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East Roman Empire (later named "Byzantine" by the West) inherited languages and enormous scientific and cultural achievements of Greeks and Romans. And yet hardly anything new came from Byzantine Empire after 6th century or so, apart from architecture.

Byzantines even managed to forget much of the scientific achievements of Antiquity: even though ancient Greeks knew that the Earth was round and had a decent estimate of its size, centuries later Byzantine depictions of Earth were flat.

I can understand why Dark Ages penetrated the West in the times contemporary to the Byzantine empire. But the Empire itself, with all the access to its Greek and Roman heritage - why did it fail to produce scientific progress, or even to maintain the knowledge it had?

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    i think you'll find the primary reason is the byzantine essentially was at constant and persistent war with the Muslim world from its creation till its final destruction, by the Muslim nations. you've got backwords Europe on 1 side, and the slightly more advanced/stable Muslim world on the other( which is actively trying to destroy you every 50 years or so for about 1000 years. )
    – Himarm
    Feb 9, 2015 at 22:12
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    "Hardly anything new came from [the] Byzantine Empire after the 6th century" [citation needed] I'd like to see a bit more on that.
    – Schwern
    Mar 2, 2020 at 2:23
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    The Byzantine empire was a continuation and evolution of the Roman Empire and the Greek successor states -- none of which were very innovative in spite of the brilliance of 5th century Athens.
    – Mark Olson
    Mar 2, 2020 at 2:35
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5 Answers 5

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"Cultural decline" is questionable. There is no objective criterion to judge and compare different cultures. There was art and architecture, and you can never say that the art of one culture is inferior to that of another.

But decline of science is a fact, and it happened on the whole territory of the former Roman empire, both in the West and in the East, at the same time. People lost interest to science.

Sciences like mathematics and astronomy were formally prohibited by an edict of Justinian. Schools in Athens and Alexandria were closed, and the last few philosophers were forced to emigrate (to Persia). At least one of them was later permitted to return, under the condition that he would not teach.

Cosmas Indicopleustes wrote his Christian Topography in the 6th century, where he "proved" that the Earth is flat, and this book was very popular during the Dark Ages. This was four centuries after the great Ptolemy!

On my opinion, the reason for all this was the spread of Christianity and the suppression of all independent thought as a result.

EDIT 1. Edict of Justinian which closed the school in Athens and exiled philosophers was in 565. The Museion in Alexandria was destroyed by the Christian mob in the previous century. Cosmas wrote at the same time (550). Gibbon in Decline and Fall of the Roman empire, Chap. XL, wrote:

The Gothic arms were less fatal to the schools of Athens than establishment of a new religion, whose ministers superseded the existence of reason, resolved every question by an article of faith, and condemned the infidel or skeptic to eternal flame. In many a volume of laborious controversy they exposed the weakness of the understanding and the corruption of the heart, insulted human nature in the sages of antiquity, and proscribed the spirit of philosophical inquiry, so repugnant to the doctrine, or at least to temper of a humble believer.

EDIT 2. Here is a more modern source: Ch. Freeman, The closing of Western mind. The rise of faith and the fall of reason, A. F. Knopf, NY 2003.

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    I don't think that Justinian prohibited mathematics - afair, he defined as "mathematicians" people who played dice - and perhaps other games of chance & skill - professionally. I don't know what was the term for mathematicians, though. Feb 19, 2015 at 1:25
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    So far, I've only seen a mention of a ban against philosophy and interpreting the laws (so... no lawyers? I'm assuming that was civil law...). Wikipedia's entry on Christian Topography (and the author) seems to indicate most of his contemporaries didn't share his views on the shape of the earth and the heavens, and in fact believed in a spherical earth. Everybody seems to like his book for the travelogue aspect, since he actually went somewhere. Feb 19, 2015 at 9:00
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    You have to be more specific about what "independent thought" was suppressed. For the Byzanties, Theology was the most important area of the educational sphere and by no means was there any suppression of independent thought there. One only needs to recall the controversies that brought on the ecumenical councils, the iconoclasm, and the attempted unions with Rome.
    – Notaras
    Aug 13, 2015 at 1:06
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    @Alex he may have, he may not have. There's a long list of heretics and dissenters in Byzantium who had varying degrees of success in gaining support (eg Arius). I think when people talk about suppression of independent thought in Byzantium, they usually mean the suppression of paganism. I think there is a difference there
    – Notaras
    Aug 13, 2015 at 1:14
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    @Alex: That's just false on its face. e.g. Michael Psellos (11th century) not only was familiar with Diophantus, but devised novel methods of working with exponents.
    – pokep
    Sep 12, 2017 at 22:14
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There wasn't necessarily a "cultural decline" in the Byzantine Empire. It depends on what you mean by, "cultural decline". If you are comparing it to the intellectual creativity and originality of Ancient Greece-(from Homer, to the Alexandrian Scientists of late antiquity), then yes, the Byzantine Empire would appear to be culturally stagnant and unoriginal.

However, if you properly contextualize the Byzantine era as its own independent civilization, then you would have to take into consideration many original and distinct cultural achievements, including, iconography, architecture, music, the establishment of monasteries and seminaries, the founding of the University of Constantinople and its famed Library-(rising from the ashes of the destroyed Alexandrian Library and University, as well as following the closing of Plato's Academy), the meticulous preservation and translation of the Greco-Roman "classics", Linguistics-(i.e. the establishment of the Cyrillic alphabet by the Greco-Thessalonian Saint Cyril), advancements in military technology-(i.e. "Greek Fire"), as well as ship building and producing generations of Church Fathers and Theologians during the Empire'e early years, including, Saints Athanasius, Basil, Chrysostom-(and many others). As you can see, it was hardly a "cultural decline".

