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Michael Psellus: Chronographia

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



    MICHAEL IV 1034 - 1041 [p.57]


1034 -- 1041

1. Such was the manner of Romanus's death, after a reign of five and a half years. The empress Zoe, learning of his death -- she had not herself been present while he was dying -- immediately took control of affairs, apparently under the impression that she was the rightful heir to the throne by divine permission. In point of fact, she was not so much concerned to seize power on her own behalf; all her efforts were directed to securing the crown for Michael, the person I have already described. There was opposition,**43 for those courtiers who had been allotted positions of dignity -- most of them were old family retainers -- joined with her husband's friends and his retainers, who had served his family ever since his father's time, in trying to prevent her from any precipitate or drastic action. They advised her to consider the noblest course for herself before making any decisions. One of the people, they said, should be promoted to the crown, some man preeminent among themselves and a man willing to treat her, not as his consort, but as empress in her own right.

2 All kinds of argument were produced to persuade her. They believed their influence would quickly prevail and she would come over to their point of view. To their surprise, she persisted in her support of Michael, with unwavering loyalty; there was no question of reason in the matter, for her judgment of the man was inspired by sentiment. It remained to set a time for the ceremony of coronation and for the assumption of the other insignia of power. Michael's elder brother approached her on the subject privately (he was the [58] eunuch John, a man of outstanding intellect, as well as a man of action). 'We shall die,' he argued, 'if there is any further delay in promoting Michael.' Zoe, now completely won over, at once sent for the young man, clothed him in a robe interwoven with gold, placed on his head the imperial crown, and set him down on a magnificent throne, with herself near him in similar dress. She then issued an order that all those who were living in the palace were to prostrate themselves before both of them and hail them both as sovereigns in common. Of course, the order was obeyed, but when news of it reached those outside the palace also, all the city wanted to share in the rejoicings at her command. To flatter their new monarch, the majority feigned approval of the proceedings. As for the old emperor, they cast him off as though he were some heavy burden. So, light-hearted and blithe, with pleasure and satisfaction, they acclaimed Michael as emperor.

3. This proclamation was arranged in the evening by the new emperor's personal friends. Immediately afterwards, a twofold order was sent to the City Eparchus. He, with all the Senate, was to come to the palace at dawn, and, with them, he was to prostrate himself before Michael; next, he was to carry out, also with their co-operation, the customary obsequies for the deceased Romanus.**44 Accordingly they presented themselves for these duties. Entering one by one they bowed their heads to the ground before the royal pair, who were seated on thrones. To the empress only this homage was rendered; in the emperor's case, the ceremony of kissing the right hand was carried out as well. Thereupon Michael was proclaimed emperor and sovereign, and without more ado he set himself to consider the best interests of his Empire. The funeral ceremony for the defunct Romanus, who had been laid out on a magnificent bier, was already prepared, and the whole assembly went out to pay their respects to their dead emperor in the usual fashion. One of those who preceded this bier was John the Eunuch, whom I will discuss at the appropriate point in my history.

4. I saw this funeral procession myself. I had not yet grown a beard and only recently had I applied myself to the study of the poets. Examining the dead man, I did not really recognize him, either from his colour or outward appearance. It was only because of the insignia that I guessed the dead man had once been emperor. His face was completely altered, not wasted away, but swollen, and [59] its colour was altogether changed. It was not that of a corpse, but rather reminiscent of men swollen and pale from drinking poison, so that they appeared absolutely bloodless beneath the cheeks. The hair on his head and the hair of his beard were so thinned out that his corrupted frame was like a cornfield ravaged by fire -- you can see the baldness of it from afar. If anyone wept for him, it was for that reason alone that their tears fell, for the whole populace, some because of the many evils they had received at his hands, others because they had enjoyed no favour, watched him go by or escorted the procession with their eyes fixed upon him, without one single word of respect.

5. So lived Romanus and such was the funeral with which he was honoured. Despite the work and expense involved in the building of his monastery, he himself had joy of only one tiny part of the church -- the spot where his body was laid.

6. Till now, Michael had played a part: his attitude and the look in his eyes showed love for the empress. It was not long, though, before all this was changed, and her love, as well as her favours to im, were repaid with base ingratitude. I can neither praise nor blame him for it, for though I can scarcely commend this hatred for his benefactress or his behaviour towards her, yet I cannot fail to applaud his fear of the lady, fear lest he too should be involved in catastrophe, like Romanus.

7. The chief objection to any forthright condemnation of the man lies in his own character, for if you acquit him of this one crime committed against Romanus, and acquit him also of the charge of adultery and of accusations that he exiled persons on mere suspicion, this man will take his place in the forefront of Roman emperors. He was, it is true, entirely devoid of Hellenic culture; on the other hand, he was more harmonious in his nature than the philosophers who professed that culture. Even in the fullness of manhood and the flower of youth he mastered his body. Far from the physical passions beating down his reason, it was reason that exercised severe control over the desires. Nor was it merely his eye that was grim -- his soul was too. He was ready moreover, with the witty retort, and his tongue was well-equipped to this end, for it lacked monotony, and he spoke fluently, with a voice both fine and resonant.

8. So far as reference to laws or canons was concerned, whether he had to pass judgment or prove a case, he was in difficulties, and glibness of tongue did not avail him very much. But if the point in ques- [60] tion had to be settled by reasoning, he would immediately take it up with a host of suggestions and intricate arguments. The practised expert was overwhelmed by the man's extraordinary natural ability.

Of course, he had no time for that yet, and I must go back to the start of his reign. My object is to show how carefully, from the very day of his enthronement, he watched over the administration of public affairs.

9. Clearly it was not a noble beginning for a man promoted to supreme power, as I have shown. Nevertheless, for a short period after he became master of the Empire, he treated the governing of it as a kind of joke. He would put off decisions until some crisis arose or some unexpected turn of events, while he passed the time in amusing his wife and in organizing pleasures and pastimes for her. Once he saw the magnitude of the Empire, however, and recognized the diverse quality of forethought required for its managing and the multitudinous difficulties involved in the cares of state--difficulties with which a man who is truly an emperor must be faced -- then his character was suddenly and radically changed. It was as if he had grown up to manhood, no longer a boy, and from that moment he governed his Empire in a fashion at once more manly and more noble.

