In the 9th century, Byzantium experienced its first “Renaissance”, a revival of the study of antiquity and a profound interest in the works of ancient philosophers.

The leading figure in this renaissance was Photius, a civil servant who went on to become Patriarch of Constantinople, but who is best remembered as a great scholar and “Christian humanist” whose encyclopedic interests included philosophy, history, mathematics, astronomy, geography, medicine, music, poetry, and law. Photius was born sometime around 813 in Constantinople, and he came from a wealthy and well-connected family.

One of his uncles was Patriarch Tarasius (who presided over the 7th ecumenical council that ended Iconoclasm for the first time in 787), and he was related through his mother to the empress Theodora. But Photius grew up under the shadow of the iconoclast persecution. His father (Sergius) held a high rank in the government, but he was also an ardent iconophile (defender of icons).

So, when the emperor Leo V reinstated the ban on icons, Photius’ family came under attack. His parents were condemned to exile, and they took the young Photius and his four brothers with them. It was indeed a sad end for his parents, as his father lost his wealth and rank because of his beliefs and died in misery together with Photius’ mother, although both were still relatively young. Photius had barely reached 20 when he was exiled and his formal education came to an abrupt end (except for whatever his father taught him). But Photius was to make the most of this unfortunate state of affairs. He read voraciously: he read whatever books his father had brought with him and whatever his family connections could send him.

The books he would read and the notes he would make would later become part of his monumental work, the Bibliotheca. The Bibliotheca (“Library”), also known as the Myriobiblon (“thousand books”), is a vast compilation of ancient Greek literature and consists of 280 chapters that describe about 400 individual works, many of which are now lost. Photius surveys both pagan and Christian authors, both heretical and orthodox works, and in fact he reviews secular books at greater length than religious ones. However, he does not discuss books that were already in wide circulation, and so there is no mention of the works of Plato and Aristotle. This compilation has earned Photius the title of “the inventor of the book review”, and one scholar (Warren Treadgold) recently called this “an informal work of youthful enthusiasm for literature, and as such an impressive performance.”

Photius also compiled a Lexicon, a list of notable words and expressions which he collected over the course of his reading. But more important philosophically is his Amphilochia, a kind of Q & A addressed to his friend Amphilochius, the metropolitan of Kyzikos. Here Photius discusses both theological and philosophical topics, and he includes a commentary on Aristotle’s Categories and a critique of Plato’s doctrine of forms. Returning to Photius’ life, his fortunes eventually changed when he was nearly 30.

The ban on icons was lifted and he and his brothers returned to Constantinople to reclaim their father’s property, which was enough to make Photius a rich man. Photius became a distinguished teacher in the city (though he held no formal professorial appointment), and a circle gathered around him for regular readings in classical and Christian literature, including medical and scientific works.

Also around this time he climbed to a high position in the Byzantine bureaucracy. He was appointed protoasekretis (first secretary of state), and because he had quite a large staff to do the most burdensome work of his office, he could devote much time to his pursuit of learning. A contemporary papal official, Anastasius Bibliothecarius, reports that during this time Photius jokingly mentioned a heresy that “each man has two souls, and the one sins but the other does not sin”, only to see whether the pious but unlearned Patriarch Ignatius could refute it! But soon Photius’ fortunes were to change again.

Both the church and state had reached a crisis point (empress Theodora was deposed by her own son, and Patriarch Ignatius was forced to resign), and into this whirlwind Photius was thrown. Even though he was a layman, Photius was elected Patriarch and was ordained on Christmas Day in 858. Photius’ quiet life of scholarship was now over.

The legitimacy of Photius’ election as Patriarch was put under question. The then pope, Nicholas I, was dragged into the quarrel, and he summoned a synod in Rome deposing Photius and restoring Ignatius. Returning the compliment, Photius convened a council in Constantinople which excommunicated Pope Nicholas and condemned the Franks for their heretical practices, chief among them being the introduction of the “filioque” (i.e., the insertion of the clause “and the Son” into the Creed). This brought about what has come to be known as “the Photian schism”.

But with the ascent to the throne of the new emperor, Basil (founder of the Macedonian dynasty), a new council was held in Constantinople (in 869-70) which restored Ignatius and condemned and banished Photius. During this exile Photius wrote to the emperor Basil that the confiscation of his books was a hardship no other exiled person had ever endured, as far back as the Apostle Paul – an exaggeration perhaps, but indicative of Photius’ scholarly character.

But things did turn around again for Photius. He was eventually allowed to return to Constantinople as tutor for the emperor’s children, and after Ignatius died he was peacefully returned to the patriarchal throne. (He had already reconciled with Ignatius, and it was Ignatius himself who recommended that Photius be named his successor.) But as always this was not to last. Photius’ very own pupil, Leo (the son of emperor Basil), turned against him when he became emperor in 886. Photius was deposed and sent into exile, and died in modern-day Armenia around 895.

A difficult and tumultuous life by any measure, but one that Photius graced with a compelling love for God and learning that was to make him the leading intellectual of his generation.

Dr Nick Trakakis is a Research Fellow in Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University. He recently edited “Southern Sun, Aegean Light: Poetry of Second-Generation Greek-Australians”.