A post of Caterina’s reminded me of one of my favorite Byzantines, John Tzetzes (c.1110-c.1180), a poor boy (of ethnic Georgian background) who scrabbled his way to a precarious position in Constantinopolitan literary society and wrote an enormous amount, valuable to scholars for its copious quotations from otherwise lost works. The Byzantinist Robert Browning says:

Born in Constantinople of a family that had seen better days, he received a good education and obtained a post as secretary to a provincial governor. But he was soon dismissed as a result of some adventure involving the governor’s wife, and worked for some time as a secretary in Constantinople. For most of the rest of his life he gained a poor livelihood by teaching and writing, though for a time he enjoyed the patronage of a lady of the imperial family, and had the sons of distinguished men as his pupils… Tzetzes was a very erudite man, and at the same time as vain and touchy as a child. Reduced by poverty to selling his library, he relied a great deal on his extraordinary memory, of which he was very proud; but it often let him down.

Another great Byzantinist, Alexander Kazhdan (editor of the magnificent Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium), gives this piquant description of his writing in his Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (I trust the referents of those his‘s are clear):

His intimacy with antiquity is best reflected in his correspondence, which he annotated with a long series of epigrams, creating a previously unexampled literary form. In these epistles, which are addressed both to real and to fictitious people, Tzetzes treated personal concerns and contemporary problems along with details of Hellenic culture. For example, he described his stay in an apartment badly in need of repair. The tenant in the rooms above was a priest who, in addition to having too many children, kept swine; they rained dirt and urine down on the poor writer. This prosaic fact, however, is framed by a series of classical images; for instance, the priest, according to Tzetzes, had fewer children than Priamus or Danaos or Egypt…, but they were more numerous than those of Niobe or Amphion; the children and the swine are contrasted with the cavalry of Xerxes: the horses of Xerxes dried up streams, whereas Tzetzes’ cohabitants brought forth navigable rivers… These epigrams as a whole form the so-called Histories, an immense poem without any noticeable structure, in which Tzetzes treated everything from history and geography to myths and monuments. He seems to have simply enjoyed the queer tinkling of strange names.

As do I, as do I. And that brings us to the main reason for my featuring Tzetzes in Languagehat, his boast about his own linguistic abilities in the epilog to his Theogony (quoting again from Change in Byzantine Culture):

One finds me Scythian among Scythians, Latin among Latins,
And among any other tribe a member of that folk.
When I embrace a Scythian I accost him in such a way:
“Good day, my lady, good day, my lord:
Salamalek alti, salamalek altugep.”
And also to Persians I speak in Persian:
“Good day, my brother, how are you? Where are you from, my friend?
Asan khais kuruparza khaneazar kharandasi?”
To a Latin I speak in the Latin language:
“Welcome, my lord, welcome, my brother:
Bene venesti, domine, bene venesti, frater.
Wherefrom are you, from which theme [province] do you come?
Unde es et de quale provincia venesti?
How have you come, brother, to this city?
Quomodo, frater, venesti in istan civitatem?
On foot, on horse, by sea? Do you wish to stay?
Pezos, caballarius, per mare? Vis morare?”
To Alans I say in their tongue:
“Good day, my lord, my archontissa, where are you from?
Tapankhas mesfili khsina korthi kanda,” and so on.
If an Alan lady has a priest as a boyfriend, she will hear such words:
“Do not be ashamed, my lady; let the priest marry you [to mounin sou [‘your cunt’–LH]].
To farnetz kintzi mesfili kaitz fua saunge.”
Arabs, since they are Arabs, I address in Arabic:
“Where do you dwell, where are you from, my lady? My lord, good day to you.
Alentamor menende siti mule sepakha.”
And also I welcome the Ros according to their habits:
“Be healthy, brother, sister, good day to you.
Sdraste, brate, sestritza,” and I say “dobra deni.”
To Jews I say in a proper manner in Hebrew:
“You blind house devoted to magic, you mouth, a chasm engulfing flies,
memakomene beth fagi beelzebul timaie,
You stony Jew, the Lord has come, lightning be upon your head.
Eber ergam, maran atha, bezek unto your khothar.”
So I talk with all of them in a proper and befitting way;
I know the skill of the best management.”

