Medieval Science and Philosophy
Did Early Christians Destroy Pagan Literature?
ne thing that everyone thinks they know about early Christians is that they went around and burnt down libraries and destroyed vast swathes of ancient literature in the process. For a 'fact' that is so widely believed, there is remarkably little evidence around. When challenged the best that most people can do is mention the Christians who destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria. But, as I have established in this article, that is itself a myth. That has not stopped authors like Carl Sagan in Cosmos and others who really ought to know better, from recycling it to make anti-Christian points.
After finding the example of Christian vandalism most commonly cited was untrue, I decided to launch an in-depth inquiry into the two related questions of what has happened to the majority of the corpus of ancient writing and whether the Christian contribution to their preservation has been positive or negative. This survey only covers the early church and the period through the Early Middle Ages so it does not examine the work of medieval inquisitors or later church authorities. I hope to look at these areas at a later date but for the moment my conclusions are as follows:
Burning down libraries
The idea of deliberating setting fire to a repository of knowledge appals us in a way that few other crimes can do. As demonstrated by the astronomical sums paid at auction, we value art far more than human life. Tens of thousands of Afghans could die in war without anyone in the West caring very much but, as the BBC reported, when the Taliban demolished a couple of ancient statues, there was world wide horror and condemnation.
This attitude has meant that the false accusation that Edward Gibbon laid at the door of the Patriarch Theophilus in chapter 28 of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire regarding the Great Library of Alexandria has been tremendously damaging to Christianity and is repeated by every author with a bone to pick. But although we can establish that this library was not destroyed by a Christian mob, were there not other ancient libraries that did suffer exactly that fate? The saying that there is no smoke without fire would seem to be exceedingly appropriate in this case. I do not for a second claim to have analysed every ancient source but I have read a good deal and have only located one example of deliberate destruction of an entire library recorded by the chroniclers.
The chronicler in question is John of Antioch about whom we know almost nothing. He was a Greek-speaking Christian historian who may have lived between the sixth and tenth centuries. All his works are lost and only fragments of his chronicle remain preserved in other places. Among them is following passage from the great Byzantine encyclopaedia called the Suda in the article on the Emperor Jovian:
Scholars believe that it is John of Antioch is being quoted. The Suda itself is full of snippets of information but it is treated with justifiable caution by the scholars who have studied it. Certainly, it is very often wrong but usually not deliberately. Instead it just quotes earlier authors uncritically and repeats their mistakes.
In favour of the verity of the library-burning story, John was from the city of Antioch where the alleged event happened and Jovian did visit there during the few months of his reign. On the other hand, the problems with its credibility are extremely wide ranging.
All the counter arguments depend on silence which demonstrates just how hard it is to prove a negative. On a personal note, the involvement of Jovian's wife and concubines makes me feel the story is less convincing although the women could be later accretions. If we knew that burning down libraries was the sort of thing that Jovian or other Christians actually did, we might have a case for believing it happened here but as it is a single example, it cannot be allowed to simply reinforce our prejudices. Still, this remains the only possible record of a library being deliberately destroyed that I have been able to find in the sources and those who with an anti-Christian axe to grind should use this case rather than Alexandria. Furthermore, it does illustrate that Christian writers were happy to report such things and repeat them from other sources. Contrary to the allegations of many sceptics, the Christian scribes made no effort to censor this alleged misdeed of Jovian even though he was a Christian emperor.
Magical and Prophetic Texts
That is not to say that many texts were not destroyed by the Christian Roman Emperors. We find that in fact they were, but often for reasons completely divorced from theology and as a continuation of exactly the policy that had been followed by their pagan antecedents. The relationship between the state and soothsayers in the Roman Empire was always ambiguous. Although some educated Romans like Cicero viewed the practices of these people as so much hokum, many thought that astrology, augury and other forms of divination actually worked. This made the practitioners dangerous people who had to be controlled. They were either regulated by the state or, if they worked unofficially, persecuted to ensure they stayed in line. Astrologers were regularly expelled from Rome, for the first time in 139BC, throughout the life of the Empire.
We learn from Suetonius that Augustus, as soon as he became High Priest and in charge of such matters, rounded up over 2,000 prophetic books and burnt them. He left only the famous Sibylline books which he locked away in the Temple of Palatine Apollo so that they could only be consulted by those who could be trusted to give an official interpretation.
We can read about the final fate of these esteemed but probably less than enlightening books in the elegy Concerning my Return by Rutilius Namatianus who said of the Gothic general, Stilicho, who rose to be chief minister of the Western Emperors at the end of the fourth century, "he burnt the predictions which carried the power of the Sybil." Rutilius was writing shortly afterwards and hence he was nearly contemporary to these events. Consequently, it seems likely that Stilicho completed the job Augustus started in destroying these prophetic texts.
Later on, John of Salisbury in the thirteenth century, tells us a different story in his Policraticus. He is really far too late to be reliable and admits he is reporting a rumour, so I mention it here only for completeness. According to John, the rumour was that Pope Gregory the Great had burnt some books from the Palatine Library in yet another purge of prophetic writings. He writes:
Although there is nothing intrinsically unlikely about Pope Gregory continuing the policy of Rome's pagan rulers in destroying these apparently subversive works, we have seen the job appears to have been completed already. Some commentators have taken one or the other above passages to mean that the entire Palatine Library was destroyed but this is an interpretation that the sources, even if they are reliable, cannot sustain.
As far as the Emperors were concerned, there was one kind of divination activity that was treated as the highest form of treason and punished accordingly - that of predicting the future of the Imperial family. Ammianus Marcellinus gives the most terrifying account of how these things could spiral out of control. He tells of reign of terror under the Emperor Valens reminiscent of Caligula or Commodus involving the show trial and execution of dozens of people who were suspected of divination. The evidence for the next batch of prosecutions came from the confessions of previous prisoners extracted by torture. The victims' books were seized and claimed to be prophetic texts although Ammianus says that in fact they were mainly concerned with art and law. These books were burned and in the resulting panic many people destroyed their entire private libraries to ensure they had no incriminating evidence in their homes.
In a further example, Diocletian is said by John of Antioch, again in the Suda, to have destroyed the esoteric works of the Egyptians on alchemy and magic:
The story is again unsupported and unreliable but accurately reflects the reputation that Egypt had for being the repository of forbidden knowledge as well as typical Roman policy toward magical texts.
The fact that Augustus and Diocletian were pagan Emperors and that Valens and Stilicho were Christians does not figure at all in the analysis of these events. Certainly, although Constantine made Christianity the official religion, the Roman Empire remained just as much of a military despotism as it ever was. It was not until Theodosius was reprimanded by Archbishop Ambrose that some of the Emperors' megalomaniac proclivities were to be at all circumscribed by Christianity and even then, not by much.
The Christian church prior to the Middle Ages had a very healthy attitude towards magic and related subjects - it simply dismissed them as superstition not worthy of attention. The episode in the Acts of the Apostles where the magicians destroy their own scrolls to show they realise how useless they are is illustrative of this. The Church would therefore have not particularly cared about such texts but, as they were not copying them either, very few have survived the ravages of time. In the early Renaissance, in many ways a far more superstitious era than the Middle Ages, they again became popular, especially the Corpus Hermiticum and related works.
Persecution of Christians
The Church History of Eusebius sometimes gives the impression that Christian martyrs were being slaughtered in their thousands for three hundred years. Scholars today take a rather dim view of this idea and accept that persecution specifically aimed at Christians was both rare and highly localised. Pliny the Younger's letter to Trajan appears to sum up the Roman attitude that hunting down Christians was not the done thing but they were to be executed if they happened to be caught.
Late in the day, however, on the advice of his protégé Galerius, the Emperor Diocletian launched what is usually referred to as the Great Persecution. It was a indeed a bloody affair that involved the suppression of literature as well as persons. Of course, it is unlikely that Diocletian made any distinction between orthodox and heretical Christians. Eusebius and the Suda both mention that there was wide scale destruction of Christian texts and some scholars such as Bruce Metzger believe it was so efficient that it explains why almost no pre-300AD New Testament manuscripts survive.
The last pagan Emperor was Julian, who tried a much more subtle approach. He wanted to reinvigorate paganism so it could win the battle for hearts and minds against Christianity. He wrote that his efforts to restore paganism were being seriously hampered by the charity and good deeds of the Christians and in any case his two years on the throne were not sufficient to have much effect. He wrote to his friend Arsacius, a Galatian pagan priest:
Persecution by Christians
In the end, the Roman Empire was not converted at the point of a sword but rather because quite soon anyone who wanted to get anywhere had to be a Christian. Hence, people lost little time in becoming one. This was partly because most pagans were happy to become nominal Christians and unlike earlier martyrs did not feel that any faith was worth dying for. Substituting the household gods for household saints was not seen as a radical step and furthermore paganism had been becoming increasingly monotheistic (usually worshipping the sun) before the advent of Christianity. The Bishop of Troy was happy to move between religions with a clean conscience as he could not really tell them apart. Even pagan polemic aimed at Christians seems more concerned with how stupid and dirty they were than any immediate danger their theology presented. Pagan temples were quarried for their valuable marble although even today dozens still survive almost intact. A few were pulled down by fanatical monks but it is the rarity of these events that makes them so noteworthy to the historians of the time.
