Monday, April 29, 2013


Liz James (ed.), Constantine of Rhodes, On Constantinople and the Church of the Holy Apostles. With a new edition of the Greek text by Ioannes Vassis. Farnham, Surrey; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. Pp. xvi, 250. ISBN 9781409431671. $124.95.

Reviewed by Anthony Kaldellis, The Ohio State University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

A composite book for a composite poem: Sometime between 913 and 959, Constantine of Rhodes wrote a poetic description of some monuments of Constantinople (on the one hand) and of the church of the Holy Apostles (on the other), which he dedicated to the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos. The two parts, along with some panegyrical addresses to the emperor – a total of 981 verses – were later awkwardly put together by Constantine himself or an editor, and partially preserved in a single fifteenth-century manuscript (Athos Lavra 1161). The text ends abruptly so we are likely missing part of the section on the Holy Apostles, of uncertain length. The present volume contains a new critical edition by Ioannes Vassis, preceded by a brief Introduction and followed by an Index nominum and Index verborum notabilium. The text is accompanied by a facing translation attributed on the title-page of the chapter (15) to V. Dimitropoulou, L. James, and R. Jordan, though the Acknowledgments attribute earlier versions of it to a much longer list of names; those three only "brought it to a conclusion" (xi). The Greek indexes are followed by James' Commentary on the Translation (ch. 3), which provides basic explanations of the places, events, people, and literary references in the poem, with much bibliography. There follow three interpretive chapters combining literary and art historical analysis by James. These treat the poet and the poem (4), the account of Constantinople (5), and that of the Holy Apostles (6). The volume thereby offers a comprehensive study of the poem in addition to the text itself. A similar collaborative volume (in Italian) was recently published on Procopius' account of Hagia Sophia (with text, translation, very detailed notes, and interpretive chapters combining philology and art history).1 This may be a trend.

Chapter 4 surveys scholarly proposals about the date of the poem(s) and concludes that there is no way to narrow it down beyond placing it within the long reign of Constantine VII, though the exclusive dedication to him points to one of the periods of his sole reign (913-920, 945-959). The reign of Romanos I and his sons (920-945) is excluded based on the assumption that it would have dangerous, indeed treasonous, to praise Constantine VII alone. But how do we know that? The chapter then surveys proposals about the stages of the poem's composition, about possible earlier and later versions that may have circulated, and theories about how the version that we have came together. While producing interesting hypotheses (including interpolations detected by Paul Speck), it seems that this discussion has been aporetic too. Vassis and James even break the poem down in slightly different ways (cf. 5 with 134-135.) The chapter also examines proposals for the occasions of the poem and how it might have been delivered (in relation to the emperor and the monuments), and concludes with a useful discussion of Constantine's technical-architectural, classical, biblical, and patristic vocabulary.

One of the main points that James drives home in her chapters (5-6) on the two main parts of the poem is that ekphrasis was not meant to provide a detailed and objective scholarly description that we can use to reconstruct a monument or work of art. It was instead meant to evoke a vivid impression of experiencing it.2 The audience, after all, already knew the monuments first-hand. Literary goals shaped the selection of material and emphasis. James does not merely insist on this understanding of ekphrasis in the abstract but fleshes out the themes of the poems and the specific impressions that the poet was trying to create. The first part of the poem (discussed in chapter 5) describes the columns of Justinian and Constantine, the Senate house and statue of Athena, a column with cross, the Anemodoulion (weathervane), the column of Tauros and statue of Theodosios, and the column of Arkadios. The poem is a key source for those interested in the late antique monuments of Constantinople as well as for classicists (because of the detailed description of the doors of the Senate house--which were taken from the temple of Artemis at Ephesos and adorned with mythological scenes—as well as that of the statue of Athena). But first we have to understand the poem's choices. In a nuanced reading, James shows that Constantine constructs a specific imperial past for the city and thereby links his imperial patron to the great emperors of the early Byzantine period, primarily to Justinian and secondarily Constantine the Great.

Constantine's poem on the church of the Holy Apostles has occasioned more discussion. While the building no longer exists, this was the second most important church in the capital. Its annex served as an imperial mausoleum, and it is said to have been the model for San Marco in Venice. In chapter 6, James surveys past attempts to reconstruct its architecture from this description as well as from those of Procopius and Nikolaos Mesarites. Those attempts were vitiated by a poor grasp of the literary genre of ekphrasis: they assumed, for example, that a description would not omit major pieces of information, failing to realize that coverage is selective based on literary thematics. Thus phases of architecture and decoration were postulated based on omissions in these texts. Constantine's emphasis is on the marble decoration and mosaics of the interior. James argues that the poet's selection and the order of presentation was meant to reinforce a general narrative about the Incarnation and Salvation: he was not interested in the date and phases of its construction and modification.

The exposition is clear throughout and the arguments persuasive. I have two minor quibbles. First, let us put a moratorium on Paul Lemerle's concept of encyclopedism, which he proposed as the key for the era of Constantine VII and which Byzantinists mention whenever that emperor comes up. Just because a poem describes more than one monument does not necessarily make it a project of "codification and encyclopedism" (143). Lemerle's concept is misleading and inapplicable even to the materials that he himself placed under it.3 Second, Constantine gives the architects Anthemios or Isidoros the Younger (he is not sure which) more credit for the building of the Holy Apostles than he does to Justinian. James asserts that "this serves to underline the Christian rather than the imperial nature of the church" (197). But how does that follow? Anthemios is nowhere presented as a Christian figure in the tradition (compared to Justinian?). It is likely that Constantine is highlighting the role of "craftsmen" who work under an emperor's direction in a way that would make his own poem for Constantine VII analogous to the church built for Justinian by Anthemios. His literary ekphrasis in this way rivals or emulates its own subject matter, a tactic with precedent in the tradition.4

This book is a solid and useful contribution on many levels: philological, historical, and art historical. It offers a model of interdisciplinary collaboration that promises great things for the future. It showcases advances in the study of ekphrasis that leave us with a softer knowledge of architecture but also a more nuanced understanding of the texts, their politics, and themes.5


1.   P. Cesaretti and M. L. Fobelli, Procopio di Cesarea, Santa Sofia di Costantinopoli: Un tempio di luce (Milan 2011).
2.   A key work for this understanding of ekphrasis is R. Webb, Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice (Ashgate 2009).
3.   P. Odorico, 'La cultura della Sylloge,' Byzantinische Zeitschrift 83 (1990) 1-21; and P. Van Deun and C. MacĂ©, eds. Encyclopedic Trends in Byzantium? (Leuven et al. 2011).
4.   A. Kaldellis, 'Christodoros on the Statues of the Zeuxippos Baths: A New Reading of the Ekphrasis,' Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 47 (2007) 361-383.
5.   Readers interested in a multi-media view of these monuments (useful for the classroom too) should use the book together with the website Byzantium 1200, with credible digital reconstructions (to a degree hypothetical, of course).

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