Tuesday, November 15, 2016


Ioannis Polemis (ed.), Theodori Metochitae Carmina. Corpus Christianorum Series Graeca, 83. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2015. Pp. cxii, 374. ISBN 9782503564562. €300.00.

Reviewed by Michael Zellmann-Rohrer, University of Oxford (michael.zellmann-rohrer@classics.ox.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

Theodore Metochites (1270-1332), statesman and public intellectual, rose near the apex of political power in Byzantium as diplomat and minister, power on which he capitalized to serve as patron of arts and letters and of monastic spirituality. The monastery of Chora that he sumptuously restored still stands at Constantinople (now the Kariye Camii). The power was not to last, however. After his patron the emperor Andronikos II was deposed in 1328, Metochites was forced into exile, then spent his last years as a monk at Chora. His fortunes as an author have proven more durable: works of his survive on astronomy and philosophy, alongside political and hagiographical panegyric. They take another step forward with this comprehensive edition of twenty occasional hexameter poems. The majority of the poems (1-4, 10-20) had been previously edited, but all benefit by a convenient presentation and improved readings from full re-collation.

In all they comprise over 9,000 hexameters, with topics including autobiography (1-2), advice and remonstrance to friends (3-4, 11-13), meditation and consolation addressed to himself amid political difficulties (14-20), hagiographical panegyric (5-6), funeral monodies for members of the royal family (7-9), and a lengthy exposition of mathematics (10). While Metochites has long been acknowledged as a key source for later Byzantine intellectual history, in particular the so-called Palaiologan Renaissance, previous assessments of the poems' quality have tended to the negative. At best he is an acquired taste, but manages some delightful turns of phrase, among them epic similes comparing St. Athanasius of Alexandria to a skilled farmer and healer (5.173-217), and another invoking the disaffection of children deprived of their mother's honey-cakes, compared with Metochites' own equanimity (18.334-338). In Polemis he has found a truly sympathetic reader.

The introduction offers a biographical sketch on the author and thoughts on generic classification of the poems, their structure and stylistic features ("catchwords," "progressive enjambment and repetition," "cyclic construction," "poikilia"), with close analysis of selections, and speculations on the underlying purpose of this substantial poetic project. Polemis argues strongly for the importance of Gregory of Nazianzus as a model, hardly surprising given that author's huge popularity and influence among the Byzantines, and Metochites' own praise of him (poem 6).

The language of the poems is an exuberant, opportunistic mix of syntactic and lexical registers and dialects, within a single line or even a single word, as Metochites stretches the limits of epic Greek to fit his sentiments into hexameter. Polemis provides a useful introductory survey on language and meter, concerned to defend Metochites from the displeasure of readers, but perhaps too quick to concede apparent violations of claimed norms. For example, νῦν at 20.8 is adduced as an example of "neglect of the basic rules of Greek metre," and does indeed fail to scan as accented, but this is the fault of the copyist, not the poet: enclitic νυν is found with short υ, which would fit the meter here, as early as Homer (Iliad 23.485).

The introduction continues with a summary and stylistic analysis of each of the poems, welcome attention with a scope they had yet to receive. Especially detailed is the exposition of poem 10, on mathematics and harmonics. Polemis makes interesting attempts to contextualize the poems with Metochites' own works and those of Byzantine predecessors and contemporaries, such as a comparison of poems 1-2 to monastic foundation-documents, which contained autobiographical statements of the founders alongside practical dispositions for the monks. Other proposals however lack support in the Greek: in 3.263-264, Metochites says nothing of his subject Gregory "living in front of Christ" but rather "keeping reverence for God (ὄπιν … θεοῖο) always in sight," a different sentiment from the parallel in Theoleptus of Philadelphia alleged at p. lxxxviii, who speaks, in the persona of the soul (ψυχή), of imagining (φανταζομένη) Christ literally standing before one, Theoleptus having lifted a central portion of the text from Psalm 15(16):8. Of Metochites' encomium of Athanasius of Alexandria (poem 5), Polemis concludes, "[i]t is hard to explain why Metochites … chose [Athanasius] as a subject for his praise" (xcii). A personal reason is not far to seek: Athanasius is praised for combating the Arian heresy, and Metochites, though born in Constantinople, spent his childhood in Asia Minor after his father's exile in connection with later Christological controversies, namely for supporting the patriarch John XI Bekkos, who advocated ecclesiastical union with Rome.

