Translations from Greek into Latin and Arabic During the Middle Ages: Searching for the Classical Tradition
Narratives on the development of world civilization generated in the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and largely not replaced since) accord a central position to the “classical tradition” as a constituent element of modern “Western” identity and assign to Byzantium the marginal role of preserving this tradition immutable without innovation or creative elaboration. However, a survey of medieval translations of originally Greek material into Arabic and Latin reveals that Byzantium’s contemporaries viewed its literary culture under a very different light: medieval Latin and Arabic translations of Greek texts are not limited to the ancient classics but extend to Biblical, patristic, hagiographical, liturgical and legal texts. This indicates that Byzantium’s contemporaries were vividly interested its older Christian and Roman traditions. As for its “classical tradition”, when pagan Greek texts were translated they were received within a Byzantine interpretative context for reasons of convenience: successive generations of Byzantine commentators and adaptors had smoothed out the internal inconsistencies of the great scientific and philosophical corpora of antiquity and had found ways to by-pass the disagreements of pagan thought with Judaic, Christian and Muslim monotheism. The reception of Byzantine literary culture by its Arabic- and Latin-speaking neighbors, when investigated simultaneously with the reception of Arabic and Latin literary culture by Byzantium, suggests that different parts of the medieval world were simultaneously interested in the same larger philosophical and scientific questions and occasionally sought each other’s ideas in order to illuminate them.