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Michael Psellus: Chronographia

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



    CONSTANTINE VIII 1025 - 1028 [p.31]


1025-- 1028

1. On the death of Basil, his brother Constantine became emperor for the second time. There was no opposition. As a matter of fact, the dying Basil summoned him to the palace just before the end, and there handed over to him the reins of government. Constantine was at this time in his seventieth year, a person of decidedly effeminate character with but one great object in life-- to enjoy himself to the full.**22 Since he inherited a treasury crammed with money, he was able to follow his natural inclination, and the new ruler devoted himself to a life of luxury.

2. According to tradition he was a man of sluggish temperament, with no great ambition for power; he was physically strong, but a craven at heart. Already he was an old man, no longer capable of waging war, and every ill rumour filled him with exasperation. The barbarians encircling our borders had only to stir a finger against us and Constantine would hold them in check-- with granting of titles and giving of bribes. If his own subjects rebelled, it was different: they were punished with savage retribution.**23 Suspicion of revolutionary plots, or of party factions, resulted in vengeance and the suspects were condemned without trial. The Romans became his slaves, not won over by acts of kindness but subdued by all manner of horrible punishments. No man was ever more quick-tempered. His anger was uncontrolled, and he was ready to listen to any rumour, especially if it concerned those whom he suspected of treachery. On these victims awful tortures were indicted. It was not a question of temporary restrictions, or of banishment, or of prison: his method was to punish malefactors on the spot, with blinding of [32] the eyes by a red-hot iron. This was the penalty imposed on all and sundry, quite apart from the fact that, in one case, he was dealing with apparently flagrant crime, in another with minor delinquencies. No distinction was made between the perpetration of a crime and mere suspicion of wrong-doing. His concern, indeed, was not to award punishment in proportion to the offences, but rather to free himself from his own doubts, and to him it seemed that such torture as blinding was more humane than others. Moreover, it rendered the victims helpless, an excellent reason for its wider use. He maintained this policy irrespective of the high or low rank of his subjects. The evil practice was even extended to include some of the clergy, and the very bishops were not exempt. Once carried away by his anger, the man could only be restored to a reasonable frame of mind with difficulty, and he would turn a deaf ear to all advice. Yet, quicktempered as he was, Constantine had not been utterly divorced from pity, for at the sight of disaster he would be troubled, and he was often gracious to those who had a woeful story to tell. His anger, too, was not lasting, like that of his brother Basil. He quickly relented and was terribly downcast at what he had done. Better still, if someone could quench the rising fire of his wrath, he would refrain from inflicting chastisements and even be thankful for some restraining influence. Where there was no resistance, indignation carried him on to any excess. Then, at the first word of apology, he would be grieved, compassionately embrace his victim, let tears fall from his eyes, and beg forgiveness with words full of contrition.

3. He was generous in his favours, more than all other emperors, but this good quality was not, in his case, tempered by justice. To members of his court he threw wide open the gates of his favour, heaping gold on them as though it were sand; but to those far removed from the palace this virtue was less displayed. They were his friends most of all whom in their infancy he had had castrated and whom afterwards he used as chamberlains and private servants.**24 These men were not of noble birth nor free-born. Actually, they were barbarians and heathens, but they owed their education to the emperor, and because they modelled their own conduct on him, they were accounted worthy of greater respect and honour than others. Their physical degradation was obscured by an adroit and liberal distribution of gifts, by their eagerness to confer benefits, by their display of other gentlemanly qualities.

[33] 4. At the time when his brother Basil had become emperor, Constantine while still a young man, had married a lady called Helena. She was a daughter of the renowned Alypius, then the leading man in the city and member of a noble family held in high repute. This lady, who was not only beautiful but also virtuous, bore him three daughters before she died. The princesses were brought up in the palace and educated in a manner worthy of their exalted rank. The responsibility for their training devolved on Constantine, for although Basil expressed the strongest affection and love for his nieces, he took no further interest in their future. He was too busy guarding the Empire on his brother's behalf.

5. The eldest of the daughters bore no great resemblance to the rest of her family. She was of a more tranquil disposition, more gentle in spirit, and her beauty was only moderate (in childhood she had been attacked by some infectious illness, and her looks had been marred ever since). The second daughter, whom I myself saw in her extreme old age, was very regal in her ways, a woman of great beauty, most imposing in her manner and commanding respect. About her I will speak in more detail at the appropriate point in my history. At the moment I am merely giving a brief outline of their characteristics. The third and last daughter was very tall, curt and glib of tongue, but not so beautiful as her sister. Their uncle, the emperor Basil, died without making any plan for their subsequent promotion, and as for their father, even he, when he acceded to the throne, failed to reach any wise decision about their future, except in the case of the second sister, the one who was most like an empress. I will tell the story of that decision, and of the plan he made on his death-bed, as my narrative proceeds. Actually, this princess and the third sister acquiesced in the ideas of their uncle and father, and made no plans of their own, but the eldest, Eudocia (for that was her name), whether because she had no desire for power, or because she had her affections fixed on higher things, begged her father to dedicate her to the service of God. He readily agreed, and she was presented to the Lord as an offering, the first-fruits, so to speak, of her parents' marriage. Constantine's intentions for the other two were kept a dark secret. However, I must not speak of that yet.

