Starting in the C14th, western Europe experienced a cultural revolution we now call the Renaissance. It was a revolution that had been long in the making, building on earlier medieval and classical art, literature, and scholarship. The patronage of wealthy Italian families such as the Medici played a key role in making it possible, while many scholars from earlier times provided the foundation for the basis of the Renaissance. But who would have thought that an early medieval Persian king made a significant, perhaps critical, contribution?
That king was Anushirvan, who ruled the Sassanid Empire between 531 and 579. His policy of promoting scholarship, science, and learning was destined to bear fruit during the Renaissance. This is the story of how the Renaissance can trace some if its deepest roots back to Anushirvan’s vision.
The Renaissance began in C14th Italy and eventually spread across Europe, reaching France and England by the mid-C15th. It began in Italy because of the great wealth of its city states. This facilitated investment in the arts, learning, and civic projects on a scale not possible since Roman times. And its label of ‘Renaissance’ came about because of its association with the revival of ‘lost’ knowledge.
A renewed engagement with the classical world primarily characterised the Renaissance. There was an explosion of interest in its artistic values, literature, philosophy, and its grand vision of civic architecture. Great artists such as Donatello, Michelangelo and da Vinci were all products of the Renaissance. Many saw it as a great rebirth or rediscovery of civilisation in the west, heralding in a new golden age of knowledge and learning.
Humanism and Renaissance Science
The renaissance humanist movement shifted the emphasis of scholarship away from religion to focus more on exploring the human condition. Part of this featured a revival of interest in some of the old virtues of the classical world such as the importance of education and civic virtue. It also involved a broadening of scholarship to encompass a wider range of disciplines. The study of history, literature, philosophy, and poetry were all deemed more important than had previously been the case.
The study of the sciences also came more into focus from the mid-fifteenth century onwards. This Scientific Renaissance (c.1450-1630) inspired many early modern advances in fields such as astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, and medicine. Key Renaissance scientists included men like da Vinci, Copernicus, Bacon, Kepler, Descartes, and Galileo. These developments eventually went far beyond anything the classical world had known.
With the invention of mass printing, in the late C15th, all this new knowledge could be disseminated faster and more widely than ever before. It was the Renaissance that marked the end of the medieval period and the dawn of the early modern age.
Rediscovering Lost Knowledge
The foundations of the Renaissance were, of course, laid in previous centuries. It did not spontaneously happen overnight. But we might legitimately ask, if the rediscovery of lost knowledge and culture was central to the Renaissance, why was this lost in the first place?
To answer that, we must go back to the fall of the western Roman Empire in 476. Greek literacy had always been rare in the western Empire, so when it fell many Greek classical works quickly became inaccessible. However, as the imperial education system collapsed, levels of Latin literacy also rapidly diminished. Classical knowledge and learning now lived on mainly only in what remained of the eastern Empire. And, as western Europe became increasingly estranged from Constantinople, so this knowledge became ever more inaccessible.
It was not until Charlemagne instituted his correctio in 789 that a more structured, if limited, recovery of old Latin texts began. However, scholarship was mostly limited to the clergy and to works in Latin. The paucity of Greek literacy in the west, meant that most Greek works were effectively lost. Typically, Greek works were only really known via later Latin references. Homer’s work was pretty much unknown for example. Latin writers like Ovid and Virgil only partially recalled his stories.
The Twelfth Century Revival
The twelfth century had, in fact, seen its own mini-Renaissance. During this period recovered classical works began to make their way into western Europe. The crusader states, founded in 1098, brought the west into closer contact with Constantinople and the Islamic world. From around the same period increased contact with Moorish Spain, provided an additional conduit for the re-acquisition of classical knowledge.
Through these contacts, western Europeans were able to access ‘lost’ classical works. Classical Greek texts that had long survived in the east, often in the form of Arabic translations, now became more readily available in the west. A significant volume of these were translated from Arabic into Latin during the C12th. Classical works recovered in this way included texts by Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy to name but a few.
