Byzantine literature may be defined as the Greek literature of the Middle Ages, whether written in the territory of the Byzantine Empire or outside its borders. It forms the second period in the history of Greek literature, though popular Byzantine literature and early Modern Greek literature, which begin in the 11th century, are indistinguishable.
In this manner, the culture of the Byzantine Empire was marked for over 1000 years by a diglossy between two different forms of the same language, which were used for different purposes. However, the relations between the "high" and "low" forms of Greek changed over the centuries. The prestige of the Attic literature remained undiminished until the 7th century AD, but in the following two centuries when the existence of the Byzantine Empire was threatened, city life and education declined, and along with them the use of the classicizing language and style. The political recovery of the 9th century instigated a literary revival, in which a conscious attempt was made to recreate the Hellenic-Christian literary culture of late antiquity. Simple or popular Greek was avoided in literary used and many of the early saints' lives were rewritten in an archaizing style. By the 12th century the cultural confidence of the Byzantine Greeks lead them to develop new literary genres, such as romantic fiction, in which adventure and love are the main elements. Satire made occasional use of elements from spoken Greek. The period from the Fourth Crusade to the Fall of Constantinople saw a vigorous revival of imitative classicizing literature, as the Greeks sought to assert their cultural superiority over the militarily more powerful West. At the same time there was the beginning of a flourishing literature in an approximation to the vernacular Modern Greek. However the vernacular literature was limited to poetic romances and popular devotional writing. All serious literature continued to make use of the archaizing language of learned Greek tradition.
Byzantine literature has two sources: Classical Greek and Orthodox Christian tradition. Each of those sources provided a series of models and references for the Byzantine writer and his readers. In occasion, both sources were referred to side by side, for example when emperor Alexius Comnenus justified his actions of seizing church property to pay his soldiers by referring to the earlier examples of Pericles and the biblical king David.
Had such a preëminent historian as Procopius modeled his work after Polybius rather than Thucydides, Byzantine histories may have followed a natural continuity in style and method with the Hellenic era. The Hellenistic "Atticists" however had impressed their tastes thoroughly on later centuries, celebrating the style of the Athenian golden age. It is no accident that military characters like Nicephorus Bryennius (eleventh and twelfth centuries) and Joannes Cinnamus (twelfth century) emulated Xenophon in the precision of their diction, or that a philosopher like Nicephorus Gregoras (thirteenth century) took Plato as his model. On the other hand, it is doubtless due to chance that writers trained in theology like Leo Diaconus and Georgius Pachymeres chose to emulate Homeric turns. On the whole it is in the later historians that the dualism of Byzantine civilization—ecclesiastico-political matter in classical form—becomes most apparent.
While Byzantine historians were mostly dependent on foreign models, and seem to form a continuous series in which each succeeds the last, they do not blend into a uniform whole. Most of the historians come in either the period embracing the sixth and seventh centuries during the reigns of the East-Roman emperors, or that extending from the eleventh to the fifteenth century under the Comneni and the Palaeologi. At its zenith under the Macedonian dynasty (the ninth and tenth centuries) the Byzantine world produced great heroes, but no great historians, excepting the solitary figure of the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus.
The first period is dominated by Procopius because of his subject matter and his literary importance. Typically Byzantine, his Anekdota depreciates Emperor Justinian I as emphatically as his Peri Ktismaton apotheosizes him. In literature and history though, he follows classical models, as is evident in the precision and lucidity of his narrative acquired from Thucydides, and in the reliability of his information, qualities of special merit in the historian. Procopius and to a great degree his successor Agathias remain the models of descriptive style as late as the eleventh century. Procopius is the first representative of the ornate Byzantine style in literature and in this is surpassed only by Theophylaktos Simokattes in the seventh century. Despite their unclassical form, however, they approach the ancients in their freedom from ecclesiastical and dogmatic tendencies.
Between the historical writings of the first period and those of the second, there is an isolated series of works which in matter and form offer a strong contrast to both the aforesaid groups. These are the works under the name of the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (tenth century), dealing respectively with the administration of the empire, its political division, and the ceremonies of the Byzantine Court. They treat of the internal conditions of the empire, and the first and third are distinguished by their use of a popular tongue. The first is an important source of ethnological information, while the last is an interesting contribution to the history of civilization.
