By Georgios Theotokis
What can an epic poem from the the 12th century tells us about love and marriage in the Byzantine world?
The epic romance of Digenes Akritas is, perhaps, the most famous of the acritic songs (Greek: Ακριτικά τραγούδια; ‘frontiersmen songs’) by which term we mean the epic poems-songs that emerged in the Anatolian provinces of the Byzantine Empire around or after the 9th century. These poems-songs celebrated the exploits of the akritai, the frontier guards defending the eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire from the Muslim incursions. The epic poem of Digenes Akritas derives its material, primarily, from oral sources and was compiled, most likely, around the 12th century, but it is based on earlier material that reflects the socio-political reality in the Byzantine-Arab borders in the 10th century.
The poem falls into two parts, the ‘Lay of the Emir’ and the ‘Digeneid’. The first, which is epic in tone, is set in the Cappadocian frontier before the imperial expansion of the mid-10th century under the celebrated Byzantine generals John Curcuas and – the later emperor – Nicephorus Phocas had begun. Here, there is a vivid narrative of the bloody Byzantine-Arab wars, as the compiler preserves and exalts the memory of a frontier society that was vital to the empire’s existence for four hundred years, maintaining the defence against the Byzantines’ chief ideological enemy.
The second part, which has an atmosphere of romance, begins with the period of Byzantine-Arab peace in the tenth century that was established after the Byzantines reached Syria and the eastern borders of the empire had advanced to the Euphrates. In the ‘Digeneid’, the action unfolds in the far eastern regions of the Empire, in Commagene, beside the Euphrates. Historians agree that the general worldview presented by the text predates the 11th century Turkish invasions of eastern and central Anatolia; the fact that the main setting of the second part is the River Euphrates – an iconic limes for the Empire, or the granting by the emperor of the rank of patrician to Digenes, an earlier recollection that does not conform to 12th century Comnenian protocol, these evidence demonstrate the Byzantine nostalgia for their Anatolian homeland, now lost to the Turks.
The ‘Digeneid’ part of Digenes Akritas’s text provides an interesting insight into the life of wealthy magnates of the eastern frontier regions of the Byzantine empire in the 10th century: Digenes’ three-storied palace on the banks of the Euphrates was decorated with opulent mosaics depicting scenes from the Old Testament, and it also had an elaborate garden with a private chapel. Yet, an interesting – but relatively unknown – contribution by Michael Angold, published in a collective volume on the Everyday Life in Byzantium, focused on the account of Digenes’ wedding processions, and the customs and festivities accompanying aristocratic weddings at Byzantium, and suggested some interesting facts about wedding conventions in 12th century Byzantium.
The ‘Digeneid’ highlights the development of the young hero – Basil Digenes Akritas (meaning: Basil the ‘Two-Blood Borderer’) – and his superhuman feats of bravery and strength. As a young man, he goes hunting with his father and kills two bears unarmed, strangling the first to death and breaking the second one’s spine. He also tears a hind in half with his bare hands, and slays a lion in the same manner; he kills a dragon; he takes on the so-called apelatai (ἀπελάται), a group of bandits, and then defeats their three leaders in single combat. Having defeated all his enemies Digenes builds his luxurious palace by the Euphrates, where he ends his days peacefully.
Digenes and Eudokia
Like his father, a Muslim emir converted to Christianity, our hero carried off the daughter of another Byzantine general, and then married her; this is how the story goes: Digenes hears of the beauty of Eudokia Doukaina, an heiress and only daughter of a military governor from the great aristocratic house of Doukas. She had been confined to her quarters by her father for protection, until Digenes stops by, while out hunting. The girl falls in love with him, and this – apparently – is reciprocated the moment Digenes catches a glimpse of her. Yet, there is a problem; Digenes learns that his father has already asked for her hand on his behalf, but has been refused by Eudokia’s father. He therefore resolves to abduct her, but while everything goes as planned, her father sends soldiers in hot pursuit. Digenes slaughters them all, sparing only the girl’s brothers.
The young man’s prowess and bravery impresses upon the girls powerful father, and he decides to that he will make him his son-in-law. For that reason, the father decides to cancel the dowry that comes with his daughter’s hand, hoping to tempt Digenes to return home with him. The young man claims that he only wants the girl for love’s sake, and he takes the girl back with him to his own home, where the marriage is duly celebrated. There are elaborate processions and festivities and the newly-married couple are showered with gifts by both families. The wedding festivities are then adjourned to the bride’s home, where they are taken up with renewed energy.
The first thing that Angold noted about the wedding ceremony in the romance of Digenes Akritas is the conspicuous absence of the Church in the proceedings. There is only a passing reference to a religious blessing of the newly-weds:
‘Before, my child, the sacred rite [hierologian] is done;
And make your wedding famous in the world;’
Yet, it would be misleading to assume that the whole romance is devoid of Christianity and the will of God, since this forms the backdrop of the socio-religious ideology of the borders between the two worlds – the Byzantine and the Arab/Muslim. It has nothing to do with ignorance of Christianity. In fact, Digenes’ success in pacifying the frontiers is ascribed to God’s will:
‘But when He who for us was born of a Virgin
In His goodness was pleased to free us all,
He made the wondrous glorious dispensation
Foe should turn friend and from him should be born;’
Perhaps, we should consider that the compiler would have wished to heed the role of the Church, rather than Christianity, in the romance. After-all, Christianity is woven into the account of Digenes’s wedding, and there could be no wedding without the Church. Or could it? Since the earlier centuries in the eastern Roman Empire, there was a limited involvement of the clergy in betrothals and weddings, and the Church did not introduce any special way of conducting marriage contracts, which remained – essentially – civil contracts; marriage customs, inherited from Antiquity, continued to exist, particularly the custom of betrothal gifts (αρραβών) given by the bridegroom to the bride, and the use of crowns.
However, in the imperial legislation introduced by emperor Leo III (717-41), known as the Ekloga (741), and in the famous Novel 89 of emperor Leo VI (886-912), the texts witness to a new practice: the couple is brought to church, placed before the altar and, during the Eucharist, “in front of the whole people,” the priest recites a short prayer:
“O Lord, stretch out Thy hand from Thy holy dwelling place, and unite Thy servant and Thy handmaid: unite them in one mind; crown them into one flesh, since Thou has blessed them to be wed to each other; make their marriage to be honourable; preserve their bed blameless, mercifully grant that they may live together in purity.”
The gradual adoption of church blessing first as a desirable, then an obligatory, factor in legalizing marriage puts church courts in charge of all legal problems connected to marriage.
Crucially, these ecclesiastical concerns find no place in the romance of Digenes Akritas. Perhaps, by the time the poem was taking shape a church service was so taken for granted that it could be passed over in silence. Or, a marriage might be celebrated privately, removing it effectively from the supervision of the church. Whatever the case, the epic reveals that there were other aspects of marriage that were of considerable interest to its audience and celebrates patterns of marriage that were far removed both from the ideal promoted by the church, and from the norms upheld by the law, civil and canon.
Issues that have to do with the mystery of marriage emerge throughout the text; the issue of adultery with a powerful and independent woman – the amazon called Maximo, who our hero eventually had to murder to calm his heavy conscience; or agreeing on a marriage contract – an action that could make or break your family. For the 12th century compiler of the epic, it was all about domination and submission between the sexes, and the threat posed to marriage and therefore to the fabric of society by the choice of a wife. But where, exactly, does love come about in the world-view of our hero? Love was, indeed, dangerous as it transcended the plans that a family might have made for its daughters. But there was always the option of the lovers running away together, something that highlighted the uncertainty at the very heart of marriage. Was it a contract between two families or did it depend upon the assent freely given of the bride and groom? What, exactly, was the role of love and abduction in 10th-12th century Byzantium?
As in many medieval societies, marriage was about status. Probably there would have been no need for Basil to abduct Eudokia, if his family was of as distinguished a background as hers, although – for the truth of the matter – on his mother’s side he was related to the great aristocratic house of the Doukai. His father, however, was but a low Muslim emir, an adventurer who for love had converted to Christianity and had settled on Byzantine soil. Members of the audience would have related to this situation, a very common reality in the Byzantine-Arab borders for many centuries as Byzantium attracted talent of all kinds from abroad. Yet, the essential step was to marry into one of the old families, besides, that is, from becoming orthodox. And as Basil’s father was rebuffed when he asked for Doukas’ daughter for his son, this was a clear reflection of the status of both families in the society; Digenes’ family was – apparently – not good enough.
