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Michael Psellos

michael psellos, michael psellos chronographia
Michael Psellos or Psellus Greek: Μιχαήλ Ψελλός, Mikhaēl Psellos was a Byzantine Greek monk, writer, philosopher, politician and historian He was born in 1017 or 1018, and is believed to have died in 1078, although it has also been maintained that he remained alive until 1096


  • 1 Biography and political career
  • 2 Historical works
  • 3 Other works
  • 4 Personality
  • 5 Pseudo-Psellos
  • 6 Editions
  • 7 Secondary literature
  • 8 References in literature
  • 9 References
  • 10 External links

Biography and political careeredit

The main source of information about Psellos' life comes from his own works, which contain extensive autobiographical passages Michael Psellos was probably born in Constantinople His family hailed from Nicomedia and, according to his own testimony, counted members of the consular and patrician elite among its ancestors His baptismal name was Constantine; Michael was the monastic name he chose when he entered a monastery later in life Psellos 'the stammerer' probably was a personal by-name referring to a speech defect

Michael Psellos was educated in Constantinople At around the age of ten, he was sent to work outside the capital as a secretary of a provincial judge, in order to help his family raise the dowry for his sister When his sister died, he gave up that position and returned to Constantinople to resume his studies While studying under John Mauropus, he met the later Patriarchs Constantine Leichoudes and John Xiphilinos, and the later emperor Constantine X Doukas For some time, he worked in the provinces again, now serving as a judge himself1 Some time before 1042 he returned again to Constantinople, where he got a junior position at court as a secretary ὑπογραμματεύς in the imperial chancellery From there he began a rapid court career He became an influential political advisor to emperor Constantine IX Monomachos reigned 1042–1055 During the same time, he became the leading professor at the University of Constantinople, bearing the honorary title of "Chief of the Philosophers" ὕπατος τῶν φιλοσόφων

Towards the end of Monomachos' reign, Psellos found himself under political pressure for some reason and finally decided to leave the court, entering the Olympus monastery on Mount Olympus in Bithynia in 1054 After Monomachos' death, however, he was soon recalled to court by his successor, Empress Theodora reigned 1055–1056 Throughout the following years, he remained active in politics, serving as a high-ranking political advisor to several successive emperors He played a decisive political role in the transition of power from Michael VI to Isaac I Komnenos in 1057; then from Isaac Komnenos to Constantine X Doukas 1059; and then again from Romanos IV Diogenes to Michael VII Doukas 1071 As Psellos had served as Michael's personal teacher during the reign of Michael's father Constantine, and as he had played an important role in helping Michael gain power against his adversary and stepfather Romanos, Psellos probably entertained hopes of an even more influential position as a teacher and advisor under him However, Michael seems to have been less inclined towards protecting Psellos and after the mid-1070s there is no more information about any role played by Psellos at court As his own autobiographic accounts cease at this point, there is little reliable information about his later years Some scholars believe that Psellos had to retreat into a monastery again at some time during the 1070s2 Following a remark by Psellos' fellow historian Joannes Zonaras, it is believed by most scholars that Psellos died soon after the fall of Michael VII in 1078,3 although some scholars have also proposed later dates4 What is known is that Theophylaktos of Bulgaria wrote a letter to Psellos's brother comforting him on the death of his brother saying that, "Your brother has not died, but has departed to God released of both a painful life and disease 5

Historical worksedit

Rulers of the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century Based on Chronographia

Probably Psellos' best known and most accessible work is the Chronographia It is a history of the Byzantine emperors during the century leading up to Psellos' own time It covers the reigns of fourteen emperors and empresses, beginning with the almost 50-year-long reign of Basil II, the "Bulgar-Slayer" 976–1025, and ending some time during the reign of Michael VII Doukas 1071–1078 It is structured mainly as a series of biographies Unlike most other historiographical works of the period, it places much more emphasis on the description of characters than on details of political and military events It also includes very extensive autobiographical elements about Psellos' political and intellectual development, and it gives far greater weight to those periods when Psellos held an active position in politics especially the reign of Constantine IX, giving the whole work almost the character of political memoirs It is believed to have been written in two parts The first covers the emperors up to Isaac I Komnenos The second, which has a much more strongly apologetic tone, is in large parts an encomium on Psellus' current protectors, the emperors of the Doukas dynasty