The second group of historians present a classical eclecticism veiling an unclassical partisanship and theological fanaticism. Revelling in classical forms, the historians of the period of the Comneni and Palaeologi were devoid of the classical spirit. While many had stronger, more sympathetic personalities than the school of Procopius, the very vigor of these individuals and their close ties to the imperial government served to hamper their objectivity, producing subjective, partisan works. Thus the "Alexiad", the pedantic work of Princess Anna Comnena, glorifies her father Alexius and the imperial reorganization he began; the historical work of her husband, Nicephorus Bryennius, describes the internal conflicts that accompanied the rise of the Comneni in the form of a family chronicle (late eleventh century); John VI Cantacuzene self-complacently narrates his own achievements (fourteenth century). This group exhibits striking antitheses both personal and objective. Beside Cinnamus, who honestly hated everything Western, stand the broad-minded Nicetas Acominatus (twelfth century) and the conciliatory but dignified Georgius Acropolites (thirteenth century); beside the theological polemicist Pachymeres (thirteenth century), stands the man of the world, Nicephorus Gregoras (fourteenth century), well versed in philosophy and the classics. Though subjective in matters of internal Byzantine history, these and others of this period are trustworthy in their accounts of external events, and especially valuable as sources for the first appearance of the Slavs and Turks.
Not only important sources for the history of Byzantine civilization, the chronicles themselves contributed to the spread of civilization, passing Byzantine culture to the arriving Slavic, Magyar, and Turkic peoples. Depicting as they did what lay within the popular consciousness—events wonderful and dreadful painted in glaring colours and interpreted in a Christian sense—their influence was considerable. The method of handling materials is primitive—beneath each section lies some older source only slightly modified, so that the whole resembles a patchwork of materials rather than the ingenious mosaic of the historians. They are a rich store for comparative linguistics, as their diction is purely the popular tongue, bespeaking the poor education of author and audience.
Representative Byzantine chronicles are the three of Joannes Malalas, Theophanes Confessor, and Joannes Zonaras, respectively. The first is the earliest Christian Byzantine monastic chronicle, composed in the Antioch in the sixth century by a hellenized Syrian and Monophysite theologian. Originally a city chronicle, it was expanded into a world-chronicle. It is a popular historical work, full of historical and chronological errors, and the first monument of a purely popular Hellenistic civilization. The chief source for most of the later chroniclers as well as for a few church historians, it is also the earliest popular history translated into Old Bulgarian (ca. early tenth century). Superior in substance and form, and more properly historical, is the Chronicle of Theophanes, a ninth-century monk of Asia Minor, and in its turn a model for later chronicles. It contains much valuable information from lost sources, and its importance for the Western world is due to the fact that by the end of the ninth century it had to be translated into Latin. A third guide-post in the history of Byzantine chronicles is the twelfth-century Universal Chronicle of Zonaras. It reflects somewhat the atmosphere of the Comneni renaissance; not only is the narrative better than that of Theophanes, but many passages from ancient writers are worked into the text. It was translated not only into Slavic and Latin, but into Italian and French as well (16th century).
The new spirit first found expression in an academy founded for classical studies at Constantinople in 863. About the same time the broadly trained and energetic Photius, patriarch of the city and the greatest statesman of the Greek Church (820-897), enthusiastically collected forgotten manuscripts, revived forgotten works of antiquity, and re-discovered lost works; his attention was chiefly directed to prose works, indicative of his pragmatism. Photius made selections or excerpts from all the works he discovered, forming the beginning of his celebrated Biblitheca ("Library"), which while dry and schematic remains the most valuable literary compendium of the Middle Ages, containing trustworthy summaries of many ancient works now lost, together with good characterizations and analyses such as those of Lucian and Heliodorus. This encyclopedic activity was more assiduously pursued in the tenth century, particularly in the systematic collecting of materials associated with Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. Scholars also formed great compilations, arranged by subject, on the basis of older sources. Among these was a now-fragmentary encyclopedia of political science containing extracts from the classical, Alexandrian, and Roman Byzantine periods. These, with the collection of ancient epigrams known as the Anthologia Palatina and the scientific dictionary known as the Suidas, make the tenth century that of the encyclopedias.
A typical representative of the period appears in the following century in the person of the greatest encyclopedist of Byzantine literature, Michael Psellus. Standing between the Middle Ages and modern times, he is a jurist and a man of the world with a mind both receptive and productive. Unlike Photius, who was more concerned with individual philosophic arguments, Psellus does not undervalue the old philosophers, and is himself of a philosophic temperament. He was the first of his intellectual circle to raise the philosophy of Plato above that of Aristotle and to teach philosophy as a professor. Surpassing Photius in intellect and wit, he lacks that scholar's dignity and solidity of character. A restless brilliance characterized his life and literary activity. At first a lawyer, then a professor; now a monk, now a court official; he ended his career the prime minister. He was equally adroit and many-sided in his literary work; in harmony with the polished, pliant nature of the courtier is his elegant Platonic style of his letters and speeches. His extensive correspondence furnishes endless material illustrating his personal and literary character. The ennobling influence of his Attic models mark his speeches and especially his funerary orations; that delivered on the death of his mother shows deep sensibility. Psellus had more of a poetic temperament than Photius, as several of his poems show, though they owe more to satirical fancy and occasion than to deep poetic feeling. Though Psellus exhibits more formal skill than creativity, his endowments shone forth in a time particularly backward in aesthetic culture. The intellectual freedom of the great scholars (polyhistores), both ecclesiastical and secular, of the following centuries would be inconceivable without the triumph of Psellus over Byzantine scholasticism.
