Byzantine poetry is any poetry written within the Byzantine Empire, from its beginning in 330 A.D. to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Within those eleven centuries, many sacred and secular poems were composed by a variety of authors. Hymns, epigrams, panegyrics, and satires were some of the most popular poetry forms in the Byzantine Empire.
A hymn is a religious poem intended to be sung. During the 5th century, Romanos the Melodist wrote approximately 1000 hymns. His hymns are characterized by their extreme length and dramatic nature, and antiphonal singing and dialogue combine to tell specific Bible stories. Romanos was among the first Greek poets to use stress accents to achieve rhythm, rather than the short and long syllables characteristic of classical Greek poetry.
In the seventh century, religious canons became vogue. This formal type of poetry is typically composed of approximately nine hymns or chants, each with at least three strophes. The two most famous canon poets in Byzantine poetry are Andrew of Crete and John of Damascus.
Epigrams can be sacred or secular. Both Georgius Pisides and Theodorus Studites wrote epigrams concerning Christianity and life in a monastery, while Agathias wrote excessively embellished observations of life and people. Some Byzantine writers, such as Joannes Geometres, composed complimentary epigrams on saints as well as ancient Greek philosophers.
Byzantine poetry also features several works of satire, including an anonymous work called Timarion and Mazaris’ Journey to Hades, by Mazari. Both poems concern the protagonist’s unexpected visit to the underworld, where the ruling class is lampooned and certain ethnic groups are ridiculed. Other satires feature talking animals verbally abusing the clergy and the government.
Panegyrics are the opposite of satires. A panegyric is an official, formal poem, in praise of the emperor. In 562 A.D., Paulus Silentiarius composed a famous panegyric for the emperor, Justinian I, upon completion of the Hagia Sophia, a Greek Orthodox basilica in Constantinople.
Begging-poems are a form of Byzantine poetry in which the poet complains and ask the reader for help of some sort. Wives, food, and other writers are all common topics. The most famous begging poem is “Ptochoprodomos,” which may have been written by Theodore Prodomos.
In the 13th century, poetry showed many influences from the traders and invaders from western Europe. Chivalric romances, such as Kallimachos and Chrysorrhoe, were very popular. The Byzantine Empire’s one heroic epic, Digenis Akritas, was probably written around the same time, even though it concerns earlier conflicts.