Love, however, was a token of consent, and consent was enough. It placed marriage above responsibilities to the family. In the case of the two young people that are the heroes of the romance, Basil and Eudokia, there was no need for abduction. Parental objections were overcome. But should there be any, then abduction was a recognized response, as enough cases demonstrate. And cases are very common in middle Byzantine period simply because Roman law, both civil and canon, was very vague over abduction. It was perhaps the only area of marriage law where there were clear discrepancies between the civil and the canon laws. And this was, partly, because the law found it difficult to distinguish between abduction, rape, and seduction, as it placed great emphasis on consent.
For example, the Justinianic Code prescribed the capital punishment and confiscation of property to the person involved in abduction, regardless of whether he used force or not, whereas the father of the girl concerned was to be deported, if in any way he condoned the crime. On the contrary, Canon eleven of the Council of Ancyra, held in A.D. 314, declares: ‘Betrothed girls abducted by others should be returned even after this to their fiancés, even if they have suffered violence at their [sc. their abductors’] hands’. Nothing is said concerning the fate of the abductor, and apparently no penalty was decreed by the church authorities who met at Ancyra. Sixty-one years later Basil, bishop of Caesarea, repeated this decision and addressed the problem also of unmarried girls, not betrothed to anyone, who are abducted.
Canon 30: Regarding abductors [harpazontes], we have no ancient canon, but we have formed our own judgement – that for three years both the abductors themselves and those who aid them in the abduction should remain outside the prayers. But whatever does not take place through violence is not liable to punishment, whenever neither seduction nor robbery precedes the deed.
Therefore, the punishments prescribed by the canon law were, strictly, ecclesiastical and only concerned the amount of public penance each offence required. Emperor Basil I (867-86), followed by his son Leo VI (886-912), tried to find some measure of accommodation between the civil and the canon law on these matters. He relaxed the penalties imposed by the civil law for abduction. Capital punishment was only to be meted out, where force had been employed. Otherwise, mutilation was the price to be paid. Even so, there was still a gulf between the civil and the canon laws.
The theme of abduction was well-chosen, for it touched on so many sensitive spots to do with marriage: differences of social status, uncertainty about the law, uncertainty too about what constituted the essential elements of marriage. But most of all, the theme of abduction underlined how valuable a prize an heiress like Eudokia was.
Finally, there was the issue of resolving the dishonor to the family of the Doukas, after the worst (i.e. the abduction) had happened; the father promptly dispatched his dependents, including Eudokias’ brothers, to claim back the honour of the clan. He also insisted on handing a dowry to Basil, so that he is not considered a match-stealer (klepsigamos). Digenes declined the dowry, claiming he fell for Eudokia and took her out of pure love, but the importance of the dowry is nevertheless indicated when the wedding finally takes place, and the marriage was sealed with contracts containing the details of the dowry. Both sides, therefore, had to reach a compromise.
To sum up, Angold’s chapter on the wedding of Basil Digenes Akritas offers some compelling insights into the aspect of marriage in 10th-12th century Byzantium. While the poem ignores the role of the Church in marriage, that does not negate its role in the real world. Rather, it was other aspects of marriage that were of more immediate importance to the Byzantine provincials: the possibility of winning an heiress by whatever means, an emphasis on the dowry and consummation — rather than the church service, the wedding festivities that are portrayed as being of far greater importance than any church service. Furthermore, abduction underlined how little control the church exercised over marriage, and this, despite centuries of Christian influence on Roman law. Marriage could still be treated as a largely private affair, where the exchange of contracts and the consummation of the marriage were the decisive considerations.
You can read a translation of this Byzantine epic in Digenis Akritas: Two-Blood Border Lord, by Denison Hull.
Georgios Theotokis: Ph.D History (2010, University of Glasgow), specializes in the military history of eastern Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. He has published numerous articles and books on the history of conflict and warfare in Europe and the Mediterranean in the Medieval and early Modern periods. His first book was on the Norman Campaigns in the Balkans 1081-1108 (2014), while his second on the Byzantine Military Tactics in Syria in the 10th century came out in October 2018. He has taught in Turkish and Greek Universities; he is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Byzantine Studies Research Centre, Bosphorus University, Istanbul. Click here to read more from Georgios Theotokis.