Introducing the edition proper, Polemis follows a scholarly consensus in selecting as authoritative a single fourteenth- century manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, cod. grec 1776 = P), on which he bases his edition exclusively, eliminating all other witnesses as apographs. An excellent facsimile of the codex is available via the Gallica resource, with which this reviewer has compared the new edition, and which readers may wish to use alongside it.

This manuscript has been extensively corrected, both by the main scribe, who noted variants from collation, and by a second hand, who simply effaced or overwrote. The identity of this corrector, and the value of his work, have occasioned some debate. Ševčenko originally argued for a posthumous edition of the poems, perhaps in the care of Nikephoros Gregoras, friend and pupil of Metochites, resident of Chora, and addressee of poem 4, who may be behind the later corrections.1 Ševčenko later changed his opinion and attributed the correcting hand to Metochites himself, identifying it with that found in another manuscript of Metochites' prose works. Two of Ševčenko's original arguments still give pause, if the codex is indeed a product of the author's own lifetime and revisions: the sheer number of variants noted by the main scribe, which generally give good readings, and the non-sensical reading introduced by the second corrector in at least one place, 12.199 ὃν ἦσθ' ὤδινα πάρος. Although the offending ἦσθ' can be rendered more sensible if regarded as a phonetic error for a parenthetical οἶσθ' ("[a work] which, you know, I laboriously birthed before"),2 could this carelessness really be the poet's? One could add the puzzling case of poem 13, originally addressed to "his cousin the protasekretis Leo Bardales" in the title – but a corrector has erased the personal name. Agapitos, Hult, and Smith have also made an independent, plausible case for Gregoras' role in the corrections.3

Polemis, after only brief discussion, opts to "stick to the opinion of Ševčenko" (not the earlier one, which he neglects to mention), throughout privileging these corrections as the work of Metochites, with the siglum "M." As Polemis notes, Gregoras, as friend and pupil of Metochites, would not be haphazard in his editing and might have consulted the poet's own notes, but this added remove would require a more critical approach to the corrections. So too the orthography and punctuation of P and M, which Polemis accepts as authentic to the practice of Metochites. This declared fidelity to an irregular and inconsistent manuscript is not entirely consistent in its application. Silent orthographic normalization is not infrequent, and defensible readings of P or M are perhaps too quickly discarded: for example, δρο(υ)μήματα is corrected to δουμήματα at 2.326, but the former makes tolerable sense in a simile comparing the brilliant decoration of the Chora to "the sun rising on a double course" (ἥλιον ἀντέλλοντα δοιὰ δρουμήματα), that is, twice as bright as the sun.

Polemis makes many improvements in readings over previous editors. Close attention to manuscript punctuation, specifically a colon marking poem-end, also leads him to the observation that the final poem in P is in fact incomplete. The readings of Polemis are generally sound, but readers who wish to base philological arguments on the text are advised to control the original. Two more significant errors produce unmetrical lines, which are then imputed to errors by the poet in the apparatus: 5.420 ἔκπληγμ' P, ἐκπέπληγμ' Polemis; 6.39 ἀλόγιστον P, ἀλούγιστον Polemis. In 6.357, P has ἀτὰρ ὃ θαύμασι; the relative ὅ, omitted by Polemis, is crucial for both scansion and sense.