Aside from the unfortunate display of typical medieval anti-Semitism, this is a delightful passage, and I must admit to a guilty fondness for the imprecation “bezek unto your khothar.”

Update. See now this detailed post at Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος, complete with reconstructed Proto-Ossetic.

Further update (Apr. 2021). It turns out the alleged Russian “Sdraste” given above is, as January First-of-May put it, an “outrageous case of implausible emendation”:

It turns out that the texts are in good meter, and the weird sdra is missing a syllable.
However, the usual emendation is sdra[ste], which is… come on? This is 12th century, the final yers might not have even dropped yet (see dobra deni), and you’re postulating a form where most of the consonants are compressed away.

(As a side-note, this cannot be Russian-as-we-know-it; a 12th century East Slavic form would start with sdoro. It has to be in some [West or?] South Slavic dialect. I’m only calling it “Russian” because so does Tzetzes.)

My counter-emendation, for what it’s worth, is sdra[vo] – or maybe with some other final vowel, not sure, but almost certainly something like this.
Zaliznyak (RIP) could certainly have proposed a form that would fit perfectly, but to the best of my knowledge nobody happened to bring this passage to his attention.

To which JFoM then added:

On second thought, despite my relative lack of knowledge on both Old Slavic and Byzantine Greek, I think I could make a decent guess. The missing syllable is suspected to be due to haplology. On the surface there is little visible opportunity. But how would Tzetzes have written /v/ if his beta represented /b/? Well, in the Latin sentences v is beta, so maybe also with a beta.

In this case my emendation is sdra[va], corresponding to an original *с(ъ)дравъ or similar (cf. dobra, which is usually interpreted as *добръ). This would then have been written as σδρα[βα] βρατε… (modulo accents), and I could see a copyist getting confused!
(For the record, the spelling βρατε is attested for the next word, but the specific quoted manuscript in question used a different one. Of course this would require a chain of multiple errors to work exactly.)


  1. Funny. In his Greek Myths, Robert Graves used to call him “dry-as-dust Tztzes”.

  2. Robert Graves was, shall we say, less than concerned about what the rest of us call reality. He probably saw a few lexicographical citations from Tzetzes and decided that was all there was to him. (Incidentally, if anybody reading this is tempted to take The White Goddess seriously, please don’t. The guy did write some good poems though.)

  3. if anybody reading this is tempted to take The White Goddess seriously, please don’t
    I wipe away a tiny tear, and I suppress a tiny sniffle, but I remain silent.

  4. *hands pf a handkerchief*
    (Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun read, but it’s a goddess-lovin’ poet’s fantasy, not a work of scholarship.)

  5. My reaction to reading The White Goddess as a (female) teenager was very similar to Margaret Atwood’s, who said that it gave her cold sweats for months. That recommendation for would-be women poets to behave more or less like praying mantises!
    I think my transition into adulthood began when I realized that one can be a wonderful poet, a fascinating person, and spew utter nonsense nonetheless.

  6. (Although, of course, the lingering adolescent in me persists in muttering: Laura Riding’s fault. It was all Laura Riding’s fault…)

  7. Ah yes, Laura Riding. I think… [remainder of comment deleted at insistence of Riding estate].
    (Kidding! I’m kidding! The Riding estate did not threaten to pull out my toenails if I said she was a megalomaniac who had no more idea of poetry than an aardvark!)