However, in addition to recovered classical works, the twelfth century also saw an influx of new knowledge from the Islamic world. Islamic thinkers and scientists had, by this time, benefited from a long tradition of scholarship. Not only had they preserved knowledge from the classical world, but they had also built on it.
This twelfth century revival inspired the founding of Europe’s first Universities in places such as Oxford, Paris, and Salamanca. As such, it served as an important building block in the foundations of the Renaissance.
The influx of Islamic scholarship from the east was critical to the twelfth century revival. The work of the Islamic scholar Averoes (Ibn Rushd) influenced the work of men such as Copernicus and Thomas Aquinas. His commentaries on Aristotle proved hugely influential on the development of western philosophy.
Avicenna (Ibn Sina) played a key role in the transmission of ideas from Aristotle, the Neo-Platonists, and other Greek philosophers. He also wrote The Canon of Medicine, which served as a key source of medical knowledge in Europe during the later Middle Ages.
Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī gave the west algebra. His work On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals, written about 820, facilitated the spread of the Hindu–Arabic numeral system in the west.
In short, Islam provided the west with a significant volume of new knowledge in several scientific fields. Astronomy, philosophy, mathematics, and medicine benefited the most. These were all the products of the ‘Islamic Golden Age’, a period of considerable achievement in Islamic scholarship and scientific advancement. It began in the C8th and lasted right through until the C13th. Without it, the twelfth century revival in western Europe could not have happened. And, without the twelfth century revival, the Renaissance itself would not have happened.
The Islamic Golden Age
But why was there an Islamic Golden Age between the C8th and C13th? What had prompted the Islamic world not to only preserve a significant corpus of classical knowledge but to study and build on it?
Men like al-Khwārizmī, Ibn Sina, Al-Razi, and many others all benefited from studying in one of the many academies that flourished in Abbasid Persia. The most impressive of these centres of learning was a grand library in Bagdad known as the House of Wisdom.
The House of Wisdom had served as a major centre of learning for centuries by the C12th. Here, works in Greek, Persian, and Syriac were systematically translated into Arabic, providing scholars like al-Khwārizmī with access to a great storehouse of ancient scholarship. It was pivotal in providing the Caliphate with works from the classical world, as well as older Persian, Babylonian, and even many Indian and Chinese sources.
This was all possible because of the enthusiastic patronage of the Abbasid Caliphate. It is no exaggeration to say that the Caliphate was at the very cutting edge of global learning and scientific innovation during this period.
But it had not always been like this.
From Book Burners to Scholars
During the early period of Islamic expansion, Arab armies overran large parts of the old Eastern Roman Empire. With it they came into possession of its scholars and its classical texts. However, the early Islamic Caliphates do not appear to have been especially keen patrons of secular scholarship. Indeed, if some Arab sources are to be believed, when Alexandria initially fell, the Arab army set about burning what remained of its library’s book collection. The holy Quran and religious scholarship were, it seemed, all that mattered.
The Umayyad dynasty, which preceded the Abbasids, were successful in expanding the Caliphate. However, as the Empire grew, so the Umayyads were increasingly faced with the administrative problems associated with governing such as large state. It was a challenge they never fully solved.
The Umayyads pursued a policy of ‘Arabisation’ with poor results. They created a hierarchy in which Muslims were better treated than non-Muslims and Arabs were better treated than non-Arabs. It was a policy that caused considerable discord. Both non-Muslims and the many non-Arab Muslims increasingly resented them. Eventually, the Umayyad dynasty’s rivals, the Abbasids, exploited these resentments to stir up rebellion and seize control of the Caliphate.
The Abbasid Caliphate
The Abbasid dynasty came to power in no small part by opposing the Umayyad’s treatment of non-Arabs as second-class citizens. In this, they had made significant use of Persian support. They also realised that Persia, with its long imperial history under the Sassanids, had much they could learn from in terms of imperial administration.