10. There is one more trait in the emperor which I cannot refrain from admiring. It is this, that although his origin was humble, in the hour of his great good fortune he did not lose his sense of balance, nor was he overwhelmed by his power. None of his usual habits was changed. You would think he had been carefully trained for the task long before, and he seemed to approach it naturally. On the day of his accession he behaved like a man who had been acclaimed emperor years before, and men regarded him as such. He made no innovations in established customs, rescinded no laws, introduced none that were contrary to the spirit of his predecessor, removed no member of the Senate--changes which normally occur when a new reign commences. As to those who had befriended him before his promotion, or men to whom he was under obligation, when he became emperor he did not cheat them of their hopes, except inasmuch as their promotion to the highest offices was not immediate. He employed them first, by way of trial, so to speak, in the lesser and humbler duties and so gradually prepared them for positions of greater importance. I must admit, that if his brothers had not been [61] born under some evil star -- and it was for this reason that he could neither wipe out the family root and branch, nor make honest men of them, because of their wicked nature -- had it not been for this, not one of the famous monarchs would have been his equal.

11. Not one of the emperors in my time -- and I say this with experience of many in my life, for most of them only lasted a year -- not one of them, to my knowledge, bore the burden of Empire entirely free from blame to the end. Some were naturally evil, others were evil through their friendship for certain individuals, and others again for some other of the common reasons. So it was with this man, too; in himself he was good, but in the way he treated his brothers he was hard to excess. Apparently Nature, when she brought them to birth, accorded the nobler qualities to Michael, but in the others she produced characteristics exactly the opposite. Each of them wanted to usurp the place of his brothers, and allowing none of them to live either on sea or even on land, to dwell alone in the whole wide world, as if by some dispensation of God both sea and land were his own inheritance. Often Michael tried to restrain them, not by warnings but with harsh invective, angry reprimands, and the use of violent and frightful threats. All to no purpose, for the eldest brother, John, administered their affairs with great dexterity. It was he who assuaged the emperor's wrath and he who won for his brothers permission to do what they liked. And he did this, not because he exactly approved of their attitude, but because, despite it, he cared for the family.

12. It is my desire in this history to give a somewhat fuller description of John, without recourse to empty at lying statements.**45 You see, when I was starting to grow a beard, I saw the man himself, and I heard him speak and witnessed his actions. I marked his disposition closely, and I am aware that although some of his deeds are praiseworthy, there are other things in his life which cannot meet with general approval. At that time there were many sides to his character. He had a ready wit, and if ever a man was shrewd, he was; the piercing glance of his eyes betrayed those qualities. He paid meticulous care to his duties; in fact, he went to extremes of industry in their performance. His experience in all branches of government was great, but it was in the administration of public finance that his wisdom and shrewdness were especially evident. He bore no one ill-will; yet at the same time, he was irritated if anyone underesti- [62]mated his (John's) important. If he did no harm to a soul, yet in his dealings with the people he assumed a fierce expression which terrified one and all. As far as looks were concerned, he really hurt them. Most of them shuddered at the sight of him -- and refrained from their evil practices. Thus John was a veritable bulwark to the emperor and a real brother, for he never relaxed in his vigilance, either by day or by night Even when devoted to pleasure sometimes, or taking part in banquets and public ceremonies and festivals, he never forgot his zeal for duty. Nothing ever escaped his notice and nobody even so much as tried to elude him, because everyone feared him and trembled at his superintendence, for at untimely hours in the night he would suddenly ride of on his horse and scour every nook and cranny of the metropolis, traversing all the inhabited districts at once, like a flash of lightning. No one would ever know when he would carry out these inspections and so they all became nervous and subdued and restrained. It being impossible to meet in public men remained in their homes, living their own life in private.

13. Such are the qualities in the man that one can admire, but there were others of the contrary sort. His moods were changeable. He accommodated himself to every shade of opinion in those who conversed with him, presenting many facets at each interview. When men approached him, he criticized them while they were still far away, but as they drew near, addressed them in an affable manner as if it were then that he saw them for the first time. Again, if anyone brought news likely to prove of great service to the state, in order to avoid obligation to his informant, he used to pretend that he had known it a long time ago, and then upbraid the man for his slowness. The latter would go away covered with confusion, while John took the necessary action and by suppressing the trouble, perhaps in its initial stages, was able to root it out altogether. A desire on his part to achieve greater magnificence, and to manage the affairs of state in a manner more befitting an emperor, was thwarted by his own natural habits, for, to tell the truth, he never succeeded in ridding himself of his inveterate greed. Thus, once embarked on the drink -- a besetting sin in his case -- he would plunge headlong into all kinds of indecency. Even then, though, he did not forget the cares of Empire, nor relax that fierce-beast look on his face or the sternness of his expression.

14. It has often been a cause of surprise to me, when I have sat [63] with him at banquets, to observe how a man, a slave to drink and given to ribaldry, as he was, could bear the burden of Empire. In his cups he would carefully watch how each of his fellows behaved. Afterwards, as if he had caught them red-handed, he would submit them to questioning and examine what they had said and done in their drunken moments. They came to fear him more, therefore, when he was tipsy than when he was sober. Indeed, the fellow was an extraordinary mixture. For a long time he had garbed himself in a monkish habit, but not even in his dreams did he care one jot for the decent behaviour that befits such a dress. Yet he acted the part, if long-established custom demanded a certain ritual. As for those libertines who indulged unrestrainedly in sensual pleasures, John hat nothing but scorn for them. On the other hand, if a man chose to live in a decent way, or pass his time in the free exercise of virtue, or profit his mind with scientific studies, he would find in John an implacable foe. The eunuch would wilfully misrepresent the other's worthy ambitions in some way or other. This paradoxical conduct in his dealings with other men was not repeated when he had to do with the emperor, his brother, for with Michael he preserved one and the same attitude, never varying, never changing. In his presence there was no dissimulation at any time.

15. There were five brothers in all. As far as character was concerned, the emperor Michael was the antithesis of the others, but John the Eunuch, whom I have just described, was inferior in virtue only to him. To compare him with the others would be impossible, for the man was sui generis. To put it more clearly, I would say that his attitude towards the three others was exactly opposed to that of the emperor. In comparison with him, John was vastly inferior, but there were certain resemblances: he too was displeased with the brothers' incorrigible outlook. On the other hand, he felt the deepest affection for them: no man ever showed more brotherly love. He was reluctant, therefore, to call them to account for their misdeeds. He was inclined rather to conceal their wrong-doings and claim for them still greater liberty, in the belief that Michael would never notice what was happening.

