Medieval History

Select Sources Full Texts Saints' Lives Law Texts Maps Search Help

Selected Sources Sections Studying History End of Rome Byzantium Islam Roman Church Early Germans Anglo-Saxons Celtic World Carolingians 10 C Collapse Economic Life Crusades Empire & Papacy France England Celtic States Iberia Italy Intellectual Life Medieval Church Jewish Life Social History Sex & Gender States & Society Renaissance Reformation Exploration
IHSP Credits

Michael Psellus: Chronographia

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



    MICHAEL V 1041 - 1042 [p.85]
    THEODORA 1042 [p.103]




1. His nephew, whom I have mentioned several times in the last book, succeeded him as emperor. In fact, when John and his brothers perceived that Michael was at death's door, and when they really understood that he was past all hopes of recovery, they issued an order, professedly from the emperor, authorizing their nephew to enter the palace. They did this because they were afraid they might lose their own hold on the government and lest the Empire should pass into the hands of some other family. They even anticipated the old emperor's death, and as one sovereign went out of the palace to die (as I have shown), another came in to take his place.

2. The late emperor had three brothers. Of these the Orphanotrophus* [* The Guardian of the Orphans.] John was at that time solely responsible for the governments. He had more affection for his brother than the rest, and when Michael died, he did not leave him at once, but stayed by the corpse for three days, as though he were still alive. The other two surviving brothers meanwhile escorted the Caesar, their nephew, to the palace. The object of this was partly to defend and take care of him, partly to win greater commendation for themselves. John's intellectual capacity was wider and deeper than their own, and without his help it was beyond their powers to formulate any policy on the grand scale, either with regard to the succession or to affairs of state. Their [86] activities were therefore limited to a display of fellowship and kindred feeling. As for John, having had his fill of lamentation, or rather, when he grew alarmed at the prospect of any further delay in declaring Michael emperor, which might well wreck all their hopes completely, he returned to the palace.

3. I myself witnessed his return, and having seen with my own eyes what really happened, I am now committing the story to writing. I will describe the scene exactly. When the brothers heard that John had crossed the threshold of the outer palace entrance, they approached him as if they were about to meet God Himself. The ceremonial was prepared beforehand: they gathered about him and smothered him with kisses, all kissing different parts of his body at once. Even his nephew stretched out his right hand for him to lean on, as if there was some virtue to be gained from his very touch. The demands of flattery having been satisfied, John without more ado took the first step in his master plan. He urged them to do nothing without the empress, to build on her the foundations of their own greatness and of their future, to do all things that they saw were likely to win her over.

4. So with one accord they straightway banded together for the contest. With the artillery of their logic they laid siege to her soul -- an easy capture. They reminded her of Michael's adoption, put the young man under the protection of his mother and mistress, and threw him at her feet. Heaping upon her all the flattering names suitable to such a moment, they assured her that their nephew would be emperor only in name, while she, apart from the title, would have besides, the power that she inherited by right of descent. If she so desired, she would administer the state in person; if not, she would give her orders to him and use him as a slave-emperor to do her bidding. They took solemn oaths and pledged their loyalty by the Holy Relics. So they made her their prisoner at the first shot. What else, indeed, could she do, bereft as she was of outside assistance and spellbound by their sorcery, or shall I say rather, led astray by their trickery, beguiled by their ruses, and converted to their desires?


5. Well, she entrusted them with the government and she quieted the city, which was meanwhile in suspense awaiting her decision, [87] by an exhortation to keep the peace. Then the ceremony of the Caesar's enthronement was completed. The procession followed, the entry into the church, the Patriarch's blessing, the coronation and all the other rites customarily performed on these occasions. For the first day, at any rate, the emperor was not forgetful of his proper station, either in word or in deed. Constantly on his lips were the expressions 'the empress', 'my mistress', 'I am her servant', and 'whatever decision she makes'.

6. With similar cajolery he set out to charm John too, no less than the empress. 'My master', he would say, and gave him a throne to sit on near to himself. If ever he wished to speak, he first sought some sign of approval from John, saying that he himself was like a tool in the craftsman's hands, and that the melody was not of the lyre but him who played it in harmony. All, therefore, were amazed at the wisdom of the man and marvelled at the success of John's scheming. Now the man's deceitfulness was unperceived by the others, but his uncle knew well that his smoothness went no deeper than words: the hardness of his heart was hidden deep inside and covered over. The more he acquiesced in John's schemes, the more John suspected his motives. He plumbed the hollow depths of the young emperor's mind, but he still did not know what to do, nor how he might most easily deprive him of power, once having been foiled of this hope when opportunity had assured him of certain success. However, he held his peace for a while, not by any means because he had abandoned his scheme, but intending to try it out if the other took the initiative and wronged him first. In fact, Michael did begin to change, little by little, from the excessive modesty he used to evince in John's presence at the beginning of his reign. Sometimes he failed to wait for John's opinion on his actions as emperor; sometimes he deliberately opposed him and spoke with persons whom he know John did not tolerate.

7. He had an ally to encourage this enmity towards his uncle, Constantine, the latter's brother, who for a long time had been jealous of John. The reason for this was that John, alone among the brothers held an active post in the government: he was like their master, not their kinsman. At that time he was unable to show hatred for him openly, because the late emperor had great affection for the man, not only as the eldest of the family, but also as the most intelligent, and as a man thoroughly proved in the conscientious [88] performance of his official duties. On the other hand, he abominated and loathed the rest of the family, because they neither loved moderation nor made any useful contribution to the government of the Empire. Consequently, when the emperor had been angry with the brothers, it used to be John who interceded on their behalf, John who coaxed him to look on them again with benevolence. Naturally then, despite the brothers' jealousy at John's reputation, and although Constantine in particular felt chagrin, yet it was impossible tor them to dare or do anything to oppose him.

8. But after their brother Michael died and succession to the throne fell to the nephew, Constantine had a very convenient starting-point for his attack on the Orphanotrophus, for he carefully cultivated the new emperor while he was still only the Caesar and allowed him to draw on his own personal treasures to his heart's content. Constantine s money was there to be used and the young man looked upon his wealth as a kind of storehouse instituted for his own convenience. Certainly this was the way Constantine bought his favour, and while fortune obviously smiled on his efforts, he continued to court his friendship, with an eye to the future. They shared their secrets. They stood side by side in their campaign against John, knowing that he, on his part, was scheming against them. If he had his way, then their plans would be frustrated and some other member of the family would sit on the throne. Under these circumstances, therefore, it was to be expected that the Caesar would promote Constantine to the dignity of Nobilissimus, so soon as he himself had been crowned emperor. Constantine became his boon companion, amply rewarded for the loyalty he had displayed before Michael's accession.

9. At this stage, I will interrupt the narrative for a few moments while I pass some preliminary comments on the emperor's mental and spiritual outlook. My readers may possibly be saved from a feeling of perplexity when I describe his actions later; they will not be surprised when they see in them a lack of premeditation and a certain irrelevance, qualities which had their origin in the complex fortunes of his life. The outstanding characteristic of the man, indeed, was his interest in a great variety of subjects and an extraordinary facility in moving from one subject to another. A second peculiarity was the contradiction in the man between heart and tongue -- he would think one thing and say something quite different. Men would often [89] stir him to anger and yet meet with a reception of more than usual friendliness when they met him, while he assured them most solemnly that he had their interests close at heart and regarded them with feelings of sincere attachment. There were several examples of mens who at dawn the next morning were destined by him to undergo the most horrible tortures, being made to share his table at dinner the evening before, and to drink from the same cup as himself. As for the names denoting family-relationship -- I would go further than that and say even the actual relationship itself -- to him they were so much nonsense. He. would not have cared one jot if a single wave had overwhelmed and engulfed the lot of them, all his kith and kin at once. He was jealous of them, not only in the matter of government -- that was natural enough -- but he grudged them the elementary necessities of life and any little luck that came their way. If power was to be shared, it would be with someone quite insignificant, or with nobody at all. In fact, more than that, he seems to me to have felt envy even for the supernatural, so great was his dislike and suspicion of all men in all circumstances. When fortune was adverse, no man was ever more cringing, in deed and in word, no man more base in spirit. Yet fortune had but to change a little for the better and at once he threw off the mask of servility. The counterfeit appearance was put aside and immediately he was full of courage. Terrible deeds were done, others were saved up for the future. The man was a slave to his anger, changeable, stirred to hatred and wrath by any chance happening. So there burned secretly in his heart a loathing for all his family, but to get rid of them was a different matter. For the moment he made no attempt to do so, because he still feared his uncle; he knew that John was still in the position of a father to the whole family.

10. After this interruption in my opening remarks on this reign, I new return to the simple narrative. Well, when Constantine became Nobilissimus, he shook off the awe which he felt for his brother. His former attitude of reverence was forgotten, his conversation became bolder, and he attacked John's policy with more recklessness. On several occasions he reproached the emperor for his deference to John's will and threw the young man into considerable confusion. There were other reasons why Michael's composure was rudely shattered, there were other influences which urged him to rebel, but Constantine's intervention added fresh fuel to the fire, and the [90] emperor began to treat John with contempt in nearly everything. The prospect of losing his place and the supremacy he wielded over the family was particularly distasteful to the Orphanotrophus, but as it was no easy matter to depose one who had already acceded to the throne, he adopted a new policy to get his way. I myself witnessed what was going on then and I guessed he had changed his ideas, but most people knew nothing of it. In my opinion, his ambition was to transfer the government to one of his nephews, a man called Constantine who held the rank of Magister. His plan was not to attack the emperor himself, but to give this Constantine the chance of plotting against him instead. Later, fearing lest the nephew should be caught and have to stand trial on charges of sedition, and being afraid that he himself might not escape destruction, or fail to bring down destruction on the rest of the family at the same time, he decided to preclude any such possibility in the future; the important thing was that the present should go according to plan. He proceeded to effect a reconciliation between the emperor and his kinsmen. He persuaded him to grant certain privileges to them, with the promise of others later on. He was especially insistent that they should be provided for in the event of those troubles which men commonly meet with in life. So far the emperor granted his requests and his promises were confirmed in writing, in order that Johns might have an assured guarantee for the future. However, no sooner were these promises put into writing than John added a secret clause of his own, to the effect that if any of his nephews should be convicted of plotting rebellion against the emperor, he should be neither punished nor condemned, but that the special privilege of exemption from trial was to be granted by his uncle.

11. Having added this clause, he waited for a favourable opportunity and when he saw Michael not particularly interested in certain papers, he handed him this manuscript for signature. The emperor read it through in a cursory way and confirmed it in his own handwriting. Naturally John was filled with exultation. It was a great triumph and the realization of his secret ambitions was brought appreciably nearer. And no doubt he was ready to put his plans to the test. In reality, though, this was the start of his tribulations, as a detailed examination of these events will show, for before the Orphanotrophus could take the initiative, the emperor suspected what was afoot, partly because of his own forebodings, partly from [91] the remarks of his courtiers, who told him what they thought about the proceeding. They made it clear that his continual subjection to John was intolerable. There were now two alternatives and they would move heaven and earth to bring about one or the other: either they must preserve the emperor's authority intact or they would perish with the state.

12. This ultimatum had an immediate effect. Michael not only ceased to pay John the honour that was due to him, but he even differed with him on questions of policy. They rarely met in conference, at long intervals, and when they did meet it was clearly against their will. Once, when they were dining together, Constantine directed the conversation to a certain affair, and having heard both men express an opinion on the subject, he praised the emperor's estimate of the matter, acclaiming it as 'an excellent judgment, one really worthy of an emperor', but rejected his brother's opinion as 'a crafty bit of intrigue'. He gradually developed this theme and presently launched a big-scale attack. He recalled John's arrogance in the past, exposed his ill-will and deceit in the present. The Orphanotrophus, quite incapable of listening to such an onslaught with patience, got up at once and went away. He took himself off, not to his usual place of residence, but to some spot far away from the city. This change of abode, he imagined, would compel the emperor to pray and beseech him to return; he would very soon bring him back to the palace. When he went off, his own private bodyguard followed him, and a considerable body of senators went away with him too, not through any feelings of friendship for John, but, in most cases, because they believed that he would be back again in his old haunts almost immediately and they were trying to make sure of his favour in advance. Their departure from the capital would be an excellent method of reminding him of their services.

