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Michael Psellus: Chronographia

Complete Text | Introduction | Book 1 | Book 2 | Book 3 | Book 4 | Book 5 | Book 6 | Book 7



INTRODUCTION by Professor J.M. Hussey [p.1]


SOME three years ago I reviewed an excellent little volume written by Professor Norman Baynes, The Hellenistic Civilization and East Rome. In it he mentions Michael Psellus's famous anecdote about the Byzantine Sclerena and Constantine IX. Being curious to know more of Psellus I bought the Bude edition and read the Chronographia in full. That is how this translation was born, for it seemed to me a pity that English scholars who knew no Greek should be deprived of the opportunity of reading this admirable work in their own language. Students of medieval history in particular should benefit. Certainly no other contemporary author gives so vivid an account of eleventh-century Byzantium. I hope that this pioneer effort may inspire others to read and enjoy him.

I would like here to acknowledge my debt to M. Emile Renauld, who first translated the history into a modern language. Although this interpretation differs in many points from the French version, his influence will be apparent. I am grateful too for the kindly interest and constant encouragement of Mr. R. H. Barrow, C.B.E., and of Mr. W. F. Jackson Knight, whose scholarship extends far beyond the Virgilian field in which he especially shines. When I first undertook the work, the late Dr. W. H. D. Rouse gave me sound advice, and as I neared the end, Professor Arthur E. Gordon, of the University of California, offered some valuable criticism. To both of them I am deeply indebted. Needless to say, none of these gentlemen can be held responsible for the imperfections which must creep into so long a work.

Above all I am grateful to Professor J. M. Hussey, who not only consented to write the Introduction to this book, but found time to revise my notes, added the short bibliography, and made some useful suggestions which improved the text.

E. R. A. S.
Newbury, Berkshire.
9 October 1952.


GIBBON'S legend of a decadent East Roman Empire dies hard in ordinary English circles. But research of the last half century should by now have made it abundantly clear that Byzantine civilization can hold its own in the medieval world. That is not to deny that it had its ups and downs and changed a good deal in character in the course of more than a thousand years. The eleventh century, in which Michael Psellus lived, was a crucial time, not because of the fact of its acute political difficulties -- after all, the Empire had faced danger time and again -- but because it was now brought up against certain new and ominous developments both within and without which it failed to control, and hence its total downfall in the fifteenth century may be traced back to this period. Now and then Psellus shows partial understanding of such dangers, as for instance when he comments on the vital importance of Constantinople's military defenses, but he could not foretell the gathering impetus of the western crusading movement which so violently disrupted Byzantine life in the Aegean world, nor did he realize that the Seljuk Turks were preparing the way for the almost complete loss of the Empire's great storehouse, Asia Minor, or that the rumblings in the Balkans were to herald the growth and emancipation of the young Slav nations. After all, he was living and writing in the heyday of the eleventh century when the disastrous turn in imperial fortunes was scarcely perceptible, and when Constantinople could still to some extent bask in the accumulated glories of the great days of the tenth century with its classical revival and its expansion of the frontiers. And indeed whatever weaknesses might have alarmed a discerning eye in the years to follow, satisfaction could always be found in the steady maintenance and development of cultural activities, certain aspects of which were passionately near to Psellus's heart.

Whatever his father's claims to aristocratic forebears, Michael Psellus grew up in the milieu of a middle-class family. His writings, [2] and particularly his funeral oration for his mother, reveal a fair amount about his childhood and his own personal appearance and castes. In physique he resembled his father who had merry eyes and well defined eyebrows and was handsome as a 'well-grown cypress'. But his father's even-tempered disposition and quiet way of life, moving from day to day as silently and smoothly 'as flowing oil', were not inherited by the son. In outlook and temperament he was more like his mother who was clearly the mainspring of the family. Psellus says that she was attractive and 'like the rose needed no further adornment'; she was also energetic, of quick intelligence, and above all a devout Christian. She certainly bequeathed her dynamic qualities to her son, though his subtlety of approach was in contrast to her more simple adherence to the Christian faith, and his achievements in intellectual fields, however much they owed to her early efforts and encouragement, were in substance his alone.

