For this post, I decided to publish an old translation and commentary of mine, which I made while working on a project on the reception of the historian Dexippus in Byzantium. The letter is one of a series of letters that the twelfth century logophile John Tzetzes wrote to real and fictional characters. This one is to the emperor Manuel Komnenos (1154-1180A.D.) about his visions and prophecies for the emperor. In this letter, Tzetzes reports and interprets one of his dreams saying that the emperor must hire Scythian (Cuman) mercenaries to gain victory.
Tzetzes, John. Epistolae. ed. Theodore Pressel. Letter 52
To our mighty and holy emperor Manuel the pophyrogennetos
As your unworthy servant, I salute your holy and mighty Imperial Highness, mighty emperor, and I will become a herald of victorious good news for you using well sent dreams if you will accept a Scythian horse as an ally of your Majesty. I, your Majesty’s unworthy servant, am “neither a diviner, nor a reader of omens” nor am I a holy father, priest, or any other position of virtue, but I sometimes have dreams almost like divinations and prophecies whose endings I know. I don’t get my dreams when I’ve eaten a lot, gotten drunk, or when I’m deep in sleep, but when I haven’t touched anything and I remain sober hardly asleep. As many people are aware of our mode of life and condition, I will proceed to explain what happened to on this present bright and shining Sunday. [Saturday nights] I usually keep to myself and don’t go walking through the forums or the highways, I fell upon my bed to go to sleep, but like always I was not permitted to fall asleep because I was being attacked and under siege from a hoard of fleas outnumbering the immeasurable army of Xerxes. Trapped in the net of such an evil, I rolled around all night long more than Ixion’s wheel until daybreak, hardly shutting my eyes due to the pain and aggravation remaining almost still without sleep, when I had a vision I was walking to the Forum of Leomacellum where I met Basil, a goldsmith, reading a book near the workshop of perfumer named Victor Short, reading a book. At first I thought the book was none other than a cheap copy of the Holy Scripture, but since I heard him reading, I said, “Basil, is that not The Scythian Wars by Dexippus?”
He told me, “Yes”
And I said, “Who gave you it?”
He told me, “The keeper of the seal.”
There are two keepers of the seal, a father named Theodore and his son the deacon Constantine. I decided it must have been his son who gave him the book. I was thrice surprised that a person with so little education like Basil, who had only learned his rudimentary letters, would be reading such a book as well as by the fact that it appeared to me that he lives close to Victor’s workshop when he lives much further south, and I was also surprised that the book I wanted to read, the keeper of the seal had given to the gold smith to read. The book’s binding is coming undone and it has been shriveled up by fire. And yet, although it is in such a state, there is a good work inside and the pages and binding don’t really matter. So I decided that the goldsmith Basil was Your Imperial Majesty who lived farther to the south of Victor’s workshop than he seemed to. I also thought the fact that he would come into the workshop of Short Victor worked with gold and received the Scythian horse to his aid by means of the seal keeper and general Theodore or Constantine his elder, ordained son, who seal and bind what opposes, meant that with the aid God and the saints by those names as well as with Scythian horsemen as your ally paid with gold, you shall shortly and concisely win victory and its spoils. I wrote this as your unworthy servant, but also as someone who loves his emperor and his country.
Commentary to the Letter
To the emperor Manuel: This is none other than Manuel I Komnenos (1154-1180) who had a penchant for prophecies and dream interpretation something Tzetzes could provide him. Manuel was so superstitious that at one point that if his dynasty followed the order of the letters of the Greek word for blood AIMA (Alexios, Ioannes (John), Manuel), it would rule forever. That was why he named his son and successor Alexios in opposition to the traditional Greek practice of naming a son after his grandfather.
A Scythian horse: This is the first of the many ways that Tzetzes uses the term. In this context, he is referring to his ancestry. Tzetzes was half Georgian on his mother’s side.
Neither…omens: This is quoted from Homer’s Odyssey line 203.
Ixion’s wheel: Ixion was a mythical figure who was expelled from
by Zeus after trying to have sex with Hera. In punishment for this, he was
bound to an ever turning wheel of fire.
Had a vision: The use of ἐδόκησα for ‘I had a vision’ is not a standard use of the word which usually would mean ‘I decided’, but the use makes sense when one considers that the noun δόκησις can mean ‘vision.’ Tzetzes simply has altered the verbs meaning based on a noun.
The forum of Leomacellum: This was the forum built by the emperor Leo Macellus ‘the Butcher’ (457-474A.D.), which was located on the northern side of the city.
The Scythian Wars: This was a work by Publius Herennius Dexippus written in the late third century A.D describing the wars of the Roman Emperors with the Goths, the Scythians in the classicizing language of Dexippus. The work does not survive in full.
To be your Imperial Majesty: From here on the interpretation of the dream becomes clear. Basil the goldsmith is the basileus (emperor) Manuel who will have to use gold to hire the Scythian horsemen i.e. foreign mercenaries so that in the near future he will come to Short Victor’s place which we have used instead of the Greek name Kontos Stratonikos meaning ‘short victory of the army.’ Theodore the keeper of the seal represents the martial saint, the general Theodore, while his elder son Constantine represents the saint and emperor Constantine the Great.