13. John's defection was, no doubt, extremely gratifying to Michael, but it could not compensate the painful suspicions roused in him when the greater part of the city populace were flocking out to join the Orphanotrophus in his retreat. He feared a possible revolution. So, with extreme craftiness and no little malevolence, he wrote him a letter. In it he upbraided the other for his excessive pride and recalled him, presumably in order to discuss certain secret matters connected with the government. John at once returned. He bad assumed from the tone of the letter that the emperor would come [92] out to meet him. He expected to be addressed in terms befitting his high office and treated with the respect to which he had been accustomed. What actually happened was quite different. A performance was going on in the Theatre and the emperor, without waiting to see his uncle, left for the entertainment earlier than usual. What is more he left no message for John. When the latter perceived what had occurred, he considered himself even more insulted than before: the emperor had cast him off. So, in high dudgeon, he returned whence he had come, without more ado. There was no doubt now as to the emperor's intentions. From his actions it was obvious to John that he had to deal with an enemy. The bond of friendship was now absolutely broken and each plotted the other's downfall. John especially, was engaged in conspiracy -- naturally, for he was at a disadvantage as an ordinary citizen -- and schemed ways and means of attacking the emperor, without the knowledge of others and without exposing himself to arrest. Michael, on the other hand, being the supreme ruler of the Empire, was in a superior position and he made good use of it. There was no secret about his hatred for John. The days of pretence were over. He simply ordered his enemy to embark on a ship and appear in his own defence. He would have to explain why he treated the emperor with gross contempt and why he refused to obey his orders.

14. Accordingly John set sail. The emperor, meanwhile, watched the sea from a high vantage-point in the palace, and when the ship carrying his uncle was about to anchor in the Great Harbour, he gave a signal from above to the sailors, as they were putting in, to turn about. Actually, this signal had been arranged beforehand. A second trireme, ready to put to sea and in the wake of the first, then hailed John's ship, took him on board, and carried him off to a distant place of exile.**64 It was through this man's efforts that Michael had become first Caesar and subsequently emperor, yet the reverence he formerly felt for John now meant so little to him that he indicted punishment on his uncle without so much as a blush of shame. In fact, he banished him to a place reserved exclusively for convicted pirates. It is only fair to add that afterwards, when his anger had died somewhat, he did consider it proper to allow him certain small favours. So John went away, not merely to satisfy the emperor's vengeance, but destined to see misfortunes one after the other, for the fate which by the decree of Providence fell to his lot -- I will speak [93] in moderate terms -- never gave him a single respite; evil followed evil, till, finally, fate laid on his eyes**65 the hand of the executioner and brought him, with terrible swiftness, to a most violent death.**66

15. The rascally Michael now took upon his own shoulders the sole control of the Empire. His intentions were anything but moderate, for his first efforts were directed to a complete reversal of policy: everything had to conform to his wishes. Government officials were treated with no sign of friendliness whatever. The emperor's hostility to them was evident both in his look and in his general attitude. In fact, his arrogant speech and manners terrified them. His ambition centred on one object: to make his realm in very truth 'subject' to himself; most of the officials were to be stripped of their customary privileges and the people were to have their freedom restored; he would then have the support of the people, who were many, rather than of the nobility, who were few.**67 As for his personal bodyguard, he filled the corps with new soldiers, Scythian youths whom he had bought some time previously. Every one of them was a eunuch. They understood what he required of them and they were well fitted to serve his desires. Indeed, he never questioned their allegiance, because it was to himself that they owed their promotion to the highest tanks. Some he employed in actual guard-duties, while others were engaged in various other tasks that he wished to be done.

16. In this way his plans were brought to fruition. There remained, however, the problem of the others -- the pick of the city populace and all those who belonged to the merchant class or were manual workers. Their adherence, too, was assured and the hearts of the people won over by his favours. It was a necessary expense, for one day, if need arose, he might want their backing for his projects. The people, on their side, were genuinely attached to him and their sentiments found expression in certain obvious marks of goodwill. For instance they would not allow him to walk on the bare ground; it would be a dreadful thing, they thought, if he did not tread on carpets. His horse, too, must needs revel in covers of silk. These compliments not unnaturally, gave him pleasure and in his elation he began to reveal what his secret designs were. The truth is, the empress was the object of his wrath, the woman who had become his mother by adoption, contrary to all propriety and reason. This feeling of his, moreover, was no new one, for it dated back to the time when through her efforts he had been made emperor. He had [94] once called her his 'mistress' and the very thought of it made him feel like bitng off his own tongue and spitting it away in disgust.


17. In the public proclamations he heard her name mentioned before his own and after that indignity he could no longer hide his chagrin. It led him, in the first place, to adopt an attitude of defiance. When she approached him, he turned a deaf ear; the council chamber was closed to her, and worse still, she was denied all access to the imperial treasury. In fact, the empress was held in contempt everywhere. Indeed, I would go further than that -- he made her an object of ridicule, for he treated her like a prisoner of war. She was kept under surveillance, in the most ignominious manner, her ladies-in-waiting controlled by the emperor and no corner of her private apartments exempt from inspection. Not one of the agreements made with her was respected by Michael, and when even these restrictions failed to satisfy him, he brought upon her the final disgrace -- nothing less than expulsion from the palace. Such was his plan. There was no honest excuse for such action, but the beast had a foul lying story all ready, so determined was he to have the whole palace to himself. Of course, once this idea was conceived, all other duties of state were neglected: all his energy, all his ingenuity was devoted to the accomplishment of this daring project.