Admittedly, the Byzantine era was no match for the ingenuity and originality of Ancient Greece, yet at the same time, the Byzantine civilization was never part of the larger European "Dark Ages".

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ERE in fact did significantly contribute to science and culture, especially law, building, military and philosophy. I encourage you to read this discussion on reddit for more details: http://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/1k1jso/the_byzantine_empire_often_gets_remarkably_little/

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The question itself needs to be addressed more comprehensively and accurately.

First, the Byzantine Empire, was a 1000 year old Empire that had one of the few Universities and Libraries on the European continent during the so-called, "Dark Ages". The Library and University of Constantinople was founded in the early 400's and was destroyed by Latin Christian Crusaders in the early 1200's-(whereby the city of Constantinople, subsequently, came under Latin/Papal rule for much of the 13th century). However, during much of Byzantium's imperial heyday, many of the Classical Greek works WERE meticulously preserved, commented on and taught by the Ecclesiastical Hierarchs. (One can still find Medieval Greek translations of Hippocrates, Plato and Aristotle).

Second: While the Byzantines meticulously preserved much of their Hellenic intellectual heritage at places, such as, The Library and University of Constantinople, as well as Saint Catherine's Monastic Library in the Sinai-(as well as in other Monasteries throughout the Byzantine world), yes, when compared with the intellectual advancements made by the Muslims-(both Arab and non-Arab) during the Medieval period (and even some of the Astronomical achievements made by the distant Mayan civilization in Mexico and Guatemala), the Byzantines did lag behind and were, comparatively and intellectually speaking....somewhat static. It is difficult to find an archeological wealth of Byzantine Scientists, Mathematicians, Physicians and creatively minded Luminaries-(similar to their Ancient Forefathers). Admittedly, Constantinople, was not Ancient Athens, nor was it Ancient Alexandria, nor was it Ancient Ephesus, nor was it Medieval Baghdad, Cairo, Fes, Cordoba or Toledo. Byzantium, was an important cultural Center, but not known for its intellectual advancements and ingenuities in the above mentioned fields.

Third: However, in addition to its unique Ecclesiastical architecture, the Byzantines did make other cultural achievements in iconography, hymnal music, as well as helping to revive the writings of Plato-(within a strict Christian theological perspective), as well as helping to construct some well built and fortified Castles and City walls-(both in Constantinople and elsewhere in the Empire). But, in addition to these artistic and urban planning achievements, the Byzantines-(especially during the early years of the Empire), produced major Theological writings and commentaries, more commonly known as, "The Church Fathers....of the East"-(acutely distinguishing itself from the Roman Catholic Church Fathers in the West). The earliest origins of the Slavonic languages were co-pioneered and co-developed by 2 Greco-Thessalonian Saints, Cyril and Methodius during the 800's.

Fourth: But, perhaps the main cultural achievement or legacy among the Byzantines, was their steadfast and largely uninterrupted ability to maintain the Greek language throughout Constantinople, Greece proper and much of Asia Minor in a variety of functions,. ranging from the everyday Speaker, to the University Professor, to the Diplomat, to the Merchant class and above all....to the Ecclesiastical and Imperial Aristocracy. It is perhaps this sole achievement that is the most significant within the cultural legacy and identity of Byzantium.

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The Byzantine empire did not really "decline" per se, it was degenerate from the beginning.

The entire Greek world in Roman times was very rich and decadent. Greeks with any talent generally moved to Rome or Alexandria to do their work. When Rome collapsed the Greeks kept on doing what they were good at: being rich and decadent. Very little art or science was produced in Byzantium. It was mostly a trade hub. The surviving works we have produced in Byzantium tend to be degenerate scholia and Christian tracts. Most of their "scientific" enquiries were centered on determining whether certain beliefs were "heresies" or not. The only Byzantine scholar I have ever found to have produced useful information is George Syncellus. Reading Syncellus is very funny because every time he quotes old sources he makes sure to describe them as "demonic" and their writings as the "work of the devil".

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    There were lots of artistic works being produced in the Byzantine Empire, with important relevance of the religious art. That said, the Roman Empire as a whole was not very technically inclined, apart from viae and aquaducta. Of course, this could be the result of the abundance of cheap slave labour, which made innovations less useful.
    – SJuan76
    Feb 10, 2015 at 0:29
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    Oh, and the Theodosian Walls, and Hagia Sophia, and the greek fire.
    – SJuan76
    Feb 10, 2015 at 0:39
  • @SJuan76 I said "very little" art and science, not none. Most well-known historians, for example, Gibbon and the Durants and many others have consistently described the Byzantines as degenerate and regressive, so I am not proposing some new idea here, I am just answering the guy's question, don't take it personally. Feb 10, 2015 at 0:43
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    Are Gibbon and the Durants considered authorities on Byzantibe history? (Rhetorical question, so no response required) Feb 10, 2015 at 10:54
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    @Tyler Durden thank you for noticing the spelling error, it is always so helpful in clarifying the main point of a discussion to focus on the irrelevant. As for Gibbon on the Byzantine period you seems at variance with much modern opinion. Feb 10, 2015 at 14:17

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