The epic ballad of Digenis Akritas is a romantic epic set on the Eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire. Although Byzantine Greek in nature, the poem shows many Oriental influences. The Akritans were border warriors who defended the Eastern frontier of the Empire from invading bands of Arabs, Persians, Saracens and Turks. There are two forms of the poem, written and oral. The oral version has been sung by Pontic musicians for centuries. The time period of the poem is approximately the 10th century but some researchers have concluded that the hero was a real person who was killed in battle in the 8th century.
The written version of the poem was lost for centuries and discovered only about 150 years ago at Trabzon. Shortly afterwards other versions were discovered. These were found at diverse locations such as Andros; Lincoln College at Oxford; the "Madrid" version from the Escorial library; and what is considered to be the oldest version the "Grottaferrata" from the Greek monastery of Grottaferrata near Frascati, as well as a Russian version. The various versions are mostly between 3000 and 4700 lines. There is also a prose version written by Meletios Vlastos of Chios in 1632.
The hero’s father was an Arabian Emir who carried off in a border raid, a Princess of Cappadocia, the daughter of a Byzantine General of the Doukas family. After being captured by the Princess’ brothers, the Emir marries her after converting to Christianity. Their son Digenis Akritas - "Twice born border warrior" - of two races and two religions, grows up to excell in all the heroic characteristics of the time – a great hunter, warrior and athlete. Like his father he carries off and marries Evdokia, the daughter of a Byzantine General. After their marriage they leave his parents’ castle and lead a nomadic life on the borders. After many exploits he builds a castle on the Euphrates where after many years he dies.
The poem has had a major influence among Pontic Greeks and parts of it are still sung at dances today along with modern songs. The song is in "Dipat" rhythm which most likely attests to the archaic nature of the dance. The poem has greatly influenced later Greek poetry including the Cretan epic "Erotokritos". However, unlike Cretan musicians who will sometimes recite the whole of Erotokritos, Pontic musicians only sing small parts of the epic. Pontic Greeks consider themselves to be the descendants of the Akritans and many dance groups and nightclubs are called "Akritas tou Pontou" – "border warriors of Pontos"
The poem is available in several versions in English from a number of University presses.