18. To begin with, therefore, he disclosed his plans to the more enterprising of his accomplices. Later on, as his scheme gradually advanced, he sounded other persons as well. In every case they were known to himself personally as men of keen judgment and endowed with other intellectual qualities. Some of them secretly encouraged him. Their advice was to follow his own inclination. Others counselled him to give up the whole scheme, while a third party suggested that the proposed course of action should be studied first in greater detail. Another group thought the astrologers should be consulted: he ought first to assure himself that the time was propitious for the enterprise; some aspect of the heavens might be unfavourable. Seated in front of them, he listened gravely to all these monitors, prepared to take up anything whatever which could help him to realize his plans. Nothing was allowed to stand in the way of the [95] success of the plot. In the end, however, he rejected the arguments of all other counsellors and turned to the astrologers. Through them he would learn what the future held for him.

19. At that time there was a group of distinguished men engaged in the study of that science, men with whom I myself had dealings. These gentlemen were not specially concerned with the position or movements of stars in the celestial sphere {actually they had no training in the proof of such things by the laws of geometry and certainly this power of demonstration was not acquired by them before they studied astrology); they confined themselves rather to the setting up of astrological centres, the examination of the rise and fall of the zodiacal signs above or below the horizon. Other phenomena connected with these movements also became the object of their study -- the ruling planets, the relative positions and limits of the planets, together with those aspects considered favourable and those which were not propitious. Certain predictions were then offered to persons who asked for advice and their questions were answered. In some cases, too, they did indeed hit on the correct answer. I say this, because I myself have some knowledge of the science, a knowledge acquired after long and diligent study, and I have been of some assistance to many of these men and helped them to understand the planetary aspects. Despite this, I am no believer in the theory that our human affairs are influenced by the movements of the stars. That, however, is a problem that must form the subject of inquiry in another work -- it gives rise to too many controversies on either side.

20. Let us return to the reigning emperor. Without disclosing the nature of the deed he had in mind, he submitted a vague inquiry to the astrologers. The only information he asked for was this, whether the heavenly aspects were inauspicious to a man who took a great risk. Observations were taken and the general position of the stars was carefully examined at the proper moment, and when the astrologers saw that everything portended blood and sorrow, they warned him to give up his enterprise. The more circumspect among them advised him to put off the deed until some later occasion. At this the emperor burst into a loud laugh. He mocked their science, calling it a fraud. 'To blazes with you!' he said. 'And as for your wonderful knowledge my daring venture will make child's-play of it!'

21. So he at once got to work and went over to the attack without [96] delay.**68 Certain charges were fabricated against his adopted mother, who was innocent of any plot aimed at himself, and the wretched boy condemned the empress as a poisoner. She, still know rag nothing of his machinations, was driven from her bedchamber--she who had been born there, driven out by a parvenu! She, the daughter of a most noble family, was dispossessed by a man sprung from the gutter. Witnesses were suborned to give false evidence and he proceeded to question her on matters of which she knew nothing. She was compelled to account for her actions and was then convicted of the most abominable crimes. At once she was put on board ship, together with certain persons who were given carteblanche to insult her. Exiled from the palace, she was landed on one of the islands lying off Byzantium called Prinkipo.

22. Afterwards I talked with some of those who took her away there and they told me, that when the ship had put out to sea for the voyage, Zoe looked back at her royal home and apostrophized the palace in a kind of dirge. She spoke of her father and her ancestors (her family had occupied the throne for four generations before she inherited the Empire) and when she recalled her uncle -- I am speaking now of the famous Basil, that treasure and glory of the Roman Empire who outshone all other sovereigns who ruled over it -- then her eyes suddenly filled with tears and she exclaimed: 'It was you, my uncle and emperor, you who wrapped me in my swaddling clothes as soon as I was born, you who loved me, and honoured me too, more than my sisters, because, as I have often heard them say who saw you, I was like yourself. It was you who said, as you kissed me and held me in your arms, 'Good luck, my darling, and may you live many years, to be the glory of our family and the most marvellous gift to our Empire!' It was you, also, who so carefully brought me up and trained me, you who saw in my hands a great future for this same Empire. But your hopes have been brought to nothing, for I have been dishonoured. I have disgraced all my family, condemned on most horrible charges and expelled from the palace, driven away to I know not what place of exile, convicted of crime. For all I know, they may throw me a prey to wild beasts, or drown me in the sea. I beg you, watch over me from Heaven and with all your strength protect your niece!' After reaching the island that was to be her place of exile, however, she recovered somewhat from her mood of despair. She thanked God that she was still alive, [97] and at once offered up prayers and sacrifices to Him who had saved her.

23. She had no intention of meddling in state affairs. Indeed, how could she, spending her life in exile, with one lady-in-waiting? Yet that rascal cherished even more terrible designs against her and trouble was heaped on trouble. In the end, a party was despatched to cut off her hair -- perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they were sent to kill her. She was to be offered up, so to speak, as a whole burnt-offering, not to please the Lord, maybe, but certainly to appease the wrath of the emperor who gave this order. However, once the design was satisfactorily carried out, he left her alone. So far as he was concerned, the empress was already dead. But he gave a dramatic account of the whole affair to the Senate. It was like a scene from a play. Her so-called plots against himself were revealed, while he told them how for a long time past he had suspected her; worse than that, he had more than once caught her red-handed, but had concealed her misdoings out of respect for the Senators. After inventing such lies -- sheer nonsense it was -- and after winning their approval (they passed remarks suited to the occasion), he considered his defence before the Senate was adequate, and next put his case to the people. Some of the latter were already quite prepared to dance to his tune, and to them he told his story. They gave him their verdict. There w as obviously support for his policy in that quarter as well, so this second meeting was dismissed, and he, like a man who has accomplished some mighty exploit, took a rest from his great labours and gave himself up to childish delight, all but dancing and leaping from the ground in his pleasure. Yet retribution was very near; the usurper's pride was to meet its downfall in the not distant future.

