Theodore Metochites’s “Lament on Human Life,” A Later Byzantine Perspective on the Anxiety of “Instability”

Cameo, Constantine the Great and the Tyche of Constantinople wearing her turreted crown, sardonyx, 4th century. Image: The State Hermitage Museum.

Alas, alas, Life, you monstrous thing replete with every kind of misfor­tune, breeder of misfortune, theater of misfortune, and most of all of insta­bility!

– Theodore Metochites (SG 27.1.1)

In the wake of COVID-19’s spread into a pandemic, the world has fallen into a state of collective anxiety. As a historian, I find that in such challenging times, my inclination is to look to the past. At this moment when we all contend with isolation, grief, scarcity, and the fear of contagion, we may find some solace and insight by exploring the ways in which humanity has previously coped with such feelings of uncertainty. Much of my work this year at the Medieval Institute has focused on the Byzantine statesman and polymath, Theodore Metochites (1270–1332), and his theorization of memory as expressed in his scholarship and in the iconographic program of the Chora Monastery, the renovation of which he oversaw and endowed (c. 1316–1321). No stranger to turmoil in his own life, Metochites also reflects at length on the idea of “instability” (astasia) in his writings. Several chapters of his encyclopedic work, the Semeioseis gnomikai, or “Sententious Notes,” address this recurring theme as the author himself works through the notion of uncontrollable change and fickle Fortune.

Metochites’s observations on fate draw from his own experiences of the ebb and flow of politics. In 1283, Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (1259/60–1331, r. 1282–1328) ousted Metochites’s father, George, from Constantinople for his opposing policies, and, at thirteen years old, young Theodore accompanied his father into exile. While in Asia Minor, Metochites dedicated himself to his education and, by 1290, as he writes, “the winds shift[ed] from one direction to the opposite” (SG 28.3.5). The same Andronikos II, having learned of Metochites’s reputation for erudition, called him to serve in the imperial court, where he achieved the high rank of Megas Logothetes, or prime minister. He takes care to acknowledge that his change in fortune was an external one, beyond his control: “the difficulties of my life suddenly and perhaps unexpectedly changed … although I had in no way changed, in the way it usually happens among men” (SG 28.3.4–5).

In a rather pessimistic frame of mind, he continues by pointing out that even in the grace of good fortune, the popular saying rings true: “it is impossible to find anyone living a life free of sorrows” (Hult 13). Metochites tells us that as his position and fortune increased, he felt steadily more burdened by state affairs. He writes that it was “extremely distressing … to be personally in charge of conducting and somehow administering the shipwreck of Roman world power, and many times, when I could see no way out in my thoughts and I completely lost hope, I prayed that this seeming blessing and favor from Fortune would not have fallen to my lot” (SG 28.5.4 and 6.4–5). Good fortune brings with it no guarantee of happiness.

Theodore Metochites presenting his foundation to Christ, Esonarthex, Lunette above eastern door, Chora Monastery, c. 1316–1321, Istanbul, Turkey. Image: Brad Hostetler.

In the same essay, Metochites draws an evocative comparison between the whims of political fortune and sudden changes in health:

No, we can see even the strongest and those with bodies in excel­lent condition in absolutely every respect easily lose their physical strength and confidence, struck down now and then by a chance occurrence, some­thing which others who are perhaps not equally well-endowed with bodily strength have managed to escape. And we see the man who yesterday was standing firm, indeed, who was for a long time undefeated by any kind of bodily misfortune, now lying on his back and suffering some malaise in his body, that had, until now, been extremely vigorous, or having lost all his health and now experiencing numerous difficult changes, living with all kinds of sickness—he who for many years seemed completely impervious to the vicissitudes of the body. (SG 28.2.1–3)

As easily and as quickly as the body succumbs to illness, so too do rapid shifts in fate occur in all other contexts of life, from wealth to family and career. This association amplifies points set forth in the preceding chapter of the Semeiosis. In his “Lament of human life,” Metochites opens with a description of the two sides of human reaction to fortune’s instability. Those currently experiencing good fortune constantly live in expectation and anxiety of worse things to come, while those who are struggling live with the hope of better days. With the flip of a coin (or “turn of the ostrakon” in ancient Greek and Byzantine parlance), the greatest wealth yields to poverty, robust health deteriorates to languid weakness. He goes on to say, however, that instability, though unforeseeable, should be expected. Reacting to the assertion that change is abrupt, he argues the opposite: “I unhesitatingly add that [it has been coming] for a long time, indeed from the beginning” (SG 27.2.5). Metochites follows the concept of “universal flux” put forth by Heraclitus, and elaborates on the maxim still referenced today, “the only thing constant is change” (cf. SG 29.2.1–7). He concludes that it is wisest to acknowledge, either through personal experience or observation of others, that life is inconstant; with this in mind, one must “live not unprepared for the likelihood of good things turning utterly bad and so live better” (SG 27.2.7).

