Greek Literature in Late Antiquity: Dynamism, Didacticism, Classicism

The St Polyeuktos Epigram (AP 1.10): A Literary Perspective [1]

Mary Whitby, Oxford

Anicia Juliana’s magnificent church of St Polyeuktos, constructed on an elevated site in the centre of Constantinople in the 520s, [2] has rightly attracted great attention since its remains were first discovered by accident in 1960. Exciting work has been done, and is still being done, on the plan of the church and its relationship to the Temple of Solomon and/or the visionary Temple described by Ezekiel, on its lavish sculptural decoration and iconography, and on its political symbolism. [3] The church was originally identified by the discovery of inscribed blocks which Ihor Ševenko recognized contained phrases from the 76-line poem preserved in the Greek Anthology as AP 1.10, where a lemma ties it to the ‘church of the holy martyr Polyeuktos’. [4] This paper is concerned with that poem. I shall comment on its themes and intention, its metre and style, relate it to other contemporary inscribed poetry and discuss whether it is possible to identify who wrote it.

I. The Text

In the manuscript of the Anthology (Palatinus 23, 10th c., now split between Heidelberg and Paris) the poem is divided into two parts, lines 1–41 and 42–76. A marginal note adjacent to lines 30–32 (where a new scribe takes over writing the manuscript) states: ‘These things are written round in a circle inside the church’ (ταῦτα μὲν ἐν τῷ ναῷ ἔνδοθεν κύκλῳ περιγράφονται); an asterisk in the manuscript after verse 41 indicates that the comment refers to the first 41 lines of the poem. This is confirmed by the archaeological evidence: the surviving inscribed blocks come from the interior of the church and contain fragments from the first half of the poem only; it ran around the entablature of the nave, starting in the south-east corner. [5] The location and arrangement of the second half of the poem are less secure: a marginal note at the end of verse 41 reads ‘at the entrance of the same church’ (ἐν τῇ εἰσόδῳ τοῦ αὐτοῦ ναοῦ). This note has been supplemented in a different hand with the phrase ‘outside the narthex’ (ἔξωθεν τοῦ νάρθηκος) followed by an abbreviated phrase which includes the word ‘arch’ or ‘arches’ (προς τ̑ αψιδ). A further marginal note beside verses 59–61 refers to four plaques on which five or six lines each are inscribed, and asterisks in the text divide lines 42–61 into four blocks of four to six lines each. finally, a note beside lines 63–65 describes a ‘last plaque on the right-hand side of the entrance, on which these things are inscribed’ (ἔσχατός ἐστι πίναξ ὁ πρὸς τοῖς δεξιοῖς μέρεσι τῆς εἰσόδου ἐν ᾧ ἐπιγέγραπται ταῦτα); this refers to the final lines of the poem, lines 62–76. [6] It is likely that these lemmata are based on first-hand observation by the scribes of the manuscript of the Palatine Anthology who copied the poem in the tenth century, when the church of St Polyeuktos still stood, [7] and hence that this evidence that lines 42–76 were inscribed on a series of plaques at the entrance to the church is reliable. No archaeological fragments from this second section of the poem have been recovered.

I am not here concerned with the debate about the exact location and arrangement of the plaques. But I would stress that, except at line 50, the division of the lines between the different plaques as described in the lemmata does not coincide with a strong grammatical break. Hence the plaques must have been close together and lines 42–76 read as a continuous poem. It is likely, however, that this is a distinct poem from lines 1–41, as Harrison suggested: [8] certainly, located as it was outside the church, it would have been seen by the visitor before lines 1–41 inscribed around the interior nave entablature. [9]

I set out below the text and a translation of the poem, [10] arranged to reflect its presentation inside and outside the church as described above, but retaining the order of the text as preserved in the Palatine Anthology, that is, beginning with lines 1–41 from inside the church:

On the south side of the nave:

Εὐδοκίη μὲν ἄνασσα, Θεὸν σπεύδουσα γεραίρειν,
πρώτη νηὸν ἔτευξε θεοφραδέος Πολυεύκτου·
ἀλλ’ οὐ τοῖον ἔτευξε καὶ οὐ τόσον· οὔ τινι φειδοῖ,
οὐ κτεάτων χατέουσα (τίνος βασίλεια χατίζει;)
ἀλλ’ ὡς θυμὸν ἔχουσα θεοπρόπον, ὅττι γενέθλην (5)
καλλείψει δεδαυῖαν ἀμείνονα κόσμον ὀπάζειν.
ἔνθεν Ἰουλιανή, ζαθέων ἀμάρυγμα τοκήων,
τέτρατον ἐκ κείνων βασιλήιον αἷμα λαχοῦσα,
ἐλπίδας οὐκ ἔψευσεν ἀριστώδινος ἀνάσσης,
ἀλλά μιν ἐκ βαιοῖο μέγαν καὶ τοῖον ἐγείρει, (10)
κῦδος ἀεξήσασα πολυσκήπτρων γενετήρων·

The empress Eudocia, in her eagerness to honour God, was the first to build a temple to the divinely inspired Polyeuktos; but she did not make it like this or so large, not from any thrift or lack of resources—for what can a queen lack?—(5) but because she had a divine premonition that she would leave a family which would know how to provide a better embellishment. From this stock Juliana, bright light of blessed parents, sharing their royal blood in the fourth generation, did not cheat the hopes of that queen, who was mother of the finest children, (10) but raised this building from its small original to its present size and form, increasing the glory of her many-sceptred ancestors. All that she completed she made more excellent than her parents, having the true faith of a Christ-loving purpose. For who has not heard of Juliana, that, heeding piety, she glorified even her parents by her finely-laboured works? (16) She alone by her righteous sweat has made a worthy house for the ever-living Polyeuktos. For indeed she always knew how to provide blameless gifts to all athletes of the heavenly King. (20) The whole earth, every city, cries out that she has made her parents more glorious by these better works.

On the north side of the nave:

ποῦ γὰρ Ἰουλιανὴν ἁγίοις οὐκ ἔστιν ἰδέσθαι
νηὸν ἀναστήσασαν ἀγακλέα; ποῦ σέο μούνης
εὐσεβέων οὐκ ἔστιν ἰδεῖν σημήια χειρῶν;
ποῖος δ’ ἔπλετο χῶρος, ὃς οὐ μάθε σεῖο μενοινὴν (25)
εὐσεβίης πλήθουσαν;