In school and later in media (this is northern Europe) I was/am always told that it was the Arabs/Muslim world that preserved the science, technology, literature, art, culture etc from the Greek and Roman civilization while Western Europe declined in all these areas during the medieval period. However, the more I read about Byzantium the more this description sounds counter-intuitive. East Rome was richer than West Rome (which should/could be one explanation of the failure of West and the relative success of East) and lasted well into the Renaissance period.

Wouldn't it be more logical if Greco-Roman culture was preserved in - duh! - a Greco-Roman empire such as Byzantium rather than in a completely different culture and language area such as the Arab (or Turkish/Persian) speaking Muslim world? And wouldn't it make more sense if this inheritance was transferred back to western Europe in languages the intellectual elite there read and spoke (that is, Latin and Greek)?

Was/is the explanation that the Greco-Roman culture survived in the Arab speaking world correct/a reasonable simplification/wrong (and maybe an example of history writing based on ideological bias)?

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    My answer to another question addresses the well-documented role of the Arabic world in preserving the works of Aristotle, among others. Roman law even had some influence on Sharia. (I say "some," mind you.)
    – two sheds
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 21:33
  • You may want to be specific about what textbook "told" you this, so that the specific argument described there can be answered specifically. Commented May 11, 2015 at 22:32
  • The help center discourages questions of the form, "I think x, amiright?". Unless you provide some evidence to back up your intuition, the question is likely to be closed as opinion related.
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 11:45
  • My impression is that some scientific/mathematical/medical texts survived in Arabic only; but no literary/historical texts. The latter indeed came via Byzantium. Commented May 4, 2018 at 23:38

3 Answers 3


It would be interesting to make a list of principal ancient texts and how each of them reached us. And make a statistics. (Perhaps someone knows such a list?) Many of the texts that I know exist in both Arabic and Greek medieval versions.

Before this list is made, I want to express my doubts about Tyler Durden answer. He only gives examples of literary work (Tacitus, Virgil etc.) But another principal component of ancient heritage is science. The role of Muslim world in preservation (and spread!) of ancient science is very large. And the reason is that science was actually practiced in the Islamic world. (Unlike the West and the Byzantine empire). They not only preserved the ancient books but added lot of the results of their own research.

Apparently Islam was more tolerable to the ancient science, and people were not only allowed to practice it but were supported by the rulers.

Some scientific books were also copied in Byzantia, it is true. True but very strange. Just imagine this job: copying a book which you do not understand:-)

  • I have added a third example of a typical manuscript showing a purely European (non-Arab) origin for the works of Pliny, one of the most important Roman authors on scientific subjects. Commented May 12, 2015 at 0:32
  • Note also at least some transmission of ideas from the Hindu world, for instance 'Arabic' numerals and the concept of zero.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 2:29
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    @jamesqf: Sure. And this transmission happened through the Arabs too.
    – Alex
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 19:20
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    @Tyler Durden: Pliny is perhaps "one of the most impoirtant Roman authors" on scientific subjects, especially if you take into account that Roman contribution to science was ZERO. By science literature I mean of course the Greek literature, even if some of those Greeks lived on the territory of the Empire.
    – Alex
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 19:22

The writings and literature of Ancient Greece and Rome were preserved in many places throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. The Byzantine Empire is considered to be the earliest heir to the Ancient Greco-Roman intellectual legacy. This of course is not surprising considering the fact the Byzantine Empire was essentially-(at least since the early 600's AD/CE), a Greek Christian Empire. For the Greco-Byzantines, the meticulous preservation of ancient Greek writings was an important part of their cultural and ancestral heritage. (Although the Byzantines identified themselves as, "Romans" and the earliest Byzantine Emperors were primarily of ethnic Greco-Roman or Roman ethnic descent, such as Constantine and Justinian, the Byzantines, as a society, a civilization and as a people, were primarily, a Medieval Greek Eastern Christian culture).

The Arabs played a very significant role in preserving ancient Greek texts and also helped to further the intellectual legacy of the Ancient Greeks, especially in the Sciences, Mathematics and Medicine. Works by Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Euclid, Archimedes and many others were translated into Arabic during the Medieval period. Averroes/Ibn-Rushd, a Muslim Philosopher from Southern Spain, was one of the earliest Aristotelian thinkers and commentators in world history.

Roman architecture was both preserved and furthered by the Byzantines, as well as by the Arabs. The Byzantine Church Dome and arches were-(and are still) directly influenced by Ancient Rome. The influence of the Roman Arch can also be found in various Islamic monuments and buildings throughout Spain and Morocco.

The Italian Renaissance-(or The Northern Italian Renaissance), is considered to have been the Epicenter of reviving the cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome, especially in its birthplace, Florence-(though it also extends elsewhere in Italy, such as Venice). During the final years of the Byzantine Empire-(around the 1400's), small, but powerful groups of political, financial and academic elites-(primarily from Constantinople/(present-day Istanbul), escaped the onslaught of Seljuk Turkish conquests from the East. This small band of Byzantine Greek elites relocated to Venice and Trieste in Northeast Italy. They brought many things, including..... several classical Greek texts that were originally preserved in the University and Monastic Libraries in and around Constantinople. These ancient Greek texts from Constantinople were subsequently translated and distributed among the growing Italian intellectual and academic classes throughout Northern Italy. In other words, Byzantine Greek elites who fled the coming Fall of Constantinople helped to pioneer and shape the Northern Italian Renaissance, as well as the early Modern West. This is rarely discussed in most mainstream Early Modern History courses, though it is historically verifiable.

  • I wouldn't say it's rarely discussed - I remember it explicitly being mentioned in my AP European history class a few decades back, and that is pretty standardized across all of America, as you need to take a test at the end of it for college credit. Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 16:55
  • Thanks for the comment. My guess is that you are a few years younger than me. In my time, back in the 1980's and 1990, such topics were rarely discussed and were at best, given anecdotal status. Times have changed since the 90's-(much of it due to the emergence of the Internet, as well as the end of the Cold War and with it, the subsequent increase in global travel). Retrospectively speaking, this probably allowed for a greater curiosity to "connect the historical dots"-(so to speak), in a way that had been rarely done-(at least in my public educational experience).
    – Alex
    Commented Dec 30, 2023 at 0:32

The "Greco-Roman" culture did not depend on Arabs to preserve it. Relatively few Roman works of science and literature are known only from Arab sources/translations. The literature of Greece and Rome was transmitted, as you said by the Byzantines, but also by many other sources including the Irish, the churches of Asia Minor and the Levant, the Romans themselves (to the extent they survived), the Christian Egyptians (the "Copts"), and the Christians in other parts of Europe, especially Gaul (France).

As just one example of this, one of the older and more important manuscript of Roman literature is the Codex Memmianus which has copies of numerous ancient works in Latin. This book is believed to have been written in Tours around 820 A.D. Another important manuscript is the Medicean Codex, which has all seven tragedies of Aeschylus, as well as books of Livy, Tacitus, Virgil and many other important works. This manuscript was written in the 10th century and appears to have been copied directly from original Latin and Greek scrolls of the 5th century or earlier. The earliest known manuscript of Pliny, one of the most important Roman scientific authors, is the Codex Moneus, which dates to the 5th century and was created and stored in a monastery in Austria.

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