Digenes Akrites Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Digenes Akrites

Byzantine epic, c. eleventh century. Also known as Digenes Akritis.

Byzantium's sole surviving epic poem, Digenes Akrites recounts the adventures of a half-Arabic, half-Roman warrior in the Byzantine frontier near the Euphrates during the ninth and tenth centuries. Digenes Akrites is a great hero who learns the art of war as a child and defends Byzantium for the remainder of his life. The text of the epic was compiled from disparate sources including folk songs and legends by an unknown redactor, or redactors, and is written in a style emulating the Greek used in ancient classics. Digenes Akrites was unknown in modern times until a manuscript was published in 1875, followed by independent discoveries of several other manuscripts in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The romantic epic, consisting of between three and four thousand lines, is now known through six different Greek manuscripts, one of which is prose, as well as one Russian version; the Grottaferrata version receives the most critical attention. Ever since its rediscovery, Digenes Akrites has held the attention of scholars working in a variety of disciplines who find it an important source for the study of ancient myths and a key to understanding the development of Greek oral poetry.

Plot and Major Characters

Digenes Akrites begins by telling the story of Digenes's parents. His father, Mousour, is a great Emir who has conquered Syria. He kidnaps the beautiful Roman girl Eirene, falls in love with her, and agrees to convert to Christianity and join her in Roman territory. They marry, Mousour is baptized, and they have a son, Digenes Akrites. He learns to read and write, to use the spear and sword, and becomes a great runner and wrestler. At age twelve, on his first hunt, he slays two bears, catches a deer on foot, and kills a lion with one stroke of his sword. As a young man he confronts a group of bandits and singlehandedly disarms the entire brigade. He meets a girl named Evdokia, who is jealously guarded from suitors by her father, a general. Digenes woos Evdokia and they ride off together under pursuit. Digenes defeats his pursuers, makes peace with the general, and takes Evdokia back to her home for their wedding and three months of celebration. Evdokia often joins Digenes as he defends the borders of the Roman territories. Digenes's military accomplishments are rewarded by the Emperor. Most of the remainder of Digenes Akrites consists of tales told by its hero in the first person. It concludes with a description of the palace Digenes has built for himself on the banks of the Euphrates and a brief recounting of his death.

Major Themes

Digenes Akrites is a romantic adventure tale that presents an account of the exploits of its hero, Digenes. It stresses his preternatural skill in hunting, his bravery in combat, and his honorableness in defending the borders of his country against all attackers. The episode of his wooing and winning his wife has proved interesting to cultural historians for what it suggests about abduction of women, sexual consent, and marriage customs in medieval Byzantium. The poem ends with the traditional description of the rewards the hero reaps for having excelled in performing his duty.

Critical Reception

Michael J. Jeffreys explains the interest of scholars in Digenes Akrites by noting that “It provides material for literary historians at different levels of Greek, for students of traditional literature, for specialists in Arabic, Armenian and Russian studies, for codicologists and art-historians as well as for the general student of byzantine history, culture and society.” Although its historical importance is acknowledged by critics, they have not focued on its literary qualities. Some critics agree with Jeffreys that the work is disorganized and unsophisticated, yet other scholars counter that nothing else could be expected from a narrative pieced together from diverse, mostly oral sources. John Mavrogordato, editor of the standard modern edition of the work, surveyed the many manuscripts of Digenes Akrites and their textual histories. He emphasizes that the work is a folktale that incorporates legendary elements and contends that its political and religious aspects have been overemphasized. Numerous other scholars, among them Roderick Beaton, have also focused attention on the oral roots of Digenes Akrites. Andrew R. Dyck argues that Book 5 of the Grottaferrata version does not fit in well with the rest of the text and was probably originally an isolated song that was later incorporated into the narrative. Hugh F. Graham contributes to the comparative studies of different manuscripts by concentrating on the major differences of the Russian version, known as the Devgenievo Dejanie. Digenes Akrites is an invaluable tool for social historians and Angeliki E. Laiou uses it as a means to examine Byzantine sexual mores and marriage practices of the time. Beaton traces these influences of Digenes Akrites on Greek poetry, and notes that its impact is evident even on certain works of modern times.