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George of Pisidia’s Depiction of the Persians and its Classical Antecedents

Erik Hermans

George of Pisidia was a prominent Greek poet at the court of emperor Heraclius (AD 610-641) in Constantinople in the seventh century. Although often neglected by modern scholars, George of Pisidia’s poetic achievement was recognized in medieval centuries and Psellos even considered George superior to Euripides. The secular part of George of Pisidia’s poetic oeuvre consists of several lengthy poems that eulogize the political and military achievements of emperor Heraclius. Although these poems deal with events that took place in the seventh century after Christ, the language, allusions and meter betray a conscious effort on the part of the poet to position himself in a classicizing tradition that was by this time more than a millennium old. This paper discusses the classicizing elements one of George’s poems, the De expeditione Persica.

The De expeditione Persica consists of approximately 1000 iambic trimeters, in which George of Pisidia describes the military victory of emperor Heraclius over the Persians in the year 622. The emperor is constantly praised and he is often compared to ancient legendary figures such as Moses and Hercules. These portrayals of Heraclius have received some scholarly attention (Whitby, 1998; Whitby, 2002; Whitby, 2003). Furthermore, since the De expeditione Persica is one of the few texts that discuss the campaign of 622, George of Pisidia’s treatment of the Persians has received attention from modern historians (Pertusi, 1971; Howard-Johnston, 1999; Howard-Johnston, 2010). However, the depiction of the Persians in the De expedition Persica has not yet been approached from a literary point of view. This paper aims to fill that gap.

In the prologue of the first canto, Homer is invoked and in the prologue of the second canto, Demosthenes. Other classical authors are not mentioned by name in the De expeditione Persica. However, on the basis of allusions and lexical particularities, this paper argues that instead of any work by Homer or Demosthenes, Herodotus’ Histories and Aeschylus’ Persae are the two most important classical sources for George of Pisidia’s depiction of the Persians. For instance, verses 303-5 of the second canto of the De expeditione Persica compare the Persian leader to Xerxes beating the sea, a scene going back to Herodotus’ Histories. By showing these classical antecedents of George of Pisidia’ poem, this paper argues that the classical learning of Late Antique and Byzantine authors such as George was so profound that the only modern audience to fully appreciate this literature is the one group that generally neglects it: classicists.

Session/Panel Title

Traditions of Antiquity in the Post-Classical World: Religious, Ethnographic, and Political Representation in the Poetic Works of Paulinus of Nola, Claudian, and George of Pisidia

Session/Paper Number


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