Michael Psellus

(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Psellus infused both Byzantine state theory and Orthodox theology with a revived classical tradition, while preserving a history of the personalities and events of his times.

Early Life

Constantine Psellus, who took the name Michael only when he withdrew to a monastery in 1054, was born in 1018 into a family with imperial connections but only modest means. The coemperors at the time were the elderly brothers Basil II (reigned 976-1025) and Constantine VIII (reigned 976-1028). Psellus’ own family is but poorly known. Although nothing is recorded about his father, his mother, Theodote, was the subject of one of Psellus’ seven extant elegies. In addition to introducing her son to the Orthodox faith and the study of Scripture, she secured the Platonist John Mauropus, later the Archbishop of Euchaita, as his tutor. Under Mauropus’ influence, Psellus made several lifelong friends: Constantine Ducas, Constantine Leichudes, and John Xiphilinus. These friends would later assist one another amid the intrigues of the Byzantine court.

Before Psellus reached the age of sixteen, his education in rhetoric had progressed far enough to bring him into the imperial circle. At the court, the youth regularly saw “and on one occasion actually talked with” the elderly emperor, Romanus III. Psellus also attended the imperial funeral; in writing of this period, he would describe himself as one who “had not yet grown a beard” and was just beginning the study of the classical poets.

Psellus’ studies were extensive: He memorized Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.), and the frequency with which various phrases from the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.) were used in his later writing demonstrates his educational base. He also knew the works of Greek and Latin historians and debated constantly the distinction between true history and panegyric or scandalmongering. Astrology, auguries, soothsaying, and magic practices used for sexual potency (“arts” accepted at the imperial court) as well as arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy received his attention. He learned enough medicine to practice. Finally, he read enough on military strategy and equipment of war to go into the field.

Because of his family’s financial difficulties, which included the need to provide a dowry for his elder sister, Psellus was forced to curtail his education for a time. He briefly became a tax collector and judicial clerk in Philadelphia, before resuming his studies at the age of twenty-five. Although he was married, nothing is known about his wife. In his own works, he refers to the loss of his beloved daughter, Styliane.

Once back at his studies, Psellus trained his tongue with rhetoric, shaped his mind with philosophy, and integrated the two so that he might give voice eloquently to the art of reasoning. This oratorical ability would take him directly into the service of Emperor Constantine IX.

Life’s Work

The death in relatively quick succession of three aged emperors—Basil II, Constantine VIII, and Constantine’s son-in-law Romanus III—left in control Constantine’s daughters, Zoë and Theodora, who both, by imperial law, held the title of augusta. Romanus, while married to Zoë, in his old age had preferred a mistress; Zoë was left to engage in an affair with a younger court official. She secured the crown for her lover, whom she married; he reigned as Michael IV from 1034 to December 10, 1041. Although he died prematurely, in anticipation of his death, a nephew was adopted to establish the succession. When this heir took control as Michael V and exiled Zoë, the populace revolted and Theodora had him executed. Alexis, the patriarch, then permitted a violation of church and state law so that the empress Zoë could marry a third time; she chose Constantine IX, who was one of the last members of the ancient family of Monomachi. Constantine, who became coruler with the sisters, brought directly into his service Michael Cerularius as patriarch, Constantine Leichudes as president of the senate, and Constantine Psellus as secretary.

Psellus relates that under Michael V he had been “initiated into the ceremonies of entry into the imperial presence.” He witnessed, from the outer porch of the imperial palace, the uprising of the people on behalf of Theodora. Psellus had no difficulty surviving the short interlude when the gynaikonitis (women’s quarters) served as the imperial council chamber and the two empresses continued the business of administration. According to his later account, however, “they confused the trifles of the harem with important matters of state.”

A major event in the reign of Constantine IX was the establishment of faculties of law and philosophy for an imperial university at Constantinople in 1045. The faculty of law was to be headed by a salaried nomophylax (law professor), which was assigned to John Xiphilinus. There was also established a chair of philosophy for Psellus. Only the barest hint of these events appears in Chronographia, apparently written after 1071 (English translation, 1953), and the dimensions of his scholarship must be deduced from the orations and treatises which have survived. Latin had been the language of “Old Rome”; “New Rome” had lost its use. It was being revived in the late tenth century, however, and Romanus III could speak it. The study of law required it, and Psellus gave some time to its study.

As a rhetorical philosopher, Psellus was a master of words and the...

(The entire section is 2291 words.)