13 June 2012

'Wise Men Hunt after Truth'—Introducing St Eustathius of Thessalonica

In a post back in March called ‘Robert Fitzgerald on Homer’, I quoted a passage from Fitzgerald’s postscript to the Odyssey where the famous translator made a reference to ‘the twelfth century archbishop of Thessaloniki, Eustathius’. [1] I myself then added in brackets the title ‘Saint’ just before the archbishop’s name. This took a little research, as I am ashamed to admit that I knew nothing of this man despite having lived in his city for two years. The warrant for the title was discovered in this excellent article (worth looking at for the beautiful images of Vatopaidi’s frescoes) from the online edition of Pemptousia, the magazine of faith and culture published by the Athonite Monastery of Vatopaidi, where Efthymios Tsigaridas refers to St Eustathius as ‘one of the most important spiritual figures of the 12th century’. [2]

Well, in the hustle and bustle of life, I managed to forget about St Eustathius—until yesterday. I was finally reading Peter Leithart’s Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, recommended to me by no less an authority than Esteban Vazquez, and happened to skip ahead a little bit, when I found this:

Christ was the ‘true Orpheus’, who brought his bride back from Hades, and Odysseus tied to the mast was a type of Jesus on the cross, resisting the siren temptations of the world. [3] Eustathius, twelfth-century bishop of Thessalonica, repeats a commonplace about the plant Hermes gives Odysseus to protect him from Circe’s magic:
By Hermes Homer most tellingly indicates the logos and by moly he indicates paideia, our spiritual education that is to say; for this can only be developed with great travail, ek molou, and by means of suffering and misfortune. The root of moly is black because the beginnings of paideia are always dark as shadows and extraordinarily ill-formed. Therefore our spiritual development is as the carrying of a heavy load and in no wise sweet. Yet moly has a flower and it is white as milk, for the end that paideia aims at and seeks to achieve, lies before us in a gleaming brightness and all is sweet and satisfying. Hermes it is who gives us this moly, and this is nothing less then those logos-inspired directives which do not by any means lie ready for the human understanding to grasp. For moly comes from God and is a gracious gift. [4]

At last my slumbering curiosity was aroused! Prevented by a faulty internet connection from making the mistake documented in this post, I searched through my own volumes at home until I came across the following passage in Vasiliev’s History of the Byzantine Empire:

Among the celebrated figures of the twelfth century in the field of general culture belongs also the talented teacher and friend of Michael Acominatus, the archbishop of Thessalonica, Eustathius, ‘the most brilliant luminary of the Byzantine world of learning since Michael Psellus’ (Gregorovius, Geschichte der Stadt Athen, I, 205, 207). He received his education in Constantinople, became deacon of the church of St Sophia, and was a teacher of rhetoric. He wrote most of his works there, but his historical writings and various occasional compositions he wrote later at Thessalonica. Eustathius’ house in Constantinople was a sort of school for young students; it became a center around which the best minds of the capital and youths anxious to learn collected. As religious head of Thessalonica, the city next in importance to the capital, Eustathius devoted much of his energy to raising the spiritual and moral standard of contemporary monastic conditions, which sometimes created enemies against him among the monks. From a cultural point of view his repeated appeals to the monks not to squander the treasures of the libraries are very interesting; he wrote: ‘Woe to me! Why will you, O dunces, liken a monastic library to your souls? As you do not possess any knowledge, you are willing to deprive the library also of its scientific means? Let it preserve its treasures. After you there will come either a man of learning or an admirer of science, and the first, by spending a certain time in the libraries, will grow more clever than he was before; the other, ashamed of his complete ignorance, will, by reading books, find that which he desires’ (Migne, PG CXXXV, 836). Eustathius died between 1192 and 1194. His pupil and friend, the metropolitan of Athens, Michael Acominatus, honored his memory with a moving funeral oration. 

A thoughtful observer of the political life of his epoch, an educated theologian who boldly acknowledged the corruption of monastic life, as well as a profound scholar whose knowledge in ancient literature secured him an honorable place not only in the history of Byzantine civilization but also in the history of classical philology, Eustathius is undoubtedly a prominent personality in the cultural life of Byzantium in the twelfth century. His literary legacy may be divided into two groups: in the first group are his vast and accurate commentaries on the Iliad and Odyssey, on Pindarus, and some others; to the second group belong the works written at Thessalonica: a history of the conquest of Thessalonica by the Normans in 1185; his very important correspondence; the famous treatise on the reforms of monastic life; an oration on the occasion of the death of the Emperor Manuel, and other writings. Eustathius’ works have not yet been adequately used for the study of the political and cultural history of Byzantium. [5]

