The OF Blog: March 2022

Sunday, March 27, 2022

What I am Reading: March 2022

 If I’m going to be honest to myself and this blog’s past, at least to some limited degree, it might be of interest to the few readers here what exactly it is that I am currently reading in my autumn reading renaissance (pun intended, as you shall soon see).  I have finished two books already this year and am alternating between several others, due in part to the nature of the readings I am doing.

When I began reading again for pleasure after years of barely reading, I began first by sating my years-long curiosity about literary works from the Eastern Roman/Byzantine era as well as the Italian Renaissance period.  In doing several Wikipedia searches, I discovered that Harvard University Press not only was continuing the century-long Loeb Classical Library, but had also launched three complementary lines of bilingual collections:  Dumbarton Oaks (medieval Roman/Byzantine, Old English, c. 400-1300 Medieval Latin literature); I Tatti Renaissance Library (1300-1550 Renaissance Latin works); and the Murty Classical Library of India (primarily focused on works in several Indo-Aryan works of the past five hundred years or so translated into English, many for the first time).  Out of these libraries (and the Loeb Classical Library), I began alternating poems or sections, relearning my college Latin or learning how to read (Medieval) Greek for the first time.  I found myself bouncing back and forth, enjoying the literary connections that I had begun to make between these works.

First, here are the two books I’ve completed, followed by the ones I anticipate finishing by the end of April:

1.  (Trans. by Denison B. Hull), Digenis Akritas:  The Two-Blood Border Lord (translation only, already reviewed)

2.  (Dumbarton Oaks, v. 14):  Pseudo-Methodius, Apocalypse (medieval Greek/English/Latin; Anonymous, An Alexandrian World Chronicle (6th century Latin/English translation).  I may write more about this in the coming month, if time permits.

Books I’m Currently Reading: 

Marco Girolamo Vida, Christiad.  Renaissance Latin epic poetry of the Crucifixion.  Bilingual I Tatti Renaissance Library edition.

Michael Andreopoulos, The Byzantine Sinbad. 11th century Greek version of a pan-Levantine series of tales similar to and yet distinct from The Thousand and One Nights.  Bilingual Dumbarton Oaks edition.

Various, Carmina Burana.  12th and 13th century secular Latin poetry collected from a single surviving manuscript.  Dumbarton Oaks bilingual edition.

Ludovico Ariosto, Latin Poetry.  The 15th/16th century Latin poems that the author of Orlando Furioso had written over the course of his life.  Bilingual I Tatti Renaissance Library edition.

Vergil, Aeneid:  Books I-VI.  The Loeb Classical Library bilingual Latin/English edition.  I’m re-reading Vergil in Latin in preparation for reading an “extension” that was written by Mateo Vegio that’s found in his Short Epics I Tatti Renaissance Library bilingual edition.

I am also working my way slowly through textbooks teaching me the basics of Old English, Old French, and Old Occitan.  Just in the mood these days for discovering these “other” classics and perhaps being one more generational link in the discussion and preservation of these millennium-old works.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Digenis Akritas: The Two-Blood Border Lord (trans. Denison B. Hull)


Praises, trophies, and an ode
To thrice-blest Basil, the Border Lord,
A man most noble and most brave,
Whose strength was a gift to him from God.
He overcame all Syria,
Babylon and all Charziané,
Armenia and Cappadocia,
Amorium and Iconium,
And that great famous castle too,
Though mighty and well fortified,
I mean Ancyra – all of Smyrna,
And conquered lands beside the sea.

Now I’ll disclose to you the deeds 
Which he accomplished in this life:
How he filled valiant fighting men
As well as all the beasts with awe,
Having as help the grace of God,
God’s Mother, the indomitable,
The angels and archangels too,
And the victorious great martyrs,
Both the all-glorious Theodores,
The army leader and recruit.
And noble George of many labors
The miracle-working martyrs’ martyr
Sublime Demetrius, the patron
Of Basil, and the boast and pride
Of him who vanquished all his foes,
The Hagarenes and Ishmaelites
And barbarous Scyths who rage like dogs. (pp. 3-4)

It is almost impossible to begin a discussion of Digenis Akritas without first laying out what it is and what is is not:  It is not an “epic” of the style of Homer and Vergil, although the main character of Basil, the titular two-blood border lord, most certainly possesses epic heroic traits; it had a multi-generational gestation period, derived largely from ninth and tenth century events that were interwoven and mutated over generations of folk tales into the forms it reached when the tales of Basil began to be written down in the last centuries of the Roman/Byzantine Empire; it is a simple tale, or perhaps it’s better to argue that it is rooted more deeply in popular motifs than were the simile-ridden epics of the early Empire period.  Digenis Akritas is perhaps best viewed as sui generis, combining the profound Orthodox beliefs of the people with tales of heroism on the borders of the Empire as it struggled to maintain a firm border in the Tarsus Mountains of Asia Minor against Arab raids for over two centuries after the capture of Jerusalem from the Romans.

Digenis Akritas, like most of its contemporaries, existed for centuries in various forms before being published in Western European vernaculars in the 18th and 19th centuries.  In his Introduction, translator/editor Denison B. Hall discusses in depth the histories of six different Greek texts and one Slavonic text that each captured snippets of Basil’s (and his father, the Emir, before him).  Hall chose to use the Grottaferrata version, discovered in a Greek rite monastery of Grottaferrata near Frascati, Italy in 1879, as the core of this English translation, as it contains the clearest tale of Basil and his father before him from beginning to end.

