Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Historical themes


The Culture & civilization of Romania (a.k.a. "Byzantium")


By Thomas F. Dritsas

Translated by H. M.

Edited by N. M.

The historical information on the Christian civilization is an unappreciated and quite often an underestimated part of our History. Most of us are familiar with the Ancient Greek civilization, yet we are basically oblivious to how the Hellenistic Christian civilization of the so-called “Byzantium” (=the Eastern sector of the Roman Empire or “Romania”) developed and what its achievements were. This article aspires to briefly touch on this topic and to rouse us from our historic lethargy, by examining just a few aspects of the Christian civilization of Romania.

Let us firstly take a look at some of the medical writings, the physicians and the hospitals that existed in Christian Romania:


-    The twelve-volume “Pathology” by Alexander of Tralles, where details are provided on 120 kinds of surgical operations, from mastectomy to removal of bladder stones.


-          The “Medical Synopsis” by Nikitas and Leon (9th century) which refers to surgical topics and instruments.


-          The “Medical Ekkedeka” (Ekkedeka = Sixteen) by Aetius, consisting of 16 volumes, of which the 7th concerns ophthalmology (medicines and surgical operations).


-          The physician John Actuarius (14th century) was the first person to discover the tapeworm parasite, the “trichocephalus anisus”.


-          In Romania during the 10th century, difficult surgical operations such as the separation of Siamese twins were performed successfully;  endocystic lithotripsy (=the crushing of stones inside the bladder) had also been performed, on Saint Theophanes in the 9th century (see “Life and interlaced Laudation of our blessed Father Theophanes, also known as Isaakios” written by Nikeforos Skevofylax, which is a preface to the “Theophanes Chronography” [Theophanis Chronographia, de Boor, II, Teubner, Lipsae 1885, p.23] ) where it is mentioned that special surgical instruments were inserted in the bladder through the natural path (the urethra), then the stones were crushed inside the bladder, thus relieving Theofanes from dysuria (difficulty in urinating).



Image of the “Hippocratic Oath” in cruciform layout. 

Roman manuscript of the 12th century (The Vatican   Library).

Source:  Magazine “Aeropos”, article “Medicine of the Byzantium” by Basil Spandagos,

Doctor-Historian-Researcher, Head Physician of the Bank of Greece, page 27


-  We have a successful separation of Siamese twins (10th century)  [ G. Pentogalos-J.Lascaratos, Bulletin of the   History of Medicine, 58 (1984), 99-102. L.J. Bliquez, Two lists of Greek Surgical Instruments and the State of Surgery in Byzantine Times, Symposium on Byzantine Medicine, DOP 38 (1984), 187-204).]


- Internal cauterizing of the bladder of Isaakios I the Komnenos (1057-1059) as mentioned by M.Glykas [Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, 603-4] and by Ioannis Kouropalatis [CSHB, 648-9].


- From the very first centuries through to 1453, and in every city of Romania there were “guest houses” (e.g. in 12th century Antioch there were two) - which were essentially hospitals - with doctors, nurses and even surgeons. A famous example was the Hospital of the Pantokrator (=the Almighty) in 12th century Constantinople, which had 5 wards with a total of 50 beds, plus 5 auxiliary beds per ward, 12 of which were reserved for ailing women and 8 for ocular diseases. There were 13 male physicians, one female physician, 4 female assistant physicians, 2 female deputy physicians (author’s note: During this very same period, Franco-Latin theologians were struggling to decide whether women were at all human beings, while in Ancient Greece not a single female physician is mentioned anywhere);  also 2 surgeons, 11 servants, 5 launderers, 2 cooks, 2 bakers, 1 messenger, 1 fire-stoker, 1 groom for the physicians’ horses, 1 doorman, 4 shroud-winders, 1 miller, 1 storeroom caretaker and 1 person in charge of sharpening the surgical instruments (source: “Byzantinos Domos” greek magazine for history).


What was Romanity’s contribution towards the preservation of the Greek classics and ancient Greek education?


“ At least 75% of today’s known Ancient Greek classic writers became known thanks to the Byzantine manuscripts” (Source: History of Libraries in the Western World, Michael H. Harris, Scarecrow 1995).


“ Many of the things that we know about antiquity – especially about Hellenic and Roman literature and Roman legislation - would have been lost forever, if it weren’t for the scholars and the copyists of Constantinople” (Source: J.J. Norwich, “ A Brief History of Byzantium”, Govostis, 4th Greek edition, 1997).


