Digenes Akritas

Digenes Akritas
Epic of Digenis Akritas, Athens National library manuscript.

Digenes Akrites (Greek: Διγενῆς Ἀκρίτης, pronounced [ðiʝeˈnis aˈkritis]), known in folksongs as Digenes Akritas (Διγενῆς Ἀκρίτας, [aˈkritas]), is the most famous of the Acritic Songs. The epic details the life of its eponymous hero, Basil, a man, as the epithet ("Two Blood Border Lord" or "Twain-born Borderer") signifies, of mixed Roman (Byzantine) and Syrian blood. The first part of the epic details the lives of his parents, how they met, and how his father, an Emir, converted to Christianity after abducting and marrying Digenes' mother. The remainder of the epic discusses, often from a first-person point of view, Basil's acts of heroism on the Byzantine border.



The Digenes Akrites is an extensive narrative text, although it is not in a pure epic-heroic style. No less than six manuscripts have been found dedicated to stories about him.[1] The oldest two being the Escorial (or E, 1867 lines) and Grottaferrata versions (or G, 3749 lines), from the names of the libraries in which the respective manuscripts are held. While the form (or forms) in which it has survived is not the product of oral composition, it has nevertheless retained a considerable number of features of its oral origins. The common core of the two versions preserved in the E and G manuscripts goes back to the twelfth century. The text of E appears to be closer to the original composition while G represents a version that is heavily marked by learned reworking. Both texts give enchanting descriptions of the life of the martial societies of the border regions of the empire, while in the figure of Digenes are concentrated the legends that had accumulated around local heroes. The Escorial version is the superior of the two in respect of the power and immediacy of the battle scenes and austerity of style. The epic descriptions of the mounted knights and battles are marked by drama, a swift pace and lively visual detail.


Digenes Akritas and the dragon. 13th century Byzantine dish.

The Byzantine - Arab conflicts that lasted from the 7th century to the early 11th century provide the context for Byzantine heroic poetry written in the vernacular Greek language. The Akritai of the Byzantine Empire of this period were a military class responsible for safeguarding the frontier regions of the imperial territory from external enemies and freebooting adventurers who operated on the fringes of the empire. The work comprises two parts.

In the first, the "Lay of the Emir", which bears more obviously the characteristics of epic poetry, an Arab emir invades Cappadocia and carries off the daughter of a Byzantine general. The emir agrees to convert to Christianity for the sake of the daughter and resettle in Romania (Ρωμανία, the lands of the Ρωμηοί or mediaeval and early modern Greeks) together with his people. The issue of their union is a son, Digenes Akrites.

The second part of the work relates the development of the young hero and his superhuman feats of bravery and strength. As a boy, he goes hunting with his father and kills two bears unarmed, strangling the first to death and breaking the second's spine. He also tears a hind in half with his bare hands, and also slays a lion in the same manner. Like his father, he carries off the daughter of another Byzantine general and then marries her; he kills a dragon; he takes on the so-called apelates (ἀπελάται), a group of bandits, and then defeats their three leaders in single combat. No one, not even the amazingly strong female warrior Maximu, with whom he commits the sin of adultery, can match him. Having defeated all his enemies Digenes builds a luxurious palace by the Euphrates, where he ends his days peacefully. Cypriot legend has it that he grabbed hold of the Pentadaktylos ("Five Fingers") mountain range in occupied Cyprus in order to leap to Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). The mountain range, as the name suggests, resembles five knuckles sprouting from the ground.

The Digenis continued to be read and enjoyed in later centuries, as the text survives in various versions dating to as late as the 17th century. The epic tale of Digenes Akrites corresponds in many ways to a cycle of much shorter Acritic songs, from especially Asia Minor, Cyprus and Crete, some of which survived till today. In the later tradition Digenes is eventually defeated only by Death, in the figure of Thanatos/Charos, after fierce single combat on "the marble threshing floors". Thanatos had reportedly already wrestled with Heracles.


Digenes Akritas and the dragon. 12th century Byzantine dish.

