Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Education

Who were taught in the Byzantine Empire

St. Gregory Nazianzen confidently states: ‘I think that all those who have sense will acknowledge that education is the first of the goods we possess‘, and J. B. Bury was doubtless right in saying that in the Eastern Empire ‘every boy and girl whose parents could afford to pay was educated’, in contrast to the West where in the Dark Ages book learning was drawn from monastic sources. Princes and princesses might of course command the services of instructors in public positions. St. Arsenius, ‘admired for Hellenic and Latin learning’, was summoned from Rome by Theodosius I to teach his two sons, and a daughter of Leo I studied with Dioscurius, afterwards City Prefect. The ex-Patriarch Photius taught in the family of Basil I; young Michael VII learnt from Psellus, ‘chief of the philosophers’, and his son Constantine Ducas was the ornament of a School kept by Archbishop Theophylact. John of Euchaita tells us that St. Dorotheus the Younger, sprung from a noble family of Irebizond, spent the first twelve years of his life ‘as was natural to one well-born’ under the rule of ‘teachers and pedagogues’. But middle-class children also, like St. Theodore the Studite or Psellus, might be well educated! Even the Scythian slave St. Andreas Salos was taught Greek and the ‘sacred writings’ by his master’s orders, and St. Theodore the Syceote, son of a prostitute in a Galatian inn, went to the village school. The fourth-century philosopher Themistius, indeed, said that one could learn as well in a small town as a large; Brehier has, however, shown that rural education was by no means completely organized. The parents of St. Simeon Stylites only had him taught to mind sheep; St. Joannicius was too busy tending his father’s pigs to acquire even the rudiments till at forty-seven he became a monk; St. Euthymius when he entered a monastery could neither read nor write.

university constantinople

Naturally it is chiefly from the biographies of famous men that we can learn some details of educational practice. About obscurer boys we know next to nothing, and in the case of women we can only infer, from scattered hints, that handicrafts and a knowledge of the ‘sacred writings’ learnt at home were usually, even for a scholar’s child like Styliane, daughter of Psellus, considered education enough. East Roman girls apparently went neither to school nor to university (*). Attention must therefore perforce be concentrated upon the education of a few outstanding personalities.

[NovoScriptorium: (*) This is proved, from more recent research, not to be accurate. The fact that there were women-physicians throughout the history of the Eastern Empire suggests else. The reader can find several related articles in NovoScriptorium.]


Although the Byzantines were eager to call themselves Romaioi and to claim for their own a Roman tradition, their training was purely Greek. Libanius in the fourth century neither studied nor taught ‘barbarian’ Latin, and though Theodosius II in A.D. 425 appointed to his University in Constantinople both Latin and Greek teachers, the latter outnumbered the former. Justinian, who published in Latin his Code, Digest, and Institutes of Roman law, yet issued his later constitutions in the Greek language that they might more readily be understood. In 1045 Constantine IX had to stipulate that the head of his new Law School must know Latin, and this knowledge was probably purely academic, as we have no evidence of spoken Latin in eleventh-century Byzantium. From the fourth century the language and the substance of education in the Eastern provinces of the Empire was Greek. Only in the last two centuries of the Empire’s history the attempts to unite the Churches of West and East necessitated a knowledge of Latin. There was, as Professor Maas has said, ‘a perhaps unexpressed but none the less binding law’ to exclude Latin words from the ‘Hochsprache’.


Within the Eastern provinces of the Empire, indeed, the Latin language never took root. Berytus, with its famous school of Roman law, must have long remained a Latin island in a Greek sea. Latinisms, it is true, survived in the legends upon the coinage, in the technical, legal, and military terms, and in Court titles. Many Latin words found their way into popular speech and are used by the writers of chronicles and of biographies of the saints. Not a few of these Latinisms have persisted right through the Middle Ages and are still present in modern Greek. Psellus in his Chronographia praises Romanus III for having shared in the culture connected with Italian (i.e. Roman) letters, but it may well be doubted whether the Emperor could in fact even read Latin texts (*).

[NovoScriptorium: (*) It is very likely that the Emperors and the Upper Royal class could read in both Greek and Latin. The existence of the Imperial Library throughout the history of the Empire easily suggests this. Please check our relative article.]


