- Steven D. Smith
Agathias of Myrina (c. 532 to c. 580 ce), also known as Agathias Scholasticus, was a lawyer, poet, and historian active during the reigns of the Emperors Justinian I, Justin II, and Tiberius II. The epigrams on contemporary subjects and traditional themes that he and his circle composed and that he himself collected and published were widely read in the 6th century and later. His Histories, a lively continuation of the work of Procopius, remains a crucial source for the events of the 550s ce.
Updated in this version
Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.
A lawyer (scholastikos) by profession, Agathias (c. 532-c.580) came from Myrina, on the western coast of Asia Minor. Some knowledge of his family can be gleaned from Agathias’s works. His father Memnonius was also a lawyer, and his mother Pericleia died when he was only 3 years old (Anth. Pal. 7.552). He had two siblings; nothing is known of his brother, but his sister Eugenia was a brilliant woman, who, like Agathias, had a talent for poetry and rhetoric and who also had some knowledge of the law (Anth. Pal. 7.593). An epigram by a certain Michael Grammaticus (date unknown) records that the citizens of Myrina erected an image (eikona) of Agathias in admiration of his poetry, and that beside him they also set up images of his father and brother as “complementary proofs of a most noble family” (Anth. Pla. 316). In another epigram, commemorating his renovation of a public latrine in Smyrna (more probably Myrina), Agathias identifies himself as curator civitatis (patēr polēos, Anth. Pal. 9.662), a local magistrate who oversaw the maintenance of public buildings and facilities. Agathias and his family were, then, locally distinguished. His mother’s burial by the Bosporus (Anth. Pal. 7.552.5) suggests that at some point the family left Myrina and settled in Constantinople.
Agathias’s family could afford to send him to school in Alexandria, where he received an education in rhetoric typical of his age and where he probably also acquired some acquaintance with the works of contemporary Neoplatonic philosophers. Agathias returned to Constantinople to receive his legal training. Among the Christian epigrams of the Greek Anthology there survive some charming verses that Agathias wrote to accompany an image of the Archangel dedicated by the poet and three friends (Aemilianus of Caria, a certain John, and Rufinus of Pharos) upon the completion of their fourth year of legal studies (Anth. Pal. 1.35). Agathias remained in Constantinople, where he was enrolled with distinction among the city’s lawyers (John of Epiphania fr. 1), and he offers readers of his Histories a vivid image of himself hard at work in the Imperial Stoa, buried under legal books all day and harried by clients on whose business he depends (3.4, p. 84).
Because Agathias’s literary output reflects both a contemporary Christian milieu and the Classical culture inherited from the pagan past, the question of his religious beliefs has occasioned much debate. Numerous epigrams give expression to Agathias’s Christian piety: another poem dedicated to the Archangel offers an early defence of religious icons (Anth. Pal. 1.34), and ascetic denial characterizes much of his erotic poetry. In both his poetry and his prose works, however, Agathias avoids insinuating himself into the theological disputes of his age, and in the Histories he even offers an entertaining, if scathing caricature of those who casually enter into such debates without having mastered the first principles of philosophy (2.29, pp. 78–79).
There is a difference between Christian piety and Christian orthodoxy, and if Agathias’s devotion to Classical culture did not conflict with his piety (mythological poetry was an acceptable indulgence), his Classical education nevertheless provided him with a powerful medium for voicing ideas that conflicted with orthodoxy. In a revealing passage from the Histories, for example, Agathias declares as an obvious fact that every nation remains zealously committed to what it considers sacred and that every nation mobilizes whatever intellectual resources it can to justify its own beliefs and undermine the beliefs of other nations (2.23.8–9, p. 71). The passage serves as a preface to Agathias’s digression on the culture and religious customs of the Persians, but by implication it applies also to the zealously imposed Chalcedonianism of the Roman state. Agathias’s Christianity, therefore, accommodated intellectual curiosity and inquiry and could resist the dogmatic rigidity of orthodoxy.