  8. Kenneth Rexroth had a considerable admiration for Laura Riding which I was never able to understand. I suspect hanky-panky at some point.
    Isn’t a Byzantine revival about due? Procopius and Anna Comnenus are the only names I can think of , but there has to be some other fun stuff in there. They outlasted the Western Romans by a millenium, but nonethless they have this reputation as mediocre losers. Go figure. (Not all of them were hairy and dark, for Christ’s sake).
    White Goddess — I had a rather similiar reaction to “Zorba the Greek”. I’m not gay or even very effeminate, but if that’s what A Real Man is like I’d rather be something else. (I think that by that time I had enough understanding of vital, charming, larger-than-life Mediterranean bullies to understand Zorba better than Kazantzakas and Quinn wanted me to).

  9. i keep waiting for the great Byzantines to be
    translated (after everything else has), but
    so far Tzetzes (who can be seen as the First
    Blogger, if you don’t mind the anachronism)
    exists in English mostly in snippets & sneers…

  10. *scratches head* Does anyone have an idea about what Tzetzes thought he was saying with “bezek unto your khothar”?

  11. *scratches head* Does anyone have an idea about what Tzetzes thought he was saying with “bezek unto your khothar”?
    Part of the image problem with Byzantine authors is simply their lack of inclusion in traditional Western accounts of “medieval history” — like Spain, they don’t fit many of the generalizations, and they’re far enough away to be even more easily ignored than Spain. Plus, there’s a language barrier (not a horrific one, but still) and a religious barrier (problematic only if you realize how confessional the field of Christian studies still is). One tends to hear about the Byzantine Empire in the early Middle Ages (fighting Islam, sending an elephant to Charlemagne), then the Crusades (getting marched through, getting sacked), then the early modern period (succumbing to Islam). There’s not a lot of room there for appreciating cultural achievements.

  12. Well, he translates it “lightning be upon your head,” and b-z-q is ‘lightning’ and k-t-r is ‘crown,’ so it doesn’t seem that far off, though my knowledge of medieval Hebrew is even less than my knowledge of other forms of Hebrew.
    And yeah, the factors you mention are certainly significant for the ignoring of Byzantium; I can only hope that the vast increase in scholarly interest in recent decades and consequent production of good books will eventually trickle down to school surveys and general knowledge. Not only did it last over a thousand years, it’s chock-full of fascinating stories.

  13. Frank Griggs says

    I am a civil engineer writing a paper about Trajan’s Bridge. I have seen that Tzetzes mentions the bridge in Chiliades V 61-73 and 86-94.
    Has his work on the bridge been translated into english? If so where can I access it?

  14. Sorry, I can’t find any indication that the Chiliades (“Thousands,” also called “Book of Histories”) has been translated. Your best bet is probably to contact a Byzantinist who might be willing to translate the lines in question for you.

  15. does anybody know how to transcribe the Alan sentences in a right way into greek with accents, I only know that “mesfili” is “μέσφιλι” and than other words without accents: χσινα (khsina), κιντζι (kintzi), ταπαγχας (tapankhas).. can anybody help me please?

  16. George B. says

    Very late to this post, but I have to remark two things:
    a. According to his own account in the Chiliads, Tzetzes’ great-grandmother came from Georgia to Constantinople along with Maria of Alania. She married a nephew of the Patriarch Keroularios, while her daughter (Tzetzes’ grandmother) married an exaktor called Georgios. I’m not sure how being 1/8 Georgian makes somebody “of ethnic Georgian background”.
    b. The translation given in “Change in Byzantine Culture” for the epilog to the Theogony doesn’t make sense and is completely off from what it says in the original Greek.

  17. marie-lucie says

    LH: if anybody reading this is tempted to take The White Goddess seriously, please don’t
    pf: I wipe away a tiny tear, and I suppress a tiny sniffle, but I remain silent.

    Thirty or so years ago I discovered The White Godess and reread it several times. Since then I have learned that it is not to be taken seriously. So I too will remain silent.

    What about the Claudius volumes? I enjoyed them very much.

  18. They’re very enjoyable, but don’t take them seriously as history — which of course goes triple for The White Goddess!

  19. There’s nothing wrong with The White Goddess considered as a modern myth.

  20. Well, sure, as long as you know that’s what you’re getting, which in my experience people rarely do. The author certainly thought he was peddling reality.

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