Please help support the mission of New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more all for only $19.99...
To grasp correctly the essential characteristics of Byzantine literature, it is necessary first to analyze the elements of civilization that find expression in it, and the sources whence they spring. If Byzantine literature is the expression of the intellectual life of the Greek race of the Eastern Roman Empire during the Christian Middle Ages, it is evident that there is question here of an organism not simple but multiform; a combination of Greek and Christian civilization on the common foundation of the Roman political system, set in the intellectual and ethnographic atmosphere of the Near East. In Byzantine literature, therefore, four different cultural elements are to be reckoned with: the Greek, the Christian, the Roman, and the Oriental. Their reciprocal relations may be indicated by three intersecting circles all enclosed within a fourth and larger circle representing the Orient. Thus in each of the three smaller circles we shall have to determine the influence of the Orient.
The oldest of these three civilizations is the Greek. Its centre, however, is not Athens but Alexandria; the circle accordingly represents not the Attic but the Hellenistic civilization. Alexandria itself, however, in the history of civilization, is not a unit, but rather a double quantity; it is the centre at once of Atticizing scholarship and of Graeco-Judaic racial life. It looks towards Athens as well as towards Jerusalem. Herein lies the germ of the intellectual dualism which thoroughly permeates the Byzantine and partly also the modern Greek civilization, the dualism between the culture of scholars and that of the people. Even the literature of the Hellenistic age suffers from this dualism; we distinguish in it two 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, its chief representatives being Lucian, Achilles Tatius, Heliodorus, and Longus, the latter had its root in the idyllic tendency of Theocritus, and culminated in the idyllic novel of Callimachus, Musaeus, Quintus of Smyrna, and others. 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 first tendency, strong as it was, received additional support from the reactionary linguistic movement known as Atticism. Represented at its height by rhetoricians like Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and grammarians like Herodian and Phrynicus at Alexandria, this tendency prevailed from the second century B.C. onward, and with the force of an ecclesiastical dogma controlled all subsequent Greek culture, even so that the living form of the Greek language, even then being transformed into modern Greek, was quite obscured and only occasionally found expression, chiefly in private documents, though also in popular literature.
While Alexandria, as an important central and conservative factor, was thus influential in confining, and during the Byzantine period, directing, the literary and linguistic life of the later Greek world, a second conservative factor is found in the influence of the Roman culture-circle on the political and judicial life of the Eastern Empire. Alexandria, the centre of intellectual refinement, is balanced by Rome, the centre of government. It is as a Roman Empire that the Byzantine State enters into history; its citizens are known as Romans (Hromaioi), its capital city as New Rome. 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. In short, the whole organization of the State was that of the Roman imperial period, with its hierarchy and bureaucracy entire and destined yet to play an important part. To these two ancient forces, Hellenistic intellectual culture and Roman governmental organization, are now to be added as important expressions of the new environment, the emotional life of Christianity and the world of Oriental imagination, the last enveloping all the other three.
It was in Alexandria also that Graeco-Oriental Christianity had its birth. There the Septuagint translation had been made; it was there that that fusion of Greek philosophy and Jewish religion took place which found in Philo its most important representative; there flourished the mystic speculative neo-Platonism associated with the names of Plotinus and Porphyry. At Alexandria the great Greek ecclesiastical writers pursued their studies with pagan rhetoricians and philosophers; in fact several of them were born here, e.g. Origen, Athanasius, and his opponent Arius, also Cyril and Synesius. Not indeed in the city of Alexandria, but yet upon Egyptian soil, grew up that ascetic concept of life which attained such great importations as Byzantine monasticism. After Alexandria, Syria was important as a home of Christianity, its centre being Antioch, where a school of Christian commentators flourished under St. John Chrysostom and where later arose the Christian universal chronicles. In Syria, also, we find the germs of Greek ecclesiastical poetry, while from neighbouring Palestine came St. John of Damascus, the last of the Greek Fathers.
