Post-classical history

A Literate and Articulate Society

Read military handbooks and histories and the books of the Church… If you pay careful attention you will gather from them… maxims of intelligence, of morality and of strategy; for nearly all the Old Testament is stories of strategy. A diligent reader will also gather… many from the New Testament.

Kekaumenos (retired general), Advice to his Sons,

eleventh century

One reason for believing that arguments about the role of icons were widely known, stubbornly held and passed on through the generations is that Byzantium was an articulate society in which literacy was highly appreciated. Village and episcopal schools, priests, monks and individual teachers provided a means of learning to read. Education was available beyond basic reading and writing, and in the capital it extended to the highest levels, which produced well-qualified men for the civil administration, the army and the Church. And because leading positions in all spheres were open to talent, education was seen as a means of social mobility, a key to the rewards of high office and social prominence. In a circular process, the education of younger members might bring an increase in family fortunes, which benefited all relations, who in turn invested in the educational facilities and intellectual activities which consolidated and enhanced the status of scholars in Byzantium. Byzantine respect and admiration for learning is a defining feature of the empire’s culture.

In contrast to the West, where higher education was restricted to those destined for a clerical career, in Byzantium any talented male child could pursue it. While the vernacular speech of the street with its own vocabulary and pronunciation was used for everyday communication, classical Attic Greek dominated higher education, linking the Homeric epics with the language of medieval Byzantium. Byzantine scholars used ancient Greek in their writings and may even have spoken it. In Northern Europe, their western counterparts studied Latin or Greek as foreign languages, very distant from their native Germanic, Anglo-Saxon or the Romance tongues which were slowly evolving into French, Spanish and Italian. Although they studied the classics – Cicero, Virgil and Ovid – with a passion like the Byzantine devotion to Greek, they lacked a comparable continuity. Only the Chinese sustain a longer linguistic history than the Greeks.

The Byzantine educational system was, and always remained, classical, based on the seven liberal arts of antiquity: three literary topics (grammar, rhetoric, logic), followed by four mathematical ones (arithmetic, geometry, harmonics and astronomy). Philosophical argument informed the entire syllabus, although only advanced students studied the texts of Plato and Aristotle. Children began with basic letters and practised writing the alphabet on wax tablets or slates. They then moved on from learning Aesop’s Fables to exercises based on the Art of Grammar by Dionysios Thrax (a grammarian of the second century BC). They learned poetry by heart, notably the Homeric epics. On average they could memorize and understand thirty lines a day, so progress through theIliad with more than 15,000 must have been slow. After poetry and grammar, the teenage student was ready for rhetoric, the study of orations and how to make persuasive speeches, using short model texts (progymnasmata) by Aphthonios of Antioch and later compilations. They read speeches by Demosthenes and Libanios and practised delivering their own for special occasions, such as imperial marriages. All this preceded study of the quadrivium of mathematical sciences and philosophy, which was concentrated in the capital.

This pagan curriculum had great strength. It was followed without much change from the fifth to the fifteenth century. It provided educated Byzantines with a secular basis of knowledge derived from ancient Greek principles, to which Christian teaching and theology were added. As Kekaumenos, a self-taught military man of the eleventh century advised his sons, the Bible is full of useful stories as well as moral precepts. Like most high-ranking officials, he combined an awareness of the importance of secular education with deep respect for Christian beliefs. This was reciprocated among ecclesiastics by attention to the benefits of a good secular education for debating theological problems. Accounts of the Sixth Oecumenical Council, held in 680/81, for example, reveal a sophisticated procedure for checking the authenticity of Christian sources against authorized copies held in the patriarchal library. High levels of literacy and intellectual achievement among the clergy enabled the Byzantine Church to defend its theology effectively.

Byzantium took for granted a developed level of record-keeping that was almost unparalleled in the early Middle Ages – for instance, legal decisions were written out in triplicate so that the imperial chancery and both parties to the judgment would have a copy. In a dispute over land heard in the patriarchal court in 1315, a woman and her sister-in-law produced six documents between them, all relating to the same plot of land, two of which turned out to be forgeries. Diplomatic negotiations were also meticulously recorded, as we learn from Emperor Nikephoros Phokas’ threat to produce a copy of an agreement made in 967 if the western embassy of 968 tried to contravene it. Tax registers preserved details of previous generations of landowners as well as the person responsible for paying, and private contracts drawn up by notaries provide similar personal details. The activity of thousands of officials and trained scribes and their filing systems and many generations of educated civil servants sustained the imperial office.

