness, and so on. The frequent citation of passages from the prophets seem more like unimpassioned paraphrases than like inspired poetry. In fact Romanos does not possess the abundant and highly-coloured imagery of the earliest Greek church poets, nor their fine grasp of nature. The reader also gathers the impression that the height of the poet's imagination is not in proportion with the depth of his piety—there often appears in him something naive, almost homely, as when Mary expresses her pleasure in the Magi and calls attention to their utility for the impending Flight into Egypt. There are passages, however, in which devout fervor carries the imagination along with it and elevates the poetic tone, as in the jubilant invitation to the dance (in the Easter-song), in which thoughts of spring and of the Resurrection are harmoniously blended:
:Why thus faint-hearted? :Why veil ye your faces? :Lift up your hearts! :Christ is arisen! :Join in the dances, :And with us proclaim it: :The Lord is ascended, :Gleaming and gloried, :He who was born :Of the giver of light. :Cease then your mourning, :Rejoice in blessedness: :Springtime has come. :So bloom now, ye lilies, :Bloom and be fruitful! :Naught bringeth destruction. :Clap we our hands :And shout: Risen is He :Who helpeth the fallen ones :To rise again.
Ecclesiastical poetry did not long remain on the high level to which Romanos had raised it. The "Hymnus Acathistus" (of unknown authorship) of the seventh century, a sort of
Te Deumin praise of the Mother of God, is the last great monument of Greek church poetry, comparable to the hymns of Romanos, which it has even outlived in fame. It has had numerous imitators and as late as the seventeenth century was translated into Latin.
The rapid decline of Greek hymnology begins as early as the seventh century, the period of
Andrew of Crete. Religious sentiments in hymns were choked by a classical fomalism which stifled all vitality. The overvaluation of technique in details destroyed the sense of proportion in the whole. This seems to be the only explanation for the so-called canones first found in the collection of Andrew of Crete. While a canon is a combination of a number of hymns or chants (generally nine) of three or four strophes each, the "Great Canon" of Andrew actually numbers 250 strophes, a "single idea is spun out into serpentine arabesques".
Pseudo-classical artificiality found an even more advanced representative in
John of Damascus, in the opinion of the Byzantines the foremost writer of canones, who took as a model Gregory of Nazianzus, even reintroducing the principle of quantity into ecclesiastical poetry. Religious poetry was in this way reduced to mere trifling, for in the eleventh century, which witnessed the decline of Greek hymnology and the revival of pagan humanism, Michael Psellus began parodying church hymns, a practice that took root in popular culture. Didactic poems took this form without being regarded as blasphemous.
Religious drama did not thrive in the Byzantine era. The only example is the "Suffering of Christ" ("Christus Patiens", "Χριστος πασχον"), written in the eleventh or twelfth century; of its 2,640 verses, about one-third are borrowed from ancient dramas, chiefly from those of
Euripides, and Mary, the chief character, sometimes recites verses from the "Medea" of Euripides, again from the "Electra" of Sophocles, or the "Prometheus" of Aeschylus. The composition is evidently the production of a theologian trained in the classics, but without the slightest idea of dramatic art. It is made up chiefly of lamentations and reports of messengers. Even the most effective scenes, those which precede the Crucifixion, are described by messengers; almost two-thirds of the text are given to the descent from the Cross, the lament of Mary, and the apparition of Christ. (Cf. Van Cleef, "The Pseudo-Gregorian Drama "Christos paschon" in its relation to the text of Euripides" in "Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences", VIII, 363-378; Krumbacher, 312.)
Between ecclesiastical poetry and ecclesiastical prose stands the theologico-didactic poem, a favorite species of ancient Christian literature. One of its best examples is the "Hexaemeron" of Georgius Pisides, a spirited hymn on the universe and its marvels, i.e. all living creatures. Taken as a whole, it is somewhat conventional; only the description of the minor forms of life, especially of the animals, reveals the skill of the epigrammatist and nature-lover's gift of affectionate observation.
Besides sacred poetry,
hagiographyflourished from the sixth to the eleventh century. This species of literature developed from the old martyrologies, and became the favorite form of popular literature. It flourished from the eight to the eleventh century, and was concerned principally with monastic life. Unfortunately, the rhetorical language was in violent contrast with the simple nature of the contents, so that the chief value of this literature is historical.