Born in Constantinople in 1018 he grew into an exceedingly alert, intelligent child and he was brought up on Homer as Greek children were and are. His mother managed to prolong his education until he was in his teens and then the need to provide a dowry for his sister made it difficult to support him any longer. He became a clerk to a provincial judge, but on the unexpected death of his sister he returned to Constantinople and continued his studies. He was taught by John Mauropous, afterwards Archbishop of Euchaita, but then a private tutor in Constantinople. John, both from Psellus and from other sources, is revealed as a single-minded scholar and a man of great integrity. He evidently coached a number of clever young men, all of whom later made their mark and remained firm friends with each other and with their tutor. John Xiphilinus became Head of the Faculty of Law in the University of Constantinople, then monk and Abbot of a monastery in Asia Minor, and finally Patriarch of Constantinople. Constantine Ducas, another well-known member of the group, eventually succeeded to the throne as Constantine X. Constantine Psellus - he later changed the name of Constantine for that of Michael by which he is usually known - managed to make his way in court circles and the story of his rise to power can be read in his Chronographia and filled out from other contemporary sources.*

* For a recent short summary of Psellus's career see P. Joannou, Psellos et le monastère Ta Narsoà, Byzantinische Zeitschrift vol. 44 (1951), pp. 283-90.

The two predominating passions of Psellus's life were to get on in [3] the world and to promote scholarship and learning. This first characteristic is probably what emerges most plainly from his Chronographia. With repeated apologies he is always describing the importance of his own position, the extent to which imperial personages depend on him, and he likes to add digressions designed to reveal his own private feelings and to underline the significance of his efforts towards achieving more effective higher education. It may be doubted how reliable an adviser he made on matters of state, but the fact that he served a long series of eleventh-century rulers until 1077 is a tribute to his Personality as well as to his adaptability. Psellus has to admit to at least one unfortunate episode in his political career which he glosses over in the Chronographia as best he can. Threatened with a reversal at court towards the end of Constantine IX's reign, he thought it judicious to absent himself for a time. The natural thing for a Byzantine in such circumstances was monastic retirement which might or might not prove permanent. Psellus soon realized his total lack of vocation and returned to the secular world as soon as it was safe to do so. Far otherwise with his friend and companion Xiphilinus, who had indeed found his way of life. Their experiences are described in more detail elsewhere in Psellus's writings. Psellus had evidently thought of the monastery simply in terms of a comfortable background for a series of Socratic dialogues in the cloisters between himself and his fellow scholar, and is half teased, half reproached by Xiphilinus for his mistake.

Psellus's two most attractive traits are his loyalty to his friends and his devotion to scholarship. All his life Psellus stuck to his early friends, men of character and achievement very different from his own. John, his old teacher, was almost dragged to imperial notice and then for a time held a lectureship in the University at Psellus's nomination. Xiphilinus and Psellus remained in close touch, though after the monastic episode their paths forked and their differences of outlook became more apparent, but it evidently cut Psellus to the quick to be accused by Xiphilinus of unwise concentration on Platonic studies, and he was swift to prove his orthodoxy and reinstate himself in his old friend's good opinion. Constantine Ducas when he became Emperor in 1059 had not lost touch with the friend of forty years ago and he eventually showed his confidence in Psellus by making him his son's tutor -- unfortunately for the Empire as it turned out, for the young man trained up on the lines of a [4] philosopher-king as visualized by Psellus proved useless at defending frontiers against invading Turks or Normans and had to abdicate.

Psellus's most fruitful efforts were in promoting higher education and in the influence of his own written works. His was the driving force behind the reorganization of the State University of Constantinople in 1045 and in this connection his influence in imperial circles was used to good effect. There were evidently available both a number of educated men to act as lecturers and a student body wishing to use opportunities of this kind, so that Psellus's extravagant remarks in the Chronographia on his uphill task and Anna Comnena's caustic comments in the Alexiad on the low ebb to which learning had sunk in the eleventh century cannot be taken entirely at their face value. Not that the effect of Psellus's dynamic personality can be denied, nor should his work in stimulating interest in Platonic studies be underestimated. It was not for nothing that Xiphilinus implied that he was making a god of his Plato'. Psellus's philosophical leanings can be discerned here and there in the Chronographia, but it is only from the complete corpus of his works that his activities and academic interests can be fully reconstructed. Philosophy, with special emphasis on Platonism, was conceived as the crown and summit of the scholar's life. Yet Psellus when challenged was the first to admit that such activity was visualized only within, and therefore to some extent limited by, the accepted Christian framework. It would moreover be inaccurate to imagine that Psellus was interested in philosophical to the exclusion of all other pursuits. He was concerned with Christian theology, with the Christian interpretation of the universe, he shared, for instance, the almost universal belief in miracles however much he protested against magical practices, and was evidently well versed in contemporary views on the demon world. He often clothed his thoughts in what seems to us to be a flood of rhetoric, particularly in his speeches and letters. But he had an eye for detail, he was a shrewd judge of human nature, and he could produce fine, balanced, accurate prose portraits of his contemporaries. The Chronographia speaks for itself and can more than hold its own with similar contemporary literature of the Latin world.