Gibbon, the English historian (albeit Romania/Byzantium’s greatest ideological enemy), wrote:


“ The spirit of Homer, of Demosthenes, of Aristotle, of Plato, illuminated Constantinople. The innumerable interpretations and commentaries of the classic authors by Byzantine scholars are evidence of the degree of diligence with which they were being studied. The Hellenes of Constantinople purged the “koine” (colloquial or commonly used) language and re-captured the fluency of their ancestors’ language; a language that is a masterpiece of the human spirit. The knowledge possessed by those sublime teachers who had charmed and taught the greatest of all nations (the Romans) was made broadly accessible to everyone. Constantinople had encompassed so much science and so many books within its boundaries, that its equal could not be found, even in all of the large countries of the West put together” (Source: E. Gibbon, “The decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, taken from Greek translation).


 “Hellenic Education (in parallel with Christianity and the Roman State’s tradition) comprised one of the basic components of ‘Byzantium’ (author’s note: Romanity). The masterpieces of Ancient Greek literature were salvaged, because the Byzantine scribes continued to reproduce them, and in fact even illustrated them with elaborate miniatures”.   [“History of the Greek Nation” by Ekdotiki Athinon, vol. G, p.17]


 “The Greek culture that we are familiar with is the Greek culture which never ceased to stimulate the interest of the upper class of Constantinople throughout the Middle Ages. These people continued to live their classic past so naturally, that the medieval Byzantium (Romanity) never underwent any “Renaissance”. The Byzantines (Romans) never perceived their classic past to be a thing that had died, which is why they rarely made any attempts to purposely resurrect it.  They restored it from time to time by re-purging it, more or less like one does with public monuments which – albeit ever-present – are periodically renovated during phases of elated zeal”  (P.Brown, “The World of Late Antiquity, 150-750 A.D”., Greek Translation ).



Jacques Bompaire, professor at the Sorbonne-Paris IV University: “The works of Ancient Greece, the tradition of the Ancient Greeks, were salvaged and reached as far as Modern Europe - the Renaissance Europe - basically through Byzantium (Romanity). This is mainly attributed to the continuity of the language and the incessant labours of copiers, librarians, scholars and authors of the Byzantium. Without them, we would have been left with nothing but a few traces of a vast heritage. Thanks to them, much has been left to us”. (Byzantium and Europe, Symposium, Paris, Maison de l’ Europe, Ellinika Grammata publications, Greece, p. 27).


« The city of Constantine ends up being called the ‘Second Athens’ by Ioannis Chortasmenos, who was the tutor of Saint Mark of Ephesus, Byssarion, Gennadios Scholarios (I. Chortasmenos, Epistle 44, H.Hunger publications, Vienna 1969, p. 200: ‘The Second Athens’) and ‘Golden Athens’ by the historian of the Sack of Constantinople, Dukas, (Dukas XXXVIII 8: 339,13: ‘….the truly Golden Athens, which adorns the world….’.»  [Vassilakopoulos, “Hellenic Education in Byzantium”, Phenomena of Neo-paganism, ‘Theodromia’ publications, p. 280.]


“The ‘Byzantine’ (Roman) Empire continued to be the foundation of civilization, even throughout the devastating years of barbarity that had engulfed western Europe”, (“A History of science, Cambridge 1964, p. 47 retranslated to English from greek text).”


 “Without Byzantium” (Romanity), Gelzer tells us, (Byzantin Kultursgerichte 17), “the Arabs would have remained in an almost barbaric state, like they were during the time of Muhammad; However, they happened to discover the Greek books in Antioch, Alexandria and Edessa”. [V.N. Tatakis, ‘The Byzantine Philosophy’, published by the Society for Studies of the neo-Hellenic Civilization and General Education, 1977, p. 103].



What was the state of the economy like in Romania?  What was its Monetary status? 


“Constantinople maintained its coin of pure gold (“nomisma”= legal tender) unadulterated, from the time of Constantine the Great, up until 1078. During those 750 years, the “nomisma” was the only trustworthy currency in all of Europe but also beyond it (for example in the Arabian Caliphates). The ‘solidus’ - which was its Latin name – contained a constant 4,48 grams of gold and was the officially established currency for international transactions – ‘the medieval dollar’ as it has been aptly named.  Services, salaries, products, taxes and the occasional ransom money paid to enemies were all expressed in this gold “nomisma”, which maintained a steady value for eight centuries. This was the longest surviving example of numismatic stability throughout European History”. (Excerpt from the book: “ROMANITY OR BARBARISM” by the economist Anast. Filippides.)