It is evident that Greek Christianity had of necessary a pronounced Oriental character; Egypt and Syria are the real birthplaces of the Graeco-Oriental church, and indeed of Graeco-Oriental (i.e. Byzantine) civilization in general. Egypt and Syria, with Asia Minor, became for the autochthonous Greek civilization a sort of America, where hundreds of flourishing cities sprang into existence, and where energies confined or crippled in the impoverished home-land found an unlimited opportunity to display themselves; 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. After this brief characterization of the various elements of Byzantine civilization, it is to be inquired in what relation they stood to each other, how they mingled, and what was the product of their combination. It is extremely instructive to notice how the two fundamental elements of Byzantinism, the Roman and the Hellenistic, are connected, both with each other and with the culture of the East what each one gains and what it loses, and what influence it has upon the other. The Roman supremacy in governmental life did not disappear in Byzantium. It was even amplified, through the union of Roman Caesarism with Oriental despotism. Moreover the subjection of the Church to the power of the State led to that governmental ecclesiasticism always irreconcilably opposed to the Roman Church, which had triumphed over the secular power. On the other hand, the intellectual superiority of the Greek element was shown by its victory over the Latin tongue as the official language of the Government. Its last Latin monument is the "Novellae" of Justinian. As early as the seventh century the Greek language made great progress, and by the eleventh the supremacy of Greek was secure, although it was never able to absorb the numerous other languages of the empire. Moreover, while the Greek world might artificially preserve the classic form of its ancient literature, the same cannot be said of the poetical feeling and the imagination. It was precisely in æsthetic culture that the Byzantine Greek broke completely with the ancient traditions; in literature and in the plastic arts the spirit of the Orient was everywhere victorious. On the one hand, some ancient literary types e.g., lyric verse and the drama became quite extinct, while only in the minor departments of literature was any great degree of skill attained; on the other hand, the ancient sense of proportion the feeling for beauty, and the creative power in poetry were wholly lost, and were replaced by a delight in the grotesque and the disproportioned on the one hand, and in ornamental trifles on the other. This injury, affecting literature and its free development, was a result of social conditions which contrast markedly with those of ancient Athens and ancient Rome, while they fit in perfectly with the masterful ways of the Orient. There is no trace of a body of free and educated citizens, which is in keeping with the Roman policy of close centralization, and consequently slight development of municipal life. Constantinople was the city, and no rivals were permitted. Literature was, therefore, wholly a concern of the high official and priestly classes; it was aristocratic or theological, not representative of the interests of the citizens. Thus classical standards could be imitated because only the upper classes concerned themselves with literature. For the same reason it lacked genuine spontaneity, having no roots in the life of the people. The Church alone and here we come to its influence on Byzantine civilization for some time infused fresh life into literature. Put even this life was an Oriental growth, for Greek hymnology is of Syrian origin. In Byzantium therefore, ecclesiastical and Oriental influences coincide. The Oriental influence is especially apparent in Byzantine plastic art. Here the ancient sources of inspiration are even more completely obscured than in the domain of literature, and we notice the same principles: complete absence of feeling for architectonic proportion of members, transference of the artistic centre of gravity to the interior, i.e. to the wall-surfaces, and there the replacing of form by colour, of the plastic effect by the picturesque; not, however, by broadly drawn fresco treatment but by the more artisanlike work in mosaic, with its predominance of ornamental motives. Wall-decoration and minor ornament are thus combined in a fashion analogous to the Byzantine treatment of annalistic and epigrammatic poetry. And while Byzantine art, like its poetry goes back to the Alexandrian, yet it is greatly altered and modified by influences from Syria, Persia, and Asia Minor, so that it approaches the Oriental.
The next point to be discussed is the influence of the Orient upon Church and State. Here we must distinguish between direct and indirect forces. Chief among the former is the office of Emperor. In so far as the emperor unites in himself both secular and spiritual power, there falls upon him a glamour of Oriental theocracy; his person is regarded as sacred; he is a representative of God, indeed the very image of God, and all must prostrate themselves before him; everything that serves for his use is sacred, even the red ink with which he underlines his signature. The Oriental character of the Byzantine Church appears in its tenacious dogmatic spirit the establishment of Christian doctrines by councils, the asceticism which affected monastic life so far as to hinder the formation of regular orders with community life, and also the mad fanaticism against the Roman West and the Church, which in the eleventh century finally led to an open breach. The Oriental character of Church and State is still more pronounced considered in its effect upon civic life. The lack of a vigorous citizen-body, owing to the lack of large cities, has already been mentioned. The landed nobility, officials, and priests controlled political, social, and religious life. Hence the aristocratic, exclusive and non-popular character of the language and literature, and the one-sided development of both, down to the twelfth century. The Church, too, kept in subjection by the State, though failing to ennoble the inner religious life of the citizens, sought all the more zealously to fashion their external life upon an ecclesiastical model. The church edifice even served as a model for secular building; every house had its altar, and the family life followed ecclesiastical forms. On the other hand, we do not find the rich and fruitful interaction between spiritual and secular affairs that we do in western countries. The religious devotion to Mary gave rise to no chivalric devotion to woman, and from the oratories there came no religious drama. Theological and dogmatic interests outweighed the religious and ethical; the individualistic sentiment was stronger than the social. Such, approximately was the result of the mingling of the diverse elements in the body of Byzantine culture. What then were the cultural effects emanating from this complex organism?
The most momentous effect of the establishment of the Eastern Roman Empire on European civilization was the division of the latter into two parts: one Romance and Germanic, the other Greek and Slavic. Ethnographically, linguistically, ecclesiastically, and historically, both cultures are sharply distinct from each other, as is evident from a comparison of alphabets and calendars. The former division is the more progressive; the latter is the more conservative, and very slow to adapt itself to the West. Byzantium exerted a decided and effective influence only in the eastern half of the empire. Russia, the Balkan countries, and Turkey are the modern offshoots 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.
For the European West the Byzantine Empire and its culture are significant in a twofold way. Indirectly, this Empire affected the West in forming a strong bulwark against the frequent advances of the Asiatic races and protecting Europe for centuries from the burdens of war. Byzantium was also the store-house of the greatest literature of the ancients, the Greek. During the Middle Ages, until the capture of the Constantinople, the West was acquainted only with Roman literature. Greek antiquity was first unlocked for it by the treasures which fugitive Greek humanists carried to Italy. Byzantine culture had a direct influence especially upon Southern and Central Europe, that is to say on Italy, in church music and church poetry though this was only in the very early period (until the seventh century); it had a permanent and wider influence in ecclesiastical architecture, through the development of the so-called Romanesque style (in the tenth and eleventh centuries), the Oriental and Byzantine origin of which has been more clearly recognized of late. This influence was transmitted through the Frankish and Salic emperors, primarily Charlemagne, whose relations with Byzantium are well known. Probably it was also in this way that Byzantine titles and ceremonial were introduced into Central Europe, and that Central and Eastern European official life assumed its hierarchical and bureaucratical character. Finally, though not very numerous, the effects of Byzantine culture upon the countries of the Near East, expecially upon the Armenians, the Persians, and the Arabs, must not be underestimated. Even if Byzantium received from these nations more than it imparted, still the Byzantines gave a strong intellectual impulse to the Orient, particularly by enriching its scholarly literature, though even in this they served chiefly as intermediaries.
