Reading the Ancients: Remnants of Byzantine Controversies in the Greek National Narrative

Reading the Ancients: Remnants of Byzantine Controversies in the Greek National Narrative

By Effi Gazi

Historien, Vol.6 (2006)

Michael Psellos (left) with his student, Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas. Codex 234, f. 245a, Mount Athos, Pantokrator Monastery/ Κώδ. 234, φ. 254α, Άγιον Όρος, Μονή Παντοκράτορος

Introduction: In 1082, the philosopher John Italos (or Italus), a former disciple of Michael Pselos and his successor as Consul of the Philosophers in Constantinople, was condemned by an Orthodox council for being overzealous in his “reading of the ancients” – primarily Plato but also Aristotle. The following anathemas, directed against his doctrines, were incorporated into the Synodicon of Orthodoxy:

Anathema to those who introduce Hellenic doctrines of the soul, heaven, earth, and creation into the Church …; to those who teach metempsychosis or the destruction of the soul after death …; to those who honour, or who believe that God will honour, Hellene philosophers or heresiarchs who taught error above the Fathers of the councils who held to the truth, though these latter may have sinned through passion or ignorance …; to those who think Hellenic philosophy to be true and try to convert the faithful to their opinions …; to all of John Italos’ doctrines introduced in opposition to the Orthodox faith.

In the eyes of his contemporaries, as Anna Komnene suggests in her Alexiad, Italos was a pagan wolf in the clothing of a Christian sheep, anxious to overcome Christianity in favour of Hellenic (i.e. pagan) philosophy. According to Psellos, Italos once hit back at his critics by composing a speech in which he lamented the fact that the “wisdom of the Greeks” and the right and pleasure “of reading the ancients” had migrated to the East, “to the Assyrians, the Medes and the Egyptians”. This remark was apparently commonplace among Arab intellectuals of the tenth and eleventh centuries who Italos would have encountered in his contacts with easterners who came to Constantinople to study with Psellos and seek patronage at the imperial court.

Time goes fast, however. A few centuries later, both western Europeans and modern Greeks became determined, rather over determined, each for their own reasons, to reclaim ancient wisdom from those ‘barbarian easterners’ who were obviously ignorant of the coming ‘clash of civilisations’. The moderns rediscovered the ancients during the articulation of humanism and later on during the formation political and cultural doctrines of the western Enlightenment. When classical Greece arose as the ‘cradle’ of European civilisation, modern Greeks were appointed the role of its direct descendants in the Western imagination. When the new cultural geography became fully fledged at the end of the eighteenth century, Greek nationalism also emerged and became primarily based on an educational and political programme related to the foundations of the so-called ‘glorious Antiquity’.

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