It Was All Greek To Them

July 21, 2008 at 1:57 pm | Posted in Theology | 5 Comments

Here’s a question that probably doesn’t keep you up at nights:  Why would the fourth-century Romans pack up and move from Rome to Constantinople and then start speaking Greek?  Didn’t the Romans speak Latin exclusively?  Why would they abandon their sublime system of conjugation and declension?

Well, the highly controversial Fr. John Romanides has an interesting answer.  According to him, classical Latin developed from an Italian patois of Greek.  Public pronouncements, such as laws and decrees were written in Latin for the widest publication, while more learned discourse continued to be written in Greek.  Latin was seen as a common or vulgar language unsuited for the upper classes.

However, Latin continued to be the lingua franca (excuse the irony) of the Roman West.  The Roman Empire knit together a broad range of tongues, tribes, and nations, and the common language was crucial for the Empire to function.  Therefore, any inhabitant of a far-flung colony would seek to learn Latin as his passport into the greater Roman society.  (One also wonders if this is why some of the greatest works of Roman propaganda were also written in Latin and not Greek….)

This brings us to the example of Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest influences in European thought.  Born into a backwater province of the Roman Empire, he took to the study of Latin, but abhorred Greek.  Not knowing Greek, apparently Augustine never read the Church Fathers in totality, was unacquainted with Eastern tradition, and relied upon a Latin translation of the Bible for all his theological developments.  Much has been written about the academic sins of Augustine, so there is no need to belabor the point.  However, in light of some recent posts on the nature of Augustine’s errors, I thought it would be interesting to follow the Latin connection.

Let’s go get to back to Fr. Romanides.  He traces the roots of the Great Schism to the founding of the Carolingian dynasty with the unification of the Franks and subjugation of the Romans under Pepin II, father of Charlemagne.  Pepin replaced the murdered Roman bishops with his own appointees as he sought to pacify the populace which he held in that unique form of slavery we call feudalism.  The Franks were able to infiltrate the Church to the point that they were able to wrest control of the western sees from Constantinople.  Then, in the year 800, Charlemagne convinced Pope Leo III to crown him Emperor of the Roman Empire

There was only one problem — there already was a ruler of the Roman Empire, Empress Irene of Athens, who lived in Constantinople, which was still the capitol city.  So, the new Emperor set out to discredit the Eastern Romans, making much of the fact that they spoke Greek, not Latin, so therefore could not be legitimate heirs to the Roman Empire.  But, there was still the unity of the Church to deal with.  So, Charlemagne sought to disgrace the Eastern bishops and declare them heretics.  Thus, he convened a series of councils to promulgate a number of theological pronouncements, including approval of the Filioque, to be used as ammunition against the Eastern Church.  Unfortunately, Charlemagne and his Germanic bishops were deficient in their Greek!  So, they turned to the most prolific Latin theologian for their source material: Augustine of Hippo.

Thus, Augustine’s errors became the de facto theology of the Western Empire.  Fully entrenched into church and state, they remained a dominant influence upon European history for over a thousand years.  And all because one schoolboy was more taken with Roman fables than their Greek counterparts.

At least, that’s how I understand Fr. Romanides.  I’m sure I’m mutilating both his theories and the underlying history in this brief summary.  Still, I hope there is enough here to give you all something to chew on that they didn’t teach you in public school — just like they no longer teach Greek….



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  1. I, for one, couldn’t make heads or tails of Romanides concerning this history. So I’m very grateful (and in awe!) that you could, and have deciphered it for me and people like me.

    Thanks! Interesting!

  2. Well… I guess you need to have a conspiratorial mind to dive into enough European history to unravel some of the Good Father’s convoluted passages. I’m still not convinced that I have it all correct. After re-reading the above, it seems to me more like the backstory to the latest Dan Brown novel.

  3. BTW: Thanks for daring to link to my blog! How did you find out about it?

  4. I find Church History from a Eastern perspective very interesting. Think of the void that was left after the capitol was moved. Ever wondered who stepped in and filled a role they were probably never meant to have? Yep, it really puts much into perspective. You gave a clean synopsis of it all. Which is nothing less than I have read from you elsewhere. Another interesting topic is Anselm. This is where the idea of a Angry God developed.

    As far as Augustine and his errors, I like Hiermonk Seraphim Rose’s book on Him. It really put in perspective of how Augustine sometimes gets treated harsher than he deserves.
    Anyway that is for another time and post I guess.

  5. The difference between the Latin and Greek really shows just how estranged the East had become from the West. Without a common language they really could not be expected to talk to each other.

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