This is one of several translated excerpts from Byzantine sources produced and mounted with historical introduction and commentary by Paul Stephenson.

A Byzantine Satirical Song of the late tenth century

The following verses have been preserved in three versions, in rather different forms. The text used here is that reconstructed and edited by G. Morgan ( BZ , 47, 1954), following the revisions, translation and commentary offered by G. Horrocks (1997, pp. 259-61). It fills one leaf bound into Codex Marcianus XI.19, which is dated 1649 – c. 1713, although the leaf (folio 338 bis R.) belongs probably to the late sixteenth century. The last lines of the text, which have here been omitted, were appended when the text had become corrupted and its topicality lost. Thus it was reinterpreted as an oracle, and attributed to Leo the Wise. The two alternate versions of the text have survived incorporated into miscellanies of prophecies which circulated at the end of the sixteenth century.


We can only imagine how many such songs have been lost, and suggest that Byzantine society, so often portrayed as obsessed with the spiritual, had many more profane concerns and prejudices of which we are barely aware. Note particularly the popular scorn for monks and eunuchs. For far fuller insights into secular art and concerns, see now H. Maguire and E. Dauterman Maguire, Other Icons (Princeton, 2007).




The blacksmith strikes the anvil, and he strikes the neighbours too,

For the matchmaker and the princeling stand at the door.

Theophano wanted cake, but the beauty ate it.

He who wore the coronation robe now sports leather,

And if winter comes to him, he wears also his fur.

Those “shrivelled horn-players” with “hand-sized anuses,”

Parade the murderous adultress on the saddle of a mule.





The first line is a proverb, meaning, perhaps, “The blacksmith will give you a hammering, so watch out.” From the second line, things become more specfic. The “matchmaker” is surely Basil the Parakoimomenos (alt. the Nothos, “Bastard') the illegitimate son of Romanos II Lekapenos (920-44), who was castrated to render him ineligible for the throne. As a eunuch he held high state office, surviving the overthrow of his father and half-brothers in 944, and outliving Constantine VII and Romanos II (959-63). “Matchmaker” surely refers to his arranging the marriage of Constantine VII's daughter, Theodora, the “beauty” of line three, to the “princeling” John I Tzimiskes (969-76). This act deprived Theophano (of line three), widow of the murdered Nikephoros II Phokas (963-9), of her lover and conspirator, John, and led to her exile. Apparently this followed public ridicule, by the familiar Byzantine practice of leading her through the streets of Constantinople on a mule (often seated backwards, although that is not stated here), although Morgan suggests this was acted out after her exile, allowing the demes a chance to sing this song. Theophano's exile, and hence ridicule, is attributed to men, described by masculine plural compounds as “shrivelled horn-players” and “hand-sized anuses.” These are references to the eunuch Basil, and probably also Patriarch Polyeuktos, formerly a monk, who had forbidden the marriage of Theophano and Tzimiskes on the grounds that Theophano had already twice been married (to the emperor Romanos II before Nikephoros II). The sexual innuendo is clear, and likely reflects popular scorn for eunuchs and monks as the passive partners in homosexual acts.



Basic Bibliography

G. Morgan, “A Byzantine satirical song?,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 47 (1954), 292-7

G. Horrocks, Greek. A history of the language and its speakers (London, 1997), pp. 256-61

M. Jeffreys, “The nature and origins of the political verse,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 28 (1974), 141-95
H. Maguire and E. Dauterman Maguire, Other Icons (Princeton, 2007)

Paul Stephenson, December 2003; July 2010

Revised January 2012