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"Bloom for Me": The Letters of Nikephoros Ouranos and the Greek Anthology

Mark Masterson

It is an accepted fact that there was a regeneration of learning in the Byzantine empire of the 800s into the 1000s and beyond. As part of this regeneration, the epigrams of the Greek Anthology were collected around 900 and subsequently were influential (Cameron 1993). This paper considers some letters of an important Byzantine political figure, Nikephoros Ouranos, in relation to selected epigrams from the collection. Seeing a selection of epigrams from the anthology as intertexts (rather than evidence of topoi [discussed by, e.g., Karlsson 1962 or Mullett 1990]) to Nikephoros' letters does two things: it underscores Nikephoros' investment in pederastic models of the past already discernible in these letters; it renders evident a carnal immediacy to the warm declarations of friendship Nikephoros makes. Attention to reception embodied in intertextuality deepens understanding of elite homosociality in the Byzantine empire at the end of the first millennium.

Nikephoros Ouranos (floruit c. 980-c.1010), author of a famous taktika, confidant of emperor Basil II, and an important general, left a corpus of 50 letters (Darrouzès 1960, Holmes 2005, McGeer 1991). Clearly well educated, Nikephoros uses language that repays close attention. He has a tendency to hearken back to classical (and later) pederasty to characterize his friendships. In letter 44, for example, he begs for a letter from a friend who has been a poor correspondent, saying that a letter is longed for, just as insult and blows are "by lovers from their beloveds" (τοῖς ἐρῶσι παρὰ τῶν ἐρωμένων). In a context in which pederasty provides a trope for understanding friendship and the poetry of previous centuries is known and quoted (e.g., Homer [letters 43 and 47] and Theokritos [letter 47]), letters 26 and 25 prove to be interesting. In both of these letters blooming and springtime play important roles. In letter 26, Nikephoros blooms with hopes for the sweet spring of friendship (ταῖς ἐλπίσιν θάλλομεν...τὸ γλυκὺ τῆς φιλίας ἔαρ). He also exhorts his friend, "bloom for me!" (θάλλε μοι!). In letter 25, Nikephoros speaks of always blooming forth (ἀναθάλλομεν) toward the letters he receives from his friend. Two pederastic epigrams from the anthology, 12.195 and 12.256, are relevant intertexts. In both of these poems, it is high spring and the boys that captivate desirous male eyes are flowers (12.195.1, 7; 12.256.2, 12) that bloom (12.195.5; 12.256.6, 9). If Nikephoros' letters are read with these epigrams in mind, it will be seen that Nikephoros casts himself and his friends as paides from the anthology. While it cannot be proven that Nikephoros or his friends would have known these epigrams (though it seems likely), a Byzantine reader who knew the anthology would have perceived the intertextuality here, and the anthology was circulating, copied often at this time. Already speaking of pederasty, Nikephoros in any case makes discernible reference to the world of the anthology, if not directly then at least indirectly.

And so intertextuality, not observed merely for its own sake, leads the scholar to a deeper understanding of the quality of relations between the powerful men who controlled the Byzantine empire at this time. Friendships among the elites had a warmth and corporeal immediacy to them that many of the histories written about this period miss. In this regard, Nikephoros' letters prefigure those of Michael Psellos from later in the eleventh century (Papaioannou 2011) and make for a strong contrast with the more reserved letters of Nikolaos Mystikos from the beginning of the tenth century. Indeed, recognition of this intertextual relationship provides much needed context for the astounding confession of Symeon the New Theologian in one of his hymns, which was written most likely in the same decade as Nikephoros' letters: “I became, alas, an adulterer in my heart and a sodomite in reality and by disposition” (Hymn 24.74-75: γέγονα, οἴμοι, καὶ μοιχὸς τῇ καρδίᾳ / καὶ σοδομίτης ἔργῳ καὶ προαιρέσει). Symeon and Nikephoros moved in the same elite circles.

Session/Panel Title:

Friendship and Affection

Session/Paper Number

32.5

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