Rhetorical Value and Means in the Digenis Akritis
Rhetorical Analysis of the Epic Poem of Byzantine Heroism
According to James A. Herrick in History and Theory of Rhetoric, Isocrates saw rhetoric as “highly intentional, nationalistic, and morally oriented” (46). The Digenis Akritis epic of Byzantium serves these functions. Furthermore, Digenis Akritis itself is a direct product of Classical Greek rhetoric containing consciously placed elements of Greek rhetorical style at a time of Classical and Hellenistic Greek doctrine. The tales of a frontiersman righting the wrongs of the world with his trusty staff was told over centuries, perhaps from various legends that changed to suit the needs of both speaker and audience. In this paper, I will frame the Digenis Akritis in an historical context to show its highly rhetorical value: namely, that its purpose is to persuade people (particularly those on the outskirts of Byzantine Rome) to join the Byzantine empire, by means of an Arab argument and Greco-Roman counterargument, with Plato’s idealized concept of “Eros” serving a pivotal role between the two.
Though it is not central to the argument, a brief overview of the Byzantine Empire is necessary to tie the work to both Rome and a Greek rhetorical tradition. Westerners in particular—those who are not students of history—know little about Byzantine and view it as an exotic entity without ties to the west. In fact, the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first emperor to adopt Christianity as Rome’s official religion, founded Constantinople, a former Greek colony, as an extension of the Roman Empire, making it a seat of political and bureaucratic power in the fourth century. Decline in the Roman West, due largely to barbarian raids, brought about the much studied “fall of the Roman Empire.” Yet the Roman “Empire of the East survives…Latin gives way to Greek, the world of the intellect to that of the spirit; yet the classical tradition remains unbroken” (Norwich 36). The convergence of potent historical forces—Roman wealth and power, Greek educational, rhetorical and oratory tradition, and Christianity as a messianic religion—cannot be overstated. As Robert Browning, professor emeritus of Classics and Ancient History at the University of London, says in his book The Byzantine Empire, “Many of the classical Greek literary genres had died out centuries before, when the social and political conditions which favored them were superseded” (22). Grand speeches were made and preserved that included:[E]verything from wedding speeches to funeral oration, from pyrotechnic displays of rhetorical skills to serious comment on public affairs….And let us not forget the rhetoric of the pulpit, which often betrays the influence of classic tradition. Indeed, rhetoric had taken over much of literature… couched in a language originally intended as an imitation of that of the writers of Athens in the classical age….History in the classical manner, with speeches, grand descriptive passages, serious study of the causes and effects of events, was written by men who clearly saw themselves as the heirs of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius” (Browning 22-23).
Rarely do such powerful threads of history meet and intertwine. The birth of new empire resurrected Greek rhetorical traditions, now with a Christian impetus. The educational system self-consciously implemented Greek educational traditions with renewed force. Isocrates’ vision of an educational system “based on rhetoric and included work that we would now call literary studies” (Welch 358) became the norm in cosmopolitan areas, basing “higher education under the rhetoric…. and it was not confined to clergymen, or indeed to men” (Browning 82). Isocrates’ influence in his “concept of…education based on rhetoric affected ancient Greek history and subsequently Roman culture” (Welch 362). Classical education in the Greek tradition flourished, with both a rhetorical and literary basis that paved the way for works such as the Digenis Akritis.
Yet the borderlands of the Roman Empire—now of Greek language, schooled in Classical Greek grammar, history, literature, and rhetoric—faced old Greek adversaries. Persians and Arabs maintained and expanded their own empires. Like the Romans, they too soon had a young and vibrant religious impetus. Followers of the Prophet Mohammed swept through Syria and elsewhere; the Eastern Roman empire of Byzantium responded in the Greek tradition: sometimes with force, but often with the power of rhetoric.
