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date: 22 May 2018


The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium

Alexander Kazhdan,

Ihor Ševčenko


The Greco-Roman heritage was a powerful tradition, which, together with that of the Bible, influenced Byz. culture. From antiquity Byz. inherited the Greek Language, the system of education, Roman law, the basic principles of rhetoric and literary style, and substantial forms of social and political organization. The Byz. did not differentiate themselves from their ancestors who lived in the eastern Roman Empire, but called themselves Rhomaioi and viewed classical Greek authors as models for imitation: Homer was the Poet, Aristotle the Philosopher, Galen the Physician, etc. They often compared events of their lives with episodes of Greek or Roman history, their institutions with those of the Greco-Roman past. Nevertheless, Byz. cannot be placed within the framework of antiquity.

First of all, the general social and cultural setting had changed: high antiquity was primarily an urban society, but after the 7th C. the empire lost its predominantly urban character; antiquity was a society of cives (“citizens”), united around municipia and gentes, whereas Byz. was family oriented; antiquity was pagan, while Byz. was consistently Christian, thus entailing a radical change in ethical values and the replacement of pluralistic approaches in philosophy by mandatory doctrine. The ancient heritage, always present, was in a state of constant flux. This was partly a natural result of the passage of time. Thus the vernacular, developing beneath the surface of written compositions, from the 12th C. onward overtly penetrated into written literature, first into poetry: meter based on the length of vowels—hexameter, etc.—was pushed into the background by meter based on accentuation; toward the very end of Byz. rhyme began to develop under Western medieval influences. The transformation of the ancient heritage was also connected with the change in the social and cultural setting. Even though the principles of Roman law remained alive in the works of 14th-C. jurists, the elaborate system of contracts was simplified, the distinction between ownership and possession confused, the law of marriage radically changed, and the impact of the totalitarian state on law grew substantially. Education also retained general patterns of the ancient system, but Christian textbooks were introduced, concern with physical development (gymnastics) was abandoned, elementary education shifted from the school of the paedagogus to the church, monastery, or the family circle, and the purpose of liberal education became the development not of a free and noble citizen, but of a state functionary or a high ecclesiastic.

Second, even though the Byz. referred often to classical authors they were more likely to cite late Roman masters. In an analysis of Byz. attitudes toward the past, I. Ševčenko (infra [1987–88] 20–24) has suggested three phases, corresponding to the 4th–6th C., the 7th–11th C., and the 12th–15th C., respectively. During the 4th–6th C., there was a manifest familiarity with antique authors. In the 7th–11th C., Byz. writers made greater use of late antique models than of ancient Greek authors. Thus the works produced in the 10th C. under the patronage of Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos more frequently cited the Old Testament, Hellenistic and late Roman authors, even authors of the 6th–9th C., than Homer or Demosthenes. Similarly the Bibliotheca of Photios cites a number of late Roman historians while ignoring classical poetry. Finally, during the 12th–15th C., admiration for classical Greek authors revived, and Byz. scholars prepared commentaries on and new editions of the writings of high antiquity.

Third, there was an ideologically mandated ambivalent attitude toward antiquity among Byz. lay and ecclesiastical literati. Conditional veneration and respect had to go side by side with official rejection—this ambivalence was codified by church fathers (esp. the Cappadocians), who repudiated paganism, mythology, theater, “licentious behavior,” luxury, and the ideology of success, but in practice retained most elements of Hellenic culture (as transmitted by the Second Sophistic) as a powerful means of education and mental training. In the 10th and 11th C., involvement in the study of antiquity and ancient philosophy could make one liable to accusations of anti-Christian attitudes, and a few literati discussed the images of mythology and history to claim that “our” events are more significant, more virtuous, and more beneficial than those of antiquity. It must be remembered that more than half of surviving Byz. literature, for example, hagiography and hymnography, was virtually devoid of any influence from or allusions to classical authors.

Not many Byz. were able to understand the achievements of antiquity as well as did Michael Psellos or Eustathios of Thessalonike; cases of misunderstanding and distorting of tradition are numerous. Sometimes this distortion reflected a Byz. perspective: when Photios read Herodotus, he remained lukewarm to the development of Athens as a democratic republic—in his perception Herodotus was a historian of Persian basileis and of a Persian usurper; Eustathios used Homeric images to criticize excessive asceticism.

