Towards a Byzantine Theory of Literature: Twelfth-Century Teachers on Grammar, Prose Composition, and Homer’s Iliad
The last decades have seen a significant revaluation of the relationship of Byzantine authors to their ancient heritage. Restoring the creative autonomy of the Byzantines, scholars of Byzantine literature study how authors engaged creatively with ancient texts and transformed ancient traditions into new literary products. The role of ancient texts in Byzantine literary culture is inextricably connected with education and scholarship: Byzantine scholars and teachers appropriated ancient literature as ideological and cultural texts expressing contemporary didactic aims and literary values. They taught their students grammar and rhetoric through ancient texts, while also providing them with strategies for creatively reusing ancient literature. Two such scholars and teachers are Eustathios of Thessalonike and John Tzetzes, active in the twelfth century, whose works form the starting point of my lecture. How do Eustathios and Tzetzes use ancient texts to teach grammar and rhetoric? What do their works tell us about Byzantine ideas on language and literature?
Eustathios’ and Tzetzes’ scholarly and didactic works belong to a corpus of largely un- or understudied texts that contain a wealth of information about Byzantine conceptions of literature, and as such are essential for our understanding of the literary culture of the time. The first part of the lecture focuses on the Commentary on the Iliad by Eustathios of Thessalonike, a widely celebrated teacher and orator. I explore how Eustathios makes Homer relevant for aspiring prose authors by pointing out useful words and excellent rhetorical methods to implement in their writings. The second part of the lecture concentrates on the Homeric scholarship of John Tzetzes, a prolific grammarian infamous for his temper. I explore how Homeric exegesis, grammar education, and poetic production are intertwined in Tzetzes’ Little Big Iliad, an autonomous poetic production and a scholarly-didactic work at the same time.
Baukje van den Berg (PhD 2016, University of Amsterdam) is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Medieval Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (Vienna), where she works on Byzantine grammar education and John Tzetzes’ didactic poetry as part of the project ‘Byzantine Poetry in the “Long” Twelfth Century (1081–1204): Texts and Contexts’. Her main research interests are Byzantine scholarship, education, and the role of ancient literature in Byzantine literary culture. She is currently preparing a monograph entitled Homer and Rhetoric in Byzantium: Eustathios of Thessalonike on the Composition of the Iliad (forthcoming, OUP).