What Is Byzantine Poetry?

Laura Metz
Laura Metz
Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

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.

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Discussion Comments


@JimmyT - You are absolutely correct. The history of art and the history of literature and poetry allow for someone to look at the culture at the time and study various aspects of that culture that someone would not usually look at.

By looking at the poems one can look study the words and language used at the time as well as the writing styles used at the time.

People should not take for granted studying the way people write during this time as it becomes easier studying a culture when one sees how they write and interpret events at the time. Getting accustomed to how a society writes gives someone studying more of an insight to the culture and allows them to get a clearer interpretation of that culture centuries down the road.


@kentuckycat - I do not know very much about this type of poetry, but I do know something alarming about Shakespeare.

Since the time of Shakespeare the English language has evolved to the point that only 5% of the words available we use today were used in Shakespeare's times. However, his works are still considered classics despite having far less words to work with.

If anything studying Byzantine poetry can show how much poetry has evolved over time and can be compared to other styles at the time or even styles later to show the change over time or simply the cultural differences.

People should not ignore art while studying history as art usually depicts society at the time of its creation and allows for a clear idea from someone who lived there during that time.


@Izzy78 - I understand how it would seem like a waste of time to study this type of poetry in the poetic sense, but remember you are critiquing Byzantine poetry in how poetry is viewed today.

Byzantine poetry is very simplistic in nature and uses less words, simply because, as you said, the language had not evolved enough yet. However, this does not mean that it should be ignored entirely.

Studying Byzantine poetry can really show to the researcher the lost aspects of the culture of those people. Because the Empire lasted for so long and was so dominant there are a lot of things available to look at and study in order to get an accurate and clear depiction oft heir society.

I feel like it is doing their history an injustice to just ignore something like their poetry when it is there to study, just because it is considered inferior by today's standards.


I have to be completely honest. I know that the Byzantine empire lasted for several centuries, since I read the article, but how much demand is there for someone to read poetry from a time so long ago.

Because the poetry was written so long ago that means that the language had not evolved enough yet to show as much looking at it from an artistic stand point and I do not really see why there needs to be emphasis put on studying this type of poetry from so long ago, when someone could be studying writings and historical instances that happened during this time period.

The Byzantine Empire lasted a long time and I think it is somewhat of a waste to study their poetry simply because it does not show much historical significance and is such a little part of their history.

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