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
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.
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
- Aelius Aristides
- Romances; e.g., Longus' Daphnis and Chloe
Literary Activity following the Second Sophistic
- Golden Age of Patristic Authors (4th Century)
- Neo-Platonism (Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus)
- Dio Cassius
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superceded the written culture of the Roman world.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
The Theodosian Renaissance was an artistic rather than a
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.
- The Suda (encyclopedia of Greek literature
- Greek Anthology (Palatine edition)
- George Syncellus, Chronography
- Photius, Bibliotheca
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.
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.
- Michael Psellus
- Anna Komnena
From the fourteenth century on, many Byzantine scholars migrated to
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.
- Greek Anthology
- Demetrius Triclinius
- George Gemistus Plethon
Very few manuscripts were copied between 550 and 750. Literary
culture slid into a deep decline and was replaced with a primarily oral
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.
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)
The twelfth-century renaissance, centered in Paris, actually began in
the middle of the eleventh century. A great number of scholars were at
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.
- Schools and Universities
- Francis of Assisi
- Monastic reforms
- Innocent III
- Compilations of older material, such as the Sentences
- John of Salisbury
- Peter Abelard
- Courtly vernacular poetry
The center of this revival was Florence.
- Warren Treadgold, ed., Renaissances Before the Renaissance:
Cultural Revivals of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Stanford,
California: Stanford University Press, 1984).
- Stock, Brian. The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and
Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).
- Stock, Brian. Listening for the Text: On the Uses of the
Past (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1990).
- Jaeger, C. Stephen, The Envy of Angels:
Cathedral Schools and Social Ideals in Medieval Europe 950-1200
(Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1994).
- Tony Hunt, Teaching and Learning Latin in Thirteenth-Century
England, two volumes (Cambridge: Brewer, 1991).
- Alan Cameron
- Martin Irvine, The Making of Textual Culture: "Grammatica" and
Literary Theory, 350-1100
(Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- Robert Kaster, Guardians of the Language
- Walter Berschin and Jerold C. Frakes, Greek Letters and the
Latin Middle Ages: From Jerome to Nicholas of Cusa
Last Modified: March 3, 2009