Wiping out pagan culture

Some of the ancient world’s most advanced civilizations were in Greece and Italy. The Greeks had inherited the wisdom of Mesopotamia and Egypt, further refined it, and passed it on to the Romans. In the fourth century AD, Roman emperors decided that Christianity was the religion to unite the empire. To do that they began to suppress pagan (non-Christian) culture. That was quite an undertaking because about ninety percent of Roman citizens were pagans. They pagans were not united because they represented scores of religions. That made them easier for Christian emperors such as Theodosius I to deal with. Once he made the fateful decision to outlaw all other religions, Theodosius sought to destroy anything that was still pagan. That included temples, idols, writings, and even people if necessary.

Biblioclasts, the destroyers of writings, assured that from ninety to ninety-five percent of all pagan writings “disappeared”. The small percentage that remained included Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus Rex, and Aeschylus’s Oresteian Trilogy—all books I was required to read in high school.

To be even more thorough, anything not written in the Standard Attic Greek dialect was unlikely to be recopied and preserved.

Why we still have what we have

Most of the ancient literature that exists today was hidden in private libraries and monasteries by educated Christians who couldn’t stand to see such cultural treasures destroyed. At the other extreme, some affluent Christians burned their own libraries so they wouldn’t suffer the consequences of harboring pagan literature. Still other book lovers, or bibliophiles, transported their favorite literature out of the Roman Empire to protect it.

The world’s greatest library

Centuries before the Christian purge of pagan literature, the Library of Alexandria was home to the world’s most voluminous collection of scrolls and codexes, but the library had suffered from much bad luck. In 48 BC, during Julius Caesar’s civil war, his soldiers set fire to Egyptian ships in the harbor. Supposedly unintentionally, the fire spread into the city and destroyed much of the collection in the library itself or in an archival warehouse. Then in 272 AD, Roman forces destroyed much of the city, resulting in more lost scrolls and volumes. After the Romans besieged the city again in 297, whatever percentage of books that were left from the great library were taken to the temple of the Greek-Egyptian god Serapis—the Serapeum.

The final insult came in 391. That’s when Christian mobs rampaged through the city on their quest to exterminate all pagan culture. They demolished the Serapeum and whatever was in the building. After all that destruction, you have to wonder how much was left of the once-great collection and what became of it.

The Arabs arrive

In the 600s, Arab armies conquered what in ancient times had been some of the great centers of learning—Alexandria, Antioch, and Damascus. After the Arabs controlled those cities, their scholars took responsibility for preserving the valuable literary works, pagan or not.


Today we know Baghdad as the capital of Iraq and as a target for US bombing missions during the Iraq War in 2003. What many people don’t realize is that for half a millennium Baghdad may have been the largest, richest, and most dynamic city on the planet. It was founded in 762 as the new capital of the Abbasid Empire on a site recommended to the caliph by Nestorian Christian monks.

Why Baghdad concerns us here is because of Caliph al-Ma’mun. He was born in 786, and he was a true bibliophile. In fact, he was apparently so obsessed with books that he sent emissaries to find any that weren’t in his collection. Once the writings were in Baghdad scribes translated them into Arabic. Because of that, most serious scholars in the Abbasid Empire wanted to work in Baghdad where Ma’mum founded the Bayt al-Hikmah, better known as the “House of Wisdom”.

In the House of Wisdom, scholars from throughout the world worked together to fulfill Ma’mum’s dream. Literature flowed in from Greece, Persia, India, and elsewhere. The most famous of the translators at that time was Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a Nestorian Christian.

Because of the translations carried out in Baghdad, Arabic became the primary language of science for 700 years.

The unexpected influence of the Irish

On the fringe of Northwestern Europe, Irish monks were also keeping ancient literature alive. On their isolated island, they copied Latin writings. After the Romans abandoned Britain in 410, Germanic tribes arrived. Then, the Roman culture that had been dominant in Britain for centuries broke down.

The Irish were much less affected by the Anglo-Saxon settlers and were able to preserve much ancient wisdom in their monasteries. They copied mainly Latin writings since the knowledge of the ancient Greek language was fading away in Western Europe.

When the Vikings invaded Ireland and Britain beginning in 795, they frequently attacked monasteries. That’s where the most desirable treasures were kept and the Vikings didn’t think twice about destroying incomprehensible writings while looting monasteries. Luckily by then Irish missionaries had reintroduced the old writings into much of Western Europe. This all points to the superhuman effort scholars made to preserve that ancient wisdom. Once the printing press was invented in the fifteenth century, it changed everything.

Writing material

When the Arabs conquered Egypt in 641, they also cut off the supply of papyrus to Europe. Papyrus had been their standard writing material for many centuries. Europeans increasingly substituted animal skins called parchment for the reedy material from the Nile. They often used finer skins from calves, known as vellum. The animal skins were very expensive and time-consuming to prepare, but they were much more durable than papyrus. They could potential last thousands of years if preserved properly, whereas papyrus didn’t last long if stored in humid conditions.

Knowledge of the art of making paper from wood had been spreading westward from China for centuries. By 751 Muslim artisans were making paper in Samarkand, in present-day Uzbekistan. Mastery of the technique wouldn’t arrive in Egypt until around 900 and would finally be brought to Europe through Muslim Spain around 1050.