In the one example I have been able to find of the persecution of pagans involving the destruction of their holy books, the chronicler John Malalas says that during the reign of Justinian in the sixth century:
Christianity was introduced to act as a unifying force in an increasingly fragmented Empire. This meant that it immediately became a political matter and it was important to the government that Christianity was itself united. The idea of religion as civic duty was handed down from centuries of pagan practice and was easily accepted by Roman jurists. Luckily for the Emperors' desire for Christian unity, orthodoxy had been fighting heretics for a couple of centuries already. With the full might of the Imperial state behind them, they took this battle to its conclusion. In general, during the fourth and fifth centuries, the argument between orthodoxy and heresy was reasonably civilised but, from time to time, violence erupted or official coercion was employed. Later on, methods became steadily more severe as heresy came to be seen as a cancer at the heart of society. Eventually, even the accusation of heresy could be used as a political weapon. If you want to find evidence of Christians destroying manuscripts then it is here you should look.
The Theodosian Code, a law book that collects all the Imperial Decrees and was published by Theodosius II in the early fifth century, is quite explicit that the writings of certain heretics should be destroyed. Likewise, we find Pope Leo the Great ordering the burning of Manichean writings in Rome after he had found how far they had penetrated into his church. There can be no doubt that heretical Christian texts were lost in this way although the scale of destruction would have been quite modest. The idea of huge pyres of manuscripts burning in a city square is pure myth. Most heretical works perished due to neglect. When they wore out, there was no one left to copy them. Heretics would not have been able to afford expensive and long lasting vellum for their books so would instead have had to rely on fragile papyrus that simply does not last.
It is the case that a few of the most forthright pagan attacks on Christianity were also targeted for suppression. The most infamous of these was Porphyry's Against the Christians. He was a pupil of the great pagan neo-Platonist, Plotinus, and wrote a massive work to combat the new religion. He was particularly offended by the way Christianity was taking over pagan philosophical ideas and turning them to its own ends. The book was condemned in the fourth and fifth centuries but today we can still study Porphyry's arguments from the long quotations of his work found in Christian refutations. Likewise, the arguments of other pagan apologists survive in works such as Origen's Against Celsus. On the other hand, Julian's Against the Galilaeans, Eutropius's various insults, the works of Libanius and other works of late pagan polemic against Christianity have been preserved by the very faith they were attacking.
The End of the Classical Age
By the fifth century, learning in the Western Empire was rapidly decaying as barbarian hordes swept over the dying Roman civilisation. Ammianus Marcellinus had complained in a rather rhetorical way that the libraries of Rome had been shut during his time in the mid-forth century. He blamed this intellectual decline on his fellow pagans rather than on Christians. It is likely that the libraries were transported with many other works of art and learning to the new capital of Constantinople being built on the shore of the Bospherus. We hear that the Christian Emperor Constantius founded an centre of learning and a library there under Themistius, the master of rhetoric. In the Theodosian Code, there are several enactments by Christian emperors to encourage learning and literacy in the new capital city.
Whatever was left in Rome was destroyed during the sackings of 410AD by the Goths, in 455AD by the Vandals and many times thereafter. Although most cities were ransacked and fell into ruin, the barbarians had quite quickly converted to Christianity which meant that at least they tended to spare book filled monasteries and churches from their depredations.
In Alexandria too, at the start of the fifth century, Orosius found that pagan temples, while still standing, had been emptied of their books. He does not say where they were taken but Constantinople is again not unlikely. The Emperor Justinian is notorious for his closing of the academy of Athens in 529AD and causing the pagan teachers to flee to Persia, although they all came back a few years later and were allowed to write and study unmolested. Meanwhile, John Philoponus, a philosophical master at Alexandria in the sixth century, found there was little conflict between his work studying Aristotle and being a professing Christian. Indeed his religion seems to have led him to make some of the most exciting advances in ancient natural philosophy.
The Loss of Literature
It has been claimed that about ten million words of classical Greek and one million words of classical Latin, excepting Christian works, have come down to us. Of the former, two million words are the medical corpus of Galen alone, while of the later about a third is made up of the surviving three quarters of the works of Cicero. Whereas much classical Greek is technical and not of interest to the general reader, nearly all preserved classical Latin is worth reading in its own right.
So just what proportion of ancient literature has been lost? This is difficult to answer but we can get a rough estimate from the size of ancient libraries. Archaeology suggests that the biggest contained 20,000 or so scrolls and the Library of Alexandria itself is most reliably said to have contained 40,000. On the other hand, all the extant pagan classical works would not fill much more than a thousand scrolls so we have been left with about 5% of what might be found (barring repeat copies) in Rome. As for Latin, we have the names of 772 classical authors. Of these, not a word survives from 276 of them. We have fragments ranching from an aphorism to several pages of 352 of the authors. Of the remaining 144, we possess at least one of their works but rarely all of them.
Of course, this does not tell us what people were actually reading and we can get a better idea of this from the papyri retrieved from the sands of Egypt, especially at Oxyrynchus. Of the Greek literary papyri that have been edited, a full half are scraps of Homer, a further quarter are from works familiar from the manuscript tradition and the remainder are previously unknown. This suggests that roughly half of the most popular works (even excluding Homer) have been preserved through the Early Middle Ages by the copying of manuscripts.
Literature was lost in two main ways - either it was not copied after the original version fell apart or it was the victim of disasters and war. The latter cases were probably all too common and one would be hard pressed to find any Greek or Roman city that was not sacked or pillaged at some point. On top of this we have to add natural disasters such as earthquakes, flood and accidental fire. Rome suffered many times, as did Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Constantinople was wracked by frequent periods of civil unrest and fell to hostile armies in 1205 and 1453. The later of these, when the Turks finally snuffed out the Byzantine Empire, is said to be the occasion of the loss of the last complete copy of Diodorus Siculus's History.
But even without these downfalls, we can explain the loss of most ancient writing simply by noting that it was written on papyrus scrolls and this is an exceedingly delicate medium that does not stand up well to being handled. A document would require recopying before it fell to bits and this was an extremely time consuming and expensive business. Not only that, once Egypt was conquered by the Arabs, papyrus was in short supply and very much more expensive parchment had to be used instead. This was made from treated leather and many sheets were needed to produce a full length book.
The shortage of both materials and personnel meant that choices had to be made about what would be copied and what would not be. Although it is common today to hear people complain that the monks who did the work did not copy what interests us and instead what interested them, this is simply anachronism and close to bigotry. They copied what they thought was important and worth the effort. That it was more often Christian works of their own time that seemed relevant to their own lives, rather than works that were ancient even then, should not surprise us. And nor should they be condemned by anyone who has not copied out the complete works of Shakespeare by hand on real parchment (which lasts 30,000 years rather than the expected 1,000 for paper) on the off chance that CD-ROM technology does not survive the apocalypse.
Some of the reasons that important literature disappeared are in fact very prosaic. The most important was language. When the Roman Empire was at its height the educated classes could read both Latin and Greek but after the fourth century the two languages split on geographical grounds. Greek completely died out in Western Europe. In the East, Latin was first confined to the army and then disappeared altogether. As late as the thirteenth century, the humanist scholar Petrarch could bemoan in a letter to Nicolas Sygeros that he was unable to read any of his collection of Greek manuscripts. Clearly, copying a manuscript that no one understands is not going to be a priority so Latin in the East and Greek in the West was lost.
This is also the reason for the near total lack of scientific scholarship in Western Europe before the translations into Latin of the High Middle Ages. There never was a scientific tradition in Latin, only popular compendiums like Pliny the Elder's Natural History. Once Greek died out, these were all that anyone could read and the technical Greek works (apart from one or two like Plato's Timeaus that had already been translated into Latin) were lost to the West.
Another major factor was the educational curriculum. In Byzantium, attic Greek was valued as a much finer form of literature than other dialects. Consequently, attic playwrights, orators and thinkers saw their works preserved while other writers were not copied. The most high-profile casualty was Menander who wrote comic plays in everyday Greek. He was once very popular but then his lower style fell out of favour and not a single one of his plays survives in the manuscript tradition (luckily large portions of several of his plays have been found on papyri in Egypt).
Palimpsests are another interesting case. The ruinous cost of parchment combined with its ability to withstand centuries of wear and tear meant that it was frequently reused. The old writing was scrapped off and the new written over the top. However, the process left faint images of the original text which later scholars have been able to read. Some important pagan works have been accidentally preserved in this way such as part of Cicero's De Republica and the recently rediscovered Archimedes palimpsest. There is no evidence that the monks doing the scrapping were deliberately targeting pagan texts although we may sometimes find their priorities unfortunate. The text they were scrapping off had, itself, been transcribed by earlier Christians and a perusal of a manuscript catalogue (such as the British Library's on-line) shows that in most cases the underlying material on a palimpsest is Christian as well. One of the earliest known bibles, the Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, had the sermons of Ephraemus written over the top of it.