The concept of antiquity varied, depending on a Byz. author's social and educational level. Thus the world chronicle of Malalas mentions almost nothing about Periclean Athens, but a great deal about Roman history, esp. the imperial period. On the other hand, Nikephoros Blemmydes is well informed on Persian campaigns against Athens. The concept of antiquity also changed as time went on. The late Roman period assumed antiquity to be a living phenomenon. Consequently, we view the philosophy of this period, represented by Proklos, Olympiodoros of Alexandria, and even John Philoponos, as a branch of ancient philosophy, while in 6th-C. Italy Boethius continued the same tradition. Historians such as Prokopios of Caesarea also worked in the classical vein and even many church fathers were educated in the principles of classical rhetoric and applied it to their sermons. It was probably the art and architecture of the period that diverged most from the antique ideal.

The second half of the 7th C. and the 8th C. were difficult times, when much of the learned tradition, including the ancient heritage, was lost. It is therefore logical that the next period of material and cultural revival—which acquired, undeservedly, the title of “Macedonian renaissance”—was devoted primarily to the retrieval and collection of the cultural, including ancient, heritage; from the Bibliotheca of Photios to the Souda the main tasks were the reediting and copying of the surviving texts, the accumulation of excerpts and fragments, and the ordering of scraps of information.

The situation changed in the 11th and 12th C., when the simple collection and organization of materials was replaced by commentaries and the development of the heritage. An advance was made from the satisfaction of practical needs (mathematics, agriculture, moral “science,” political “science”) that was predominant in the 9th–10th C. to an aesthetical perception of antiquity. The study of Homer, the tragedians, and Aristophanes progressed from the copying of scholia typical of the 9th and 10th C. to the essays and detailed commentaries of scholars such as Michael Psellos, Eustathios of Thessalonike, and John Tzetzes; a very nonorthodox Lucian was broadly copied and imitated, and Plato gained popularity on a level with Aristotle. There was a trend to combine both heritages—the ancient and the biblical—and direct comparison with personages of myth and ancient history became legitimate. Scholars and writers like Psellos, Tzetzes, and Eustathios had an enormous, if antiquarian, knowledge of ancient events, names, and terms.

Thus reacquired in the 9th–12th C., after a short gap around the 8th C., the ancient tradition was not lost during the Palaiologan period. The greatest achievements of Byz. classical philology occurred during that period, in the work of Maximos Planoudes, Thomas Magistros, and Demetrios Triklinios. As a result of contacts with the West, the Byz. concept of antiquity was even expanded to the Latin heritage, including poets such as Ovid. Plethon made the most passionate attempt ever to use ancient tradition as a tool for reorganization of society and its beliefs, or at least as a vehicle for criticism of its social, political, and religious shortcomings. It was, however, impossible to restructure the Byz. world and to achieve a Platonic Utopia. Moreover, the Byz. began to feel some weariness with regard to antiquity: Theodore Metochites was extremely well read in ancient literature (albeit he sometimes misunderstood his reading), but he complained that the ancestors of the Byz. had said everything so perfectly that there was no room for improvement by posterity. This awe of antiquity was in stark contrast to a Renaissance perception of ancient culture as exemplary, but distinct from the present.


Byzantium and the Classical Tradition, ed. M. Mullett, R. Scott (Birmingham 1981). Antičnost' i Vizantija, ed. L. Freiberg (Moscow 1975).Find this resource:

I. Ševčenko, A Shadow Outline of Virtue: the Classical Heritage of Greek Christian Literature, in Age of Spirit. 53–73.Find this resource:

Idem, Byzantium, Antiquity and the Moderns, Association Internationale des Études Byzantines: Bulletin d'Information et de Coördination 14 (1987–88) 19–26.Find this resource:

Dölger, Paraspora 38–45.Find this resource:

E. von Ivánka, Hellenisches und Christliches im frühbyzantinischen Geistesleben (Vienna 1948).Find this resource:

A. Garzya, Visage de l'hellénisme dans le monde byzantin (IVe–XIIe siècle), Byzantion 55 (1985) 463–82.Find this resource:

G. Cavallo, Conservazione e perdita dei testi greci: fattori materiali, sociali, culturali, in Società romana e impero tardoantico 4 (Bari 1986) 83–172.Find this resource:

Alexander Kazhdan, Ihor Ševčenko