Review – Psellos and the Patriarchs

Letters and Funeral Orations for Keroullarios, Leichoudes, and Xiphilinos

Translated by Anthony Kaldellis and Ioannis Polemis
Copyright 2015 by University of Notre Dame

Michael Psellos’ history, “Fourteen Byzantine Rulers” has been an invaluable source for those of us interested in Byzantine history, particularly the 11th century until the reign of Michael VII Doukas. This remarkable history is longer and provides more detailed (and gossipy) information about the main actors of the period than his friend, Michael Attaleiates’ “The History”, did. And he focuses on the people he knew, rather than on the broader swathe of history that John Skylitzes’ history does.

A few years ago, Anthony Kaldellis and Ioannis Polemis translated and published another collection of Psellos’ writing, “Psellos and the Patriarchs”. In fact, based on “Psellos and the Patriarchs” and “Fourteen Byzantine Rulers”, as well as other writings of his I’ve seen quoted in history books, it appears that the prolific Michael Psellos split his time evenly between his bureaucratic assignments in the Great Palace and in his writing. Whatever opinion we might have about this inveterate scribe personally, we have to be grateful for the information he has passed down in his books, letters and funeral orations. One thing that I am curious about is how so much of his writing has been preserved, while so many others’ has been lost.

These translations by Kaldellis and Polemis begin with an introduction that includes a brief biography of Michael Psellos, followed by essays on the careers of the the three patriarchs whose funeral orations and, in the case of Keroularios and Xiphilinos, letters he wrote them.

It appears that Psellos had a reputation of not being an especially devout Orthodox Christian, to the point that he was accused of being a pagan. I find that unlikely in the context of that time, although he likely was unusually skeptical of clerical power and wealth. This skepticism turned him into a target late in the reign of Constantine IX Monomachos due to political turmoil, to the point where he felt he needed to head to a monastery and try to make it as a monk. He lasted less than a year before returning to the capital following the death of Monomachos.

The first translation is a letter to the Patriarch Michael Keroullarios about the time he was arrested by Isaac I Komnenos and ordered to abdicate from the patriarchate. Interestingly, it appears the Keroullarios was a key figure in the political disruptions in 1050-1054 during Monomachos’ reign that caused a number of bureaucrats to resign their position and be tonsured in monasteries, including Psellos. Psellos’ letter to Keroullarios clearly demonstrates that he still bore a grudge against the then-embattled patriarch. The letter recounts the author’s modesty, his intelligence and education, the great respect so many have had for him, with one exception: “I do not say these things to ridicule you, but rather in admiration of your resistance to all charms.” Later he lets the patriarch know just how people feel about him. “People are more afraid of you than of the conflagration the Chaldeans [a fire consuming the whole world] talk about.”

This letter, dripping with all the anger and sarcasm that a person who believes they have been wronged can express for the one who wronged them, stands in sharp contrast to the Funeral Oration he wrote some years later for Michael Keroullarios. By that time, Isaac I Komnenus had abdicated and Constantine X Doukas sat on the throne, with his wife, Eudokia Makrembolitissa, a niece of Keroullarios, beside him. I think we can safely say that the tone of this encomium was vastly different from the letter sent just a few years earlier. “…although there are not many examples of virtue left in our time, this man alone has proved sufficiently virtuous to be considered equal to all virtuous men of the past and to be much admired in the present too.” This remarkable change in Psellos’ opinion of Keroullarios goes on for over 70 pages of fulsome praise, excuses for his flaws, and comments about how everyone revered this man. Obviously, Psellos was a man who knew how to trim his sails, depending on how the political winds blew.

I knew little about Leichoudes before reading Psellos’ funeral oration for him. Leichoudes had the position of ‘mesazon’, or prime minister during Monomachos’ reign, but was one of those who found it prudent to be tonsured and enter a monastery rather than suffer some sort political retribution. After Keroullarios was removed from the patriarchate, Leichoudes was named to the position. This oration is more of an example of the Byzantine style of writing and less revealing of the personality and events of its subject’s life.

The final patriarch to be included is Ioannis Xiphilinos, who became patriarch after Leichoudes’ death in 1064. Xiphilinos appears to have been a dear friend of Psellos’ and the two letters Psellos sent his old friend give a side of our writer that I didn’t expect. The letters were sent sometime around 1054 when Psellos was attempting to make a go of being a monk at a monastery on Mount Olympos in Bithynia, while Xiphilinos was doing the same (with more success) at another monastery. The letters have their moments of humorous teasing as when Psellos denies trying to be a new Plato as his friend claimed, but they also expressed a longing to see his old friend. “I have been completely deprived of you, both separated from your kindred and concordant soul, and also divided within myself.” Sadly, later the two friends had a falling out, apparently over religious/ philosophical issues. Still his funeral oration for Xiphilinos (almost 50 pages worth) was a respectful telling of the life of this patriarch.

The only, and admittedly minor, complaint I have is that the the items included were not provided in chronological order, but instead grouped by patriarch.  However, chronological order would also have had its drawbacks, so the book’s groupings may be the best way to provide the translations. I don’t know if this book has received much attention from the Byzantine history community diaspora, but it definitely deserves a place on the shelf of any historian studying its 11th century political events.


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Eileen Stephenson

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