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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The empire from Constantine the Great to Justinian

Literature, learning, education, and art 


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In the wide realm of the Roman Empire, within the boundaries which existed until the Persian and Arabian conquests of the seventh century, the Christian Orient of the fourth and fifth centuries had several distinct, well-known literary centers, whose representative writers exerted great influence far beyond the limits of their native cities and provinces. Cappadocia, in Asia Minor, had in the fourth century the three famous Cappadocians, Basil the Great, his friend Gregory the Theologian, and Gregory of Nyssa, younger brother of Basil. Important cultural centers in Syria were the cities of Antioch and Berytus (Beirut) on the seacoast; the latter was particularly famous for studies in the field of law, and the time of its brilliance lasted from about 200 to 551 A.D. In Palestine, Jerusalem had at this time not yet completely recovered from the destruction during the reign of Titus, and consequently it did not play a very significant part in the cultural life of the fourth and fifth centuries. But Caesarea, and toward the end of the fourth century, the southern Palestinian city of Gaza, with its flourishing school of famous rhetoricians and poets, contributed much to the treasures of thought and literature in this period. But above all these the Egyptian city of Alexandria still remained the center which exerted the widest and deepest influence upon the entire Asiatic Orient. The new city of Constantinople, destined to have a brilliant future in the time of Justinian, was only beginning to show signs of literary activity. Here the official protection of the Latin language, somewhat detached from actual life, was particularly pronounced. Of some importance to the general cultural and literary movements of this epoch were two other western centers of the eastern Empire, Thessalonica and Athens, the latter with its pagan academy, eclipsed in later years by its victorious rival, the University of Constantinople.

A comparison of the cultural developments in the eastern and the western provinces of the Byzantine Empire reveals an interesting phenomenon: in European Greece, with its old population, spiritual activity and creativeness were infinitely small in comparison with developments in the provinces of Asia and Africa, despite the fact that the greater part of these provinces, according to Krumbacher, were discovered and colonized only from the time of Alexander the Great. The same scholar, resorted to our favorite modern language of numbers, and asserted that the European group of Byzantine provinces was responsible for only ten per cent of the general cultural productivity of this period. In truth, the majority of writers of this epoch came from Asia and Africa, whereas after the founding of Constantinople almost all the historians were Greeks. Patristic literature had its brilliant period of development in the fourth, and the early part of the fifth, century.

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