In history and geography, many texts were lost because they were perceived to be out of date. Copying out Erastothenes' Geography seemed a waste of time when everyone knew that Stabo's work, which is still extant, was better. Likewise, nearly all the earliest Byzantine chronicles, like Julius Africanus, are lost because they were considered to have been superseded by the later ones like Georgius Syncellus which is still preserved.
The Preservation of Literature
The preservation of the classical Latin works that we do possess was almost entirely down to the Christian church. It helped in a number of ways:
It might be claimed that as the Church was the only institution that contained people able to read and write it is hardly surprising that the Latin that survived was in their hands. This misses the point. There is no evidence that the Church was in any way jealous of its learning and anyone who paid could have received an education. But among the upper class warriors of the Franks, Saxons and Goths, there was simply no such desire until Charlemagne encouraged his nobles to learn to read in the ninth century. For this reason, had the Church not occupied its unifying, educational and preserving role no other institution would have done so. The amount of classical Latin literature that has come down to us is a pitiful remnant of what there once was, but we can thank the Church for what we have.
In the fifteenth century, humanists (in this context, the term simply means a classical scholar) like Poggio searched the libraries of the monasteries seeking to acquire, by fair means and foul, copies of ancient works and by 1450 nearly all the classical Latin known today had been recovered.
In the Eastern Empire there was no sudden collapse but instead a thousand year decay. This meant that learning was carried on for much longer and something like ten times as much classical Greek survives as classical Latin. The amount that was still extant in the ninth century when Photius compiled his Bibliography was considerably more than is known today. Unfortunately, Byzantium was hammered over the next five hundred years by successive invasions by Turks and Normans who, between them, destroyed it utterly. As these disasters unfolded, Byzantine learning, despite some brief revivals, shrunk so that it could not replace what the invaders took away. On the other hand, only a tiny fraction of late Byzantine manuscripts have been edited and there remains that chance that substantial parts of earlier classical works have been copied and remain to be discovered.
Of course, the Greek works that survive are those that the Christian Byzantines chose to preserve for us. Hence they give a very skewed view of what Greek thought was actually like. For instance, we have seen that the medical works of Galen make up a full fifth of the entire surviving classical Greek corpus. Add Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy and the mathematical works and we find that Christians were most keen on copying scientific and medical writings. The papyri from Egypt and epigraphical evidence show that this was not the concern of most pagan Greeks. In other words, we think Greeks were a rational lot because Christians were interested in their rational thought. Hence, the preponderance of Greek science in the surviving corpus tells us that the Christians who preserved it were very interested in science - not that the classical Greeks were. Oddly, Stoicism, the Greek philosophy that comes closed to Christianity is severely under represented as is Epicurianism and Cynicism. And yet these three schools rejected much of the Greek achievement in reason and science, concentrating instead on ethical issues. We are left with the strong impression that Christians who appreciated Greek science a whole lot more than the Greeks did.
The final destruction of Byzantium coincided with the Renaissance in the West. The extent to which the two events are linked has long been debated but there is no doubt that the rediscovery of the Greek language by Italian humanists helped preserve much of the detritus left by the loss of the Greek Empire. The conquering Ottoman Turks were also happy to let most of the Greek monasteries continue in peace and discoveries were made in their dusty libraries well into the twentieth century.
Today we regret how much has been lost but we have been remarkably careless ourselves. Many classic television serials, such as Doctor Who from the 1960s, have disappeared because, at the time, no one felt they were important enough to use up video tape for. Even more tragically, large numbers of early movies like the second part of the incomparable Wedding March (1928) have been lost through carelessness and the perishability of nitrate film (for further details see here). Some surviving classics were preserved in a single print. To those of us who mourn the loss of classical literature this is a depressingly familiar story.
There are relatively few books about this subject that are not either Christian apologetics or atheist propaganda. Glenn Miller's summary is informative from a Christian point of view while good examples of the later include the works of Joseph McCabe that can be found in the Internet Infidels' Historical Library. While McCabe is worthless as scholarship, he certainly is a rollicking read. For my own article, I have tried to track down the primary sources rather than use secondary works but the following, including some general references, have all been helpful:
All quotations from or references to this essay should be accompanied by a link back to this page and the name of the author. This essay may be reproduced only with permission of the author although such permission will not normally be declined.
© James Hannam 2007