While among his successors—such as Nicephorus Blemmydes and Hyrtakenos—are natures as corrupt as Psellus' own, the majority are marked by their rectitude of intention, sincerity of feeling, and their beneficently broad culture. Among these great intellects and strong characters of the twelfth century several theologians are especially conspicuous, for example Eustathius of Thessalonica, Michael Italicus, and Michael Acominatus; in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries several secular scholars, like Maximus Planudes, Theodorus Metochites, and above all, Nicephorus Gregoras.
The three theologians may best be judged by their letters and minor occasional writings. Eustathius seems to be the most important, writing learned commentary on Homer and Pindar alongside original works that are candid, courageous, and controversial, intent upon the correction of every evil. In one of his works he attacks the corruption and intellectual stagnation of the monastic life of that day; in another polemic, he assails the hypocrisy and sham holiness of his time; in a third he denounces the conceit and arrogance of the Byzantine priests.
The rhetorician Michael Italicus, later a bishop, attacks the chief weakness of Byzantine literature, external imitation; this he did on receiving a work by a patriarch, which was simply a disorderly collection of fragments from other writers, so poorly put together that the sources were immediately recognizable.
The pupil and friend of Eustathius, Michael Acominatus (twelfth and thirteenth centuries) Archbishop of Athens and brother of the historian Nicetas Acominatus. His inaugural address, delivered on the Acropolis, exhibits both profound classical scholarship and high enthusiasm despite the material and spiritual decay of his times. These pitiful conditions moved him to compose an elegy, famous because unique, on the decay of Athens, a sort of poetical and antiquarian apostrophe to fallen greatness. Gregorovius compared the inaugural address with Gregory the Great's to the Romans, and this with the lament of Bishop Hildebert of Tours on the demolition of Rome by the Normans (1106). His funeral orations over Eustathius (1195) and his brother Nicetas, though wordier and rhetorical, still evinced a noble disposition and deep feeling. Michael, like his brother, remained a fanatical opponent of the Latins. They had driven him into exile at Ceos, whence he addressed many letters to his friends illustrating his character. Stylistically influenced by Eustathius, his otherwise classical diction sounded an ecclesiastical note.
With Theodorus Metochites and Maximus Planudes we come to the universal scholars (polyhistores) of the time of the Palaeologi. The former displays his humanism in his use of hexameter, the latter in his knowledge of the Latin; both of which are otherwise unknown in Byzantium, and foreboding a broader grasp of antiquity. Both men show a fine sense of poetry, especially of nature poetry. Metochites composed meditations on the beauty of the sea; Planudes was the author of a long poetic idyll, a genre uncultivated by Byzantine scholars. While Metochites was a thinker and poet, Planudes was chiefly an imitator and compiler. Metochites was more speculative, as his collection of philosophical and historical miscellanies show; Planudes was more precise, as his preference for mathematics proves. Contemporary progress in philosophy was at a point where Metochites could openly attack Aristotle. He deals more frankly with political questions, such as his comparison of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. While his breadth of interest was large, Metochites's culture rests wholly on a Greek basis, though Planudes, by his translations from the Latin (Cato, Ovid, Cicero, Caesar, and Boethius), vastly enlarged the Eastern intellectual horizon.
This inclination toward the West is most noticeable in Nicephorus Gregoras, the great pupil of Metochites. His project for a reform of the calendar ranks him among the modern intellects of his time, as will be proven if ever his numerous works in every domain of intellectual activity are brought to light. His letters, especially, promise a rich harvest. His method of exposition is based on that of Plato, whom he also imitated in his ecclesiastico-political discussions, e.g. in his dialogue "Florentius, or Concerning Wisdom." These disputations with Barlaam dealt with the question of church union, in which Gregoras took the Unionist part. This brought him bitter hostility and the loss of his teaching living; he had been occupied chiefly with the exact sciences, whereby he had already earned the hatred of orthodox Byzantines.
While the Byzantine essayists and encyclopedists stood wholly under the influence of ancient rhetoric, still they embodied in the traditional forms their own characteristic knowledge, and thereby lent it a new charm.
