Avancini and his plays

spacer1. Presented here is yet another Jesuit play centered on palace intrigue. Among the expected plays about conversion, martyrdom, and the like are these perhaps surprising plays full of conniving schemers plotting to gain power. No religion of any kind is involved. For a discussion of possible reasons that Jesuit might have written such plays, see Dana Sutton’s Introduction to Joseph Simons’ Mercia, his Introduction to Simons’ Zeno, and my note below on a few other plays devoted to intrigue. The absence of religion from plays set in pre-Christian times, such as Semiramis and Artaxerxes Tragoedia — is is a different Artaxerxes from the protagonist of the anonymous Jesuit drama Artaxerxesalready posted in the Philological Museum. In modern terminology, that Artaxerxes is Artaxerxes I, ruled 465 - 424 B. C. ; our man is Artaxerxes III Ocus, ruled 358 -3 38 B. C.. — which tells the story of Artaxerxes and his four sons, is not surprising. However, this absence is not universal. In Avancini’s Cyrus, also set in Persian times, the prophet Daniel sees a heavenly vision that Cyrus will gain the crown because he worships the true God, Mithradates fraude servatus, “saved from the deceits of Mithras” (Cyrus II.3). (There are other Jesuit plays about Cyrus, who seems to have been a favorite pagan.) On the other hand the absence of religion from plays set in Byzantium is surprising. Authors could have focused on iconoclasm, heeresies, struggles with Islam, or conversion of Slavic and other tribes, but for some Jesuit authors, palace intrigue was more interesting than theology. All in all, the popularity of this type of Jesuit plays is hard to understand and remains problematic.This play differs from many of Avancini’s other plays: the staging is less complex than (for example) Constantinus Magnus or Cyrus; it does not appear to have been written for a specific occasion; and the plotting is somewhat slipshod and careless (details below).

The Author

spacer2. For a discussion of Nicolaus Avancini’s career and a description of each of his plays, see my Introduction to Semiramis in the Museum. For other plays with Byzantine settings, see Simons’ Leo Armenus, Theoctistus, and Zeno in the Philological Museum.