The edition is conservative to a fault and emendations are generally proposed only hesitantly in the apparatus, most often in response to metrical anomalies. Among points still in need of editorial attention: for the senseless τοὐμᾷ at 19.78, apparently a false reanalysis by the scribe as crasis, τουμᾷ, the pseudo-epic lengthening of τομᾷ, is appealing, "by the savage cutting of fortune" (ἀγρίᾳ τουμᾷ τύχης).

Least satisfying is the apparatus fontium. Polemis acknowledges the difficulty of distinguishing between "conscious imitation, interesting coincidences and mere commonplaces of rhetoric" (liii). With so highly allusive a poet, well-versed in scripture and patristic and Classical literature, the labor is vast. The results so far suggest much remains to be done: there are significant errors of under-, over-, and mis-attribution, especially given the enterprise is crucial to the arguments that interest Polemis in his introduction, the relationship of Metochites to his sources. Here follow examples of the more problematic cases:

For ἔργα θωϋμαστά, "wondrous deeds" (1.162), Metochites is supposed to depend on Herodotus' preface, ἔργα μεγάλα τε καὶ θωμαστά, but not for the inverted θωυμαστά τ' ἔργα at 6.325. Metochites surely does engage with Herodotus, but on a more substantive level than this banal phrase, censuring the historian by name for his views on the enviousness of the divine (17.310-326).

At 2.379, Metochites' wish to have remained childless and unmarried (αἴθ' ὄφελον τ' ἄγονος τ' ἄζυξ τελέθειν) sorely misses a reference to Hector's words to Paris to the same effect, with nearly the same words (Iliad 3.40), the Byzantine poet boldly transforming the bitter curse into a protestation of affection for a monk's life.

At 18.303, the coincidence of δεξιά and ἀριστερά does not justify reference to Proverbs 4:27, especially when the contexts diverge widely: in Proverbs, an injunction to keep to a morally straight path, straying neither to the right nor to the left, and in Metochites, the analogy of a skilled craftsman, who knows his craft backwards and forwards. Metochites instead almost certainly found this figure in Hector's boast of his fighting skill, Iliad 7.238-239; the phrasing recurs at 18.332-333 in a form still closer to the Homeric. Metochites undeniably drew on the Old Testament too: at 17.184-187, the metaphor of the cup of wine mixed in the hand of God, variously apportioned, clearly depends on Psalm 74(75):9, not John 18:11 as alleged, which concurs only in the word ποτήριον.

The book is carefully typeset and proofed and furnished with useful indices, of proper names and sources and parallels. Another for notable Greek words would have been welcomed by those interested in Metochites' recherché diction, rare or even entirely new coinages like γλωττεπιμεμβλοσύνη (1.363), ἐταστήριον (18.269), πο(υ)λύκυρτος (2.80, not in Iliad 4.422, as the apparatus suggests), and σκιότευκτος (13.271).

With this edition Polemis has surely advanced scholarship on Metochites, a monumental contribution which the cautions signaled here should not obscure. Approached with a dose of critical thinking, it will be fundamental to study of this author and hopefully aid and encourage work on the rest of his writings that remain unpublished or lack critical editions. The poems should interest not only students of the Palaiologan Renaissance and the rest of Byzantine literature and civilization, but also those concerned with the reception of the Classics, of which Metochites was a sensitive and critical reader, and with comparative perspectives on other Renaissances in the European tradition.


1.   "Observations sur les recueils des Discours et des Poèmes de Th. Métochite et sur la bibliothèque de Chora à Constantinople," Scriptorium 5 (1951), 279-288.
2.   Polemis prints ἦσθ' without comment, yet the apparatus to 12.252 reveals that he has elsewhere made this very correction. Another example comes in 6.374, where M has ποιθήσαντες for πειθήσαντες; Polemis corrects the former to the latter, but wrongly attributes the error to P.
3.   Theodore Metochites, On Philosophic Irony and Greek History. Miscellanea 8 and 93 (Nicosia 1996), 18-20.

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