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Michael Psellus: Chronographia

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



    ROMANUS III 1028 - 1034 [p.39]


1028-- 1034

1. Constantine was succeeded as emperor by his son-in-law Romanus, surnamed Argyropulus.**29 The latter was convinced that his reign marked the beginning of a new dynasty. The imperial family descended from Basil the Macedonian**30 had died with his predecessor and he now looked forward to a new line of monarchs descended from himself. In fact, that line was destined to perish at once, and he, after a short life, and that full of suffering, was fated to die suddenly. The story will show all this in more detail as it proceeds. From now on, the history will be more accurate than hitherto, for the emperor Basil died when I was a baby, while Constantine ended his reign just after I had begun my elementary studies. So I was never admitted to their presence, nor did I hear them speak. Whether I even saw them I cannot say, for I was too young to remember at that time. On the other hand, I both saw Romanus and, on one occasion, actually talked with him. Naturally, therefore, my remarks on the first two emperors are based on information supplied by others, but my account of Romanus is quite independent.

2. This gentleman, nurtured on Greek literature, also had some acquaintance with the literary works of the Italians. He had a graceful turn of speech and a majestic utterance. A man of heroic stature, he looked every inch a king. His idea of his own range of knowledge was vastly exaggerated, but wishing to model his reign on those of the great Indianans of the past, the famous philosopher Marcus and Augustus, he paid attention particularly to two things: the study of letters and the science of war. Of the latter he was completely [40] ignorant, and as for letters, his knowledge was far from profound: in fact, it was merely superficial. However, this belief in his own knowledge, and this straining beyond his own intellectual limits, led him to commit mistakes on a big scale. Doubtless, if there were any sparks of wisdom lying hid beneath the ashes, he added fresh fuel to the fire, arid he enrolled a whole new tribe of philosophers and orators and all those who busied themselves in the sciences-- or rather, thought they did.

3. That era produced few men of erudition, and even they stood only at the outer door of the Aristotelian doctrines and merely repeated the Platonic allegories, without any understanding of their hidden meaning or of the philosophers' studies in dialectic or proof by syllogistic deduction. There being no proper criterion, their judgment on these great men was erroneous. However, questions were propounded on religious subjects, questions dealing with the interpretation of Holy Writ. Yet most of the difficult problems were left unsolved. The truth is that they concerned themselves with such mysteries as the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth, and metaphysical problems. The palace indeed clothed itself in the outward form of philosophy for all to see, but it was all a mask and pretence: there was no real test, no real quest for truth.

4. Abandoning these studies for a while, Romanus returned to strategy, and the conversation now inclined to greaves and breastplates. The plan was to annex the whole barbarian world, east and west alike. Nor was his ambition limited to a subjugation in theory. He wanted to subdue the barbarians by force of arms. Doubtless, had the emperor's twofold enthusiasm resulted in a genuine understanding of his problems, instead of being mere vanity and makebelieve, he would have benefited his empire greatly. As it was, he did nothing more than make projects, or shall I say, built castles in the air and then, in actual practice, hurled them down again. But there, I am hurrying on because of my exuberance, to the end of my story, before, so to speak, building up the gateway to his reign. Let us go back, therefore, to the time of his accession.

5. Having been judged worthy of the crown, in preference to all others, Romanus deceived himself in the belief that he would reign for many years, and leave to succeed him a family destined to inherit the throne for many generations. Apparently it did not occur to him that Constantine's daughter, with whom he lived after his acclama- [41] tion, was too old to conceive and already barren (actually she was in her fiftieth year when she married him).**3l Even in the face of natural incapacity he clung ever more firmly to his ambitions, led on by his own faith in the future. Hence he ignored the physical prerequisite for conception. Nevertheless, he did have recourse to the specialists who deal with sexual disorders and claim the ability either to induce or cure sterility. He submitted himself to treatment with ointments and massage, and he enjoined his wife to do likewise. In fact, she went even further: she was introduced to most of the magical practices, fastening little pebbles to her body, hanging charms about her, wearing chains, decking herself out with the rest of the nonsense. As their hopes were never realized, the emperor at last gave up in despair and paid less attention to Zoe. In truths his desires were somewhat dulled and his bodily powers exhausted, for he was more than twenty years older than she was.