The Plot of Alexius

spacer3. As the play begins, Andronicus, the central figure in the plot, is returning from exile. [In history, the date was 1183. The primary source for the reign of Alexius is Nicetas Choniates, Historia pp. 291 - 355 Bekker. According to the Argumentum, he had been sent by his brother, the former Emperor Manuel, to the island Enna (in reality the city Onaion, modern Turkish Ünye, on the Black Sea). Manuel had also imprisoned Andronicus’ two sons, Manuel and John. Emperor Manuel has died, and his son Alexius at age 15 has succeeded. Alexius’ chief advisor is Sebastus. (Historically the advisor was the Protosebastus Alexius, the emperor’s cousin.) Sebastus, considering Alexius to be weak — as indeed he is — advises him metenda sunt papavera, he should cut down the tall poppies (95) i.e. control the nobility. One sign of Alexius’ weakness, or at least naiveté, is his decision to free his cousin Manuel, Andronicus’ son, from the prison where the Emperor Manuel had put him. Far from being grateful, Manuel rages against Alexius and plots to free his brother John. He further plans to kill Alexius and join his father Andronicus outside the city. On their part, Sebastus and other officials plan to kill Manuel, who should never have been released. Outside the city Andronicus visits the tomb of his brother, the Emperor Manuel, and thoroughly reviles him. In response Manuel’s ghost appears and predicts Andronicus’ doom, which in fact happened two years later in 1185. (Similar menacing ghosts appear in in Zeno and Leo Armenus). Thus ends Act I.
spacer4. Act II shows us Alexius acting as emperor. He receives delegations from Sicily and Aquitania. (Why Avancini uses Aquitania and Aquitani for Gallia, Galli, or Franci is a mystery to me.) The latter offers him a marriage alliance. ([Historically Alexius was married to Anna, the daughter of Louis VII of France.) Now John, Andronicus’ other son, still in prison, is heard from; he sends a letter to Alexius warning of his brother Manuel’s plot. We learn that Henry, called Prince of Hungary in the Argumentum, is also plotting against Alexius. During a hunt, Henry attacks Alexius, but is driven off. He grieves that his plans were foiled. Thus ends Act II.
spacer5. Sebastus now claims that he wants to retire. Alexius dissuades him; he still needs Sebastus’ guidance. A dramatic scene change: Andronicus consults his magus Harpagus, who summons underworld specters to predict a glorious future for Andronicus. Compare the similar scenes in (among others) Simons’ Zeno I.2 and Kolczawa’s Tyrannis II.13. Nevertheless, Alexius forbids Andronicus to enter the city, despite the fact that he has great popular support. John continues his efforts to warn Alexius about hostile plots. The populace revolts against Sebastus, and court officials decide to seize him and hand him over to Andronicus.
spacer6. This they do in IV.1 - 2, and in true Byzantine fashion, Andronicus orders Sebastus to be blinded. Then Andronicus is greeted by his two sons Manuel and John, now free. He promises the succession to John, who instead argues for Alexius. John even lays plans to help Alexius escape Andronicus’ threat. Alexius is also urged to summon help from the Western powers, but he temporizes. In the event Andronicus does enter the city and is acclaimed by the people co-emperor with Alexius. As the consummate hypocrite, he declares that he is always publici semper boni / Parere votis promptus, “ready to obey (Alexius’) commands for the common good” (2074ff.).
spacer7. In Act V John, who becomes the center of attention, continues his efforts to rescue Alexius. Before the Senate, Andronicus accuses Xene, Alexius’ mother, of treason and compels her son to sign the death warrant. Next Andronicus accuses Alexius of treasonously conspiring with the Aquitanians, and Alexius is condemned to death. As he is led off, John appears and offers to die in his place, a frequent occurrence in Jesuit plays. He is refused. In the final scene, Andronicus exults over his great success, but in a last-minute reversal of fortune (50 lines from the end of the play), he learns that the executioner has killed his son John by mistake, that after all his crimes another crime was sent on him as vengeance. (Historically, John was co-emperor with his father for two years until both were overthrown in 1185).

The Characters

spacer8. The characters are types. Alexius is the naive and trusting fool. He cannot believe his uncle is plotting nefas, / Quod nec patrarent barbari, immane, impium, “Monstrous, evil wickedness that even barbarians would not commit” (2197f.). Andronicus is the consummate hypocrite: he claims to be honoring his brother’s grave while reviling him the whole time; he states that his goal is the public good, but his personal ambition is limitless. Sebastus is a scheming realist, but cannot convince Alexius to follow his prescriptions. One son, Manuel, is ferocity incarnate, too much so in his father’s judgment (IV.5). The other son, John, fills the role of willing martyr so common in Jesuit plays. Despite imprisonment and harsh words from Alexius, John still loves his emperor and wishes to save him. Both, of course, perish.
spacer9. Another character will serve to illustrate the slipshod composition of this play. This is Henry, called Princeps Ungariae, Prince of Hungary, in the list of personae, but who in fact is treated as a court official, referring to the Empire as his patria, “country” (l. 2116), and he is one of Alexius' advisers in II.1 - 4. He is recruited to kill Manuel, who has been released from prison and is hostile to Alexius (I.6). For some reason Henry takes offense at this request and decides to kill Alexius instead (II.7), but his attack fails and he flees. But shortly thereafter he is found deliberating with other nobles about the best means to imprison Sebastus (III.4). In IV.2 with the other regni primores he finalizes the plan to remove Sebastus. Henry’s status is high enough that Andronicus fears him as a rival for the throne (II.6) and arranges for him to be eliminated, which occurs in V.1, despite the fact that Henry leads Andronicus’ assault into the city (III.7). In addition, the author seems to have conflated Manuel and Henry: both plan to kill Alexius; both are involved in freeing John; Manuel suggests a rescue (I.5), but for some reason Henry carries it out (III.5). The incompatible roles of this character — a royal adviser and an unsuccessful regicide — make no sense. He seems to have been included simply as a means to add complication to the plot.
spacer10. The play is carelessly written in other respects as well; the fault is the author’s, not the printer’s. Two characters are omitted from the list of Personae, Sebastus (a major character) and George, and others are omitted from the chapter headings (e.g. III.6) or misidentified (III.5). Avancini cites Nicetas as his source, but trivial errors in his narrative (e.g. Andronicus’ exile to an island) show that Avancini spent little or no time actually looking at Nicetas. Unusual (for Avancini) is the fact that the play contains no entr'actes, in fact no obviously musical interludes except (possibly) the military exercises in Act I.1 and the magus' demonic invocation in III.ii, which might have been a solo song.