6. I would like now to sketch the emperor's character, without bias either one way or the other. When the whole government came to depend on himself, he was by no means the man to expend his [34] own energies on cares of state. Putting the wiser of his subjects in charge of affairs, he merely gave audiences to embassies, or administered some other easy matter, seated most royally on his throne. However, when he did have occasion to make a speech, he astonished all hearers by his logical arguments. As a matter of fact, he had not much learning. He had acquired a smattering of culture, just as much as one considers enough for children, but he was possessed of great natural intelligence and more than ordinary grace. He had the added advantage of a tongue both melodious and refined: arguments conceived in his mind were, so to speak, brilliantly delivered by his tongue. He did, indeed, personally dictate some of the imperial rescripts (he made that a point of honour) and the quickest writers could not keep up with him, he spoke so fast, and that despite the fact that he was fortunate in the number and quality of his secretaries, writers so fast that few generations have seen their like. Overwhelmed by the speed of his words, they used to interpret most of his thoughts and expressions by special symbols of their own.

7. He was a man of enormous size, standing up to nine feet in height. His constitution, moreover, was more than usually robust, and his digestive powers were extraordinary, with a stomach naturally adapted to assimilate all kinds of food with ease. He was especially expert in the art of preparing rich savoury sauces, giving the dishes character by combinations of colour and perfume, and summoning all Nature to his aid-- anything to excite the palate. Being dominated by his gluttony and sexual passions, he became afflicted with arthritis, and worse still, his feet gave him such trouble that he was unable to walk. That is why, after his accession, no one saw him attempt to walk with any confidence: he used to ride on horseback, in safety.

8. For the theatre and horse-racing he had an absolute obsession. To Constantine these things were a matter of real concern, as he changed horses, harnessed fresh mounts, and anxiously kept his eye on the starting-points in the arena. The gymnepodia,**25 long ago neglected, was also revived in his reign. He reintroduced it into the theatre, not content with the emperor's normal role of spectator, but himself appearing as a combatant, with opponents. It was his wish, moreover, that his rivals should not be vanquished simply because he was the emperor, but he liked them to fight back with skill-- his own credit for the victory would then be the greater. He used to [35] chatter away, too, about his contests, and he mixed well with the ordinary people. The theatre also attracted him, and no less the chase. Once engaged in the latter he was impervious to heat, ignored the cold. and never gave way to thirst. Most of all he was skilled in fighting with wild beasts, and it was because of this that he learned to shoot with the bow, hurl the javelin, draw his sword with dexterity, and aim his arrow straight at the mark.

9. He neglected the affairs of his Empire as much as he devoted himself to his checkers**26 and dice, for so ardent was he in the pursuit of gaming and so enraptured by it, that even when ambassadors were waiting to attend on him, he would neglect them if he was in the middle of a game. He would despise matters of the utmost importance, spend whole nights and days at it, and fast completely, voracious eater though he was, when he wanted to play at the dice. So, playing away his Empire, he was surprised by Death, and Old Age reminded him suddenly of the decay that Nature ordains. When, therefore, he felt that the end was near, either persuaded by his counsellors, or through his own recognition of duty, he began to cast round for an heir to his throne, intending to betroth the second of his daughters to the man he chose. As, however, he had never regarded any member of the Senate with more than a cursory glance before, it was difficult for him to make a reasonable choice.

10. One of the persons considered was a certain man, prominent in the Senate, who had been promoted to the office of Eparch**27-- an imperial dignity, although it did not carry with it the privilege of wearing the purple-- but since this gentleman had married while still in his childhood, he hardly seemed a suitable candidate. In the matter of family and social position, he was more acceptable than his rivals, but in the eyes of the Church his previous marriage was an obstacle to further promotion. It was commonly agreed that he must be passed over. Meanwhile, since circumstances did not permit of more deliberation, and the near approach of death prevented the emperor from examining the claims of various men in detail, he condemned everyone else as unworthy of a royal marriage, and gave his full support to Romanus. He knew that Romanus's wife opposed the scheme, so he pretended to be in a most violent, implacable rage with her husband. Messengers were sent, ostensibly to take awful vengeance on him and to carry her off to a nunnery. She, not knowing the secret of the plot, nor seeing that the emperor's anger was only [36] a mask, immediately submitted to her fate. Her hair was cut off, she was clothed in the nun's robe of black, and admitted into the nunnery, while her husband was taken up to the palace, to wed into the imperial family. The most beautiful of Constantine's daughters was no sooner in his sight than she was made his bride. So her father, having survived just long enough to see the marriage ceremony completed, passed away and left the Empire to his kinsman, Romanus. **28


22. Constantine was already sixty-four or sixty-five years old, with a wife and three daughters, Eudocia, Zoe and Theodora. Psellus wrongly says he was sixty-nine.

23. Cedrenus (719 ff., p. 483) gives details of persons executed or blinded by the emperor. Among them is mentioned the Bishop of Naupactus.

24. Cedrenus (720, pp. 480-1) mentions six eunuchs to whom the government was entrusted.

25. A form of single combat, reminiscent of Roman gladiatorial contests.

26. Used in the game of draughts.

27. The Eparch, or City Prefect, ranked eighteenth in the first sixty great officials in Byzantium. His duties included the maintenance of order in the city, superintendence of the factions in the Circus, control of the industrial guilds and above all the supply of corn. His office is, in fact, a combination of the old Roman praefectus urbi and praefectus annonae. The Eparch mentioned here appears to have been Constantine Dalassenus (Cedrenus, 722, p. 484) who was at this time in Armenia and to whom the it emperor sent a trusted eunuch, Ergodotes, offering him the Caesarship and the hand of Zoe in marriage. This proposal was revoked, says Cedrenus, because Simeon, the drungarius vigiliae, favoured the claims of Romanus. It seems that Theodora refused to marry Romanus (Cedrenus, lbid.) because of their relationship-- they were cousins-- and because he had already married Helena. There was some controversy over the divorce but the Patriarch soon settled the matter in favour of the new emperor.

28. Constantine died on 11. November 1028, aged seventy, after an illness of only two days.

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.

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Paul Halsall, January 1999
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