The Abbasids moved their capital eastwards, from Damascus to Bagdad, discarded the Arabs-first policies of the Umayyads and increasingly embraced Persian culture. Although the Abbasids themselves were Arabs, a high proportion of their court officials were Persian. Indeed, during the C8th, the Abbasids became particularly reliant on the influential Persian Barmakid family. The Barmakids were cultured and educated, they knew how the old Sassanid court had been run and how the old Empire had been administered. These were very useful skills for their new Abbasid masters.
As Persian culture became more influential at court, so too did the Persian love of scholarship, literature, art, and the sciences. It was this that inspired the Abbasids to establish the House of Wisdom in the late C8th.
“Culturally, politically, and most remarkable of all even religiously, the Persian contribution to this new Islamic civilization is of immense importance. The work of Iranians can be seen in every field of cultural endeavour.”Professor Bernard Lewis, Princeton University
The Legacy of Gondishapur
Before the Arabs overran Persia between 632 and 651, it had been ruled by the old Sassanid Empire.
The Sassanids maintained three major centres of learning. One at their old capital of Ctesiphon. A second at the city of Ras al-Ayn. And thirdly, and most famously, was the Academy of Gondishapur. It was Gondishapur, more than anywhere else, that served as a blueprint for the House of Wisdom.
In 832, the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mūn organised the House of Wisdom to emulate the methods used at Gondishapur. To achieve this, he staffed the House of Wisdom with graduates from the older academy. As the House of Wisdom grew in importance, so the older University at Gondishapur declined. By 1000 CE, Gondishapur had faded to a shadow of its former self.
However, in its Sassanid heyday, Gondishapur had been the leading centre of knowledge in medical science in the world. It had also been a major centre for the study of mathematics, philosophy, theology, and the sciences more generally. It was the legacy of Gondishapur that was the inspiration for the House of Wisdom and, indeed, the Islamic Golden Age itself.
But what had prompted the Sassanids to build somewhere like Gondishapur and the other Persian academies in the first place?
The Sassanid Empire
Persia had a very long history of civilisation. The Persians built one of the world’s largest empires under the Achaemenids between 550 BCE and 330 BCE. However, after its conquest by Alexander the Great, it languished under the Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty for nearly a century.
In 248 BCE, Persia’s fortunes revived somewhat when the Parthians finally succeeded in driving out the Seleucids. However, the Parthian Empire that followed was a shadow of former Achaemenid glory. It remained as Rome’s great rival in the east but was much smaller and poorer than its Achaemenid predecessor.
In 224 CE, the Parthians were overthrown by a new dynasty of Persians, the Sassanids. The Sassanids proved more capable both militarily and economically than the Parthians. Slowly but surely, they rebuilt Persian power, expanding the imperial borders and growing the economy. They were to prove a far more potent eastern adversary for the Romans than the Parthians had been.
The Sassanid civilisation, being located where it was, had a significant potential advantage. An advantage that could be used to grow its economy and, in this case more importantly, become a premier centre for knowledge and learning. For, during the late Roman period and early Middle Ages, Sassanid Persia lay at a crossroads between the world’s major civilisations.
The Crossroads of Civilisations
Rome may often have been a military rival to Sassanid power, but Rome brought Persia benefits as well as danger. Rome was, after all, a great and wealthy civilisation, that formed a large market for Sassanid merchants right on their doorstep.
On Persia’s eastern borders sat India, another ancient civilisation that potentially offered lucrative trading opportunities. The Sassanid control of the Persian Gulf also provided an important source of income and trade, not only with India but with Southeast Asia more generally.
The Sassanids, like the Italian merchants of the Renaissance, were very keen on the idea of international trade. And one of the most important trading opportunities of all lay via the Silk Road.