The Digenis Akritis
The Digenis Akritis has been called Byzantium’s only epic poem and exists in six surviving manuscripts dating from the 10th C. A.D. (Jeffreys xii-xv). No single author—and certainly no particular year of composition—may be assigned to the Digenis Akiritis. Surviving manuscripts date from tenth century Byzantium, composed in vernacular Greek, but the texts suggest “constant change rather than conservative copying” while the stories themselves imply an “oral tradition” (Jeffreys xxx-xxxi) across centuries. In fact, variations of the story passed through perhaps centuries of oral narrative, with layers being added and adjusted both in the oral and written traditions (Browning 143). Naturally, some inconsistencies appear in the final written product—for instance, changes from third to first person point of view—belying multiple authorships. Rather than imply an incohesive message, the survival of the manuscript through time and in so many forms implies a longstanding objective beyond mere entertainment, particularly given the numerous rhetorical speeches contained therein, some with the highly political purpose of extending the Roman Empire into contested Muslim and borderland territories.
The Western phonetic spelling of the epic comes in almost as many varieties as the manuscript itself, including “Digenis Acritas” and “Digenis Akritas” among others. Of particular interest for our purposes is the rather obvious meaning of the word “Digenis.” The hero of the poem, Basil the Frontiersman, in fact derives from two (di-) genealogies ( -genis)…that is, Basil derives “of Double Descent” (Jeffreys xv), having both a Syrian father and a Roman mother.
The Mother’s Letter
According to the Grottaferrata transcript of the Digenis Akritis (translated by Elizabeth Jeffreys and serving as this essay’s primary source, herein referred to by the Book and Line numbers), an unnamed Syrian emir, the soon-to-be father of Basil Akritis, fell in love with a Roman slave and converted to Christianity to take her as a wife. His mother back in Syria was not pleased by this affair. Her letter to him serves as the first rhetorical argument and appears as follows:
“Most beloved child, how could you have forgotten your mother,
blinded my eyes and extinguished my light?
How could you renounce your kinsmen and faith and country
and become a reproach to all Syria?
We are abominated by all men
as deniers of the faith, as law-breakers
and for not having observed well the Prophet’s words.
What has happened to you, my child? How have you forgotten all these things?
How could you not remember your father’s deeds,
how many Romans he slew, how many he carried off as slaves?
Did he not fill prisons with generals and toparchs?
Did he not plunder many of the themes in Roman territory
and carry off beautiful high-born girls as prisoners?
Was he not pressured, like you, to become a renegade?
For when the Roman armies encircled him,
the generals swore him most terrible oaths
that he would be honoured as a patrikios by the emperor
and become a protostrator, if he were to throw down his sword.
But he kept the Prophet’s commandments,
spurned renown and paid no attention to wealth,
and they hewed him limb from limb and took his sword.
But you, not even under compulsion, have abandoned everything at once,
your faith, your kinsmen, and me, your mother.
My brother, your uncle, Mouris Karois,
made an expedition to Smyrna, to the sea-board;
he plundered Ankyra, the city of Abydos,
Aphrike, Taranta and Hexakomia,
and when he had won these victories he returned to Syria.
You too, most miserable man, have made a campaign.
When you were about to be honored by all Syria,
you destroyed everything for the love of a pig-eater
and have become accursed in every mosque.
If you do not leave quickly and come to Syria,
the emirs intend to behead me,
and kill your children since their father is a rebel,
and to give to others your delightful girls,
who are lamenting for you and are losing patience.
My sweetest child, pity your mother;
do not send me in my old age to Hades in sorrow,
do not allow your children to be slain unjustly,
do not ignore the tears of your delightful girls
and let God in his greatness remove you from the world.
Look, I have sent you, as you see, choice horses.
Mount the chestnut, lead the black,
let the bay follow and no one will catch you.
Bring the Roman girl too, if you are upset because of her,
but if you disobey me, may you be accursed.”
