Ancient Greek traditions, Byzantine State and Church, and the production of Byzantine literature

May 7th, 2019


The article below was originally written in the form of an undergraduate assignment for the Greek Open University in 2004, during a period when the author's academic skills were still under development. Although the quality of this article does not match the quality of later examples of the same author's work, it is written in a thorough manner and contains useful information to nowadays students and other readers with non-specialised knowledge; therefore, it has been proudly included on this website.

The reader needs to be warned that the original assignment, on which this article was based on, was written in Greek and was intended to be read by specialised academics. Despite the author's best intentions to present his essay in the clearest way possible, some points and arguments might still be lost in translation. The author recommends that for any unknown words or specialised vocabulary, the readers should refer to the web for additional information.

The author admits that the bibliography for this article is limited, matching the requirements of an undergraduate assignment of this level. The author did not include any additional bibliography during the translation of his work in English due to time and access limitations. It must also be noted that the original bibliography for this article was studied from translated copies in Greek; therefore, the page numbers suggested in the citations below match the page numbers of the translated copies and not the original volumes.


This article discusses the relationship between ancient Greek literary traditions and the Byzantine State and Church. It investigates the impact of ancient traditions on the ideas and texts of Byzantine scholars, and their broader influence on literary production throughout the Byzantine era. On this issue, scholarship is divided. Jenkins (1967) argues that the fear of being accused of idolatry, the awe of the grandeur of Classical writers and the commitment in the use of an archaic, rigid and almost foreign language, prevented the production of original literature in the Byzantium. By contrast, Glykatzi-Ahrweiler (1999, 133) argues that that "the persistence in the imitation of Classical prototypes does not always imply a lack of original thought, but forms an element of every Renaissance".

This article is divided in three sections. The first section investigates the official attitude of the Byzantine State and Church towards ancient Greek literary traditions. The second section discusses the contribution of ancient Greek literary traditions in the production of Byzantine literature. The third section compares the views by Jenkins (1967) and Glykatzi-Ahrweiler (1999), and incorporates some of the author's own critique on the subject.

The attitude of the Byzantine State and Church towards ancient Greek literary traditions

The official views of the Byzantine Church towards ancient Greek literary traditions was firmly condemnatory. During the first years of the establishment of the Orthodox Christian doctrine, at a time of condemnation against heresy, and even during the Iconoclasm period (AD 726-787 and AD 814-842), the Byzantine Church stood firmly against every form of idolatry and immorality represented by ancient Greek art and literature. As most of these ancient Greek traditions were inspired by myths, the Church always condemned ancient Greek mythology as perverse. During the beginnings of Christianity, the Holy Fathers of the Church (Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John the Chrysostom) highlighted the dangers of ancient Greek idolatrous traditions; however, they supported the teaching of the ancient Greek language in order to prepare their flock for a better understanding of Christian texts, which were written in the Hellenistic Koine.

As opposed to the Church's condemnatory behaviour, the attitude of Byzantine Emperors and State towards ancient Greek literary tradition was not always the same. Although most Emperors adopted the same views as the Church, there were few Emperors that did not follow the traditional norm. Constantine II (AD 337-340), the son of Constantine I the Great (AD 306-337), who succeeded him in the Byzantine throne, founded the Royal Library in the state's capital, which hosted a variety of ancient Greek literature. At the same time, he supported workshops for the replication of ancient Greek texts in order to preserve the cultural heritage of Greek antiquity. Julian I (AD 361-363), who later became known as the Apostate, attempted to bring back idolatry and forbade the Christians to preacher in the ancient Greek language.