The Toledo School of Translators

In 1085, Christian forces drove the Muslims out of Toledo, Spain, and the thousands of books in Toledo’s libraries fell into Christian hands. Attitudes had changed since the fourth and fifth centuries. While clergy and Christian mobs still might want to destroy pagan literature, European scholars were desperate to obtain it. In Toledo they found a treasure, but it was all written in Arabic.

By the early 1100s, Toledo had become another important translation center. Literary works that had been translated into Arabic at the House of Wisdom had made its way to Toledo. Once Christians got their hands on them, then they had to translate them into Latin. In Toledo and other Spanish cities, scholars also translated writings into Hebrew and Judeo-Spanish. Since by then Muslims had ruled Spain for four hundred years, it wasn’t unusual to find Christians and Jews who spoke Arabic, and together they spearheaded the translation efforts.

A magnet for scholars

Scholars traveled to Spain from the rest of Europe to find literary treasures that they’d only heard rumors of. They sometimes weren’t even sure if the writings still existed or if they ever existed. If they had them in a language they could read it could have been the high point in their academic lives.

They took what translations they could back to their homes. The scientific, mathematical, and literary knowledge they obtained must have seemed futuristic to them. But ironically, most of it had been written over a thousand years earlier. They discovered that other scholars over the last millennium and a half had wrestled with the same problems that kept them awake at night. Their mysteries actually had proven solutions. They must have felt like starving people attending a banquet. To me, it seems the same as I felt when I gained access to the internet for the first time.

Medieval scholars were able to combine their own thoughts and observations with the accumulated wisdom of the ancients. But unfortunately, they were still missing that other ninety-five percent that hadn’t survived the ages.

The first universities

It’s no coincidence that with the arrival of paper-making and Latin translations of classical literature, the excitement resulted in the founding of Europe’s first universities. Aside from the House of Wisdom and other similar centers, in 859, Muslim scholars had founded the first university in the West. It was the University of al-Qarawiyyin, in Fez, Morocco. Believe it or not, Pope Sylvester II had attended that school in the mid 900s.

The university idea spread like wildfire. The first university in Christian Europe was in Bologna, Italy in 1088, then Oxford, England in 1096; Salamanca, Spain in 1134; Paris, France in 1160; Cambridge, England in 1209; Padua, Italy in 1222; and so on. Spanish universities proliferated during the thirteenth century and by then there were as many reputable universities in Spain as in the rest of Europe combined.

At those schools, Christians encountered Greek classical writing for the first time.

Knowledge was infectious

By the late 1200s, the first blossoms of the Renaissance were budding in Italy. As the 1300s progressed, the knowledge received from the ancient literature was paying off. What seem like minor developments to us were major advancements for Europeans of that time. Things like rediscovering the way Romans made high quality concrete, how they made paintings appear more realistic, how they used inductive reasoning in science, and techniques the ancients used for education. Copernicus took Ptolemy’s second-century concepts of astronomy and was able to develop them into a realization of a Sun-centered solar system. The anatomist Vesalius had access to Galen’s Greek second and third-century writings, and advanced that knowledge by performing more human dissections.

Think of Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo and multiply them by thousands of others caught up in the excitement of the Renaissance.

The fall of Constantinople

In the early and mid-1400s, as the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire, was gradually weakening and the Turks were a major threat, many Greek Christian scholars fled to the West. They brought not only Greek writings, but just as important, a knowledge of the ancient Greek language.

What was entering Western Europe from Spain may have been Arabic translations of Syriac translations of Greek literature, but what scholars brought from Constantinople were copies of the original Greek writings. Now European scholars were able to compare copies of writings that had undergone at least two translation processes with the originals.

Trying to make up for lost time

Through their diligent work, those who preserved and translated pagan literature, salvaged an enormous amount of ancient wisdom. Because of that, they have enriched all of our lives in ways we don’t even realize. Sometimes I’ve wondered why humanity has taken so long to solve certain problems. Maybe it’s failing to understand that micro-organisms cause disease. Or not finding effective antibiotics to treat those diseases until the twentieth century. Maybe it was still believing that a firmament existed above the Earth as the Bible says. Then, I realize that since science in Europe was dormant for so many centuries, those kinds of breakthroughs were unlikely to happen until modern times.

In our high school history classes, we don’t learn this story about how ancient knowledge was kept alive. Our culture doesn’t easily give credit to other cultures and in this story the “heretical” Nestorian Christians, the Arabs, and the Jews are the heroes and orthodox Christians were the villains. Our society’s teaching of history is narrow, narcissistic, and often boring. Because of that we miss so many stories that are worth telling. That’s what motivates me in my writing. Like the Renaissance scholars, I’m excited to share what I learn.

Full Circle

To summarize the long, strange trip of ancient wisdom, the Arabs resurrected the ancient knowledge of Greece and Rome and translated it into Arabic in Baghdad and elsewhere. Then, they sent the writings through the academic pipeline to places like Morocco and Spain. Later, when Christian scholars learned of those writings, they desperately wanted them in Latin. In that way, that scientific, mathematical, and literary knowledge made a great clockwise journey around the Mediterranean Sea. From Greece and Italy to Syria, to the Arabian Empire, then across North Africa to Morocco and Spain. Once in Spain, Christian counterparts took over, converted them into Latin and spread them throughout Europe. That’s where all that wisdom sparked a fire for learning which refuses to die.

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