(Book 2, 52-98)
The point of view of the mother is both nationalistic and Arab. More importantly, the ethos of the emir’s mother cannot be denied. As Aristotle states, “[C]haracter is almost, so to speak, the most authorative form of persuasion” (Kennedy 39) The mother cares for the well-being of her daughters, the honor of the son whom she addresses, and the allegiance she holds to her country, God, and Prophet. Yet her words and her language are Greek, and Greek authorship appears beyond the seemingly incongruent reference to “Hades.” In fact, her argument carries with it rhetorical trappings long held in the Greek tradition. Again from Aristotle: “There are three reasons why speakers themselves are persuasive…[and t]hese are practical wisdom [phronēsis] and virtue [arête] and good will [eunoia]” (Kennedy 112). Just as clear as her appeal to ethos is her appeal to logos, reminding her son of the greatness he stands to lose and that he “was about to be loved by all of Syria”.
Pathos plays the most significant role here, clearly in the form of summoning guilt for the hardships she and her daughters are likely to face given the emir’s behavior. Insofar as the pathos of the mother’s speech, I would call attention to her display of anger. Aristotle states that people display much more of this anger “if they suspect they do not really have [what they take pride in], either not at all or not strongly (Kennedy, 119). Though the emir’s mother shows wisdom, virtue, and good will, her manner of speech wrecks these ethics with petty phrases such as “pig-eater” and a call for her own son to be “accursed.” Her point of view (that is, not of the Greco-Roman Christian state) is thus set up as a polemic. That is, though weighty and almost inarguable at one level, fault lines may be found in her general demeanor. A counterargument would have to show her worries as equally petty and insignificant. That rhetorical reply arrives in the form of the “Mosaic Speech.”
The Mosaic Speech
The second speech (appearing in the Grottaferrata edition as narrative) provides a contrary point of view in the form of an omniscient narrator, orator, or poet. Basil the Frontiersman, now grown and knowing success in his exploits, has built a palace. The painted walls sum up all of Western history from a Greco-Roman/Judeo-Christian perspective.
[B]eginning with Samson’s battle against the Philistines,
how—unbelievably—he tore the lion apart with his hands,
how he carried off the aliens’ gates, bolts and all,
to the hill when he had been imprisoned,
his mockery and overthrow of the aliens,
and finally the complete destruction of the temple,
that he achieved in days gone by,
when he destroyed himself together with the aliens.
In the middle he [Basil] displayed David, without weapons of any kind,
Holding only a sling in his hands and a stone.
And next Goliath, huge in stature,
terrifying in appearance and great in strength,
defended from head to foot with iron
and holding in his hand a javelin like a loom
entirely iron in colour through the painter’s art:
he depicted him and his activities in war—
Goliath, who had been swiftly struck by a well-aimed stone,
At once fell wounded to the ground—
And David, running up and raising his sword,
And cutting off Goliath’s head and achieving victory;
Then Saul’s envy, the flight of that most gentle man,
The myriad plots and God’s vengeance.
He recorded Achilles’ legendary wars,
The beauty of Agamemnon, the deadly slaughter,
Wise Penelope, the suitors who were slain,
Odysseus’ marvelous daring against the Cyclops,
Bellerophon killing the fire-breathing Chimaira,
the triumphs of Alexander, the defeat of Dareios,
Kandake’s palace and her wisdom,
The journey to the Brahmans and then to the Amazons,
And the rest of the wise Alexander’s achievements
And a host of other marvelous feats, brave deeds of many kind;
Moses’ miracles, the Egyptians’ plagues,
the Exodus of the Jews, the complaints of the ungrateful,
God’s wrath, the attendant’s supplication,
The glorious exploits of Joshua son of Nun.
All these scenes and many more in the two dining-chambers
Digenis recorded in gold mosaic
which provided boundless pleasures to those who saw them
(Book 7, 63-101)
What a change from the narrow view of Basil’s Syrian grandmother! Implicit in this monologue is an inevitability of history leading from antiquity to the greatness of Alexander. Judean history stands at the forefront with the stories of Samson, Moses, and David, with preceding Greek ancient and classical history kneaded in only later, in the form of Achilles, Odysseus, Penelope, and Alexander, as though all of history occurred at once, in panoramic view, literally in the form of a Byzantine mosaic.