24. As for the events that followed, words are inadequate to describe them. The human mind cannot comprehend the working of Providence. When I say this I am judging other people's reactions by my own. Certain it is that no poet, with his soul animated by the divine afflatus and his tongue inspired by God; no orator who had attained the height of spiritual and rhetorical perfection, and had moreover adorned with the skill of artifice his own natural abilities; no philosopher, even, who had thorough knowledge of the ways of Providence and of their revelation, or who had learnt by the power of his wisdom any other thing that surpasses our human understanding; none of these would be capable of describing the events that [98] took place at this crisis, at least in a manner that would do them Justice. Such a task would be impossible, even if the poet dramatized the story with subtle touches of character; even if the orator made a glorious speech, with his periods harmonized and altogether fitted to the vastness of his theme; even if the philosopher, denying the spontaneous origin of these events, explained them by reason and produced causes from which that great and far-spread mystery -- for one cannot describe it as anything else -- was derived. Naturally therefore, it was not for me to mention that extraordinary social upheaval. Nor would I have done so, unless I had realized that by holding my peace the supreme crisis of my history would be neglected. So, in my tiny skiff, I have ventured to cross a mighty ocean. At all events, to the best of my ability, I will tell my story -- an account of all those strange happenings that followed the empress's exile, events that Divine Justice brought to pass at this moment in history.

25. Up to this time the emperor had lived in the lap of luxury and he was extremely proud of his achievements. Throughout the city, however, -- and I am speaking here of persons of every kind and fortune and age -- a feeling of dissatisfaction and confusion gradually became more apparent. It was as if the natural harmony of the city had been interrupted. There w as at first an undercurrent of anxiety which slowly made itself felt everywhere. Everyone was concerned over the empress's conviction. Deep in their hearts men had grim forebodings and they began to speak freely about them. As the story of her new position in the state became generally known, the whole city quite obviously went into mourning. Just as in the great upheavals of nature all men are sad at heart and know not how to recover their spirits -- for some terrible evils they have already endured and others they still await -- so then a certain awful dejection seized on every soul and a sense of misfortune that was beyond comfort. On the second day no one any longer held his tongue. The ruling classes, the clergy, even the emperor's family and household staff, were talking about it. Those engaged in business, too, prepared themselves for great deeds of daring, and not even the foreigners and allies whom the emperors are wont to maintain by their side -- I am referring to the Scyths from the Taurus -- were able to restrain their anger. The indignation, in fact, was universal and all were ready to lay down their lives for Zoe.

[99] 26. As for the common mob, it was already on the move, greatly stirred at the prospect of exercising tyranny over him who had himself played the tyrant. And the women -- but how can I explain this to people who do not know them? I myself saw some of them, whom nobody till then had seen outside the women's quarters, appearing in public and shouting and beating their breasts and lamenting terribly at the empress's misfortune, but the rest were borne along like Maenads,**69 and they formed no small band to oppose the offender. 'Where can she be?' they cried. 'She who alone is noble of heart and alone is beautiful. Where can she be, she who alone of all women is free, the mistress of all the imperial family, the rightful heir to the Empire, whose father**70 was emperor, whose grandfather was monarch before him -- yes, and great-grandfather too? How was it this low-born fellow dared to raise a hand against a woman of such lineage? How could he conceive so vile a thought against her? No other soul on earth would dream of it.' Thus they spoke and hurried together as though they intended to fire the palace. As there was no longer anything to stop them, for all men had already rebelled against the tyrant, they took up their positions ready for battle, at first in small groups, as if they were divided by companies. Later, with all the citizen army, they marched in one body to the attack.

27. Every man was armed; one clasped in his hands an axe, another brandished a heavy iron broadsword, another handled a bow, and another a spear, but the bulk of the mob, with some of the biggest stones in the folds of their clothing and holding others ready in their hands, ran in general disorder. I myself was standing at the time in front of the palace entrance. For a long time I had been acting as secretary to the emperor and had recently been initiated into the ceremonies of Entry to the Imperial Presence. I was in the outer porch dictating some of the more confidential despatches, when suddenly there assailed our ears a hubbub like the sound of horses' hooves and the hearts of most of us trembled at the sound. Then there came a messenger with the news that all the people were roused against the emperor; they were gathered in one body; they must be marching under one common standard, with one single purpose. To most of the others it seemed a senseless revolt, but I, knowing from what I had seen before and from what I had heard, that the spark had flared up into a fire and that it needed many rivers and a fast-flowing current to put it out, I straightway mounted my horse, [100] and going through the midst of the city I saw with my own eyes the sight which now I can hardly believe.

28. It was as if the whole multitude were sharing in some superhuman inspiration. They seemed different from their former selves. There was more madness in their running, more strength in their hands, the flash in their eyes was fiery and inspired, the muscles of their bodies more powerful. As for prevailing on them to behave in a more dignified manner or dissuading them from their intentions, nobody whatever was willing to try such a thing. Anyone who gave advice of that sort was powerless.

29. It was decided first to attack the emperor's family and tear down their proud and luxurious mansions. With this object they advanced to the general assault, and all was razed to the ground. Of the buildings some were covered over, others were left open to the sky; roofs falling to the ground were covered with débris, foundations thrust up in ruins from the earth were uncovered, as if the earth were throwing off its burden and hurling away the floors. It was not the hands of strong men in the prime of youth that pulled down the most of it, but young girls and children of either sex lent a hand in the destruction with them. Every building fell straightway at the first assault and the destroyers carried away what had been smashed or pulled down, with utter indifference. The objects were put up for sale, without a thought for the mansions from which they had come.

30. Such then was the state of affairs in the city and so quickly had its usual appearance been altered. As for the emperor, he sat in the palace, at first by no means alarmed at the course of events. His idea was to end civil war without the shedding of blood, but when the revolution was afoot beyond all doubt and the people adopted military formations, with quite a respectable battle-array, then he was fearfully troubled. Hemmed in on all sides, he was at a loss what to do. He was afraid to sally forth and he was no less suspicious of remaining where he was to sustain a siege; he had no allay in the palace nor could he send out for help, and even the mercenaries maintained by him were, some of them, of doubtful allegiance and not invariably responsive to orders, while others were openly hostile, and when their discipline broke, they broke out with the mob.