6. He had been most jealous of his reputation in distributing the honours of his Empire, and his generosity in the use of the imperial treasures, by way of favours and donations, had won him more regard than most sovereigns.**32 Thence suddenly, as if some fresh idea had occurred to him, as if he were another person altogether, this spirit of genial liberality passed: the sudden gust exhausted itself. He lost confidence in his powers and seemed out of place. And then he relaxed, there was no moderation about it. From the highest summit he crashed down to the depths, all in one brief moment. As for the empress, two things more than any other vexed her: the fact that Romanus did not love her, and that she herself was unable to squander money. The treasure-chambers were closed to her, sealed by the emperor's orders, and she was compelled to live on a fixed allowance. Not unnaturally, she was furious with him and with the counsellors whose advice he followed in the matter. They, on their side, were aware of her feelings, and they took precautions more stringent than ever, especially Pulcheria, the emperor's sister, a woman of great spirit and one who contributed not a little to her brother's success. Romanus, meanwhile, was quite oblivious of this undercurrent of suspicion; apparently he was under the impression that some supernatural power was bound to preserve his throne. His reputation was secure, to be for ever maintained in glory by this power, as if some kind of contract had been made between him and it.

[42] 7. Setting his heart on military glory, he prepared for war against the barbarians, east and west. Victory over the western barbarians, however easy, seemed no great triumph, but an attack on the barbarians of the east, he thought, would win him fame. There he could use the resources of his Empire on a colossal scale. For these reasons, although no real pretext for war existed, he made an unprovoked attack on the Saracens, who lived in Coele-Syria and whose capital was Chalep (as they pronounce the name of the place in their own language).**33 The whole Roman army was assembled and organized to fight these Saracens. The ranks were increased and fresh formations devised, while the mercenaries were welded into one force and new troops conscripted. His plan, it appears, was to overwhelm the enemy at the first assault He thought that if he increased the army beyond ins normal strength, or rather, if the legion was made more numerous, when he came upon the foe with such masses of troops, Romans and allied, no one would be able to resist him. The leading generals tried to dissuade him from this offensive-- they were not a little fearful of the outcome-- but he had the crowns made (at great expense), with which he was to adorn his head at the proclamation of his triumphs.

8. So, being satisfied with the preparations, he set out from Byzantine territory for Syria. When he occupied Antioch, the entry into the city was celebrated with great pomp. It was certainly a royal show, but the equipment was somewhat theatrical, not worthy of fighting men, nor capable of striking terror into the hearts of the enemy. On their side, the barbarians took a more realistic view of the war. First they sent ambassadors to the emperor. They declared that they had not wanted this war, nor had they given him any pretext for it. They were standing by the peace terms already concluded, and they refused to repudiate the treaty still in force. On the other hand, seeing that he was now adopting a policy of threats and since he persisted in parading his strength, they themselves, if he proved obdurate, would from now on make their own preparations for conflict: they committed themselves to the fortunes of war. Such was the purport of this embassy. Despite the warning, the emperor to all appearances had one object only-- to draw up his line of battle, to set his men in array against the enemy, to lay ambushes, to go out foraging, to dig trenches, to drain off rivers, to take fortresses. In fact, he wanted to imitate the traditional deeds of the famous Trajans [43] and Hadrians, or (still further back in history) of the Augusti and Caesars, or of their predecessor, Alexander the son of Philip. The ambassadors were therefore dismissed with a conciliatory message while still more strenuous preparations were made for war. To attain his object, however, he did not choose the best men. He thought war was decided by the big battalions, and it was on the big battalions that he relied.