spacer11. To avoid the multiplication of footnotes, I list here a few of the most common examples of  metonymy. Most of these are frequent in Jesuit plays.
spacerCynthius = sun; “...Cynthius, who animates the stars” (III.iv); Cynthia is the moon.
spacerSinon = traitor; “...a clever Sinon is seeking an easy path to our destruction” (II.iii), from Vergil, Aeneid Bk. II.
spacerMars = military force; Gradivus is a frequent synonym, but not in this play.
spacerThemis = Goddess of Justice; “...the punishment which the laws of Themis demand” (V.iii).

Some Other Jesuit Intrigue Plays

spacer12. Avancini’s Artaxerxes - This play is one of a pair set in Persian times and focused on palace intrigue. (the other is Semiramis.) King Artaxerxes per eos periit, et ipsi fraterna caede periere, “perished at the hands of his sons Darius, Arsamenes, Ariaspes, and Ocus, and they in turn perished in fraternal slaughter.” Named successor, the oldest son Darius is convicted falsely of treason and executed; Arsames is killed by Ocus in an arranged quarrel; Ocus is named king, but is killed by Ariaspes after the latter learns of Ocus' plot against Arsamenes. Ariaspes becomes king. Thus the Argumentum. But, as often in Avancini’s plays, the Argumentum is not an accurate representation of the plot, which in fact largely describes the ill-fated love between the eldest son Darius and Aspasia, the daughter of the King of Thrace. Artaxerxes forbids the marriage, since Si Mithram Cajus colit, / Et Caja spernit, nulla constabit fides, “No fidelity can exist if the husband worships, but the wife rejects, Mithras” (I.1, p. 5; Roman wedding terminology). In addition, as commander of the army Darius is supposed to attack the Thracians. He refuses to do so and decides to flee to other lands (alias.../ terras adibo, II.1, p. 19). Aspasia boldly travels to Persepolis to find her beloved, considers his flight as a rejection of her love, and writes a letter impugning his fidelity. Shortly thereafter she is captured by Artaxerxes’ men and her letter is seized. She appears before Artaxerxes (III.5, a scene and a situation very similar to Semiramis III.1), and is condemned to death. Darius, who has not yet left Persepolis, hears of this and rushes to the prison. From the prison wall, Aspasia upbraids him for his desertion (IV.2). Darius pleads Aspasia’s case before his father, who (deceptively, per ironiam) orders their “marriage chamber” to be prepared, meaning, “Put them both to death.” Both go willingly, and both die in one of the long, lovingly described death scenes (V.4) so common in Jesuit plays. Learning that the whole catastrophe occurred as a result of Ocus’ deceit, Artaxerxes dies of grief, and the two surviving sons fight it out.
spacer14. Carolus Kolczawa’s Vindex livor sui ultor, seu Ulricus de Cilli is a very different three-act play. In Act I Ladislaus, Archduke of Austria, sends into exile Ulricus de Cilli, who has shown himself to be a monster of envious malice. In Act II Ulricus successfully plans his restoration. After returning, he is ordered by Ladislaus to lead an army agains the Moslems. He does so while still fuming about his exile and plotting revenge. Most of the intrigue arises in conversations between Ulricus and his many henchmen. In Act III he sends a send a letter to an ally outlining his plans for killing the Corvini (i.e. Ladislaus and his brother Matthias). The letter is secretly intercepted, and Ladislaus and his brother plan to remove Ulricus. With maximum urbanitas they invite Ulricus to the palace. Their dialog is first polite, then descends into quarreling. Ulricus wounds Ladislaus, but is killed by the duke’s Hungarian bodyguard. As is true of most plays by Kolczawa, the plot is thin, the action is entirely ahistorical, most of the characters are the author’s creations, and the dialog is intolerably verbose and pointless, when not interrupted by topical passages set for memorization: the difference between true and false friendship, the necessity of tolerating only one faith in a kingdom, a ruler’s obligation to rule by the “law of love” (cp. Tyrannis I.11, IV.17), and the villainy of Moslems, who are referred to with a remarkable number of synonyms (Bistones, Gelones, Scythae, Ismari, Getae, Lunigeri; in several passages Luna means “Islam,” a sense which I do not find in our lexica).
spacer15. Kolczawa’s Innocentia vindicata, seu Maria Ottonis III coniux. This unusual three-act play, apparently based on a poem by Gotefridus Viterbiensis (Geoffroy of Viterbo) and retailed in Baronius, vol. 10, p. 912, year 998, has as its two main protagonists a wicked queen, Maria of Aragon, wife of Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor, and Melinda, wife of a falsely accused courtier Levindus. Maria is stirred by strong emotions, both love and hate. Her opening 100-line soliloquy is much like Medea’s in Euripides and Seneca: Ferre quid sceptrum iuvat, / Si fulminare nequeat in meritam sui / Hostis ruinam? “What good is it to wield the scepter if it cannot blast into well-deserved destruction its enemy?” (Exer. dram. II, p. 441). She then falsely accuses Levindus of attempted rape. He is promptly executed (end of Act I). In Act II courtiers wonder at great length about Levindus’ fate, and finally learn the truth from his wife Melinda. In Act III Melinda has a very Senecan soliloquy which roughly corresponds to Maria’s in Act I (Exer. dram. II, 516-9). In it she expresses her grief, addressing her dead husband’s head, which is sitting on a maple table in front of her. Melinda is herself in danger of assassination, but manages to appeal to the emperor by throwing her husband’s head at his feet and offering to undergo a trial by ordeal, i.e. by holding a piece of red-hot iron in her hands (contrectatio ferri). She of course passes the ordeal. Maria is judged guilty of false accusation, is condemned to the stake, and commending her soul to God, willingly ascends her own funeral pyre. Thus ends the play. The intrigue arises from the machinations of the many courtiers — all Kolczawa’s creations — acting for or against Maria and Melinda. This play, with its two heroines, is further evidence, if any were needed, that later Jesuit playwrights paid little attention to the strictures found in the Ratio Studiorum.
16. For the possibility that Alexius Comnenus influenced Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto for Don Giovanni, see this essay by Dana Sutton.