31. In his utter perplexity an ally did come to his aid -- the Nobilissimus. At that moment he happened to be away from the palace, but when he learnt of the danger, being filled with alarm at [101] the course of events, he at first stayed in his house. He was terribly afraid of the crowd standing at his gates and would not venture outside, for he believed he would die on the spot if he did. Later on, however, he armed the whole of his household staff, without putting on defensive armour himself, and with their help he gave the door a sudden shove, got outside without attracting any attention, and went through the city like lightning. His retinue were armed with daggers, so that if anyone met them, they could slay him at once. Charging thus through the city they dashed to the gates of the palace and entered it. The emperor, whom they had come to help in his hour of danger, received them with joy. He almost embraced his uncle for choosing to die with him. They determined then to recall the empress from exile at once -- it was through her that the mob had broken out in revolt and the war was being fought on her behalf. With regard to themselves, they came to the conclusion that they should use the multitude then in the palace, the javelin-men and stone-throwers, against anybody who had the effrontery to attack them. Urgent necessity dictated it. So these men hurled down their missiles and shot their arrows from concealed positions in the high parts of the palace, and they slew a considerable number of the enemy. Their close formation was indeed broken up, but seeing what the idea of the emperor's men was, they rallied again and formed up more tightly than before.

32. In the meanwhile the empress was carried into the palace, full of joy at the thought that God was working for her. But there was a shadow -- she feared punishment still more terrible at the hands of the wicked Michael. It was for that reason she neither seized her chance of revenge nor blamed the tyrant for her misfortunes nor changed her demeanour. She even gave him her sympathy and shed tears at his distress. But instead of taking from her the nun's habit and clothing her in a robe of purple, as he should have done, he compelled her to promise that once the storm had died down she would live as she was then, with the same nun's habit; she would, moreover, acquiesce in the decisions he had already made about her future. Every proposal he made she agreed with and they made a covenant to face the danger together. On these conditions they carried her up to a balcony on the Great Theatre and there they showed her to the rebel people. They thought it would quench the fire of the rebels' anger if they saw their mistress had been recalled from exile, but the [102] people were in no hurry to recognize the lady. Those who did know her were all the more incensed at the tyrant's stratagem; they thought it monstrous, that even in the midst of danger, he still could not forget his natural ferocity and wickedness.

33. The war, therefore, flared up against him all the more bitterly. But the rebels were afraid lest the combined efforts of Michael and Zoe might yet prove their undoing. Most of their supporters might be persuaded by her and give up the struggle. So a new policy was adopted, a policy which of itself was a complete answer to Michael's scheming.

34. At this stage I would like to go back a little, so that the story can be told in a methodical way. I will have to refer to events previous to this outbreak and link them with it. As I have said before, Constantine had not one daughter, but three. The eldest of these ladies was dead. The youngest for a short time continued to live with her sister after she became empress and, to a certain extent, shared the throne with her. The privilege of acclamation was not extended to her, but she did enjoy exceptional honours and she had her share of splendour in the palace, although her position was inferior to that of her sister. Their close relationship however, and the fact that they were born of the same mother, were not sufficient to avert jealousy, and even her lower rank excited the empress to envy Theodora**7l (that was the younger sister's name). At the same time certain persons maliciously spread tales about her and prevailed on Zoe to remove her from the palace, cut off her hair, and give her one of the more stately imperial houses to live in. The place would be a kind of prison, but it would be veiled under a fine name. This advice was followed at once. Jealousy divided the two sisters and kept one in a position of greater importance, the other in an inferior condition, but Theodora at least retained the semblance of majesty.

35. Yet she (Theodora) resigned herself to her lot. Neither the donning of a nun's robe nor separation from her sister provoked her to angers and as for the emperor, he still treated her with some of his former courtesy. He even granted her certain imperial favours. But when he died and Michael (Paphlagon) ascended the throne, the latter, as I have already shown, soon forgot Zoe and completely despised Theodora. In his turn, he too fulfilled the allotted span of life and departed, to be succeeded by his nephew, Michael Calaphates. This emperor not only did not know who Theodora was, [103] or if she was born of royal stock, but as far as he was concerned, she might never have been born, might never have passed this way at all. Although she was in this plight -- perhaps I should rather say, despite the attitude of the emperors towards her -- she never opposed their wishes. This was no enforced obedience; she submitted of her own free will. I had to explain all this before I could return to my narrative.


36. As I have said, the people revolted against the tyrant, but they were afraid their efforts might be wasted. His force might get the better of them and the affair might develop into nothing more than an uproar. Since, therefore, they could not lay hands on the senior empress -- the tyrant had anticipated that move and he was watching her with all the vigilance of a tax-gatherer waiting to collect dues from a ship in harbour -- they turned their attention to her sister. She was, after all, the second child of an emperor. There was no confusion, no disorderly tumult. On the contrary, they appointed one of her father's retainers**72 to act as general at the head of their column, a man who was not a Greek by birth, but a person of the noblest character and a man of heroic stature, whose high-born ancestry inspired respect. With this brave leader they departed in full force to find Theodora.

37. Astounded by the unexpectedness of this sight, she refused at first to give way to their pleading and shut herself up in the church, deaf to every entreaty. The citizen army, however, giving up all hope of persuasion, used force, and some of their number, drawing their daggers, rushed in as if to kill her. Boldly they dragged her from the sanctuary, brought her out into the open, and clothed her in a magnificent robe. Then they made her sit on a horse, and forming a circle all about her, they led her to the great church of Santa Sophia. Homage was paid to her, not now by a mere fraction of the people, but by all the elite as well. Everyone, with utter disregard for the tyrant, and loud applause for her, proclaimed Theodora empress.


38. When news of this reached Michael, fearing that the rebels would suddenly come upon him and lay violent hands on him [104] there in the palace, he embarked on one of the imperial ships, and landed with his uncle at the holy Studite monastery. There he laid aside his emperor's garments and put on the clothes of a suppliant and refugee. As soon as this information became known in the City, the hearts of all men,**73 hitherto filled with fear and grim foreboding, were relieved of anxiety. Some made thank-offerings to God for their deliverance, others acclaimed the new empress, while the common folk and the loungers in the market joined in dancing. The revolution was dramatized and they composed choral songs inspired by the events that had taken place before their eyes. More numerous still was the crowd that rushed in one wild swoop upon the tyrant himself, intent on cutting him down, on slitting his throat.

