The-Not-So-Dark Ages: Part Two

By Todd Lewis

In my previous essay, The Not So Dark Ages: Part One, I attempted to dispel certain myths and misconceptions about the relationship of the Church to science in the Medieval and Classical eras. There I focused primarily on the West. Here, I will focus mainly on the East. The atheist polemics nearly always deal with the Catholic church during this period. The fact that the Eastern Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople, and the Eastern Orthodox church, which also resided there, is so unknown as to not even be fodder for a polemic is a sign of the sad hand that Byzantium has been dealt by history. The Eastern Roman Empire survived for another thousand years after the fall of the Western Empire. I will henceforward refer to the Byzantine Empire as the Roman Empire, since the Byzantines themselves never saw themselves as anything other than Roman. I will not use the term “Eastern” either, since there was only one Roman Empire; even in 395 it had two joint emperors. It preserved much of the classical knowledge that was lost in the West, and in its final collapse the last line of ancient Romans fled to Italy, ultimately serving to develop and aid the nascent Renaissance of which we are so familiar.

There is a pernicious falsehood that has been circulated by modern liberal scholars that it was the enlightened and scientific Saracens that gave learning to the rude and uncouth West during the Dark Ages. While there is a grain of truth in the idea that the West gleaned much from the Arabic philosophers who thus aided in the rise of Scholasticism, it is only a half-truth. For while the Saracens themselves were rude and uncouth barbarians pillaging the Roman Empire and the remains of the once proud Sassanid Dynasty, Constantinople, the seat of the Roman Empire, still was the leader in scholarship; its twin in the south, Alexandria, had a long history of Christian, as well as pagan scholarship. Furthermore the Persian imperial capital at Ctesiphon held the last remnants of the ancient pagan academy (in 529 AD the Emperor Justinian closed the academy and its scholars fled to the court of king Khosrau I of the Sasanian Empire). So with the vast amount of pagan and Christian learning from Alexandria and Ctesiphon, it was the Saracens who were the students and the Christians the teachers. If in later centuries the Saracens repaid their debt in scientific, philosophic, and mathematical discoveries, let us not forget that they first paid homage to the scholars of Constantinople.

Before I discuss the great minds of the Eastern Church, I feel compelled to explain a little of the importance of the Medieval Roman Empire and why it is so little regarded. The Medieval Roman Empire served two vital roles among many in service to the West: (1) it protected the nascent West from barbarian invasion and (2) preserved the light of learning in the sea of night brought on by the Germanic and later Saracen invaders. The number of invasions and invaders that assaulted the Medieval Roman Empire are too numerous to tell here, but suffice it to say there were three major enemies of the West that were either thwarted in their endeavor or as in the case of the later, succeed in a time when the West was not strong enough to offer its own defense. The study of Byzantine history was quite popular in Bourbon France and 18th century Europe. It was the work of mean minds such as Voltaire and Gibbon, who, in casting away the heritage of Christianity, spent their vitriol on defaming the Medieval Roman Empire. What was inaugurated by Deists was finished by Atheists, to such an extent that popular knowledge of the Medieval Romans is all but nonexistent.

In the 7th century, a titanic clash between the Romans and Persians occurred in the near east; a war of such a scale had not been seen since the Punic Wars of republican Rome. The Persian armies at their apogee had overrun all of Roman Asia and Egypt. Though ultimately defeated by the military genius Heraclius and the stout defense of Constantinople, a formidable foe was prevented from threatening the weak and young West. The next foe would arise out of the ashes of the old; the Saracen threat would plague both the Roman Empire and the West for centuries to come, but the heaviest blows occurred on the stout walls of Constantinople where, in 674-78 and 717-18, the Saracen armies were scattered in no small part due to the new weapon of Greek fire, which I will refer to later. Lastly, the Turks who came in the 11th century and would ultimately overcome the Roman Empire, were delayed for centuries, which in turn bought time for the Hapsburgs to develop enough strength to rout the Turks at the gates of Vienna.

The second debt owed to the Eastern Christians is their preservation of ancient texts. We must not forget that there never was any dark age in the Eastern Christendom. The Roman Empire continued on as it always had. It might not have had the luster and glory of Old Rome, but their love of the classics never abated and was safely preserved until its transmission to the West in 1453.

