Classical Education in Byzantium

December 5, 2012

in Archaeology, Classical Education, Home schooling, Literacy, Schools

Byzantium was one of the great civilizations, an empire lasting 1,000 years based on a melting pot of Eastern and Western culture. It is a key period to investigate for any student of classical civilisation, particularly as, along with the Arab and Persian civilisations, Byzantium helped preserve vast parts of classical Greek and Roman heritage during Western Europe’s dark ages. As such, it is worth noting what classical education in Byzantium looked like, helping to pass knowledge of ancient times through generations of scholars. The following description is taken from historian Judith Herrin‘s fascinating book “Byzantium – the surprising life of a medieval empire“:

The Byzantine educational system was, and always remained, classical, based on the seven liberal arts of antiquity: three literary topics (grammar, rhetoric, logic), followed by four mathematical ones (arithmetic, geometry, harmonics, and astronomy). Philosophical argument informed the entire syllabus, although only advanced students studied the texts of Plato and Aristotle.

Children began with basic letters and practised writing the alphabet on wax tablets and slates. They then moved on from learning Aesop’s Fables to exercises based on The Art of Grammar by Dionysios Thrax (a grammarian of the second century BC). They learned poetry by heart, notably the Homeric epics. On average they could memorize and understand thirty lines a day, so progress through the Iliad with 15,000 must have been slow.

After poetry and grammar, the teenage student was ready for rhetoric, the study of orations and how to make persuasive speeches, using short model texts by Aphthonios of Antioch and later compilations. They read speeches by Demosthenes and Libanios and practised delivering their own for special occasions, such as imperial marriages. All this preceded study of the quadrivium of mathematical sciences and philosophy.

There is ample inspiration here for classical home schoolers and those who wish to support their own or their children’s education along classical principles. Key resources mentioned are:

Did you enjoy this article?
Share the love
Get free updates

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge

Previous post:

Next post: