Bridging the gap, 540-760. Generations 428-439

Who carried the baton of learning between the end of the Academy in Athens (closed by the remorseless pressure of the Emperor Justinian around 530) and the founding of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad after 760? What happened to all the books, the scrolls, the papyri?

This is a large gap, of over 200 years. So far as I have been able to establish, at least in part it was the scholars of the church of the East in the Sasanian Empire. Known by Constantinople as the Nestorian church, it was the largest christian church in terms of geographical extent until the journeys by the Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It sent missions to India and China. Six hundred years later, Genghis Khan’s wife was a follower of the church of the East. It had schools in Nisibis (in present-day Turkey) and Gundeshapur, also spelt Gondi-Sapor, in present-day Iran. Almost nothing is written or known about them. What follows is the story as I have been able to piece it together.

The Roman emperor Justinian was a driven man. As well as recovering the provinces in north Africa from the Vandals and devastating large tracts of Italy, one of his first acts was to set up a commission to codify Roman law. This law was then used as a cudgel. The neoplatonic academy in Athens was notified first that divination was not permitted (presumably meaning Astrology and the study of the heavens). More decisively, in 529, a new law required that only those of the orthodox faith were permitted to teach or receive a stipend. Anyone who donated to or supported the academy was henceforth deemed to be breaking the law.

mosaic of Justinian I (Ravenna)

mosaic of Justinian I (Ravenna)

This is from a mosaic at the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, after his military campaign there.

This law was aimed at everyone who did not subscribe to the official Roman version of christianity: the orthodox church. There were many non-orthodox versions of christianity, as well as the church of the East. The new law applied to them as well as the Jews, Mithraists, and all  the rest of the panoply of belief systems that prevailed at the time. Government in the empire was devolved to local councils, who were responsible for implementing the law. Orthodox bishops had influence upon local government: they were exempt from taxes and were prosperous. The academy of Athens, that traced its inheritance (with some gaps) back to the time of Plato and Socrates, had no chance.

The scholars packed up and took their scrolls and papyri to the Sasanian Empire where the atmosphere was more open-minded and accepting of non-christian scholars, particularly the city of Nisibis. Nisibis housed a theological college of the church of the East, which had been re-founded in 489 after a previous Roman emperor had closed the school of Edessa just over the border in the Roman empire, on the grounds that it was espousing the wrong version of christianity. The languages were Greek and Syriac. It also housed a large jewish community. The scholars and teachers translated the classical Greek texts into Syriac, and looked to reconcile the works of Aristotle in particular with the old and new testaments of the bible. Their approach was literal and grammatical, in contrast to the allegorical approach of their rivals in Alexandria. This would suggest that, despite the destruction of the library of Alexandria, the tradition of scholarship continued there too. (The leader of the Athens school at the time of its closure, a man called Damascius, is said to have ended up in Alexandria.) However, the church in Alexandria adhered to another non-orthodox view of christianity, and so suffered at the hands of Constantinople.

The exiles from Athens were also invited to Gundeshapur, of which there is hardly a trace left. It was about four hundred miles east of the Sasanian capital Ctesiphon, near the ancient city of Susa. The tradition tells that whereas theological studies were centred in Nisibis, Gundeshapur was the location for secular studies. There was a teaching hospital, ‘bimaristan’ in Persian. Astronomy was studied. At Gundeshapur the translations were from Greek and Syriac into Pahlavi, the Persian language. As India is not too far away (comparatively speaking) and there were cultural links, I would expect that Indian mathematicians also visited. This was the high point of the Gupta Empire in India, and its mathematicians were renowned.

Some of the classical texts were taken to Constantinople, where they were safeguarded by civil servants. However, I can find no evidence that they were studied and commented on. The only use for them in subsequent centuries that I have come across was as a diplomatic gift. A copy of Ptolemy’s Almagest was presented to the court of the caliph in Baghdad at the end of the eighth century, and in the fifteenth Plato’s Timaeus, among other texts, made its way to Florence.

The evidence suggests that it was the Syriac-speaking scholars of the church of the East who transcribed and translated the texts. They studied them, valued them and pondered their meaning. And that is why, when the House of Wisdom was founded in Baghdad in the eighth century, the first translations of the classical Greek texts were from Syriac into Arabic. The head of the church of the East at the time, the katholikos Timothy, was a learned and influential figure in Baghdad.


This is a bit of a sketchy story. An important link in the chain of human learning has hardly been investigated, so far as I can tell.

Entering late antiquity, 540-600. Generations 428-430

Many people alive in this time felt that something was coming to an end. A monk called Gregory, who went on to become pope in 590, wrote that the world ‘was growing old and hoary, hastening to its approaching death’.

He had good reason to say so. These were troubled times.