Agathias’s works reveal intimate friendships with several men from Constantinople’s elite society. Paulus Silentiarius, an usher (silentiarios) in the imperial palace and arguably the greatest poet of his age, was on especially close terms with Agathias, as a pair of erotic epigrams shows (Anth. Pal. 5.292–293). In the first, Agathias claims that, even though he must tarry on the coast opposite the city, desire consumes him. The lemma explains that Agathias was busy in the fourth year of his legal education, but the poet writes that he longs to look upon Paulus and hear his voice just as much as he desires an unnamed young woman with whom he is also in love. In the accompanying epigram, Paulus humorously replies that Agathias must not really be in love, because Eros does not yield to the study of law, and that it is impossible for the same man to be a devotee of both Aphrodite and Athena. Agathias’s esteem for Paulus also finds expression in the Histories, where he pours lavish praise upon the man and his famous verse ekphrasis of Hagia Sophia (5.9.7–9, p. 175). Agathias was also close to the grammatikos Damocharis of Cos, a former pupil, and the imperial secretary Eutychianus, one of Paulus’s relatives. These relationships mattered intensely to Agathias, and friendly competition with and encouragement from his intimate companions fuelled his passionate devotion to literature.
Poetry was the premier pastime of the cultured elite in Constantinople during this period. Greek poetry (especially epic, epyllion, and epigram) had remained central to the literary culture of late antiquity, and the poets of Agathias’s age consciously modelled their compositions on the works of Oppian, Nonnus of Panopolis, Musaeus, Tryphiodorus, Colluthus, and Palladas. The language and metrical refinements introduced by Nonnus in the 5th century ce marked a turning point in the development of Greek poetry, and the influence of his Dionysiaca can be discerned everywhere in the verses of Agathias and his peers.
Agathias’s earliest poetic composition was the Daphniaca, nine books of erotic narratives in hexameters. The work no longer survives, except for its brief preface, three couplets that appear among the dedicatory epigrams of the Greek Anthology (Anth. Pal. 6.80). The poem calls Agathias the “carpenter” who joined the work together, and it closes with a prayer to its dedicatee, the goddess Aphrodite. In the preface to the Histories Agathias describes the Daphniaca as being “embroidered with erotic stories and quite full of such bewitchments” (pr. 7, p. 4). The title (“songs of Daphnis”?) suggests that the collection was bucolic, in the tradition of Theocritus and Longus, though the erotic elements of Nonnus’s Dionysiaca were surely a major influence.
Agathias and his friends in Constantinople were also busy at this time composing epigrams, applying Nonnus’s poetic innovations to a miniature verse form popular since the Hellenistic period. Agathias notes in the preface to his Histories that these numerous compositions were not attracting much attention and that they were being “whispered softly” in private settings, and so he took it upon himself to collect his friends’ epigrams along with his own, organize them all into an anthology, and thus make them available to a wider audience (pr. 8, p. 4). Agathias had before him as models the Hellenistic Garlands of Meleager and Philip, but he was also guided by a personal vision of what his anthology should look like. He divided the collection into seven books: (a) dedications to the old gods; (b) inscriptions on buildings and various works of art; (c) funerary inscriptions; (d) poems on fortune; (e) satiric epigrams; (f) erotic epigrams; and (g) sympotic epigrams. The Suda calls this collection the “Cycle of New Epigrams” (α 112), and on this basis modern scholarship refers to the anthology as the Cycle of Agathias. The Cycle, published soon after the accession of Justin II (565 ce), no longer survives intact as a discrete literary work, but was absorbed in the 10th century ce into the Greek Anthology.
The sequence of Agathias’s three verse prefaces to the Cycle enriches our understanding of the literary tastes of the anthologist and his contemporaries. The first preface (in iambics, Anth. Pal. 4.3) draws upon the language and imagery of Aristophanes: Agathias adopts the role of a slave-cook who has assembled a variety of gourmet dishes for a gathering of discerning men. This comic prelude thus emphatically characterizes the Cycle as a product of an intellectual and cultural elite that disdains more common literary fare, even as the Aristophanic satire lampoons their intellectual pretensions.
