Education in the Christian Roman Empire (Part IΙ)

Scrolls were of two types; the one was read from top to bottom, the other was more like a roll. It was intended for literary purposes and was horizontal in shape, the text being written in sections, which began at the left and ended at the right.


These ceased to be exclusively used with the invention of the biblion (originally the Greek name for the Bible). The latter was made up of sheets folded very like a modern book, the bound volume formed in this way being called a codex. When the number of folded sheets formed either three or six double pages they were known as a tetradia. To begin with no more than 45 tetradia could be bound together, but later the number was increased. Books made up in this manner varied greatly in size. Their names were related to their subject matter. Books in which the lives of saints were arranged in the form of a calendar were known as Menologia; the four Gospels were called Tetra Evangelia; when the Gospels were arranged in the form of daily lessons the volume was called an Evangelistrion, whilst the first eight books of the New Testament formed an Octateuch. In addition there were psalters, volumes of homilies, and so on. The majority were bound in wooden boards, generally oak. When a volume was intended for ceremonial use in a church or designed for a dignitary, the outside cover was often made of some precious material such as ivory, silver or gold. It was always elaborately worked, being carved, chased or embossed, and sometimes enhanced by the addition of precious jewels, cloisonne enamels, paste inlays, niello work or gems (83). When made for an
emperor the pages were dyed purple and the text often written in letters of gold; the binding was also generally stained purple, though the top cover might well be of gold and adorned with cloisonne enamels. Gospels of this type are called Purple Codices.

Byzantine scholarship was at its peak roughly between 842 and the start of the twelfth century. During that period the learned and energetic prelate Photius was moulding the minds of a new generation of intellectuals; the saintly brothers Cyril and Methodius
were devising the Cyrillic alphabet for the use of the converted Slavs; Bardas Caesar, a keen admirer of Photius, was founding the Magnaura University; Leo VI, himself a pupil of Photius, was spending his leisure composing theological works-some of which
remain in use in the Orthodox world of today; Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus was writing works of permanent value; whilst Michael VII, a pupil and friend of Psellus, had been so immersed in learning and the arts that, try as he could, he was unable to
reorganise the army, shattered by the nation’s defeat at Manzikert, thereby further imperilling his kingdom. Only a few years later Anna Comnena, the daughter of Alexius Comnenus, was exiled to a convent by her brother. She occupied her time there writing a life of her father which is surely one of the world’s great biographies.

The boyhood experiences of St Cyril were not unusual for the ninth century. The son of a worthy if far from prosperous notable living in Salonica, the boy was born in about the year 822 and was named Constantine. His father died when he was about 14 years old. When this became known in Constantinople the imperial chancellor, who had heard Constantine well spoken of, wrote to the boy’s mother offering her son a vacancy in the imperial school where the future Michael III (842-67) was a pupil. The school was the best of its day. The offer was accepted and in due course Constantine set off alone for Constantinople. He was 16 when he entered the school; within three months he had qualified as a grammarian and was able to pass to more advanced work, studying geometry with the great mathematician Leo and dialectics and philosophy with the equally famous and distinguished Photius, twice patriarch of Constantinople. In addition he studied rhetoric, astronomy, arithmetic, music and, in the words of a contemporary, `other Hellenistic arts’. It is curious to find no mention made of theology. Constantine was 22 years old when, having completed his education, he left the school to become
patriarchal librarian at Haghia Sophia. It is interesting to compare him with Psellus who, some two centuries later, pursued his education till he was 25, devoting his last few years of study to becoming a good public speaker and to mastering deductive and
inductive philosophy, the natural sciences and mathematics. In addition to his duties as librarian Constantine was also expected to act as secretary or personal assistant to his former teacher, Patriarch Photius. At this period in his life he took Holy Orders,
entering the church under the name of Cyril. On completing a thesis he was appointed deacon and offered the post of professor of philosophy in his old school. This was a high honour, for in addition to teaching in the school, its professors were expected to act as cultural advisers to the emperor. Nevertheless, Cyril refused the offer and it was not until about the year 850 that he finally accepted a professorial chair. Some ten years later he gave up teaching in order to undertake missionary work with his brother
Methodius, first in the kingdom of the Volga Khazars and later among the Slavs of central Europe, for whom he devised the alphabet which still bears his name.

As a general rule girls were not as well educated as their brothers, but so long as the boys were taught at home they were generally able to share their lessons. Even so, girls could not enter a university and if they wished to pursue their studies they had to do so with the help of a tutor. Nevertheless, quite a number of them were very learned. The daughters of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus were noted for their scholarship. The talented Anna Comnena begged to be forgiven her temerity in writing her father’s life since she lacked `the science of Isocrates, the eloquence of Pindar, the impetuosity of Polimon and of Homer’s Calliope as well as Sappho’s lyre’-yet she produced a work of equally enduring quality. She married Nicephorus Briennius, himself respected as an historian. Irene, daughter of the Grand Logothete Theodore Metochites, was a distinguished scholar and so were many other women; more still qualified as doctors and worked in the women’s wards of hospitals, where they were the equals of their male

By the ninth century the Patriarchal School in Constantinople ranked as the best of the religious educational establishments. All its teachers were deacons at the cathedral of Haghia Sophia and its director was an ecumenical professor. The younger children
who were admitted to the school received the same general education as that provided for children in secular schools; that is to say they were taught the subjects included in grammar by one set of specialists, those in rhetoric by another, and those in philosophy by a third. Any of their teachers could be called upon on such occasions as the emperor’s birthday or similar events to carry out the duties of Crown orator. However, pupils in that school also followed a full course of religious instruction. Once again the subjects covered were divided between three groups of teachers; the school’s director personally taught all pupils the Gospels; other specialists studied the Epistles with them and others the Psalms; these scholars could also be asked to act as court orators. Before long specialists in the Old Testament were attached to the staff, and the school soon came to rank as a university or teachers’ training college. At that level churchmen and laymen were taught separately, with a view to providing educated men for the upper clergy or teachers. From about the tenth century men of all ages took to meeting in the school’s
courtyard to discuss methods of education. By that date the school had become attached to the church of The Holy Apostles. That magnificent building stood on the summit of Constantinople’s highest hill; it was largely because of its prominent position that it was pulled down and its treasures destroyed by Sultan Mehmet and that it was replaced by a mosque some years after the conquest of Constantinople. Its loss is one of the saddest in Byzantine history. Under the Byzantines, grammarians, rhetoricians and dialecticians would meet in the church’s narthex to propound their opinions, whilst physicians, doctors, mathematicians and those concerned with geometry and music would take possession of the atrium. When their arguments became too violent the patriarch would be asked to intervene.

(End of Part II)


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