More popular in style are the biographers of saints of the sixth and seventh centuries. The oldest and most important of them is
Cyril of Scythopolis(in Palestine), whose biographies of saints and monks are distinguished for the reliability of their facts and dates. Of great interest also for their contributions to the history of culture and of ethics and for their genuinely popular language are the writings of Leontius, Archbishop of Cyprus (seventh century), especially his life of the Patriarch John (surnamed The Merciful), Eleemosynarius of Alexandria. (Cf. Heinrich Gelzer, "Kleine Schriften", Leipzig, 1907.) This life describes for us a man who in spite of his peculiarities honestly tried "to realize a pure Biblical Christianity of self-sacrificing love", and whose life brings before us in a fascinating way the customs and ideas of the lower classes of the people of Alexandria.
The romance of Balaam and Joasaph (also
Barlaam and Josaphat) was another popular work of Byzantine origin now elevated to universal literature. It is the "Song of Songs" of Christian asceticism, illustrated by the experience of the Indian prince Joasaph, who is led by the hermit Barlaam to abandon the joys of life, and as a true Christian to renounce the world. The material of the story is originally Indian, indeed Buddhistic, for the origin of Joasaph was Buddha. The Greek version originated in the Sabbas monastery in Palestine about the middle of the seventh century. It did not circulate widely until the eleventh century, when it became known to all Western Europe through the medium of a Latin translation [Cf. F. C. Conybeare, "The Barlaam and Josaphat legend," in "Folk-lore" (1896), VII, 101 sqq.]
The ascetic conception of life was embedded in the Byzantine character and was strengthened by the high development of monastic institutions. The latter in turn brought forth a broad ascetic literature, though it does not further deepen the asceticism of its great exponent, St.
Basil of Caesarea.
Less extensively cultivated, but excelling in quality, are Byzantine mystical writings. The true founder of a distinctively "Byzantine"
mysticismwas Maximus the Confessor(seventh century), who deepened the tradition of Christian Neo-Platonism, as found in the Pseudo-Dionysius, with the resources of Orthodox Christology. No other writer in Eastern Christian tradition surpasses Maximus in speculative range and originality. Later representatives of this mystical tradition were Symeon the New Theologianand Nicetas Stethatosin the eleventh, and Nikolaos Kavasilasin the fourteenth century. The Byzantine mystical writers differ from those of Western Europe chiefly in their attitude to ecclesiastical ceremonies, to which they adhered implicitly, seeing in it a profound symbol of the spiritual life of the church, where Occidentals see an attempt to displace the inner life with external pomp. Accordingly Symeon strictly observed the ceremonial rules of the church, regarding them, however, only as a means to the attainment of ethical perfection. His principal work (published only in Latin) is a collection of prose pieces and hymns on communion with God. He is akin to the chief German mystics in his tendency towards pantheism. Of Symeon's equally distinguished pupil, Nicetas Stethatos, we need only say that he cast off his teacher's pantheistic tendencies. The last great mystic Kavasilas, Archbishop of Saloniki, revived the teaching of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, but in the plan of his principal work, "Life in Christ", exhibits a complete independence of all other worlds and is without a parallel in Byzantine asceticism.
The capture of Constantinople and establishment of the Latin kingdoms in the year 1204 displaced or supplanted aristocratic and ecclesiastic controls on literary taste and style. In response to new influences from the Roman West, Byzantine popular literature moved in different directions. Whereas literary poetry springs from the rationalistic, classical atmosphere of the Hellenistic period, popular poetry, or folk-song, is an outgrowth of the idyllic, romantic literature of the same period. As the literary works had their prototypes in Lucian, Heliodorus, Achilles Tatius, and Nonnus, the popular works imitated
Apollonius of Rhodes, Callimachus, Theocritus, and Musaeus.