The Silk Road facilitated trade between the Roman Empire and China, and everywhere in between. This helped the Sassanids to maintain significant cultural and trade contacts with China. Contact occurred not only via the Silk Road but also by sea. The ports in the Persian Gulf facilitated sea trade with China via cities on the south China coast. Of course, in addition to trade, these international connections also had the potential for transmitting knowledge and learning. It was this potential that was harnessed to spectacular effect by perhaps the greatest Sassanid king – Khosrow I (514-579), also known as Anushirvan (the Immortal Soul).
The Immortal Soul
Anushirvan was one of these rare leaders in history who had a firm grip on virtually all aspects of government. He was militarily capable, diplomatically savvy and a talented innovator and administrator when it came to government at home.
In the west he is, sadly, mostly only remembered for his confrontation with Justinian, the eastern Roman Emperor. However, there was far more to Anushirvan than his disputes with the Romans. He implemented important reform programmes across his empire with a view to improving its administrative efficiency. These reforms served as the blueprint for ruling an empire that the Abbasids would later copy.
However, Anushirvan, perhaps more than any other Sassanid king, appreciated the value of knowledge and learning. It was under Anushirvan that Sassanid Persia experienced its own golden age.
A Golden Age of Knowledge
Anushirvan’s Persia became an impressive centre for philosophy and learning. Neo-Platonists fleeing from the Byzantine Empire were welcomed with open arms. They brought with them many classical texts and extensive works of Neo-Platonist philosophy. Anushirvan encouraged the translation of a wide range of learned texts from different cultures, everything from Greek to Sanskrit, Syriac and even Chinese into Middle Persian. Chess was introduced to Persia from India at this time by one Anushirvan’s courtiers. Anushirvan himself was known to be a great patron of Indian philosophy, science, mathematics, and medicine.
It was at this time that the Academy of Gondishapur became such an important centre of knowledge and learning. Anushirvan brought together Neo-Platonists fleeing from the Romans in the west, with Indian scholars from the east and, of course, Persian scholars. According to one story, Anushirvan was so keen to acquire knowledge that he sent one courtier on a special mission to India. His only goal was to gather the best scholars he could find to come and work at the Academy. This fusion of Greek, Persian, Chinese and Indian scholarship led to Gondishapur becoming the premier centre for medical science in the world. It founded the first hospital to separate patients into different wards based on pathology. And it provided the basic foundation for the study of medicine throughout the Islamic world that followed.
A Manifesto for Science
Anushirvan was revered by Persians as a philosopher king. Later writers attributed a great many ‘sayings’ to him. Some of these are no doubt apocryphal. Nevertheless, the mere fact that this happened bears testimony to the extent to which he was admired for his wisdom.
His dedication to the pursuit of learning and scientific knowledge is perhaps best illustrated by one such famous saying. Whether he said this or whether it was just myth, it certainly rings true to his vision for promoting knowledge and science. Even to this day, Anushirvan’s vision stands as an impressive manifesto for scientific innovation:
“We examined the customs of our forebears, but, concerned with the discovery of the truth, we [also] studied the customs and conducts of the Romans and Indians and accepted those among them which seemed reasonable and praiseworthy, not merely likeable. We have not rejected anyone because they belonged to a different religion or people. And having examined the good customs and laws of our ancestors as well as those of the foreigners, we have not declined to adopt anything which was good nor to avoid anything which was bad. Affection for our forebears did not lead us to accept customs which were not good.”Anushirvan
One could almost imagine one of the great Renaissance scientists espousing such a philosophy. But then again, the Renaissance scientists were, in many ways, the heirs to Anushirvan’s legacy.
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References & further reading
Vitruvian man – da Vinci 1492 (from Wiki Commons)
Al Razi Receuil de traite de medecine translated by Gerard de Cremone Second half of 13th century (from Wiki Commons)
Maqamat Hariri House of Wisdom C13th (from Wiki Commons)
King Khusraw Anushirvan Enthroned – Page from a Manuscript of the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) of Firdawsi LACMA M.73.5.18 (from Wiki Commons)