Tuesday, October 17, 2017


Theodora Antonopoulou (ed.), Mercurius Grammaticus, Opera iambica. Corpus Christianorum Series Graeca, 87. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2017. Pp. lxii, 118. ISBN 9782503564579. €130.00.

Reviewed by Ilias Taxidis, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (itaxidis@lit.auth.gr)

Version at BMCR home site


In tune with the recent increased scholarly interest in Byzantine poetry, Antonopoulou's study (volume 87 of the Corpus Christianorum Series Graeca), sheds light on the personality and writings of Merkourios the Grammarian, a minor Byzantine poet virtually unknown to scholarship (barring some minor mentions in reference works) save for previous work on him by the same Antonopoulou.1 The volume includes a detailed introduction (pp. XIII-LXXII) and the first critical edition of the four dodecasyllabic poems that he composed on saints Theodore Teron, Theodore Stratelates, the Annunciation, and St John Chrysostom, all of which are preserved in the 15th-century Athonite codex unicus Laura Λ 170. They amount to a total of 2190 verses; the two longer poems are published here for the first time.

In the first chapter of the introduction (Merkourios the Grammarian, pp. XV-XIX), Antonopoulou discusses the possible identification of the author of the poetical works of the Laura codex with a known person of that name writing after the eleventh century. In my view, she is quite right to place him most probably in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century, in the expansive climate of the "early Palaeologan renaissance." And, daring as it may seem, his eventual identification with a known pupil of Maximos Planoudes is also perfectly plausible.

In the longer second chapter (on the contents, models and structure of the works, pp. XX-XXXII), Antonopoulou presents an analysis of the four compositions, focusing mostly on their construction and metaphrastic nature. A tireless researcher and leading expert on Byzantine hagiography in general, Antonopoulou is fully familiar with the special characteristics of the hypotexts on which Merkourios' metrical compositions are based, while the bibliographical references concerning this field are rich and comprehensive.

Antonopoulou goes deeper in the next chapter of the introduction (Genres, functions and reasons of composition, pp. XXXIII-XLVII), where she examines the genre of Merkourios' texts and consequently the real reasons for their composition. With solid and logical arguments, Antonopoulou places poems Ι-ΙΙΙ in the genre of theological didactic poetry, and then goes on to nuance their classification, concluding that "the poems were conceived as monastic literature to be read out in monasteries, during communal meals or religious services." As far as their specific function is concerned, however, she admits the possibility that they may have been intended for didactic use as well, since the appellation "grammarian" implies that the poet was also a school teacher. Given the characteristic dialogical elements of the three poems (especially those on the two saints Theodore, Antonopoulou also successfully and reasonably places them in the literary tradition of "epic passions" or metrical metaphraseis of sermons (especially the poem on the Annunciation) and illuminates their remarkable value, which is reflected in the techniques of rewriting a prose model in verse form and in the transformation of an hypotext into an hypertext. The genre of the fourth poem, on St John Chrysostom, is easier to define, being an iambic canon following the known model, although of course "the reason for its composition remains obscure."

Chapters four (Metre, pp. XLVIII-LVII) and five (Vocabulary, pp. LVIII-LX) of the introduction consist of a detailed and targeted (but not wearying) analysis of the metre and the language of the poems, while in the sixth chapter (Manuscript and editions, pp. LXI-LXV) Antonopoulou analyses the characteristics and content of the Athonite manuscript Laura Λ 170 containing Merkourios' works, as well as their previous editions, which, as she correctly observes, are either "still immature works" or "left a lot to be desired." The introduction ends with an account of the principles followed by Antonopoulou in this edition (pp. LXVI-LXXII).

In the second part of the study, Antonopoulou offers an exclusive and absolutely exemplary edition of Merkourios' poems (pp. 5-94). Even while respecting the text preserved by the manuscript, she does not hesitate to make interventions that not only correct mistakes introduced by the scribe or the previous editors but improve the text – metrically and meaningfully – to such an extent that they must certainly restore it to something very close to the original. Given that the Athonite manuscript preserves marginal prose titles for the episodes of the Theodore poems, Antonopoulou rightly chose to add a separate apparatus titulorum, while the mostly negative apparatus criticus offers a view of the text that facilitates the reader's understanding of its quality and its relationship with the hypotexts. Equally successful is the apparatus fontium, since, as an indication of sources and parallel passages, it stands out for its balance, thoughtfulness and systematic method; indeed, it truly offers a clear and convincing image of the mental and literary influences (beyond his specific models) that may have influenced Merkourios, without burdening the edition with unnecessary information and detail, demonstrating a thorough but not over-heavy use of TLG data. The volume concludes with the necessary and useful indices a) nominum, b) locorum and c) fontium et locorum parallelorum (pp. 97-116).

The fixed form of the Corpus Christianorum series limits editors by restricting their possible approaches to a text. It is thus difficult in its volumes to analyse in any depth the intellectual environment in which a text was created or to trace secondary writing skills, expectations, and desires, something which in the end might be of considerable importance to the reader since it concerns the comprehension of the text and the era in general. However, with this study Antonopoulou has succeeded in providing, albeit briefly, a clear framework for the creation of Merkourios' texts, seeing them from the point of view of their genesis as well as literary products with something to offer per se. In any case, the texts are now available to us in their best possible form for further study and research, adding to the corpus of Byzantine literature and constituting a useful tool and important aid for those interested in Byzantine studies in general and Byzantine poetry in particular.


1.   See T. Antonopoulou, 'The Metrical Passions of ss. Theodore Tiron and Theodore Stratelates in Cod. Laura Λ 170 and the grammatikos Merkourios,' in: S. Kotzabassi and G. Mavromatis (ed.), Realia Byzantina. Byzantinisches Archiv, 22. Berlin; New York 2009, 1-11.

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