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Intellectual Life


Portrait of Alcibiades, late 3rd–early 4th century, marble, stone, and glass tesserae, Sparta, Archaeological Museum

Byzantium had an educated class that was unusually large for a premodern society, well above that postulated for Roman antiquity and medieval Western Europe. The huge Byzantine bureaucracy required a literate civil service to administer the business of the empire, collect taxes, and resolve legal disputes. Libraries of the literati contained works of ancient literature, philosophy, mathematics, and science. But because intellectual activity centered on elucidating Christian doctrine, the vast majority of surviving Byzantine books treat scripture, theology, liturgy, monasticism, and the lives of saints.

The Byzantines were proud of their ancient Greek heritage. Schoolchildren learned their letters not only from the Psalter, but also from Homer’s Iliad. The church father Basil of Caesarea (died 379) cautioned against writings by classical authors that conflicted with Christian teachings, but he urged his students to “embrace pagan wisdom” for its moral lessons: "For just as the bees know how to extract honey from flowers, those who look to such writers may derive profit for their souls."

Most of what survives of ancient Greek learning and literature is known from copies commissioned by Byzantine intellectuals. Without them, works by Homer, Sophocles, Socrates, Thucydides, Plato, Euripides, Euclid, and many others would be lost. The manuscripts of classical texts shown here acknowledge the importance of Byzantine scribes in transmitting ancient Greek knowledge to the Renaissance and modern era.

Banner Image: Mosaic icon of the Virgin Episkepsis, Constantinople, late 13th century, glass, gold, and silver tesserae, Athens, Byzantine and Christian Museum