In addition, Byzantium recognized unwritten agreements made by those who were poor or humble, and encouraged a profound oral learning which developed in relationship with written culture and may be characterized as articulacy. It originated in the songs, stories and reminiscences, memorized and passed from generation to generation, as in most medieval societies. Written evidence for this spoken culture is by its nature slim, but on many occasions it is clear that parents and older relations were responsible for teaching their children proverbs derived from ancient Greek drama and poetry, stories about the ancient gods and goddesses, and moral values. Technical skills of construction, farming and midwifery, to name only a few, must have been transmitted from generation to generation within the same family, as fathers trained their sons as blacksmiths and mothers taught their daughters to cook and weave. In the most important field of medicine, the local midwife was literally a wise woman whose skill could save life, while those who looked after epileptics and lepers generally relied on experience maintained in oral forms. So alongside the manuscript tradition of medical knowledge, based on Galen and earlier experts, Byzantine doctors had access to unwritten instruction in the form of articulate methods of caring for the sick.

In parallel with the classical educational system, monasteries from the earliest times provided illiterate men and women who committed themselves to the Christian life with a much simpler form of oral learning: memorizing the Psalms and Gospel stories. Some, however, insisted that their recruits learnt to read, so that they could participate in the liturgy in an informed manner. This elementary Christian education is mentioned in the lives of Byzantine saints, who were often marked out for holiness by the speed and ease with which they committed long passages of scripture to memory. Children in general acquired some Christian education within their families. Many more learned to read than to write, which required years of practice. Saints’ Lives were written in a simpler Greek, also used for collections of miracles and stories ‘beneficial to the soul’. Some girls also acquired sufficient literacy to write wills, donate property and participate in the monastic life, though few attained the brilliance of Kassia, a ninth-century nun who composed hymns, epigrams and poems. Studies of literacy based on later documents suggest that the ability to read, if not to write, was more widespread among women in Byzantium than in medieval Europe.

Inevitably there was tension between the basically pagan content of education and the Christian culture of the empire. A text from the eighth century sheds fascinating light on the problems faced by a group of self-proclaimed local philosophers, who set out to record inscriptions on statue bases in Constantinople and to comment on ancient monuments. Their Brief Historical Notes include descriptions of classical statue groups and their powers, references to portraits of emperors, and identifications of buildings, pagan and Christian. The authors’ research is directed towards an understanding of the pagan environment of the ‘Queen City’. They warn against the malevolent powers of ancient statues, which might fall and kill the investigator, as happened to Himerios during the reign of Philippikos (711–13) in the Kynegion, an ancient arena for wild-beast shows on the acropolis of Byzantion. They provide often ridiculous etymologies for some of the names they can identify and cite unknown authorities in support of their interpretations. Reading ancient Greek inscriptions was nearly as difficult for them as it is for us today. Nonetheless, they provide clear evidence of an interest in the classical past, which is also documented in the intimately linked fields of astronomy and astrology.

Under Constantine V, hence before 775, a copy was made of Ptolemy’s Handy Tables, the essential tool for calculation of the movement of the sun, moon, planets, and therefore of eclipses. At the end of the century, the Byzantine court employed an astrologist who used the Tables to cast horoscopes and to predict events. The same scientific tradition was also highly appreciated in Baghdad, where a Christian monk, Theophilos, served as chief astrologer to al-Mahdi (775–85), and translated many ancient Greek works into Syriac and Arabic. His writings were also well known in Byzantium and probably stimulated greater interest in works of astrology generally considered unsuitable by the Church. The reworking of scientific texts in Byzantium is more striking than the literary culture evident in the Lives of several eighth-and ninth-century patriarchs and saints, such as Tarasios (784–806) and Nikephoros (806–15) and St Theodore, abbot of the monastery of Stoudios (died 826), who received instruction in classical poetic metres and writing epigrams in the correct style.