16. So much then for the brothers. Let us return to the emperor. For some time he treated Zoe with marked consideration, but that phase soon passed. He suspected her motives -- there were reasons for suspicion in that house -- and he proceeded to deny her any [64] liberty whatever.**46 Permission to leave the palace in her usual way was refused, and she was shut up in the women's quarters. No one was allowed to approach her, unless the captain of the guard had first given authority, after careful scrutiny of the visitor's identity, origin, and purpose, so close was the watch kept over her. She was, quite naturally, embittered by this sort of treatment. Surely it was hardly to be wondered at, when the benefits she had conferred upon the emperor were being repaid with such hatred. Nevertheless, she restrained herself, reflecting that to rebel against Michael's decisions would be improper, and in any case she had no opportunity, even if she wished, to take any action or oppose his will, for she was deprived of all protection from the Imperial Guard and bereft of all authority. Anyway, she avoided the despicable feminine trait of talkativeness and there were no emotional outbursts. She neither reminded the emperor of the love and belief in her that he had shown in the past, nor did she evince anger against his brothers when they attacked her with their threats and abuse. Not once did she look with bitterness on the captain of the guard or dismiss him from her presence. On the contrary, she was gentle to all, and like the cleverest orators, adjusted herself to different persons and different conditions.

17. The others, however, by no means modified their own attitude to please Zoe. In fact, they were exceedingly afraid of her, as if she were some lioness which, for a while, had laid aside her ferocity. It was natural, therefore, that they should consult their own safety. Every kind of barrier, every kind of rampart, was erected to protect them from her attacks. They kept unceasing vigil, while the emperor, for his part, gradually stopped seeing her at all. There were, I know, many reasons for this. Marital relations with her had become impossible, now that the malady which threatened him had already made its appearance. His health was undermined and his bodily condition poor. Then again, he was covered with shame whenever he looked at Zoe, and it was impossible for him to meet her gaze, knowing how he had betrayed his love, forsworn his promises, and broken has word. In the third place, having conversed with certain saintly persons about the deeds he had committed in order to gain power, and having received some wholesome advice from these gentlemen, he now eschewed all kinds of excess and refrained even from legitimate intercourse. There was something else that he feared, [65] too -- something that further prevented him from visiting the empress. The brain-storms no longer attacked him, as heretofore, at lengthy intervals, but they occurred more frequently, whether through some outside influence which altered the nature of the illness or because of some internal affection which brought on the fits. In front of others he was not so embarrassed when these came on, but before the empress he blushed deeply, and since the malady afflicted him in circumstances that were unpredictable, he kept out of her sight. If she had seen him like that, he would have felt disgraced.

18. For these reasons he rarely appeared in public and he lacked self-confidence in the society of others.**47 Whenever he wished to give audience or to carry out any other of the usual ceremonies, certain persons were entrusted with the duty of observing and keeping watch over him. These officials hung red curtains on either side of him, and as soon as they saw him turn his head ever so slightly or nod, or use whatever other signs they knew to herald the onset of his malady, they immediately asked those who came into his presence to retire, drew together the curtains, and so attended him behind them, in private. The attacks came on quickly, but he recovered even more quickly, and afterwards there was no trace of illness in his conduct. He would swiftly become master of himself and reason clearly. If ever he went out on foot or on horseback, a circle of guards used to escort him, and when he felt ill, they would gather round him on all sides and so look after him, without fear of strangers seeing his distress. There were many occasions, however, when he was seen being thrown from his horse. Once, while he was crossing a stream of water on horseback, an attack came on; the guards, anticipating no trouble, were some distance away at the time, when suddenly he rolled off his saddle and was seen by the mob, lying on the ground there in one of his spasms. Nobody attempted to lift him up, but they were full of pity for his misfortune.

19. The sequel to these events will be related in the appropriate place in this history. We have seen the emperor in sickness; now let us see what kind of man he was in good health. In the intervals between his fits, when his reason was sound, he devoted himself entirely to thought for his Empire. Not only did he ensure the good government of cities within our boundaries, but he stopped the nations beyond our borders from invading Roman territory. This [66] he did, partly by the despatch of envoys, partly by bribery, partly by annual displays of military strength. Thanks to these precautions neither the ruler of Egypt nor of Persia, nor even of Babylonia, broke the terms of treaties they had made with us. Nor did any of the more distant peoples openly show their hostility. Some were actually reconciled altogether, while others, apprehensive of the emperor's watchful care and fearful of his vengeance, followed a policy of strict neutrality. The organization and control of public finance had been deputed to his brother John. To John also was left the greater part of civil administration, but the remaining affairs of state Michael managed himself. Now some subject of civil government would claim his attention; at other times he would be organizing the 'sinews' of the Roman Empire, that is, the Army, and building up its strength; but all the time that the disease which had begun to affect him was growing to its climax and reaching its zenith, he still supervised the whole administration of the Empire, just as if no illness were weighing upon him at all.

20. When his brother John saw his gradual decline, he was fearful for himself and all his family. After the sovereign's death, in the general disorder, the Empire might forget him; he might be compelled to face all kinds of trouble. Wherefore he adopted a policy that was, to all appearances, most prudent, but in fact most perilous, as the outcome of the affair was to prove. Indeed, it was the immediate cause of their shipwreck, with the loss of all hands, in what can only be described as complete and utter ruin. However, that story must come later. Well then, John, having abandoned all hope of the emperor's recovery, had an interview with him unknown to his brothers. The suggestions made by him at that meeting were more specious than honest. It came about like this. One day he found Michael alone, and cloaking his thoughts in periphrasis, began to address him in the following manner, obviously with the idea of compelling him to ask questions. 'That I have continued to serve you,' he said, 'not simply as a brother, but as Master and Emperor, Heaven knows, and all the world knows it too; you yourself could scarcely deny it. That, however, I also pay some small attention, to put it mildly, to the desires of the rest of the family, to their opinions of the common good and to their interests, you, more than anyone else, also know. So I am not worried about your present tenure of the throne. What I want to guarantee is the future as well, and I wish [67] to ensure that the crown can continue free from attacks. If I have been unable to restrain the tongues of the people, at least my policy consistently directed everyone's attention to you, and to you alone. If then you have received sure proof of my loyalty, if you know that I have faithfully done my duty, do not, I beg of you, thrust aside this idea of mine. If you do -- well, I will hold my tongue. Where our fortunes will end I will not say now, lest I leave you offended...'