But the events not included call attention after careful inspection. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian said in his Institutio Oratoria that “[e]ven a philosopher is at times permitted to tell a lie.” The lie here is only by omission. Persian monarchs are absent, as are Arab sultans, the Visigoths. Even western Rome has been excluded. The whirlwind of history takes no time for any sign of defeat or controversy. One of the great rhetorical, political, and cultural arguments appears here in a narrative form and appeals to the logos and pathos of the audience with the ethos of the omniscient, even god-like, narrator at the forefront. The argument is vivid and fearful. Worse than military defeat, of greater import than the psychological fear of losing one’s soul to the “wrong god,” not joining with Eastern Rome meant history will forget you.
Notably, Christ also appears excluded despite the mention of other gods. Two reasons may account for this. First, and already mentioned, is the shying away from any sign of defeat or controversy. Christ, for instance, died at the hands of Rome, which could be construed by non-Christians as a defeat of Christ, or as too strong of an implication of Rome in his death. Also, Christianity was a relatively young religion, particularly in the region, and characters of longer-lasting, historical import may have been preferred. The second reason, and probably more likely, is that Basil Akritis himself served as a Christ-figure. The way the mosaic unfolds history, step by step, is in some ways reminiscent of the Stations of the Cross. Here, Basil stands as Christ, in person, at the center of this history. Such comparisons were not necessarily considered sacrilegious in early Christian or early medieval times. According to S. Baring-Gould in her Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, St. George suffered no less than seven martyrdoms and resurrections, and found “his worship soon extended through Phoenicia, Palestine, and the whole East…[and in] the seventh century had two Churches in Rome” (129). Christ-like figures, so common in some literature, had very literal implications among some early Christians, many of whom still lived in world of spirits and demigods. The “Christ” missing from the mosaic could well have Basil and in fact, Rome itself resurrected as Byzantium.
What happened between the two speeches? The first speech presents an Arab and in fact Islamic point of view. The second speech (presented as narrative) excludes all of history that does not tie into a clearly Byzantine imperial objective. Basil the Frontiersman—who grew up, defeated monsters, slew lions, and overcame scores of thieves and other “evil-doers” at the fringes of the Byzantine Empire, all with the aid of his trusty staff—ought to have remained the Digenis…that is, the man of “Double Descent” (Jeffreys xv). How is it that he came to forsake half of his heritage and thus, half of known history? Does his affiliation with the Byzantine state supply the answer? It could, though his mural presents a greater kinship with Greek and Judean history than of current political affairs, shying even from mention of the Crucifixion. Also, Basil the Frontiersman’s adventures occur (true to his moniker) in the borderlands, never in the political hub of Constantinople. The enemies he fought, human at least, tended to be of apparent Greek origin, not Persian or Arab. Perhaps, then, his love of Christ negated half his ancestral background. But again, nowhere does Christ appear in his history-laden mural. For certain, the argument presented by the Digenis Akiritis was to join the Byzantine Empire and follow Christ. Yet these are the desired ends or outcomes of the argument, not the vehicle of the argument per se.
The vehicle of that argument, the objective, and in fact the modus operandi as shown throughout the epic, is Eros. And not just Eros in the general sense of love, but rather Eros in the ideal and Platonic sense of both madness and the divine, codified and reitified as the Christian savior, Jesus Christ.
Plato’s Love, Digenis’ Argument
“Love is a madness” (Plato, Phaedrus).
“When passion is the master it enslaves good sense” (Digenis Book 2, 342).
