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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The empire from Constantine the Great to Justinian

Nationality and religion in the fifth century 


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Page 2

Hellenization of Syria, where Hellenic culture reached only the higher educated class, was much weaker. The mass of the population, unacquainted with the Greek language, continued to speak their own native tongues, Syriac or Arabic. One learned orientalist wrote: If even in such a world-city as Antioch the common man still spoke Aramaic, i.e., Syriac, then one may safely suppose that inside the province the Greek language was not the language of the educated class, but only the language of those who made a special study of it. The Syrian-Roman Lawbook of the fifth century was striking proof of the fact that the native Syriac language was widely used in the East. The oldest Syriac manuscript of this lawbook now in existence was written in the early part of the sixth century, before Justinians time. This Syriac text, which was probably written in northeastern Syria, is a translation from the Greek. The Greek original has not yet been discovered, but on the basis of some existing data it must have been written some time during the seventies of the fifth century. In any case the Syriac translation appeared almost immediately after the publication of the Greek original. In addition to the Syriac text there exist also Arabic and Armenian versions of the lawbook, which indicate that the book was very probably of church origin, since it analyzes with much detail the items of marriage and inheritance laws and boldly advances the privileges of the clergy. The fact that it was very widely distributed and applied to the living problems in the East, in the territory between Armenia and Egypt, as evidenced by the numerous versions of the lawbook as well as by the borrowings from it found in many Syriac and Arabic works of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, shows the continuing predominance of the native tongues. Later, when Justinian's legislation became officially obligatory upon the whole Empire, his code proved to be too bulky and difficult of comprehension for the eastern provinces, so that in actual practice they continued to use the Syriac lawbook as a substitute for the codex. In the seventh century, following the Moslem conquest of the eastern provinces, the same Syriac lawbook was in wide use even under the Moslem domination. The fact that this lawbook was translated into Syriac as early as the second half of the fifth century indicates clearly that the mass of the people were still unacquainted with Greek or Latin and clung strongly to the native Syriac tongue.

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