Other worksedit

Psellos left many other writings:

  1. "Historia syntomos", a shorter, didactic historical text in the form of a world chronicle
  2. A large number of scientific, philosophical and religious treatises One well-known example of these is De Operatione Daemonum, a classification of demons He wrote or compiled an important work on philosophy, the De omnifaria doctrina Other works deal with topics such as astronomy, medicine, music, jurisprudence, physics, and laography
  3. Various didactic poems on topics such as grammar and rhetorics
  4. Three Epitaphioi or funeral orations over the patriarchs Michael Keroularios, Constantine III Leichoudes and John Xiphilinos
  5. A funeral oration for his mother, including a large amount of autobiographic information
  6. Several panegyrics, persuasive speeches including works against the Bogomils and Euchites and speeches addressed to his patron emperors at court
  7. Several hundred personal letters
  8. Rhetorical exercises and essays on set themes
  9. Occasional, satirical, and epigrammatic verse


Psellos was universally educated and had a reputation for being one of the most learned men of his time He prided himself on having single-handedly reintroduced to Byzantine scholarship a serious study of ancient philosophy, especially of Plato His predilection for Plato and other pagan often Neoplatonic philosophers led to doubts about the orthodoxy of his faith among some of his contemporaries, and at one point he was forced to make a public profession of faith in his defense He also prided himself on being a master of rhetoric, combining the wisdom of the philosopher and the persuasiveness of the rhetorician This made him the model of a political leader and advisor Among modern commentators, Psellos' penchant for long autobiographical digressions in his works has earned him accusations of vanity and ambition At the same time, his political career and the contents of his Chronographia have led commentators to characterize him as obsequious and opportunistic, because of his ostensibly uncritical stance towards some of the emperors and because of the many shifts in his political loyalty over the course of his life However, other commentators argue that there is a powerful ironic undercurrent running through his work, especially the Chronographia, transmitting highly critical and subversive messages about the emperors portrayed,6 or even about Byzantine Christian beliefs and morality at large7

As mentioned above, serious questions were raised during Psellos' lifetime concerning his religious beliefs For example, according to Byzantinist Anthony Kaldellis, "In 1054 he Psellos was accused by his erstwhile friend, the future Patriarch John Xiphilinos, of forsaking Christ to follow Plato" Kaldellis, 1999, p 4 Even stronger doubts arose concerning Psellos' student, John Italos, who succeeded Psellos as Chief of the Philosophers Hypatos ton Philosophon Italos was publicly accused of teaching such "Hellenizing" ideas as metempsychosis and the eternity of the world Italos faced such accusations twice, and both times he confessed and recanted8


It was once thought that there was another Byzantine writer of the same name, Michael Psellos the Elder now also called Pseudo-Psellos, who lived on the island of Andros in the 9th century, and who was a pupil of Photius and teacher of emperor Leo VI the Wise Michael Psellos himself was also called "the younger" by some authors This belief was based on an entry in a medieval chronicle, the Σύνοψις Κεδρηνοῦ-Σκυλίτση, which mentions the name in that context It is now believed that the inclusion of the name Psellos in this chronicle was the mistake of an ignorant copyist at a later time, and that no "Michael Psellos the elder" ever existed9

The term Pseudo-Psellos is also used in modern scholarship to describe the authorship of several later works that are believed to have been falsely ascribed to Psellos in Byzantine times


