Homer Among Christian Greeks in the Middle Ages

The Christianization of ancient Greece in the fourth century and after was not pretty or peaceful. It was the equivalent of centuries-lasting explosion of a nuclear bomb over the country. Practically nothing was left standing: libraries went up in flames; the Olympics abolished; schools shut down; temples smashed to the ground.

The Eastern Roman Empire funded and enforced this massive destruction and genocide. Emperor Constantine and his successors, save Emperor Julian, forced an alien one-god religion not merely on the Greeks but on millions of polytheists throughout a vast empire.

Christianity in Greece suppressed the Greeks' ancient heritage. But despite the censorship of Greek thought and theater, and preference for the new literature of Christian saints and monks, school children and students read samples of Greek texts that included Homer and other great representatives of the literary and scientific tradition of ancient Greece.

In fact, despite the rantings and occasional anathemas of the church against the so-called idol-worshipping Greeks, the Christian Eastern Roman Empire adopted Greek as its language and slowly became Greek. The church also used Greek in its liturgy and texts. It also adopted Greek architecture.

Ironically, Christianity dressed itself with some of the greatest assets of ancient Greece.

Modern scholars call Byzantium the Eastern Roman Empire in Greece.
This causes confusion because most people don't associate Byzantium with medieval Greece. Second, bias in the West against Greece has made the words Byzantium and Byzantine to mean bad things: intrigue, corruption, illegal, and secret.

Medieval Greece lasted for more than a millennium. It was an empire that passed its culture to Russia and Eastern Europe. It protected civilization and Europe from the rising Turkish menace.

The twelfth century was the last century medieval Greece was a unified state. But even then it was in crisis. The landowning class demanded the dismantling of the border military garrisons and the adoption of mercenary armies. The emperors agreed and the border soldier-peasants lost their independence to large plantation owners. State bureaucracy served the emperor and his relatives and the aristocracy around him.

In the capital, Constantinople (City of Constantine), there were enough educated people with money or royal connections that supported independent scholars or grammarians writing speeches and books or copying manuscripts or teaching.

One of those scholars was John Tzetzes. He was born at about 1110 in Constantinople and died around 1180 or 1185. His mother was from Georgia and his father was Greek. His family had roots with the aristocracy, but had fallen victim to hard times. His life was tumultuous, a man of letters and talent who tried to make a living as a scholar. He says he wrote 60 books. A handful of those books have reached our times.

Tzetzes loved to write. His most personal and expressive writing is in his surviving 107 letters. They are gems of eloquence. He writes like a man obsessed with knowledge, mythology and history. He wants to educate his contemporaries to the richness of Greek culture. His knowledge of ancient Greek civilization is astounding. His letters also inform us about Greek society in the twelfth century. He wrote these letters to bishops and a variety of other people.

But the influence of Tzetzes came from his popularizing of important ancient Greek texts like the poems of Homer. He did his summarizing of Greek literature without offending Christianity. He admitted he was a proud Greek.

Tzetzes used allegory to tone down the gods, in fact make them forces in the natural world or human virtues. A marvelous example of Tzetzes at work is his book, "Allegories of the Iliad" (published for the first time in Greek and English translation in 2015 by Harvard University Press).

Tzetzes wrote his allegorized Homer in the 1140s or 1150s. He dedicated it to "the most powerful and most Homeric queen, Lady Eirene of the Germans." Queen Eirene was none other than Bertha von Sulzbach of Bavaria who came to Constantinople in 1142 to marry Manuel I Komnenos. Manuel I reigned from 1143 to 1180.

Some one from the imperial household commissioned Tzetzes to write "Allegories of the Iliad" as an introduction of Greek culture to the German princes. But queen Eirene died in 1159. Book 16 shows Tzetzes has a new patron, a former military officer by the name of Konstantinos Kotertzes.

The importance of Tzetzes' work is in the summaries of the Homeric text and the remaking of the "Iliad" as an epic that spoke to its new Christian readers. Homeric Greek was so pervasive that it was all over the Greek of the twelfth century. Tzetzes' allegories facilitated the perpetuation of Homer at the center of Greek education. He wrote "Allegories of the Iliad" in fifteen-syllable verse.

Tzetzes made mythology a literary decoration. Centaurs, for example, become men on horseback. He rehashed Homer's cosmological ideas to object to the eternity of the cosmos.

Tzetzes' most difficult challenge was the Greek gods. The "Iliad" is full of them. He puts these gods into the natural world and human virtues. Apollo becomes a natural cause: the carrier of plagues. Thetis, mother of the Greeks' greatest hero, Achilleus, is the "wet element." Athena is wisdom and "the gloomy and low-lying air." Zeus is air and destiny. Hera, wife of Zeus, is "the finer state of the ether." Aphrodite is lust and "the harmonious mixture of all bonded elements." Artemis is the Moon and Hephaistos is fire and the master craftsman.

Read "Allegories of the Iliad." Tzetzes was by no means a humble scholar. He compared himself to Homer. Despite such arrogance and vehemence in neutralizing the gods of Homer, he made an inestimable contribution to the preservation of the Greek tradition. And the translators, Adam Goldwyn and Dimitra Kokkini, did an outstanding work in giving a correct and meaningful English equivalent of the Greek original.