Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Who preserved Greek literature? (Part 1)

Part 1 | Part 2

In particular: how important a role did Muslim scholars play in the survival of ancient Greek texts?

The answer is ‘they played an important role’ -- but there’s a right way and a wrong way of saying that. You could say, for example, that the modern world might well not be nearly as interested in ancient Greece as it currently is, if not for mediaeval scholarship in Arabic. You could say that modern mathematics and western philosophy would have a very different shape.
An 11th century Greek manuscript of Plutarch’s How to benefit from enemies: one of hundreds of thousands of examples of direct reception. (Vatican Library, MS Barb. gr. 182)
And then there’s the wrong way. Here’s how the Wikipedia article on ‘Transmission of the Greek Classics’ allocates its attention:
  1. Direct reception of Greek texts -- 242 words (6.8%)
  2. Syriac translations -- 95 words (2.7%)
  3. Western Roman Empire -- 717 words (20.2%)
  4. Arabic translations and commentary -- 2501 words (70.4%)
You can probably guess where I’m going with this. The article on Recovery of Aristotle is in a similar vein, giving no hint that Aristotle is still available in Greek.

There’s a popular perception -- not universal, but more widespread than you might imagine -- that ancient Greek texts only survive today because they were preserved in the Arabic-speaking world.

But it’s only lazy people that think that, right? Only people who never check what they’re told? Think again.
... not only the texts but the way that we think about those texts and think about how to read those texts is inherited from the Arabs who passed them down.

... we generally recognize that we have Greek texts today because of the Arab ‘hold’ on these texts ...
-- Adriel Trott, The Trott Line, 14 Feb. 2015

... things might have been much worse had it not been for Islamic scholars. ... the ancient texts, those not destroyed by the guys with the shiny belt buckles and fondness for pre-literate ignorance, were copied and preserved. Had this not happened, we would have lost even more of the advances of antiquity.

These texts preserved and added to by Islamic scholars jump started the renaissance.
-- Rob Dunn, Your Wild Life, 3 June 2015
These aren’t wild guesses by laypeople. They’re both academics. Trott is an associate professor of philosophy and has written two books on Aristotle. Dunn is a professor of biology. If Trott were put on the spot, I’m sure she’d acknowledge you can read Aristotle’s Politics in ancient Greek, without having to rely on Arabic translations. She might possibly be right about how we read Aristotle. But about having Greek texts at all, what she’s written is, at best, gravely misleading.

If you look into the textual transmission of ancient Greek texts that are still commonly read nowadays you’ll find that the proportion of them that are known through ‘direct reception’ is, very roughly, 100%.

Not the 7% that Wikipedia would have you imagine.

There aren’t any mediaeval Arabic translations of Greek literary works or historical works. When you read Homer, Sophocles, or Herodotus, in any language, what you’re reading is something that was transmitted directly. In Greek.
Note: some mediaeval Arabic translations of Greek literary works may have existed at some time. A full Arabic translation of the Iliad didn’t appear until 1904, but here’s a 1956 article that thinks there’s evidence of parts being known in Arabic in the mediaeval period, via a lost 8th century Syriac translation attested by Bar Hebraeus.
Where we do rely on translations into other languages, it’s generally for texts that aren’t read very often, but which are important in some specialised area. They include things like --
  • The history of medicine and mathematics. For these areas, Syriac and Arabic versions can be very important. In some cases -- though still a minority -- they are the only surviving versions of ancient texts.
  • Some non-canonical Jewish and Christian writings. Many were written originally in Hebrew or Aramaic, but some like the Ladder of Jacob appear to have been written originally in Greek, and now survive only in translations into Slavonic, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, or Georgian.
  • Some individual literary and historiographical texts: like the Alexander Romance, a mostly fictional -- but very influential -- account of Alexander’s life. Greek versions survive, but for the earliest recension, Armenian and Latin translations are more important. Or Dictys of Crete, a semi-novelised account of the Trojan War, and one of the two biggest influences on the development of the Troy matter in the mediaeval period, both in the Greek east and the Latin west. Only fragments of the Greek text survive; the most important version is a Latin translation. Or John Malalas’ Chronography, a history dating to the early Byzantine period: the surviving Greek text is abbreviated, and a Slavonic translation fills the gaps.
  • Ancient scholarly commentaries on scientific works, and fragments of certain lost authors.
For literary works, the exceptions are few and far between. Even with the Alexander Romance, the versions you find in modern translations are normally based mainly on Greek versions. (Dictys of Crete is an interesting reversal: nearly all translations are based exclusively on the Latin version, completely ignoring the Greek sources, with just a couple of exceptions.)
A 16th century Armenian copy of the Alexander Romance. The earliest recension of the Romance survives only in a very incomplete form in the original Greek; the Armenian is more complete. (Yerevan, Matenadaran 5472; source: Smithsonian.com)
The idea that Greek texts only survive thanks to the work of mediaeval Muslim scholars is a myth. It’s based on something real. But it’s a complete misrepresentation of that real thing.