[ If you want more information, you can read: “The Economical History of Byzantium”, a bulky, collective work edited in Greek and English at the same time by the Educational Institution of the National Bank of Greece and the Dumbarton Oaks Center of Harvard University at:  http://www.doaks.org/ehbvol.html]


Romanity was certainly not devoid of Intelligentsia:


The University of Constantinople was under the supervision of the state (as opposed to the universities of the West, which had begun as Ecclesiastic Institutions); Theology was never taught there, and, up until the last moments of Byzantium, many Western Europeans would attend it for their studies. “It is generally acknowledged nowadays – thanks to the to the work of Zachariaw von Lingenthal - that Constantinople’s School of Justice contributed significantly towards the formation of Bologna’s School of Justice. The constitutive articles of this School showed striking similarities to Constantinople’s corresponding School; and - more importantly - the Italian professors had adopted the methods used by the professors of Constantinople. The impact of this School became even more perceptible in the legal and the legislative studies of Central Italy and Sicily” [Byzantine Philosophy by V.N. Tatakis, published by the Society for Studies of the neo-Hellenic Civilization and General Education, 1977, p. 177].



Romanity’s contribution to the arts and culture:


“Two major lies have been told about Byzantine painting. Firstly, that it had remained ‘stagnant’ for centuries and secondly, that it scorned life and pleasure, in its effort to portray non-existence”. [G.. Tsarouchis (famous Greek painter) “Agathon to Exomologisthe” =Confession is a good thing.]


It was along those very rhythms that the traditional “rebetiko” song developed, which, if we observe its melodic structure, we can clearly discern the influence or, more correctly, the evolution of the Byzantine style sound; not only when we examine the musical scales which were preserved thanks to the instincts of the folk musicians, but even when we examine the lapses, the intervals and the form of execution. Everything indicates the source, which is none other than the austere and non-superfluous ecclesiastic hymn”. (Music composer Manos Chatzidakis, “The Mirror and the Knife”).


We wonder, how many people are aware that, apart from the ecclesiastic, Byzantine, Greek music, there existed in Romanity a “classical”, secular music, which has been preserved intact in manuscripts? Practically none of the self-styled “civilization worshippers” has condescended to show any interest whatsoever in this genre of music, in our antiquity-dazed country; it was only after 170 whole years that - thanks to Christodoulos Chalaris and P. Tambouris – this magnificent musical opus of our ancestors came to light.


“Byzantine historiography is of a very high standard and y far surpasses western historiography of the time. It is also characterised by a remarkable continuation. (…) It is quite obvious that the major pioneers of historiography (Herodotus and Thucydides) were his (the hostorian Prokopios’) role models”. (Sture Linner, History of the Byzantine Civilization, Govostis publications,Greek edition, p. 79-81). 


Here is what the renowned English “Byzantinologist” Sir Steven Runciman had said about Roman art:


“Some people maintain that Byzantium lacked art. Well, they certainly don’t know anything about art. The Byzantine art form was one of the greatest  art schools in the world.  No ancient Greek would have been able to build the Haghia Sophia; it would have required extremely profound technical knowledge. You know, some people claim that Byzantine art is static. It was not in the least static; on the contrary, it was among the most important art schools in the world, and with the passing of time, it is becoming more and more appreciated, so, any Greek ‘intellectuals’ who tell you that Byzantium hadn’t created anything, are blind”.

[http://www.myriobyblos.gr/texts/greek/runciman interview.html], Source: www.flash.gr, “Sir Steven Runciman: We are in need of spiritual modesty”, 6/11/2000, Supervision by: Lambrini X. Thomas]


In his acceptance speech when receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979, the poet Odysseus Elytis mentioned that he followed the style of Romanos Melodos (the renowned hymn-writer of Constantinople), who bestowed a different form to each of his odes or ‘kontakia’ (short hymns).


Nowadays, only one thing remains that reminds us of the Byzantine genius: the grandeur of their art” [Source: J.J. Norwich, “A Brief History of Byzantium”, editor: Govostis, 4th  Greek edition, 1997).


I get the same feeling, whether listening to a ‘zeibekiko’ tune, a poem by Elytis, or Byzantine music. There is a light that unites ancient Greece and contemporary Greece.” [Jacques Lacarriere, “Nea Greek newspaper, June 12, 2002].


