To what extent were residents of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire aware of the early history of Rome, its legendary founding, the monarchy, the republic and early empire? Did they have access to the writings of Polybius, Livy, Plutarch, Suetonius etc.?

Two thousand years is a long time, were ancient authors still discussed, quoted? Were the origins of Rome and the history of the Latin half of the Republic & Empire remembered and written about?

Justinian clearly was - but what about later on?

Addendum based on comments:

The answer, I believe, is going to require someone with general knowledge of ERE literature. I've read histories, listened to lectures, read primary documents like Procopius, Alexiad etc. but I've never seen the question addressed or come across any contemporary writings that discuss early roman history, which is exactly what prompted me to ask the question. The potential number of sources is vast and the subject unlikely to be the specific aim of one's research (though I'm sure specialists exist) I suspect the question is more akin to "I've never come across this in my reading, has anyone else?"

Hope this clarifies!

  • 1
    Preliminary research isn't supposed to be huge, you just have to post some source, link, some supplementary information that shows that you understand what you are talking about and not just throw question marks at people.
    – cipricus
    Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 17:16
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    Post such info in question, not comment.
    – cipricus
    Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 17:17
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    Just the ordinary Joe Schmoe on the street? The same kinds of people who today mostly can't place their own country on a map?
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 14, 2022 at 20:44
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    @T.E.D. - To me it seems obvious the question cannot be about anybody - Justinian is given as an example etc.
    – cipricus
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 13:17
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    @cipricus - If that is in fact what was being asked, it would be a good clarification to have added to the question. It doesn't seem like the point was clarified in the edit.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 14:05

2 Answers 2


They were very familiar with the early history of Rome. For one, Cassius Dio wasn't lost for a long time. Joannes Zonaras used Cassius Dio frequently and John Xiphilinus made an 11th-century epitome of Dio's work.

Cassius Dio in turn covers the full gamut of Roman history from Aeneas down through the first quarter of the 3rd century CE.

Likewise, Polybius and Dionysius of Halicarnassus were read. Ioannes Kanaboutzes wrote an extensive commentary on the latter in the 15th century.

So no, Roman history was not lost, and Byzantine historians had access to it.

  • 2
    This answer is lacking. The question was "To what extent were residents of the Eastern Roman...". Your answer is "Byzantine historians had access to it."
    – Lan
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 14:05
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    @Lan - were ancient authors still discussed, quoted? - not only the question is about historians and readers of history but it couldn't be about Byzantine commoners could it? How do you imagine other people but historians (and their educated readers) discussing and quoting historians when until recently most people were illiterate?
    – cipricus
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 13:09

The nature of the question needs further clarification.

It should be noted that the phrase..."Greek speaking Romans", is misleading and historically inaccurate.

The Byzantine Empire, during its earliest years, were governed by a mixture of Greek speaking Greeks, Romans, as well as a few Illyrians-(present-day Albanians). However, the Byzantine peoples, that is to say, the indigenous Byzantine civilian population/the centuries old residents of Byzantium proper-(later Constantinople), were overwhelmingly, Greek speaking Greeks, with a much smaller number of bilingual speaking Romans-(who were equally fluent in Latin and Greek). Latin, during the early years of the Empire, was probably used conversationally and textually by the Byzantine Greeks, though it had parenthetical value when compared with the use of their indigenous Greek tongue....and script.

As the Byzantine empire aged over the centuries, the Roman or Latin aspect of the Empire ended and beginning around the 600's AD/CE, the Byzantine Empire would emerge as an exclusively Medieval Greek Eastern rite Christian Empire-(both in terms of its ethnic governance and civilian population). The empire's non-Hellenic subjects/ residents, were never referred to as, "Byzantines" per se. The Greco-Byzantines, similar to their Ancient forefathers, did use rather disparaging and pejorative sounding words to refer to the non-Hellenic residents of the empire by labeling them as, "barbarians" and even established a rather notorious and discriminatory, "Bureau of Barbarian Affairs".

As for the Greco-Byzantines being aware of the earlier Roman civilization, they absolutely were aware of it. Remember, the Byzantine Empire, while predominantly Hellenic in character and history, did often identify themselves as, "Romans" in terms of their political-(though not their genealogical, nor rhetorical) legacy.

Having said that, the Aristocratic, Educational, Clerical and Political elites, had direct access to the literatures and writings of Rome. The earlier Roman writings were preserved-(along with earlier Greek writings), at The Library of Constantinople.

As to whether or not the average Greco-Byzantine civilian had an extensive or a moderate knowledge of Roman writings and history is somewhat questionable. However, having lived under pagan (pre-Christian) Roman rule for 400 plus years, it is very likely that the average Greco-Byzantine resident had, at the very least, a peripheral familiarity with and working knowledge of....Rome's historical and textual legacy.

  • I used the phrase “Greek speaking Romans” because that is primarily what they were, as opposed to “Latin speaking Romans”. Your sixth paragraph (I wasn’t able to quote it) does speak directly to my question and is helpful. Thank you.
    – Jos
    Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 18:00

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