Take another look at the Wikipedia article. Here’s the opening:
The transmission of the Greek Classics to Latin Western Europe during the Middle Ages was a key factor in the development of intellectual life in Western Europe.
-- ‘Transmission of the Greek Classics’, Wikipedia, 6 Nov. 2019
(Original emphasis.) Notice the mismatch between the title and the quotation? The article is actually about Greek scientific, philosophical, and mathematical works, and about how they were transmitted to mediaeval western Europe. It isn’t about ‘the classics’. And it isn’t about transmission in and of itself.

Two grotesque biases feed into this myth.
  • Western-euro-centrism. The myth downplays the fact that, throughout the mediaeval period, the texts still existed and were still being read and studied in Constantinople and elsewhere in Greece. It also ignores the fact that translations survived in languages other than Arabic, especially in eastern Europe. The Wikipedia article, in its very first sentence, treats transmission of ancient Greek texts and transmission of Greek texts to the Latin west as the same thing. It’s colonialism pure and simple.
  • STEM-centrism. I don’t just mean the fact that the myth focuses on scientific and mathematical texts to the exclusion of everything else. That is true, but it’s more pernicious than that. The myth sets out to ignore and obscure the work done by modern humanities scholars. When modern editors publish ancient Greek texts, they rely almost exclusively on Greek manuscripts; acknowledging the continuing existence of Greek manuscripts would mean acknowledging research done in the humanities. So it’s probably no coincidence to see a biologist repeating the myth. It meshes neatly with the STEM-centric notion that humanities academics just spend their time listening to Beethoven and reading Shakespeare. (Yes, that caricature really exists: I’m not exaggerating for rhetorical purposes. Here’s Neil deGrasse Tyson saying it out loud.)
The western-euro-centrism manifests in other dangerous ways. The Wikipedia article used to have a section on transmission of Greek texts via mediaeval Armenian scholars. It was never substantial: it only had two sentences. An anonymous editor deleted the entire section in 2015 with this comment:
Has nothing to do with this subject. This article is about the Greek (to Syriac) to Arabic translation movement.
-- anonymous Wikipedian, 15 Aug. 2015
-- as if the title were ‘Translation of Greek scientific works into Arabic’. Which would be a fine idea for an article, by the way. It’s just that the article’s title actually says that it’s supposed to be about transmission, full stop.

For the record, Armenian transmission is important, even if only for a relatively small set of texts. It does warrant a small place in a balanced article on ‘transmission of the Greek classics’.
How the Wikipedia article on ‘Transmission of the Greek classics’ has allocated its attention over the last five years. ‘Arab(ic) translations and commentary’ has never dropped below 70% of the article. ‘Direct reception of Greek texts’ didn’t even reach the 4% mark until late 2016. The deleted ‘Armenia’ section shows up only as a thin red line.
The concerted effort to downplay Greek traditions, in an article that claims to be about ancient Greek literature, is the colonialist spirit in action.

Mediaeval Arab scholars didn’t preserve ancient Greek texts. They did use them as a basis for their own scholarship, and they did disseminate some texts, in a particular period, to a particular audience. It’s unfortunate that people often conflate these things.
... the well-documented role of the Arabic world in preserving the works of Aristotle, among others.

The role of Muslim world in preservation (and spread!) of ancient science is very large.

The Arabs played a very significant role in preserving ancient Greek texts ...
-- Stack Exchange, May 2015
But even ‘dissemination’ is a demeaning way to put it. Arab scholars weren’t just a vehicle for Greek texts to get from point A to point B, from ancient Greece to the mediaeval west. They were innovators, researchers. So were their Byzantine counterparts. Just because you didn’t hear about them at high school doesn’t mean they’re not important. Modern science owes at least as much to Al-Kindi and Averroes as to Aristotle. There’s no doubt that since the mediaeval period, Muslim contributions to human understanding have been actively silenced in many quarters.
Muslim contributions to human understanding are still obfuscated in western thought: the Independent, reporting on a May 2019 survey conducted by Civic Science (source)
If mediaeval Arabic scholarship hadn’t been a thing, of course the world would be greatly impoverished. But purely in terms of ‘transmission of the Greek classics’, the differences wouldn’t be nearly as big as all that.

Yes, the world would be different in many ways. Western European history would look a bit different. The development of mathematics would have followed a very different course. Maybe we wouldn’t be using Hindu-Arabic numerals (yikes!). Aristotle wouldn’t hold such an elevated position as he does.

But Aristotle’s works would still have survived. So would Euclid, and Ptolemy, and Theon. Because they did survive -- in the Greek-speaking world. Figures like Aurispa and Bessarion would still have amassed their enormous libraries of Greek books. They did their book-collecting in Greece because they lived there, not because their reading of Averroes inspired them to pay a visit. There would still have been a tidal wave of publishing ancient Greek books in the 1400s. (Or rather, in the ͵αυs, since we wouldn’t have Arabic numerals.)

The question ‘Who preserved Greek literature?’ has an easy answer. The Greeks did. Lots of other people helped too.

Postscript, two days later

I’ve had more than one comment that, as well as dispelling a myth, I should have told the true story of the survival of Greek literature. This is a very fair criticism.