21. At these words the emperor was thoroughly disturbed. He asked what in the world all this meant, what could be the object of such a speech. 'Your loyalty to me is admitted; forget it for a moment.'

The other, seizing on this admission, went on, 'Do not imagine, Sir, that the people have failed to hear, or see with their own eyes, that you are afflicted by a disease which is obvious, and yet kept secret. I know quite well, of course, that you will suffer no dreadful effects from it, but men's tongues constantly spread rumours that you have died. My anxiety, then, is this. Through their belief in your imminent death, they may revolt against you. They may set up as their champion one of the people, and elevate him to your throne. For my own affairs, and for the affairs of the family in general, I am less concerned, but I do fear for you. It would be dreadful if so good and so just an emperor should be accused of thoughtlessness. Of course, he would escape the danger himself, but he will not evade the charge of failing to provide for the future.' Michael had a ready reply to this. 'And what, may I ask,' he said, 'what is this prevision? And how are we to check the people's gossip? Tell me more about these desires for revolution.'


22.'A very easy measure,' answered John, 'and all ready. If our brother **49 were not dead, you would have granted him the second highest dignity in the state -- the office of Caesar. Since death has

taken him from us, there is our sister's son, Michael, who, as you know, has been entrusted with the command of your bodyguard. Why not make him Caesar? He will be of more service to you than

before, and as for the position, he will regard that as merely nominal. Apart from holding the title, he will be no more than a slave to you, [68] occupying the lowest rank.' With these persuasive arguments he won over the emperor, and once agreed on the new policy, they debated the manner of carrying it out. John again was ready with advice. 'You know, Sir, that the Empire belongs by inheritance to Zoe and the whole nation owes greater allegiance to her, because she is a woman and heir to the throne. Moreover, being so generous in her distribution of money, she has won the hearts of the people completely. I suggest, therefore, that we should make her mother to our nephew -- if she adopts him it will be more propitious -- and at the same time persuade her to promote him to the dignity and title of Caesar. She will not refuse. Zoe is accommodating enough, and in any case, she cannot oppose us in any way.'

23. The emperor agreed that the plan was a good one, and when they informed Zoe of the scheme, they found it a very simple matter to convince her. So at once they proceeded to put it into practice. An announcement was made about the public ceremony, and all the dignitaries were gathered together in the church at Blachernae. When the sacred building was full, the Empress-Mother, accompanied by her adopted son, was brought from the palace. The emperor congratulated him on his new relationship to the empress and formally promoted him to the dignity of Caesar. The assembly thereupon acclaimed him, and the usual rites and ceremonies proper to such an occasion were performed in his honour. After this, the meeting was dismissed. As for John, believing that all his troubles were now at an end and that the family fortunes were now secured, he hardly knew how to contain himself for the greatness of his joy.

24. What had taken place was, in reality, the beginning of mighty disasters in the future, and what was, to all appearances, the foundation stone of the family's glory proved really to be its utter destruction. I will demonstrate the truth of that later in the history. Let it suffice now that the emperor's friends settled the matter in the way I have described and put this young Caesar, the heir-presumptive, in a position where he would accede to the throne, as soon as the emperor succumbed to his illness. Having done so, they ceased to concern themselves with the permanence of their own position, convinced that their interests were now thoroughly assured. I do not know whether the emperor immediately repented of his action, or if his feelings for his nephew underwent some change, but he did not treat him as Caesar, and far from respecting his high rank, he failed [69] to accord him even the recognized honours, and took care that he should enjoy only the outward symbols of power.

25. I myself have seen the Caesar stand aside among the palace dignitaries, so that someone might pass on some good story at his expense to the emperor. Nor did he share the emperor's table, except when he occupied the Caesar's place at official banquets. If ever a tent was pitched for him, with guards at the entrance and with some semblance of a Caesar's headquarters, it would lie in some inconspicuous spot and looked much like the tent occupied by the emperor's brothers. The similarity was not accidental, for they, fearing now for their brother's life and pinning their hopes on the nephew, treated the latter with extraordinary deference. They insinuated themselves into his good graces and lavished on him honour befitting an emperor. In other ways, too, their actions were designed to secure for themselves a pre-eminent place in the future government, and to prepare the way for it. So it came about that they assigned him a residence, not in Constantinople, but in some part of the suburbs. Apparently they designed this as some signal honour, but really it was a kind of disguised exile, for he came and went, not when he himself wished, but when they ordered him. Not even in his wildest dreams did he reap the slightest benefit from his uncle's patronage.

26. Let me now give some account of this man.**50 His family, on his father's side, was altogether insignificant and completely obscure. His father came from some absolutely deserted country place or from some other odd corner of the world. His activities included neither the sowing of crops nor the planting of vineyards -- in truth, he could not call a single acre of land his own. There was no herd of cattle to drive, no flock of sheep to tend. He was not a farm-bailiff. He had no other livelihood there, or even a sign of one. No, the fellow turned his attention to the sea. He had no mind to engage in commerce, or to act as navigator on a ship, or to pilot vessels, at a fee, when they put into harbour or sailed out to sea. However, as he had turned his back on the land and now looked to the sea for his living, he became something big in the shipbuilding line. Please do not imagine that he cut timber or planed off the wood they use in the ships, nor did he fit and fasten together the planks. Not a bit of it. What he did was this: when others had done the assembling, he very skilfully smeared the assembled parts with pitch. There was not [70] a boat, freshly-built, which could ever be launched on the sea, unless this fellow, with his cunning skill, had first given it the finishing touch.

27. Later on he became the plaything of Fortune and his whole manner of life was changed. I saw him after the metamorphosis, and there was nothing whatever about hints in harmony or congruous with the part he was playing. His horse, his clothes, everything else that alters a man's appearance -- all were out of place. It was as if a pygmy wanted to play Hercules and was trying to make himself look like the demi-god. The more such a person tries, the more his appearance belies him -- clothed in the lion's skin, but weighed down by the club! So it was with this man; nothing about him was right.

