In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Philosophy in the Eastern Roman Empire

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies, Databases, and Research Tools
  • The Byzantine Legacy in the Italian Renaissance

Medieval Studies Philosophy in the Eastern Roman Empire
Michele Trizio
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 June 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0336


Philosophy in the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as Byzantine philosophy, refers to the social and intellectual practices connected to the meanings of the word philosophy in medieval Greek texts. According to Byzantine sources, philosophy refers to (a) monastic life, (b) pagan Greek philosophy, (c) philosophical wisdom compatible with Christianity and guided by revelation, and (d) philosophical expertise within the framework of institutionalized teaching activities. For various reasons, the relevance and existence of a philosophical tradition in the Eastern Roman Empire have been questioned and challenged. These reasons are: (i) the common prejudice harking back to the Enlightenment, which conceives of medieval Greek intellectuals as mere transmitters of classical philosophy and literature to the later generations of Renaissance scholars; (ii) the inveterate Eurocentric approach to medieval intellectual history that sees the roots of modern European identity in the Latin Middle Ages—medieval Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek philosophy are only incidentally considered concerning their contribution to forming the Latin tradition; and finally, (iii) the current-day prejudiced view of medieval philosophy as a mere offshoot of theology. In recent times, a more nuanced approach has suggested a comprehensive and inclusive attitude to the material, including what the Byzantines themselves understood as philosophy and what modern scholars regard as philosophically relevant. The chronological boundaries of the period are disputed. In general, scholars acknowledge the existence of three phases: early, middle, and late. The late Byzantine period spans from the Byzantine reconquest of Constantinople after the Latin conquest of the city in 1204 to 1453. The middle Byzantine period spans from the end of the Iconoclastic Controversy (843) to the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (1204). As to the early Byzantine period, the boundaries are less clear. According to some, the early period includes Late Antiquity until the Arab conquest of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt (around 730s). Others consider Justinian’s anti-pagan legislation, issued around 529, as the turning point. Finally, quite a few scholars avoid considering the early Byzantine period as part of the picture and see the beginning of the Iconoclastic Controversy in 726 or its end in 843 as the beginning of the Greek Middle Ages and Byzantine intellectual history.

General Overviews

The traditional prejudices against the existence of Byzantine philosophy (endorsed, among others, by Gutas and Siniossoglou 2017) have resulted in a somewhat stunted scholarly development of modern studies on the subject. As a result, the number of general overviews or introductions on philosophy in the Eastern Roman Empire has yet to reach the number of contributions devoted to other medieval traditions. Although out of date, Tatakis 1949 (translated into English and updated in 2003) is still the most comprehensive overview, followed by Hunger 1978 and De Libera 1993. Eleuteri 1995 focuses on the Byzantine scholarship of classical authors. Benakis 1987 and Benakis 1998 argue in favor of an autonomous philosophical tradition quite distinct from what we may call in modern terms theology. Unacquainted readers may profit from Ierodiakonou and O’Meara 2008, Ierodiakonou 2009, and the introductory Adamson 2022. For more advanced readers, Ierodiakonou and Bydén 2018 provides an excellent analytical overview of philosophical topics, figures, and trends. Finally, Trizio 2007 and Kapriev 2010 discuss methodological issues, and the advantages and disadvantages of the various available approaches to the topic under discussion.

  • Adamson, Peter. Byzantine and Renaissance Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.

    The first part of the volume includes an excellent introductory survey of Byzantine philosophy for first-time students of the topic, from the Iconoclastic Controversy to 1453 and beyond. The book also features a chapter on philosophy written in Syriac and Armenian and one on women in Byzantine philosophy.

  • Benakis, Linos. “Die theoretische und praktische Autonomie der Philosophie als Fach-disziplin in Byzanz.” In Knowledge and Sciences in Medieval Philosophy: Proceedings of the 8th International Congress of Medieval Philosophy. Vol. 1, Societé Intern. pour l’étude de la philosophie médiévale (SIEPM). Edited by Simo Knuuttila, Reijo Työrinoja and Sten Ebbesen, 223–227. Helsinki: Publications of the Luther Agricola Society, 1990.

    An exciting but controversial take on Byzantine philosophy. The author argues that, unlike in the Western Middle Ages, philosophy in the Eastern Roman Empire retained its autonomy vis-à-vis theological discourse.

  • Benakis, Linos. “Byzantine Philosophy.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 2. Edited by Edward Craig, 160–165. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

    A survey of the Byzantine account for the status of philosophy, with interesting notes on the intellectual profile of Byzantine philosophers.

  • De Libera, Alain. La philosophie médiévale, Paris: PUF, 1993.

    Pages 9–51 of this volume contain a valuable summary of Byzantine philosophy, primarily based on secondary literature. Despite this limitation, the author deserves praise for including Byzantine philosophy in the general picture of medieval philosophy for the first time.

  • Eleuteri, Paolo. “La filosofia.” In Lo spazio letterario della Grecia antica. Vol. 2: La ricezione e l’attualizzazione del testo. Edited by Giuseppe Cambiano, Luciano Canfora, and Diego Lanza, 437–464. Rome: Salerno Ed., 1995.

    Written in Italian, this entry deserves to be mentioned insofar as it includes a section on text transmission of classical philosophical texts in Byzantium. The author further discusses the Byzantine Aristotelian commentary tradition, the Platonic tradition’s impact, and the hostility against the circulation of philosophical texts or ideas due to religious concerns.

  • Hunger, Herbert. Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner. Vol. 1. Munich: Beck, 1978.

    Pages 4 to 62 provide a very good introductory reading to the subject.

  • Gutas, Dimitri, and Niketas Siniossoglou. “Philosophy and ‘Byzantine Philosophy.’” In The Cambridge Intellectual History of Byzantium. Edited by Anthony Kaldellis and Niketas Siniossoglou, 271–295. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

    Argues that no Byzantine philosophy exists insofar as (according to the authors’ post-Marxist approach) philosophy is a purely secular endeavor incompatible with religion.

  • Ierodiakonou, Katerina. “Byzantium.” In The Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy. Edited by Robert Pasnau, 39–49. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    A valuable introduction to Byzantine philosophy, emphasizing the continuities and discontinuities between Byzantium and the earlier classical tradition. The author also refers to the different literary genres of philosophy in the Eastern Roman Empire.

  • Ierodiakonou, Katerina, and Börje Bydén. “Byzantine Philosophy.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2018.

    This is the best available summary of the subject. The entry contains an excellent analytical overview of Byzantine philosophical topics, figures, and trends. The final section of the entry contains an excellent bibliography of authors and trends.

  • Ierodiakonou, Katerina, and Dominic O’Meara. “Philosophies.” In The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies. Edited by Robin Cormack, John F. Haldon, and Elizabeth Jeffreys, 711–720. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    A concise introduction of philosophy in the Eastern Roman Empire, with emphasis on the relationship between philosophy and the Christian religion.

  • Kapriev, Georgi. “Byzantine Studies: Byzantine Philosophical Treatises.” In Handbook of Medieval Studies: Terms—Methods—Trends. 3 vols. Edited by Albrecht Classen, 185–194. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110215588.185

    A short survey of the available approaches to Byzantine philosophy from the nineteenth century onward.

  • Tatakis, Basil. La Philosophie Byzantine. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1949.

    Written in French, this is the first comprehensive overview of philosophy in the Eastern Roman Empire. Despite its shortcomings and although outdated, the book is still a masterpiece that deserves thorough recognition.

  • Tatakis, Basil. Byzantine Philosophy. Translated by Nicholas Mutafakis. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2003.

    English translation with updates of Tatakis’ La Philosophie Byzantine (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1949). The book’s final section contains a helpful bibliography of contributions published after Tatakis.

  • Trizio, Michele. “Byzantine Philosophy as a Contemporary Historiographic Project.” Recherches de Théologie et Philosophie Médiévales 74.1 (2007): 247–294.

    DOI: 10.2143/RTPM.74.1.2022841

    Surveys the modern debate concerning the existence and status of philosophy in Byzantium. The paper argues in favor of an inclusive approach based on what the Byzantines themselves understood as “philosophy.”

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