The Byzantine Romance of Livistros and Rodamne and its place in Medieval Eurasian erotic fiction

For many informed readers or simple enthusiasts the presence of erotic literature in the western or eastern medieval world (the poems of the Carmina Burana, for example, or various tales in The Thousand and One Nights) does not come as a surprise. For the most of us, however, the very existence of erotic literature in Byzantium appears as something quite inconceivable, because we have learned to associate this particular medieval culture with the ecclesiastical aspects of Christianity. Yet, erotic narratives were written in Byzantium for almost four hundred years, from the twelfth to the late fifteenth century. During these four centuries ‘tales of love’ were also written in the Frankish-Norman West and the Arabic-Persian East. Thus, the geographical distribution of medieval fiction extends from the ‘land of the Persians’, as the Byzantines often called the totality of the Arabic, Persian and Turkish world, to the ‘land of the Francs’, as they referred to central Europe, primarily France, Germany and Northern Italy.

Among the surviving Byzantine romances, The Tale of Livistros and Rodamne (= L&R), with its approximately 4700 verses, is the longest and most artfully crafted work of medieval vernacular Greek. The romance was almost certainly written to be recited infront of an audience. Its poet had a solid rhetorical training and a good reading experience of the Greek tradition of erotic fiction, yet he was also knowledgeable of the Medieval French and possibly Persian love romances. In fact, the anonymous poet of L&R created a modernist poetical narrative filled with attractive episodes, including the only scene of demonic incantation in Byzantine fiction.

The romance’s plot is acted out in a fluid setting involving Latins, Armenians, Persians and Egyptians but no Byzantine characters. Upon closer reading, however, L&R proves to be an extraordinarily Byzantine work but, at the same time, a puzzling text. L&R was most probably composed at the imperial court of Nicaea during the last decade of the reign of John III Vatatzes, who died in 1254, while his son Theodore II Laskaris was coemperor, himself an accomplished writer. It was in this courtly context, that Ancient Greek and Byzantine erotic fiction was being read, as Theodore himself reveals in a recently discovered essay of his.

A theoretically informed reading of L&R shows us how the poet created a multilayered narrative order and complex spatiotemporal notions, how he combined old and new techniques for the representation of characters and settings, or how he handled the discourse of love and the practice of desire. Interestingly enough, L&R is the only Byzantine romance that consistently constructs the Latin (that is, French) world of chivalry as an exotic setting, a type of ‘Occidentalism’aiming to incorporate the Latin Other in the socio-cultural norms of the Byzantine Self after the Fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders in 1204 — an attitude not unsimilar to the peculiar ‘Orientalism’ found in the byzantinising Old French romances Cligès by Chretien de Troyes or the anonymous Panrtonopeu, both from the later 12th century.

One impressive feature of the romance is the creation of the ‘Amorous Dominion’, the imaginary kingdom of Eros, who is not the ancient Cupid but the Byzantine emperor governing his subjects through a proper administrative apparatus and in a manner strikingly resembling 13th-century Nicaea. An impressive feature of L&R is the overall organization of the romance where the narrative is being told by the main characters as first-person narrators in a series of complex self-contained and yet interconnected stories. A further dominating element in the romance is the inclusion of a series of love letters and love poems exchanged in an extended courting scene between the hero and the heroine; they represent some of the most passionate examples of love poems in the Middle Ages, moreover, in the form of poems encased in the narrative.

L&R offers its readers the opportunity to see how the text combines the Greek novelistic tradition with Old French romance, how it explores exoticism and gender, poetics, how it creates novel narrative techniques, how it establishes amorous discourse as didactic element of entertainment and, finally, how it negotiates political power and the power of Eros in a long narrative form that is highly experimental and hybrid in its aesthetic effect.

The month of March as a riding knight with western elements of armour but Byzantine style of painting (Mount Athos, Vatopedi Monastery, AD 1346)

The language of L&R is of a high poetic quality, challenging the translator at every step. This volume in the TTB series offers the first fully scholarly translation into English of Livistros and Rodamne. It is the result of many years of work in preparing the critical edition of the poem’s oldest redaction and in reading the romance as a serious piece of medieval literature. In contrast to modern practice, I have kept the verse structure of the original, allowing at points phrases, to look back to English poetry of the early eighteenth century. Obviously, I had to make a number of choices when rendering the complex compound words or the romance’s artful discourse. I hope that my choices have not distorted a difficult but, in my opinion, beautiful text for, ultimately, my aim was to offer an English text that can be read or even recited on its own, and not as the necessary accompaniment to the original Greek.

Panagiotis A. Agapitos is Professor of Byzantine Literature at the University of Cyprus. His previous publications include The Tale of Livistros and Rodamne: Critical edition of Redaction “alpha” (Athens 2006) and Medieval Narratives between History and Fiction: From the Center to the Periphery of Europe, c. 1100-1400 (edited with L. B. Mortensen, Copenhagen 2012).

Find out more about Panagiotis A. Agapitos’s new publication The Tale of Livistros and Rodamne on the LUP website.


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