The chief characteristic of folk-song throughout the Greek Middle Ages is its lyric note, which constantly finds expression in emotional turns. In Byzantine literature, on the other hand, the refinement of erotic poetry was due to the influence of the love-poetry of
chivalryintroduced by Frankish knights in the thirteenth century and later. The Byzantines imitated and adapted the romantic and legendary materials these westerners brought. Italian influences led to the revival of the drama. That celebration of the achievements of Greek heroes in popular literature was the result of the conflicts which the Greeks sustained during the Middle Ages with the border nations to the east of the empire. Popular books relating the deeds of ancient heroes had long-standing and widespread currency throughout the East; these too revived heroic poetry, though imparted with a deep romantic tinge. The result was a complete upheaval of popular ideals and a broadening of the popular horizon as Atticist tendencies were gradually eroded.
There was, consequently, a complete reconstruction of the literary types of Byzantium. Of all the varieties of artistic poetry there survived only the romance, though this became more serious in its aims, and its province expanded. Of metrical forms there remained only the political (fifteen-syllable) verse. From these simple materials there sprang forth an abundance of new poetic types. Alongside of the narrative romance of heroism and love there sprang up popular love lyrics, and even the beginnings of the modern drama.The only genuine heroic epic of the Byzantines is the "
Digenis Acritas", a popular poetic crystallization of the tenth- and eleventh-century conflicts between the Byzantine wardens of the marches(ακρίτης, acrites) and the Saracensin Eastern Asia Minor. The nucleus of this epic goes back to the twelfth or thirteenth century, its final literary form to the fifteenth. Though the schoolmenedited the original poems beyond recognition, an approximate idea of the original poem may be gathered from the numerous echoes of it extant in popular poetry. The existing versions exhibit a blending of several cycles, modeled after the Homeric poems. Its principal subjects are love, adventures, battles, and a patriarchal, idyllic enjoyment of life; it is a mixture of the Iliadand the Odyssey, the majority of the material being drawn from the latter, suffused with a Christian atmosphere. Genuine piety and a strong family feeling combine with an intimate sympathy with nature. Artistically, the work lacks the dramatic quality and diverse characters of the Germanic and classical Greek epics; it must be compared with the Slavic and Oriental heroic songs, among which it properly belongs.
The love-romance of the Greek Middle Ages is the result of the fusion of the sophistical Alexandro-Byzantine romance and the medieval French popular romance, on the basis of an Hellenistic view of life and nature. This is proved by its three chief creations, composed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. "Kallimachos and Chrysorrhoe", "Belthandros and Chrysantza", "Lybistros and Rhodamne". While the first and the last of these are markedly influenced by Byzantine romance in thought and manner of treatment, the second begins to show the aesthetic and ethical influence of the Old-French romance; indeed, its story often recalls the
Tristanlegend. The style is clearer and more transparent, the action more dramatic, than in the extant versions of the Digenis legend. The ethical idea is the romantic idea of knighthood—the winning of the loved one by valour and daring, not by blind chance as in the Byzantine literary romances. Along with these independent adaptations of French material, are direct translations from "Flore et Blanchefleur", "Pierre et Maguelonne", and others, which have passed into the domain of universal literature.
To the period of Frankish conquest belongs aIso the metrical
Chronicle of Morea(fourteenth century). It was composed by a Frank brought up in Greece, though a foe of the Greeks. Its object was, amid the constantly progressing hellenization of the Western conquerors, to remind them of the spirit of their ancestors. Therefore it is only Greek in language; in literary form and spirit it is wholly Frankish. The author "describes minutely the feudal customs which had been transplanted to the soil of Greece, and this perhaps is his chief merit; the deliberations of the High Court are given with the greatest accuracy, and he is quite familiar with the practice of feudal law" (J. Schmitt). As early as the fourteenth century the Chronicle was translated into Spanish and in the fifteenth into French and Italian.
About the same time and in the same locality the small islands off the coast of Asia Minor, appeared the earliest collection of neo-Greek love songs, known as the "Rhodian Love-Songs". Besides songs of various sorts and origins, they contain a complete romance, told in the form of a play on numbers, a youth being obliged to compose a hundred verses in honor of the maiden whom he worships before she returns his love, each verse corresponding to the numbers one to one hundred.
