Michael Psellus | ‘Basileus’ of modesty

by | Nov 16, 2017 | Books

The second volume of John Julius Norwich’s history of the Byzantine Empire quotes rather frequently passages from one Michael Psellus’s Chronographia. A history of the Byzantine emperors from Basil II (976-1025) to Michael VII Ducas (1071-1078).

Psellus was not only a scholarly historian, he also was a politician and advisor to several emperors (Michael VI, Isaac I Comnenus, Constantine X Ducas, others) and thus had eyewitness access to and played a role in history. Norwich calls him the “author of the most valuable – and by far the most entertaining – Byzantine memoir since that of Procopius, five hundred years before.”

There is, at the same time, an almost imperceptible tinge of self-importance in some of his passages that, however, didn’t go unnoticed. For example:

The cultural renaissance of the eleventh century was due to the revival of the University of Constantinople in 1045, with Psellus being one of the scholars behind it. In a letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, Psellus writes:

The Celts and the Arabs are now our prisoners. From East and West alike my reputation brings them flocking to our city. The Nile may water the land of the Egyptians, but it is my golden words that nourish their spirit. Ask the Persians and the Ethiopians: they will tell you that they know me, that they admire me and seek me out. Only recently there arrived a Babylonian, impelled by an insurmountable desire to drink at the fountain of my eloquence.

About one of the worst basileus the Empire ever saw, Constantine Ducas, but who happened to be Psellus’s good friend, he wrote:

Others may speak of his many splendid successes, but for me there is one overriding consideration: the fact that this man, as admirable in reality as he was in appearance, should place more confidence in my judgment than in the scheming of my rivals. Whether he had discerned more evidence of wisdom in my opinions than in those of the others, or whether it was because he admired my character, I cannot tell; but so greatly was he attached to me, so much did he love me more than the rest, that he listened intently to every word that I uttered, depended on me absolutely for spiritual advice and entrusted his most precious possessions to my personal care.

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