These skills had also been kept alive in Palestinian monasteries under Muslim rule. In the first half of the eighth century, St John of Damascus and his adopted brother Cosmas were exceptionally well trained in the classical curriculum, including the mathematical sciences. Mar Saba, the monastery of St Sabas near Jerusalem, had a rich library to which many scholars and scribes contributed right up to the period of the crusades. In the 790s, however, as Muslim rule became less lenient, many Palestinian monks moved to Constantinople, bringing their learning with them. One of these was George, known as the Synkellos because he had served as synkellos (literally, cell-mate, assistant) to the Jerusalem Patriarch, who arrived in the capital with his lengthy Historycovering the first six millennia, from the creation of the world to the reign of Diocletian. The tradition of recording all human existence, using the system of dating from the first year of the world, anno mundi, had been preserved beyond the frontiers of the empire and brought a fresh impetus to historical writing within Byzantium. Its influence is clear in the Chronicle attributed to Theophanes Confessor, which continued the work of George the Synkellos from anno mundi 5777 (AD 284/5) to 6305 (AD 812/13), probably using material collected by him. Patriarch Nikephoros also wrote a shorter narrative History, not based on events year by year, which provides interesting comparison with Theophanes’ for the period AD 602–769.

The letters written by St Theodore of Stoudios indicate a parallel concern to invigorate a distinct rhetorical form which was to have a great future in Byzantium. While he was careful to protect the anonymity of iconophile supporters, Theodore’s letters from exile have a distinct purpose – to sustain opponents of iconoclasm. Through them we can trace the creation of a virtual community of icon-venerators, scattered but linked by their leader’s encouragement. Similarly, the letters of a tenth-century schoolmaster contain detailed complaints: at students who failed to attend their classes and whose parents failed to pay. This teacher, who remains anonymous, records his pleasure in buying a copy of Sophocles, and writes to friends asking to borrow an ancient text that he wished to copy. Numerous scholars or their disciples organized the collection of their own letters, perhaps more for their style than content. Features of Byzantine life, such as diet, climate, friendship (particularly marked in the case of writers distant from the capital city), systems of patronage, expressions of sympathy at illness and death, and congratulations on marriage and the birth of children, predominate. Writing a letter usually remained a rhetorical exercise, in which naming names and speaking plainly were avoided. Sometimes correspondents found it hard to understand the point of the communication; often the bearer of the letter was instructed to deliver the real message orally. Yet the survival of so many letter collections in Byzantium reflects a common practice among its intellectuals, both clerical and secular, who excelled at this literary method of communication.

During the ninth century, a technical advance prompted greater literary endeavour: the development of joined-up writing (minuscule), which may have originated in the imperial chancellery. A similar improvement in writing Latin occurred at about the same time, suggesting that scribes in both cultures found writing in capitals both slow and cumbersome. In Byzantium, the change was associated with the transfer of material from papyrus scrolls onto parchment, a more durable medium. In the process, copyists not only used the new, quicker style of writing, but also made editorial changes, establishing chapter headings, inserting punctuation and including marginal notes. A significant proportion of ancient Greek learning was thus saved for posterity, such as Archimedes’On Floating Bodies, recently discovered on parchment that had been scraped clean in order to copy a prayer book in the thirteenth century.

The teaching of mathematics and scientific subjects developed as texts of Euclid and Ptolemy were copied from papyrus onto parchment. Two key figures in this process were John the Grammarian, later iconoclast patriarch, and Leo, nicknamed the Mathematician and the Philosopher, who also composed epigrams in the classical style. Under Emperor Theophilos (829–42), John was twice sent on embassies to the Arabs and returned with news of the scientific work undertaken by them. Leo’s fame allegedly spread to the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad, where one of his students was taken prisoner. On learning from this student that a Byzantine expert could prove the theorems of Euclid, the caliph is said to have requested his services. But Theophilos refused to let Leo go and employed him as a teacher in the capital, where he commissioned copies of many ancient Greek scientific and literary texts. In 863 when Theophilos’ brother-in-law Bardas set up new schools of higher education, Leo was appointed ‘chief of the philosophers’ and with a team of four assistants taught all aspects of the mathematical quadrivium.