9. When he left Antioch and went on further, a detachment of barbarian soldiers, all equipped in their own fashion, daring bareback riders, lay in ambush on either side of the army's route. Suddenly they appeared on high ground. Yelling their war-cry and filling their opponents with consternation at this unexpected sight, they made a tremendous din as their horses charged to the attack. By not keeping in close order, they created the illusion of great numbers, running about in scattered groups and with no regular formations. This so terrorized the Roman soldiery and spread such panic in this mighty and famous army, and so shattered their morale, that they all ran away, dressed just as they were, and not a thought did they give to anything but flight. Those who happened to be on horseback wheeled about and made off as fast as they could, while the rest did not even wait to mount their horses, but left them to the first master who claimed them, and every man, running off or wandering away, sought his own safety as best he could. It was an extraordinary sight. Here were those same men, who had brought a continent to terms, who in their preparations for war and in their military dispositions had made themselves invincible before the whole might of Barbary, now daring not even to look their enemies in the eye. As if the thunder of barbarian cries had deafened their ears and smitten their hearts with fear, they turned and ran away like men in utter defeat. First to feel the effects of the hubbub were the Imperial Guards. Without so much as a backward glance, they deserted their emperor and fled.**34 Indeed, if someone had not helped him on to his horse, given him the reins, and counselled him to escape, he would have been almost captured himself and made prisoner by the enemy-- he who had hoped to shake a whole continent! The truth is, if God had not at that moment restrained the barbarian onrush, and had He not inspired them to moderation in the hour of victory, nothing would have saved the Roman army from complete annihilation, and the emperor would have fallen first of all. [44]

10. So the Romans ran off in disorder. Meanwhile, the enemy, as if amazed at the sight of Romans routed and fleeing for no reason merely stood and watched this astounding triumph. Later on, after taking a handful of prisoners on the field, and those men whom they knew to be of some importance, they told the rest to go free, and turned to the loot. First they seized the imperial tent, which was nearly as valuable as the palace of today, for it was filled with necklaces and bracelets and diadems, pearls and precious stones even more costly, all kinds of glorious booty. To count the multitude of these treasures would have been no easy task, nor to admire enough their beauty and magnificence, so great and so luxurious was the profusion of wealth in the emperor's tent. Next they proceeded to collect the rest of the spoil, and loading themselves with it they rejoined their compatriots. The emperor was meanwhile riding on ahead of the Saracens, wandering on wherever the whim of his charger bore him. He came by a certain ridge and here he was seen by some men who were running past and recognized who he was by the colour of his sandals. Many of these fugitives he stopped there and stood surrounded by them. Thereupon the rumour spread far and wide that Romanus still lived, and others joined him. More important than that, someone came up with the ikon of the Theometor,* [* The Mother of God] the image which Roman emperors habitually carry with them on campaign, as a guide and guardian of all the army. This alone had not been taken by the enemy.


11. When the emperor saw this beautiful sight (he was particularly reverent in his veneration for this ikon) he immediately took heart, and holding it in his hands-- but no words can describe how he embraced it, how he bedewed it with his tears, how heartfelt were the words with which he addressed it, how he recalled Our Lady's kindnesses in the past and those many times when She, his ally, had rescued and saved the Roman power in moments of crisis. From now on he was full of courage. He who had but lately been a fugitive himself now rebuked others who were running away. With loud cries and the vigour of a man years younger than himself he stopped their aimless wandering, made himself known to them by his voice and appearance, and quickly gathered together a considerable force. Then, going on foot with them, he retired to a tent hastily erected to shelter him, and there he bivouacked. After a brief rest, at dawn [45] he called for his generals and suggested that they should decide what to do. Without exception they advised him to return to Byzantium. In the capital a thorough inquiry into the whole affair should be held. Romanus agreed with them-- it was a course of action likely to benefit himself-- and hurried back to Constantinople.

12. There followed bitter repentance for what he had done, and self-pity for the sufferings he had endured. Then, all at once, his mood changed. His career now entered on a new and, for him, somewhat unusual phase. He hoped that by careful management of public funds he would completely recover his losses. So he became more taxgatherer than emperor. Reviving, as the proverb has it, 'pre-Euclidean history', and subjecting it to careful scrutiny, he proceeded to pry into the accounts of sons, long after their fathers were dead and gone-- a cruel thing to do. Verdicts in law-suits were not given according to the evidence submitted by the contesting parties, but he would personally take the part of one or the other. Sentence of the court, therefore, was not so much in favour of plaintiff or defendant as of himself. In his view, the whole populace was divided into two classes. On the one hand, there were the reasonable folk who preferred to live a simple, honest life and took no part in public affairs; for them the emperor cared not a straw. On the other, there were the dare-devils who enriched themselves at the expense of the rest. These latter added their own quota of evil as fuel to the general conflagration fired by their ruler, and the result was nothing but confusion and trouble. What made it more terrible was the fact, that while the great majority were being plundered and stripped, the imperial treasury enjoyed not a penny of the profits built up from these embezzlements, for the rivers of money were being diverted elsewhere. The truth of this will be shown more clearly as the story progresses.

13. This particular emperor aspired to a reputation for piety. It is quite true that he was interested in religious matters, but there was more pretence about it than real piety; anyway, he appeared to be a pious man. In the first place, this led to extravagance in discussions about problems of divinity. He would examine causes and arguments which could not be explained by mere knowledge; only if one had recourse to Mind, without any interpreting medium, could the Mysteries be made intelligible. In natural philosophy, however, he showed little interest, nor did he discuss such matters with the pro- [46] fessors, except with those who claimed (unjustly) that they were disciples of Aristotle. Romanus's studies, as one of our wise men said, were more profound, and dealt with objects comprehensible by Mind alone.

14. That was the first way he devised of showing his piety. Later on, being jealous of the great Solomon, for his building of the muchvaunted Temple, and envious of the emperor Justinian, because of the mighty church that was named after the Holy and Ineffable Wisdom, he determined to build and found, by way of recompense so to speak, another in honour of the Mother of God.**35 It was a great mistake, for what was intended to be an act of piety, turned out to be the cause of evil and the occasion for many injustices. The expenditure incurred over this church was constantly increased. Every day he collected more contributions than the work necessitated, and woe betide the man who tried to limit the building. On the other hand, anyone who invented fresh extravagances and new variations of style was sure of winning the emperor's friendship at once. Every mountain w as bored for material, and the miner's art esteemed higher than philosophy itself. Of the stones thus obtained, some were split, others polished, others turned for the sculptures, and the workers on these stones were reckoned with the like of Pheidias and Polygnotus and Zeuxis.**36 Nothing in the whole world was thought good enough for this church. All the royal treasure was made available, every golden stream poured into it. The monies were exhausted, and yet the construction went on, for one on top of another new parts were added, and at the same time some other part would be pulled down. Often, too, the work would cease and then suddenly rise up afresh, slightly bigger or with some more elaborate variety. When rivers flow into the sea, most of their water is drained away before ever it reaches the mouth, and so it was with this money, for most of what had been collected for this church was appropriated in advance and wasted on other things.

15. While Romanus manifested his piety in these activities, he showed himself a rogue from the very start, because he used money which had been contributed for quite different purposes than the building of his church. Doubtless it is a beautiful thing to love the House of the Lord, and make it magnificent, as the Psalmist tells us, and it is a fine thing to love the Tabernacle of His Glory. It is better to suffer disgrace many times in the eyes of men by serving [47] God thus, than to gain worldly riches. Such devotion is indeed noble, and who, of those that are zealous in His service and filled with the Spirit of the Lord, would bring themselves to despise it? But, surely, there should be nothing to mar this devotion. It cannot be right, in order to show one's piety, to commit great injustices, to put the whole state in confusion, to break down the whole body politic. He who rejects the harlot's offering, who utterly despises the sacrifice of the ungodly, as though the wicked were no better than a dog-- how could He in any way draw near a building, however rich and glorious, when that building is the cause of many evils? The symmetry of walls, the encircling columns, the hanging tapestries, the magnificent offerings, and the other things of like splendour -- what can they contribute to the sacred object of piety? Surely it is enough that a man's soul be clothed in godliness, that his heart be dyed in the spiritual purple, that his deeds be righteous, his thoughts full of grace. In a word, it is sufficient if a man be without guile, and because of this simple faith there is builded up within us a temple of another sort, a temple acceptable to the Lord and beloved by Him. The philosophy Romanus knew was concerned with the scholar's inquiries, the syllogisms**37 "sorites= and "outis=, but in his works he had no idea at all how to show forth that philosophic spirit. Even if the emperor felt compelled to build on a more magnificent scale than anyone else, it was still his duty to care for his palace, to glorify the acropolis, to repair what had fallen in ruins, to replenish the imperial treasury, and to dedicate the money to the upkeep of his armies. Yet he neglected all this, and in order that his church might surpass all others in beauty, he reduced everything else to ruin. To tell the truth, he was mad on the work. He could scarcely tear himself away from it. So he surrounded the place with all the paraphernalia of a court, set up thrones there, adorned it with sceptres, hung up purple cloth, and spent the greater part of the year in this church, glorying in the beauty of it and beaming with pleasure. It was his wish to honour the Theometor with some name of more than ordinary beauty. Unfortunately, he failed to notice that the epithet he gave her was in fact more suited to a woman than a saint, that is, if the name "Peribleptos' does indeed mean "Celebrated'.

16. To these buildings a further addition was made and the church became a hospice for monks, so once more there began fresh wrong-doings and greater excesses than before. He was not [48] sufficiently trained in arithmetic or geometry to diminish the size or the number of his buildings, in the same way that geometricians simplify a complex pattern. So, wishing to have buildings of enormous size, he must needs have greater numbers of monks. The rest was proportionate: as there were multitudes of monks, so there were contributions in multitudes. Another world was ransacked and the sea beyond the Pillars of Hercules**38 was explored; the former was to provide seasonable sweetmeats, the latter fish of enormous size, even whales. Since it seemed to him, moreover, that Anaxagoras**39 had lied when he said the worlds were infinite, he dedicated the greater part of this finite world of ours to the glorification of his church. Piling grandeur on grandeur, multitude on multitude, surpassing the first superlative with a second, and setting no bound nor limit to these things, he would never have stopped adding to them in his boundless ambition, had not the measure of his own life been shortened.

17. There is a tradition, in fact, that his life was cut short by a certain event. I wish to speak of it, but only by way of preface at this moment. In some matters the emperor showed little respect for the accepted standards of morality. For one thing, he lived with a mistress. Perhaps, at the beginning of his reign, he wished to live chastely. Maybe-- and most folk contend that this was the truth-- he turned to fresh amours. Whatever the cause for his behaviour, he came to despise the empress Zoe. Not only did he abstain from sexual intercourse with her, but he was loath to consort with her in any way at all. She, on her side, was stirred to hate him, not only because the blood royal, meaning herself was treated with such little respect, but, above all other considerations, by her own longing for intercourse, and that was due not to her age, but to the soft and sensual manner of her life at the palace.


18. There, then, is the preface to the story; the sequel came about as follows. Among other persons who served this emperor, before his accession to the throne, was a certain eunuch,**40 a man of mean and contemptible fortune, but endowed with an extremely active and ingenious mind. In his time the emperor Basil had treated this [49] man with great familiarity and had shared secrets with him. Without promoting him to any exalted positions of responsibility, he still used him with genuine respect. This eunuch had a brother, a mere youth before Romanus became emperor, but now in his early manhood. He was a finely-proportioned young man, with the fair bloom of youth in his face, as fresh as a flower, clear-eyed, and in very truth "red-cheeked'. This youth was led by his brother into the emperor's presence when he was seated with Zoe that they might see him, at the express command of Romanus. When the two men came in, the emperor, casting him one glance and asking a few brief questions, bade him retire, but stay on in the court. The effect of the interview on Zoe was quite different. Her eyes burning with a fire as dazzling as the young man's beauty, she at once fell victim to his charm, and from some mystic union between them she conceived a love for him. But most people knew nothing of that at the time.

