Education in the Christian Roman Empire (Part IΙI)

From the start the Byzantine emperors were determined that Constantinople, as the New Rome, should become the world’s cultural, quite as much as its political centre.


The ancient pagan universities of Athens, Alexandria, Beirut and Antioch had been renowned for centuries before the founding of Constantinople. A Christian centre of advanced studies had been established in Alexandria in the course of the third century, and soon after that a Christian academy had been founded in Caesarea; other centres of Christian learning came into being shortly afterwards in most of the larger towns in the East. Constantine I attached great importance to education and, to encourage learning as well as to ensure a supply of enlightened administrators, he soon founded an academy in his new capital. The interest which he took in this institution was shared by many of his successors, but it was Theodosius II who, in 425, transformed Constantine’s academy into a fully fledged university, controlled and supported by the emperors. In doing so he had the wholehearted approval of his grandson and even more of his wife Athenais-Eudoxia. She was by birth a pagan, the daughter of a professor of rhetoric at Athens University-so ardent a stronghold of paganism that Justinian was to put an end to its existence in 529. On marrying, Eudoxia became a devout Christian but she did not lose any of the ardent love for the Greek classics which her father had instilled into her during her childhood. It may well have been due to her influence that even at that early date Greek was made as prominent as Latin in the syllabus of Constantinople’s first university. The new foundation was allotted ten chairs of Latin and ten of Greek with, in each case, three additional chairs of rhetoric. The holders of the Latin appointments were given the names of orators and those of the Greek of sophists. Since the emperors appointed and dismissed the university’s teachers they sometimes attended their classes even though it was the duty of the senate to submit the names of candidates for these chairs (at any rate until the fifteenth century, when it fell to the Great Logothete to do so). Laymen and priests were chosen for these positions in preference to monks. Many a holder of a chair was at some time in his career called to abandon teaching to serve his emperor as an ambassador.

Secular education at Constantinople followed Christian lines whilst looking back to the ancients for its major disciplines (namely, those which they grouped under the headings of grammar and rhetoric), so that, at any rate till the sixth century, even classical studies were made to accord with the Christian doctrine. Thus philosophy, though closely associated with mathematics, found itself linked to theology, and as a result subordinated to Christianity. Nevertheless, until Justinian closed the university at Athens many young Constantinopolitans had been sent there to complete their education. Yet within a century of its foundation Constantinople’s university had already become too small for the needs of a steadily growing population. With the fall of Alexandria, Beirut and Antioch to the Muslims, it became the only one available to Christians. Students from all walks of life flocked to it; by the ninth century they included many foreigners; some were orientals, others Slavs, Georgians, Armenians and, later still, Italians. In 856 Caesar Bardas, an uncle and first minister of Michael VIII, decided that a second university was needed in the capital. He established it in the Magnaura Palace and, perhaps because an ecclesiastical college was already in existence there, he gave his foundation an essentially secular syllabus. Many students attended its courses till it was closed down at the end of the tenth century, probably at the wish of Basil II. When at the height of his scholastic career Photius, who was to become renowned as patriarch of Constantinople, taught grammar, rhetoric, divinity and philosophy in the capital. Adopting the aims of Caesar Bardas, he founded secular libraries in which the works of Plato and the Greek dramatists were made easily available. Photius also undertook the exacting task of compiling the Myriobiblion, which, even though the entries were not arranged in alphabetical order yet, like a modern encyclopaedia, contained all the basic information concerning grammar, history and literature to be found in works written from ancient times to his own day. Learning continued to flourish after Photius’ death and within another two centuries the school which was attached to the Great Palace had grown into an Institute of Historical Studies.


