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Walter Berschin  

Early Byzantine Italy and the  Maritime Lands of the West

 From: Greek Letters and the Latin Middle Ages. From Jerome to Nicholas of Cusa . Translated by Jerold C. Frakes. Revised and expanded edition. The Catholic University of America Press, http://cuapress.cua.edu/


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2. Spain

One of the most ambitious plans of the Eastern Emperor Justinian (527- 65) was to rescue Spain from the Visigoths and Suevi, Italy from the Ostrogoths, and Africa from the Vandals; Emperor Heraclius (610-41) finally gave up the entire plan. The relationship between the Greek East and Spain was multifaceted and intimate, especially during the sixth century.15 Surprisingly, it was not in Byzantino-Visigothic Spain, but rather in the distant northwest of Spain, inhabited by the Suevi, that translation literature arose. At the same time as, or soon after, the Roman translations of the Apopthegmata, similar compilations were collected there: by order of the Suevian apostle, Martin of Braga (d.ca.580), a certain Paschasius translated parts of a codex called vitas patrum grecorum given to him for this purpose; the translation is called Liber Geronticon;16 Martin himsel who had been in Palestine before he founded the monastery Dumio among the Suevi and become archbishop in the Suevian royal city of Braga, undertook a collection of Sententiae patrum Aegyptiorum. A translation of a collection of Greek canons is also ascribed to him. 

Ιn the second half of the seventh century, as the Suevian kingdom was incorporated into the Visigothic monarchy, Abbot Valerius of Bierzo in Galicia produced an edition of the Vitas patrum which contained translations of Greek saints' lives; it is not clear whether they are the work of the Galician translators' school founded by Martin of Braga or came from Italy.18 

The Catholic Romanic populace and the Arian Goths of the Visigothic kingdom were reconciled by Bishop Leander of Seville (578-99), who came from Byzantine Cartagena. The successor to the bishopric of Seville was Leander's younger brother, Isidore (599-636), who, all things considered, was Spain's most famous Latin author.

His short treatise De ortu et obitu patrum (Migne PL 83, cols. 129-59) contains a core of prophets' lives, translated from Greek, within the series of eighty-six brief biographical sketches of figures from the Old and New Testaments; see Τ. Schermann, Prophetarum vitae fabulosae (Leipzig 1907), and Propheten- und Apostellegenden nebst Jüngerkatalogen des Dorotheus und verwandter Texte, TU 31/g (Leipzig 1907); Α Vaccari, "Una fonte del 'de ortu et obitu Patrum' di S. Isidoro," in Miscellanea Isidoriana (Rome 1936), pp. 165-75.

Isidore's principal work is the Etymologiae (Origines), which served the West for centuries. As a second Varro, he attempted, in twenty brief books, to summarize conceptually the trivium, quadrivium, medicine, law, theology, history, philosophy, zoology, geography, book production, architecture, mineralogy, metallurgy, agriculture, military matters, public and private games, shipbuilding, and other areas of knowledge and technology. As was generally the case in antiquity, the knowledge transmitted by Isidore was primarily Greek; via the Latin mediators from whom he derived his information, numerous Graeca are preserved in Isidore's work. He uses Greek words, which are written in Greek script and incorporated into the Latin text according to ancient practice.19 The Greek alphabet is explained historically -after the manner of ancient models- at the beginning of the works; in addition he includes the important doctrine of the litterae mysticae, which was characteristic of the medieval valuation of Greek:20

Cadmus, the son of Agenor, first brought seventeen Greek letters to Greece from Phoenicia: Α Β Γ Δ Ε Ζ 1 Κ Λ Μ Ν Ο Π Ρ C T Φ. Palamedes added three more during the Trojan War: Η Χ Ω. Thereafter, the lyric poet Simonides added three more letters: Ψ Ξ Θ. Pythagoras of Samos first developed the letter Y on the model of human life: its lower stroke signifies the younger years, the still uncertain ones, which have not yet given themselves up to either vice or virtue. The bifurcation,  however, which remains begins in adolescence: its right arm is steep, yet leads to the blessed life; the left is easier; it leads to disaster and destruction. Persius says of this letter: "And the letter which extends the Samian branches/showed you the ascending path on the right hand" [ΙΙΙ 56]. 

The Greeks have five letters of mystery. The first is Υ, which signifies human life, of which we have just spoken. The second is Θ, which signifies death, since judges place this letter Θ by the names of those whom they condemn to execution. And theta signifies ΑΠΟ ΤΟΤ ΘΑΝΑΤΟΥ, i.e., "from death." For this reason, it also has a shaft through the middle, which is the sign of death. Α certain one says of this: "Theta, you are far more wretched than all other letters." The third, Τ , signifies the cross of the Lord; therefore it is translated into Hebrew as "sign." Concerning this letter, the angel in Ezekiel [9:4] is told: "Go through the middle of Jerusalem and trace a tau on the forehead of the sighing and lamenting men." The remaining two letters are, however, claimed as the first and last by Christ for himself At the beginning and end, he says: "Ι am the Α and Ω." When these two letters move toward each other, Α rolls to Ω and Ω in turn rolls up again to Α; so that the Lord showed that the course from the beginning to the end and the return from the end to the beginning is in him. But all Greek letters form words and numbers. For the letter called alpha signifies one, the one called beta two; where they write gamma, it is called three, and delta four; and thus all their letters have numerical values. The Latins do not use letters for numbers, but form only words from them, except for I and X, which figure also signifies the cross and has the numerical value ten.

Ιn another passage of the work, Isidore designated the Greek language as one of the tres linguae sacrae:21

There are three sacred languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, which are the most distinguished throughout the whole earth. For it was in these languages that Pilate wrote the Lord's legal case on the cross. Thence, it is also because of the obscurity of the Ηοly Scriptures that a knowledge of these three languages is necessary, so that one can refer to the others when the text of one language gives rise to doubt about a name or a translation.Yet Greek is considered an especially splendid language among the rest of the nations. For it is more resonant than Latin and all other languages. Its variety is divided into five components:  first, the ΚOINH,  i.e.,  "mixed" or "common," which everyone uses; second, the Attic, namely, the language of Athens, which all Greek authors have used; third, the Doric, which the Egyptians and Syrians have; fourth, the Ionic; and fifth, the Aeolic. ... There are several distinguishing characteristics in the observation of the Greek languages; their language is thus divided.

The greater part of this explanation is derived from older works, as is generally the case in the Etymologiae: Isidore praises the beauty of the Greek language after the manner of Quintilian; the doctrine of the linguae sacrae is developed from Augustine's statement concerning the linguae principales, etc.22 Yet whoever not οnly uses but also reads Isidore will observe that there is an "inner line ... which connects all these apparently thoughtless excerpts" ("innere  Linie ...die sich durch alle diese scheinbar gedankenlosen Excerpte zieht").23 Isidore's achievement with respect to the medieval knowledge οf Greek lies in his concentration on fundamental

and clearly organized material: the litterae mysticae and linguae sacrae were  schemata of a new archaism which well suited the newly Christianized nations of the West.