The chief phases in the development of the Byzantine epigram are most evident in the works of these three. Agathias, who has already been mentioned among the historians, as an epigrammatist, has the peculiarities of the school of the semi-Byzantine Egyptian Nonnus (about AD 400). He wrote in an affected and turgid style, in the classical form of the hexameter; he abounds, however, in brilliant ideas, and in his skillful imitation of the ancients, particularly in his erotic pieces, he surpasses most of the epigrammatists of the imperial period. Agathias also prepared a collection of epigrams, partly his own and partly by other writers, some of which afterwards passed into the Anthologia palatina and have thus been preserved. The abbot Theodorus Studites is in every respect the opposite of Agathias, a pious man of deep earnestness, with a fine power of observation in nature and life, full of sentiment, warmth, and simplicity of expression, free from servile imitation of the ancients, though influenced by Nonnus. While touching on the most varied things and situations, his epigrams on the life and personnel of his monastery offer special interest for the history of civilization. Joannes Geometres combines aspects of the previous two. During the course of his life he filled both secular and ecclesiastical offices and his poetry had a universal character; of a deeply religious temper, still he appreciated the greatness of the ancient Greeks. Alongside epigrams on ancient poets, philosophers, rhetoricians, and historians stand others on famous Church Fathers, poets, and saints. Poetically, the epigrams on contemporary and secular topics are superior to those on religious and classic subjects. His best works depict historical events and situations he himself experienced, and reflect his own spiritual moods (Krumbacher).
Two popular offshoots of the "Timarion", the "Apokopos" and the "Piccatoros" are discussed below. Another group of satires takes the form of dialogues between animals, manifestly a development from the Christian popular book known as the Physiologus. Such satires describe assemblages of quadrupeds, birds, and fishes, and recite their lampooning remarks upon the clergy, the bureaucracy, the foreign nations in the Byzantine Empire, etc. (Krumbacher, 385-390).
Here belong also the parodies in the form of church poems, and in which the clergy themselves took part, e.g. Bishop Nicetas of Serrae (eleventh century). One example of this sacrilegious literature, though not fully understood, is the "Mockery of a Beardless Man," in the form of an obscene liturgy (fourteenth century). (Krumbacher, 337.)
Only three kinds of ecclesiastical literature, which were as yet undeveloped in the fourth century, exhibit later an independent growth. These were the ecclesiastical poetry of the sixth century, popular lives of the saints of the seventh, and the mystic writings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that classical forms were insufficient to express Christian thought to best effect: in several collections of early Christian correspondence it is not the rhythmic laws of Greek rhetorical style which govern the composition, but those of Semitic and Syriac prose. Cardinal Pitra hypothesizes that the rhythmic poetry of the Byzantines originates in the Jewish Psalms of the Septuagint. This rhythmic principle accords with the linguistic character of the later Greek, which used a stress accent as it had already been developed in Syriac poetry rather than the classical tonal accent.
Romanos was the first great ecclesiastical poet of the Greeks to fully embrace the stress accent as a rhythmic principle. A contemporary and countryman of the chronicler Malalas, also a reformer of the Greek literary language, Romanos was a Syrian of Jewish descent, Christianized at an early age. What Malalas is to prose, Romanos is to the Christian poetry of the Greek Middle Ages. Though he did not go so far as Malalas, he released poetry from meters based on quantitative and tonal scansion; he brought it into harmony with the latest poetics prevailing in Syria as well as with the evolving character of the Greek language. Romanos soon went to Constantinople, where he became a deacon of the Hagia Sophia, and where he is said to have first developed his gift for hymn-writing.
Romanos borrowed the form of his poems, the material, and many of their themes partly from the Bible and partly from the (metrical) homilies of the Syrian Father Ephrem (fourth century). He wrote hymns on the Passion of the Lord, on the betrayal by Judas, Peter's denial, Mary before the Cross, the Ascension, the Ten Virgins, and the Last Judgment, while his Old Testament themes mention the history of Joseph and the three young men in the fiery furnace. He is said to have composed about a thousand hymns, of which only eighty have survived, evidently because in the ninth century the so-called canones, linguistically and metrically more artistic in form, replaced much of his work in the Greek Liturgy. Thenceforth his hymns held their own in only a few of the remoter monasteries. Characteristic of his technique is the great length of his hymns, which are regularly composed of from twenty to thirty stanzas (τροπαρια) of from twelve to twenty-one verses each, very finely wrought and varied in metrical structure, and in construction transparent and diverse. They do not resemble contemporary Latin hymns so much as the oratorios of the early twentieth century, also using antiphonal rendering by alternative choirs. This also explains the dramatic character of many hymns, with their inserted dialogues and choric songs, as in "Peter's Denial", a little drama of human boastfulness and weakness, and the last part of the "History of Joseph", the "Psalm of the Apostles", and the "Birth of Jesus". Other pieces, like the hymn on the Last Judgment, are purely descriptive in character, though even in them the rhetorical and dogmatic elements seriously impair the artistic effect.