Further, it must not be forgotten that the distinction was sharply drawn between ‘our’, that is, Christian, learning and the kind described as ‘outside’, ‘foreign’, or ‘Hellene’, i.e. classical pagan culture. When Christianity had become the State religion, if ‘Orthography’ and ‘Grammar’ were to be taught at all, Christian children must of necessity still use pagan text-books and read pagan works. St. Basil, instancing Moses and Daniel as men who had profited by profane learning, advised the young to study classical history and literature, but purely for the moral conveyed. They were, like Ulysses with the Sirens, to close their ears against any poetry that told of bad men or evil gods, and in all literature they were to pick out the good as bees draw their honey from the flowers. In the Lives of the Saints we are frequently assured that, though the holy men studied astronomy, they piously referred all phenomena to God and not to the stars, and though they learnt the practice and copied the grace of Greek rhetoric, they avoided its ‘babble’ and ‘falsities’ no less than ‘the sophistical part’ of philosophy. It was his ‘virtue’ quite as much as his ‘Hellenic culture’ that entitled John of Euchaita, as the Menaion of 30 January tells us, to pronounce on the intellectual merits of the three great Fathers of the Church, St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Gregory Nazianzen. The hymn-writer Romanus sent all pagan authors to hell.


Though the Greek poets were largely studied, they were theoretically under suspicion as seductive liars, unless an ingenious teacher (like Psellus’s friend Nicetas) could discover some Christian allegory in their verse. If Homer was as a matter of fact read by all, it was partly as fairy-tales are by us, partly because men believed with St. Basil that ‘all the poetry of Homer is a praise of virtue disguised in a story’ (*).

[NovoScriptorium: (*) Homer’s work is not just this of course, but, it is indeed an undoubted ‘praise of virtue’, too. St. Eustathius’ writings prove this claim about Eastern Romans considering Homer as ‘fairy-tales’ groundless. For 40 years a teacher of Homer, St. Eustathius of Thessalonica (1115-1195 AD), could not but make an analysis of the homeric work similiar to his forefathers, i.e. explaining not only the language but the allegories -e.g. about physical phenomena- in it extensively. And this has nothing to do with ‘fairy-tales’ analysis.]


It is therefore small wonder that careful parents had their children grounded in ‘our’ doctrines first of all. In early childhood boys and girls, unless sent like St. Euphrosyne to a cloister, or handed over to some cleric at six years old like St. Lazarus the Stylite or even at the age of three like St. Michael Syncellus, were usually brought up by their own parents in the ‘nurture and admonition of the Lord’, being made to listen to the ‘Divine Scriptures’ and other ‘sacred writings’, and above all to learn the Psalter by heart. The training of the small child’s memory and pronunciation was the aim of the educators, and the Bible was their instrument ready to hand. St. Eutychius was taught until the age of twelve by a clerical grandfather; the father of St. John the Psichaite ‘trained the mind of his children’. The parents of St. Domnica made her read the ‘sacred writings’; the mother of St. Theodore the Studite (ninth century) did the same by his sister; Psellus’s mother (eleventh century) told him Bible stories at night. The influence of the mother on the child’s education and her power to coerce or punish, even by flogging, comes out in many biographies; thus Xiphilinus, a patriarch of Constantinople in the eleventh century, owed much to maternal upbringing.


But we also find ‘Grammarians’ giving instruction in the ‘sacred writings’ to tiny children, to St. Neophytus, for example, as soon as he had been baptized and weaned, to St. Agathonicus and Psellus at the age of five or to St. Stephen the Younger at six years old (when he already ‘ought to have been working at profane studies’); St. Christodulus and the fourteenth-century monk Macanus also got their early teaching in ‘the art of the divine writings’ from masters and not from their parents.

Secular education began between the ages of six and eight, and the child studied with teachers in the elementary school of his native place the all-important ‘Orthography’, i.e. reading and writing, for in view of the change in current pronunciation it was essential to learn with toil and pains the old classical spelling. Libanius was allowed by his widowed mother to idle in the country till he was fourteen, and he left the Antioch School when he was sixteen, so he was mainly self-taught, but this was exceptional. So also was the early age of eight at which the soldier Germanus and the Patriarch St. Nicephorus left their homes in Illyria and Galatia for the capital, the one entering the ‘Schools of the grammarians‘ there, and the other the religious ‘Museum’ of dosellus or Mosele.


At ten or twelve years of age the boy turned from this ‘preliminary education’ to ‘Grammar’ which aimed at a complete ‘Hellenizing’ of the speech and mind, and strove to defend classical Greek against the inroads of the popular language. From papyri, from the biographies of St. John of Damascus and of St, Theodore the Studite, from Psellus’s autobiographical statements and Zonaras’s remarks about Anna Comnena, we gather that this process, in spite of any old prejudice against ‘pagan’ writers, involved a thorough study of the matter as well as the form of classical poetry, Homer (*) especially being learnt by heart and explained word by word. This secondary education was sometimes described as the ‘beginning of learning’ (ta prota mathemata).

