The Classical Quarterly (New Series)

Research Article

The occasion of Paul the Silentiary's Ekphrasis of S. Sophia

Mary Whitbya1

a1 Oxford

The ‘turgid archaisms’ of Paul the Silentiary's style have ensured that his two hexameter Ekphrases, describing the Emperor Justinian's sixth-century church of S. Sophia in Constantinople and its ambo, have lately attracted little interest, except among art historians who seek to extract nuggets of architectural information. On the other hand, the eighty or so pagan epigrams by Paul which are preserved in the Palatine and Planudean Anthologies have received attention in recent years both because of their literary interest and for the social and historical information which they contain. In my opinion, the much more substantial Ekphrases likewise deserve to be examined as literary and historical documents. The title Ekphrasis disguises the historical interest of the works: unlike the majority of the epigrams, these poems are no mere literary exercises, but official, public works, undoubtedly commissioned by Justinian, and delivered on specific and identifiable occasions. Only the central portion of the major poem describing S. Sophia comprises technical architectural ekphrasis; this is preceded and followed by panegyrical material appropriate to the occasion of recitation which together takes up almost half the total length of the poem (462 lines out of 1029). Here the Emperor Justinian, patron of the church, and Eutychius, Patriarch of Constantinople, are praised, and the events leading up to the occasion of the poem sketched. This topical part of the work provides evidence for the ceremonial which accompanied the poem's recitation and demonstrates the type of imperial propaganda pertinent to the end of the reign of Justinian. Moreover, an explanation for a limited number of stylistic flaws in a work which, by contemporary standards at least, is of high literary quality, may lie in the recognition that Paul was obliged to complete his poem in time for a specific occasion. It is with these three occasional aspects of the work that I shall here be concerned.