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The festival of Saint Demetrios, the Timarion, and the Aithiopika*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 April 2016

Byron MacDougall*
Institut für Byzantinistik und Neogräzistik, University of


The description of the festival for Saint Demetrios in Thessaloniki in the Timarion has long been used as a source for regional and liturgical history. It is in fact a literary rewriting of a festival at Delphi in Heliodoros’ Aithiopika. This paper demonstrates how the description of the Demetria represents a moment in Byzantine humanism as well as a reflection on the process of literary composition itself. An explanation is also proposed here for why Heliodoros’ festival at Delphi in particular, out of all descriptions of festivals in ancient literature, appealed to the author of the Timarion.

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Copyright © Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham, 2016 

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My warmest gratitude goes to the beloved memory of Athina Grigoriadou, in whose μπαξές in Asprovalta this paper first took shape. It was a privilege to present a working draft during a Junior Fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks, and I am deeply grateful to Margaret Mullett and the entire DO community for their feedback and scholarly generosity. The comments of Stratis Papaioannou and Susan Harvey were, as ever, crucial and wise. My special thanks go to Ruth Macrides and the readers at BMGS, whose expert and open-handed advice helped improve this study dramatically. Finally, like so many other students of the Timarion I owe to the work of Margaret Alexiou a great debt, which will be seen again and again in the following pages.


1 For the Timarion (henceforth ‘Tim.’), I use throughout the text and line numbers of Romano, R. (ed.), Pseudo-Luciano, Timarione [=Byzantina et neo-hellenica neapolitana 2] (Naples 1974)Google Scholar. For English translation and commentary see B. Baldwin (trans.), Timarion (Detroit 1984), henceforth ‘Baldwin’. I refer frequently to the more recent modern Greek translation with facing original text and notes: P. Vlachakos (ed. and trans.), Τιμαρίων (Thessaloniki 2001), henceforth ‘Vlachakos’. Translations are my own.

2 See Tim. 69–284. For the history of pilgrimage to Thessaloniki in general and the Demetria in particular see Mentzos, A., Τό προσκύνημα τοῦ Ἁγίου Δημητρίου Θεσσαλονίκης στά βυζαντινά χρόνια (Athens 1994)Google Scholar and Bakirtzis, C., ‘Pilgrimage to Thessalonike: the tomb of St Demetrios’, DOP 56 (2002) 175192Google Scholar.

3 See especially Vryonis, S., ‘The Panēgyris of the Byzantine saint: a study in the nature of a medieval institution, its origins and fate’, in Hackel, S. (ed.), The Byzantine Saint (London 1981) 196227 at 202–204Google Scholar. The Timarion's description of the merchant fair and the pilgrims who come from far and wide to visit it features also in more recent reconstructions of the Demetria: see Russell, E., St Demetrius of Thessalonica: Cult and Devotion in the Middle Ages (Brussels 2010) 16 and 85CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Skedros, J., ‘Shrines, festivals, and the “undistinguished mob”’, in Krueger, D. (ed.), A People's History of Christianity Vol. 3: Byzantine Christianity (Minneapolis 2006) 81101 at 97–98Google Scholar for a reconstruction of the fair and the main liturgical celebration of the Demetria based on the testimony of the Timarion. For the liturgy, see Karras, V., ‘Female deacons in the Byzantine Church’, Church History 73.2 (2004) 272316 at 284CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Gerstel, S., ‘Painted sources for female piety in medieval Byzantium’, DOP 52 (1998) 89111 at 92–93Google Scholar, on how the Timarion ‘provides evidence for the location of women on the left side of basilica churches, even in the medieval period’ (92). Elsewhere Gerstel also cites it as evidence for how ‘monks were fully incorporated into the festivals honoring the saint’: see ‘Civic and monastic influences on church decoration in Late Byzantine Thessalonike: in loving memory of Thalia Gouma-Peterson’, DOP 57 (2003) 225–239 at 229. As a representative of a more skeptical approach to the Demetria, A. Kaldellis notes how the ekphrasis of the festival has been ‘quoted by all economic historians of the provinces as if it were a documentary’; see his ‘The emergence of literary fiction in Byzantium and the paradox of plausibility’, in Roilos, P. (ed.), Medieval Greek Storytelling: Fictionality and Narrative in Byzantium (Wiesbaden 2014) 115129 at 117Google Scholar. My warm thanks go to Ruth Macrides for bringing this study to my attention.

4 For bibliography on the identification of this character, see Krallis, D., ‘Harmless satire, stinging critique: notes and suggestions for reading the Timarion’, in Angelov, D. and Saxby, M. (eds.), Power and Subversion in Byzantium (Farnham 2013) 221246 at 123 n. 13Google Scholar. For additional bibliography and a summary of the problem see Vlachakos 188–190 n. 58, who remains however agnostic on the question of whether an identification with another son of Georgios Palaiologos and Anna Doukaina is to be preferred.

5 ‘Literary subversion and the aristocracy in twelfth-century Byzantium: a stylistic analysis of the Timarion (ch. 6–10)’, BMGS 8.1 (1982) 29–45. For her discussion of the description of the governor and the possible satirical motives behind it see 36–45. See also Alexiou's more recent study in After Antiquity: Greek Language, Myth, and Metaphor (Ithaca 2002) 100–111.

6 See Krallis, , ‘Harmless satire’ and Anthony Kaldellis, ‘The Timarion: toward a literary interpretation’, in Odorico, P. (ed.), Le face cachée de la littérature byzantine: Le texte en tant que message immédiat (Actes du colloque international, Paris 6–7–8 juin 2008) (Paris 2012) 275288Google Scholar. See also Kaldellis, ‘The emergence of literary fiction’, 116, in which, after defining the ‘fictive stance’ as ‘a hypothetical-world experiment in which both authors and readers connive,’ he notably characterizes the Timarion as ‘the earliest certainly fictional Byzantine text.’ The Timarion gets some assistance from Kaldellis in achieving this distinction, since he dates it somewhat earlier than the ‘classical’ Comnenian period to which it is usually assigned, positing as its immediate audience ‘the students of rhetoric and philosophy under the third Consul of the Philosophers, Theodoros of Smyrne,’ and suggesting that the text was written during the lifetime of the latter, ‘so sometime between 1082 and the mid-1110's’; see ‘The emergence of literary fiction’, 123.

7 See Kaldellis, ‘The Timarion’, 281–287, who also reacts in particular at 278 to Baldwin's dismissive attitude towards the frame narrative.

8 For the text of Heliodoros I use Lumb, T.W., Maillon, J., and Rattenbury, R.M. (eds.), Héliodore, Les Éthiopiques (Théagènes et Chariclée) 2nd ed. (Paris 1960)Google Scholar. Translations throughout are my own.

9 For a summary of scholarship on the authorship of the Timarion see Vlachakos 19–21 and Baldwin 33–37. Herbert Hunger notably backed Theodore Prodromos: see his Der Byzantinische Katz-Mäuse Krieg: Theodore Prodromos, Katomyomachia (Graz 1968) 61–63. Romano suggested Nikolaos Kallikles (26–31), while Baldwin proposed Michael Italikos (36). Vlachakos is more circumspect and suggests only that the author must have been a well-known intellectual and doctor of the twelfth century (21). For Kaldellis’ somewhat earlier dating see above n. 6.

10 For the Byzantine reception of Heliodoros, see especially Agapitos, P., ‘Narrative, rhetoric, and “drama” rediscovered: scholars and poets in Byzantium interpret Heliodorus’, in Hunter, R. (ed.), Studies in Heliodorus (Cambridge 1998) 125156Google Scholar.

11 See Vlachakos 174 n. 20, 187 n. 49, 188 n. 56, and 193 notes 79 and 80.

12 For a treatment of μίμησις which is still helpful for the present discussion see Hunger, H., ‘On the imitation (ΜΙΜΗΣΙΣ) of antiquity in Byzantine literature’, DOP 23/24 (1969/1970) 1538Google Scholar. For μίμησις in the Timarion and its twelfth-century literary context see also Alexiou, After Antiquity, 98.

13 See Agapitos, ‘Narrative, rhetoric, and “drama”’, 151–152.

14 Agapitos, ‘Narrative, rhetoric, and “drama”’, 146.

15 Tim. 64–65.

16 Vlachakos 174 n. 20.

17 Tim. 108–110.

18 See Beaton, R., ‘Cappadocians at court’, in Mullett, M. and Smythe, D. (eds), Alexios I Komnenos (Belfast 1996) 329339 at 337Google Scholar. Krallis, ‘Harmless satire’, 232–233 shows how Timarion's Cappadocian background plays a prominent role in connecting him with the figure of Romanos IV Diogenes – of a prominent Cappadocian family himself – whom Timarion sees in Hades. Krallis examines the set of connections between Timarion and Romanos, as well the parallels between the scenes where Timarion observes the governor of Thessaloniki and the sufferings of Romanos in Hades. He finds in the governor a target of the author's satire: he represents a class that has turned its back on the martial virtue and simple lifestyle symbolized by Romanos. Krallis suggests that it was in fact an excess of rage and disgust brought on by the sight of the dandified governor and the ‘Komnenian establishment’ that he represents that brought on Timarion's sickness in the first place (239).

19 Cf. Tim. 227–8: ταῦτα μὲν οὖν ἠκηκόειν ἐκ τῶν τότε παρόντων καὶ εἰδότων τὴν κατ’ αὐτὸν ἀρχαιολογίαν· (‘I had heard this from those who were present then and who knew the history about him’).

20 LSJ s.v. ἀρχιθέωρος.

21 Heliodoros refers to the leader of the Thessalian delegation as an ἀρχιθέωρος no fewer than three times (2.34.1, 2.34.8, and 3.3.2).

22 See Tim. 182 and 280.

23 Vlachakos 187 n. 49.

24 Tim. 227–8. See n. 19 above.

25 2.34.

26 Tim. 214. For the Palaiologan identity of the governor see n. 4 above.

27 Tim. 705–706.

28 The only parallels I can find are Theodoros Gazes Epist. 25.147 and Herodian Epimerismoi 34, as well as in a point on inflection in Choeroboscus Prolegomena et scholia in Theodosii Alexandrini canones isagogicos de flexione nominum 138.8.

29 See Alexiou, ‘Literary subversion’, 36–45 and Krallis, ‘Harmless satire’, 230–239.

30 Tim. 236–7 = Genesis 49.12, cited by Vlachakos 192 n. 69.

31 See LSJ s.v. χαροποιός.

32 Tim. 273–274.

33 3.6.1: ἐλέλυτο μὲν ἡ πομπὴ πρὸς εὐωχίαν τῶν Θετταλῶν τραπέντων, ὁ δὲ ἄλλος δῆμος ἐπ’ οἶκον τὸν ἴδιον ἕκαστος ἀπεχώρησεν (‘the procession had dispersed as the Thessalians turned to their feast, while the rest of the populace departed, each to his own home’). Cf. Tim. 282–284: τῷ δήμῳ παντὶ καὶ τῷ δουκὶ τοῦ ἱεροῦ συνεξήλθομεν· καὶ ἀπήλθομεν οὖ κατελύομεν (‘we departed from the church together with the entire populace and the governor, and we went back to where we were staying’).

34 2.28.1.

35 Pausanias, Pausaniae Graeciae descriptio, ed. F. Spiro (Leipzig 1903) 1.4.4. Pausanias again refers to Pyrrhus’ defense of Delphi against the Gauls at 10.23.2.

36 For Demetrios’ decisive intervention during the Slav-Avar siege of 586, as described in the miracle collection of John of Thessaloniki, see Skedros, J. C., Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki: civic patron and protector, 4th-7th centuries CE (Harrisburg 1999) 127131Google Scholar.

37 Krallis, ‘Harmless satire’, 233 et passim. For what has become the almost proverbial unreliability of Kalasiris as a narrator, see Winkler, J., ‘The mendacity of Kalasiris and the narrative strategy of Heliodorus’ Aithiopika’, in Williams, G. (ed.), Later Greek Literature (=Yale Classical Studies 27) (Cambridge 1982) 93158CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 See Alexiou, After Antiquity, 98 on how Eustathios’ Homer commentaries ‘not only provide an unprecedented wealth of scholarly detail but draw constant comparisons between past and present, holding one as mirror to the other.’

39 Cf. Tim. 725–729. Alexiou, After Antiquity 109 suggests that it was passages such as this that drove Constantine Akropolites to declare the text fit for burning thanks to its anti-Christian message.

40 Alexiou, After Antiquity, 110.