[(*) Learning by heart the Psalter, the Gospel and Homer is a tradition that survived in the East for centuries, even under Islamic rule. The last documented person who knew all these three by heart was St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, 1749-1809]


Finally, unless the call to ‘more perfect knowledge’ had already led to the monastic life—St. Nicolas the Studite entered a school for monks when he had ‘ended his first decade’—the boy would go, like George Acropolites at sixteen, or, like Libanius and St. Basil, not until he was twenty years of age or over, to some university to acquire ‘higher learning’ by studying rhetoric and philosophy on strictly classical lines. For rhetoric, ‘the power of artistic persuasive speech’, he would read and memorize Greek historians and orators, and write compositions or make speeches according to classical rules and in imitation of classical styles. In philosophy, like St. John of Damascus, he would ‘mount’ from logic to speculation, and in argument would try to entangle his opponent in a ‘Cretan labyrinth of perplexity’. In reading he would pass from Aristotle to Plato and the works of the Neoplatonists, Plotinus, and Proclus, and would apply to his understanding of Platonic doctrines all his previously gained knowledge of the natural and mathematical sciences. One of these, astronomy, might lead on in certain cases to theology, the contemplation of Him Who created the stars, the ‘philosophy among ourselves’, ‘divine learning’, the ‘science of more perfect things’.

Of these higher studies rhetoric is pronounced by Synesius to be indispensable for serving one’s city, but ‘philosophy in itself is worth more’. Psellus tells us that few are proficient in both, but he himself claims to have mastered philosophy, rhetoric, geometry, music, astronomy, and even theology, in short, ‘every branch of knowledge, not Greek and Latin philosophy only, but also Chaldaean, Egyptian, and Jewish’.


We have then to admit that neither the names nor the sequence of the different branches of Byzantine education are very clear to us. School and university subjects seem to have overlapped. St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. Basil, fullgrown men who had passed through their encyclios paideusis while in Cappadocia and had later studied in other schools, worked in the University of Athens at grammar, metres, politics, and history, as well as at rhetoric, philosophy, and medicine. The study of medicine up to a certain point figured in general education. Professionals like Caesarius, who was given ‘first rank among the doctors’ in Constantinople, doubtless had a full practical training, but educated people generally, like St. Basil, Photius, Psellus, and Anna Comnena, would diagnose the ‘causes of diseases’ and pronounce views on their treatment. Similarly legal knowledge of an elementary kind was not uncommon, but embryo lawyers or civil servants had to follow a special advanced course. Thus an official in fourth-century Egypt went to Elementary School, Latin School, and Law School, which he left, like the graduates from Berytus and later on from the law school of Constantine IX at Constantinople, as a certificated advocate, qualified to take up his profession. Law students were early set apart from others; the Trullan Council (692) enacts: ‘Those who are taught the civil laws may not go to the theatre or indulge in athletic exercises or wear peculiar clothes.’ Finally theology was a separate branch of learning which was probably confined to the patriarchal school and to monasteries; it was studied by few laymen. The edict of Theodosius II (A.D. 425) reorganizing the university at Constantinople is included in the section of the Theodosian Code headed ‘De Studiis liberalibus’, i.e. the studies concerned with profane as opposed to sacred knowledge. For though it is true that all classical literature tended, as in the case of Nicetas’ teaching, to be interpreted theologically, yet in a form of education so wholly determined by classical tradition theology as a separate discipline had no specific place. It was this state of things which Alexius I (1081-1118) strove to remedy by precept and example.

It may, indeed, be concluded that boys of all classes might, and frequently did, receive instruction from their babyhood to their twenties. The parents of St. John Calybita hoped that ‘science and letters’ would ensure him a good post, and in all the circles of trade and commerce the same motive and practice probably prevailed. The law in all its branches had its own requirements, imperial secretaries needed training in ‘speed-writing’, monks learnt fine calligraphy and brushwork, and soldiers would turn early to ‘military matters’. But for the mass of the population the routine was : first, oral religious teaching at home, next, ‘orthography’ in the local elementary school. Beyond this primary  education many children never went, but for those who continued their studies there was ‘grammar’—a comprehensive term—to be learnt in the middle school, and the course would be completed in some university by rhetoric and philosophy, the two broad classifications into which Psellus divides true learning.

(Source: The book “Byzantium – An introduction to East Roman civilization“,  Edited by Norman H. Baynes and H. St. L. B. Moss)

Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

One thought on “Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Education

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: