Michael Psellos – A Life Examined

Michael Psellos

Michael Psellos

This is the third and last of three posts on Michael Psellos and his impact on medieval Byzantium.

Michael Psellos – The Grey Eminence

Michael Psellos’ involvement in the imperial administration of the Byzantine Empire spanned about forty years. Most of that time saw this prototype of the essential bureaucrat in senior positions of influence. He never states in the “Chronographia” what actual policies he determined, nor do the other historians of the period, Michael Attaleiates and John Skylitzes. However, Psellos’ does brag in his history about how much influence he had on the emperors he served. So it is worthwhile examining how that worked out.

Constantine IX Monomachos , 1042-1055

Psellos was part of the imperial government prior to the reign of Monomachos, but still early in his career. This emperor promoted him into higher positions and held Psellos in high esteem, naming him Chief of the Philosophers at Constantinople’s university. Whether or not he had much influence on policy is in question. The “Chronographia” does criticize Monomachos for his spendthrift habits, listing them in some detail. If he did have influence, it was negligible in that respect.

Nonetheless, Psellos’ position was significant enough for him to become a target, possibly a scapegoat, during a political maelstrom late in Monomachos’ reign. The bureaucrat believed that Patriarch Michael Keroullarios was behind the accusations of paganism leveled at himself and other philosophers. Psellos resented those charges, bearing a grudge against the patriarch until his death.

Michael VI Stratiotikos, 1056-1057

The elderly Empress Theodora succeeded Monomachos for about twenty months until her death in August 1056. Psellos spent some of that time in a Bithynian monastery before returning to Constantinople. While he did return to some position of authority, Theodora chose others as her advisors, to Psellos’ disappointment.

Michael VI reigned for only one year and Psellos’ description of that period is brief and focused on Isaac Comnenus’ rebellion against this emperor. However, Michael VI had served as an imperial bureaucrat, as Psellos had, and seems to have put more confidence in him than prior rulers had. The emperor had Psellos lead the delegation negotiating with Isaac Comnenus when his victorious army camped just across the Bosphoros from the city.

Although Psellos’ negotiation was too late to benefit Emperor Michael VI, he did make an impression on Emperor Isaac I Comnenus. Psellos returned to Constantinople in the new ruler’s party, as one of his chief advisors.

Isaac I Comnenus, 1057-1059

Isaac I was a successful general and strong leader, probably a few years older than Psellos. “Chronographia” devotes (in the Penguin Classics edition that E.R.A. Sewter translated) about twenty-eight pages to discussing Isaac’s two-year reign.

Most of the rulers since 1025 had spent money faster than they could collect taxes, leaving the treasury bare and the military underfunded. Isaac spent the first+ year of his reign trying to repair the empire’s financial situation. One of the methods he used for that repair involved confiscating the “excess” wealth of the monasteries. Many of them had large endowments, far beyond the needs of the monks, so Isaac thought it made sense. However, Patriarch Michael Keroullarios, Psellos’ old enemy, vigorously opposed this option.

The patriarch had supported Isaac in his rebellion and assumed he had overwhelming influence over the new emperor because of that. He did not; Isaac’s financial needs took precedence. Psellos’ description of the disagreements between the emperor and patriarch are brief. However, they grew intense and Isaac finally decided to abduct the patriarch and force his resignation. Some months later the patriarch died without ever signing a resignation.

There’s no record of what advice Psellos gave Isaac at this time. However, he sent a letter to the priest during his incarceration, ridiculing him for his blindness to Psellos’ talents and intelligence. This letter’s tenor indicates that Psellos would have had little inclination to moderate Isaac’s treatment of the patriarch. There is no record of him exacerbating the situation, but it would not be surprising if he had.

Constantine X Ducas, 1059-1067

Psellos was at Constantine Ducas’ right hand from the beginning. He modestly relates in “Chronographia” that he may have had a hand in steering Isaac’s choice to Ducas. Modestly, he continues throughout the book’s twelve to thirteen pages about Ducas’ reign speaking of how much the emperor relied on him. Psellos devotes many of those pages to modestly recounting his importance to the emperor. Can I say that humility was not one of Psellos’ virtues?