Editions of Alexius Comnenus

Nicolaus Avancini, Poesis dramatica Pars IV, (Pragae, Typis Universitatis Carolo-Ferdinandeae 1678 (available here).
Nicolaus Avancini, Poesis dramatica Pars IV, (Coloniae apud Joannem Wilhelmum Friessem, 1679). (1679C on the my Notes page, available here).
Nicolaus Avancini, Poesis dramatica Pars IV, (Duderstadii apud Joannem Westenhoven, 1679). (167D on the my Notes page, available here).


Baronius, Caesar, Annales Ecclesiastici (Antwerp, Ex Officina Plantiniana 1618). (vol. 10).
Nicetas Choniates, Historia, ed. Immanuel Bekker. (Bonn, Ed. Weber 1835). (in Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae)., available here. There is a more recent edition edited by Jan Louis van Dieten, (Berlin, de Gruyter, 1975).
Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, trans. Harry J. Magoulias. (Detroit, Wayne State Univ. Press 1984). The chapter on Alexius is on pp. 127-152.
Carolus Kolczawa, Exercitationes dramaticae Pars I (Pragae, Typis Univers. Carolo-Ferdinandeae, 1703). Contains Ambitio Regnandi, seu Corbin and Vindex livor sui ultor, seu Ulricus de Cilli.
Carolus Kolczawa, Exercitationes dramaticae Pars II (Pragae, Typis Univers. Carolo-Ferdinandeae, 1704). Contains Innocentia vindicata, seu Maria Ottonis III coniux.