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Libraries and Book Culture of the Byzantine Empire

Libraries and Book Culture of the Byzantine Empire

By Barbara J. Ilie

Master’s Thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2007

Abstract: This paper examines the libraries and book culture of the Byzantine Empire. It finds that the Imperial and Patriarchal Libraries enjoyed royal patronage from the empire’s very inception, and benefited from imperial largesse throughout its span. Private libraries and monastic libraries were also important; some private libraries rivaled their monastic and imperial counterparts. Another interesting find was that book ownership was reserved for the few; those in the practice of book production could derive a significant income from selling these items of luxury. Finally, devotion to the book assured that many works from antiquity and from the Byzantine period itself have survived until the present day. This devotion ranged from emperor to scribal monk, from calligrapher to scholar collector.

Introduction: The Byzantine Empire preserved many of the books that we have today. This empire took a great interest in literary culture and preserved many of the works of antiquity while at the same time writing a new literature. The Byzantine Empire supported literary life at a time when many other parts of the western world were in a state of literary darkness. In this paper, I endeavor to discuss the libraries and book culture of the Byzantine Empire and their roles in the empire’s success at literary conservation and cultivation.

During the second and third centuries the Roman Empire was forced into eastern and western halves with the invasions of the Goths and Vandals. The Western Roman Empire, through traditional interpretation, came to its official end in 476 A.D. However, its power and eminence had been transferred before this date to the Byzantine Empire when Constantine I founded his capital city, Constantinople, in 330 A.D. on the strait connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. Between the second and fourth centuries, the Roman Empire and its literary life sustained a great blow. In the second century the empire boasted numerous public libraries; by the fourth century its library system was in no way reminiscent of its glorious past. A Latin scholar in 378 A.D. wrote “the libraries, like tombs, were closed forever.”

Click here to read this thesis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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