Some interesting, characteristic facts:


- “It is customary to regard the ‘Byzantine’ as one who is fanatically attached to dogmatic fastidiousness and scruples. A survey of the extent of interest in theology shows – with rough calculations – that the proportion of authors who preoccupy themselves with theology to the overall number of Byzantine scholars does not exceed two fifths approximately.” [Hans-Georg Beck, The Byzantine Millenium, Greek edition, Educational Institute of the National Bank of Greece, p.237].


- The progress of engineering in -now Christian- Romania, was such that we have tens of written testimonies from the 4th to the 14th century  (e.g. Chrysostom, PG 58, 522. Theophanes, 172, 9, 265, 3. Tzetzis, Chiliades (=thousands) 5th thousand, story17, verse 618. Anna Komnene, Alexias, 2, 377,16. Armenopoulos, Hexabiblos, 2,4,28) that refer to three, four and five-storeyed buildings, private homes and condominiums.  There were 5th century laws that did not allow the overall height of private buildings to exceed 25 meters.


-  It was during the time of Christian Romanity that the illumination of city public areas at night was first introduced.  Constantinople was made the first city of light by its eparch, Cyrus (Paschalion Chronicle, 588, 11).  The same thing was also happening in Antioch (Livanios: “To Theodosios, against Tisamenus”, 37), in Caesaria (Evagrios: Ecclesiastic History, PG 86, 2867), and it continued, throughout the duration of Romania’s dominion.


-   The women of Romania were not deemed unworthy of holding the highest (imperial) office, simply because they were women.  Four Roman empresses ruled on their own – without having a husband – and without any objections raised, on account of their gender.  Empresses: Zoe (914 – 919), Irene (797- 802), Theodora and Zoe (1042), Theodora (1054 – 1056).  “There was no constitutional obstacle. Even the eventual fall of Irene was attributed to her health rather than her gender.  Those women’s reigns were never considered illegitimate.” [Steven Runciman, “The Byzantine Civilization, Galaxias Editions, Greek translation, p.78).

Things like this took place in Western Europe 500 years later, and it was only later that one could find women regents; and we are not including the women who in essence reigned standing behind a man who acted as a puppet-king, for ‘public relations’ purposes. We are naturally not implying that the status of women then, was the same as it is today, however, Christianity did raise women to a more prominent position and it did liberate them from the idolatrous chauvinism of ancient times.  Democritus had said: “…a woman must not be trained in rhetoric, because it is a bad thing...” (excerpt 110) and also: “…it is the greatest insult of all, for a man to be governed by a woman…” (excerpt 111)


-  In Constantinople, during the reign of Theodosios II, there were eight large public baths and 153 private baths in homes, charity houses and monasteries.  The largest ones (which had names like “Zeuxippos”, “Achilles”, “Kaminia”) were  able to accommodate up to 2000 bathers. Private baths were even installed on the rooftops of wealthy homes, where the water destined for bathing was channeled up through pipes (proof of advanced plumbing). [ Ioannis Lydos, On Principles, 186, 89 ]


-  In Christian Romania, provision was made by the night-eparch for a special police force designated for the safety of citizens during the night and for the persecution of gangs. [ Vasilika, 6,5,2.  Malalas 479, 8 ]


An important chapter in the history of European civilization was the spreading of the Hellenic Light of Romanity throughout Europe, through the Greek princesses who married foreign nobles. When Otto II married the princess Theofano of royal birth, swarms of Greeks from the East and southern Italy followed the example of this determined woman and went north, following the royal court to Germany.  In Germany, Theofano scandalized the people there, because she was accustomed to bathing (in 12th century Constantinople there were 33 public baths, and Romans used to bathe there 3 times a week on an average) and she also wore silken garments, both of which were abhorrent habits that sent her to hell (she was in fact ‘seen’ there, in a franco-papist nun’s dream!) [ Steven Runciman, “Byzantine Civilization”, Athens 1979, page 335 ]


The exact same thing happened to her cousin Maria Argyre, who had horrified Peter Damianus, because she had brought eating forks with her to Venice!!


Anyway, not all Westerners were ungrateful, as some may believe. Quite a few of them acknowledged Romania’s contribution to their development. The Germans especially.  Mr. R. von Vaitzeker, a former president of Germany, had expressed his gratitude during a speech in the Athens Academy (1992),  stating characteristically that “civilization was introduced in Germany by the Byzantium, at the end of the 10th century.

Article published in English on: 3-7-2006.

Last update: 3-7-2006.