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Letter about a classical Greek translator (1384)

ACA,CANCILLERÍA,Registros,NÚM.1748, f. 121v Pulse para ampliar Letter from Juan I to Juan Fernández de Heredia

The Crown of Aragon and the rediscovery of classical Greece

The 1054 schism between the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople culminated in the estrangement of the heirs of the two halves of the old Roman Empire. The pace of the later rediscovery of the Byzantine world (a modern name for a society that always considered itself to be "Roman"), with an immense Greek heritage as its foundations, was set by the advance of Mediterranean trade, the crusades to the Holy Land and the military interventions aimed at stopping the Turkish advance.

The actions of the Great Catalan Company and its famous Almogavars (1303-1306), along with the Aragonese domination over the duchies of Athens and Neopatras (1318-1388), converted the Crown of Aragon into a pathway for Greek culture to reach the West. The eulogy of Peter the Ceremonious, praising the Acropolis of Athens, is the best-known example, but not the only one.

Juan Fernández de Heredia, Master of Rhodes and advisor to kings

Juan Fernández de Heredia (ca. 1310-1396) of Aragon entered the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John at a young age and began a political career which would lead him, in 1379, to the position of Grand Master of Rhodes: the head of one of the most powerful institutions in the West. From that position, he became involved in the defence of the Christian Aegean, against the Ottoman Empire, a mission in which he enjoyed both success and also bitter defeats and a long captivity. He was also advisor to the kings Peter the Ceremonious and John I of Aragon.

He is best-known as an intellectual. Under his patronage, books on various themes, languages and origins were collected and translated into the Aragonese language. The Heredia library demonstrated an interest in the Hellenic world, which anticipated the fascination with classical antiquity that became typical of the Renaissance. Works such as The Speeches of Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War (5th century BCE) or the stories of the Byzantine emperors of Joannes Zonaras (12th century) were introduced into Western Europe through Aragonese translations.

Behind the splendid codices which were produced, lay the coordinated work of copyists, miniaturists, correctors and, above all, translators capable of translating classical Greek into a Western language. Here we present a document which demonstrates its importance.

The letter of a hunter king and bibliophile

Peter the Ceremonious and his son John I maintained a fluid correspondence with Heredia on all kinds of issues. As his nickname suggests, hunting featured in many of John’s letters, in which he expressed his yearning for the best falcons and hunting dogs.

In this letter, which travelled from Roussillon to the Aegean, apart from hunting concerns, he tells us of a rumour that had reached his ears: Heredia had a copy of Philippic Histories by Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus, and kept the company of a Greek philosopher capable of translating it from Greek into "our language” (alluding to Aragonese). The prince begged him to send the book and any other of the philosopher’s original translations or, failing that, copies.

Who was this “Greek philosopher”? Heredia’s translation of Plutarch provides us with the key and reveals a complex linguistic journey: the philosofo grego, called Domitri Talodiqui and residing on the island of Rhodes, had translated it from classical Greek to medieval Greek. A Dominican who held the position of bishop of Adrianople did the same from medieval Greek to Aragonese. Finally, from Aragonese it was then translated into Italian. This last version is the only one we have.

Juan Fernández de Heredia and, with him, the Crown of Aragon were one of the links that allowed the knowledge of Antiquity to be transferred to the present day.

ACA,CANCILLERÍA,Registros,NÚM.1748, f. 121v

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