Leaving no print stone unturned, I even ransacked Lesky’s History of Greek Literature for references to Eustathius—the most interesting of which was: ‘In the commentary on the two poems compiled by Eustathius, archbishop of Thessalonica from 1175, a good deal of ancient criticism and exegesis survives, embedded in a prolix exposition. The work of the four men [‘scholars who were influention in transmitting Alexandrian learning to posterity’] was known to him through the commentary of Apion and Herodorus.’ [6] Stephen Scully (on whom there will be more in future posts) quotes the archbishop on the sanctity of the polis: ‘Not only is Thebes (in the Troad) called sacred [hiere], but so is every polis, as it guards those within, which [act of guarding], indeed, is divine [theion] (at Il. I.366).’ [7]

Kazhdan’s and Epstein’s Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh & Twelfth Centuries yielded a bit more. There is the remark that ‘Eustathios was one of the best-educated scholars of his time, an excellent representative of the self-conscious, intellectual elite of twelfth-century Byzantine society....Eustathios’s influence on his associates is evident in their quotations from his works and in their imitations of his literary style.’ [8] There is a longish passage on the expansion of ‘naturalistic detail...into a spacial and social dimension’ [9] in St Eustathius’s writing, [10] supplemented by a sizeable excerpt from his description of the fall of Thessaloniki to the Normans in the Appendix. [11] But more interestingly, there are the following observations concerning his Homeric criticism:

Homeric criticism became more profound and varied in the twelfth century. Though Eustathios of Thessaloniki was familiar with the ancient commentaries, now lost, his exegesis was often the fruit of his own consideration. He did not restrict himself to the interpretation of difficult words and grammatical constructions; rather he attempted to understand Homeric heros in terms of contemporary linguistic usage, ethnography, political institutions, and cultural life. Also included in his explanations of the text are popular folkloric elements—dwarfs in England (Inglika) who used arrows tiny as needles, inhabitants of Taurika, probably the Kievan Rus, who made wooden books out of boxes. [12]

When I finally exhausted the possibilities on my shelves, the internet had returned and I duly poked around a bit. From the Orthodox, there was a rather second-rate article on ‘Hellenic Paideia &Church Fathers’ by Demetrios Constantelos, author of the lamentable Marriage, Sexuality, & Celibacy: A Greek Orthodox View, in which by far the most interesting comment on St Eustathius is a quotation from the funeral oration preached for him by Michael Acominatus—‘all young students of literature sought his company, and his home was truly a shrine of the Muses, another Academy, Stoa, and Peripatos.’ [13]

More imporantly, there was a great treatment of St Eustathius in Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church (found here, at CCEL). Schaff informs us, ‘His education was carried on in the convent of St Euphemia, but he became a monk in the convent of St Florus. He early distinguished himself for learning, piety and eloquence...’ He then writes glowingly of the Saint, ‘He was a model bishop, pious faithful, unselfish, unsparing in rebuke and wise in counsel, “one of those pure characters so rarely met among the Greeks [!]—a man who well knew the failings (superstition, mock-holiness and indecorous frivolity) of his nation and his times, which he was more exempt from than any of his contemporaries” (Neander IV, 530-1).’ [14]

It took me longest to find again something I had actually seen when I originally looked into the question of St Eustathius’s sanctity—Anthony Makrinos’s faculty page at the University College London website. Makrinos specialises in St Eustathius, and has Book 1 of his commentary on the Odyssey forthcoming from Brill. I look forward to tracking down some of Makrinos’s articles.

But I have saved the best for last. At the Notre Dame library site, I found a pdf of a translation by David Jenkins, David Bachrach, and Darin Hayton of the ‘introduction’ to St Eustathius’s commentary on the Iliad. I urge all to read the entire thing, and I am tempted to repost much of it here, but this post has already become intolerably long. I will content myself with one central controversial question:

However, since this work is full of myths there is the risk of wondering whether he runs afoul. First of all, these Homeric myths are not intended to be humorous. They are instead the phantoms or veils of noble thoughts. Some are molded by him to fit his subject matter, while others naturally allegorize his themes. Finally, many of these myths that were composed by the ancients and drawn aptly into his poetry are not allegories specifically related to the Trojans at all, but rather are used as those who first composed them intended. But a man so prolific in wisdom did not delight in myths alone. For if wisdom is truthful observation, then the wise man observes truthfully. How can we say that Homer did not do the same? He performed his art by bringing together many elements and mingling them together in his work. Thus, he first entices and charms by surface appearance then captures in this net, so they say, those who shrink from the subtlety of philosophy. Then, having given them a taste of the sweetness in truth, he sends them off to proceed as wise men to hunt after truth in other places. Moreover, he becomes the model for creating credible myths in order that he mgiht lead those eager to learn in this technique just as he does in all others. But it is especially remarkable that, although his work is full of myths, he is not shunned but loved. [15]

I’d love to see more of the Homeric criticism, and I’d also like to see more research on St Eustathius from an Orthodox theological perspective (I’m not sure that there’s been any to speak of—he’s not even mentioned in Fr Meyendorff’s Byzantine Theology). I’d be particularly interested in learning more about the veneration of the Saint. Despite the icon at Vatopaidi, [16] I’ve yet to see any references to a feastday or hymnography for him.


[1] Robert Fitzgerald, ‘Postscript’, The Odyssey, by Homer, tr. Robert Fitzgerald (NY: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1998), p. 476.

[2] Efthymios N. Tsigaridas, ‘The Wall-paintings of the Nave’, Pemptousia—accessed 13 June 2012, here.

[3] The Christian reading of Odysseus tied to the mast goes back at least to Clement of Alexandria, whose reference to the scene I first discovered here on the late, great blog, Ora et labora (Felix Culpa, wherever you are, you are in our prayers!), and later in the source from which it’s quoted there—Alan Jacobs’s wonderful A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001), p. 13. Unfortunately, however, Jacobs believes such readings are not compatible with the ‘hermeneutics of love’ (not merely his own idea, but one based on St Augustine). I think Leithart is more on target here when he observes that the Christian allegorical reading of the pagans ‘reflects a profound insight into the supremacy and universality of Christ’ (p. 181).

[4] Peter Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2009), pp. 180-1.

[5] A.A. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire 324-1453, Vol. 2, tr. (Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin, 1976), pp. 495-6.

[6] Albin Lesky, A History of Greek Literature, tr. Cornelis de Heer & James Willis (London: Duckworth, 1996), p. 77.

[7] Stephen Scully, Homer & the Sacred City (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1994), p. 21.

[8] A.P. Kazhdan & Ann Wharton Epstein, Change in Byzantine Culture in the 11th & 12th Centuries (Berkeley, CA: U of California, 1985), p. 218.

[9] Ibid., p. 216.

[10] Ibid., pp. 216-8.

[11] Ibid., p. 261-2.

[12] Ibid., p. 134.

[13] Demetrios J. Constantelos, ‘Hellenic Paideia & Church Fathers: Educational Principles & Cultural Heritage’, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America—accessed 13 June 2012, here.

[14] Philip Schaff, ‘Eustathius of Thessalonica’, History of the Christian Church, Vol. IV: Medieval Christianity from Gregory I to Gregory VII, AD 590-1073—accessed 13 June 2012, here.

[15] Eustathios of Thessaloniki, ‘Critical Remarks on Homer’s Iliad: Introduction’, tr. David Jenkins, David Bachrach, & Darin Hayton, Byzantine Studies Collection, Hesburgh Libraries—University of Notre Dame—accessed 13 June 2012, here.

[16] The only other reference I’ve seen to him so far as a Saint is in the title of Constantelos’s source—Agios Eustathios Praktika Theologikou Synedriou ['Saint Eustathios—Acts of the Theological Conference'], ed. Christoforos Kontakis (Thessaloniki 1989). I have of course looked in the indexes to the Prologue from Ochrid and the HTM Great Horologion.

3 comments:

Benjamin said...

Leithart, by the way, is a fantastic author. His little article on infant baptism is the best damn thing I've ever read about baptism. Not bad for a crazy Protestant in Northern Idaho.

I attempted once, much to my own monumental failure, to write a paper "The Gospel of Homer," in which I was going to tease out all the different ways that esp. the Odyssey could be read through Christian lenses. This was first sparked by the repeated lines in the Odyssey where Odysseus longs for the day that he can "scatter" the suitors in his house. My mind went right to "Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered" and then one thing led to another and I had a whole master theory with dozens upon dozens of examples. The trouble was in the writing...which went no where and did not very quickly.

aaronandbrighid said...

It's a great idea. Too bad you didn't finish it!

I too enjoy some Leithart. I greatly enjoyed his book on St Constantine last year, and am for the most part quite liking Deep Exegesis. But some of his anti-Orthodox stuff is rather silly.

Marie said...


Monsieur Hans van Kasteel « a non seulement lu les deux mille trois cents énormes pages [des Commentaires sur l’Iliade et l’Odyssée] aux caractères serrés de cet évêque byzantin [Eustathe de Thessalonique] si érudit du douzième siècle, travail que bon nombre de spécialistes ont renoncé à entamer, mais il en a extrait pour nous le suc, labeur, faut-il le dire, aussi gigantesque que passionnant... »

« Questions Homériques », de Hans van Kasteel, éd. BEYA.