28. Well, that was Michael's family on his father's side. If anyone cared to trace his descent on the maternal side, he would find, with the exception of his uncle, no essential difference from the ancestors of his father. That was the sort of folk from whom he was sprung. As for the man himself, in all matters that contribute to one's selfrespect -- superior standing and rank in society, or at least its outward appearance -- he bore little resemblance to his parents. He had an extraordinary flair for concealing 'the fire beneath the ashes', that is to say, he hid an evil disposition under a kindly exterior. He was expert in the conception and planning of unlikely designs. He showed no consideration for benefactors, no gratitude to anyone for friendship or solicitude or devotion on his behalf. But his powers of dissimulation were such that he could hide all that. After his promotion to Caesar, there was a fairly long interval before he became emperor, and he began to imagine in his own mind, secretly of course, what it would be like to rule. He began to plot the things he would do, picturing the scene to himself. Every member of the family was considered in turn. All those who had shown him a favour and helped to promote him he planned to destroy. With the empress he would be bitterly angry. Some of his uncles he would kill, others he would drive into exile. And all the time he was imagining these things, he was even more careful than usual to appear friendly towards them. The eunuch John was the principal object of his treacherous designs, but there was no hint of them in Michael's behaviour. Indeed, the dissimulation in this case was even more adroit, for the nephew persisted in acting like an inferior and [71] called John 'sir'. His hopes of life and safety, he said, rested in John's hands.

29. The others were unaware of the Caesar's artifice and they knew nothing of the hidden depths of his soul, but John's perception was more acute than Michael's play-acting. To John the whole business was suspicious. Despite this, he thought no immediate change of policy was called for; he would act when a favourable opportunity presented itself. The Caesar, on the other hand, was not deluded by his manoeuvres. So both lay in wait for each other, each secretly plotting, but simulating benevolence. Each thought he was deceiving his rival, yet neither was ignorant of the other's designs. It was John however, who was caught, because he failed to make full use of his cunning. By putting off the chance to depose and overthrow the Caesar, he brought down on his own head the sum-total of the family misfortunes. I will tell that tale later.

30. It is my custom to attribute to Divine Providence the governance of great events, or rather I consider that all occurrences derive from Providence, if only our human nature is not corrupted. This event also, in my opinion, derived from a more than human prescience and direction -- the fact, I mean, that the succession to the throne fell to the Caesar, and not to any other member of his family, because God knew it was through the Caesar that the whole family would be annihilated. However, that is a subject with which I will deal later.

31. It was now evident that the whole of the emperor's body was swollen, and nobody could fail to notice the hydropsy from which he was suffering. He tried various methods, such as prayers and purifications, in the hope of being cured, but he was confident of ultimate recovery for one reason in particular -- the building of a church in honour of the Anargyroi,**51 in a suburb of the city, on the east side. It was a glorious monument. Actually, not all the foundations were laid by Michael, but he threw them over a wider area. There had been a sacred building on the spot before, although it was not noted for any magnificence, nor was it remarkable for architectural style. This erection he now beautified, built additions on to it, and surrounded it with walls. The new chapels enhanced its glory. When all the work was done, he dedicated this church as a monastery. So far as the building of sacred churches was concerned, Michael surpassed all his predecessors, both in workmanship and in [72] magnificence. The depths and heights of this edifice were given a new symmetry, and his chapels harmonized with the church to bestow on it an infinite beauty. The most wonderful stones were used in the floors and walls, and the whole church became resplendent with gold mosaic and the painter's art. Images that seemed almost to live, set in every possible part, filled the sacred building with glory. Besides all this, there were near this church, and practically incorporated into its precincts, lovely baths, numerous fountains, beautiful lawns, and whatever else can delight or attract the eye.

32. The object of all this was, in some measure, to honour the Deity, but the emperor also hoped to propitiate the 'Servants of God'; perchance they might heal his affliction. It was all in vain though, for the measure of his life was fulfilled, and his health still continued to break up. At last, therefore, he abandoned all hope of recovery. It was the Judgment to come that now engrossed all his attention; he must free himself, once and for all, from the sins that were besetting his soul.

33. There are some people, not exactly well-disposed to his family, but prejudiced in their opinions, who say that before Michael came to power, certain mysterious rites influenced him to seek the Principate. Ghostly apparitions, seen only by himself (so they say), prophesied his future exaltation, and in return for these services, they demanded that he should deny his faith in God. According to their story, it was this transaction that now distressed him, giving him no respite and driving him on to make his peace with the Almighty. Those who took part in these ceremonies with him and faked the apparitions, will know whether the story is true or false. If it is a mere fabrication then my opinion on the subject cannot be disregarded. Obviously, where history is concerned, men are prone to invention and for that very reason slanders current among ordinary folk do not readily convince me. Before I trust what I hear, I always put such stories to the test.

34. I do know that the man was a pattern of piety after his accession. Not only did he regularly attend Holy Church, but he paid particular heed to the philosophers. By the word 'philosophers' here I do not mean those who have tried to discover the principles of the universe -- and neglected the principles of their own salvation -- nor those who have examined the essence of nature. I mean those who [73] have scorned the World and who live with the Beings above this world. Who, then, that lived such a life, escaped the emperor's notice? What land and sea did he not thoroughly search, what clefts n the rocks, what secret holes in the earth, that he might bring to the light of day one who was hidden there? Once he had found them he would carry them off to his palace. And then, what honour did he not pay them, washing their dust-covered feet, even putting his arms about them and gladly embracing their bodies, secretly clothing himself in their rags and making them lie down on his imperial bed, while he cast himself down on some humble couch, with a hard stone for a pillow? That by no means exhausts the catalogue of good deeds, but my purpose here is not to compose a eulogy: I am narrating simple events.

35. The truth is, that while most men usually avoid the society of persons suffering from disease, this man did an extraordinary thing, for he frequented their company, put his face to the festering sores on their bodies, then -- even more amazing -- embraced them, folded them in his arms, tended them with bathing and waited on them, as though he were a slave and they his masters. What right, then, have the wicked to slander him? Why should this emperor be exposed to their calumnies? But I am deviating somewhat from the main course of my narrative.