I will divide this period into three eras: the Lighthouse (476-867), the Macedonian Renaissance (867-1261), and the Palaeologean Renaissance (1261-1453). This is a somewhat coarse classification but I believe it fits the broad contours of Eastern Christendom’s scientific and philosophical contributions.  The first period was simple enough: when all the lights of learning went out in the West and East due to two barbarian invasions, Constantinople alone stood as the beacon of light and learning to the Western world. The second period includes not only the Macedonian Dynasty, but subsequent dynasties as well; the classification was more of an intellectual one than a dynastic one. The last period focuses on the last flourishing of Roman thought with the Palaeologeans until the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.


As a preface to the latter scholars, two Eastern luminaries, who thrived before 476, deserve mention: Anatolius of Laodicea (died July 3, 283 AD) and Nemesius, a fourth century thinker.

Anatolius, an inhabitant of Alexandria and later Bishop of Laodicea, was gifted in mathematics, geometry, philosophy and astronomy. Due to his erudition, a request was made by the Alexandrians for him to start a peripatetic school in their city. Eusebius reports that during the siege of the Pyrucheium or Bruchium, Anatolius was able to negotiate with the besieging Romans to allow the women, children and the elderly of the rebelsto withdrawal from city unharmed. These were rebels who had supported the Arabian queen Zenobia in her uprising against Rome, a clear triumph of Christian charity over the barbarities of war.  He is known for his use of astronomy in calculating the precise date of Easter. It is notable that the neo-platonic luminary Iamblichus was a pupil of Anatolius.

Nemesis of Emesa, the city of which he was bishop, is notable for his early description of the nature of the circulation of blood. He appears to have anticipated the work of William Harvey by 1,500 years. Yet the imperfection of his knowledge and the ignorance of the importance of his discovery led it to fall into obscurity.


When the last Roman Emperor of the West was displaced by his master-of-arms Odoacer, the last vestige of Roman political rule was gone and the long night of barbarism began. I have previously recounted the heroic efforts of isolated scholars in the West to stem the tide, but in the East there was no loss of learning. In fact, classical learning flourished in the Roman Empire of the 5th and 6th centuries.

Six luminaries of this period deserve mention: John Philoponus of Alexandria, Kallinikosof Hieropolis, Isidore of Miletus andAnthemius of Tralles, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, and Qusta ibn Luqa.

John of Philoponus was an Alexandrian polymath who studied philology, Aristotelian philosophy, and Christian theology. His scientific work can be divided into three areas: (1) broad scientific theory, (2) the study of space, and (3) the study light. According to David C. Lindberg in his Science in the Middle Ages, Philoponus based his scientific inquiry on three axioms: (1) one God created the universe, (2) the heavens above and the earth below operate on the same basic principles, and (3) the stars are not divine. These principles would also have been shared by Jewish and later Islamic scholars. Philoponus’ surviving works indicate that he might have studied using principles of the scientific method, even using controlled experiments. Using such methods, Philoponus concluded that the velocity of a falling object is independent of its weight, which astonishingly predated Galileo by a thousand years. Philoponus rejected the standard Aristotelian definition of motion. Aristotle argued that an object moved only under two conditions: (1) a source of imparted motion to that object and (2) that source must be in physical contact with that source. Aristotle hypothesized that the air itself must impart motion to a flying object such as a stone or arrow. Philoponus reject this notion and argued that motion of an object could be imparted motion by the motive source, and that motive energy as it is dissipated, propels the object forward. Contrary to Aristotle, he suggested that the air hinders the motion of a flying object rather than aiding it. Philoponus disproved Aristotle’s view that objects of different weight fall at different velocities by performing the same sort of experiment that Galileo would use a millennia later.

Philoponus also disagreed with Aristotle on the impossibility of a void. Aristotle believed that a void was impossible in principle. Philoponus argued that the void might not be possible in nature, but was an essential postulate in order to explain motion in a plenum. On a related topic, Philoponus argued that space should be viewed in three-dimensions. His work on light hinted at some of the discoveries of Maxwell and Einstein, just as his work on space had hinted on the discoveries of Galileo. Philoponus’ work was largely forgotten as a result of his nemesis Simplicius, who condemned him for his monophyiste views, which in 681 got Philoponus anathematized, rendering him another victim of the religious infighting that plagued the Roman Empire.

Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, who should be as famous as Michelangelo and Da Vinci, have fallen down the Orwellian memory hole first constructed by small-minded deists. Like much of the Middle Ages, they are forgotten. These two engineers constructed the greatest architectural wonder of their age, the Hagia Sophia (the Church of Holy Wisdom). Isidore was taught geometry and physics in Alexandria and later Constantinople; he was the first to organize Archimedes’ work into one complete volume. Anthemius was a geometrician and architect. Not only were these men gifted geometricians, but they were also master logisticians who were able to manage the tremendous logistical feat of bringing the materials necessary for constructing the church from around the Roman Empire and organizing the labor force to construct it. The finished church was the largest domed building in the world at that time.

Kallinikos of Heliopolis was a Syrian refuge who fled to the court of the Roman Emperor and offered his secret of what would later be known as Greek Fire, but was known to the Romans as Sea Fire. There are numerous explanations as to the chemical nature of Sea Fire, but we do know that naphtha was a key ingredient. This Medieval “Napalm” would serve a vital role in repelling the Saracen siege of Constantinople in 674-8 and 717-18. This closely-guarded state secret rendered Constantinople unconquerable by sea and by implication land (since it could never be starved into submission), until the Fourth Crusade in 1204 where the Venetian’s fleet of wooden galleys, coated with canvas and leather soaked in vinegar (one of the few means to retard Sea Fire, the other two being sand and urine), captured the city.

Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a 9th century Assyrian Christian in the service of Caliph Al-Mutawakkil as the Caliph’s personal physician, is notable for his study in ophthalmology and the translation of the works of Galen into Arabic. Ishaq’sBook, The Ten Treatises of the Eye, was the most systematic account of the eye and its functions yet given. He relied heavily on the works of Galen to produce his treatise, which contains the earliest known description of the anatomy of the eye. As personal physician to Caliph Al-Mutawakkil, Ishaq’s loyalty was tested when the Caliph asked him to develop a poison for uses on the Ishaq’s enemies. Ishaq refused and was imprisoned for a year. When released, the Caliph confronted him again and threatened death if he did not perform the action, yet Ishaq still refused. The Caliph then revealed he had been testing the loyalty of his physician. The Caliph then asked Ishaq why he preferred death to creating the poison. Ishaq stated that he swore the Hippocratic Oath “to do no harm” and that his religion taught him to love enemies. We see again the triumph of Christian compassion in a dark age of barbarism and war. Ishaq’s voluminous translations of Greek philosophical and scientific texts into Arabic garnered him the title of “Sheik of the Translators.”

Qusta ibn Luqa, a contemporary of Ishaq who was a Melkite Christian and a master physician and translator, was a key element of the Greek-to-Arabic translation that took place in the 9th and 10th centuries. While he translated into Arabic many Greek works on medicine, mathematics and geometry, he also wrote many original treatises of his own. Luqa’s De Differentia Spirituset Animae was one of the few works not written by Aristotle that was on the reading list of natural philosophers at the University of Paris in 1254. The Islamic scholar Ibn al-Nadim says of him: “He is an excellent translator; he knew well Greek, Syriac, and Arabic; he translated texts and corrected many translations. Many are his medical writings.” As we saw in the West with the Irish and Anglo-Saxons, so we see in the East with Syriac Christians that it was the servants of Christ who exerted the greatest effort in preserving the classics.

The Medieval Roman Empire was the first political system to have institutionalized medical services. The first hospital was created by St. Basil in the 4th century. The Church as always led the way in this effort. As I noted in my previous essay, the monastic institutions played an invaluable role in propagating hospitals and medical institutions. While it is true that classical Rome had medical institutions, they were primarily military in nature and service. The Christian system that was established, however, was open to all. At first the urban centers were where the majority of these hospitals were located, but by the 9th and 10th centuries such institutions had become common in the rural areas as well. Throughout this period we see an organized process of the education of physicians at the University of Constantinople. These hospitals were run on relatively ‘modern’ principles; physicians were required to wash their hands, patients were given private beds and instructions were given to keep the patients warm. By the 12th century separate rooms for outpatients and surgery were present. Of all Medieval Roman institutions that most resembled modern ones, the hospital system was that institution.


While not as self-consciously organized as the Carolingian Renaissance, the Macedonian Renaissance marks a flourishing of Medieval Roman art, literature and science. Under the patronage of the Emperors Leo VI “The Wise” and his son Constantine, the arts flourished. One could say that Patriarch Photius I, the teacher of Leo, was the originator of this revival in learning, and with him, we shall begin our study. We shall also discuss Leo the Mathematician and Michael Psellous.

