The Medieval Review 15.05.15

James, Liz, ed. Constantine of Rhodes, On Constantinople and the Church of the Holy Apostles. With a new edition of the Greek text by Ioannis Vassis. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. pp. xiii, 250. $134.95 (hardback). ISBN: 9781409431671 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Rossitza Schroeder
Pacific School of Religion/Graduate Theological Union

This is the first English translation of the entire text of Constantine of Rhodes' tenth-century poem(s) about Constantinople and the church of the Holy Apostles. The book is divided into two parts: one dedicated to the text of the poem and another to its context. The first section contains a new edition of the Greek text by Ioannis Vassis to which he also wrote an introduction (3-13). In it he briefly considers the manuscript tradition and previous editions, describes the structure of the poem, and mentions the issues with its dating which are taken up in the fourth chapter by Liz James. The Greek text follows with facing translation in English (15-85). There are copious footnotes and two indices (Index nominum [86-87] and Index verborum notabilium [88-94]), as well as a commentary by Liz James on the translation (95-128), all of which should be useful for anyone engaging with the contents of the poem.

There are two particular points that could have been fleshed out a bit better in the commentary. One relates to the military dimensions of the architectural elements of the church--in lines 614-16 the poet compares the piers to "generals and commanders of tagmata." It would have been useful if there was a more extensive discussion on this intriguing and rare association between the Byzantine army and church architecture.

The other point that deserves further attention is the reference in line 645 to Solomon's Song of Songs and the bridal chamber. Further consideration of this point is important because on one hand it gives us a glimpse of how well and to what extent the tenth-century Byzantines knew and utilized this particular Old Testament book, and on the other, because the more common references employed for Hagia Sophia as well as for the nearby church of Hagios Polyeuktos were to Solomon's Temple rather than to the more intimate setting of the chamber. [1]

The second part of the book is written by Liz James and contains three chapters and a conclusion. In the chapter entitled "On the Poet and the Poem" she considers questions about Constantine's identity and the poem's composition and patronage. She indicates that that there were, in fact, two separate poems--one about the monuments of Constantinople and one about the church of the Holy Apostles--which were eventually stitched together. James dismisses the question of whether this is a good or bad poem, and argues instead that it must have been either a draft or was delivered orally and was written down at a later date. Commissioned by the emperor Constantine VII (r. 945-59), the poem easily fits into the literary activities of the ninth and tenth centuries, notable for the considerable interest in the pagan and Christian antiquities of the city.

James reevaluates Constantine's language and identifies it as creative and inventive; she feels that his neologisms were intended to convey vividly the nature of the monuments described. She identifies most of the technical terms as classical in origin and also unspecific enough to allow the poet to distinguish himself from the architect who was first and foremost a craftsman. James observes that whereas in his description of Constantinople Constantine reveals excellent knowledge of classical mythology and classical authors, in the section about the Holy Apostles he relies almost exclusively on references to Christian theology. Thus while numerous allusions to Homer characterize the description of the civic monuments, the ekphrasis of the Holy Apostles is entirely affected by the ideas of contemporary homilists like George of Nikomedia and Leo VI (r. 885-912). As James writes, the most important aspect of the poem about the church is its theological nature and especially the emphasis on the humanity of Christ. She argues that the poet's evocative language presents a different picture of ekphrasis not as a mere description of a work of art but as a vivid representation that brings a monument before the eyes of the listener/reader in an immediate and convincing manner.

The chapter on "Constantine's Account of Constantinople" deals with the first half of the poem with its emphasis on honorific columns and three-dimensional sculpture. James detects a clear imperial agenda in the description of various monuments as most of them were sites for civic ceremonies and royal pomp. Constantinople emerges as the quintessential royal city ruled by emperors who were deservedly identified as "Great": Constantine I (r. 306-37), Theodosios I (r. 379-95), Leo I (r. 457-74), and Justinian (r. 527-65). According to James, the imperial theme is further accentuated by frequent mentions of royal insignia as well as by the vocabulary of piety, wisdom, and nobility, all of which were openly associated with the persona of Constantine VII. She indicates also that the poem reveals a reinvigorated relationship between the city and the ruler after the end of the iconoclastic controversy; in general, it has been suggested that during the seventh and eight centuries, Constantinople relied more on her supernatural defenders, and especially on the Virgin, rather than on the imperial presence.

In the chapter on the church of the Holy Apostles James considers the second part of the poem about the now-lost building. In the beginning she reviews the primary and secondary sources about the church's architectural form. Various ground plans are reproduced (188-89) in order to illustrate what the church might have looked like. James leads her readers through the main components of the poem and cautions them that its main purpose is not an objective description as one might think when considering the current understanding of ekphrasis. According to her, Constantine's language is imbued with a sense of movement; similarly, the narrative that he constructed is not linear and straightforward, but is somewhat confusing if not even disorienting, reflecting perhaps the actual sense of bewilderment that a viewer would have experienced when entering the church. This kind of sensual overload which affected not only the body but also the soul would have undoubtedly aided the spiritual edification of the faithful. These fascinating observations could have been even further supported with references to Bissera Pentcheva's earlier work on the performative aspects of middle Byzantine art. [2]

James astutely points out that the poet, while locating himself in the middle of what would have been a cruciform church, established multiple viewing points for the reader. She notes that Constantine is very keen on talking about the building's firm foundations, revealing, perhaps, the real fear of earthquakes and their devastating effect on the city and her population. The description of the church's stone work and columns invokes the earlier sixth-century account by Paul the Silentiary of Hagia Sophia's marbles prompting an easy parallel between the two buildings and setting them up right next to, and perhaps even against, each other. Of special note is the fact that even though the Macedonian dynasty was especially interested in it, the funerary function of the church was not mentioned, very likely because, as Liz James suggests, the imperial tombs were located outside.

Constantine described eleven icons in the interior of the church, highlighting Christ's Incarnation and his death and resurrection, which were also themes that dominated the post-iconoclastic Byzantine theological landscape. While it is clear that Constantine wrote about images in the church that could be seen, he did not really intend to simply describe, but rather to show his readers/listener how to interpret the church's decorative program. James concludes that what we have is the Holy Apostles as Constantine (and his contemporaries) saw and thought of it; it is as much a creation of architects and artists as it is of the poet.

In the concluding chapter James writes that even though the two poems are very different, in reality they reflect two distinct and equally important characteristics of Constantinople--its antiquity and its Orthodoxy. She further indicates that while it is clear that the poem was written for Constantine VII we cannot know what prompted its composition. We can only surmise, as James says, that the poet, by invoking monuments associated with the great rulers of the past, intended to create a point of comparison for the emperor Constantine and to insert him into a seemingly uninterrupted line of royal succession.



1. Robert Ousterhout, "New Temples and New Solomons: The Rhetoric of Byzantine Architecture," in The Old Testament in Byzantium, ed. Paul Magdalino and Robert Nelson (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010), 239-51.

2. Bissera Pentcheva, "The Performative Icon," Art Bulletin 88 (2006), 631-55.

Copyright (c) 2015 Rossitza Schroeder

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