36. The emperor desired forgiveness of his sins. He set himself, therefore, to do all such things as would please God, and he encouraged the clergy to help him in this object. In fact, a considerable part of the imperial treasures was set aside for the foundation of monasteries and nunneries throughout the continent. A new hospice was built too, called by him the Ptochotropheium,**52 and in this way a mighty stream of gold was poured out for the benefit of those who preferred a life of meditation. One idea followed another, and among other schemes he devised a plan for the salvation of lost souls. Scattered all over the city was a vast multitude of harlots, and without attempting to turn them from their trade by argument -- that class of woman is deaf anyway to all advice that would save them, -- without even trying to curb their activities by force, lest he should earn the reputation of violence, he built in the Queen of Cities a place of refuge to house them, an edifice of enormous size and very great beauty. Then, in the stentorian notes of the public herald, he issued a proclamation: all women who trafficked in their beauty, pro-[74]vided they were willing to renounce their trade and live in luxury were to find sanctuary in this building: they were to change their own clothes for the habit of nuns, and all fear of poverty would be banished from their lives for ever, 'for all things, unsown, without labour of hands, would spring forth for their use'.**53 Thereupon great swarm of prostitutes descended upon this refuge, relying on the emperor's proclamation, and changed both their garments and their manner of life, a youthful band enrolled in the service of God, as soldiers of virtue.

37. The emperor's efforts to work out his own salvation did not end even there. He put himself in the hands of those who were dedicated to the worship of God, men who had grown old in the ascetic life. He believed that they were in immediate contact with the Almighty and endowed with all power. To some of these he looked for spiritual guidance, or conversion, while from others he exacted promises that they would pray to the Deity on his behalf and for the remission of his sins. This led to further trouble, for evil-minded folk indulged in malicious gossip, especially when some of the monks were hesitant on this point -- not all of them complied with Michael s demands. As a matter of fact, the majority gave up the task because they were afraid that the emperor, having committed some dreadful crime and being ashamed to confess it, might force them to transgress Holy Writ. However, that was merely conjecture, and to all appearances he was eager and anxious to obtain forgiveness of his sins from God.

38. I am aware that many chroniclers of his life will, in all probability, give an account differing from mine, for in his time false opinions prevailed. But I took part in these events myself and, besides that, I have acquired information of a more confidential character from men who were his intimate friends. My conclusions, therefore, are fair -- unless someone is tempted to quarrel with my interpretation of things that I have myself seen and heard. Maybe the greater part of my account will present the evil-natured with an opportunity to indulge in their idle chatter, but I do not believe that anyone will dispute the truth of what I am going to say now. It would take a long time to describe in full his various activities and measures in times of civil discord or foreign wars, but I will select one deed alone. I am referring to the struggle he waged against the barbarians. I will run over it in a brief summary.

39. The people of Bulgaria, after many vicissitudes of fortune and after frequent battles in the past, had become subjects of the Roman Empire . That prince of emperors, the famous Basil, had deliberately attacked their country and destroyed their power. For some time the Bulgarians, being completely exhausted after pitting their strength against the might of the Romans, resigned themselves to defeat, but later they reverted to the old arrogance. There were no immediate signs of open revolt, however, until the appearance among them of a political agitator, when their policy at once became hostile to the Empire.**54

40. The man who moved them to this folly was, in their opinion, a marvel. He was of their own race, member of a family unworthy of mention, but cunning, and capable of practising any deceit on his compatriots, a fellow called Dolianus. I do not know whether he inherited such a name from his father, or if he gave himself the name for an omen.**55 He knew that the whole nation was set on rebellion against the Romans; indeed, the revolt was merely a project only because no leader had hitherto risen up among them able to carry out their plans. In the first place, therefore, he made himself conspicuous, proved his ability in council, demonstrated his skill in the conduct of war. Then, having won their approval by these qualities, it only remained for him to prove his own noble descent, in order to become the acknowledged leader of the Bulgarians. (It was their custom to recognize as leaders of the nation only men of royal blood.) Knowing this to be the national custom, he proceeded to trace his descent from the famous Samuel and his brother Aaron, who had ruled the whole nation as kings a short time before. He did not claim to be the legitimate heir of these kings, but he either invented or proved that he was a collateral relation. He readily convinced the people with his story, and they raised him on the shield. He was proclaimed king. From that moment Bulgarian designs became manifest, for they seceded openly. The yoke of Roman domination was hurled from their necks and they made a declaration of independence, emphasizing the fact that they took this course of their own free will. Whereupon they engaged in attacks and plundering expeditions on Roman territory.**56

41. Had the barbarians dared to do a thing so foolish immediately after Michael's accession, they would very soon have learnt what kind of a sovereign they had assailed. In those days he was strong in [76] body and virile in face of danger. It was nothing at all for him take up arms in a moment, and with the elite of his generals invade their land; it would have been a simple matter to teach them not to revolt against Rome with temerity. However that may be, when this particular revolt came to birth, he w as already failing, and his bodily condition was desperate. It came at a time when even the slightest movement caused him pain, and when he found it hard even to put on his clothes. That was the moment when the Bulgarians, for a brief interval, decided to play at ruling themselves, like actors on a stage, and to enjoy themselves with a bit of make-believe And so they did -- until a burning ambition for glory suddenly gave the emperor strength, and in a burst of exaltation, carried him against his foes.

42. As soon as the news became known to him, and actually before the full account was received, he determined to carry the war to the Bulgars. He would march against them himself, at the head of his army. It was impossible, of course, to do this, because of the state of his health, and in any case the Senate was altogether opposed to the project. Michael's family, too, begged him not to leave the city, much to his disgust, for he had set his heart on the war. It was extremely disappointing -- he emphasized this point -- if his reign was not only destined to witness no aggrandizement of the Roman Empire, but actually some loss of territory. He suspected that he was personally responsible, before God and man, if, after what had occurred, he should through any carelessness on his own part, allow the Bulgars to secede with impunity.