Photius I was one of the most influential patriarchs in all of the history of Constantinople, his erudition and philosophic learning have been marred by power struggles and theological disputes culminating in the Photian schism; his episcopacy and the schism named after him are not our present concern, but rather his invaluable contribution to the preservation of the classics. His magisterial work was the Bibliotheca, or alternatively titled the Myriobiblos. The Bibliotheca is a collection of fragments and reviews of classical and Christian works that Photius read and preserved. Thanks to Photius’ preservation, what we have of the works of Ctesias, Memnon of Heraclea, Conon, DiodorusSiculus, and Arrianwe, we owe in part or in whole to him.

Leo the Mathematician was a 9th century polymath adept at philosophy, mathematics, geometry and medicine. He was considered a national security asset, so when Caliph Al-Ma’mun asked for Leo to study in Baghdad, the Emperor Theophilous granted Leo a school in the Magnaura (a philosophical school) in order to prevent him from leaving the empire and serving its enemies. Leo was a teacher of Aristotelian logic and a collector of a wide variety of scientific and philosophical works. His practical accomplishments were a series of signal beacons he designed in Asia Minor in order to warn of impending Saracen invasion, as well as a series of mechanical devices placed in the imperial palace to inspire onlookers.

Michael Psellos was an 11th century scholar who wrote works of history, grammar, philosophy and rhetoric. His work the Chronographia is a historical account of the Roman Empire in the preceding century. His love of Platonism was so great that it led people to question his orthodoxy, which required his public profession of in order to sway them. He restored a certain level of rigor in philosophical studies that had been lacking at the time. He also wrote on astronomy, music and medicine.


The actual origins of the Palaeologean Renaissance are debated; it is generally seen to have been precipitated by the re-conquest of Constantinople from the Crusaders. When in 1204 the Fourth Crusade sacked and conquered Constantinople, the Roman Empire was divided into two regions, the Despotate of Epirus and the Empire of Nicaea. For nearly sixty years the Crusader Latin Empire looted what was left of the Roman Empire. When the Emperor of Nicea, Michael VIII Palaiologos, re-conquered Constantinople in 1261, the Roman Empire was restored and the newly invigorated people entered into their last cultural flowering. This new Palaeologean culture was focused on theological mysticism, realism in paintings and the study and preservation of classical Greek texts. We shall discuss the work of two Palaeologean scholars, Nicephorus Gregoras and Maximus Planudes.

Maximus Planudes, a 13th century scholar, was known for his accomplishments in literature and mathematics. Unique among the Palaelogean scholars, Maximus was fluent in Latin. He translated Augustine’s City of God and Caesar’s Gallic Wars into Greek, as well as many other classical and medieval Latin works, and his edition of the Greek Anthology was widely renowned (a collection of epigrams from classical and medieval Greek sources). Maximus’ two works on mathematics are The Great Calculation According to the Indians, a treatise on Hindu numerals in their Persian form, and a commentary on Diophantus’ (a 3rd century AD Alexandrian mathematician) Arithmetic.

Nicephorus Gregoras was a 14th century scholar whose accomplishments were in the realm of theology, history and astronomy. His career and legacy were marred by his opposition to the dominant theology of Hesycasm, and he was at constant odds with Queen Anna and Emperor John VI Cantacuzene. He later retired as a monk, still attacking what he considered the Hesycasm heresy. His work “Roman History” was a work divided into 37 books covering the period between 1204 and 1359. Due to certain deficiencies in the work, it should be read alongside John Cantacuzene’s own works of history. His astronomical work pertains to the dating of Easter, the use of the astrolabe, and prediction of solar eclipses.


We have seen the rich intellectual history of Eastern Christianity and that, far from destroying classical civilization as the ilk of Carl Sagan would have you believe, it was the bosom in which classical civilization was preserved. The Italian Renaissance was greatly enriched by the Greek emigres after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. With the fall of the “City of the World’s Desire”, the last bulwark against Islam had fallen and in the succeeding centuries, Turkish forces would spread fire and sword from Austria to Ukraine. The influx of Greek emigres did not, as was formerly thought, initiate the Renaissance, but their erudition and learning certainly enriched it.  It all comes full circle; the ancient Roman civilization that survived in Constantinople sent its own kind back to Italy and in the process greatly aided in the work of rediscovering the classic texts and improving upon them.

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