The latest set of troubles began in the year 536. From Ireland across to China, cold weather and crop failures were reported. It was a year without a summer. The historian Procopius, based in Constantinople, wrote: “during this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness… and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear”.

Evidence from ice cores says that it was caused by a volcano – and more to were to follow in the next five years.

Another source of trouble was the continuing migrations. The changing climate wasn’t a cause of the migrations, but may have exacerbated them. The edges of the Roman Empire – the rivers Danube and Rhine in central Europe, for example, had long been a fragile membrane, with the Empire in the settled agricultural lands surrounding the Mediterranean, and the more mobile alliances of peoples living on the less cultivatable land beyond. The peoples living just beyond the border were traditionally paid to stay put, but that system had already broken down. A couple of centuries previously the groups living beyond the frontier had found out how to work around the Roman policy of divide and rule. They formed alliances, too large for the Roman army to easily defeat, and then either invaded or negotiated a settlement of land within the Empire itself.

And the migrants kept on coming. Around 540 it was the Avars, originating from the Eurasian steppe. They moved into the Hungarian plain in particular, and in so doing displaced the Lombards who were the current occupants. The Lombards then moved south and invaded northern Italy. This region was already suffering from Justinian’s brutal recovery of it from the previous wave of invasions (by the ostrogoths), and so had nothing left to resist the next set of incomers. The Lombards moved in and used it as a base for further expansion. Part of northern Italy is still known as Lombardy.

And it got worse. Like the Mongols seven hundred years later, the Avars brought the bubonic plague. It reached Europe and the Mediterranean in 541, and was devastating. The creaking bureaucracies of the Roman Empire based in Constantinople and the Sasanian Empire based in Ctesiphon had to cope with a reduction in tax revenues resulting from the loss of up to a third of the populations. The revenues that were used to pay the armies were reduced, and consequently so were troop numbers.

The economic basis of the Roman and Persian empires was agricultural surplus. The estates produced more food than the inhabitants could eat, and paid taxes to the central administration in Constantinople or Ctesiphon. The richest agricultural region was in the middle east, between the two empires. So it made sense to concentrate what was left of the armies there. This was a period of continual war between Constantinople and Ctesiphon, to gain control of the near east from Anatolia to Mesopotamia. Sometimes the Persians took control, at others the Romans. The conflict must have been a drain on resources and difficult to sustain with everything else that was going on.

One of the other things that was going on was endless argument among christians. Christianity had been the official religion of the Roman Empire since 313, but that was a mixed blessing to most christians, as there were many versions of their faith. Empires, it would seem, are not good with ambiguity. So the continual arguments about the nature of Jesus (for example, was he a human like the rest of us, or divine and co-eternal with God, or both?) were not welcome. Anyone who strayed from the official view of the Roman church (that Jesus incarnated in a physical body but was also divine) was deemed a heretic.

Pope Gregory adhered to a strand of christianity that had more successfully integrated into the Roman church. The happiest period of his life, he said, was when he could shut all the troubles out and get on with being a monk. He followed in the footsteps of Benedict of Nursia, who died around 545. Benedict had pursued the ascetic strand of christianity and formalised it into a rule, which he applied in his new monastery at Monte Cassino in the south of Italy. His rule book had 73 chapters, covering the varieties of monasticism, the authority of the abbot, how to manage the day-to-day life of the monastery, even down to what the monks should wear in bed. Each monastery was a self-contained unit, answerable to its abbot.

Gregory turned his own family estate into a monastery – which for me is a clue as to what was going on. This was a continuation of the Roman economic model, of an estate providing an agricultural surplus. The estate was no longer the property of one aristocratic family, but was a monastery ruled by an abbot (or abbess). When times grew hard in the territories around Rome as the Lombards ventured further south, Gregory could call on the surplus from the monasteries to feed the displaced people. His success in doing so led to the foundation of the Papal States, a swathe across central Italy ruled directly by the papacy for the next 1400 years.

Gregory is also the source of one of the best-remembered bad puns from late antiquity. The story goes that he saw some blond slaves in the slave market in Rome. On enquiring where they were from, he was told they were Angles. ‘Not Angles but angels’, he is said to have replied. Gregory sent one of his monks, by the name of Augustine, to the land of the Angles to convert the pagans. Augustine set up his first monastery in Canterbury. Perhaps that set the stamp for christianity in England – the monastic system. And maybe that is why, a millennium later, Henry VIII targeted the monasteries. They followed the Roman model, owned large tracts of rich agricultural land across the country and did not answer to the king.


Emperor Justinian also had the basilica of Hagia Sofia built in this period, after its predecessor was burned down in riots. Later it was converted to a mosque, but the original structure is still there.

An accidental empire. 680-740, generations 435-437.

During Mohammed’s lifetime the Arabian peninsula was united into a single polity. After he died in 632 the expansion of arab-controlled land accelerated. The rate of expansion was astounding and unprecedented. The latest dynasty of the Persian empire, the Sasanian dynasty, had the misfortune that its capital, Ctesiphon, was not easily defensible against the arab armies. After losing a battle against the invaders in 636, the Sasanian royal family abandoned Ctesiphon. Once the capital was gone, the rest of the empire could be picked off bit by bit. The arabs repeatedly attempted to take Constantinople too, but failed. Emperor Constantine had chosen a defensible location three centuries previously, on a promontory encircled by the Bosphorus. So the Roman empire, although dramatically reduced in size, was not wiped from the map in the way that the Sasanian one was, and its rump continued to be administered from Constantinople.

Within fifty years of Mohammed’s death the Umayyad dynasty was established in Damascus. From this base it controlled the whole of the ex-Persian empire as far as China, a large part of the Roman empire (Anatolia, the eastern Mediterranean, north Africa) and, by the year 720, most of the Iberian peninsula. The map of the world had changed, irrevocably.

The Umayyads appointed arab governors to each region, who collected taxes and sent them back to Damascus. There was a vigorous slave trade. It was said that after the defeat of the Visigoths in southern Spain, 30,000 blond Visigothic slaves were on sale in the slave markets of Damascus. This was beginning to look more like an empire than a religious arising. The arab elite grew rich.

Tensions began to show. The arab rulers came from the desert of Arabia. Hitherto, their main contact with the empires administered from Constantinople and Ctesiphon had been as traders and raiders: people on the move, not city-dwellers. There were not many of them: they were a tiny minority in their vast unexpected empire. They did not have the infrastructure or the traditions to manage it. How to administer these lands and retain their distinctive identity?

One way was not to move into the pre-existing cities. In Mesopotamia the arabs set up encampments, which became garrison towns in Kufa and Basra. In Egypt they set up a semi-permanent camp on the banks of the Nile at Fustat, which is now a suburb of Cairo. They left the Roman and Sasanian administrative structures in place and almost untouched. For those living in the villages of the new empire, the regime change must have been hardly noticeable. The fact that the annually-collected taxes now went to Damascus instead of Constantinople or Ctesiphon probably didn’t impinge. Otherwise, life continued unchanged.

However, there was unrest. There were repeated uprisings all over the new empire. The arabs came with a powerful new religion and a book which proclaimed a bright future for the Believers. The book seemed to say that bloodlines and tribal loyalties were secondary to what a person chose to believe. For an open-minded, thinking person this appeared to offer a way out of their current situation . It was possible to be a part of this powerful wave that had swept over the world, simply by declaring one’s adherence to the new religion. But it didn’t work out like that in practice. When several hundred escaped slaves moved to Basra and Kufa and declared themselves to be muslims, the governor had them arrested, branded and sent back to their masters. Evidently, in this new world some were more equal than others.

The pervasiveness of slavery may have been an escape-valve. The slave trade was a fact of life, seen as a necessary evil. Attempts had been made since ancient times to regulate it, but never to outlaw it. This posed new dilemmas for the arab rulers. What was the legal status of the offspring of an arab father and his non-arab slave? Could they become a muslim? Over the years a complicated hierarchy emerged. A person with two arab parents was at the top of the tree, followed by one with one arab parent, and so on. There was movement between the categories. For example, the general who led the conquest of Spain in 711, Tariq ibn Ziyad, was probably an ex-slave. Gibraltar (Jebel Tariq) is named after him.

Another area addressed by the Umayyads was the coinage. In the early years of Umayyad rule the empire continued using the Sasanian and Roman currencies. This meant that, long after the arabs had taken control, images of the Roman Emperor were still on each coin in the purses of the traders of Alexandria and Damascus. In the 680’s the Umayyad emperor had his own coins made, with his image, modelled on the Roman solidus minted in Constantinople.


Here is a coin from 693, showing an image of the caliph Abd-al Malik. Courtesy Muslim Heritage

Whereas the Roman Emperor’s solidus had his image on one side and the christian cross on the obverse, Abd-al Malik’s dinar had an image of himself holding a sword on one side and the symbol shown here on the back of the coin. Evidently the muslim prohibition of depicting the human form had not yet kicked in. His image was encircled by the testimony of Islam written in Arabic: “In the name of God, there is no deity but God; He is One; Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Interestingly, Abd-al Malik had grown up in Medina, the final home of the Prophet and base for an uprising against Umayyad rule on the grounds that it was not following the way of the Believers. By placing the Testimony of Islam on his coins, maybe Abd-al Malik was nailing his colours to the mast.

In Abd-al Malik’s next minting, in 697, there were no images.


These coins were made compulsory throughout the empire. Persian and Roman coins were melted down and restamped, on pain of death. The language of the administration was declared to be arabic rather than greek or persian as it had been. The conquered territories began the process of cohering into a single entity, the dar al-islam, the abode of islam.