Some, like Bouvy and Krumbacher, place him among the greatest hymn-writers of all times; others, like Cardinal Pitra, are more conservative. For a final judgment a complete edition of the hymns is needed. Compared to Latin church poets such as Ambrose and Prudentius, his surviving works tend towards a more rhetorically flowery, digressive, and dogmatic verse. He is fond of symbolic pictures and figures of speech, antitheses, assonances, especially witty jeux d'esprit, which contrast with his characteristic simplicity of diction and construction. These embellishments interrupt the smooth flow of his lines, and often the sequence of thought in his hymns is clouded by the dragging in of dogmatic questions—in the celebrated Christmas hymn the question of the miraculous birth of Jesus is discussed four times, with a comfortable amplitude that betrays the theologian thrusting the poet aside. The theologian is also too evident in his allusions to the Old Testament when dealing with New Testament incidents; Mary at the birth of Jesus compares her destiny to that of Sarah, the Magi liken the star that went before the Israelites in the wilderness, and so on. The frequent citation of passages from the prophets seem more like unimpassioned paraphrases than like inspired poetry. In fact Romanos does not possess the abundant and highly-coloured imagery of the earliest Greek church poets, nor their fine grasp of nature. The reader also gathers the impression that the height of the poet's imagination is not in proportion with the depth of his piety—there often appears in him something naive, almost homely, as when Mary expresses her pleasure in the Magi and calls attention to their utility for the impending Flight into Egypt. There are passages, however, in which devout fervor carries the imagination along with it and elevates the poetic tone, as in the jubilant invitation to the dance (in the Easter-song), in which thoughts of spring and of the Resurrection are harmoniously blended:
Ecclesiastical poetry did not long remain on the high level to which Romanos had raised it. The "Hymnus Acathistus" (of unknown authorship) of the seventh century, a sort of Te Deum in praise of the Mother of God, is the last great monument of Greek church poetry, comparable to the hymns of Romanos, which it has even outlived in fame. It has had numerous imitators and as late as the seventeenth century was translated into Latin.
The rapid decline of Greek hymnology begins as early as the seventh century, the period of Andrew of Crete. Religious sentiments in hymns were choked by a classical fomalism which stifled all vitality. The overvaluation of technique in details destroyed the sense of proportion in the whole. This seems to be the only explanation for the so-called canones first found in the collection of Andrew of Crete. While a canon is a combination of a number of hymns or chants (generally nine) of three or four strophes each, the "Great Canon" of Andrew actually numbers 250 strophes, a "single idea is spun out into serpentine arabesques".
Pseudo-classical artificiality found an even more advanced representative in John of Damascus, in the opinion of the Byzantines the foremost writer of canones, who took as a model Gregory of Nazianzus, even reintroducing the principle of quantity into ecclesiastical poetry. Religious poetry was in this way reduced to mere trifling, for in the eleventh century, which witnessed the decline of Greek hymnology and the revival of pagan humanism, Michael Psellus began parodying church hymns, a practice that took root in popular culture. Didactic poems took this form without being regarded as blasphemous.
Religious drama did not thrive in the Byzantine era. The only example is the Suffering of Christ (Christus Patiens, Χριστος πασχον), written in the eleventh or twelfth century; of its 2,640 verses, about one-third are borrowed from ancient dramas, chiefly from those of Euripides, and Mary, the chief character, sometimes recites verses from the "Medea" of Euripides, again from the "Electra" of Sophocles, or the "Prometheus" of Aeschylus. The composition is evidently the production of a theologian trained in the classics, but without the slightest idea of dramatic art. It is made up chiefly of lamentations and reports of messengers. Even the most effective scenes, those which precede the Crucifixion, are described by messengers; almost two-thirds of the text are given to the descent from the Cross, the lament of Mary, and the apparition of Christ. (Cf. Van Cleef, "The Pseudo-Gregorian Drama Christos paschon in its relation to the text of Euripides" in Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, VIII, 363-378; Krumbacher, 312.)
Between ecclesiastical poetry and ecclesiastical prose stands the theologico-didactic poem, a favorite species of ancient Christian literature. One of its best examples is the "Hexaemeron" of Georgius Pisides, a spirited hymn on the universe and its marvels, i.e. all living creatures. Taken as a whole, it is somewhat conventional; only the description of the minor forms of life, especially of the animals, reveals the skill of the epigrammatist and nature-lover's gift of affectionate observation.