Theodosius I (AD 379-395) succumbed to the Orthodox Church's pressure and condemned ancient Greek tradition by the introduction of strict laws. He fought against the idolaters; he destroyed almost every known pagan temple, and he abolished the Olympic games. With two official decrees in AD 380 and AD 381, he imposed Christianity as the one and only official and obligatory religion of the Byzantine State, followed by severe punishment of those who opposed his decision. By contrast, Theodosius II (AD 408-450) followed a different approach. He founded the University (Pandidakterion) of Constantinople in AD 425 to support the education of civil servants, where ancient Greek literature, rhetoric and philosophy were taught together with Christian literary traditions. Nearly a century later, the attitude of the Byzantine State towards ancient Greek literature changed again. Justinian I (527-565) shut down the philosophical schools of Athens in AD 529; he persecuted their lecturers, who were accused of spreading idolatrous beliefs; and finally, he burnt a large number of books, which were thought to be pagan (officially named 'Ethnic'). Finally, the Pandidakterion founded by Theodosius II was shut down during the Iconoclasm period by Leo III the Isaurian (AD 717-741).

A revival of ancient Greek literary traditions took place during the reign of Constantine III Monomachus (AD 1042-1056). With his own initiative, the New University of Constantinople was founded in AD 1054, which included two faculties of rhetoric and philosophy, both teaching Classical Greek texts. During the 11th century AD, the original suggestion by Basil the Great (AD 329/30-379) that ancient Greek was only to prepare Christian scholars for the study of religious texts, was gradually abandoned. Christian scholarship of the 4th century AD placed greater importance on the grammatical structure of ancient Greeks texts instead of their philosophical ideas, which were generally condemned as idolatrous. During the reign of Constantine III Monomachus, however, there was criticism against early Christian scholarship and an introduction of new ideas in Byzantine literature, which associated with ancient Greek philosophy. This 11th century movement is nowadays viewed as an early Eastern Renaissance. The most prominent representatives of this movement were Ioannis Xilifinos and Constantine Psellos.

The Church's official reaction to this movement came in AD 1082 through the excommunication of the Neoplatonic philosopher John Italos, who held the rank of the Supreme of the Philosophers in the University's hierarchy. Although in the service of the Byzantine State, he was accused of idolatrous propaganda, which he practised through the teaching of ancient Greek philosophy. Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (AD 1081-1118) supported the Church and introduced imperial decrees that granted the absolute control of the education system to the Patriarchate. From that period onwards, ancient Greek tradition was condemned by the Orthodox Church and was only used to serve its own interests.

During the Palaeologan period (13th-15th century AD), there was a new interest in ancient Greek literature, which reached its peak just before the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. During this period, the Platonic philosopher Georgios Gemistos (popularly known as 'Plethon') openly condemned the Church's views and proposed a new organisational scheme for the Byzantine State, which was based on 'innovations' that followed ancient Greek political philosophy.

Finally, regardless the different attitudes of Byzantine Emperors towards ancient Greek literary traditions, there was a continuous use of the Greek language in State bureaucracy and Ecclesiastic affairs. Although this language was archaic in its inspiration and is nowadays defined as 'Atticising' instead of Attic, it was still the official language of both State and Church; therefore, it consists of the strongest impact of ancient Greek tradition on Byzantine thought. As early as the 6th century AD, for example, Emperor Justinian I (AD 527-565), who introduced his Corpus Juris Civilis in Latin, published the amendments of his Codex Justinianus, the so-called Novellae Constitutiones or Nearae, in Attic Greek. Then, during the reign the Macedonian Dynasty (7th century AD), Atticising Greek became the Empire's official language.

The contribution of ancient Greek literary traditions in the production of Byzantine literature

The attitude of Byzantine writers towards ancient Greek literary traditions was not standard across time; it was characterised by opposing views and behaviours depending on the degree of influence that Greek traditions exerted on specific scholars.

A fraction of early Byzantine scholars separated themselves completely from the Classical Greek traditions, which they heavily critiqued. Two of these scholars were John Malalas (AD c. 491-578) and Romanos the Melodist (AD c. 490-556). In his "Hymn to the Holy Pentecost", Romanos the Melodist is strongly critical of Pythagoras, Plato and Demosthenes. He suggests that those who have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit, do not need the idolatrous ideas of the ancient Greeks.