The Digenes Akrites is written in early Demotic Greek and is composed in fifteen syllable blank verse. Rhyming occurs rarely.

The poem does not diverge from the standard political verse of popular Byzantine literature. Each line holds its own and every hemistich is carefully balanced. The poem flows, is cadential, with no cacophonies with very scarce sound repetitions.

Below is an excerpt from the translation of the Escorial manuscript, lines 32-54, by E.M. Jeffreys (pp. 241–2):

Line Original Translation
[32] Ευθύς εκαβαλίκευσαν, 'ς τόν κάμπον κατεβαίνουν. They mounted at once and they came to the battlefield.
[33] Ώς δράκοντες εσύριζαν και ως λέοντες εβρύχουντα They hissed like serpents, they roared like lions,
[34] και ώς αετοί επέτουντα και εσμίξαν οι δύο. They soared like eagles, and the two clashed.
[35] Και τότε να ειδής πόλεμον καλών παλληκαρίων And then you could see a fight between fine brave youths.
[36] και από της μάχης της πολλής κρούσιν διασυντόμως In the heat of the battle they struck continuously,
[37] και από τον κρύπον τον πολύν και από το δός και λάβε and from the great clashing and the cut and thrust
[38] οι κάμποι φόβον είχασιν και τα βουνά αηδονούσαν, trees were uprooted and the sun was darkened,
[39] το αίμαν εκατέρεεν εις τα σκαλόλουρά των Blood flowed down over their horse-trappings
[40] και ο ίδρος τους εξέβαινε απάνω απ'τα λουρίκια. and their sweat ran out over their breastplates.
[41] Ήτον γάρ του Κωνσταντή γοργότερος ο μαύρος, Constantine’s black horse was speedier,
[42] και θαυμαστός νεώτερος ήτον ο καβαλάρης. and its rider was a marvellous young man.
[43] κατέβηκε εις τον αμιράν και κρούει του ραβδέα He charged at the emir and struck him a blow with his stick,
[44] και εχέρισεν ο αμιράς να τρέμη και να φεύγη. and then the emir began to tremble and flee.
[45] Σαρακηνός ελάλησεν τον αμιράν της γλώσσης: A Saracen addressed the emir in his own tongue:
[46] "Πιάσε, μούλε, τον άγουρον, ταχέως να τον νικήσης, "Seize the youngster, my lord, and grab a quick victory,
[47] μή εις σύντομόν του γύρισμα πάρτη κεφαλήν σου. so that he doesn’t take your head off with his sudden turn.
[48] Αυτός καλά σ'εσέβηκεν τώρα να σε γκρεμνήση. He has made a fine attack on you and now he might finish you off.
[49] Εγώ ουδέ τον εγνοιάζομαι να τον καταπονέσης, I don’t think, my lord, you are going to do him much harm,
[50] αλλά μή το καυχάσεται ότι έτρεψε φουσάτα." but don’t let him boast that he routed an army."
[51] Και ο αμιράς ως το ήκουσεν, μακρέα τον αποξέβην, When the emir heard this, he withdrew some way from the youth,
[52] έριψεν το κοντάριν του και δάκτυλόν του δείχνει he threw away his spear and showed him his finger,
[53] και μετά του δακτύλου του τοιούτον λόγον λέγει: and with this gesture said these words:
[54] "Να ζής, καλέ νεώτερε, εδικόν σου είναι το νίκος." "May you live and rejoice, young man, for victory is yours."



  1. ^ Jeffreys (1998): p. xv


Further reading

  • Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire - The Macedonian epoch (867-1081) Includes an extensive discussion of the Digenis Acrites
  • Hesseling, D. C. Le roman de Digenis Akritas d'après le manuscrit de Madrid, 1911–1912, 537pp.
  • (Russian) Bartikyan, Hrach. "Замeтки o Византийскoм эпoce o Дигeнce Aкpитe." Византийский временник, т. 25, 1964.
  • Legrand, Émilie. Recueil de chansons populaires Grecques, Paris, 1904, 23pp.

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