43. This thought afflicted the emperor much more than physical suffering, and the harm it produced in him was quite different, for whereas the disease caused his body to swell, the mental agony he endured over this revolt had the opposite effect and wasted him. So he was torn between two evils, which afflicted him in exactly opposite ways. His first battle, however, -- a battle in which he was victorious -- was against his own intimate friends, before he ever came to grips with the barbarians, and the first trophy of the war was set up to commemorate his triumph over his own kinsmen and his associates -- and himself. Bodily weakness, in his case, was more than [77] compensated by strength of purpose, and in this strength he commited his cause to God. So preparations for the war began. The move was to take counsel, determine on his objects, and direct his efforts to the attainment of his goal. The enterprise was certainly not taken in hand rashly, or without due precautions. I need not go into details, but the military preparations were adequate. Actually not all the army was mobilized and mere numbers were discounted. The best soldiers were selected and generals with most experience in the field. With them he set out to meet the Scyths,**57 advancing in due order, his army disposed with proper regard for the rules of strategy.

44 Camp was pitched in a suitable spot when the expedition arrived at the enemy borders. A council of war was held, and after it the emperor decided to engage the Bulgars -- an extraordinary plan, about which even his commanders who were there with him had contrary opinions. Nor is this surprising, for during the night he was under medical treatment and nearly died. Yet at daybreak he immediately got up, some power apparently giving him new strength, mounted his horse, sat firm in the saddle, and managed the animal with clever use of his bridle. Then, an object of wonder to all who saw him, he rode to the rear and formed up the various divisions of his army into one coherent force.


45. The war had not yet broken out when a most astonishing thing happened -- something nearly as amazing as the emperor's action.The more agreeable of Aaron's sons (Aaron had been king of the

Bulgars), one Alousianus**58 by name, a man of gentle character, with a fine intellect and a position of considerable distinction, proved chiefly responsible for Michael's victory. This was not because of any desire on his part to help the emperor; in fact, it was quite the reverse. The truth is, God moved him to do what he did, and thus brought about the emperor's triumph, in despite of his enemies.

46. Now this Alousianus was by no means in favour at court. He was neither consulted on matters of policy nor honoured in any way with the others. Indeed, an order was issued that he must remain in his own home and he was forbidden to enter Byzantium except by [78] express command of the emperor. Naturally this restriction irritated and depressed the man, but for the moment he was powerless. However, the events in Bulgaria were reported to him, and he knew that the people there had supported the claims of an illegitimate pretender to their throne for one reason only -- because no one else in the country was of royal blood. Under these circumstances he ventured on rather a childish expedition. Ignoring the claims of his own children and forgetting his love for his wife -- none of them was allowed to know anything of his plans -- he boldly marched from the extreme east to the west, with a handful of servants, men whom he knew to be reckless dare-devils, ready for anything. To avoid recognition in the city, he adopted a thorough disguise. It was not a matter of discarding some of his clothes and retaining others, but he dressed himself as a common mercenary soldier, and so escaped detection altogether.

47. On two or three occasions he visited my informant in the Great City. The latter gentleman told me about it afterwards. 'The fellow was quite well-known to me,' he said, 'and he greeted me in a friendly way, but even so I failed to recognize him, and so did all the others he visited.' Thus he escaped the vigilance of John the Orphanotrophus, him of the many eyes -- no mean triumph. Yet his sudden disappearance had roused suspicion, arid the authorities were on the watch to find and arrest him, if they could. however, to cut a long story short, he evaded them all and reached Bulgaria in safety. Now he did not make himself known to his people at once, but first approached certain individuals, on different occasions. He referred to his father in an impersonal way, as though he himself was a member of another family. He then proceeded to speak with pride of his father's ancestry, and made some tentative inquiries: if any of his sons turned up in the country, would the rebels choose the legitimate heir as their king, rather than the pretender? Or, now that the latter had already assumed the leadership, was the rightful heir completely forgotten ?

48. When it was obvious that the acknowledged son was universally preferred to the doubtful one, he ventured, in a somewhat mysterious way, to reveal his true identity to one of the persons he had consulted, a man of whose warm loyalty to his family he felt reasonably sure. This man, fixing his eyes steadily on Alousianus (he had known him quite well in the past) and recognizing him, fell on [79] his knees and kissed his feet. Then, to avert any possible doubt, he asked him to show a certain secret mark. This was a dark patch on the right elbow, with a thick tuft of rough hair grown over it. When he saw that, he fell on Alousianus's neck even more vehemently and covered his breast with kisses. The two then set about their design cleverly. They approached individual persons and little by little the story was spread abroad. The majority of the Bulgars transferred their allegiance to the real heir, and the monarchy became a 'polyarchy' as some preferred this and others that son, but both ties were anxious to maintain peace and they reconciled the two protagonists. Thereafter they lived on equal terms, with frequent meetings but mutual suspicion.

49. Nevertheless, it was Alousianus who got in the first blow and frustrated the plans of his rival, for, quite unexpectedly, he arrested Dolianus, cut off his nose and blinded his eyes, using a cook's knife for both operations.**59 Thus the Scythians once again became subject to one master. This event was not followed immediately by negotiations with the emperor. In fact, Alousianus mobilized his forces and marched against the Romans, but the attack proved unsuccessful and he had to seek refuge. It was clear that further opposition to Michael, in open warfare, would involve considerable difficulty. There was also the question of his beloved wife and children. So, having summed up the situation, he conveyed secret information to the emperor. The suggestion was, that if he obtained his favour, and if he received other honours that were his due, he was willing to commit himself and his belongings to the enemy. This proposition being acceptable to the emperor, further communications passed between them, in great secrecy, as Alousianus had desired. In accordance with the terms of agreement, the latter advanced, apparently with the intention of joining battle for a second time, but suddenly abandoned his army and surrendered. Michael treated him with signal honour, and he was sent back to Byzantium. As for his people, now torn asunder with war on all sides and still without a leader, after inflicting a crushing defeat, Michael again made them subject to the Empire from which they had revolted. Then he returned to his palace in glory, with a host of captives, among whom were the most notable men of the Bulgars and the pretender himself, their leader, minus his nose and deprived of his eyes.

50. The entry into the city was a brilliant affair. The whole popu- [80] lace thronged out to meet him. I myself saw him on this occasion, looking as if he were attending a funeral and swaying on his horse. The fingers that gripped his bridle were like those of a giant, for each of them was as thick and large as a man's arm -- the result of his internal trouble. His face, too, preserved not a trace of its former likeness. Riding thus, he led a wonderful triumphal procession to the palace. The prisoners were compelled to march through the centre of the Theatre**60 -- a reminder to the Romans that ardour breathes new life into the dead, and that desire for glory is stronger than physical weakness.