The second preface (Anth. Pal. 4.4) is a hexameter panegyric for the emperor, probably Justin II, though Agathias celebrates military conquests that were achieved during the reign of Justinian I. Agathias casts references to contemporary events in highly allusive language, drawing especially on the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes for verses describing the victory in Lazica (Colchis), and there are also strong parallels with Paulus Silentiarius’s verse ekphrasis of Hagia Sophia and Corippus’s Latin panegyric for Justin II. In the second half of the hexameter preface, Agathias dedicates the Cycle to Theodorus, son of Cosmas, a decurio (head of ceremonial services) in the imperial palace, and he describes the anthology’s division into seven books. With these lavish hexameters, Agathias not only sought literary patronage from a social superior but also inscribed his collection within the imperial vision of a Roman universal order.
The third preface, an epigram in five couplets (Anth. Pal. 4.5), adopts a philosophical voice that disdains monuments and images as vanities; this poetic voice pursues only the immortality that comes from virtue and wisdom. “Blessed are they,” the speaker declares in conclusion, “whose memory lingers in the scrolls of prudent books, but not in empty images” (9–10); this final couplet even resonates with the Gospels, approximating the phraseology of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3–11) to ennoble Constantinople’s educated elite. The three prefaces thus demonstrate the protean quality of the anthologist’s literary persona, as he shifts from comic satirist to fawning imperial panegyrist to philosophical authority.
About a hundred of Agathias’s epigrams survive, and despite his modest claim in the first preface that he contributed only a “paltry portion” (Anth. Pal. 4.3.35) of his own creations, his epigrams dominate what remains of the Cycle. Only slightly fewer epigrams are attributed to Paulus Silentiarius in the Greek Anthology, and whole sequences from the Cycle often contain a succession of the two poets’ epigrams in an interlocking or alternating pattern, a compositional representation of the men’s intimacy in life. Interspersed throughout the anthology were epigrams by other contributors, notables such as Macedonius Consul, Julian of Egypt, Damocharis of Cos, and Agathias’s other lawyer friends: Leontius, Marianus, Theaetetus, and Eratosthenes.
Agathias’s verse dedications to pagan gods show clearly that the epigrammatic project aspired in part to conjure a fictional world in imitation of the Classical past. But Agathias’s epigrams for buildings and monuments illustrate his engagement with and perspective on the world in which he lived. His poems on the public latrine in Myrina (Anth. Pal. 9.642–644, 662) are noteworthy in this regard, as are his inscription celebrating Justinian’s construction of the Sangarius bridge (Anth. Pal. 9.641) and his inscription for an image of the curator (overseer, superintendant) Thomas that was erected in the palace of Placidia beside images of the emperor and empress (Anth. Pal. 41). Funerary epigrams too combine memorials for fictional, legendary, or historical individuals alongside inscriptions for the tombs of Agathias’s contemporaries, including friends and family.
Agathias’s expansive approach to the epigram form often eschews Hellenistic ideals such as brevity of expression and sharpness of wit, favouring instead loquaciousness and narrative development. This is most apparent in the satiric and erotic epigrams, which, because of their length and otiose quality, seem more like Latin love elegy, a genre with which both Agathias and Paulus Silentiarius were likely familiar.
Agathias’s erotic epigrams create a world in which the ideal male lover blends masculine and feminine gender styles (Anth. Pal. 5.216, 299), in which pursuit and seduction are often expressed as a sensual indulgence in materiality (261, 276, 285), and in which the male lover intensifies his erotic longing by deferring sexual gratification (237, 280, 285, 294). All of these epigrams are explicitly heterosexual, and one of Agathias’s epigrams strenuously denounces sex between males as sinful (278), even though Agathias has no qualms about expressing his affection for Paulus Silentiarius in explicitly erotic terms (292). Christian orthodoxy, Justinianic law, and contemporary sexual mores all demanded the suppression of homoeroticism, a distinguishing feature of the earlier epigrammatic tradition. But in the final epigram of the Cycle’s erotic anthology Agathias names the “sin of being mad for boys” (302.8) within a whole catalogue of sexual offences, including the seduction of hetairai (unmarried female companions), virgins, married women, widows, and slaves. From the perspective of Christian piety and imperial law, therefore, the erotic epigrams of the Cycle as a whole represent a sinful literary indulgence.