Although the story of Leo’s student seems mythical, it reflects an intense intellectual development both in Baghdad and in Byzantium. Under the ninth-century Abbasid caliphs, al-Ma’mun, al-Mu’tasim and al-Mutawakkil, court scholars were attached to a ‘House of Wisdom’ and in the observatories constructed by al-Ma’mum Arabic astronomers improved on the accuracy of Ptolemy’s observations. In this stimulating environment, al-Khwarizmi (c. 790 –c. 850) developed a new field of mathematics – algebra – the first systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations; he also used Indian/Arabic numerals, the concept of zero and the decimal point, and wrote on geography, astronomy and astrology. These advances were stimulated by the translation of ancient scientific works from Greek and Syriac into Arabic. Of the thirteen books of theorems by Diophantos (an Alexandrian mathematician of the third century AD), ten survive in Arabic, six in Greek and three are lost, suggesting that in the early ninth century Muslim scholars translated the most complete version then known. Cultural exchange between Constantinople and Baghdad went in both directions but scientific learning advanced faster and farther in the Islamic world. In later centuries, Arabic texts were translated into Greek, bringing the enhanced inheritance of the ancient world full circle.

In both Muslim and Christian centres, imperial and private patronage was vital to the development of learning. Part of the palace in Constantinople, the Magnaura (so-called from the Latin magna aula, great hall), was used for classes where imperial children received instruction. Up to the fifteenth century, emperors and patriarchs continued to promote higher education in Constantinople. Their libraries ensured the copying of manuscripts and storing of orthodox texts, which could be consulted by scholars. In most provincial cities, bishops ran schools to teach boys destined for careers in the state administration, the army or the Church. Hermits and monks provided instruction and monasteries, such as the monastery of St John in the southwest of Constantinople, known as the Stoudios, developed important scriptoria, where monks learned to copy and illuminate manuscripts. The communities on Mount Athos acquired rich repositories of secular as well as Christian texts, often through the legacies of wealthy men who retired from the world taking their books with them. In 1354, when Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos abdicated, he retired to a monastery in Constantinople as the monk Joasaph and wrote his memoirs. The regular recruitment of educated older men naturally boosted the intellectual level of the community.

One high point of intellectual endeavour in early medieval Byzantium is marked by the career of Photios, whose achievements are a symbol of centuries of book culture and scholarly effort. Although he was an exceptional figure, his engagement with ancient culture was subject to the characteristic Byzantine combination of restraint and inspiration. He recorded his own thoughts – on theological, philosophical, literary and art historical topics – in most elegant Greek.

Photios came from an iconophile family persecuted during the second phase of iconoclasm (815–43). Like his uncle Tarasios before him, he had risen through the ranks of the administration to become head of the civil service. And then, also following the pattern of Tarasios’ career, in 858 he was appointed to head the Byzantine Church in place of Ignatios, who was deposed. As patriarch, Photios wrote many sermons, letters and a treatise on the procession of the Holy Spirit, which remained fundamental to all later analysis of the subject. His rapid promotion from lay status to the head of the Church, however, caused problems in Byzantium, where his predecessor Ignatios had many supporters. When they appealed to Pope Nicholas I, the quarrel broadened to include the western Church (see chapter 12). Photios’ appointment as patriarch (858–67) was ended by the accession of Emperor Basil I, who reinstated Ignatios. On the latter’s death, Photios returned to serve a second period (877–86), and was then removed from office by Leo VI, nicknamed the Wise (886–912). During his first period of exile, however, Photios was employed as a tutor for the imperial princes – a sign of his own reputation as a teacher and the importance of the imperial palace as a centre of learning. In this capacity he may have inspired the young Leo, one of Basil’s sons, who proved himself a competent writer of sermons as well as a serious promoter of legal reform, economic organization and military tactics. If so, Leo was an ungrateful pupil; one of his first decisions from the throne was to dismiss Photios, who died in unknown circumstances.