In the following account Byzantine literature is classified in five groups. The first three include representatives of those kinds of literature which continued the ancient traditions: historians (including also the chroniclers), encyclopedists, and essayists, and writers of secular poetry. The remaining two groups include the new literary species, ecclesiastical and theological literature, and popular poetry.
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, the latter is 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. The following detailed account will bring to light still further differences.
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 closet-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, Georgius 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. In some cases a Byzantine chooses one or another 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 of the Byzantines. This was not always due to mere caprice, but often resulted from a real community of feeling, effectually preventing, however, any development of an individual style. For the continuity of historical style it would surely have been desirable for an historian of such great influence on posterity as Procopius to have chosen as his model Polybius rather than Thucydides. That such was not the case, however, is not the fault of the Byzantines but of the "Atticists" who had checked the natural course of the development. Nevertheless, within the limit of this development, it is certainly no accident that military characters like Nicephorus Bryennius (eleventh and twelfth centuries) and Joannes Cinnamus (twelfth century) emanated Xenophon in the precision of their diction, and that a philosophic character 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 Diaconus and Georgius Pachymeres chose to ornament their pages with 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.
Although the Byzantine historians are thus for the most part dependent on foreign models, and while, to outward appearances, they form a continuous series in which each begins where his predecessor stopped, yet they do not blend into a uniform whole, distinguishable only under the light cast on them from classic literature. There are, on the contrary, clearly marked groups within which individual personalities stand out with distinctness. Most of the historians come in either the period embracing the sixth and seventh centuries, or that extending from the eleventh to the fifteenth century, i.e. either during the reigns of the East-Roman emperors or those of the Comneni and the Palaeologi. At the time of its zenith under the Macedonian emperors (the ninth and tenth centuries) the Byzantine world produced great heroes, but no great historians, if we except the solitary and therefore more conspicuous, figure of the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus.
The first period is dominated by Procopius, not so much because of his personal character, as on account of his share in historical events of universal interest and his literary importance. As a man he was typically Byzantine, as is evident from a comparison of two of his works, in one of which his depreciation of the Emperor Justinian is as emphatic as his unqualified apotheosis of him in the other. In literature, and as a historian, however, he still has one foot on the soil of antiquity, 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. Significantly enough, Procopius and to a great degree his continuator, Agathias remain the models of descriptive style, even as late as the eleventh century. Procopius is the first representative of the over-laden, over-ornamented Byzantine style in literature and in this is surpassed only by Theophylaktos Simokattes in the seventh century, while others continued to imitate the historian of the Gothic War. In spite of their unclassical form, however, they approach the ancients in their freedom from ecclesiastical and dogmatic tendencies.
Between the historical writings of the first period, in form and content half antique, and those of the second, characterized by reverence for an artificial classicism, 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 current under the name of the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (tenth century), dealing respectively with the administration of the empire, its political division, and the ceremonial of the Byzantine Court. They treat of the internals conditions of the empire, and the first and third are distinguished by their use of a popular tongue. Their content also is of great value; the first is an important source of information for the ethnological conditions of the empire, while the last is an interesting contribution to the history of civilization in the Byzantine Orient.
The second group of historians present very different characteristics. In their works a classical eclecticism veils theological fanaticism quite foreign to the classic spirit and an arrogant chauvinism. Revelling in classical forms the historians of the period of the Commeni and Palaeologi were absolutely devoid of the classical spirit; there are among them however--and this goes far to palliate their faults--much stronger and more sympathetic personalities than in the first period. It seems as if, amid all the weakening of civil and imperial power, a few great individual personalities stood out, all the more striking because of the general decay. Indeed, the individuality of each is so vigorous that it impairs the objectivity of his work. This is particularly true of those historians who belonged to an imperial family or were closely related to one. Most of these writers produced partisan works. Such are the "Alexiad", the pedantic work of the Princess Anna Comnena (a glorification of her father Alexius, and of the reorganization of the empire set afoot by him), the historical work of her husband, Nicephorus Bryennius (eleventh and twelfth centuries; a description of the internal conflicts that accompanied the rise of the Commeni, done in the form of a family chronicle), and lastly the self-complacent narrative of his own achievements by one of the Palaeologi, John VI Cantacuzene (fourteenth century). The historical writers of this period exhibit also very 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 polemist, Pachymeres (thirteenth century), stands the man of the world, Nicephorus Gregoras (fourteenth century), well versed in philosophy and the classics. While these and other similar writers are less objective than is desirable in their presentation of internal Byzantine history, they are all the more trustworthy in their accounts of external events, being especially important sources for the first appearance of the Slavs and Turks on the borders of the Empire.
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, the method in which materials are handled, and their style of composition. The beginnings of the Byzantine chronicle have not yet been satisfactorily traced. That they are not very remote seems certain from their comparatively late appearance, as compared with historical literature (sixth century), and from their total lack of contact with hellenistic (pagan) tradition. In point of locality, also, the chronicle literature is originally foreign to Greek civilization, its first important product having been composed in Syria, by all uneducated Syrian. Its presumable prototype, moreover, the "Chronography" of Sextus Julius Africanus, points to an Oriental Christian source. Accordingly, the origins and development of the chronicle literature are combined to a much narrower circle; it has no connection with persons of distinction and is not in touch with the great world; its models are bound almost exclusively within its own narrow sphere. The high-water mark of the Byzantine chronicle was reached in the ninth century, precisely at a time when there is a gap in historical literature. Afterwards it falls off rather abruptly; the lesser chroniclers, met with as late as the twelfth century, draws partly from contemporary and partly, though at rare intervals, from the earlier historians. In the Palaeologi period there are, significantly enough, no chroniclers of any note.