51. Nevertheless, the power of nature could not be mastered indefinitely, nor could the emperor vanquish and overwhelm his disease for ever. Secretly and step by step it crept on to the final dissolution. For a while his friends attempted to hide his condition and they took counsel for the state, to forestall any revolutionary movement, but when the whole city was talking about his illness and the report of it spread everywhere, they altered their former plans. Their new policy was rather directed to the consolidation of their own control of the Empire. Let us leave them, for the moment, in that occupation.


52. The emperor, before the decease of his body, sought another more spiritual, change. He disdained the imperial rank which he was in so short a time to relinquish, mastered all his natural impulses and turned to God.**61 In order that he might not be interrupted while thus changing has like and making his confession to the Deity, he set out from his palace and retired to the monastery he had built, or rather, he was conveyed thither by his bearers. Inside this place of meditation, kneeling on the floor of the church, he prayed to God that he might appear a well-pleasing sacrifice and be received pure after his consecration. Thus he conciliated the Almighty and won His favour. Then he put himself in the hands of the priests, asking them to sacrifice a willing victim -- auspicious omen -- and they, grouped round him on either side, chanted the opening prayers of the Sacrifice to the Lord. They took off him the imperial robe and the purple, and they garbed him in the Holy Mantle of Christ. Then they took from his head the diadem and put on the Helmet of [81] Salvation,**62 armed his chest and back with the Cross, and bravely girding him against the spirits of evil, let him go. So much for his zeal and determination.

53. In the thought that he was now changed to a higher life, he rejoiced and was exceeding glad. He had become swift-footed, as it were, and nimble for the spiritual journey. His own household, on the other hand, and especially the elder brother, were covered in a cloud of despair, so much so that they were unable to restrain their sympathetic laments. Not even the empress controlled her emotion. When she heard from someone about his tonsure, she dared to leave the women's quarters, overcoming every natural disinclination, and went on foot to see him. But Michael, whether through shame at the evils he had brought upon her, or because in his attention to God he had forgotten her, refused her permission to enter his presence.

54. She returned to the palace, and he, when the hour of prayer summoned and it was time for him to attend for the usual hymns, gently rose from his couch. When he was about to put on his shoes and found that the footwear he had formerly had was still unchanged, (because the customary leather sandals of the monks had not been prepared for him) he was angry at this lack of prevision and went barefoot to church, supported on either side. His respiration was laboured already and he was beginning to breathe his last, so he again went to his couch and lay down. For a little while he was silent, for he had lost the power of speech and his breathing was difficult. Then he gave up his soul to God. In the course of his reign, Michael had done and planned many things; in few had he met with failure. For my own part, when I examine his deeds and compare successes with failures, I find that the former were more numerous and it does not appear to me that this man failed to attain the higher life. In fact, I am convinced that he did obtain a better lot.

55. So he died, in the moment of great victory, after a reign of seven years, and on the very day when he received the tonsure.**63 Yet there was no magnificent funeral or burial-place for him when his life on earth was done, for he was buried in the church itself, on the left side as you enter, beside the holy altar.


43. The only man to oppose the accession of Michael was the patrician Constantine Dalassenus, at least according to Cedrenus (734D, p. 506). The patriarch Alexius was induced to agree to Zoe's marriage by substantial bribes.

44. Romanus was buried on Good Friday in the church of St. Mary Peribleptos.

45. Cedrenus has no good word to say of John. As soon as Michael had been crowned he expelled from the palace all Zoe's trusted eunuchs and ladies-in-waiting; she herself was kept under careful surveillance. He even plotted to dethrone the patriarch and to make himself supreme head of the Church.

46. Zoe actually tried to poison the Guardian of the Orphans (Cedrenus, 741C,p. 519).

47. The emperor spent much of his time in Salonica at the tomb of St. Demetrius. No doubt the 'saintly persons' of ch. 17 conversed with him there, and among them was the monk Cosmas Tzintzuluces through whose influence he was induced to accept the tonsure on his death-bed.

48. Michael Calaphates, the future Michael V, was adopted by Zoe in 1040.

49. Not strictly correct. John was speaking of his brother-in-law, Stephen, husband of his sister Maria and father of the young Caesar. He was made admiral of the Roman fleet in Sicilian waters in 1035 and suffered heavy defeats there in the war against the Carthaginians. He incurred the righteous indignation of his colleague, George Maniaces, for his inefficiency and it was through his intrigues that Maniaces was recalled (cf. Constantine IX, ch. 76). Subsequently he became commander-in-chief of the Roman forces in Sicily and it was not long before all Maniaces' conquests were nullified (1040). He undoubtedly owed his position to his brother-in-law.

50. Cf. note 49.

51. St. Cosmas and his brother St. Damian were put to death in the Diocletian persecution at the beginning of the fourth century. They had been physicians and made no charge for their medical services (hence their name Anargyroi). Justinian built the church in Constantinople in their honour.

52. 'Hospice for Beggars.'

53. Homer, Odyssey, IX, l08-9: oÜte n?te?o?s?v ?e?sÂv n?tÎv ???s?v, ?? t? spa?ta ?a v??ota p?vta n?ovta?.

54. The Bulgarian Revolt broke out in I040. The leader of the Slavs was Peter Delyan who claimed to be a grandson of Samuel. He had been a slave at Byzantium, but fled from the city. The rebels were at first highly successful and the emperor barely escaped with his life from Salonica. The Bulgars were angry because of the unjust exactions of John. Unlike Basil II, who respected the native methods of paying taxes in kind, John had invented new tribute and was ruthless in collecting it in money.

55. His name could remind a Greek of  (treachery).

56. The rebels invaded Greece, and all the province of Nicopolis, except Naupactus, joined them.

57. Psellus uses the name Scyths indiscriminately for all Slavs.

58. September 1041. Alousianus was second son of Aaron. John had fined him without trial on some unknown charge and had imprisoned his wife.

59. When Delyan was intoxicated at a feast.

60. The Hippodrome.

61. 10 December 1041, at the monastery of the Holy Anargyroi.

62. Epistle to the Ephesians, ch. 6.

63. Michael had reigned seven years and eight months.



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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