The Digenis Akiritis is every bit as much a work of Greek rhetoric in the Classical tradition as Plato’s Phaedrus, Pericles’ historic funeral oration (as told by Thucydides) or the various tirades of Isocrates or Aristotle. Of course, any Western thought may be seen as derivative of Classical Greek thought. Nietzsche and Shakespeare, for instance, both familiar with Greek rhetoric, each reminded us that “love is madness.” Modern-day political speeches, or even popular music and film may be viewed through the lens of Classical Greek rhetoric as outlined by Plato, Aristotle, and others. No doubt, Classical Greek works have infiltrated our culture on many levels; in the case of early Medieval Byzantium, however, Greek works and tradition were the culture, part an “Eastern renaissance” that occurred a thousand years before the Renaissance of Western Europe—a self-conscious resurgence of Classical thought. “Constantine established and endowed higher schools of philosophy and law….evidence not merely of the states need to train specialists for its own services, but a dawning realization that one of the elements of the empire’s superiority over its neighbors…was precisely its direct access, through Greek language, to the treasures of ancient thought” (Browning 121). Classical Greek thought had indeed found fresh glory in the new Roman Empire.
So what of the role of Eros in the Digenis Akritis? It brought Basil’s parents together for one thing. As the emir accounts, “Her beauty enflames me” (Book 1, 294), but more importantly, it causes him to “renounce his faith” (Book 2, 9). Clearly, love is indeed madness as the emir stood to lose not only what he had conquered, but his standing among his people, his family and also threw his mother into fits. Yet the madness of Platonic “love” embodied more than simple physical attraction. Eros in the Digenis Akritis serves less a sexual or dramatic function than a consciously Platonic call to Christ.
Love may be a madness, in the words of Plato through the mouth of Socrates, but it is also a “divine gift” and the “source of the chiefest blessings granted to men” (Plato, Phaedrus). Furthermore, Plato reveals in Phaedrus, the “divine madness” of love includes the prophetic. He refers to love as “your lord and also mine,” calling love’s madness “superior to the sane mind,” and it inspires “noble deeds”… that it “entered with holy prayers and rites” those who suffered “plagues and the mightiest woes” and offers “a way of deliverance” (Plato, Phaedrus). No wonder Plato’s work found its way into the lexicon of early Christians, as evidenced by the inclusion of his work among the scrolls found near Nag Hammadi, Egypt! Love, or Eros, for Plato goes beyond the corporeal, into the cosmological and the mystical, with earthly or corporeal love being like an angel who lost its wings, serving as a window to something more divine. Earthly love is but a glimpse of something greater—the love of God. “although fancy, not having seen nor surely known the nature of God, may imagine an immortal creature having both a body and a soul which are united throughout all time” (Plato, Phaedrus).
Clearly, with its relationship to salvation, the flesh and the divine, and the immortality of the soul, anyone could draw connections between Plato’s Eros (or for that matter, an abundance of ancient and Classical Greek myths and doctrine) and the “mythical Christ”—in fact, and abundance of texts have been written on the matter. For our purposes, the question is: Does the Digenis Akritis use the Classical Greek, and in fact Platonic, concept of Eros as a rhetorical call to action, namely as an argument for conversion to Christianity?
Quite explicitly: “Who would not be astounded at this, who indeed would not be surprised / to learn precisely the power of Eros / how he united those of a different race, bringing them into one faith?” (Book 3, 320-323). Eros led Basil the Frontiersman’s Muslim Father not only to a woman, but to Christ. Notes in the Jeffrey’s text state that Eros here is introduced “with the attributes of the Hellenistic God of Love” (45) yet the god serves as a vehicle to Christendom. “Thus every lover is a slave of Eros / for Eros is a judge who tortures the hearts / of those who do not follow correctly the paths of love” (Book 2, 1-3). Could this love be the love of some greater power, here seen in the form of an earthly woman? Almost immediately, the emir “renounced his faith for the love of a girl” (Book 2, 12) to follow Christ. Just Plato’s love for the corporeal is but a reflection leading to the eternal soul, the emir, though (or rather, because!) he is maddened by love, finds his way to the immortal love of Christ. Mirroring his father’s salvation, Basil Akritis’ love of a woman similarly brings him closer to Christ; in the case of Basil, he understands the connection. Speaking to her: “In you is my every beginning and my end / that had its beginning with God, until my death; / and if I ever should wish to grieve you, my soul / and if I do not preserve untroubled your love for me / and your most pure desire until my death, / may I not die a Christian” (Book 4, 555-560). Eros, the love of a woman, his own soul, is for Basil, the complete and utter devotion to Christ.