I have therefore retitled this as ‘Part 1’. Part 2, on the transmission of Greek texts in the eastern empire, and the role played by Byzantine scholars and schools, will follow at some point yet to be determined.

Another postscript, six months later: Part 2 is now online.


  1. Boy, talk about Western centric emphasis. Did you forget about transmission of Ancient Greek knowledge by the Medieval Greeks of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine Empire. This was continuous from the fall of Western Rome to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD and beyond as Byzantine refugee scholars fled to the West, especially Italy.

    1. That is ... pretty much the point of this piece. Though you're not the first to object that I should have given a summary of the true story as well as critiquing a myth. I'm not sure I have time to do a write up before the New Year though.

  2. I fail to see how putting an unwaranted emphasis on the arab translation is a case of eurocentrism, when this historical narrative is especially pushed to undermine western achievements in the Middle-Ages and to disconnect christian Europe from its Greek roots.

    It's the very opposite of colonialism, it's an attempt at decolonization. Unless you think the Arab world is part of western world, which is obviously not the case.

    1. Where do the texts have to get to for them to be considered 'transmitted'? That tells you who's focalised in the narrative.

      If the answer is 'modern editions', you're telling a story from your own point of view -- 'how did I get access to these texts?'. Arabic translations won't feature in that story.

      If the answer is 'western Europeans in the mediaeval period', then obviously it's a story about western culture.

  3. It is fascinating how widespread the idea that the majority of ancient Greek texts have survived only through Arabic translations has become. It is far from just Wikipedia that has promoted this notion. The misconception can be found everywhere from theme park rides at Walt Disney World to college textbooks about ancient Greece written by experts.

    At EPCOT at Walt Disney World in Florida, they have a ride called "Spaceship Earth" that takes the passengers through a wildly distorted, heavily western-centric version of world history. The ride gives the usual praise for the Greeks and Romans for their achievements (although even that part is full of inaccuracies). Then the narrator makes this wildly inaccurate declaration:

    "But then we hit a roadblock. Rome falls and the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt is burned. Much of our learning is destroyed forever—or so we think. It turns out there are copies of some of these books in the libraries of the Middle East being watched over by Arab and Jewish scholars. Call it the first backup system. The books are saved and, with them, our dreams of the future."

    I wrote an entire article on my website debunking just this one paragraph of speech.

    Meanwhile, one of the most widely used textbooks in the United States for introductory undergraduate courses on ancient Greece is Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History by Pomeroy et al. I think it's mostly a very good textbook, but, on page 533 of the fourth edition, it says this:

    "Aristotle's Poetics and Hippocrates' medical texts, for example, were translated directly from Greek to Arabic, while Greek philosophy and science put its mark on Arab thinkers and astronomers during the Middle Ages in the schools and libraries of Baghdad. Although the monasteries of Byzantium and Western Europe were instrumental in the preservation of Greco-Roman thought, many Greek texts survived only in Arabic translations and through those were passed on to the Latin West."

    Most of what it says here is accurate, but the way this passage is worded makes it sound as though most Greek texts have only survived through Arabic translations and we only have access to any of the writings of Aristotle or the Hippocratic Corpus through Arabic. I certainly don't think that's what the authors of the textbook meant to lead people to believe, but, due to their poor choice of wording, that's the impression they give.

    1. Nicely done! I hadn't encountered your website previously -- it's something to see. I'm amazed at what you report about EPCOT. I'm a little more hesitant to criticise Pomeroy et al., because they didn't know what social media was going to say on the topic, and hey, it was the 1970s, but I definitely see where you're coming from there too. The more people that document how nonsensical this is, the better.

    2. Thank you so much for your positive feedback on my website! Your articles are a huge inspiration to me, so it means a lot to hear that you appreciate my work. I've been writing articles on my site since November 2016. For the past year or so, I've been publishing usually at least one article every week, sometimes more than that. I write about a variety of different areas of history, but ancient Greece is my main area of interest.

      I hope you don't mind that I've left some comments on some of your other articles in which I make some elaborations on points you make in them with links to related articles that I've written. I promise I'm not trying to spam you; I'm just trying to bring up additional points and evidence.

  4. Oh—in case you were wondering about that article I mentioned that I wrote in my previous comment, here's a link to it. It draws on your article (which I reference in my article) as well as some other works I've read, including Anthony Kaldellis's book Byzantium Unbound. I'm sure, if you read my article, you'll probably find at least a few errors in it, since I'm only an undergraduate classics student. In any case, I'm sure my article is at least a million times more accurate than anything the narrator says on "Spaceship Earth"!

  5. This article has a lot of words, but as it generalises it is not at all convincing.
    F. E. the author should have taken some important Greek books and should have demonstrated how they survived.

    1. Read "Scribes and Scholars" by Reynolds and Wilson. The book covers some of the main manuscripts preserved across Europe in about 260 pages. There are many hundreds of them. Far too many for a blog post.

  6. Well, arabs dont like narrative fiction. They value more their own poetry.
    So the works transmitted via the Arab world were practical sciences : astronomy, mathematics, and so on.