19. Zoe could neither regard the young man with philosophic detachment, nor control her desires. Consequently, though in the past she had more than once shown her dislike for the eunuch, she now approached him frequently. Her conversations would begin with reference to some extraneous matter, and then, as if by way of digression, she would end with some remark about his brother. Let him be bold, she said, and visit her whenever he wished. The young man, so far knowing nothing of the empress's secret, supposed the invitation was due to her kindness of heart, and he accepted it, although in a modest and timorous fashion. This bashful reserve, however, only made him the more dazzling. His face, suffused with blushes, shone with a glorious colour. She eased his fear, smiling gently upon him and forgetting her usual grim arrogance. She hinted at love, tried to encourage him, and when she proceeded to give her beloved manifest opportunities to make love on his part, he set himself to answer her desire, not with any real confidence at first, but later his advances became more brazen and he acted as lovers will. Suddenly he threw his arms about her, kissing her and touching her hand and neck, as his brother had taught him he should do. She clung to him all the closer. Her kisses became more passionate, she truly loving him, he in no way desiring her (for she was past the age for love), but thinking in his heart of the glory that power would bring him. For this he was prepared to dare anything, and bear it with patience. As for those who lived in the palace, they at first only [50] suspected or conjectured what was going or., but afterwards, when the affair broke all bounds of modesty, everyone knew of it. There was nobody who did not perceive how it was going, for their embraces had already ended in carnal union, and they were discovered by several people sleeping together on the same couch. He blushed with shame and was filled with apprehension for the outcome of this, but she did not conceal it. In the eyes of all, she clung to him and offered her kisses, boasting that she had more than once had joy of him.

23. That she should adorn him, as if he were some statue, cover him with gold, make him resplendent with rings and garments of woven gold cloth, I do not regard as anything remarkable, for what would an empress not provide for her beloved? But she, unknown to the world, sometimes went so far as to seat him, turn by turn with herself, on the imperial throne, to put in his hand a sceptre; and on one occasion even deemed him worthy of a crown. Thereupon she would throw her arms about him all over again, calling him her "idol', "the delight of her eyes', "the flower of beauty', "the comfort of her soul'. As she repeated this again and again, she was observed by one of those who have eyes for everything. This fellow was a eunuch who had been put in supreme charge of the imperial court, a man respected for his dignified bearing, as well as for his exalted position, and a family retainer of the empress. When he saw this extraordinary sight, he almost expired, so amazed was he. She, however, called him to her side-- he was by now at his last gasp-- and she reassured him, for he was utterly confounded, and bade him attach himself to Michael, as he was already emperor and soon would be emperor without dispute.

21. Although nobody else whatever had been deluded in all this, it did not come to the knowledge of the emperor. Romanus was so completely blind. However, when the flash of the lightning and the roar of the thunder did eventually play round his eyes and deafen his ears, when he himself saw some things going on and heard of others, even then, as if he preferred to be blind and deaf, he closed his eyes again and refused to listen. Worse than that, many a time when he was sleeping with the empress and she, clothed in some garment of purple, was waiting for him to lie down on their couch, he would call for Michael, bidding him come alone, and order him to touch and massage his feet. In fact, he made him servant of the [51] bedchamber, and in order that the young man might do this office, deliberately abandoned his wife to him. When his sister Pulcheria and some of the chamberlains discovered a plot against his life and told him of it and warned him to be on his guard, still he did not destroy the secret adulterer and cut short the whole drama, as he could have done. He could have suggested any reason but the real one and still have had his way, but he refused. In fact, he made no effort to combat the intrigue. Once he did send for the lover--or the beloved-- and questioned him about the affair; however, as Michael pretended to know nothing about it, Romanus made him give his word of honour and swear by the Holy Relics, and after the other had completely perjured himself, the emperor looked upon the stories of the rest as mere calumny, listening only to Michael and calling him 'his most faithful servant'.

22. Another factor helped to confirm the emperor in this attitude, so that Michael's guilt seemed even more unlikely. Ever since his childhood the young man had been afflicted by a terrible illness. This malady took the form of a periodic derangement of the brain. Without any previous symptoms he would be suddenly confused, roll his eyes, throw himself down on the ground, bang his head, and suffer prolonged and convulsive fits. Then he would become himself again and gradually return to his normal appearance. The emperor had seen him afflicted by this illness and was sorry for him. He thought the young man unfortunate. His madness, therefore, he did recognize, but he failed to recognize his indulgence in the pleasures of love. To most folk it seemed that this malady was a pretext and veil for Michael's scheming, and the suspicion would have been justified, were it not for the fact that, when he became emperor, he still continued to suffer from this derangement. However, discussion of that problem must be postponed to the part of my history concerned with Michael's reign. We can say that the trouble was not self-induced. Equally, we can say that the malady, which had no pretence about it, served as a veil to hide his designs.

23. To convince the emperor, therefore, that those who loved one another were not really in love, was no great task, for he was very easily convinced. I had a conversation with one of the gentlemen who regularly attended the imperial court at that time, a man well acquainted with the whole question of Zoe's love-affairs, and one who supplied me with material for this history, and he told me that [52] Romanus did wish, in a way, to be convinced that she was not Michael's paramour. On the other hand, he knew she was greatly attracted to the opposite sex, on fire with passion, so to speak. So, to prevent her sharing her favours among many, he was not particularly disgusted at her association with one. Although he pretended not to see it, he allowed the empress to satisfy her desires to the full. I have been told another version of the story. The emperor, according to my other informant, was indulgent towards his wife's amorous intentions or their consummation, but his sister Pulcheria was enraged, and so were all those whom she treated as her confidants. So she and they waged war with Michael and the empress. The arrangements for the struggle did not pass unnoticed, but their anticipated triumphs never came to pass, for the sister died not long after, while of her friends one also died suddenly and another left the palace, at the express desire of the emperor. As to the rest, some approved of the business, others held their tongues. Zoe and Michael, therefore, far from consummating their love in an underhand way, did so with an almost legal sanction.


24. What happened next? I will tell you. An illness of all unusual and painful character befell Romanus. Actually, the whole of his body became festering and corrupted inside. At any rate, from then onwards, he lost most of his appetite, and sleep, poised on his eyelids, quickly flitted away. All the ill-humours fell upon him together -- harshness of character, peevishness of spirit, anger and wrath and shouting, things unknown in him before. All his life, from his earliest years, he had been a friendly sort of man; now, it became not only hard to get into his presence, but hard to get a civil reply to one's questions. Laughter deserted him, and his former graciousness and pleasant nature. He trusted nobody at all, nor did he seem to others trustworthy himself. Each party suspected and was suspected by the other. His lack of generosity now became more pronounced. The distributions of money that he made were niggardly in any case, and he was savagely angry at every request for it. Every tale of pity only succeeded in irritating him. Yet, despite the dreadful condition of his health, he neither neglected the usual court ceremonial nor did he overlook the importance of the imperial processions. He even [53] clothed himself in magnificent robes shot with gold and put on the rest of the paraphernalia proper to these occasions. It was like a heavy load to him, in his weakened condition, and after returning to the palace with difficulty, he was more ill than ever.

25. I have often seen him myself when he was distressed during these processions (at the time I was just under sixteen years of age) and he differed little from a man who was dead. His whole face was swollen and the colour of it was no more handsome to look upon than that of men three days dead in the tombs. His breathing was fast, and after moving a few paces he had to rest. Most of the hairs on his head had fallen out, as though he were a corpse, but a few strands, scattered here and there, were tousled round his forehead, moved, I suppose, by his breathing. The others despaired of his life, but he himself was by no means without hope. He had put himself in the hands of the doctors and he expected to be restored to health by their skill.


