Michael Psellos – A Life Examined

This is the first of three posts on Micheal Psellos and his impact on medieval Byzantium.

Michael Psellos – Secular Byzantine?

The Byzantines have a well-earned reputation for religious devotion and fondness for theological arguments throughout their history. They had little tolerance for deviation from religious orthodoxy at any time. However, history records that its famous historian, Michael Psellos, came under suspicion of being a pagan, or at least a fondness for paganism. Apparently his interest in ancient Greek literature and philosophy led to questions about his devotion to the Orthodox Church. 

Psellos and His Mother

The subject of Psellos’ religious beliefs began to interest me after reading Anthony Kaldellis’ “Mothers and Sons, Fathers and Daughters”. The collection includes an encomium for his mother, Theodote, who likely died sometime before 1050, or possibly 1045. Kaldellis dates the funeral oration for Psellos’ mother to about 1054, shortly before he left Constantinople for a monastery in Bithynia to escape politically motivated attacks for religious non-conformity.

The encomium goes to some length to praise his mother’s religious devotions, asceticism, and holiness. Reading this document, one gets the impression that Theodote’s religious devotion and asceticism were commonly known about her, gaining her much respect. This allowed Psellos to use her sanctity, and his filial devotion to her as a cover for his own lack thereof. At the same time, in reading the encomium I sensed an undercurrent of cynicism on Psellos’ part about the true reason for his mother’s religious devotions.

I suspect Psellos’ true feelings were that his mother did this for attention rather than deep religious feelings. Both of Psellos’ parents retired to monasteries in their 40’s. However, his father became tonsured and died prior to Theodote’s even entering her monastery. Unlike her husband, his supposedly ultra-devout mother only became tonsured shortly before dying. Did this lead Psellos to view excessive religious devotions such as his mother displayed with skepticism?

Psellos and the Patriarch

Contemporary Byzantine historians mention political turmoil late in the reign of Constantine IX Monomachos (1042-1055), but without excessive details aside from comments about popular unrest related to taxation. It is possible that the emperor used Psellos and a few other elites (John Xiphilinos, for example) as diversions or scapegoats, having them take the blame for what was agitating the populace. Another of Kaldellis’ books, “Psellos and the Patriarchs” includes a letter to the Patriarch Michael Keroullarios indicating that Psellos believed the patriarch was complicit in this persecution.

A little background on Michael Keroullarios helps understand this unusual medieval patriarch. He was originally a government bureaucrat before getting caught up in one of the plots to oust Michael IV the Paphlagonian and his brother, the scheming eunuch John the Orphanotrophos. The emperor discovered the plot and sent Keroullarios to live out his life as a monk. Except, this monk had greater ambitions. Keroullarios got the nod to become patriarch when Constantine Monomachos was emperor.

Political turmoil occurred between late 1053 and January 1055 when Monomachos died. Its threats motivated Psellos to take the extreme measure of leaving for a monastery to demonstrate his fidelity to religious orthodoxy. The end of Theodote’s encomium includes a request of the emperor to allow him to depart for the monastery.

Secular, Pagan or Orthodox?

No one would blame Psellos for skepticism about demonstrations of religious devotion used for show or political purposes. People using religion for vanity, manipulation and to gain power are part of the enduring human condition. But does that mean he was a pagan, or even secular?

I think not. Yes, he enjoyed and appreciated ancient Greek (pagan) literature and philosophy, nor was he well-suited to monastic life. He left the monastery not long after Monomachos’ death, returning to Constantinople and power politics. However, nowhere does he express a belief in anything other than the Christian God. He also maintained a warm friendship with Theophylactos, the archbishop of Ochrid. Theophylactos, a former student of Psellos, wrote his grandson a consoling letter on his grandfather’s death.

Michael Psellos was an important and controversial political figure in 11th Century Byzantium, but probably not pagan. Nor was he even secular as it is understood in the 21st century. Perhaps he could best be understood as a lukewarm Orthodox Christian.

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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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