Education in the Christian Roman Empire (Part I)

In this series of articles we will present, in several parts, most of the Chapter ‘Schools, Scolars and Musicians’ (Pages 192- 210) from the book ‘Everyday life in Byzantium’ by Tamara Talbot Rice. Here is the first part.


The emperors founded quite a number of schools for orphans. These used the same syllabus as the one followed in the country’s primary schools, but children from upper- and middle-class families were often educated by private tutors who preferred welltried Graeco-Roman methods. By the sixth century education was provided for a considerable proportion of children of freemen and the number increased steadily thereafter, though it continued to vary between regions. In the eleventh century, under Alexius Comnenus, free schools were open to all children regardless of nationality or class. A child generally received its first lessons in the women’s quarter of its home; in educated families these were usually given by its mother. This was the case with Michael Psellus, whose mother taught him to speak fluently and clearly as well as to write a good hand; both were considered important assets. Every child was expected to know the Bible by heart. Servants in the Psellus household were forbidden to tell the children horror tales for fear of frightening them. Psellus was sent to school at the age of five, but he was an unusually intelligent child and by the age of 14, when the average pupil was expected to be well-versed only in Aesop’s Fables, he was already able to recite the Iliad by heart.

As in present-day Greece, three forms of Greek were in simultaneous use from about the eighth century: the vernacular Romaic was used by the uneducated, Attic Greek was used by educated people when writing, and a more elaborate version for conversation.
The last was closer to classical Greek than to Romaic and was used for orations, thus widening the gap between the written and spoken forms. On entering school children were first instructed in grammar-a term which included reading and writing. This was
followed by more advanced grammar, syntax and introduction to the classics; each pupil was expected to learn 50 lines of Homer by heart every day and to have read the commentaries on them. Sons of the very rich were taught by tutors, who sometimes stayed on to prepare their pupils for entry to the university. However, at the age of 14 most boys joined their contemporaries in the school classroom. There their time was spent in studying rhetoric: this included pronunciation and enunciation as well as the study of great prose writers such as Demosthenes. In their last year at school boys were taught philosophy, the sciences and the `four arts‘-arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

Each bishopric had its own religious school; and in addition many monasteries, following the precepts of St Basil, not only established their own libraries and scriptoria, but also included some scholar monks who studied the texts preserved in the monastic libraries and taught other monks. Younger monks were directed to teach novices and children destined to become monks. The closing of all public libraries in 476 struck a blow at secular learning for it obliged scholars to rely on the monastic libraries which, naturally enough, contained mostly theological books.

(NovoScriptorium: This is not fully accurate. For the interested reader, we suggest our posts on the ‘Libraries of  the Byzantine Empire’)

Scriptoria, that is to say rooms where scribes worked at copying every type of book available, from grammars and dictionaries to novels and religious works, were attached to all libraries, whether public or private, secular or religious. As early as the fourth century Emperor Valens regularly employed four Greek and three Latin scribes in his library at Constantinople. Calligraphy was considered an art at which all educated people should excel. Many eminent people including Emperor Theodore II Lascaris (1254-8) delighted in transcribing books. In the scriptoria the scribes devoted as much care to the beauty of their script as to the accuracy of the text. It was in these centres that the script known as the minuscule was evolved. Many impoverished scholars increased their earnings by acting as scribes. Books were far from cheap; in the eleventh century the cost of a copy of Euclid was the equivalent of about £12 (NovoScriptorium: the book was published in 1967). As a general rule it is unlikely that the illuminations in the form of figural scenes which adorn so many Byzantine books were produced by scribes; though the marginal devices, chapter heads and tail-pieces may well have been executed by highly skilled calligraphers, the full-page illustrations were generally the work of illuminators who filled in the spaces left blank for the purpose by the scribes.


The first books produced in Byzantium were written on papyrus and were shaped as scrolls. This form was retained for official documents and imperial diplomas even after the fall of Egypt to the Arabs; it passed into general use in medieval Europe and survives to our own time in the case of certain ceremonial documents. The pieces of papyrus which were used for documents carried an imperial stamp, but those intended for literary purposes did not need one and so escaped the tax levied on the former. From the fourth century parchment began to be preferred to papyrus and Constantine I is said to have ordered 50 copies of the Gospels written on parchment for the 50 churches he is supposed to have founded. The change-over was hastened when papyrus became hard to obtain after the Muslim conquest of Egypt. The term `parchment’ is said to derive from Pergamon in Asia Minor and it may be that it was first produced there. The bulk of it was
made from calf hide and as a result it became known in the West as vellum-the same word as veal. But much of it was actually produced from the skin of oxen, antelope, gazelle and sheep. The famous Codex Sinaiticus in the British Museum is one of the
earliest examples that we know of a book written on parchment. Cotton and linen paper was imported from China in the eleventh century, but it remained scarce until the thirteenth, when the Byzantines were able to produce all they needed for themselves.

(End of Part I)


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