Why have less than 5% of Byzantine scientific works been published?

A few days ago, I noted that only 5% of all Byzantine scientific works have managed to make it out of the medieval manuscripts and into a printed edition of some sort.  For translations the figure is worse still.  The figure is an estimate by Byzantinist Maria Mavroudi, who works with the subject and certainly would know.

But why is this?  I wrote to Dr Mavroudi and enquired as follows:

As a member of the public, I wonder if I might ask … why is this the case?  Is it simply fewness of hands, or lack of an audience?  Or lack of funding?

She very kindly replied at once, with this interesting answer:

The reasons are everything that you mention: lack of interest on the part of modern scholars, based on the conviction that there is anything worth the while there (the “good” stuff is ancient science, while its Byzantine counterpart is a pale imitation lacking in “original” contributions). Fewness of hands is also a serious problem (there are very few people able and interested in editing texts on ancient science which is admittedly more mainstream, although not exactly mainstream). Editing technical texts requires not only knowing the language and editorial techniques, but also understanding the content of what one edits. Too many skills, all time consuming to acquire, are required of one and the same person. Funding can be a problem, but it is last in the priority list, and can manifest itself in various ways (e.g. scholars on an academic salary do not need to be paid for the specific work of editing; but publishing is expensive, the editions of such technical texts will never be best sellers, and frequently publishers shy away from producing such editions because they project little or no financial reward).

I attach an encyclopedia essay that outlines some reasons for the lack of interest in Byzantine science.

The attached article was M. Mavroudi, “Science, Byzantine”, in: Roger Bagnall &c (ed), The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, Blackwell (2013), pp. 6063-6065.  The volume is not easily accessible to normal people unfortunately, although if the articles are all of this quality, then that really is a nuisance.  The article is mainly about asserting that Byzantine science is worth studying for itself, and has been distinctly undervalued:

In summary, what is currently known about Byzantine science is significantly less than what remains to be uncovered. In order to be properly appreciated, Byzantine science must be understood as a coherent system of thought taken in its own terms. Modern divisions separating scientific disciplines were not perceived by the Byzantines in the same way (Mavroudi 2006), though they have been applied to the Byzantine material in valuable scholarly surveys (e.g., mathematics and astronomy as categories distinct from astrology in Hunger 1978, 1994; “high” and “low” science in Pingree 1991).

The complex relation between tradition and innovation in the transmission and creation of new knowledge was neither experienced nor articulated by the Byzantines in our modern terms. Byzantine philosophical, cosmological, and scientific thought developed in dialogue with Christian theology and sometimes influenced the articulation of Christian doctrine (Magdalino 2006).

It is interesting to learn that funding is not the worst problem facing the discipline.  I understand that domain knowledge can be acquired by intensive short courses, e.g. in alchemy.  The cost of publishing may cease to be an issue with online publishing.  The link to patristic studies particularly catches the eye.

Perhaps some of the PhD students now frantically casting around for a teaching post should consider whether there is a career in Byzantine science?  Hardly anything has been done.  The challenge may seem daunting, but surely it is far better to use your Greek and patristics knowledge, than go and sell insurance?

I have been collecting materials, and I will write a post on the bibliography of Byzantine science next.


8 thoughts on “Why have less than 5% of Byzantine scientific works been published?

  1. Hi Roger,
    Just so we’re on the same page – what do you mean by ‘science’?

    I understand that physics, chemistry (or alchemy if you prefer), botany, zoology and astronomy are sciences but what about other areas? Is mathematics a science? Is medicine a science? What about anthropology (or ethnic studies)? Most of all, what about philosophy?

    I know a number of Byzantine scientific authors that have been published and translated. I hope you don’t me sharing. Maybe there are some you dont know-

    The Ancient Commentaries on Aristotle series has works by John Philoponus and Simplicius on Aristotle’s Physics. Modern scholars consider John Philoponus’s ideas groundbreaking.

    The 12th century author Michael of Ephesus has had two commentaries of his on Aristotle’s zoological works (The Movement and Progression of Animals) translated into English in 1981.

    A number of works by the astronomer Gregory Chioniades have been translated.



    There is also a new translation of an astronomical work by Theodore Metochites.


    An edition and translation of a work critical of Galen by Symeon Seth was also recently done in Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies.


    An edition (but no translation) of a treatise on thunder and lightning by Eustratius of Nicaea was put out in 2012 by Anne-Laurence Caudano.


    I’ll check my books and see what else I can find.


  2. We face similar issues in the history of Syriac philosophy and sciences. Many texts still unedited let alone translated into modern languages; but just insufficient people and time to make much headway! I would like to begin the task of editing a massive commentary on Aristotle by George of the Arabs (8th cent) which is sitting unedited in a British library ms. Ideally, one needs teams to do these things, but then finding a bunch of people all motivated to do the same work at the same time, maybe without special funding, is a big challenge

  3. Hi Roger,
    I found a few more translations.

    A Commentary on a work of Archimedes by Eutocius of Ascalon was translated in 2009 as part of a series of the collected works of Archimedes.


    There is also a short monograph on Anthemius of Tralles that is available online that has translations of the remaining fragments of his mathematical works from Duke University.

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