Education in the Christian Roman Empire

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.

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. 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 colleagues.

(NovoScriptorium: We suggest here a read of the following article

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.

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.


(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 which has produced its 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.


Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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