Orestes and Pylades in Byzantine historiography: Two examples

Orestes and Pylades in Byzantine historiography: Two examples

By Korać Dušan and Radić Radivoj

Zbornik radova Vizantoloskog instituta, Issue 44 (2007)

Abstract: This article analyzes two instances where Byzantine historians Anna Komnene and Nikephoros Gregoras used a syntagm about intimate and dedicated friendship between two ancient Greek mythological heroes, Orestes and Pylades. In The Alexiad it is a story about the brotherly relations between Alexios and Isaac Komnenoi, and in the Roman Histories Nikephoros Gregoras compares them to two contemporary rulers, two very close allies – the Byzantine emperor John Kantakouzenos and the Seljuk emir Umur. In both instances Byzantine writers very skillfully employed the metaphor about the friendship of Orestes and Pylades.

Introduction: In his classic and today generally accepted definition of the Byzantine civilization, almost seventy years ago, George Ostrogorsky emphasized three main elements that determined the historical phenomenon of the Byzantine Empire. Those were the Roman state framework, Greek culture and the Christian faith. Byzantium would be inconceivable without any of those three cornerstones. It is only through this synthesis that Byzantium came into being. It has been well known that, spiritually, Byzantium was a medieval continuation of the Hellenic spirit.

Byzantine literature was, to a great extent, a continuation of Hellenic and Hellenistic writings. That evidently applies to Byzantine historiography. As a genre of multifaceted literature, Byzantine historical writing was a natural stage in the development of Ancient Greek historical thinking, a continuation of the pragmatic Greek historiography. That continuity was more than two millennia long. It had its roots in the Greek historical writings of the fifth century B.C., and represented a spiritual vertical stemming from Herodotus, the father of history, and especially Thucydides, the greatest ancient historian and the greatest role model for Byzantine historians. At its other end, that almost uninterrupted thread reached the end of the sixteenth century A.D., and so called “The Chronicle of the Turkish Sultans”, which was one of the last works of Byzantine, and Greek historiography.

Bearing this in mind, it is no wonder that Byzantine literates very often reminisce Ancient Greek history and mythology. Most commonly these are allusions to and loanwords from Homer, but also from the works of many others, like Hesiod, Aesop, Aristophanes, or Plutarch. One of those reminiscences refers to Orestes and Pylades, two heroes of Ancient Greek mythology, whose adventures symbolized a true and dedicated friendship.

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