III. LITERATURE: 364–565

In 425 Theodosius II, or his regents, reorganized higher education in Constantinople, and formally established a university of thirty-one teachers: one for philosophy, two for law, twenty-eight for Latin and Greek “grammar” and “rhetoric.” These last included the study of the two literatures; and the large number of teachers assigned to them suggests a lively interest in letters. One such professor, Priscian, composed, about 526, an immense Grammar of Latin and Greek, which became one of the most famous textbooks of the Middle Ages. The Eastern Church seems to have raised no objections at this time to the copying of the pagan classics;29 though a few saints protested, the School of Constantinople transmitted faithfully, to the end of the Byzantine Empire, the masterpieces of antiquity. And, despite the rising cost of parchment, the flow of books was still abundant. About 450 Musaeus, of unknown provenance, composed his famous poem, Hero and Leander—how Leander anticipated Byron by swimming the Hellespont to reach his beloved Hero, how he died in the attempt, and how Hero, seeing him flung up dead at the foot of her tower,

       from the sheer crag plunged in hurtling headlong fall

To find with her dead love a death among the waves.30

It was the Christian gentlemen of the Byzantine court who composed, for the final installment of the Greek Anthology, graceful love poems in the ancient moods and modes, and in terms of the pagan gods. Here, from Agathias (c. 550), is a song that may have helped Ben Jonson to a masterpiece:

I love not wine; yet if thou’lt make

A sad man merry, sip first sup,

And when thou givest I’ll take the cup.

If thy lips touch it, for thy sake

No more may I be stiff and staid

And the luscious jug evade.

The cup conveys thy kiss to me,

And tells the joy it had of thee.31

The most important literary work of this age was done by the historians. Eunapius of Sardis composed a lost Universal History of the period from 270 to 400, making Justinian his hero, and twenty-three gossipy biographies of the later Sophists and Neoplatonists. Socrates, an orthodox Christian of Constantinople, wrote a History of the Church from 309 to 439; it is fairly accurate and generally fair, as we have seen in the case of Hypatia; but this Socrates fills his narrative with superstitions, legends, and miracles, and talks so frequently of himself as if he found it hard to distinguish between himself and the cosmos. He ends with a novel plea for peace among the sects: if peace comes, he thinks, historians will have nothing to write about, and that miserable tribe of tragedy-mongers will cease.32 Mostly copied from Socrates is the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, a convert from Palestine, and, like his model, a lawyer at the capital; apparently a legal training was no handicap to superstition. Zosimus of Constantinople composed, about 475, aHistory of the Roman Empire; he was a pagan, but did not yield to his Christian rivals in credulity and nonsense. Toward 525 Dionysius Exiguus—Dennis the Short—suggested a new method of dating events, from the supposed year of Christ’s birth. The proposal was not accepted by the Latin Church till the tenth century; and the Byzantines continued to the end to number their years from the creation of the world. It is discouraging to note how many things were known to the youth of our civilization, which are unknown to us today.

The one great historian of the period was Procopius. Born in Palestinian Caesarea (490), he studied law, came to Constantinople, and was appointed secretary and legal adviser to Belisarius. He accompanied the general on the Syrian, African, and Italian campaigns, and returned with him to the capital. In 550 he published his Books of the Wars. Knowing at first hand the merits of the general and the parsimony of the ruler, he made Belisarius a brilliant hero, and left Justinian in the shade. The book was received with applause by the public, with silence by the Emperor. Procopius now composed his Anecdota, or Secret History; but he kept it so successfully from publication or circulation that in 554 he was commissioned by Justinian to write an account of the buildings erected during the reign. Procopius issued De Aedifiais in 560, and so loaded it with praise for the Emperor that Justinian might well have suspected it of insincerity or irony. The Secret History was not given to the world until after Justinian—and perhaps Procopius—had died. It is a fascinating book, like any denunciation of our neighbors; but there is something unpleasant in literary attacks upon persons who can no longer speak in their own defense. An historian who strains his pen to prove a thesis may be trusted to distort the truth.

Procopius was occasionally inaccurate in matters beyond his own experience; he copied at times the manner and philosophy of Herodotus, at times the speeches and sieges of Thucydides; he shared the superstitions of his age, and darkened his pages with portents, oracles, miracles, and dreams. But where he wrote of what he had seen, his account has stood every test. His industry was courageous, his arrangement of materials is logical, his narrative is absorbing, his Greek is clear and direct, and almost classically pure.

Was he a Christian? Externally, yes; and yet at times he echoes the paganism of his models, the fatalism of the Stoa, the skepticism of the Academy. He speaks of Fortune’s

perverse nature and unaccountable will. But these things, I believe, have never been comprehensible to man, nor will they ever be. Nevertheless there is always much talk on these subjects, and opinions are always being bandied about … as each of us seeks comfort for his ignorance. … I consider it insane folly to investigate the nature of God. … I shall observe a discreet silence concerning these questions, with the sole object that old and venerable beliefs may not be discredited.33

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!