Digenis Akritas: the Search for Masculinity

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Robert Figueroa

Professor Neville

History 313

1 April 2011
Masculinity and Gender in Digenis Akritas

The Byzantine epic poem, Digenis Akritas, features a heroic frontier military leader on the eastern frontier of the empire after the Byzantine resurgence of the 9th and 10th centuries. As the empire reconquered territory lost to the Arabs centuries ago, the eastern frontier of the empire remained under the control of the military aristocracy, of which Digenis was a member. As a work of literature, the poem’s protagonist represents certain ideals of the society that produced it, especially ideals of masculinity and gender that were reproduced in the daily lives of the people sharing that cultural background. As a product of a deeply Christian medieval empire, the ideals of masculinity depicted in the poem are deeply influenc ed by Christianity, chivalry, ancient Greek traditions, and the cultural values of Byzantine elites. Thus, subaltern classes did not identify with or share the values and morals of the protagonist to the same extent as aristocrats.

The ideals of masculinity presented in the poem are primarily influenced by Christian values and monasticism. The source of the protagonist’s power lies in “having as help the grace of God.” Following the warrior saint traditions of famous historical figures, such as George, Theodore and Demetrius, who are invoked by the hero in the poem, provide the foundations of many of Basil’s superhuman exploits. Like St. George and other warrior saints of the past, Basil slays a dragon, which, like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, endeavors to tempt Basil’s wife. Like the victorious St. George, Basil beheads the three-headed dragon, thereby demonstrating his piety and self-control in the face of desire. In addition, Basil’s love of hunting wild animals and killing lions with his bare hands symbolizes a catharsis for the hero since wild animals symbolize lack of self-control and an inclination to passion. In addition to hunting and dragon-slaying symbolism, Basil also displays piety, kindness, mercy, and humility in his interactions with others. For example, during his meeting with the Byzantine emperor, Basil, he humbles himself before the emperor and recognizes God’s power invested in the imperial office. By humbling himself before the man who rules in God’s name, Basil humbles himself before God, another Christian value. Basil also decides to live away from society with his wife and servants near the Euphrates. Like the monks across the empire, Basil chose isolation from the outside world after committing the sin of adultery twice and lying to his wife about it, then slaying Maximo, the adulteress. Basil also dies before old age and not on a battlefield in the East, which follows Christian views of death as inevitable and a liberating force for the soul. Even with all of his strength, is still human and cannot defeat death after his symbolic baptism while bathing in the Euphrates before becoming ill. Therefore, the ideal man of the Byzantine world would be devoutly Christian, humble, pious, and control his body and emotions, although Basil’s flaws provide evidence of his humanity since nobody could

In addition to profound Christian influences and perspectives on masculinity, Digenis Akritas also follows ancient Greek models and medieval models of chivalry and military lifestyles. Ideal masculinity in terms of the aforementioned models would thus be defined as strength, hunting skills, honor, and possession of women, war experience, and humility. For Basil, his membership in an elite military group that ruled the regions in the East in the name of the emperor, power came with expectations of honor and chivalrous. For instance, during his duel with Philopappos and his sons, he refuses to strike Kinnamos while he was down, since “flogging carcasses is just for weaklings.” The role of protector and guarding women also comes into play for defining the ideal man. His...
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