The importance of Byzantine chronicles lies not in their historical and literary value, but in their relation to civilization. They are not only an important source for the history of Byzantine civilization, but themselves contributed to the spread of that civilization. The most important chronicles, through numerous redactions and translations, passed over to Slavic and Oriental peoples and in this way became one of their earliest sources of civilization. Their influence was chiefly due to their popular tone and bias. They depict only what lies within the popular world of consciousness, events wonderful and dreadful painted in glaring colours, and interpreted in a Christian sense. The method of handling materials is extremely primitive. Beneath each section of a chronicle lies some older source usually but slightly modified, so that the whole story resembles a crude collection of material rather than ingenious mosaic like the narratives of the historians. The diction corresponds with the low level of education in both author and reader, and is naturally that of the popular tongue in its original purity, therefore these chronicles are a rich treasure-house for the comparative study of languages.
Representative Byzantine chronicles, typical also of the different stages in the development of the chronicle, are the three of Joannes Malalas, Theophanes Confessor, and Joannes Zonaras respectively. The first is the earliest Christian Byzantine monastic chronicle, and was composed in the Antioch in the sixth century by a hellenized Syrian (consequently Monophysite) theologian. Originally a chronicle of the city, it was later expanded into a world-chronicle. It is a popular historical work, full of the gravest historical and chronological errors, and the first monument of a purely popular hellenistic civilization. It is the chief source for most of the later chroniclers, as well as for a few church historians; it is also the earliest popular history, which was translated into Old-Bulgarian, about the end of the ninth or the beginning of the tenth century. Superior in substance and form, and more properly historical, is the Chronicle of Theophanes, a monk of Asia Minor, written in the ninth century, 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. There is already apparent in it something of the atmosphere of the renaissance that occurred under the Comneni; not only is the narrative better than that of Theophanes, but in it many passages from ancient writers are worked into the text. It is not to be wondered at therefore, that this chronicle was translated not only into Slavic and Latin, but also, in the sixteenth century, into Italian and French.
The spirit of antiquarian scholarship awoke in Byzantium earlier than in the West, though it proved less productive. It is extremely significant, however, that the study of antiquity at Byzantium was begun not by laymen, but lay theologians. For this reason it always had a certain scholastic flavour; the Byzantine humanistic spirit savoured alike of antiquity and the Middle Ages; neither ever really gained the upper hand. A pronounced interest in the literature of Greek antiquity was first manifested at Constantinople in the second half of the ninth century. It was primarily directed to the systematic collection and sifting of manuscripts. With the twelfth century begins the period of original productions in imitation of antique models, a revival of the Alexandrian essay and rhetorical literature, a number of writers showing vigorous originality. Quite isolated between the two periods stands Michael Psellus, a universal genius of the eleventh century who bridges over the periods. While the humanism of the ninth and tenth centuries retained throughout a strong theological colouring and maintained a hostile attitude towards the West, that of the twelfth to the fourteenth century developed several writers who consciously or unconsciously sought to break away from orthodox classicism, and to attain a true humanism, and so became the earliest 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 stateman of the Greek Church (820-897), exhibited much enthusiasm in the collection of forgotten manuscripts and an intuitive genius for the revival of forgotten works of antiquity and the discovery of works hitherto unknown, in which his attention, however, was chiefly directed to the prose writers, a fact indicative of his sound practical sense. Photius made selections or excerpts from all the works he discovered, and were the beginning of his celebrated "Bibliotheca" (Library), which, despite its dry and schematic character, is the most valuable literary compendium of the Middle Ages, containing, as it does, trustworthy summaries of many ancient works that have since been lost, together with which many good characterizations and analyses are given, e.g. those of Lucian and Heliodorus. Strangely enough the same Photius, who thus laid a foundation for the renewed study of antiquity, also prepared the way for the Greek Schism, that momentous break of the Greek world from the West and its civilization. Even within his own Church, however, he appears greater as an ecclesiastical statesman than as a theologian. The encyclopedic activity in Byzantium which had been begun by Photius was more assiduously pursued in the tenth century, particularly in the systematic collecting of materials, which is usually associated with the name of the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913-959). Scholars did not confine themselves solely to collecting materials, but formed great compilations, arranged according to subjects, on the basis of older sources. Among them was an encyclopedia of political science which contained extracts from the classical, Alexandrian, and Roman Byzantine periods; it is preserved, however, only in a few fragments. If we take account also of the fact that in the same century originated the collection of ancient epigrams known as the "Anthologia Palatina", as well as the scientific dictionary which goes under the name of Suidas, we may rightly designate the tenth century as 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. Like Bacon, he stands between the Middle Ages and modern times. He is not, like Photius, a theologian, but a jurist and a man of the world; his mind is not only receptive but productive; he not only does not undervalue the old philosophers, as does Photius, who was more concerned with points of philosophy and grammar, but 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. Though surpassing Photius in intellect and wit, he lacks that scholar's dignity and solidity of character. A certain restless brilliancy characterized the course of his life, as well as his literary activity. At first a lawyer, he then became a professor of philosophy, was for a time a monk, then a court official, and ended his career as prime minister. He was equally adroit and many-sided in his literary work, in this respect resembling Leibniz. In harmony with the polished, pliant nature of the courtier is his elegant Platonic style, as it is exhibited most distinctly in his letters and speeches. His extensive correspondence furnishes endless material for an understanding of his personal and literary character. In his speeches, especially in his funeral orations, we recognize clearly the ennobling influence of his Attic models, that delivered on the death of his mother shows deep sensibility. Compared with Photius Psellus had something of a poetic temperament, as several of his poems show, though indeed they owe their origin more to satirical fancy or to external occasions than to deep poetic feeling. Though Psellus exhibits more formal skill than original, creative talent, his endowments proved most valuable for his time, which was particularly backward in the direction of æsthetic culture. The intellectual freedom of the great scholars (polyhistores), ecclesiastical and secular of the twelfth to the fourteenth century would be inconceivable without the activity of Psellus, the first great victor over Byzantine scholasticism who cleared the way for his successors.
In one point indeed, and that important in passing any judgment on him, Psellus was surpassed by most of his intellectual posterity, i.e. in character. It is true there are also among his successors many morally corrupt and hollow natures, like Nicephorus Blemmydes, and Hyrtakenos; the majority, however, are admirable for their rectitude of intention and sincerity of feeling, and their beneficently broad culture. Among these great intellects and strong characters of the twelfth century several theologians are especially conspicuous, e.g. 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 first named are best judged by their letters and minor occasional writings. Eustathius seems to be the most important among them, not only because of his learned of his learned commentary on Homer and Pindar, but particularly because of his own original writings. Therein he reveals a candid character, courageously holding up every evil to the light and intent upon its correction, not shrinking from sharp controversy. In one of his works he attacks the corruption of the monastic life of that day and its intellectual stagnation; in another, one of the best of the Byzantine polemical writings, he assails the hypocrisy and sham holiness of his time; in a third he denounces the conceit and arrogance of the Byzantine priests, who were ashamed of their popular designation, "pope". For a rhetorician like Michael Italicus, later a bishop, it is extremely significant that he should attack 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.
Noteworthy also is the noble figure of 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, compared by Gregorovius with Gregory the Great's sermon to the Romans in St. Peter's, exhibits both profound classical scholarship and high enthusiasm; the latter, however, is somewhat out of place in view of the material and spiritual wretchedness 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. Gregorovius compares this also with a Latin counterpart, the lament of Bishop Hildebert of Tours on the demolition of Rome by the Normans (1106). More wordy and rhetorical are the funeral orations over his teacher, Eustathius (1195), and over his brother Nicetas, both of them, nevertheless, fine evidences of a noble disposition and deep feeling. In spite of his humanism, Michael, like his brother, remained a fanatical opponent of the Latins, whom he called "barbarians". They had driven him into exile at Ceos, whence he addressed many letters to his friends which are of great value for the understanding of his character. In his style he is strongly influenced by Eustathius; hence the ecclesiastical note in his otherwise classical diction.
With Theodorus Metochites and Maximus Planudes we come to the universal scholars (polyhistores) of the time of the Palaeologi. The former gives evidence of his humanistic zeal in his frequent use of the hexameter, the latter in his knowledge of the Latin, both being otherwise unknown in Byzantium and acquaintance with them foreboding a new and broader grasp of antiquity. Both men show an unusually fine grasp of poetry, especially of the poetry of nature. Metochites composed meditations on the beauty of the sea; Planudes was the author of a long poetic idyll, a kind of literature otherwise little cultivated by Byzantine scholars. On the whole, Metochites was a thinker and poet, Planudes chiefly an imitator and compiler. Metochites was of the more speculative disposition, as his collection of philosophical and historical miscellanies show. Planudes was more precise, as his preference for mathematics proves. It is worth noting, as an evidence of contemporary progress in philosophy, that Metochites openly attacks Aristotle. He also deals more frankly with political questions, as is shown, for instance, in his comparison of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. In spite of this breadth of interest his culture rests wholly on a Greek basis, while 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 alone suffices to rank him among the modern and superior intellects of his time, as he will surely be admitted to have been if ever his numerous and varied works in every domain of Byzantine intellectual activity are brought to light. His letters, especially, promise a rich harvest. His method of exposition is based on that of Plato, when he also imitated in his ecclesiastico-political discussions, e.g. in his dialogue "Florentius, or Concerning Wisdom". These disputations with his opponent, Balaam, dealt with the question of church union, in which Gregoras stood on the side of the Unionists. This attitude, which places him outside the sphere of strictly Byzantine culture, brought upon him bitter hostility and the loss of the privilege of teaching; he had been occupied chiefly with the exact sciences, whereby he held already earned the hatred of orthodox Byzantines.
While, therefore, the Byzantine essayists and encyclopedists stood, externally, wholly under the influence of ancient rhetoric and its rules and while they did not, like Bacon, create an entirety new form of the essay, yet they embodied in the traditional form their own characteristic knowledge, and thereby lent it a new charm.
As the prose literature, both historical and philosophical, followed one or more ancient models--the former Thucydides in particular, the latter Plato--so poetry likewise had its prototypes; each of its principal classes had, so to speak, an ancient progenitor to whom it traced back its origins. Unlike the prose literature, however, these new kinds of poetical Byzantine literature and their models are not to be traced back to the classical Attic period. The Byzantines write neither lyrics nor dramas and imitate neither Pindar nor Sophocles. They irritate the literature of the post-classic or Alexandrian period, and write romances, panegyrics, epigrams, satires, and didactic and hortatory poetry. The chief Alexandrian representative or these species of literature are the models for the Byzantines, in particular Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius, Asclepiades and Posidippus, Lucian and Longus. For didactic poetry it is necessary to go back to an earlier prototype, a work ascribed to Isocrates, by whom, however, it was not actually written. The poetic temperament of the Byzantines is thus akin to that of the Alexandrian, not of the Attic, writers. This statement is of great importance for the understanding of the poetry of Byzantium. Only one new poetic type was evolved independently by the Byzantines the begging-poem. The five ancient types and the new one just mentioned are not contemporaneous in the Byzantine period, the epigram and the panegyric developed first (in the sixth and seventh centuries), and then only, at long intervals, the others, i.e. satire, didactic and begging poetry, finally the romance. All of these appear side by side only after the twelfth century, that is to say in the period of decay, they themselves marking a decadence in literature.
The epigram was the artistic form of later antiquity which best suited the Byzantine taste for the ornamental and for intellectual ingenuity. It corresponded exactly to the concept of the minor arts, which in the Byzantine period attained such high development. It made no lofty demands on the imagination of the author; the chief difficulty lay rather in the technique and the attainment of the utmost possible pregnancy of phrase. Two groups may be distinguished among the Byzantine epigrammatists: one pagan and humanistic in tendency, 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 Theodoret 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 A.D. 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 skilful 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 man of deep earnestness and simple piety, with a fine power of observation in nature and life, full of sentiment and warmth and simplicity of expression, his writings are free from servile imitation of the ancients, though he occasionally betrays the influence of Nonnus. Of his epigrams, which touch on the most varied things and situations, those treating of the life and personnel of his monastery offer especial interest for the history of civilization. Joannes Geometres is in a way a combination of the two preceding writers. During the course of his life he filled both secular and ecclesiastical offices; his poetry also was of a universal character; of a deeply religious temper, he was still fully appreciative of the greatness of the ancient Greeks. Alongside of epigrams on ancient poets, philosophers, rhetoricians and historians are others on famous Church Fathers, poets, and saints. In point of poetic treatment, the epigrams on contemporary and secular topics are superior to those on religious and classic subjects. He is at his best when depicting historical events and situations that have come within his own experience, and reflect his own spiritual moods (Krumbacher).
Less agreeable than the epigrams are the official panegyrics on emperors and their achievements, which unfortunately even the best writers often could not escape composing. Typical of this kind of literature are the commemorative poem of Paulus Silentiarius on the dedication of the church of St. Sophia, and that of Georgius Pisides on the victory of these great events, but the glory of the prince. Unfavourable conclusions must not the drawn, however, as to the character of these poets, when it is borne in mind that such eulogies were composed of only by courtiers like Psellus and Manuel Holobolos (thirteenth century), but also by dignified and independent characters like Eustathius and Michael Acominatus. In fact this species of literature had become traditional, and had been 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.
As previously stated, 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, a trochiac 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 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, however, under the masks of dead men, living persons and contemporary conditions, especially at the Byzantine Court, are sharply stigmatized, thus the former is more of a literary satire, the latter a political pamphlet, with keen personal thrusts 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" will be discussed later. 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 which are mentioned below, and in which the clergy themselves took part, e.g. Bishop Nicetas of Serrae (eleventh century). One of the worst examples of this sacrilegious literature, which is not yet, however, fully understood, is the "Mockery of a Beardless Man" in the liturgical form of Mass-chants. This is one of the most obscene products of Byzantine literature (fourteenth century). (Krumbacher, 337.)
As the Byzantine satire had its prototype in Lucian, the 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 offshoots from this are found in the popular literature of Crete in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, handed down under the names of Sachlikis 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 Prodromus and the still more contemptible Manuel Philes, the former of whom lived under the Comment (twelfth century), the latter under the Palaeologi (thirteenth century). For the history of civilization 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 Alexandrian erotic romance was imitated by three late writers of the twelfth century: Eustathius Makrembolites, Theodorus Prodromus, and Nicetas Eugenianus. E. Rhode's criticism of the last is true of all three: "Nothing original is found anywhere; on the contrary, Nicetas unhesitatingly steals his flowers of speech and gallant turns from everywhere, from the Anacreontics, from the bucolic poets, from Musaeus, from the epigrammatists of the Anthology, even from Heliodorus and Longus, and especially from Achilles Tatius". The tone of these romances is characterized by a combination of sickening affectation of style and a crude coarseness of material. (Cf. Krumbacher, 313, 318, 319; Rohde, Der griechische Roman, Leipzig, 1876, 522 sqq.)
The epigram was thus the only form of secular poetry which 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.
While the most flourishing period of the secular literature of Byzantium runs from the ninth to the twelfth century, as already seen in the amount of its three principal groups, its religious literature developed much earlier. Christianity entered the world as a slew force, with all the vigour of youth, between antiquity and the Byzantine Middle Ages; indeed, it first gave to those Middle Ages their distinctive characteristic, that theological element which permeates all Byzantine culture. From the Eastern provinces Asia Minor and Palestine, came the first great ecclesiastical writers of the fourth century: Athanasius from Alexandria, Eusebius from Palestine, Cyril from Jerusalem, Synesius from Cyrene, and above all, the three great Fathers from Cappadocia, Basil and the two Gregories (of Nyssa and of Nazianzus). The contribution of these districts to Eastern Christianity was twofold: the rhetorical and speculative spirit of Hellenistic thought as it had developed in Alexandria and in Asia Minor, the old home of Greek culture; and the ascetic and dogmatic spirit peculiar to the Orient. The two blended in Byzantine Christianity into a new and peculiar unity which, however was from the beginning strangely opposed to the Christian ideal of the Western world, and which finally separated from the latter. Because of the excessive emphasis it laid on asceticism the Eastern Church lost moral influence on practical life, and through its preferenee for the pagan ideal of ornate discourse, traditional indeed, but in forms no longer generally understood, that church estranged itself from the great masses of the people. "No Greek Father of the Church" says Krumbacher, "rose to the level of the golden sentence of Augustine: 'Let the grammarians find fault with us, if only the people understand us'". Thus even the ecclesiastical literature of Byzantium, precisely at the period of its first florescence, is Hellenistic in form and Oriental in spirit. This period falls in the fourth century and is closely associated with the names of the ecclesiastical writers already mentioned. Their works, which cover the whole field of ecclesiastical prose literature dogma, exegesis, and homiletics, became typical, even canonical, for the whole Byzantine period, which can therefore show no independent work in this field; on the contrary, scientific theology fell into decay as early as the sixth century; the last important work is the ecclesiastical history of Evagrius. Everything later consists, if we except the controversial writings against sectaries and the Iconoclasts, of mechanical 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 and more to mere 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 history of Greek ecclesiastical poetry proves irrefutably how completely ancient poetry had exhausted itself in content and form, and how insufficient were its forms to express new and living thoughts. In ecclesiastical prose literature it was still possible to attempt to preserve ancient forms artificially, but even here we sometimes meet with foreign principles of literary art, which presuppose a new sense of poetry. It has been noticed that 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 (Syriac) prose. This fact would be in perfect harmony with the other relations existing between late-Greek and Semitic culture and the hypothesis of Cardinal Pitra, that the rhythmical poetry of the Byzantines has its origin in the Jewish Psalms of the Septuagint, receives therefrom a new support. As this rhythmic principle accords with the linguistic character of the later Greek, which had no musical, but only a stress, accent, and as it had already been developed in Syriac poetry, we need not wonder that Romanos, the first great ecclesiastical poet of the Greeks to adopt this principle, was a Syrian Jew, who had become a Christian at an early age.
About his life as little is known as about that of his contemporary and fellow-countryman, the chronicler Malalas, who also made a vigorous attempt to reform the language. What Malalas is to prose, Romanos is to the Christian poetry of the Greek Middle Ages. If he did not go so far as Malalas, yet he strongly modified the language of poetry and released it from the fetters of the ancient metric laws; he brought it into harmony with the latest idea of poetical form prevailing in his native country as well as with the character of the Greek language. Romanos, in fact, did not remain in Syria, but soon went to Constantinople, where he became a deacon of the church of St. Sophia, and where he is said to have first developed his gift for hymn-writing.
Romanos borrowed not only the form of his poems, but also their material and many of their themes, partly from the Old and New Testaments, 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, the last Judgement, whilst among his Old Testament themes mention may be made of the history of Joseph and that of the three young men in the fiery furnace. In giving poetical form to this matter he is said to have composed about a thousand hymns, of which, however, only eighty have come down to us, evidently because in the ninth century the hymns of Romanos were crowded out of the Greek Liturgy by the so-called canones, linguistically and metrically more artistic in form. Thenceforth his hymns held their own in only a few of the remoter monasteries. Characteristic of the technical treatment of his material by Romanos is the great length of his hymns, which are regularly composed of from twenty to thirty stanzas of from twelve to twenty-one verses each, very finely wrought and varied in metrical structure, and in construction transparent and verse. To appreciate rightly the great length of the hymns we must compare them, not with the more concise Latin hymns, but with the modern oratorios. This resemblance is emphasized by their 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.
With regard to an æsthetic judgment of Romanos, it does not seem that the last word has been said. 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. Even now, however, it is certain that Romanos is not to be placed on the same level with the great Latin church poets like Ambrose and Prudentius. Two faults are especially obvious: his abundant use of rhetorical devices and his fondness for digressions into dogmatic theology. In both respects he is essentially Byzantine. He is fond of symbolic pictures and figures of speech, antitheses, assonances, especially witty jeux d'esprit, which are in strange contrast with his characteristic simplicity of diction and construction, and by their graceless embellishments destroy the smooth flow of his lines. Not only the form but also the sequence of thought in his hymns is often beclouded by the dragging in of dogmatic questions, e.g. in the celebrated Christmas hymn the question of the miraculous birth of Jesus is discussed no less than four times, and that too with a comfortable amplitude which betrays the theologian and for the time thrusts the poet completely 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 which went before the Israelites in the wilderness, and so on. The frequent citation of passages from the prophets also greatly weakens the poetic impression as well as the effect of the religious fervour of the poet, many passages seeming more like unimpassioned paraphrases than like inspired poetry. In fact Romanos does not control 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; on the contrary, 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 fervour carries the imagination along with it and elevates the poetical 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, like eccelesiastico-historical literature, 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 Deum in 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.
