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Living by his wit: Tzetzes' Aristophanic variations on the conundrums of a ‘professional writer’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 February 2021

Valeria Flavia Lovato*
Centre for Medieval Literature, University of Southern Denmark


John Tzetzes’ Letter 75 does not simply provide useful information on the scholar's professional status, but is crucial for a deeper understanding of his self-fashioning. By connecting this epistle to the related passages of the Chiliads, I show that not only the references to Plato, Simonides and Pythagoras, but also the comic and iambic overtones of this missive contribute to the construction of a multifaceted – and deliberately self-ironizing – authorial persona. Thus, this study engages with recent discussions on the polyphonic nature of Byzantine authorial voices, while also contributing to the renewed interest in the reception of Aristophanes in the Komnenian era.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek, University of Birmingham

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I would like to thank Tommaso Braccini, Michael Grünbart, Tomasz Labuk, Margaret Mullett, Ingela Nilsson and Aglae Pizzone for reading previous drafts of this paper or discussing specific aspects of it with me. I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions. Finally, I owe special thanks to Ingela Nilsson and Baukje van den Berg for allowing me to read forthcoming works.


1 Tzetzes, John, Epistulae, ed. Leone, P. A. M. (Leipzig 1972) 75Google Scholar, 109, 17–110, 3. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.

2 On authorial polyphony, see F. Bernard, ‘The ethics of authorship: Some tensions in the 11th century’, in A. Pizzone (ed.), The Author in Middle Byzantine Literature: Modes, Functions, and Identities (Boston 2014) 59–60. For an exemplary analysis of a particularly ‘Protean’ authorial self, see S. Papaioannou, Michael Psellos: Rhetoric and Authorship in Byzantium (Cambridge 2013). On the ‘flexibility’ of Byzantine authorial voices, see now I. Nilsson, Writer and Occasion in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Authorial Voice of Constantine Manasses (Cambridge 2021), esp. 12–13.

3 See e.g. Marciniak, P. T., ‘Prodromos, Aristophanes and a lustful woman – a Byzantine satire by Theodore Prodromos’, Byzantinoslavica 73 (2015) 23–34Google Scholar; T. Labuk, ‘Aristophanes in the service of Niketas Choniates: Gluttony, drunkenness and politics in the Χρονικὴ διήγησις’, Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik 66 (2016) 127–51, and ‘Gluttons, drunkards and lechers. The discourses of food in 12th-century Byzantine literature: Ancient themes and Byzantine innovations’, PhD thesis, University of Silesia, 2019; B. van den Berg, ‘Playwright, satirist, Atticist: The reception of Aristophanes in twelfth-century Byzantium’, in P. T. Marciniak and I. Nilsson (eds), Satire in the Middle Byzantine Period: The Golden Age of Laughter? (Leiden 2021) 227–53, who, among other things, discusses Tzetzes’ use of the ‘historical’ Aristophanes as a paradigm for his authorial self-fashioning. On the presence and function of Aristophanic echoes in Tzetzes’ works, see also Agapitos, P., ‘John Tzetzes and the blemish examiners: A Byzantine teacher on schedography, everyday language and writerly disposition’, Medioevo Greco 17 (2017) 1–57Google Scholar.

4 Tzetzes, Epistulae, 75, 111, 1–8.

5 John Tzetzes, Historiae, ed. P. A. M. Leone (Galatina 2007), 10, 988–92. In this same historia, Tzetzes adds that Plato plagiarized the works of another Pythagorean, Philolaus (see Historiae, 10, 992–1000 and esp. 998–9).

6 Tzetzes, Historiae, 8, 807–29. For a more detailed analysis, see V. F. Lovato, ‘From Cato to Plato and back again. Friendship and Patronage in John Tzetzes’ Letters and Chiliads’, Classica et Mediaevalia (forthcoming).

7 Tzetzes, Historiae, 11, 13–14 (Ὁ Τζέτζης ἀδωρότατος ἦν παλαιῶν τῷ ζήλῳ, | Ἐπαμεινώνδου, Κάτωνος καὶ τῶν τοιούτων πάντων).

8 For a more in-depth reading of this text (Tzetzes, Historiae, 11, 13–39), see again Lovato, ‘From Cato to Plato’.

9 On these passages see A. Pizzone, ‘The autobiographical subject in Tzetzes’ Chiliades: An analysis of its components’, in C. Messis, M. Mullett and I. Nilsson (eds), Storytelling in Byzantium: Narratological Approaches to Byzantine Texts and Images (Uppsala 2018) 295–9, and V. F. Lovato, ‘Hellenizing Cato? A short survey of the concepts of Greekness, Romanity and barbarity in John Tzetzes’ work and thought’, in K. Stewart and J. M. Wakeley (eds), Cross-Cultural Exchange in the Byzantine World, c. 300–1500 AD (Oxford 2016) 145–54. For a different perspective on the reasons behind Tzetzes’ identification with Cato, see S. Xenophontos, ‘“A living portrait of Cato”: Self-fashioning and the classical past in John Tzetzes’ Chiliads’, Estudios bizantinos 2 (2014) 187–204.