Photios’ dramatic ecclesiastical career was not unusual. It was balanced by an exceptional and unwavering dedication to intellectual achievement. It is now generally agreed that he wrote the introduction to the Epanagoge, a revised law code issued by Basil I, which sets out the ideal relationship between Church and State. It argues that the emperor must remain subject to the laws, even as he makes them, because he is only the representative of God on earth. Photios’ letter to the Khan of Bulgaria, which is heavily dependent on the rhetoric of Isocrates on the correct practice of a good ruler, describes the duties of a Christian monarch in a similar fashion. The patriarch urges his spiritual son to become a ‘new Constantine’, leading the Bulgarian people into the Christianoikoumene. In answers to questions raised by his friend Amphilochios of Kyzikos, Photios demonstrates his broad learning on a wide range of issues. But it is above all his Bibliotheke (Library) that illustrates his brilliance and has identified him as ‘the inventor of the book review’. In this he lists the 279 books which he recommends to his brother, Tarasios, accompanied by detailed analysis of their contents and idiosyncratic comments. It contains a mixture of secular and Christian writings, heretical and orthodox, good and bad stylists, which permits Photios to show off his taste in literary culture. While a large number of books discussed in Photios’ Library are theological, he preserves notes on plays of Aeschylus that are now lost and comments on a more complete encyclopaedia by John of Stobi (Stobaeus) than has survived.

His notes on individual works still make very good reading:

I read Antonius Diogenes, Wonders beyond Thule, in twenty-four sections. It is a novel… Its contents offer very great pleasure; though the narrative verges on the mythical and incredible it arranges the material in a structure of very plausible fiction.

He then gives an account of the story which has little to do with Thule (the far North) but involves exciting travel among unknown peoples with most unusual customs, marvels and adventures. He concludes:

This book appears to be the source and origin of Lucian’s True Story… In this novel, as in other fictional tales of that type, there are essentially two very useful features: one, that he shows the unjust man always paying the penalty, even if he seems to escape on numerous occasions; secondly, that he portrays many innocent people exposed to great danger and often saved contrary to all expectation.

This can be compared with a later entry:

I read a substantial, indeed enormous, work in fifteen sections and five volumes. It is a collection of testimonies and quotations of whole books, not just Greek but Persian, Thracian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Chaldaean and Roman, by authors highly regarded in each nation. The compiler tries to show that they are in agreement with the pure, supernatural and divine religion of Christians; that they announce and proclaim the supernatural Trinity of one substance… The author was not averse to similar exploitation of the writings on alchemy by Zosimos (he was a Theban from Panopolis). Here he expounds the meaning of Hebrew words and discusses where each of the apostles proclaimed the doctrine of salvation and ceased his mortal labours. At the end of the work he offers a personal exhortation, blended from and strengthened by pagan maxims and scriptural quotations. Here in particular one can recognize the man’s devotion to virtue and irreproachable piety… So far I have not been able to discover the name of the compiler of these volumes… But he lived in Constantinople with his wife and children and was active after the reign of Herakleios.

This work is now lost. Photios’ account allows us to reflect on how little we know of the seventh century, and how much literature has been destroyed.

In the Library, Photios comments on his own reading at his brother’s request and promises more notes to come. His efforts to summarize the contents of rare books were followed by later scholars, who compiled compendia of useful information, notably Emperor Constantine VII (see chapter 16). Similarly, the group which gathered around Photios to discuss some of the lesser-known writings available in the ninth century established a pattern. He did not discuss all the texts in regular circulation, which probably explains why the obvious works of Plato and Aristotle do not feature in his Library. Meetings where authors read their latest compositions became a common feature of Byzantine intellectual life and continued to stimulate literary debate and commentaries to the end of the empire. The literary salons run by well-educated women like Anna Komnene in the twelfth century, and foreign princesses who wanted to learn about Byzantine culture, such as Mar’ta (Maria) of Alania in the eleventh, involved philosophers, rhetoricians, poets and historians on precisely this model.

While Photios was clearly unusually brilliant, he was also representative of his society and wrote for a readership with similar tastes and capacities. In his letters to Amphilochios, we sense the shared training in classical Greek texts, which had been copied again and again, excerpted and re-ordered in compendia (florilegia) of ancient wisdom. The same attention was given to the Bible, studied both by ecclesiastics and lay people as a fount of knowledge. While it is true that Byzantine scholars followed a rather rigid curriculum of study, they included everything they could read in Greek, with discipline and curiosity, and copied ancient texts with care. They preserved for posterity a much larger corpus of classical Greek authors than would otherwise have survived. Photios, however, in his devotion to all aspects of the Greek inheritance, pagan and Christian, classical and medieval, scientific, legal and literary, embodied the aspirations of Byzantium. He moved beyond the boundaries of established culture to compose sermons, treatises and letters of great interest. He encouraged a clearer understanding of the importance of the ancient Greek past for medieval Byzantium, which sustained it through many centuries of political uncertainty.

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