As early as the seventh century, the period of Andrew of Crete, begins the rapid decline of Greek hymnology. The delicate flower of religious sentiment was overgrown and choked by a classical formalism which stifled all vitality, as had happened in the case of contemporary secular poetry. The overvaluation of technique in details destroyed the sense of proportion in the whole. This seems to be the only explanation for the monstrosities called canones first found in the collection of Andrew of Crete. 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. Such length could only result in poverty of thought, as 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. If it be true that the sublimity of religious poetry is in this way reduced to mere trifling, this is, strictly speaking, the case here. For in the eleventh century, which witnessed the decline of Greek hymnology and the revival of pagan humanism, are found for the first time the parodies of church hymns afterwards so popular. Their author was none other than Michael Psellus. Didactic poems took this form without being regarded as blasphemous. Another evidence of the few religious needs of the Byzantines is the absence of any religious drama such as developed among the people of the West during the Middle Ages. The only example the "Suffering of Christ" (Christus Patiens), written in the eleventh or twelfth century, and even now frequently valued too highly in theological circles, can hardly be called a religious drama, it is the offspring of a pagan, rather than a Christian, spirit; 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. In her action, also, Mary impresses the reader as but feebly Christian. The composition is evidently a poor 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 favourite 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 in the description of the minor forms of life, especially of the animals, are revealed the skill of the epigrammatist and nature-lover's gift of affectionate observation.
Besides sacred poetry, hagiography flourished from the sixth to the eleventh century. This species of literature developed from the old martyrologies, and became the favourite form of popular literature. The most flourishing period extended 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. 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. Still another popular of Byzantine origin ranks among those that have won for themselves a place in universal literature; it is the romance of Balaam and Joasaph, 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. Conybeare, The Barlaam and Josaphat legend, in Folk-lore (1896), VII, 101 sqq.]
The ascetic conception of life was deeply imbedded in the Byzantine characters and was strengthened by the high development of monastic institutions. The latter in turn brought forth an abundant ascetic literature though it sheds little if any advance on the asceticism of the Fathers of the Church, especially that of its great exponent, St. Basil. Less extensively cultivated, but excelling in quality, are Byzantine mystical writings. The true founder of Byzantine mysticism was Maximus Confessor (seventh century), who first stripped it of its neo-Platonic character and harmonized it with orthodox doctrine. Later and more important representatives were Symeon and Nicetas Stethatos in the eleventh, and Nikolaos Kavasilas in the fourteenth century. The Byzantine mystical writers differ from those of Western Europe chiefly in their attitude to ecclesiastical ceremonial, to which they adhered implicitly seeing in it not a tendency to replace the spiritual life of the church by external pomp, but rather a profound symbol of this life. 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 (publised 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 by the Latins in the year 1204 released popular literature from the aristocratic fetters of official Byzantium. The emotional and imaginative life long latent, awoke again in the Byzantine world; in response to new influences from the Roman West the withered roots of popular literature showed signs of new life. They needed only assiduous care to put forth fresh shoots, being as deeply imbedded in popular consciousness as those of literary poetry. As the latter springs from the rationalistico-classical atmosphere of the Hellenistic period, even so the popular poetry, or folk-song is an outgrowth of the idyllic or romantic literature of the same period. The artificial literature had its prototypes in Lucian, Heliodorus, Achilles Tatius, and Nonnus; on the other hand, the popular literature of medieval Byzantium 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 chivalry introduced by Frankish knights in the thirteenth century and later. These westerners also brought with them in abundance romantic and legendary materials that the Byzantine soon imitated and adapted. Lastly, 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. There were, in addition, popular books relating the deeds of ancient heroes, which had long been current, and were widespread through the East; these revived heroic poetry, to which a deep romantic tinge was imparted. The result was a complete upheaval of popular ideals and a broadening of the popular horizon, both to the East and West; the oppressive power of ancient standards was gradually replaced by the beneficial influence of modern ideals.
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 Akritas", a popular poetic crystallization of the conflicts between the Byzantine wardens of the marches (akritai) and the Saracens in Eastern Asia Minor, during the tenth and eleventh centuries. The nucleus of this epic goes back to the twelfth or thirteenth century, its final literary form to the fifteenth. The original poems have suffered much in the final redaction from the mutilations of the schoolmen. 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, quite after the manner of the Homeric poems. Its principal subjects are love, adventures, battles, and a patriarchal, idyllic enjoyment of life; it is a mixture of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the majority of the material being drawn from the latter, while the atmosphere is Christian. With an intimate sympathy with nature are combined genuine piety and a strong family feeling. In an artistic sense the work can certainly not be compared with either the Greek or the Germanic epics. It lacks their dramatic quality and the variety of their characters. 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 yet markedly under the influence of the Byzantine romance, both in thought and in manner of treatment, the second begins to show the æsthetic and ethical influence of the Old-French romance; indeed, its story often recalls the Tristan legend. 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 also the metrical Chronicle of Morea (fourteenth century) It was composed by a Frank brought up in Greece, though a foe of the Greeks, and its literary value for the history of civilization is all the greater. Its object was, amid the constantly progressing hellenization of the Western conquerors, to remind them of the spirit of their ancestors. It is Greek, therefore, only 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 in honour of the maiden whom he worships a hundred verses, corresponding to the numbers one to one hundred, before she returns his love.
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. It is true that for this revival, there was neither much need nor much appreciation, and as a consequence but few of the ancient heroes and their heroic deeds are adequately treated. The best of these works is a romance based on the story of Alexander the Great, a revised version of the Pseudo-Callisthenes of 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 Ste.-More.
To these products of the fourteenth century maybe 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 livings 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 literature impressed its popular character on the Greek popular poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as French literature had done in the thirteenth and fourteenth. 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 "Erophile" is more of a mosaic, being a combination of two Italian tragedies, with the addition of lyrical intermezzos from 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. The mystery-play of "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".
APA citation. (1908). Byzantine Literature. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03113a.htm
MLA citation. "Byzantine Literature." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03113a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph P. Thomas. In memory of Rev. Dr. C.T. Kottaram.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.