Skip to main content

Cultural history is a central concern in the study of Late Antiquity. Given the pivotal role that paideia played in Roman society, the assessment of the changes that Christianity brought about in the educational field is a key step in understanding the Late Antique world. Scholars have in turn emphasised the establishment of Christian educational centres (such as monasteries), the endurance of the pagan tradition of the rhetorical-philosophical schools, or a combination of the two following different synchronic and diachronic patterns.

Additional evidence for the debate may come from Syriac translations of Greek secular literature (5th – early 6th cent.), which contemporary researchers have so far neglected. On the one hand, the selection of the authors that were translated can be related to the curriculum of the rhetorical-philosophical schools of the Late Empire, while, on the other hand, the treatment and the transmission of the Syriac translations attest early monastic culture.

Early Syriac translations of Greek secular literature are represented by Lucian’s De calumnia, Plutarch’s De cohibenda ira and De capienda ex inimicis utilitate, Ps.-Plutarch’s De exercitatione (lost in Greek), Ps.-Isocrates’ Ad Demonicum, Themistius’ De amicitia and De virtute (lost in Greek). A comparison of the Syriac translations with the Greek originals shows that: (i) the Syriac texts have been Christianised through the omissions of all references to pagan religion; (ii) the exempla drawn from Greco-Roman culture have been selected mostly through the omission of mythological material; and (iii) proper names of most of the figures drawn from Greco-Roman literature and history, such as Gaius Gracchus, Socrates and Philip, have been rendered with formulas such as ‘a wise man,’ ‘a philosopher,’ and ‘a king.’
The Syriac translations add to the evidence for the cooperation between Christian leaders and teachers of rhetoric. Direct traces of such cooperation are limited and usually confined within a private dimension, as attested in the letters between Basil of Caesarea and Libanius, between Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Isocasius, and between Isidore of Pelusium and Harpocras. The promotion of Greek texts drawn from the rhetorical-philosophical tradition into early monastic communities must have originated from the efforts of Christian leaders who had experienced a traditional rhetorical education. In particular, John Chrysostom and Theodoret, who were both familiar with our corpus of texts, repeatedly emphasised the presence of Syriac speaking monks living in their see, and they fostered the interaction between Syriac-speaking monks and the towns’ population.