Levels of Greek and Latin Literary Activity

In Western civilization, learning and literary activity have experienced setbacks and revivals. These are often known as "dark ages" and "renaissances." Here is a chart of major developments in the Greek East (left side of the chart) and the Latin West (right side). In this chart, literary periods are graded with stars, as if they were restaurants. Obviously, this system is both subjective and oversimplified. As a sketch, it may be useful.

Greek East


In 48 b.c.e., the library at Alexandria burned. This was the first substantial loss of Greek literature. It was partially replaced by Pergamum's smaller library, at the expense of Pergamum's culture.

Second Sophistic

The Second Sophistic began in the last decades of the first century ce and flowered in the second, declining thereafter. It was characterized by an emphasis of rhetoric and an attempt to reproduce Attic language but in new forms, notably, the romance. The high level of literary activity begun by the Second Sophistic lasted about five centuries.

Literary Activity in the Second Sophistic

Literary Activity following the Second Sophistic


529 Justinian closes the Platonic Academy in Athens, and Benedict of Nursia founds his monastery at Monte Cassino. In this period, secular schools closed. Writing, copying, and reading of texts waned and literacy declined. The oral culture of the Germanic North superceded the written culture of the Roman world. Meanwhile, Islamic culture exploded.
The Theodosian Renaissance was an artistic rather than a literary movement.

Macedonian Renaissance

This renaissance begin in the late eighth century, but flourished under the support provided to scholars by the Macedonian emperors between 886 and 959. The old secular educated elite, after a two-century hiatus, begin to collect and copy old Greek manuscripts, now in minuscule letters with accents and word divisions.

The first wave of literary active focused primarily on the collection and utilization of older materials:
Under the Comnenian emperors, Byzantine literature reached a plateau like that of Late Antiquity.

Latin Occupation

In 1204, Latin forces under the banner of the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople and destroyed Greek manuscripts in the process. The Latin occupation lasted until the Palaeologan dynasty began in 1261.

Palaeologan Renaissance

The center of this revival was the Imperial court in Constantinople. It evidenced an intentional desire of Greeks to inherit their Greek legacy. It produced the most advanced classical scholarship of medieval times. From the fourteenth century on, many Byzantine scholars migrated to Renaissance Italy.

Latin West

Fourth Century

This Latin renaissance preferred Silver Age models to Golden Age. The renaissance was centered in Gaul and then Rome. Several Greeks wrote in Latin (e.g., Claudian and Ammianus Marcellinus were the greatest Latin writers of the century).
In this century, many classical texts were copied from papyrus rolls to parchment codices, which were much less fragile. In 356, Constantius II established a scriptorium in Constantinople to copy classical texts. The library there was maintained with imperial funds.
The literary tastes of this revival were passed on to the Middle Ages.
(Cassiodorus had a scriptorium later.)
Although literacy continued to be defined as literacy in Latin, Romance languages were developing on the popular, spoken level.


Very few manuscripts were copied between 550 and 750. Literary culture slid into a deep decline and was replaced with a primarily oral culture.

Northumbrian Renaissance

669 Theodore of Tarsus triggered a flowering of monastic and episcopal schools in Great Britain. The most prominent author of this relatively narrow movement was Bede. The Northumbrian renaissance provided scholars for the Carolingian Renaissance on the continent.

Carolingian Renaissance

The Carolingian renaissance affected more people. Prominent scholars included Paul the Deacon, Einhard, and John Scottus Eriugena. The Carolingian renaissance copied many manuscripts, and the Carolingian minuscule hand determined the shape of modern lower case letters.


(Alfred the Great)

Twelfth Century

The twelfth-century renaissance, centered in Paris, actually began in the middle of the eleventh century. A great number of scholars were at work. Brian Stock argues that "textual culture" begins in the eleventh century. He means that the culture begins to focus on written documents even when most people are still illiterate. In this century, for example, it is no longer sufficient for witnesses to testify that they have witnessed a transfer of property; the critical question becomes whether there is a written document attesting to the transfer.

The Fourteenth Century Italian Renaissance


Last Modified: March 3, 2009
Jay Treat