39. So much for them. Theodora's companions meanwhile sent a guard for him. The guard commander was one of the nobles**74 and I myself accompanied him (I was a personal friend of the man). Actually, he had invited me to advise him and help in the carrying out of his orders. On our arrival at the doors of the church, we saw another guard, composed of volunteers, a company of citizens who had completely surrounded the sacred building. They were ready to do everything but tear it down. So it was not without difficulty that we made our way into the church. Along with us a great multitude of folk poured in, roaring abuse at the accursed fellow. All manner of indecent epithets were hurled at him.

40. Up till then I too had gone along with the mob with no particularly moderate feelings about him. I was not indifferent to his treatment of the empress, and a certain mild resentment against the man stirred me on my own account. But when I reached the sacred altar where he was, and saw both the refugees, one, who had been an emperor, clinging to the actual Holy Table of the Word, the other, the Nobilissimus, standing on the right of the altar, both with their clothes changed, their spirit gone and utterly put to shame, then there was no trace whatever of anger left in my heart. I stood there dumbfounded, mute with astonishment, as though I had been struck by a hurricane. I was transformed at the strangeness of the thing. Then, recovering my spirits, I began to curse this life of ours, in which these strange and terrible things so often come to pass, and as if some spring had welled up within me, a flood of tears beyond control poured from my eyes. This outburst finally gave way to groans.

41. Now the mob that had entered the church gathered in a circle [105] round the two men, like wild beasts longing to devour them, while I was standing by the latticed gate on the right of the altar, lamenting. Both of them saw that I was greatly distressed and not entirely hostile to themselves. They detected in me some signs of moderation. Both therefore converged on me. Changing my manner somewhat, I began with gentle censure of the Nobilissimus. Among other faults I charged him with voluntarily supporting the emperor in his persecution of Zoe. Then I turned to him who had formerly been all powerful, asking him what possible hurt he could have suffered at the hands of his adopted mother and mistress, that he should add such woe to her tragic story. Both answered me. The Nobilissimus denied that he was privy to his nephew's plot against Zoe. He had encouraged him in no other designs. 'If I had wished to restrain him', he said, 'my reward would have been some calamity. The fellow was so headstrong,' -- and here he turned to the emperor -- 'so headstrong in all his desires and ambitions. Had I been able to check his enthusiasms, the whole of my family would not have been mutilated, a prey to fire and sword.'

42. I would like to interrupt the history for a moment and explain what he meant by this 'mutilated'. When the emperor exiled the Orphanotrophus, thereby bringing down, as he thought, the pillar of the family, he hastened to the destruction of the rest. All his relatives, most of whom had already reached their full stature and were bearded men, who had become fathers and been entrusted with offices of great dignity in the state, he compelled to undergo castration, making of their life a semi-death. The truth is, he was ashamed to kill them openly: he preferred to compass their destruction by mutilation, a punishment apparently less severe.

43. Such was the reply of the uncle. The tyrant, however, slowly shaking his head and forcing a tear from his eyes (not without some difficulty) said, 'Truly, God is not unjust' -- those were his very words -- 'and I am rightly paying the penalty for what I have done.' With these words he again laid hold of the Holy Table. Then he prayed that his change of garment might receive legal sanction and the ceremony of reception into the Church was performed in respect of them both. Nevertheless, they were utterly dejected, filled with apprehension and dread lest the mob should attack them. For my own part, I thought their turbulence would go no further. I was still fascinated by the drama of the thing. The unravelling of the plot [106] bewildered me. But this proved to be indeed only a short prelude to the worse tragedies which followed. However, I will describe what happened in detail.

44. Day was already drawing to a close when suddenly there arrived one of the newly-appointed officials, saying that he had received an order from Theodora to remove the refugees to some other place. He was accompanied by a crowd of citizens and soldiers. Approaching the altar at which they had sought sanctuary, he invited them, in a somewhat peremptory manner, to leave the church. Despite this, when they saw the mob talking of public execution and when with their own eyes they perceived the mob leader signalling that the moment was at hand, and when they observed the change in the man -- he was more insolent than usual -- they refused to come forth and clung more resolutely than ever to the pillars that support the altar. The other thereupon laid aside his insolence and addressed them with greater respect. He swore by the Holy Relics and used all manner of persuasion, saying that they would neither suffer any evil nor would he, the Empress's envoy, treat them with any more severity than the occasion demanded. Even so, they remained deaf to his entreaties, filled with dread and expecting all kinds of disaster to follow their present distress. It was better, they thought, to be slain in the sanctuary than meet with any and every outrage in the open.

45. So the official gave up all hope of reasoned persuasion and resorted to violence. At his command the mob laid hands on them and without more ado proceeded to break the law, hounding them out of the church like wild beasts. The victims emitted cries of anguish unrestrained. They lifted their eyes to the Holy Lamb, praying fervently that they might not be disappointed of their hopes, that they might not be cruelly driven away after seeking refuge in the house of God. And most of those who were there with us were indeed put to shame by their sufferings. They did not dare to resist outright -- affairs were now hurrying on to the climax -- but they did make a bargain with the mob and they relied on the sworn word of their leader. So they handed them over to him, with the air of men who have concluded a treaty, and then continued to escort them, presumably in order to give them assistance once they were driven from the church. In reality, nothing could help them; circumstances were far too unfavourable and the people's hatred too general. [107]

46. Theodor"'s adherents were aware of Zoe's jealousy. They knew that she would be quite willing to see a stable-lad on the imperial throne rather than let her sister share power with herself. They drew the natural conclusion that she would in all probability scorn Theodora completely and promote Michael to the throne a second time, by underhand means. Their unanimous decision, therefore was to do away with the fugitive emperor. The moderate element, however, was not disposed to favour sentence of death: the ambitions of Michael and his uncle would have to be extinguished by some other device, and after careful consideration, they determined their course of action. Bold, resolute men were despatched with all speed. Their instructions were to burn out the fugitives's eyes, as soon as they saw them outside the sacred building.