In 1045 a third university was established in Constantinople for the sole purpose of training men for the civil service and judiciary, no lawyers being henceforth allowed to practise until they had graduated from it. Within a few more years Constantine IX Monomachus enriched it with a chair of philosophy. As a result, both theology and the classics were now taught there, and although particular stress continued to be laid on philosophy and Roman law, the culture of ancient Greece now had a part. It became customary for students to start their training by studying grammar, rhetoric and dialectics; they passed on to arithmetic, geometry, music and astrology, and ended with philosophy and advanced studies. Their final courses were conducted by Michael Psellus. He was the most outstanding scholar of the age, the man who, more than anyone else, gave effect to the aspirations both of Caesar Bardas and of Constantine IX. He became the guardian of ancient traditions and at the same time the prime sponsor of active, original thought. He thus became chiefly responsible for the new outlook, that which can best be described as the humanistic; it was to express itself most eloquently in the arts of the twelfth century.

As early as the ninth century teachers had begun to favour a more humanistic scholarship, based on a philosophic attitude founded on the learning of ancient Greece. In the eleventh century Michael Psellus directed their attention to the works of Plato. These had been almost forgotten since the death of Photius. By bringing them to light Psellus created a new atmosphere and an outlook on life which differed radically from that which Christian theologians had instilled into philosophy. The Neo- or New Platonists, as those who thought along the same lines as Psellus were called, refused to accept without question the theories held by theologians, but showed a searching curiosity and more adventurous approach. One result of this was a revival of the sciences, with particular interest being taken in the works of contemporary Arabic and Persian mathematicians and astronomers. As in the days of Theophilus and Leo VI, the Wise, this contact with the East, tempered by the new humanism of the Byzantines, produced men of a more flexible stamp.

Although interest in the works of Plato fostered the development of this humanistic outlook it caused a strong divergence of views between the clerical and lay scholars. Fearing that a return to Hellenism might lead to a revival of idolatry, or rather of
paganism, the clergy strove to encourage mysticism in place of the realistic*, enquiring approach advocated by laymen. Nevertheless, members of the upper clergy continued to study grammar, philosophy and poetry alongside the lives of saints and commentaries on religious texts. Monastic libraries were now expected not only to contain religious and medical books, grammars and dictionaries, but also the works of Aristotle.


When in 1204 the court was transferred to Nicaea the centre of studies moved there with it, but continued to look to ancient Athens for inspiration and, on the emperor’s return to Constantinople in 1261, the classics were studied with even greater enthusiasm than before the Latin occupation. At the same time Eastern (Persian and Mongol) influences, transmitted to the capital by Trapezuntine scholars, and Western ideas bequeathed by the Latins, produced a new intellectual vitality and a creativeness in art as great as that during Byzantium’s most prosperous days. Typical of the period was Theodore Metochites (1260-1332), Great Logothete to Emperor Andronicus III. He was both a distinguished humanist philosopher and a notable scientist; he set much store on mathematics and strove to dissociate the study of astronomy from that of astrology. From ancient times, the latter had been linked both in popular imagination and by astronomers with magic and, as a result, alchemists had enjoyed the same regard as scientific thinkers. An admirer of Plato and Aristotle, even though he did not share the latter’s metaphysical beliefs, Metochites possessed a truly encyclopaedic fund of knowledge, and he combined it with a keen artistic perceptiveness. He built at his own expense one of the finest monuments of later Byzantine art, the exquisitely proportioned, superbly decorated Church of the Chora in Constantinople.

(End of Part III)

(Source: The Chapter ‘Schools, Scolars and Musicians’ (Pages 192- 210) from the book ‘Everyday life in Byzantium’ by Tamara Talbot Rice)

*NovoScriptorium: This is an understandable comment from the historian’s point of view. Theologically speaking though, this ‘mysticism’ described here was not a product of the century mentioned, but existed since the very beginning of Orthodox Christianity, as one can very easily observe while reading Church Fathers even before the 6th century. The (Eastern) Roman lived/s by his faith very intensely; and this faith included/s the ‘everyday miracle’, something which is not ‘rational’ or could be explained in ‘human terms’. The ‘West’ has been different on this matter for a long time, thus, the more ‘rational’ approach to Christianity – which causes though many theological and, followingly, practical problems. We have posted relative articles in the ‘Orthodox Christianity‘ section, for any interested reader.


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