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The Rhetoric of the Ant: Joseph Rhakendytes’s Synopsis of Rhetoric

Jeffrey Walker, University of Texas, Austin, Summer Fellow

Rhakendytes’s Synopsis of Rhetoric, the first part of his encyclopedic summary of the four sciences comprising “all knowledge”—or, as he says, all that a statesman needs—occupies 37 folio pages in its best surviving medieval representative (Codex Marcianus Gr. 529), a text produced in three different hands in the late fourteenth century and the early fifteenth. In its only modern edition, Christian Walz’s outdated Rhetores Graeci (9 volumes, 1832–36), it occupies 113 pages. The aim of this project is to produce an accessible translation and commentary, and a series of articles, for the use of historians of rhetoric and students of late Byzantine secular culture. At this point I am still working on the translation and commentary, which my Summer Fellowship has helped me to advance considerably.

As Walz notes (3.465–66), Rhakendytes is mentioned by the emperor-historian John VI Kantakouzenos as a popular teacher in Constantinople around the turn of the fourteenth century (when Kantakouzenos himself was a student). The final collapse of the Byzantine state in 1453 has done much to relegate Rhakendytes to obscurity, but his Synopsis still has much to show us regarding how the system of rhetorical training inherited from late antiquity was understood and taught, a thousand years later, in the schools of Byzantium. At the same time it is an index of what that remarkably enduring system was like as a living tradition. Of particular note with Rhakendytes are, first, the elements of the classical Hermogenean system (derived from the second-century rhetorician Hermogenes of Tarsus) that he omits, reduces, rearranges, and supplements; second, his efforts to assimilate the Hermogenean system to Aristotelian philosophy; and third, his excursions into (and “borrowings” from) other sources and topics, such as his advice to beginning students on “how to read rhetorical books” (including poetry; ch. 16), or the chapter on tropes that he copies verbatim from an unknown author. These excursions constitute, in fact, about half of the Synopsis.

A further and tantalizing question is Rhakendytes’s relation to the fourth “Ptochoprodomos” (Beggar-Prodromos) poem, the last installment in a series of “political verse” satires in demotic Greek supposedly penned by the eminent twelfth-century man of letters, Theodore Prodromos. The first three poems survive in manuscripts as early as the thirteenth century, but the fourth poem—which is the best-preserved (in 10 manuscript copies)—appears no earlier than the fourteenth century and seems to be a later addition to the Ptochoprodromic corpus. (In one manuscript it is identified as “Book Two.”) While Prodromos is the ostensible speaker (and butt of the satire) in the first three poems, in the fourth we find a different speaker, a poor young monk, who identifies himself as “a young and unlettered rhakendytes” and addresses the emperor (Manuel Komnenos) to complain about his treatment at the monastery, where the superiors live like kings and arrogantly lord it over him and the other low-ranking monks. While the word rhakendytes signifies simply a wearer of the poor monk’s “ragged cloak” (rhakos), there are suggestive resonances between this “young rhakendytes” and Joseph Rhakendytes: both, for example, are from humble, provincial backgrounds and hold low rank (as Rhakendytes relates in his autobiographical prologue to the Synopsis); the poem makes prominent references to the physician’s art, and Rhakendytes was a physician; and, Rhakendytes says he lacked the talent to become a “fire-breathing” orator and preferred a simple style, while the “young rhakendytes” says that he is not a “lionlike” rhetorician but a mere “ant” that “fearlessly rushes out against mighty beasts,” and will make his case in plain straightforward language. Strikingly, however his rhetoric is consistent with the principles laid out in Rhakendytes’ Synopsis—in particular the rhetoric of “asperity,” by which lessers can speak out against their social superiors.

It probably cannot be proven whether Rhakendytes was the author (or the “editor”) of the fourth Ptochoprodromos poem. Nevertheless one can argue that the poem and Rhakendytes’ Synopsis both participate in the rhetorical culture of fourteenth-century Byzantium—a culture in which the “rhetoric of the ant,” such as Rhakendytes provides, both continued the Hermogenean tradition and opened a door to modernity.


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Byzantine Studies Fellows, 2012/13