At first glance, Digenis Akritas is an odd poem.  Unlike the classical epics that begin in media res or like modern stories that begin with the protagonist, this poem devotes the first three of the eight books of the Grottaferrata version to his father, the Emir, and how he came to bring his 12,000 strong soldiers over to the side of the Romans, as well as his conversion to Christianity and further adventures before and just after his son Basil was born. While this might at first glance seem to be grounds for a disjointed and uneven tale, a further examination reveals that the first parts are just as integral to the overall poem as those books devoted to our titular hero.  Recall that Digenis Akritas is in origin a collection of folk tales about the borderlands of the 9th and 10th centuries and that with the spread of these tales, more and more elements were grafted onto the core historical events and personages.  The end result is a poem in which the first three books foreshadow the events of Basil’s time on the eastern frontier, creating a sort of doubling effect that does not confuse the reader as much as provide a reinforcement of thematic elements throughout the entire poem.

The anonymous composer(s) of Digenis Akritas did not employ the dactylic hexameters of classical Greco-Roman epic poetry, but rather utilized a fifteen-syllable “political verse” that depended more on a pattern of unstressed-stressed-unstressed syllables to create a strong, flowing rhythm that did not depend upon rhyme.  The English near-equivalent is ten-syllable verse, which Hull uses to create a fast-paced flow to the poem.  The result is an energetic poem that swiftly flows from metaphor to action and back in a matter of a score of lines.  In addition, the religious elements, namely the complementary nature of heroism and faith, are clear and concise.  Digenis Akritas was intended both to entertain and to reinforce Christian morals and for the most part, it succeeds at blending these two seemingly disparate elements into a whole.

I alluded to the difficulties in categorizing Digenis Akritas above, but it is worth repeating that the value one may find in this poem lies in understanding what it is and what it isn’t.  If you read it expecting motifs and strong similarities to Homer or Vergil, for example, you will be disappointed that it is something else. However, if read as what is possesses in its own right, an entertaining and concise series of tales welded together with few seams exposed, Digenis Akritas certainly is an excellent tale and perhaps is one of the better fictions to emerge from the medieval Roman/Byzantine period.

Saturday, March 05, 2022

Praise, Trophies, and an Ode: Rediscovering My Love for the Classics

 For nearly five years, I have read fewer than 10 books a year.  I have ever-expanding job duties now, I completed two ultramarathons (abandoned other at 36.3/50 miles), along with six marathons, before a broken left ankle and grade III ligament tear there shelved me before the pandemic delayed matters still.  If anything, the two-year pandemic left me with even less free time, as I work in the educational wing of a mental healthcare facility.  At one point, I sold or boxed up nearly 80% of my books.  It seemed like reading fiction was in the past.

And yet my love for it never truly went away.  If I had a spare 15 minutes or so, I might scour Wikipedia or Quora or other online forums for information on historical periods/regions I didn't study in depth when I earned my BA and MA in History.  Of particular interest was the later Roman Empire, that which managed to survive until the mid-15th century.  Posthumously called the Byzantine Empire, I had read a few books on it, including John Julius Norwich's popular history.  Yet I found myself every now and then wanting to know more.  What was its literature like?  I found myself distrustful of Gibbons' view of it being decadent and pale imitator of its past.

So I finally did some research into medieval Roman literature and I discovered quite an interesting epic, Digenis Akritas.  Originally a series of related oral poems, by the 12th century it had been transformed into a written epic poem, albeit one with no single authorship and with surviving manuscripts that diverge quite a bit in certain particulars.  I plan on reviewing it in the near future, but for now it will suffice to say that its theme (solitary hero of mixed ethnic background guarding the Euphrates border of the Empire against Arab raids) captured my attention.

From there, I went on a bit of a spending spree and I started to buy volumes from these Harvard University Press series:  Loeb Classical Library (pre-500 AD bilingual Greek and Latin texts); Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (500-1400 Medieval Latin, Greek, and Anglo-Saxon texts); and the I Tatti Renaissance Library.  Although I haven't focused as much on this material during the 2004-2016 period of reviews here, I did take two years of Latin in college and have maintained some fluency in reading the text.  My Greek is negligible at the moment, although I know enough from excerpts in Latin texts to compare it to the English translation and work out the meanings of a few hundred words already.

I chose to return to these languages not because of a sense of cultural superiority, but rather because for a long while I've had this nagging feeling that there is a lot of cultural wealth that is endangered of being lost to irrelevancy.  Before this past month, I was ignorant of the fact that was a Neo-Latin epic poem, the Christiad by Marco Girolamo Vida, that retells the Gospels in hexameter verses of high quality.  Nor was I aware of the late 7th century Greek text, Apocalypse, attributed to Pseudo-Methodius, that perhaps is one of the most influential apocalyptic texts after the New Testament canon had been established over two centuries before.  And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

I suspect that over the next couple of months, usually for an hour or so before bedtime or maybe a couple of hours on weekends, I will work my way through a dozen or more of these texts and commentaries, filling in gaps in my knowledge and giving myself things to consider when it comes to form and topic.  There likely will be some reviews to be written of these works, because I believe it's more important that I write a commentaries on what can be gleaned from these works than marveling over Kickstarter records for authors (not demeaning, just noting that it's not as important in the long run) or commenting on casting choices for TV and movie adaptations of certain novels.  While I might address those topics too in the future, I think for now I'm going to focus on what intrigues me more.

Hopefully, there will be a few of you along for the ride.  It's been too long.

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