The Hellenistic Enkyklios Paideia (‘Circular Education’) in the Syriac World: The Role of Rhetoric in Shaping the ‘Classic’

Dr Mara Nicosia


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Syriac is a liturgical and cultural language of Eastern Christianity, but it first emerged as the Aramaic variety of the ancient city of Edessa – modern-day Şanlıurfa, Turkey – and quickly reached both the Middle East and Asia. The literature written in Syriac spans from the 2nd to at least the 15th century and represents one of the foremost literatures of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Being at the crossroad between the Greco-Roman and the Arabo-Persian worlds, Syriac literature has shaped its identity throughout the years, trying to preserve its most genuine (and Christian) aspects, although building on the Greek past and acting as the carrier of this past into the Muslim “future.”

Syriac culture owes to the Greco-Roman world its system of education and school teaching, modelled on the concept of the enkyklios paideia (‘circular education’), encompassing the study of the seven liberal arts, used as the introduction to access the higher learning domains of logic, philosophy, physics and metaphysics. However, the Syriac version of the enkyklios paideia diverged from its ancestor on a number of aspects, which will be discussed in this paper. Specifically, rhetoric represents a meaningful case study, as its differences from its Greek counterpart are yet to be understood entirely.

We do not know exactly what the Syriac rhetorical teaching looked like between the 2nd to the 9th century, although we have a number of texts that are shaped as rhetorical discourses or that largely employed rhetorical devices. Moreover, public religious debates were common among Syriac Christians and with members of other religious groups, but we have to wait until the 9th century to have a proper treatise on rhetoric, in five books, written by the monk and teacher Antony of Tagrit. In his treatise, which was meant to serve as a handbook for his students, Antony of Tagrit discusses the aspects of the Syriac rhetorical tradition known to him: this tradition, which betrays the traces of its intimate connection with the Greek culture, reveals the effects of centuries of shaping and consolidation, and preserves, together with rules and definitions, a number of texts that are proposed as examples to follow (or progymnasmata). These texts stem both from the Greek and the Syriac ‘classical’ past, both pagan and Christian, spanning from Homer, Plutarch, Plato, Heliodorus and Pseudo-Callisthenes, to Gregory of Nazianzus, Ephrem the Syrian, Jacob of Sarugh and many others, sketching a narration of the classicising rhetorical tradition which turns to be incredibly syncretic. My paper proposes to investigate these texts in an attempt to sketch a draft of what the Syriac rhetorical tradition recognised as ‘classic’.


Dr Mara Nicosia is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Literary Studies at Ghent University affiliated with the ERC project Novel Echoes. For further information about Dr Nicosia, please follow this link.