Who preserved classical learning- the Byzantines or the Muslims?

Mar 25 2010

Reader Kevin asked this question and it’s one that I get a lot.  The Islamic contribution to scientific learning is an important one and is widely taught in schools.  They played a vital role both in the advancement of science and in its transmission to the West, specifically through Spain.  What is frequently overlooked, however, is the Byzantine underpinnings of that achievement.  Unlike the West where the pagan aspects of the classical past made it taboo, the East viewed it as inseparable from Christian society.  The fourth century Church father Basil of Caesarea summed up the Byzantine position neatly in a pamphlet he wrote called ‘To Young Men, On How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature’.  The classical world, in other words, was a treasure trove to be mined- though with extreme caution.  This is not to say that the Byzantines continued the Greek spirit of inquiry full bore, merely that they preserved the Greek legacy more or less intact.   After the initial shock of Islamic conquest, when it became apparent that the empire wasn’t going to be swept away, relations with the rising Caliphate became more stable, allowing a cultural exchange.  The Arabic world absorbed Greek learning and improved on it, pushing the frontiers of medicine and science during the brilliant High Caliphate.  Those advances in learning fully belong to Arab genius, but they couldn’t have been accomplished without the preserved texts or tutors and scholars to translate them.  These were all ultimately provided by Byzantium.

The empire played a similar catalyst role in the Renaissance.  Byzantine émigrés traveled to the West and re-introduced the study of Greek classics, tutoring luminaries like Petrarch and Boccaccio in the process.  Cosimo Medici was even so impressed by a lecture on Plato from a Byzantine scholar named Pletho, that he restarted the Academy in Florence.  Obviously both the Renaissance and the Arab Enlightenment pushed the frontiers of knowledge in ways that were independent of Byzantium, but neither would have been possible without Byzantine pens.

5 responses so far

  1. The Muslims were mostly interested in Greek medicine and the sciences. They were acquiring knowledge written by Aristotle, Plato, Galen and Euclid. They found no practical use by reading the works of Homer and Euripides because Pagan Greek culture was incompatible with Islam.

    Byzantium was the repository of Greek texts, which many were provided to the Muslims when they were assimilating Greek thought into their religion. The Byzantines had their share of scholars and scientists who studied the works of their forefathers, but they were not as prevalent as those in the Medieval Islamic w0rld.

    I say both the Muslims and Byzantines preserved classical Greek learning. The Muslims introduced Western Europe to the Greek sciences and philosophy, while Byzantium revived the Classical Greek culture that sparked the Renaissance.

  2. Thanks Chris. I agree that both the Muslims and Byzantines had a role in preserving classical Greek learning. But while the Islamic contribution has been widely acknowledged, Byzantium still gets overlooked. It has become politically correct to attribute the survival of classical texts completely to Arabic sources without bothering to point out where they got them from- almost as if there was nothing worth mentioning in the millennium or so between Plato’s death and the Arab ‘renaissance’.

  3. Hi Lars! Yes, I agree. There needs to be more of an emphasis from academia showing that the Byzantines were also responsible for the transmission of Greek knowledge to the West. There are quite a number of Byzantine scientists ranging from astronomers to mathematicians that most people have never heard of. It’s quite unfortunate how these individuals were so easily forgotten, and even with our “not so politically correct” Eurocentric view of the world, they are rarely mentioned in our history books and classrooms. We can name a Chinese philosopher like Confucius and an Arabic scholar like Averroes, yet many of us can’t even think of someone from Byzantium.

    The Arab ‘renaissance’ you’ve mentioned has led many to believe that it was only the Muslims who single-handedly provided the Greek works in translation to the Europeans during the Middle Ages. This is incorrect because they were two European 13th century scholars William Moerbeke and Michael Scot who embarked in translating Aristotle’s works into Latin. Willam Moerbeke translated directly into Latin from the Greek sources when he was in Italy, while Michael Scot translated from the Arabic into Latin, but was able to translate one work directly from the Greek text when he also visited Italy. Interestingly, these two men were able obtain the original Greek works thanks in part to the Byzantines whom the Italians had contact with, even before the Ottoman Invasion during the 15th century.

  4. […] Who preserved classical learning- the … – by Lars BrownworthMar 25, 2010 … by Lars Brownworth … to the West and re-introduced the study of Greek classics, tutoring luminaries like Petrarch and Boccaccio in the process. … […]

  5. Please add dates so that we know the era/time period these events took place.


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