Besides sacred poetry, hagiography flourished from the sixth to the eleventh century. This species of literature developed from the old martyrologies, and became the favorite form of popular literature. It flourished from the eight to the eleventh century, and was concerned principally with monastic life. Unfortunately, the rhetorical language was in violent contrast with the simple nature of the contents, so that the chief value of this literature is historical.
More popular in style are the biographers of saints of the sixth and seventh centuries. The oldest and most important of them is Cyril of Scythopolis (in Palestine), whose biographies of saints and monks are distinguished for the reliability of their facts and dates. Of great interest also for their contributions to the history of culture and of ethics and for their genuinely popular language are the writings of Leontius, Archbishop of Cyprus (seventh century), especially his life of the Patriarch John (surnamed The Merciful), Eleemosynarius of Alexandria. (Cf. Heinrich Gelzer, Kleine Schriften, Leipzig, 1907.) This life describes for us a man who in spite of his peculiarities honestly tried "to realize a pure Biblical Christianity of self-sacrificing love", and whose life brings before us in a fascinating way the customs and ideas of the lower classes of the people of Alexandria.
The romance of Balaam and Joasaph (also Barlaam and Josaphat) was another popular work of Byzantine origin now elevated to universal literature. It is the "Song of Songs" of Christian asceticism, illustrated by the experience of the Indian prince Joasaph, who is led by the hermit Barlaam to abandon the joys of life, and as a true Christian to renounce the world. The material of the story is originally Indian, indeed Buddhistic, for the origin of Joasaph was Buddha. The Greek version originated in the Sabbas monastery in Palestine about the middle of the seventh century. It did not circulate widely until the eleventh century, when it became known to all Western Europe through the medium of a Latin translation [Cf. F. C. Conybeare, "The Barlaam and Josaphat legend," in Folk-lore (1896), VII, 101 sqq.]
The ascetic conception of life was embedded in the Byzantine character and was strengthened by the high development of monastic institutions. The latter in turn brought forth a broad ascetic literature, though it does not further deepen the asceticism of its great exponent, St. Basil of Caesarea.
Less extensively cultivated, but excelling in quality, are Byzantine mystical writings. The true founder of a distinctively Byzantine mysticism was Maximus the Confessor (seventh century), who deepened the tradition of Christian Neo-Platonism, as found in the Pseudo-Dionysius, with the resources of Orthodox Christology. No other writer in Eastern Christian tradition surpasses Maximus in speculative range and originality. Later representatives of this mystical tradition were Symeon the New Theologian and Nicetas Stethatos in the eleventh, and Nikolaos Kavasilas in the fourteenth century. The Byzantine mystical writers differ from those of Western Europe chiefly in their attitude to ecclesiastical ceremonies, to which they adhered implicitly, seeing in it a profound symbol of the spiritual life of the church, where Occidentals see an attempt to displace the inner life with external pomp. Accordingly Symeon strictly observed the ceremonial rules of the church, regarding them, however, only as a means to the attainment of ethical perfection. His principal work (published only in Latin) is a collection of prose pieces and hymns on communion with God. He is akin to the chief German mystics in his tendency towards pantheism. Of Symeon's equally distinguished pupil, Nicetas Stethatos, we need only say that he cast off his teacher's pantheistic tendencies. The last great mystic Kavasilas, Archbishop of Saloniki, revived the teaching of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, but in the plan of his principal work, "Life in Christ", exhibits a complete independence of all other worlds and is without a parallel in Byzantine asceticism.
The chief characteristic of folk-song throughout the Greek Middle Ages is its lyric note, which constantly finds expression in emotional turns. In Byzantine literature, on the other hand, the refinement of erotic poetry was due to the influence of the love-poetry of chivalry introduced by Frankish knights in the thirteenth century and later. The Byzantines imitated and adapted the romantic and legendary materials these westerners brought. Italian influences led to the revival of the drama. That celebration of the achievements of Greek heroes in popular literature was the result of the conflicts which the Greeks sustained during the Middle Ages with the border nations to the east of the empire. Popular books relating the deeds of ancient heroes had long-standing and widespread currency throughout the East; these too revived heroic poetry, though imparted with a deep romantic tinge. The result was a complete upheaval of popular ideals and a broadening of the popular horizon as Atticist tendencies were gradually eroded.
There was, consequently, a complete reconstruction of the literary types of Byzantium. Of all the varieties of artistic poetry there survived only the romance, though this became more serious in its aims, and its province expanded. Of metrical forms there remained only the political (fifteen-syllable) verse. From these simple materials there sprang forth an abundance of new poetic types. Alongside of the narrative romance of heroism and love there sprang up popular love lyrics, and even the beginnings of the modern drama.
