Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) Scholarship

In this post we present selected parts of the classic article titled “Byzantine Scholarship“, by Robert Browning (1964).

“It is easy both to over-estimate and to under-estimate our debt to the Greeks. There are those who believe that all subsequent philosophy is a sort of commentary on the works of Plato, and those who maintain that Plato put philosophy upon a false trail which it is only now abandoning. And so too when we consider science or literature we meet with a broad spectrum of views, though in regard to literature what is often forgotten is that Greek literature is original in a sense that Latin literature or the modern literatures of Europe are not; for the Greeks found no established literary tradition to take over, no well-defined literary genres to imitate.”

“whatever influence Greek thought and Greek letters have had upon the Renaissance and the modern world, it has been exercised through the Byzantines. It is not merely that, apart from a handful of works preserved by papyri on the arid desert fringe of Egypt, every Greek text that we read today owes its survival to Byzantine copyists. A literary — or scientific — tradition needs more than the mere copying of texts. They have to be interpreted, criticized, commented upon, provided with reference aids, and so on. And people have to be taught to read them; for a long literary tradition inevitably leads to some formal differentiation between the pattern of the literary language and that of the speech of everyday intercourse. Greek has a continuous literary tradition from the eighth century B.C. — and perhaps earlier — to the present day. The only culture which can be compared with it in this respect is that of China.

One of the problems which arose as at any rate formal adherence to Christianity spread throughout society was whether there was anything worth saving in the old culture. Even before the victory of Christianity there were two voices in the church in this matter. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the academy to do with the church?“, thundered Tertullian. “Eschew firmly all foreign and diabolical literature” is the third-century advice of the Didascalia Apostolorum to the catechumen. Men like Clement of Alexandria and Origen, on the other hand, did not hesitate to take over the whole of pagan literature, philosophy and science, not only using them as a propaedeutic or for apologetic purposes, but granting them some value in themselves. It was on these terms that the Byzantine synthesis between Christianity and classical culture was eventually made.”

“It would be a mistake to think of the Byzantine synthesis as if i were something completed by the end of antiquity and enduring unchanged thereafter for a thousand years. In fact, of course, the balance was constantly changing. Theophylact of Achrida, former teacher in the Patriarchal School and tutor to an imperial prince, and later archbishop of Bulgaria at the end of the eleventh century, can without a qualm draw arguments for divine providence from the psalms, Homer and Hesiod, side by side.”

“the (Eastern Roman -“Byzantine”) educational system is very different from anything to be found in western Europe during the Middle Ages. Generally speaking, the Hellenistic educational pattern survived, with little change. The child first Iearned to read letters, syllables and words from the humble γραμματιστής; then the grammarian — γραμματικός — taught him to read with understanding of form and content, basing himself mainly upon the study of the classical poets; next the rhetorican — ρήτωρ — taught him how to express his own thoughts within the framework of the literary tradition, using by way of exemplification the classical prose writers; finally the student might pass to the study of philosophy, reading and commenting upon works of Aristotle or Plato, and acquainting himself at the same time with the rudiments  of mathematics, astronomy and musical theory. The boundaries between the stages were fluid. And all stages of education were not available everywhere. Village schools seem to have been widespread, but they probably taught little more than functional literacy. Provincial cities could usually provide a grammarian. But the highest stage of education could only be obtained in the capital — in the Imperial University or the Patriarchal School.

It is important to bear in mind that education was not the monopoly of clergymen. There was always an educated laity in Byzantium. And even the Patriarchal School was concerned with the teaching of laymen as much as with that of clerics, who went on after completing a literary education to study in its specialized theological faculty. Monastic schools existed, but normally only for the training of novices. Lay education, subsidized by the imperial government, was essential to provide the continuous supply of literate functionaries for the apparatus of state and church upon which the continuance of the Byzantine empire depended. This, then, was the system within which scholars, most of whom were also teachers, worked. Much of their activity was narrowly pedagogical in aim. But again and again we find men of distinction going far beyond what was required for teaching.”