Toward the end of his life, Metochites found reason to affirm his comments on misfortune’s predictably unpredictable appearance. In the margins of Paris gr. 2003, pictured below, we find a retrospective remark written in light of his second exile from the capital in 1328. Following the ascendance of Andronikos III to the throne after a long period of civil war, Metochites was forced to reside in Didymoteicho (today in northeastern Greece) before returning to take monastic vows in his foundation of the Chora two years later. To the earlier words of his “lament,” he declares, “I myself have suffered this as I foretold” (Hult xv).

Theodore Metochites, “A Lament on Human Life,” Paris gr. 2003, f. 49r (56r), 15th century. Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Metochites’s essay further deliberates on the saying that, “because of death we are living in a city without walls.” The original Epicurean context of this adage emphasized the indefensibility of the human body and inevitability of death. Building on this metaphorical meaning, Metochites states that we are, “like people living in a city without walls also because of the changes from prosperity to adversity, from perfect health to sickness, and on the whole from good fortune to bad …” (SG 27.2.1–6). Though he was writing in a much different cultural context than ours today, we might bring a critical eye to Metochites’s musings as a way of contemplating COVID-19-era insecurity. The rapid spread of illness threatens to render our “city walls” – the infrastructure of our healthcare and economy – susceptible to collapse. Anxiety arises from the permeability of these defenses. With an understanding that none of us is immune to “the attacks and sieges of Chance,” we can reassess the way we conceptualize and respond to drastically new realities.

While Metochites reflects on Fortune from the viewpoint of a privileged Byzantine elite, the current pandemic has laid bare the shared, but uneven vulnerability to “fate” in our society. In many ways, the virus’s dismantling of our “city walls” has lead to an exposure of inequality, and the situation thus demands that we reconstruct societal concepts of space and community. As we grasp to control contagion through worldwide self-isolation, the “fate” of the individual is inextricably tied to the many. Risk and instability, however, are not experienced equitably. Indeed, the necessity of social distancing has demonstrated just how few “walls” had been erected to fortify the health and well-being of all in the first place. Metochites reflected on his personal experiences to assess the nature of fate and life’s inconstancy. When this crisis is behind us, perhaps we will not forget the diversity of individual experiences in the face of uncertainty. Only then might we rebuild a fortress of collective action better equipped to sustain the many against the next unpredictable, inevitable turn of fate.

Nicole Paxton Sullo
2019–20 Byzantine Studies Postdoctoral Fellow at the Medieval Institute
Ph.D., History of Art, Yale University (2020)

All translations based on:

Karin Hult, ed. and trans., Theodore Metochites on the Human Condition and the Decline of Rome: Semeioseis gnomikai 27–60, Studia Graeca et Latina Gothoburgensia 70 (Gothenburg: Kriterium, 2016). DOI: 10.21524/kriterium.4.

“Rome Under Heaven:” The Place of the Roman Empire in Accord with the Chinese Concept of Tianxia

A page from Ma Duanlin’s Wenxian Tongkao
A page from Ma Duanlin’s Wenxian Tongkao

“Their king [the kings of Daqin] is not a permanent one, but they want to be led by a man of merit. Whenever an extraordinary calamity or an untimely storm and rain occurs, the king is deposed and a new one elected, the deposed king resigning cheerfully. The inhabitants are tall, and upright in their dealings, like the Han [Chinese], whence they are called Da-Qin, or Han [1].”

Ma Duanlin

This description of the Byzantine Empire by the 13th-century Chinese historian Ma-Duanlin would startle his Byzantine contemporaries used to palace intrigues worthy of the finest episodes of a popular tv show.

Chinese literati and intellectuals identified the ancient Roman Empire as Da Qin 大秦 or Great Qin. The term which emerged during the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) is evocative of China’s perception of their western counterparts whom they regarded as equal to themselves. Whereas China ruled over the eastern parts of the world, somewhere far in the west, a counter China held the balance of the world. Under the Tang, another, more phonetically accurate term, Fu Lin 拂菻, emerged to describe Byzantium, the medieval iteration of the Roman Empire. Chinese historians probably adopted the more accurate Fu Lin from their Eastern Iranian and Turkic neighbors (Middle Persian: Hrum; Bactrian: φρομο), who were used to trading with the Byzantine Empire in the 6th and 7th centuries.

A Ming map of Europe
A Ming map of Europe

Even though Chinese historians knew that Da Qin and Fu Lin were the same entity, knowledge of a powerful empire far in the west did not prevent them from intermixing facts and fictions. According to an eleventh-century account, the mighty Fu Lin could field a large army of a million men. At the head of such an immense army, the kings of the Romans ruled supreme. Fu Lin enjoyed the rule not only of astute military kings, but also of the wisest men in Western Eurasia. Unlike the hereditary Chinese monarchies, Chinese historians claim that the Romans elected their kings from among the wisest and most meritorious. Deposed kings did not oppose their fate, but resigned quietly. Rather than causing considerable troubles and protesting, they stepped down and cheered for their successor, a testimony of their great wisdom.

Ma Duanlin presents Da-Qin/Fu-Lin as a utopia ruled by competent, quasi-philosopher kings. Ironically, the Chinese historian who died in 1322, was a (very distant) contemporary of some of the most gruesome depositions to take place in Byzantium. Among the many examples, and a list far too long for a blog post, stands the infamous Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282). Michael emerged as the sole emperor of Byzantium after brutally blinding his rival, the very popular John IV Laskaris, an eleven-year-old child. Michael’s contemporaries vilified the emperor for his wretched behavior. Arsenios Autoreianos, the patriarch of Constantinople, excommunicated Michael as a response to the blinding of Laskaris. One may also be tempted to summon the case of John Kantakouzenos who ruled between 1347 and 1354. Kantakouzenos, who became emperor after six years of civil war, triumphed over his rivals thanks to the help of the Turks of Orhan Ibn Osman, the son of the founder of the Ottoman Beylik. The early Ottomans benefited from the Byzantine civil war and gained a European fortress for the first time. Could Ma Duanlin, who relied on sources tracing back to the Han Empire, have seen Roman institutions as immutable and expected the emperors of the 13th century to be elected in like fashion to the consuls of the Roman Republic? Nevertheless, the cold reality of palace coups in 13th-century Byzantium was a far cry from the elective utopia described by the Chinese historian.

Perhaps more tantalizing are the many fantastic elements found in Chinese descriptions of the Roman Empire and Western Eurasia. The same Ma Duanlin claims that the Romans were fond of a highly peculiar type of pearl. The Romans collected these pearls of jade, not from mollusks, but from the saliva of a curious species of bird. Likewise, according to Chinese historians, the Romans lived near a mysterious group of dwarves. These dwarves, a far cry from Tolkien’s rugged miners, were allegedly so small that they constantly looked towards the skies, fearing cranes who dined on their kin. The dwarves relied upon the Roman armies to fend off the cranes. As a compensation for their help, it is said that they paid their Byzantine benefactors with many precious jewels and gems.

Although we may never find out where Chinese historians got some of this information, the far west of Eurasia fascinated the imagination of generations of Chinese literati who saw it as a land of myths and legends where wise kings cohabitated with fantastic birds and mysterious dwarves.

R.T., PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

Read more:

In English: Friedrich Hirth, China and the Roman Orient Researches into their Ancient and Mediaeval Relations as Represented in Old Chinese Records, (Leipsic and Munich, 1885).

In Turkish: Bahaeddin Ögel, “Göktürk yazıtlarının Apurimları ve Fu-Lin Problemi,” Türk Tarih Kurumu Belleten 9 (1945): 63–89.

In Chinese: Jianling Xu, “Bàizhàntíng Háishì Sài Ěr Zhù Rén Guójiā? Xī ‘Sòng Shǐ·fú Lǐn Guó Chuán’ de Yīduàn Jìzǎi,” The Journal of Ancient Civilizations 3/4 (2009): 63–67.

 

 

[1] Original text and translations in Friedrich Hirth, China and the Roman Orient Researches into their Ancient and Mediaeval Relations as Represented in Old Chinese Records, (Leipsic and Munich, 1885). Translations are from Hirth.