Late Byzantine Literature

Byzantine attitudes to literature were shaped by their formal education, which of course embraced and promoted the superiority of the Attic Greek language and its authors. However, by the Palaiologan period, the gap between Attic Greek and the common vernacular was vast. Therefore, while a considerable volume of work that can be considered literary (epigrams, poems, rhetoric etc.) was produced in high-level Greek, there was no expectation of, nor an attempt made to, rival the ancients in terms of producing plays and literature in Attic Greek. What the learned literati of late Byzantium did find appropriate, however, was to preserve the work of the ancients through manuscript transmission. That this was often done by churchmen was even more remarkable.

Thessaloniki-based Dimitrios Triklinios played a key role in copying, and commenting on, the works of great ancient authors like Pindar, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes.

In the high-register Greek language, the most influential literary figure for his interaction with and preservation of the ancient Greek literary greats was Maximos Planoudes (c. 1260- c. 1305). A monk based in Constantinople, he also served on a diplomatic mission to the Venetians for Andronikos II in 1327. In one way or another, eh acquired a refined knowledge of the Latin language that enabled him to make numerous translations of important Greek and Latin texts to and from both languages- something that would greatly increase the interest of Late Medieval Western thinkers in Ancient Greek and Byzantine works. His translations from Latin included works by Cicero, Ovid, Boethius and Augustine. Planoudes is most celebrated, however, for his Greek Anthology of Ancient and Byzantine poetry, which contains numerous epigrams not found in other similar sources (like the Palatine Greek Anthology).

One of Planoudes’ students (and possibly his successor) was the Constantinopolitan teacher Manuel Moschopoulos, a grammarian and lexicographer who specialized in the ancient classics. He is best known for his work on grammar, the Erotemata grammaticalia (Grammatical Questions), which in its question-and-answer format typifies a kind of education that had been practiced regularly in Byzantine classrooms for centuries. His grammatical treatises was widely used by Byzantine and Italian successors.

In addition to Thomas Magistros and Moschopoulos, an important student of Planoudes for high literature was Dimitrios Triklinios (c. 1280-1340). Another Thessaloniki-born scholar, Triklinios’ main contribution was a valuable edition of Ancient authors Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles. His annotated versions showed a clear use of multiple manuscript sources, and he even sought to revise Planoudes’ own anthology. He also produced works of Hesiod, Theocritus, Pindar, Aristophanes and other ancient Greek writers, demonstrating a masterful knowledge of the Attic tongue.

Manuel Chrysoloras, diplomat and teacher, played a key role in transmitting Greek language and the Classics to Renaissance Italy from 1397 on.

Aside from these authors working in the high form of Greek, there remained continued interest in the vernacular romance literature that had blossomed since the Komnenian era in the 11th and 12th centuries. The anonymous 14th-century romances Belthandros and Chrysantza, Kallimachos and Chrysorroi and Livistros and Rodamin are good examples of this type of literature. The plot of the first exemplifies the genre: after quarrelling with his father in Constantinople, Prince Belthandros makes his way across Anatolia where he encounters Turkish bandits and ends up in Armenia, where he comes across a magical, gem-studded castle and is asked by the resident King Eros to judge a beauty contest of princesses. After identifying the one who fate had predestined for him, he awakes to continue on to Antioch and another castle, where he is taken in by the king and stumbles across his fated love, Chrysantza. After being kept apart for some time, they devise a scheme to escape, which leaves their comrades drowned in a river. Meanwhile a ship has been sent in search of the missing prince, which arrives in time to bring the couple back to Constantinople, where they are wedded.

For other examples of such literature from this period, see Roderick Beaton’s The Medieval Greek Romance (Cambridge University Press, 1996), which discusses many of the key texts.

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