The only genuine heroic epic of the Byzantines is the "Digenis Acritas", a popular poetic crystallization of the tenth- and eleventh-century conflicts between the Byzantine wardens of the marches (ακρίτης, acrites) and the Saracens in Eastern Asia Minor. The nucleus of this epic goes back to the twelfth or thirteenth century, its final literary form to the fifteenth. Though the schoolmen edited the original poems beyond recognition, an approximate idea of the original poem may be gathered from the numerous echoes of it extant in popular poetry. The existing versions exhibit a blending of several cycles, modeled after the Homeric poems. Its principal subjects are love, adventures, battles, and a patriarchal, idyllic enjoyment of life; it is a mixture of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the majority of the material being drawn from the latter, suffused with a Christian atmosphere. Genuine piety and a strong family feeling combine with an intimate sympathy with nature. Artistically, the work lacks the dramatic quality and diverse characters of the Germanic and classical Greek epics; it must be compared with the Slavic and Oriental heroic songs, among which it properly belongs.
The love-romance of the Greek Middle Ages is the result of the fusion of the sophistical Alexandro-Byzantine romance and the medieval French popular romance, on the basis of an Hellenistic view of life and nature. This is proved by its three chief creations, composed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. "Kallimachos and Chrysorrhoe", "Belthandros and Chrysantza", "Lybistros and Rhodamne". While the first and the last of these are markedly influenced by Byzantine romance in thought and manner of treatment, the second begins to show the aesthetic and ethical influence of the Old-French romance; indeed, its story often recalls the Tristan legend. The style is clearer and more transparent, the action more dramatic, than in the extant versions of the Digenis legend. The ethical idea is the romantic idea of knighthood—the winning of the loved one by valour and daring, not by blind chance as in the Byzantine literary romances. Along with these independent adaptations of French material, are direct translations from "Flore et Blanchefleur", "Pierre et Maguelonne", and others, which have passed into the domain of universal literature.
To the period of Frankish conquest belongs aIso the metrical Chronicle of Morea (fourteenth century). It was composed by a Frank brought up in Greece, though a foe of the Greeks. Its object was, amid the constantly progressing hellenization of the Western conquerors, to remind them of the spirit of their ancestors. Therefore it is only Greek in language; in literary form and spirit it is wholly Frankish. The author "describes minutely the feudal customs which had been transplanted to the soil of Greece, and this perhaps is his chief merit; the deliberations of the High Court are given with the greatest accuracy, and he is quite familiar with the practice of feudal law" (J. Schmitt). As early as the fourteenth century the Chronicle was translated into Spanish and in the fifteenth into French and Italian.
About the same time and in the same locality the small islands off the coast of Asia Minor, appeared the earliest collection of neo-Greek love songs, known as the "Rhodian Love-Songs". Besides songs of various sorts and origins, they contain a complete romance, told in the form of a play on numbers, a youth being obliged to compose a hundred verses in honor of the maiden whom he worships before she returns his love, each verse corresponding to the numbers one to one hundred.
Between the days of the French influence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and those of Italian in the sixteenth and seventeenth, there was a short romantic and popular revival of the ancient legendary material. There was neither much need nor much appreciation for this revival, and few of the ancient heroes and their heroic deeds are adequately treated. The best of these works is the Alexander Romance, based on the story of Alexander the Great, a revised version of the Pseudo-Callisthenes of the Ptolemaic period, which is also the source of the western versions of the Alexander Romance. The "Achilleis", on the other hand, though written in the popular verse and not without taste, is wholly devoid of antique local colour, and is rather a romance of French chivalry than a history of Achilles. Lastly, of two compositions on the Trojan War, one is wholly crude and barbarous, the other, though better, is a literal translation of the old French poem of Benoît de Sainte-More.
To these products of the fourteenth century may be added two of the sixteenth, both describing a descent into the lower world, evidently popular offshoots of the Timarion and Mazaris already mentioned. To the former corresponds the "Apokopos", a satire of the dead on the living; to the latter the "Piccatores", a metrical piece decidedly lengthy but rather unpoetic, while the former has many poetical passages (e.g. the procession of the dead) and betrays the influence of Italian literature. In fact Italian literature impressed its popular character on the Greek popular poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as French literature had done in the thirteenth and fourteenth.
The "Erotokritos" is a long romantic poem of chivalry, lyric in characters and didactic in purpose, the work of Cornaro, a hellenized Venetian of the sixteenth century. It abounds in themes and ideas drawn from the folk-poetry of the time. In the story of Erotokritos and Arethusa the poet glorifies love and friendship, chivalric courage, constancy, and self-sacrifice. Although foreign influences do not obtrude themselves, and the poem, as a whole, has a national Greek flavour, it reveals the various cultural elements, Byzantine, Romance, and Oriental, without giving, however, the character of a composite.