“Since the 40s of the seventh century, the Byzantine empire had been exposed to barbarian invasions at least as formidable as those which destroyed the western Roman empire earlier. Egypt, North Africa, Palestine, and Syria had been lost for good to the Arabs, whose armies and fleets continually harried Asia Minor, and twice, in 674-8 and 717-8, gave siege to Constantinople itself. Slavonic peoples had occupied the whole of the northern Balkans and large areas of peninsular Greece itself, and a new and formidable state, the Bulgarian empire, had arisen in the territories lost to the Byzantines. In Italy the Lombard princes had gradually gained effective control of most of what had been Byzantine territory. And, last blow of all, Palermo, the remaining Byzantine stronghold in Sicily, fell to the Arabs in 831. Little survives in the way of literature or art from these dark centuries. Economic activity was clearly disrupted, and monetary circulation dwindled. There is hardly a building surviving from these two centuries, apart from fortifications here and there (…) The rather mysterious reign of the last Iconoclast Emperor, Theophilus (829-842), is obviously of key importance. The gold in circulation increases suddenly; a new stable relation is established with the Arab world; an extensive programme of public buildings is undertaken; and the copying and study of Greek texts, both literary and scientific, go on at a vastly increased tempo. We hear of books — rare books — being sought out in the provinces and brought to Constantinople. A new script based on the existing cursive hand replaces the cumbersome uncial. It probably originated in monastic circles in Constantinople about the beginning of the century, and was first used for religious manuscripts, but its use soon spread to profane texts. The new hand was not merely more compact and quicker to write. Transcriptions from the old hand involved quite complex editorial activity; accents and breathings had to be systematically inserted in the text; the former scriptura continua had to be broken up into words, and there were often more ways than one of doing this; the text had to be punctuated according to the scribe’s understanding of it, and so on.

“One of the first Byzantine scholars who is more than a name to us is Leo the Mathematician. Born about 800, Leo was a nephew of the Iconoclast patriarch John the Grammarian, a man whose wide culture is not entirely concealed by the theological odium with which subsequent generations regarded him (…) There is a persistent story that his reputation spread to Bagdad, and that it was an attempt by Caliph al-Ma’mun to get him to defect to the Arabs that first brought him to the notice of the Emperor Theophilus. A public appointment — probably in the Patriarchal School — followed, and then in 840 Leo was elevated to the archbishopric of Thessalonica. Theophilus died in 842, iconoclasm ceased to be the official faith, and Leo was deposed from his archbishopric. But he was not treated by the new regime as an irreconcilable opponent: almost at once he was appointed rector and professor of philosophy in the university, just restored by the all-powerful minister Theoctistus. He was still alive, and presumably still in office, in 869. Leo was mathematician, doctor, philosopher, and poet (…) He is said to have designed a telegraph system to bring news from the Arab frontier in Cilicia to Constantinople (…) Leo must have hunted out and had transcribed into the new hand, with all that that implies, a considerable part of the mathematical and philosophical literature of the ancients, long unknown or unread. He himself composed a medical encyclopaedia, so he no doubt had a good medical library too (…) Standing as he did for some thirty years at the head of the university, he must have been the teacher of a whole generation. We know that Constantine-Cyril, the apostle of the Slavs, was his pupil and erstwhile colleague. And it is a reasonable inference that Photios was taught by Leo

Saint Photios the Great

Photios, born about 820, was the son of a wealthy official and nephew of the patriarch Tarasios. After completing his studies he became a teacher in the imperial university under his old master Leo the Mathematician. At the age of about thirty he was appointed πρωτοασηκρήτις or head of the imperial chancery (…) He was installed as patriarch on 25 December 858 (…) His works include Biblical commentaries, homilies, official and private letters, dogmatic works, hymns, a collection of theological questions and answers, and so on, as well as two works of interest to historians of scholarship. The first is his Lexicon probably composed in his early teaching days. It is a list of difficult words to be met within literature, with brief explanations and sometimes illustrative quotations. Its aim is purely practical, and it is largely a compilation from various Atticist lexica of antiquity which Photios found and read. Photios’s work is the first Byzantine lexicon and the foundation of most subsequent works of this kind (…) The second work is his Bibliotheca, an account of some three hundred books read by Photios and sent to his brother Tarasios in 855. More than half the books are theological writings of one kind or another, many now lost. There are one hundred and twenty-two pagan works by ninety-nine different authors (…) In brief Photios had read well over sixty classical or early Byzantine non-theological works now vanished (…) It is much more likely that these are books which Photios unearthed in libraries in or near Constantinople. They are rare works: in his covering letter to his brother Photios calls them “books which you will not have read. This explains the absence of Homer, the tragedians, Plato, Thucydides, Xenophon, and the more familiar school authors. And it is not a complete list of all that Photios has read; he tells his brother that he will send him further summaries when he gets time. But, as we know, he never did get time (…) So we find Photios engaged in hunting out rare works, and providing a lexicon and a history of literature to aid readers. Most of the books which he read will have been in the old uncial hand. And some were probably papyrus codices, several centuries old (…) Another work whose origin can be traced to Photios and his circle is the earliest of the great Byzantine etymological lexica, the Etymologicum Genuinum. It is no doubt a later work than Photios’s own Lexicon, and it was compiled not only from earlier lexica and etymological works, grammarians, and so on, but also in part from the scholia or marginal commentaries to classical texts which we find in some manuscripts. Without going into unnecessary detail, one can say that this material — the debris of ancient scholarship — got into its present shape and found its way, from tattered notebooks of late antiquity, to the margins of manuscripts in the new minuscule hand precisely in the ninth century (…) The mists of time dim our view and probably always will, but there is little doubt that the survival of a number of Greek texts, and of the material necessary for their comprehension, depends on the work — often the spare-time work — of this busy professor, civil servant, and prelate, who combined a talent for organization with a passion for documentation and a love of literature.”

“As a last representative of the renaissance of the ninth and tenth centuries we may glance at a pupil of Photios’s, Arethas, metropolitan of Caesarea. Arethas was a cold, unattractive intriguer, and his many polemical works need not concern us here. What does concern us is his collection of manuscripts. He was a wealthy man and a discriminating reader. When he found a text of interest, he would have prepared for him a luxury manuscript, on the finest parchment, written in a beautiful early minuscule hand by a professional copyist. He would have wide margins left all round the text, in which he would then enter in his own hand his own commentary, drawing on the debris of ancient scholarship, on his own wide reading, on lexica and reference books such as we have seen compiled in Photios’s circle, and on Photios’s own teaching, And he would finally enter the date, the copyist’s name, the cost of the parchment, and the professional fee, for he was a methodical man (…) Arethas has not the breadth of interest of Leo the Mathematician or Photios, and he seems to have worked on his own rather than as a member of a group. Yet he merits mention because we so often catch him in the act of transcriptionfinding a rare book, copying it, emending the text, providing it with notes on subject matter, language and style, and putting it in his library where scholars could consult it. This above all was the great contribution of these ninth-century scholars (…) they were no mere passive collectors. In restoring and saving a literary tradition they had constantly to exercise their judgement — on various readings, on disputed authorship, on subject-matter and allusions, on literary worth. These are bread and butter questions for a man like Photios.”

“Let us now pass to a very different world, that of the twelfth century (…) It was an age of literacy. There was an unending output of speeches, letters, sermons, tracts, treatises, histories, occasional poems, novels, and so on. It is a literature which on first acquaintance is depressing. It says so little, but with such elegance and at such length. There is so much stylistic imitation of classical models, and so much empty verbiage. Yet this would be an over-hasty judgement. There are immense individual differences in manner and style within the framework of a common tradition. To take only a single example we have a number of speeches by Nicetas Choniates, the historian, and others by his brother Michael Choniates, archbishop of Athens. No undergraduate could mistake the one for the other. A single writer could have at his command a variety of styles for different purposes. And this period saw the development of new literary forms, such as the romantic novel in verse, as well as skilful pastiches like Theodore Prodromos’s Battle of the Frogs and Mice in Homeric hexameters, and the anonymous Timarion, a satire in the manner of Lucian. It saw, too, the first works of literature in the vernacular, as opposed to the literary language (…) There was a real educated reading public. The first reference to that besetting vice of the literate, reading in bed, occurs in an unpublished letter from the latter part of the century. There were a great many teachers at work in Constantinople and elsewhere, and we hear of plagiarism of one another’s lectures, of quarrels over who first solved this or that problem, of meetings where scholars read papers — and quarrelled furiously about them afterwards — of something like research teams.”

“Now, a brief discussion of two teachers whose actual textbooks or lectures survive — John Tzetzes and Eustathios, archbishop of Thessalonica (…) Previous generations had reverently collected and copied the debris of ancient commentaries. These twelfth-century scholars tend to paraphrase or modify what they find, to choose where the ancient tradition merely gives a series of possible explanations and indeed to disagree flatly with traditional explanations and to substitute their own (…) their interest is less purely linguistic than that of most earlier Byzantine scholars (…) they seek to illuminate the classical world from the experience of their own (…) for these men the classical tradition was a part of their own world, explicable in the same terms as the rest of their experience, and did not belong to an ideal timeless world. Its lessons could therefore be applied to the problems of their own world.”

