The Preservation of Ancient Greek Culture by the Church

It is common today to hear secularists and modernists charge Christianity—particularly the Catholic Church—with destroying cultures by imposing a new and foreign lifestyle on societies and conquered peoples.1 It is lamentable that some members of the Church—including popes—have committed egregious actions against beneficial cultural customs.2 However, this is only one side of the story. The Church is also responsible for the preservation of ancient cultures which would have otherwise faded into oblivion.

Bernard Knox’s insightful introduction to Robert Fagles’s translation of The Iliad briefly recounts the Greek history behind The Iliad and its transmission throughout the ages.  The fall of the Roman Empire also brought the end of the knowledge of Greek in the West for nearly a thousand years.3 The Byzantine Empire maintained knowledge of the Greek language and ancient culture by teaching students the Greek language from poets like Homer, copying ancient Greek texts for centuries, and celebrating liturgies in Greek. The Ottoman Turks destroyed the Byzantine Empire in May 1453 and this would have brought the definitive end of the knowledge of the ancient Greeks had members of Byzantium not come to Italy a century earlier. These Byzantines reintroduced Greek into the West by bringing their knowledge of the Greek language and copies of Greek texts. In 1488, Florence published the first printed version of The Iliad and Greek poets have continued to be widely circulated ever since.

It is astonishing to realize how close the world came to losing foundational works of ancient Greek culture which have influenced us today. The preservation and purification of cultures has always been an important work of the Church and it would behoove her critics to acknowledge the great debt we owe to an institution which has kept us in contact with our ancient ancestors.

  1. Debra Macleod, “Should the Catholic Church Acknowledge the Destruction of Classical Pagan Culture?” Huffington Post June 16, 2015, 
  2. Examples of Dominicans burning Jewish literature and Aristotle’s works can be found in “Christian-Jewish Relations: Burning of the Talmud,” Jewish Virtual Library, accessed July 17, 2017,; Rebecca Rist, Popes and Jews, 1095–1291, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 198; Haig Bosmajian, Burning Books (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006), 45. 
  3. Bernard Knox, introduction to The Iliad, by Homer, trans. Robert Fagles (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1990), 5–6. 

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