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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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The Cappadocians Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus received an admirable education in the best rhetorical schools of Athens and Alexandria. Unfortunately, no definite information exists about the early education of Basil's younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa, the most profound thinker of the three.  They were all well acquainted with classical literature and represented the so-called new Alexandrian movement. This movement, while using the acquisitions of philosophical thinking, insisting upon a place for reason in the study of religious dogma, and refusing to adopt the extremes of the mystical-allegorical movement of the so-called Alexandrian school, still did not discard the church tradition. In addition to the wealth of literary works on purely theological subjects wherein they ardently defend orthodoxy in its struggle with Arianism, these three writers left also a large collection of orations and letters. This collection constitutes one of the richest sources of cultural material for the period and even yet it has not been fully exhausted from a historical point of view. Gregory of Nazianzus also left a number of poems, which are chiefly theological, dogmatical, and didactic but are also somewhat historical. His long poem About His Own Life should by reason of form and content take a high place in the field of literature in general. Brilliant as they were, these three writers were the only representatives of their city. When these three noble geniuses had passed away, Cappadocia returned into the obscurity from which they had drawn it.

Antioch, the Syrian center of culture, produced in opposition to the Alexandrian school its own movement, which defended the literal acceptance of the Holy Scriptures without allegorical interpretations. This movement was headed by such unusual men of action as the pupil of Libanius and favorite of Antioch, John Chrysostom. He combined thorough classical education with unusual stylistic and oratorical ability and his numerous works constitute one of the world's great literary treasures. Later generations fell under the spell of his genius and high moral qualities, and literary movements of subsequent periods borrowed ideas, images, and expressions from his works as from an unlimited source. So great was his reputation that in the course of time many works of unknown authors have been ascribed to him; but his authentic works, sermons, and orations and more than two hundred letters, written mainly during his exile, represent an extremely valuable source regarding the internal life of the Empire. The attitude of posterity is well characterized by a Byzantine writer of the fourteenth century, Nicephorus Callistus, who wrote; I have read more than a thousand sermons by him, which pour forth unspeakable sweetness. From my youth I have loved him and listened to his voice as if it were that of God. And what I know and what I am, I owe to him.

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