The lyrical love tragedy "Erophlle" is more of a mosaic, being a combination of two Italian tragedies, with the addition of lyrical intermezzos from Torquato Tasso's "Jerusalem Delivered", and choral songs from his "Aminta". Nevertheless, the materials are handled with independence, and more harmoniously arranged than in the original; the father who has killed his daughter's lover is slain not by his daughter's hand, but by the ladies of his palace, thus giving a less offensive impression. Owing to the lyric undertone of the works some parts of it have survived in popular tradition until the present time.
The mystery play of "The Sacrifice of Abraham" is a little psychological masterpiece, apparently an independent work. The familiar and trite Biblical incidents are reset in the patriarchal environment of Greek family life. The poet emphasizes the mental struggles of Sarah, the resignation of Abraham to the Divine will, the anxious forebodings of Isaac, and the affectionate sympathy of the servants, in other words, a psychological analysis of the characters. The mainspring of the action is Sarah's fore-knowledge of what is to happen, evidently the invention of the poet to display the power of maternal love. The diction is distinguished by high poetic beauty and by a thorough mastery of versification. Other products of Cretan literature are a few adaptations of Italian pastorals, a few erotic and idyllic poems, like the so-called "Seduction Tale" (an echo of the Rhodian Love-Songs), and the lovely, but ultra-sentimental, pastoral idyll of the "Beautiful Shepherdess".
Greek eventually overtook Latin as the official language of the government, the "Novellae" of Justinian I being the last Latin monument. As early as the seventh century Greek language had made great progress, and by the eleventh Greek was supreme, though it never supplanted the numerous other languages of the empire. While the Greek world preserved the form of its classical literature, the same cannot be said of the classical sense of poetry and imagination. The Byzantine culture broke completely with the classical aesthetic; in literature and in the plastic arts the Oriental aesthetic was victorious.
Some genres such as lyric verse and drama died out, while only in the minor departments of literature was any great degree of skill attained. The classical sense of proportion, beauty, and poetry disappear completely, replaced by a delight in the grotesque and the disproportioned on the one hand, and in ornamental trifles on the other.
Social conditions, more of the East than of classical Athenian/Roman culture, encouraged these aesthetic trends.
The loss of a body of free, educated citizens to Byzantine centralization and the consequent stagnation of municipal life directly affected its literature. No rivals were permitted to Constantinople. Literature concerned only the high official and priestly classes; it was aristocratic or theological rather than popular. Classical standards could be imitated because only the upper classes concerned themselves with literature, but, divorced from the life of the people, it lacked genuine spontaneity. Church hymnology for some time infused fresh life into literature, but even this was of Oriental origin, growing out of Syria. In Byzantium, ecclesiastical and Eastern influences coincided.
The Eastern Roman Empire divided European civilization into two parts: one Romance and Germanic, the other Greek and Slavic. These cultures differed ethnographically, linguistically, ecclesiastically, and historically. Imperial Russia, the Balkans, and Ottoman Empire were the direct heirs of Byzantine civilization; the first two particularly in ecclesiastical, political, and cultural respects (through the translation and adaptation of sacred, historical, and popular literature); the third in respect to civil government.
Indirectly, the Empire protected western Europe for centuries from war, fighting off various invaders and migratory populations. Byzantium was also a treasury of ancient Greek literature. During the Middle Ages, until the capture of the Constantinople, the West was acquainted only with Roman literature. Greek antiquity was first carried to Italy by the treasures brought by fugitive Greek humanists.
Byzantine culture had a direct influence upon southern and central Europe in church music and church poetry, though this was only in the very early period (until the seventh century).
Byzantine culture had a definite impact upon the Near East, especially upon the Armenians, the Persians, and the Arabs. Even if Byzantium received from these nations more than it imparted, still the Byzantines gave a strong intellectual impulse to the Orient, enriching its scholarly literature, though even in this they served chiefly as intermediaries.
There is no comprehensive history of Byzantine literature written in English, although the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium provides excellent coverage of individual authors and topics. The chapters of Horrocks that cover the medieval period are useful for the "language question." The History of Kazhdan covers only the early period. Beaton and Lauxtermann are useful on "low" and "high" verse, respectively.
The study of Byzantine literature as a self-sufficient discipline originated in the German-speaking world, and the most important general surveys are written in this language. Beck and Hunger remain the standard works on theological and secular literature, respectively, although Krumbacher and Moravcsik are still valuable. Rosenqvist is a recent and useful introduction to the subject.