The clear and conscious lines between Plato’s mystical Eros and those found in the Digenis Akritis thus far have been dealt with by means of literary analysis, not precisely rhetoric. To function as rhetoric, more than a simple call to action (in this case, salvation by the love of Christ) must occur. For instance, the argument for Eros has appeared solely in the form of dramatic narrative, unlike the clearly rhetorical speeches referred to in early sections of this paper that create the dialectic form of argument and counter-argument. For that matter, Eros itself has thus far appeared in the form of a wholly linear syllogism, with no clear triangulation of the conclusion by means of an alternative counter-argument in the dialectic style. In other words, without a counterpoint, we may easily have imposed the template of Platonic Eros over hand-picked events (rather than arguments) in the Digenis Akritis until we found a suitable fit, mistaking lust for some (presumably) higher form of Godly love. Fortunately, Classical Greek form of pigeon-holes ideas into dichotomous, mutually exclusive arguments; in fact Aristotle, in his foundational work On Rhetoric goes so far as to base rhetoric itself upon such dichotomies, stating that “rhetoric is useful, [first] because the true and just are by nature stronger than their opposites, so that if judgments are not made in the right way [the true and the just] are necessarily defeated [by their opposites]” (Kennedy 35). True to this almost childlike view of the world, and certainly aware of it by means of renewal of Classical Greek learning in the educational system, the Digenis Akritis offers us an opposing alternative—a counter-argument of the dialectic—and she appears in the form of Maximou.
Maximou is a woman, beautiful, not Christian (apparently Islamic or pagan) and “was a descendant of the Amazon women” (Book 6, 385). She appears with snakes, and her beauty is described in every bit as much detail as that of Basil’s wife or his mother, and her erotic appeal described even more so. For example: “In her beauty she had an inconceivable brilliance, / she radiated ineffable grace from her eyes, / her appearance was that of a lovely young plant / and she enchants the souls of all, like a breathing picture (Book 6, 410-413). Yet, in all the lavish descriptions (and there are many) of Maximou, Eros, the god of love, remains absent. Basil the Frontiersman does succumb to her charms—in fact, he does so several times—yet the outcome remains far from the spiritual outcome of love by the Christian women chosen by both he and his father as brides. “For once again I slipped into the pit of adultery, / through weakness of mind and spiritual neglect” (Book 6, 605-606). By example of the opposite, we see that Eros, even in corporeal form, means much more to the authors than does lust. Lust leads to adultery, guilt, and pain, while Eros leads to salvation.
The Digenis Akritis stands is a Greek work tying itself intentionally to the Classical Greek world. By means of highly rhetorical speeches and narrative, it served the purpose of pressing upon its readers (and listeners) an argument towards allegiance to Rome (Byzantium) and also to Christian fellowship. Less obviously, but most enticingly, the Platonic concept of Eros became transferred from Plato’s ethereal “God” to the flesh of Jesus Christ, here personified by two women (Basil’s mother and later his wife) who “saved” the men they loved by means of conversion to Christianity.
Aristotle, On Rhetoric, trans. George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Browning, Robert. The Byzantine Empire. Boston: The Catholic University of America Press, 1992.
Herrick, James A. The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2005.
Jeffreys, Elizabeth. Digenis Akritis: The Grottaferrata and Escorial Versions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. New York: Vintage Books 1997.
Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Forgotten Books () 2008.
Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, trans.H. E. Butler. Public Domain, here referenced from: <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Quintilian/Institutio_Oratoria/home.html>.
Welch, Kathleen E. “Isocrates” from Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, ed. Theresa Enos. New York: Routledge,1996.
Notes All quotes from Plato refer to the Forgotten Books translation unless otherwise noted; see Bibliography.  “There is always some madness in love” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra; similarly, William Shakespeare wrote “Love is merely a madness” in his play As You Like It. Both authors were clearly familiar with Classical Greek rhetoric.  See Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Drew’s The Christ Myth, or Weigall’s The Paganism in Our Christianity.