Tzetzes was Georgian on his mother's side. In his works, Tzetzes states that his grandmother was a relative of the Georgian Bagratid princess Maria of Alania who came to Constantinople with her and later became the second wife of the sebastos Constantine Keroularios, megas droungarios and nephew of the patriarch Michael Keroularios.
Tzetzes was described as vain, seems to have resented any attempt at rivalry, and violently attacked his fellow grammarians. Owing to a lack of written material, he was obliged to trust to his memory; therefore caution has to be exercised in reading his work. However, he was learned, and made a great contribution to the furtherance of the study of ancient Greek literature.
The most important of his many works is considered to be the Book of Histories, usually called Chiliades ("thousands") from the arbitrary division by its first editor (N. Gerbel, 1546) into books each containing 1000 lines (it actually consists of 12,674 lines of political verse). It is a collection of literary, historical, theological, and antiquarian miscellanies, whose chief value consists in the fact that it to some extent makes up for the loss of works which were accessible to Tzetzes. The whole production suffers from an unnecessary display of learning, the total number of authors quoted being more than 400. The author subsequently brought out a revised edition with marginal notes in prose and verse (ed. T. Kiessling, 1826; on the sources see C. Harder, De J. T. historiarum fontibus quaestiones selectae, diss., Kiel, 1886).
His collection of 107 Letters addressed partly to fictitious personages, and partly to the great men and women of the writer's time, contain a considerable amount of biographical details.
The Homeric Allegories, in "political" verse and dedicated initially to the German-born empress Irene and then to Constantine Cotertzes, are two didactic poems in which Homer and the Homeric theology are set forth and then explained by means of three kinds of allegory: historical (πρακτική), anagogic (ψυχική) or physical (στοιχειακή).
Tzetzes also wrote commentaries on a number of Greek authors, the most important of which is that on the Cassandra or Alexandra of Lycophron (ed. K.O. Müller, 1811), in the production of which his brother Isaac is generally associated with him. Mention may also be made of a dramatic sketch in iambic verse, in which the caprices of fortune and the wretched lot of the learned are described; and of an iambic poem on the death of the emperor Manuel, noticeable for introducing at the beginning of each line the last word of the line preceding it (both in Pietro Matranga, Anecdota Graeca 1850).
For the other works of Tzetzes see J. A. Fabricius, Bibliotheca graeca (ed. Harles), xi.228, and Karl Krumbacher, Geschichte der byz. Litt. (2nd ed., 1897); monograph by G. Hart, "De Tzetzarum nomine, vitis, scriptis," in Jahn's Jahrbucher für classische Philologie. Supplementband xii (Leipzig, 1881).
- Garland, Lynda (2006), Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience, 800-1200, pp. 95-6. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. ISBN 0-7546-5737-X.
- (French) Gautier, Paul (1970), 'La curieuse ascendance de Jean Tzetzes'. Revue des Études Byzantines, 28: 207-20.
- Tzetzes Allegoriae Iliadis 1851 edition at Google books
- Scolia eis Lycophroon, 1811 edition at Google Books
- Tzetzes, Letters 1851 edition at Google Books
- Ioannis Tzetzae Antehomerica, Homerica et posthomerica 1793 edition at Google Books
- Chiliades 1826 edition at Google Books