Saint Eustathios of Thessaloniki

“the twelfth century saw a new interest in philosophy. A century earlier Michael Psellus had reintroduced serious study of Platonism. In the twelfth century we find a series of commentaries on Aristotle taken up again after a gap of five centuries. And we find that the theological controversy with which the age is filled is more and more carried on in terms of philosophical argument, and less by piling up disconnected quotations from the fathers. The tension between Christian doctrine and the implications of philosophical thought is clearly felt, and is expressed with a freedom which is quite new.”

“And now lastly a few words about scholarship in the fourteenth century. All those who have handled a critical text of one of the Greek tragedians are familiar with the names of men like Maximos Planudes, Manuel Moschopulos, Thomas Magister, and Demetrios Triklinios (…) The logic of history and the needs of ecclesiastical controversy and diplomatic negotiation had made a knowledge of Latin not uncommon among Byzantines by this time. For the first time since late antiquity Latin works of literature, science, and theology began to be translated into Greek. Maximos Planudes translated the Distichs of Cato, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Heroides, Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis together with Macrobius’s commentary, Caesar’s Gallic War, Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae, etc. (…) The effects of this “new dimension” gained by Byzantine thought were complex and profound (…) Then again we find at this time not only a renewed interest in the study of literary texts, which is generally recognized, but also a revival of mathematics and science, a point which is less generally known. To begin once again from Maximos Planudes: he produced an edition and commentary upon the first two books of the Arithmetic of Diophantus, which shows a high level of mathematical understanding; he wrote a text-book of astronomical computation using positional numerals with a zero; he edited Ptolemy’s Geography, after searching for years for a manuscript of the work, and the maps we find in Renaissance manuscripts of Ptolemy are probably constructions by Planudes. His colleague Manuel Moschopulos, best known for his editions of texts, also composed a treatise on magic squares (…) George Pachymeres, the historian, also wrote an explanatory paraphrase of Diophantus and a manual on the Quadrivium. Theodore Metochites, chief minister of Andronicos II for many years, and orator, poet, essayist and patron of the arts, was also an accomplished mathematician and astronomer, and wrote many treatises on these subjects. His pupil Nikephoros Gregoras, historian and theologian, composed, among other mathematical works, two treatises on the astrolabe and one on the projections of spherical triangles on a plane, reconstructed the lost conclusion of Ptolemy’s Harmonics, and made a proposal for the reform of the calendar. About 1360 Theodore Meliteniotes, professor in the Patriarchal School, composed the longest and most detailed of all Greek handbooks of astronomy. Nicholas Cabasilas, the mystical theologian, also tried to reconstruct the commentary of Theon of Alexandria on book iii of Ptolemy’s Almagest. Manuel Bryennius wrote a long, systematic treatise on harmonics; Isaac Argyros composed a handbook of astronomy, as well as commentaries on Euclid, Heron, Nicomachus, Ptolemy, Proklos, and others. There is no need to go on; we are in a numerate world in fourteenth-century Byzantium.”

Michael Psellos (left) with his student, Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas

“one factor which contributed to this renaissance is clearly discernible. Contact was established with the Islamic and Indian mathematical tradition (…) The work of men such as Gregorios Chioniades, George Chrysokokkes (both from Trebizond) and others like them not only brought together the direct tradition of Greek mathematics and the indirect tradition, via ninth-century Arab translators and Islamic commentators; it also introduced into the primarily geometrical mathematics of the Greco-Roman world elements of the algebraic approach characteristic of Indian mathematical thought. This fertilizing influence certainly had much to do with the fresh flowering of mathematics in the last century and a half of the Byzantine empire.”

Late Byzantine medicine shows a similar upsurge of activity (…) it is interesting to note that a fourteenth-century
Byzantine treatise, that of Nicolaos Myrepsos, was used as a text-book in the Sorbonne till the seventeenth century.”

NovoScriptorium: We will not tire to repeat that there had never been a “Byzantine” Empire in History; only the Roman Empire, continuing its existence in the Eastern territories of the older, greater Empire. 

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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