10 In the first books of the Chiliads, Cato is not yet presented as a paradigm of incorruptibility. On the contrary, the censor is depicted as a particularly stingy man (see e.g. Tzetzes, Historiae, 3, 188–9), a trait that will disappear in Tzetzes’ subsequent mentions of Cato. On the possible reasons for this evolution, see Lovato, ‘Hellenising Cato’, 148–9 with n. 16.

11 Tzetzes, Epistulae, 75, 111, 12–23.

12 The mention of tax collectors may be intended to add a final touch to Tzetzes’ ironic self-presentation as a ‘poor’ intellectual, always striving to find the money he needed to survive. It might also be read as a humorous allusion to Triphyles’ excessive greed: like a tax collector, Tzetzes’ correspondent is never satisfied with what he is given and constantly asks for more.

13 As attested by Historiae, 11, 73–86, Tzetzes was aware of at least three distinct traditions on Pythagoras’ death, which, according to Leone's critical apparatus, he gathered from different sources, such as the biographies of Pythagoras penned by Porphyry, Diogenes Laertius and Iamblichus.

14 Tzetzes, Historiae, 3, 174.

15 Tzetzes, Historiae, 10, 759–76.

16 Aristophanes, Birds, 1694–1705.

17 For the contrast between ‘poetry of blame’ and ‘poetry of praise’, see G. Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans. Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry (rev. ed. Baltimore 1998) 222–42.

18 N. Worman, Abusive Mouths in Classical Athens (Cambridge 2008). For the concept of ‘iambic mode’ see esp. pp. 8–14.

19 See e.g. Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans, 229–32.

20 Worman, Abusive Mouths, 29 (emphasis mine).

21 On this line of interpretation, see also Worman, Abusive Mouths, 84.

22 On the multiple levels of meaning underlying Komnenian references to central authors such as Homer and Aristophanes, see van den Berg, ‘Playwright, satirist, Atticist’, 240: ‘one was not only supposed to know one's Homer, but also one's Aristophanes, to be able to reuse them in intricate ways on the one hand, and to grasp the different layers of meaning of such allusions in rhetorical practice on the other.’

23 Tzetzes, Epistulae, 81, 121, 9–13; 22–26.

24 On the suspicions aroused by poets and storytellers who sing only to fill their belly, see Worman, Abusive Mouths, 30. On the problematic representation of the financial relationship between poet and patron in Pindar (and Simonides), see now R. Rawles, Simonides the Poet: Intertextuality and Reception (Cambridge 2018) 133–54.

25 Tzetzes, Historiae, 12, 11–14 (see esp. line 11, where Tzetzes explicitly refutes τοὺς ἐκ γαστρὸς ληροῦντας).

26 See T. Kock (ed.), Comicorum Atticorum Fragmenta, III (Leipzig 1888) 613 (Fragmenta Comica Adespota 1234). According to R. Kassel and C. Austin (eds), Poetae Comici Graeci, VIII (Berlin 1995) 514, this fragment is more likely to be of iambic origin: see their reference to E. Diehl (ed.), Anthologia Lyrica Graeca, III (Leipzig 1964) 75 (Fragmenta Iambica Adespota 16).

27 Gregory of Nazianzus, Carmina Moralia, ed. J.-P. Migne [Patrologiae cursus completus (series Graeca) 37] (Paris 1862) 723, 2 and 918, 35.

28 A fragment of the Corpus Hermeticum seems to epitomize Tzetzes’ distinction between divine nous and human logismos (see A.-J. Festugière (ed. and transl.), Corpus Hermeticum, III (Paris 1954) XI, 15, 1: ὁ νοῦς ἐν τῷ θεῷ, ὁ λογισμὸς ἐν τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ; I owe this reference to one of the anonymous referees). However, when discussing this topic, Tzetzes explicitly refers to other authors, such as Iamblichus and Porphyry (Historiae 7, 487, 532 and 568), Parmenides (7, 513), Xenophanes (ibidem), Empedocles (7, 514) and Plato (7, 534). In his critical apparatus, Leone is able to trace the source of the references only in the case of the latter two: see Empedocles, F 134, 4–5 Diels-Krantz and Plato, Timaeus 51e. As concerns Xenophanes, Leone refers the reader to T 112 Gentili-Prato, which however stems from this very passage of the Chiliads (but see T 77 Gentili-Prato about Xenophanes’ definition of God as νοῦς and φρόνησις). As for Parmenides, the concept of nous features e.g. in F 4 and F 16 Diels-Krantz, but it is difficult to establish any direct link with the Chiliads. Finally, regarding Iamblichus and Porphyry, one could refer e.g. to Porphyry's Ad Marcellam 11, 13, 19 and 25 Pötscher (for the idea that only the nous of the sophos can appropriately venerate and follow God's prescriptions) and Iamblichus’ De Mysteriis (see e.g. III, 16–18 des Places for the angels and prophets’ ability to share in the divine nous).

29 Tzetzes, Historiae, 7, 484–95 (and esp. 489–93: Αἱ θεῖαι φύσεις πάντα γὰρ νοοῦσι, πλὴν ἀμέσως, | οὐ πολυπραγμονήσασαι ἐν λογισμοῦ παλαίστρᾳ, | καθὼς ἡμεῖς οἱ ἄνθρωποι ὄντες ἐκ τῶν ὑλαίων, | καὶ λογισμοῦ δεόμενοι κρίσεως εἰς τὸ γνῶναι, | κἂν τὸ λογίζεσθαί φαμεν νοεῖν ἐν καταχρήσει).

30 The difficult coexistence between mind and belly is exemplified once again by the figure of Pythagoras. In another passage from the historia quoted in the previous footnote, Tzetzes remarks that, in a remote past, there might have existed a limited group of extraordinary individuals who partook of the divine nous (Historiae, 7, 532–41). Significantly, the first name in the list is that of Pythagoras, the ascetic intellectual who not only died of starvation, but followed a rigid alimentary regimen throughout his life. Elsewhere, Tzetzes recounts that the philosopher was rejected by all the communities he entered in contact with, thus confirming that an uncompromising man like Pythagoras was bound to be an outcast in any system where intellectuals have no choice but to rely on patronage. The sole exception is represented by Phalaris, whom Tzetzes depicts as the ideal patron, ready to support whoever was endowed with intellectual talents, irrespective of their opinions (see e.g. Historiae, 12, 446–58). Only in such a perfect – and hardly replicable – environment could someone like Pythagoras (and Tzetzes) truly find their position and reject the limitations stemming from ‘mercenary’ writing.

31 See Luzzatto, M. J., Tzetzes lettore di Tucidide. Note autografe sul Codice Heidelberg Palatino Greco 252 (Bari 1999) 53–5Google Scholar and Pizzone, ‘The autobiographical subject’, 299–301.

32 On Tzetzes’ advertising of his teaching skills, see e.g. the conclusion of the Carmina Iliaca, where the polymath addresses his readers as ‘sons of fortunate parents’, whom he clearly hopes to attract as new clients (see John Tzetzes, Carmina Iliaca, ed. P. A. M. Leone (Catania 1995) 3, 753–60). Notably, Tzetzes’ attitude towards his teaching activities is marked by the same fluctuation that characterizes his self-presentation as a ‘professional intellectual’. Whereas in some texts he likes to pose as a disinterested teacher (see e.g. Historiae, 11, 24–25), in other instances he offers specific details on the remunerations he received in exchange for his lessons (see e.g. Epistulae 22 and 50), while often complaining about his unruly students (see e.g. Epistulae 79, 117, 18–118, 3). For a more detailed discussion, see Lovato, ‘From Cato to Plato’.

33 M. Grünbart remarks that Tzetzes never managed to become a successful public orator, probably also because of his lung condition; see Grünbart, M., ‘Byzantinisches Gelehrtenelend – oder: Wie meistert man seinen Alltag?’, in Hoffmann, L. M. and Monchizadeh, A. (eds), Zwischen Polis, Provinz und Peripherie. Beiträge zur byzantinischen Geschichte und Kultur (Mainz 2005) 420Google Scholar. This, however, does not imply that the polymath never tried to pursue this kind of ‘career’. Indeed, as remarked by Grünbart himself, we know that Tzetzes composed at least a speech addressed to Patriarch John IX Agapetos, as well as a consolation directed to an anonymous recipient. See also Tzetzes, Epistulae, 89, 129, 15–21, discussed by Grünbart, where the scholar asks Andronikos and Theodoros Kamateros to be admitted to a koinos syllogos where he would have liked to present his new iambic compositions publicly.

34 Tzetzes’ equilibristic stance is reminiscent of the position of Timarion, the protagonist of the homonymous dialogue, who can probably be considered as the mouthpiece of the ‘author’. As remarked by Labuk, ‘Gluttons, drunkards and lechers’, 71–6, the ‘philosophically-minded’ Timarion, despite following a Socratic ideal and rejecting all kinds of sophistry, is eventually forced to renounce his ethical and literary principles to cater to the requests of his interlocutor. According to the intriguing interpretation proposed by Labuk, this interlocutor is none other than the literary equivalent of the typical (tyrannical) patron, who, having no interest in the ‘philosophical truth’ pursued by Timarion, eventually forces the latter to abandon his ideals to the advantage of empty – but remunerative – rhetorical display.

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