Another fraction of early Byzantine scholars were experts in Classical studies and wrote in the Greek language. These scholars produced religious and non-religious (described as 'cosmic') literature by imitating Classical Greek prototypes and by using Atticising conventions. A typical example of such scholarship are the texts of the Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church, which became the official literature of the Byzantine Church and State during the 4th century AD. The three most renown Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church (Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John the Chrysostom), had all been educated in Greek and had familiarised themselves with ancient Greek philosophy. In their work, they employed the principles of Neo-Platonic philosophy to interpret the Christian doctrine and to argue against the heresies that existed during the early years of Christianity. Both Basil the Great and Eusebius the Bishop of Caesarea, proclaimed that a selective study of ancient Greek poetry, history, philosophy and rhetoric can be beneficial for a better understanding of Christian texts; therefore, they believed that the role of ancient Greek was "pre-educational" and preceded the actual education, which was based on formal religious literature. Other Byzantine writers, such as Cyrillos and Leontios Byzantios, followed the Aristotelian approach to establish the Christian doctrine.

Informal religious literature was written mainly in the daily-spoken Greek language, which was the descendant of the Hellenistic Koine and was easily understood by people without formal Atticising education. In spite of the general tendency to follow the Koine, there were works of non-official religious literature written in the Attic language, such as the Biographies of the Saints and Hagiological literature. In other case, there was a circulation of translated copies from the Hellenistic Koine to the Attic dialect, which aimed in attributing further formality to the original text. Non-religious literature in the Byzantium was exclusively in Greek: history, chronography, rhetoric, philosophy and epistolography were all written in Atticising language.

Some Byzantine scholars who promoted the use of Greek, also attempted to combine Christianity and Classical Greek antiquity. These were the most prominent representatives of Byzantine philology, who favoured the spread of Classicism in the Byzantium during different chronological periods. More specifically, the Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church (Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John the Chrysostom), Leontios Byzantios and the historians Procopios, Agathias and Theophilactos, represented the tradition of the 4th-6th centuries AD. These were followed by scholars of the 7th-10th centuries AD, such as Ioannis Damaskinos, Patriarch Photios I, Arethas and Leo of the Mathematician. During the 11th-12th centuries AD, the Classicist tradition was supported by Constantine Psellos, Anna Komnene, Nikitas Haniotis, Ioannis Mauropos and Ioannis Kinnamos. During the Francocracy, the period when Constantinople was under Frankish rule (AD 1204-1261), the Classisist tradition continued in the city of Nicaea, in the province of Bithynia. It was represented by the Emperor Theodore II Laskares, Georgios Akropolites, Nikephoros Blemmydes and Georgios Cyprios. These authors were followed by scholars of the Palaeologan Renaissance (AD 1261-1453) such as Theodore Metochites and Emperors Ioannis VI Kantakouzenos, Manuel II Palaiologos and Nikephoros Gregoras.

There as also a third fraction of Byzantine scholarship, represented by philologists, who focused in the study and analysis of Classical Greek texts. Such literature began after the end of the iconoclasm period in AD 843, which is nowadays regarded as a period of 'renaissance' in relation to literature. During this period, the monks of the Orthodox Christian monasteries copied the surviving manuscripts of writers of the Classical antiquity, while at the same time they engaged in critiquing and commenting their work. A well-known workshop that replicated such literature was located at the Monastery of St. John Studios in Constantinople, where systematic copying of ancient texts took place under the supervision of Abbot Theodore Studites during the late 9th century AD. Thanks to his own efforts, a great selection of the ancient Greek texts survived to lay the background of Classical Greek studies. The main representatives of Byzantine philology were Emperor Leo IV the Philosopher (AD 886-912), Cometas, Patriarch Photios I (AD 858-867 and 877-886), John Tzetzes (c. AD 1110-1180), Eustathios the Thessalonian (c. AD 1115-1196) and Maximos Planoudes (c. AD 1260-1305).