Compendium mathematicum, 1647
  • Psellus, Michael 1647 Compendium mathematicum in Latin Lugd Batav: Bonaventura Elzevier, Abraham Elzevier Retrieved 2015-06-19 
  • Chronographie ou histoire d'un siècle de Byzance 976–1077 Ed Émile Renauld 2 vols Paris 1926/28 Standard modern edition
  • Imperatori di Bisanzio Cronografia Ed Salvatore Impellizzeri 2 vols Vicenza 1984 New critical edition and Italian translation
  • Chronographia, ed E R A Sewter London 1953 English translation, Full online text
  • Chronographia, ed Vrasidas Karalis 2 vols Athen 1992/96 Modern Greek translation
  • Vidas de los emperadores des Bizancio Cronografia Ed Juan Signes Codoñer Madrid 2005 Spanish translation
  • Autobiografia Encomio per la madre Ed Ugo Criscuolo Naples 1989
  • De omnifaria doctrina Διδασκαλία παντοδαπή Ed Leendert G Westerink Utrecht 1948
  • De operatione daemonum Ed Jean-François Boissonade Nürnberg 1838, reprint Amsterdam 1964
  • De operatione daemonum Tr Marcus Collision Sydney 1843 Full online text
  • '"Éloge inédit du lecteur Jean Kroustoulas" Ed Paul Gautier Rivista di studi bizantini e neoellenici, ns 17–19 27–29, 1980–1982: 119–147
  • Epistola a Giovanni Xifilino Ed Ugo Criscuolo Naples 1990
  • Epistola a Michele Kerulario Ed Ugo Criscuolo Naples 1990
  • Historia Syntomos Ed Willem J Aerts Berlin 1990
  • Orationes hagiographicae Ed Elizabeth A Fisher Stuttgart/Leipzig 1994
  • Orationes panegyricae Ed George T Dennis Stuttgart/Leipzig 1994
  • Oratoria minora Ed Antony R Littlewood Leipzig 1984
  • Orazione in memoria di Constantino Lichudi Ed Ugo Criscuolo Messina 1983
  • Philosophica minora I Ed John M Duffy Stuttgart/Leipzig 1992
  • Philosophica minora II Ed Dominic J O'Meara Leipzig 1989
  • Poemata Ed Leendert G Westerink Stuttgart/Leipzig 1992
  • Scripta minora magnam partem adhuc inedita 2 vols Ed Eduard Kurtz, Franz Drexl Milan 1936/41
  • Essays on Euripides and George of Pisidia and on Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius Ed Andrew R Dyck Wien 1989
  • Theologica I Ed Paul Gautier Leipzig 1989
  • Theologica II Ed Leendert G Westerink, John M Duffy München/Leipzig 2002

Secondary literatureedit

Books about Psellos

  • A Kaldellis, Anthony Kaldellis: The argument of Psellos' Chronographia, Boston 1999
  • Cerqueiro, Daniel Michael Psellos, La Escuela de Atenas y el Sentido de Conócete a ti mismo PVen,Buenos Aires 2001 ISBN 978-987-9239-21-6
  • E Pietsch: Die "Chronographia" des Michael Psellos: Kaisergeschichte, Autobiographie und Apologie, Wiesbaden 2005
  • S Papaioannou, Michael Psellos: Rhetoric and Authorship in Byzantium, Cambridge 2013
  • F Lauritzen, Depiction of Character in the Chronographia of Michael Psellos, Turnhout 2013

References in literatureedit

In the gloss of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, there is a reference to "the Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus" as an authority on "the invisible inhabitants of this planet, neither departed souls nor angels"

The British poet Christopher Middleton includes a poem about Psellus in his 1986 collection, Two Horse Wagon Going By, 'Mezzomephistophelean Scholion'

Psellos appears also in Tim Severin's novel Viking: King's Man, the final piece of the Viking trilogy


  1. ^  Herbermann, Charles, ed 1913 "Michael Psellus" Catholic Encyclopedia New York: Robert Appleton Company 
  2. ^ Perikles P Joannou: "Psellos et le monastère Τὰ Ναρσοῦ" Byzantinische Zeitschrift 44: 283–290
  3. ^ Herbert Hunger: Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner 2 vols München 1978
  4. ^ Ioannes Polemis: "When did Psellos die" Byzantinische Zeitschrift 58: 73–76
  5. ^ P Gautier, Theophylacte d'Achrida Lettres Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae Series Thessalonicensis 162 Thessalonica: Association for Byzantine Research, 1986 Letter 132
  6. ^ Efthymia Pietsch: Die "Chronographia" des Michael Psellos: Kaisergeschichte, Autobiographie und Apologie Wiesbaden 2005
  7. ^ Anthony Kaldellis: The argument of Psellos' Chronographia Boston 1999
  8. ^ Lowell Clucas: "The Trial of John Italos and the Crisis of Intellectual Values in Byzantium in the Eleventh Century", München 1981
  9. ^ Paul Lemerle: Le premier humanisme byzantin: Notes et remarques sur enseignement et culture à Byzance des origines au Xe siècle Paris 1971 ch 6

External linksedit

  • Latin Greek English Greek Opera Omnia by Migne Patrologia Graeca with analytical indexes

michael psellos, michael psellos chronographia, michael psellos street thessaloniki map

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Michael Psellos

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