Paul the Silentiary
What little we know of Paul's life comes largely from the contemporary historian and poet Agathias, a friend and admirer, who describes him as coming from a rich and illustrious family, with a father, Cyrus, and a grandfather, Florus, who both probably held public office.
Paul also entered public life and became a silentiary – one of a group of 30 court officials of privileged backgrounds organised under three officers (decurions) whose first duty was maintaining order and silence in the Great Palace of Constantinople. They also fulfilled important commissions, especially in church matters, and by the sixth century their order had attained the social rank of illustris, the highest in the late empire. Paul himself may have risen to become their chief (primicerius). He died some time between 575 and 580.
Agathias considered Paul's greatest work to be his long verse ecphrasis of Justinian's Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia), composed after the reconstruction of the dome in 562/3. Paul sees the church as a "meadow" of many-coloured kinds of marble, and helps us to imagine the church before its many subsequent remodellings. The poem was probably commissioned by Justinian himself, with verses to be recited by Paul himself during the rededication ceremony. The panegyric consists of 1029 verses in Greek, starting with 134 lines of iambic trimeter, with the remainder in dactylic hexameter.
Of his other poems, some 80 epigrams in the classical tradition have been preserved in the Greek Anthology. Forty of these are love poems. Two are replies to poems by Agathias; in another Paul laments the death of Damocharis of Cos, Agathias's favourite pupil. Although his subject matter is varied, much is explicitly erotic and uses Pagan imagery, as in the following example:
I press her breasts, our mouths are joined, and I feed in unrestrained fury round her silver neck, but not yet is my conquest complete; I still toil wooing a maiden who refuses me her bed. Half of herself she has given to Aphrodite and half to Pallas, and I waste away between the two.
Texts and translations
- Silentiarius, Paulus (2011). Descriptio Sanctae Sophiae. Descriptio Ambonis. Berlin: De Gruyter. doi:10.1515/9783110239072. ISBN 978-3-11-023907-2. [Greek texts]
- Bell, Peter Neville, ed. (2009) Three Political Voices from the Age of Justinian: Agapetus, 'Advice to the Emperor'; Dialogue on Political Science'; Paul the Silentiary, 'Description of Hagia Sophia'. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press ISBN 978-1-84631-209-0 OCLC 318874086 [English translation and commentary]
- The Greek Anthology I (Loeb Classical Library) translated by W. R. Paton (1916) Cambridge MA: Harvard UP; London: Heinemann) [Original Greek with facing page English translations]
- Epigrammi di Paolo Silenziario: Testo, traduzione e commento. Biblioteca loescheriana. Translated by Viansino, Giovanni. Turin: Loescher. 1963. [Greek texts with Italian translation]
- Paul the Silentiary (2015). Sex and the Civil Servant: Poems by Paul the Silentiary. Translated by Wheeler, Graham John. Felicla Books. [English translations only]
- "Paulus Silentiarius", William Smith (ed.) Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. Vol. III (London, 1870)
- Whitby, Mary (1985). "The Occasion of Paul the Silentiary's Ekphrasis of S. Sophia". The Classical Quarterly. 35 (1): 215–228. doi:10.1017/S0009838800014695.
- Macrides, Ruth; Magdalino, Paul (1988). "The architecture of ekphrasis: construction and context of Paul the Silentiary's poem on Hagia Sophia". Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 12 (1): 47–82. doi:10.1179/byz.1918.104.22.168. ISSN 0307-0131.
- Kostenec, Jan; Dark, Ken (2011). "Paul the Silentiary's description of Hagia Sophia in the light of new archaeological evidence". Byzantinoslavica. LXIX (3 supplementum): 88–105.