Between the days of the French influence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and those of Italian in the sixteenth and seventeenth, there was a short romantic and popular revival of the ancient legendary material. There was neither much need nor much appreciation for this revival, and few of the ancient heroes and their heroic deeds are adequately treated. The best of these works is the "
Alexander Romance", based on the story of Alexander the Great, a revised version of the Pseudo-Callisthenesof the Ptolemaic period, which is also the source of the western versions of the "Alexander Romance". The " Achilleis", on the other hand, though written in the popular verse and not without taste, is wholly devoid of antique local colour, and is rather a romance of French chivalry than a history of Achilles. Lastly, of two compositions on the Trojan War, one is wholly crude and barbarous, the other, though better, is a literal translation of the old French poem of Benoît de Sainte-More.To these products of the fourteenth century may be added two of the sixteenth, both describing a descent into the lower world, evidently popular offshoots of the Timarion and Mazaris already mentioned. To the former corresponds the "Apokopos", a satire of the dead on the living; to the latter the "Piccatores", a metrical piece decidedly lengthy but rather unpoetic, while the former has many poetical passages (e.g. the procession of the dead) and betrays the influence of Italian literature. In fact Italian literatureimpressed its popular character on the Greek popular poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as French literaturehad done in the thirteenth and fourteenth.
Cretan Popular Poetry
As a rich popular poetry sprang up during the last-mentioned period on the islands off the coast of Asia Minor, so now a similar literature developed on the Island of Crete. Its most important creations are the romantic epic "Erotokritos" and the dramas "Erophile" and "The Sacrifice of Abraham" with a few minor pictures of customs and manners. These works fall chronologically outside the limits of Byzantine literature; nevertheless, as a necessary complement and continuation of the preceding period, they should be discussed here.
The "Erotokritos" is a long romantic poem of chivalry, lyric in characters and didactic in purpose, the work of
Cornaro, a hellenized Venetian of the sixteenth century. It abounds in themes and ideas drawn from the folk-poetry of the time. In the story of Erotokritos and Arethusa the poet glorifies love and friendship, chivalric courage, constancy, and self-sacrifice. Although foreign influences do not obtrude themselves, and the poem, as a whole, has a national Greek flavour, it reveals the various cultural elements, Byzantine, Romance, and Oriental, without giving, however, the character of a composite.
The lyrical love tragedy "Erophlle" is more of a mosaic, being a combination of two Italian tragedies, with the addition of lyrical intermezzos from
Torquato Tasso's "Jerusalem Delivered", and choral songs from his "Aminta". Nevertheless, the materials are handled with independence, and more harmoniously arranged than in the original; the father who has killed his daughter's lover is slain not by his daughter's hand, but by the ladies of his palace, thus giving a less offensive impression. Owing to the lyric undertone of the works some parts of it have survived in popular tradition until the present time.
mystery playof "The Sacrifice of Abraham" is a little psychological masterpiece, apparently an independent work. The familiar and trite Biblical incidents are reset in the patriarchal environment of Greek family life. The poet emphasizes the mental struggles of Sarah, the resignation of Abraham to the Divine will, the anxious forebodings of Isaac, and the affectionate sympathy of the servants, in other words, a psychological analysis of the characters. The mainspring of the action is Sarah's fore-knowledge of what is to happen, evidently the invention of the poet to display the power of maternal love. The diction is distinguished by high poetic beauty and by a thorough mastery of versification.Other products of Cretan literature are a few adaptations of Italian pastorals, a few erotic and idyllic poems, like the so-called "Seduction Tale" (an echo of the Rhodian Love-Songs), and the lovely, but ultra-sentimental, pastoral idyll of the "Beautiful Shepherdess".
The legacy of Byzantine literature
The Roman supremacy in governmental life did not disappear, amplified as it was by its union with the Eastern despotic traditions of rulership. The subjection of the Church to the power of the State led to a governmental ecclesiasticism, causing friction with
Roman Catholic Church, which had remained relatively independent.
Greek eventually overtook
Latinas the official languageof the government, the "Novellae" of Justinian Ibeing the last Latin monument. As early as the seventh century Greek languagehad made great progress, and by the eleventh Greek was supreme, though it never supplanted the numerous other languages of the empire. While the Greek world preserved the form of its classical literature, the same cannot be said of the classical sense of poetry and imagination. The Byzantine culture broke completely with the classical aesthetic; in literature and in the plastic arts the Oriental aesthetic was victorious.
