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Studying Classics in Byzantium

Posted On September 21, 2020 | 10:11 am | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Baukje van den Berg studies how the Byzantines used ancient literature for teaching grammar and rhetoric

Baukje van den Berg, assistant professor in Byzantine studies at Central European University, was a spring 2020 fellow in Byzantine Studies. Her research report, “Studying Classics in Twelfth-Century Byzantium,” examined texts by Eustathios of Thessalonike and John Tzetzes that engage with Homer.


Q&A with Baukje van den Berg 

What did it mean to be a well-educated person in twelfth-century Byzantium?

It meant to have studied grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy (parts of Byzantine secondary education), to have a thorough knowledge of ancient literature, and to be able to write texts in a classicizing (Atticizing) register of the Greek language.

Education was not as institutionalized as it is nowadays—most education was in the hands of private teachers. Teachers specialized in grammar or rhetoric and taught a group of students probably at a variety of levels. Various sources indicate that more advanced students helped the younger students do their work. My research focuses on two teachers active in the twelfth century: the rhetorician Eustathios of Thessalonike and the grammarian John Tzetzes.


Why are the texts Tzetzes wrote on Homer—for example, Allegories of the Iliad and Allegories of the Odyssey, published with translation by the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library—useful for Byzantinists? 

John Tzetzes was a prolific grammarian, who wrote different kinds of works on Homer. In the research report, I discussed his Little Big Iliad (or Carmina Iliaca), a poem he wrote about Homeric story material. It was probably some kind of a showpiece that demonstrated his proficiency at writing Homeric-style hexameters. But Tzetzes also had didactic intentions with it: it served to teach students the history of the Trojan War in a nutshell. He wrote notes on the poem that show how he used it in his classroom practice—such notes explain, for example, on which syllable to put the accent, or how to spell a word or conjugate a verb. He clearly used the text for teaching grammar and introducing his students to some beginner concepts of rhetoric.

Like the Little Big Iliad and its accompanying notes, the Allegories of the Iliad and Allegories of the Odyssey show how Tzetzes engaged with Homer for educational purposes. They paraphrase the stories of the Iliad and Odyssey in allegorical terms, turning the Homeric gods into representations of stars, natural elements, emotional forces etc. And the Allegories are likely not without some kind of poetic ambition—I hope the Dumbarton Oaks translations will lead to more studies about how Tzetzes wrote these poems and what his agenda was.


How did Eustathios use Homer to teach prose composition?

Eustathios of Thessalonike was one of the most prominent intellectuals of the period. At the peak of his career in Constantinople (before he became archbishop of Thessalonike) he was the official professor of rhetoric and principal court orator, in charge of giving speeches for emperor Manuel I Komnenos.

I study his massive commentary on the Iliad, focusing mostly on how it uses Homer as a model for excellent prose composition. Eustathios read into the Iliad the didactic program he wanted to teach his students. By analyzing Homer’s poetry in rhetorical (and grammatical) terms, he turned the Iliad into a handbook of prose composition for the Byzantine author.

Eustathios was thoroughly familiar with the ancient rhetorical and literary critical tradition and he used its concepts and techniques to analyze Homer’s rhetorical excellence. For instance, he shows how Homer varied his style and tried to avoid monotony because he didn’t want to bore his audience. Or he explains what techniques the poet used to make his story persuasive and trustworthy. By analyzing Homer in this way, Eustathios taught Byzantine authors techniques to use in their own writing. 

Another way Eustathios catered directly to Byzantine writers is by giving many suggestions for how to quote Homer; Byzantine literature is full of Homeric quotations (as well as quotations from other ancient and late antique texts). He often writes, for instance, “if you want to criticize someone, you can use this word or phrase,” or “if you want to praise someone, you can use this phrase.” The situations are usually very specific and some of the suggestions are meant to be amusing. Such quotations were a means for writers to display their learning in a clever or witty way. 

During my time at Dumbarton Oaks I had many fruitful exchanges with other scholars. I consulted visiting scholar Dimiter Angelov, who recently wrote an article about a different commentary by Eustathios that offered geographical information on the entire known world. It was very interesting to talk with fellow Costas Constantinides, a specialist of Byzantine education. Visiting scholar Anthony Kaldellis read parts of my book and has given me important feedback.


Julia Ostmann was 2018–2020 postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, 2018–2020 postgraduate digital media fellow.