Agathias claims that he began writing history because he wanted to contribute something useful to posterity, and that poetry was a superfluous extravagance when compared with the record of momentous events that he witnessed in his own lifetime. His friends encouraged this new literary endeavour, and Paulus’s relative Eutychianus inspired him by explaining that history and poetry were “siblings and kindred” and that they were “differentiated from each other perhaps by metre alone” (pr. 12, p. 6). Agathias, therefore, could with confidence apply his poetic talents to historiography.
His Histories in five books continues the work of Procopius, but whereas Procopius was a member of Belisarius’s staff and therefore an eyewitness to much of what he recounts in the Wars, Agathias was confined to the capital, and so he had to rely on second-hand sources for his narrative of military events in Italy and in the east. Book 1 picks up with the death of the Gothic king Teias (552 ce) and focuses on the victories of the Roman general Narses against the Goths, Alemanni, and Franks. Book 2 continues the narrative of Narses’ campaign in Italy, climaxing with the Roman victory at Capua (554 ce). Agathias then shifts to an account of military events in Lazica and Roman-Persian relations which spans also the entirety of Book 3. Book 4 opens with an account of the trial of Rusticus and John for the murder of the Lazic king Gubazes II (556 ce) and continues the narrative of military events in the east. The defeat of the Persian general Nachagoran marks the beginning of an extended digression on the kings of the Sassanid dynasty (4.24–30). Book 5 opens with an account of the Roman commander Theodorus’s suppression of the revolt of the Georgian Tzani, but then turns to a vivid account of the aftermath of the earthquake that shook Constantinople in 557 ce, which leads in turn to a narrative of the invasion by Cotrigur Huns in 559 ce and Belisarius’s defence of the city.
Agathias’s devotion to Classical learning and education determined his choice to write a classicizing history, though other genres of historiography were available to him, such as the world chronicle and ecclesiastical history. The choice of genre suited Agathias’s prose style, which is characterized by florid rhetoric, archaism, and poetic diction, and his compositional style is given to learned digressions. The latter he defends forcefully: if his history were only a simple narration of events and betrayed no interest in intellectual inquiry, then it would risk being “not much better than the myths sung at the loom in the women’s quarters” (1.7, p. 19). But elsewhere Agathias acknowledges that his artistic prose and his digressive compositional style are literary indulgences: critics might disparage his work as “the fetus of a most conflicted soul,” but he finds solace at least in the pleasure the writing gives him, even if in pleasing himself he appears humorously like “the more unmusical of our singers” (3.1, p. 84). Agathias identified himself primarily as a literary stylist, and if to some modern readers his Histories seems formally stilted, it was in its own time the product of an established literary aesthetic that appealed to educated readers.
Agathias’s poetry figures prominently in the anthology compiled in the 10th century by Constantine Cephalas, which became the template for the modern collection known as the Greek Anthology. In Book 4, Cephalas even included Agathias’s verse prefaces with prefaces by Meleager and Philip, a strong indication of the influence that Agathias’s work had in later centuries. By the middle Byzantine period, the Cycle of Agathias was considered a classic of the genre alongside its Hellenistic models. Agathias’s poetry also contributed to the rebirth of the romance in the 12th century: Book 6 of Nicetas Eugenianus’s Drosilla and Charicles concludes with a dense pastiche of erotic epigrams from the Cycle.
The 6th-century historians John of Epiphania and Menander Protector both continued Agathias’s Histories after his death, and his work was read throughout the Byzantine period by Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, Michael Attaliates, George Cedrenus, and Eustathius of Thessalonica. Quotations from Agathias’s Histories also appear in the Suda lexicon and in the lexicon of Pseudo-Zonaras.
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