Some genres such as lyric verse and drama died out, while only in the minor departments of literature was any great degree of skill attained. The classical sense of proportion, beauty, and poetry disappear completely, replaced by a delight in the grotesque and the disproportioned on the one hand, and in ornamental trifles on the other.
Social conditions, more of the East than of classical Athenian/Roman culture, encouraged these aesthetic trends.
The loss of a body of free, educated citizens to Byzantine centralization and the consequent stagnation of municipal life directly affected its literature. No rivals were permitted to Constantinople. Literature concerned only the high official and priestly classes; it was aristocratic or theological rather than popular. Classical standards could be imitated because only the upper classes concerned themselves with literature, but, divorced from the life of the people, it lacked genuine spontaneity. Church
hymnology for some time infused fresh life into literature, but even this was of Oriental origin, growing out of Syria. In Byzantium, ecclesiastical and Eastern influences coincided.
The Eastern Roman Empire divided European civilization into two parts: one Romance and Germanic, the other Greek and Slavic. These cultures differed ethnographically, linguistically, ecclesiastically, and historically. Imperial
Russia, the Balkans, and Ottoman Empirewere the direct heirs of Byzantine civilization; the first two particularly in ecclesiastical, political, and cultural respects (through the translation and adaptation of sacred, historical, and popular literature); the third in respect to civil government.
Indirectly, the Empire protected western Europe for centuries from war, fighting off various invaders and migratory populations. Byzantium was also a treasury of ancient Greek literature. During the Middle Ages, until the capture of the Constantinople, the West was acquainted only with Roman literature. Greek antiquity was first carried to Italy by the treasures brought by fugitive Greek humanists.
Byzantine culture had a direct influence upon southern and central Europe in church music and church poetry, though this was only in the very early period (until the seventh century).
Byzantine culture had a definite impact upon the Near East, especially upon the
Armenians, the Persians, and the Arabs. Even if Byzantium received from these nations more than it imparted, still the Byzantines gave a strong intellectual impulse to the Orient, enriching its scholarly literature, though even in this they served chiefly as intermediaries.
There is no comprehensive history of Byzantine literature written in English, although the
Oxford Dictionary of Byzantiumprovides excellent coverage of individual authors and topics. The chapters of Horrocks that cover the medieval period are useful for the "language question." The "History" of Kazhdan covers only the early period. Beaton and Lauxtermann are useful on "low" and "high" verse, respectively.
The study of Byzantine literature as a self-sufficient discipline originated in the German-speaking world, and the most important general surveys are written in this language. Beck and Hunger remain the standard works on theological and secular literature, respectively, although Krumbacher and Moravcsik are still valuable. Rosenqvist is a recent and useful introduction to the subject.
*R. Beaton, "The medieval Greek romance" (Cambridge, 1989). ISBN 0-521-33335-0.
*H.-G. Beck, "Kirche und theologische Literatur im byzantinischen Reich" (="Handbuch der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft" 12,2,1) (Munich, 1977). ISBN 3-406-01416-X.
*G. Horrocks, "Greek: a history of the language and its speakers" (London, 1997). ISBN 0-582-30709-0.
*H. Hunger, "Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner" (="Handbuch der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft" 12,5) (Munich, 1978) [two volumes] . ISBN 3-406-01427-5; ISBN 3-406-01428-3.
*A.P. Kazhdan, "A history of Byzantine literature (650-850)" (Athens, 1999). ISBN 960-371-010-5.
*K. Krumbacher, "Geschichte der byzantinischen Litteratur" (Munich, 1897).
*M.D. Lauxtermann, "Byzantine poetry from Psides to Geometres" (Vienna, 2003). ISBN 3-7001-3150-X.
*G. Moravcsik, "Byzantinoturcica" (Berlin, 1958) [two volumes] (A deceptive title: in fact the most important history of Byzantine secular literature before Hunger).
*J. Rosenqvist, "Die byzantinische Literatur: vom 6. Jahrhundert bis zum Fall Konstantinopels 1453" (Berlin, 2007). ISBN 978-3-11-018878-3.
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