26. Whether the loving couple themselves and their accomplices committed a very horrible crime against him, I would not say with any certainty, because it is no easy thing for me to bring accusations in matters that I still do not thoroughly understand.**41 However, it was universally accepted among the rest that they first bewitched him with drugs, and later had recourse to a mixture of hellebore as well. I am not disputing that for the moment-- it may or may not be true -- but I do maintain that Zoe and Michael were the cause of his death. His state of health being what it was, the emperor made his preparations for the Resurrection that awaits all of us alike. At the same time, he was making himself ready for the public services on the morrow (Good Friday). Before dawn he set out to bathe in one of the baths situated near the imperial quarters. There was no one to assist him, and he was certainly not at death's door then. He got up in a perfectly normal way to anoint and bathe himself and take his aperitives. So he entered the bath. First he washed his head, then drenched his body as well, and as he was breathing strongly, he proceeded to the swimming bath, which had been deepened in the middle. To begin with, he enjoyed himself swimming on the surface and floating lightly, blowing out and refreshing himself with the [54] greatest of pleasure. Later on, some of his retinue came in to support him and give him a rest, according to his own orders.**42 Whether they made an attempt on the emperor's life after they entered the bath I cannot say with any conviction. At any rate, those who see some connection between these events and the rest of their version, say that when Romanus plunged his head under the water-- his usual custom-- they all pressed his neck and held him down for some considerable time, after which they let him go and went away. The air inside him, however, caused his body to rise and it brought him to the surface, almost breathless. There he floated about in a haphazard way, like a cork. When he had recovered a little and saw in what an evil plight he was, he stretched out his hand and begged someone to take hold of it and help him to his feet. In pity for him, and because of his sad condition, one man did indeed go to his aid. Putting his arms round him, he drew him up out of the water and carried him to a couch, where he laid him, just as he was, in a pitiable state. At this an uproar ensued. Several persons came into the room, among them the empress herself, without any bodyguard and apparently stricken with grief. After one look at him, however, she went off, having satisfied herself with her own eyes that he was a dying man. Romanus gave one strong deep moan, and then kept looking round, this way and that, without being able to speak, but showing by signs and nods what he wanted. Then, as still nobody could understand him, he shut his eyes and began to breathe more fast again. Suddenly his mouth gaped open and there flowed gently from it some dark-coloured, coagulated matter, and with two or three gasps, he died.


29. Romanus's greatgrandfather, Romanus Argyropoulus, had married a daughter of Romanus Lecapenus. Constantine's grandfather, Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, had also married a daughter of the same emperor. Thus Zoe and Romanus were distantly related.

30. Basil I, emperor from 867 to 886.

31. Zoe was forty-eight. She had been born in 980.

32. Among other measures designed to relieve financial distress he abolished the allelengyon imposed by Basil II, and the imperial treasuries contributed great sums to help debtors and the clergy in St. Sophia. Romanus had good reason to reverse this generous policy later in his reign, for apart from the Saracen incursions the Empire suffered a series of terrible disasters in 1031-2 (famine in Asia Minor, plague, loss of crops through the ravages of locusts, a great earthquake at Constantinople).

33. Modern Aleppo.

34. This reverse took place in 1030, near Aleppo. It was partially avenged in the next year by the capture of Edessa by George Maniaces, who first became prominent in these campaigns.

35. The emperor also began the rebuilding of the Church of the Hcly Sepulchre at Jerusalem and spent much nnoney on gold and silver decorations for St. Sophia. The foundation stone of the latter church was laid in 532, and again in 537 after the destruction of the cathedral by fire.

36. The famous Greek artists of the fifth century B.C. Pheidias was a sculptor, Polygnotus and Zeuxis painters.

37. Arguments propounded by the philosophers of the Megarian School, called Eristikoi because of their fondness for dialectic.

38. The Straits of Gibraltar.

39. Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, the well-known Ionian philosopher of the fifth century B.C., thought that other kosmoi (universes) contemporaneous with our own might and probably did exist ad infinitum.

40. John the Orphanotrophus had been protonotary (head of the civil administration of a theme, and subordinate only to the strategus, or provincial governor) under Basil II. He had four brothers: Michael, Nicetas, Constantine and George, the last two like himself being eunuchs. The family came from Paphlagonia and appears to have been occupied in some disreputable business. Cedrenus (733, p. 504) hints that they were even engaged in forgery. Through John's influence with the emperor Michael was promoted Archon of the Pantheon, an office of doubtful meaning, but probably a Court appointrnent.

41. Cedrenus (733, p. 505) definitely asserts that Romanus was being slowly poisoned by Zoe.

42. According to Cedrenus (ibid.) he was drowned deliberately by Michael's friends. The date was 12 April 1034 (Good Friday). The emperor was over sixty years of age.

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].

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