It should be noted that Psellos discussed Isaac’s two-year reign over twenty-eight pages. This was more than double the number of pages he devoted to Ducas’ seven and a half years on the throne. Of note, he devoted several of those few pages to praising his own abilities. Given that Ducas reigned for over seven years, we need to think about what is he not saying here.


Psellos is not telling us the utter disaster that Constantine Ducas’ reign was for the health of the Byzantine Empire. The financial deterioration that Empress Zoe and her three husbands had caused led to depleted funding for the military even before that. But Ducas’ notorious stinginess with the military gave the empire’s enemies many opportunities for attacking without consequences.

By the time Ducas died, the empire’s actual control over its land mass had shrunk by about 15-20% since the day Basil II died in 1025. This would be equivalent to the U.S. losing the entire east coast, from Maine to Florida, as well as Ohio and Kentucky. The losses in Italy had grown over time, but most of the others occurred during Ducas’ reign. At the time of his death the Hungarians had invaded and controlled Croatia and Serbia. In the east, the themes of Chaldia, Iberia, Vasprakania, Armenia, Koloneia, Mesopotamia and Cilicia became subject to devastating raids and invasions by Turks. The great Armenian city of Ani was destroyed, its inhabitants enslaved, its wealth looted.

These raids became a common occurrence in the 1060’s with passive responses from imperial forces that lacked the funds to respond. It’s difficult to estimate the wealth lost during these raids: wealth in human capital, livestock, gold, and buildings destroyed. Located far from the capital, the best the people in those communities could hope for was shelter in walled towns. But without livestock or a house to live in, what long-term options did they have?

If Michael Psellos was the senior advisor to Constantine Ducas that he says he was, then at least some of the blame for this disaster rests on his shoulders.

Romanos IV Diogenes, 1068-1071

If you’ve read the second of these three posts, you’ll know of the sad end to the Emperor Romanos IV. As I mentioned there, Psellos tried to give Romanos advice on military matters and felt offended when the emperor did not take it. Psellos’ arrogance, a city born and bred bureaucrat, becoming upset that the soldier-emperor did not take his advice on military affairs boggles the mind. Since Romanos was about ten years younger, perhaps the difference in their ages made Psellos think he knew better.

So in this case, Psellos’ bad advice to the emperor (who didn’t take it) did not cause the empire harm. What might have harmed the empire was anything he did to betray Romanos to Caesar John Ducas before and after the Battle of Manzikert. His description of Romanos in the “Chronographia” often finds fault with anything the emperor did. This description is at odds with the praise for Romanos found in the histories of Michael Attaleiates and John Skylitzes. Attaleiates even served as a military judge in the field with Romanos and knew him well.

We cannot know for certain whether Psellos did anything to betray Romanos, but he was in a position to do so and, with little affection for the emperor, motivation to do so.

DenouementMichael VII

Ultimately, eliminating Romanos IV Diogenes did Psellos no good. Michael VII was then in his twenties and wanted to rule his own incompetent way. The young emperor pushed Psellos and his uncle, Caesar John Ducas, aside in favor of his new favorite, the troublesome eunuch Nikephoritzes. Even so, Psellos had tutored Michael as a child, grooming him into the bungling man he became. He bears some responsibility for the horrendous six years Michael ruled on his own.

I doubt that Psellos realized he was at the end of his time of power and influence after his dismissal. Reading the final chapter in “Chronographia” on Michael VII reminded me of the funeral orations Psellos wrote for his mother and the Patriarch Michael Keroullarios. The funeral orations were both written to gain imperial favor, with a tone of exorbitant praise similar to the chapter on Michael VII. The tributes for this foolish and inept emperor flowed from his pen as though he was trying one more time to stand beside the throne, whispering into the imperial ear.

Whether he died before its completion, or realized the futility of his effort, he never finished that final chapter.


We can all be grateful for Michael Psellos’ vivid recounting of the history of fourteen Byzantine rulers in the “Chronographia”. Few historians of any era have known so many rulers as well as he did, bringing them to life for us a thousand years later. And he is still eminently readable for the armchair historian, unlike many historians of more recent vintage.

On the other hand, Psellos stood at the side of emperors who threw away the talent and treasure of the great Byzantine Empire, apparently doing little to halt those losses. For those of us who love Byzantine history, we can only shake our heads in disbelief at his veniality and shortsightedness. And wish that somehow the 11th century’s events had gone differently.


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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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