Review of Jenkins (1967) and Glykatzi-Ahrweiler (1999)

Jenkins (1967) argues that any interest of Byzantine scholars in ancient Greek literature was a dead end. Any engagement with such texts carried a risk for a scholar to be accused of following idolatrous and pagan beliefs. Such accusations could terminate a scholar's career in the state's bureaucracy and the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Paradoxically, no scholars could be introduced to such official roles, unless they could demonstrate their education and competence in ancient Greek literary traditions.

Jenkins (1967) points out the problematic attitude that existed in the Byzantine State and Church, which on one hand rejected Greek traditions as idolatrous, yet on the other hand, it considered such traditions ideal for the education of its representatives. The scholarly admiration towards Classical antiquity resulted to the mimicking of ancient Greek prototypes, both in terms of language and style. The Atticising language of the Byzantine era was an artificial language reserved for the production of religious texts. The tendency towards mimicking linguistic forms of previous centuries resulted in a simplistic reproduction of ancient Greek literature, depriving any element of originality. When this lack of original thought was combined with the imitation of Classical Greek forms, scholars were unable to fathom the deeper meaning of ancient Greek tradition. As a result, the Byzantium could not benefit from Classical antiquity; therefore, a 'Renaissance' in the arts and sciences never took place in the East as it took place in the West.

Glykatzi-Ahrweiler (1999) argues againts the negative consequences of the imitation of ancient Greek texts in the Byzantium. She agrees that Byzantine scholars imitated the Attic language for the production of different genres of literature (e.g. hagiological, rhetoric and epistolographic texts); however, this persistence in the imitation of ancient Greek linguistic forms and styles cannot be interpreted as a lack of original thought. In her views, ancient Greek literary traditions were not perceived as a creative model for Byzantine writers, but rather a source of inspiration for the production of new literature. The necessity to follow an established pattern of expression that was based on Ancient Greek tradition became imperative in times of spiritual crisis, where every attempt to produce new literature was hindered and there was obvious fear of spiritual regression. At such times, the ancient Greek prototypes functioned as a solution to the problem, offering ideas, the imitation of which resulted to new and original reproductions. Therefore, the processing and re-use of a standardised tradition form Classical antiquity, was an element of every Byzantine spiritual and artistic Renaissance, including the Western one.

Glykatzi-Ahrweiler (1999) offers an example that illustrates her point. Right after the fall of Constantinople to the crusaders in AD 1204, literary production continued in the Kingdom of Nicaea, in the former Roman province of Bithynia, where scholars turned towards ancient Greek literary traditions. The so-called Palaeologan Renaissance, which began during this period, coincided with a series of social and political crises, which followed the conquest of the Byzantine capital. Various religious conflicts caused by the emergence of the Hesychasm movement, the arguments towards the unification between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, as well as the threatening presence of the Turks in the east, should have surely favoured a stagnation in the production of Byzantine literature. By contrast, the production of literature not only revived at that time, but was also enriched by a plethora of new texts that characterised the spirit of the Palaeologan Renaissance. Despite her views, Glykatzi-Ahrweiler (1999) admits that the tendency of Byzantine writers towards linguistic archaisms and the use of Atticising conventions, trapped their thoughts and expressions into a literary framework, which did not favouritise originality. This is probably why their works appear as replicas of ancient Greek prototypes.

A comparison of the arguments presented by both scholars suggests that although Glykatzi-Ahrweiler (1999) offers a valid point in relation to the Palaeologan Renaissance, this needs to be combined with the views by Jenkins (1967). In fact, the imitation of ancient Greek (Atticising) prototypes in Byzantine literature occurred during every period and for the production of almost every genre of literature. Of course, one must bear in mind that non-official religious literature was being produced in the commonly spoken Greek language of that time (e.g. the Lives of the Saints), including a series of counselling books, such as the Strategics of the 10th century AD.

The Atticising language used by the Byzantine scholars and the impact of ancient Greek literary traditions on their work did not limit the production of original literature in the Byzantium. Instead, it is more likely that such production was restrained by various theological views imposed by the Church. One cannot oversee that the ideas represented by ancient Greek philosophy and science could not be used in the Byzantine context, particularly if such ideas challenged the official theological dogma of the time, which viewed the essence of human existence as the product of divine intervention. In that sense, it is evident that Byzantine literature production, particularly of the earlier periods, supported the State's and Church's official views towards a homogeneous Christian identity. This tendency resulted to a continuous documentation of theological views.

It is highly unlikely that the mimicking of the ancient Greek (Atticising) language and the use of archaic conventions by Byzantine scholars, resulted to a lack of originality in the production of literature, which has been previously suggested by Jenkins (1967). In support to this point, one must bear in mind that theological literature was a genre that never existed in ancient Greek tradition, and was developed exclusively in the Byzantium under the impact of Christianity. The mimicking of Atticising conventions in theological literature of the Byzantine era only took place in relation to its grammatical and stylistic attributes. Furthermore, Byzantine genres such as religious poetry and ecclesiastical music, were never characterised by the mimicking of ancient Greek prototypes, although there was a degree of inspiration drawn from ancient Greek traditions.

Finally, one must note that the presence of intellectual movements in the East, which appeared in the same form as the European Renaissance, are not thoroughly discussed by Jenkins (1967). Innovative tendencies that had the form of renaissance movements in the Byzantium, appear as early as the 11th century AD, during the reign of Constantine IX Monomachus. Of course, the most important movement was the Palaeologan Renaissance during the 14th century AD, which also transfused to Italy and the West. Unfortunately, the innovative tendencies that characterised Eastern renaissance movements were condemned under the pressure of the Church and under what is described by modern scholarship as religious obscurantism. During the 15th century AD, the power of the Church was challenged for the first time in Byzantine history, and there was a genuine attempt to revive the essence of ancient Greek tradition and not just its linguistic and stylistic conventions. This tendency became evident in the work of Plethon Gemistos, who introduced revolutionary ideas taken by ancient Greek philosophy. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, most Byzantine scholars who were involved in this controversial renaissance, moved to the West and introduced ideas that became part of what is nowadays described as the Western European Renaissance of the 16th century.


In conclusion, what is described as the mimicking of ancient Greek literary traditions in the Byzantium was, in reality, limited to the reproduction of an Atticising language and writing style, which created an illusion to modern researchers that original Byzantine literature never existed. In their own ways, Byzantine writers preserved ancient Greek literary traditions by harmonising them with the official political and theological standards of their time. When political and religious conservatism could be bypassed, there were revivals of ancient Greek philosophical ideas, which were still present at the background of Byzantine thought. After the fall of the Constantinople in 1453, such ideas transfused to the West and became part of the broader Western European Renaissance movement. As a final remark, unlike some modern Greek scholars, this essay does not support that Western European Renaissance was the continuation of the Paleologan Renaissance. In fact, both movements were contemporary and interconnected due to the contacts between East and West, and due to their common attempts to challenge the existing theological views of their time, though in two different domains of Christian thought.


Giannopoulos, I., 1999, 'The Byzantium. Name, cultural importance, the state', in Vasilou-Papageorgiou, V. (ed.) Introduction to the Greek Civilisation, Vol.2, Important Moments of the Greek Civilisation, Patra: Greek Open University, 249-70.
Glykatzi-Ahrweiler, H., 1999, 'The Byzantium', in Kopidakis, M.Z. (ed.) The History of the Greek Language, Athens: Elliniko Logotechniko kai Istoriko Archeio, 126-35.
Jenkins, R.J.H., 1967, 'Social life in the Byzantine Empire', in Hussey, J.M. (ed.) The Cambridge Medieval History: Volume IV, The Byzantine Empire: Part II Government, Church and Civilisation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 79–104.