In his introduction to the Chronographia Psellus explains that he had often been pressed to write a history of his own times and that he finally agreed to produce a brief sketch at the special request of a [5] great friend. This friend, 'most beloved of all men' as Psellus calls him remains unnamed but may have been Constantine Lichudes, a companion of his student days who had risen to high office under Constantine IX and had become Patriarch of Constantinople in 1059. Lichudes as Patriarch had been persuaded to support those who accused Psellus of failing to observe his monastic vows and had detained him in the monastery of Narsou near the western walls of the city. Psellus may have wished to conciliate him by writing the history which he asked for. The Chronographia however goes beyond 1063, the year of Lichudes' death.*

* Cf. Chronographia, VIIa, 5 (p. 254), and VIIc, II (p. 285).

The work falls into two distinct sections of which the first takes up the story where the tenth-century historian Leo the Deacon stopped at Basil II's accession to power in 976 and goes as far as the abdication of Isaac Comnenus in 1059. This is the more important and the more impartial section. The second part, probably written late in Michael VII's reign -- for Psellus says in it that he has seen Michael's little son who was born in 1075 -- is less critical in tone and full of lavish appreciation of the Ducas family and regime. This may be regrettable, but it is understandable, for Psellus was writing of contemporary politics in which he himself was concerned. He cannot for instance be absolved from a grave error of judgment in supporting the unfortunate overthrow of the Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes in 1071, but he would have been almost superhuman if he had presented posterity with a critical account of his own actions and those of the imperial Ducas family with whom he had such intimate associations.

Despite this unevenness of treatment between the two sections, the Chronographia remains history of a high order. Psellus had clear views on the function of a historian. His aim should be the presentation of truth, either from the evidence of reliable records and witnesses or from his own first-hand experiences. And so Psellus tries to give an impartial account, at any rate in the first section of his work, and subsequent events in the Empire's history often confirmed his shrewd criticisms and prognostications. But no sense of the historian's high vocation and essential impartiality could damp the racy individualism of Psellus's approach nor the delicate artistry of his style and language. His enlivening devices, his literary resources, his rich and varied vocabulary, are all revealed in the elegant brilliance and swift movement of his picture of Byzantine life. His descriptions of per [6] sonalities have become famous, and in two cases at any rate his accuracy and fullness of detail have been confirmed by the recent uncovering of the imperial portraits in mosaic work decorating St. Sophia, the cathedral of Constantinople. Here in the south gallery, when the layers of Turkish plaster were removed, the elderly Empress Zoe was revealed, with her unwrinkled skin and plump cheeks, her pencilled eyebrows and made-up features, just as Psellus had known her. Standing on the other side of the enthroned Christ was her third husband, Constantine IX Monomachus, also corresponding closely to Psellus's description of the kindly, affectionate, and on occasion frivolous, ruler who had been his chief patron.

Much else can be found in the Chronographia besides lifelike portraits of individuals (including one of the author himself). There is a good deal of both direct and indirect information on the Byzantine conception of the imperial office, and there are some hints on the relation between Emperor and Patriarch (though Psellus is on this occasion very discreet in writing about the Patriarch Michael Cerularius who challenged the accepted interdependence of church and state). The Christian background and the workings of a divine Providence are assumed; great emphasis is placed on a good education and a right appreciation of the intellectual heritage of the Hellenic world. Much is omitted. This is particularly true of political and administrative history, especially foreign policy, but such information can often be found in other, and less lively, histories of the period and must in any case be supplemented from sources of a different nature. The picture can be filled out from such records as documents, usually either imperial or monastic, from literary writings both secular and ecclesiastical, and above all from the monuments of the period, whether mosaics in St. Sophia or the more remote but no less impressive work surviving in such monastic churches as that of St. Luke in Phocis.

But whatever its defects and inadequacies there can be no substitute for the Chronographia itself. A twelfth-century satirist who imagined the descent of Psellus to the realm of the underworld, described the warmth with which he was welcomed by other scholars already there. And with good reason. Michael Psellus must have been a first-rate companion (whether in this world or the next) and he was certainly an entertaining writer.



Complete Text | Introduction | Book 1 | Book 2 | Book 3 | Book 4 | Book 5 | Book 6 | Book 7


Michael Psellus: Chronographia, trans E.R.A Sewter, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953)

This copyright on this text was not renewed. Extensive inquiries were made in the records of copyright renewals, and then a correspondence with Yale University Press (on file) confirmed the situation.

Note that there is a later and revised edition of the translation, published by Penguin, and that should be referred to for scholarly purposes.


This etext slightly alters the organization and much of the typography of the printed edition.

Page numbers of the printed edition are indicated in the texts by numbers in brackets, e.g. [57].

Some short notes are placed in the text in brackets [*like this].

Longer notes are marked in the text with two asterisks **, and placed at the end of each chapter

Text scanned by Hanna Orr.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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Paul Halsall, January 1999

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