47. Actually they had already left the church, and a shameful reception awaited them outside. The rabble made fun of them, naturally enough under the circumstances. Sometimes the insults were tempered with laughter, but malice inspired others. Anyhow, they brought them out, intending to drive them through the centre of the city, but they had not gone far on the journey when they were encountered by the man who had been commanded to blind the two miscreants. His party showed their instructions to the mob and they proceeded to prepare for the execution and sharpen the iron for the branding. Meanwhile the victims heard what wretched fate was in store for them. There was no longer any hope of escape, for while some applauded the sentence, the others did nothing to oppose it, and the two were instantly struck dumb with fright. In fact, they would have nearly died, had not one of the senators stood by them to help. He offered consolation in their misery and little by little restored some courage in their hearts.

48. In spite of this encouragement, the emperor, overwhelmed by the situation and his wretched misfortunes, showed the same weakness of character throughout the whole time of his tribulation. He moaned and wailed aloud. Whenever anyone approached him, he begged for help. He humbly called upon God, raised hands in supplication to Heaven, to the church, to any other thing he could think of. His uncle, on the other hand, although at first he followed his companion's example, once he was convinced that safety really was out of the question, braced himself for the trial, and having armed himself, as it were, against the shock of catastrophe, he faced [108] suffering bravely. The fact is, he was a man of more dignified and steadfast character than his nephew, a man who would not willingly surrender to adverse fortune. Seeing the executioners all ready for their work, he at once offered himself as the first victim and calmly approached them, waiting with hands athirst for his blood. And as there was no clear space between himself and the mob -- for everyone there present wished to be the first witness of their punishment -- the Nobilissimus quietly looked round for the man to whom the miserable job had been entrusted. 'You there,' he said, 'please make the people stand back. Then you will see how bravely I bear my calamity!'

49. When the executioner tried to tie him down, to prevent him moving at the moment of blinding, he said, 'Look you. If you see me budge, nail me down!' With these words he lay flat on his back on the ground. There was no change of colour in his face, no crying out, no groaning. It was hard to believe the man was still alive. His eyes were then gouged, one after the other. Meanwhile the emperor, seeing in the other's suffering the fate that was about to overtake him too, lived through Constantine's anguish in himself, beating his hands together, smiting his face and bellowing in agony.

50.The Nobilissimus, his eyes gouged out, stood up from the ground and leaned for support on one of his most intimate friends. He addressed those who came up to him with great courage -- a man who rose superior to the trials that beset him, to whom death was as nothing. With Michael it was different, for when the executioner saw him flinch away and lowering himself to base entreaty he bound him securely. He held him down with considerable force, to stop the violent twitching when he was undergoing his punishment. After his eyes, too, had been blinded, the insolence of the mob, so marked before, died away, and with it their fury against these men.**75 They left them to rest there, while they themselves hurried back to Theodora. Actually, of the two empresses, one was in the palace, the other in the great cathedral of Santa Sophia.

51. The senate was unable to decide between them. Zoe, who was in the palace, they respected because she was the elder: Theodora, who was in the church, because it was through her that the revolt had been brought to an end and to her they owed their preservation. Each, therefore, had a claim on the Empire. However, the problem was settled for them by Zoe. For the first time, she greeted her sister [109] and embraced her with affection. What is more, she shared with her the Empire they had both inherited. The question of the government was thus resolved by agreement between them. Next, Zoe brought her to live with herself, escorted by a procession of great magnificence, and made her joint-ruler of the Empire. As for Theodora, she lost none of her respect for her sister, nor did she encroach on her prerogatives. On the contrary, she allowed Zoe to take precedence, and although both were empresses, Theodora held rank inferior to the older woman.


64. The Guardian of the Orphans was banished to the monastery of Monobatae. Cedrenus (749D, p. 535) has a different account. According to him John was banished by Zoe before Michael was crowned.

65. John was blinded in prison on the orders of Michael Cerularius the Patriarch who never forgave him for his own imprisonment during the reign of Michael IV. The date was 1043.

66. It was Constantine IX Monomachus who put John to death, after banishing him to Mltylene.

67. Despite this criticism it must be remembered that Michael restored George Maniaces and Constantine Dalassenus, both men of great ability. The future patriarch Constantine Lichudes also first obtained promotion in this reign. The Byzantine historian Michael Attaliates altogether differs from Psellus in his estimate of Michael V (cf. G. Schlumberger, L'epopée byzantine, III, p. 383).

68. The text of the Proclamation of 19 April 1042, made in the Forum of Constantine the Great by the City Prefect Anastasius, is preserved in Cedrenus (750D, p. 537). In it Michael accused Zoe of treachery and Alexius the patriarch (who was deposed at the same time) of collaborating wich her. The account of the whole episode is different in Cedrenus. According to him Michael was persuaded by the Nobilissimus and the Guardian of the Orphans (then in exile) not to trust Zoe. They insisted that she was preparing to poison him. She was sent to the island or Principo on 18 April.

69. Women inspired to ecstatic frenzy by Dionysus.

70. Zoe's father was Constantine VIII, her grandfather Romanus II, her greatgrandfather Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus.

71. Theodora had been exiled to the convent of Petrion during the reign of Romanus III Argyrus.

72. Constantine Cabasilas.

73. Heavy casualties were suffered on both sides in the battle of 19-20 April. As many as 3,000 men are said to have been killed.

74. The newly-appointed City Prefect, Campanares. Zoe (Cedrenus, 752C, p. 540) was inclined not to punish Michael. The people were justified in suspecting that she might once again place him on the throne. Theodora, on the other hand, was bitterly opposed to him. The patriarch Alexius seems to have played a leading part in the whole revolt.

75. The execution took place at the Sigma on 21 April 1042. After being blinded Michael was banished to the monastery of Elcimon. Where the Nobilissimus went to we do not know.

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Text scanned by Hanna Orr.

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

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

Paul Halsall, January 1999

The Internet Medieval Sourcebook is part of the Internet History Sourcebooks Project. The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.   Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 20 January 2021