Biography and political career
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 Mauropous, 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 himself. Some time before 1042 he returned again to Constantinople, where he got a junior position at court as a secretary υπογραμματεύς) 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 newly founded academy of Constantinople, bearing the honorary title of "Consul of the Philosophers" (ύπατος των 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 in Bithynia in 1054. After Monomachos' death, however, he was soon recalled to court by his successor, Emperess 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 step-father 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 1070s. Following a remark by Psellos' fellow historian John Zonaras, it is believed by most scholars that Psellos died soon after the fall of Michael VII in 1078, although some scholars have also proposed later dates.
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 emperesses, 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 (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 where 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.
Psellos left a large amount of other writings too:
- "Historia syntomos", a shorter, didactic historical text in the form of a world chronicle.
- A large number of scientific, philosophical and religious treatises. The best known example of this is De Operatione Daemonum, a classification of demons. Other works deal with topics such as astronomy, medicine, music, jurisprudence, physics and laography.
- Various didactic poems on topics such as grammar and rhetorics.
- Three Epitaphioi or funeral orations over the patriarchs Michael Keroularios, Constantine III Leichoudes and John Xiphilinos.
- A funeral oration for his mother, including a large amount of autobiographic information.
- Several panegyrics, persuasive speeches (including works against the Bogomils and Euchites) and speeches addressed to his patron emperors at court.
- Several hundred personal letters.
- Rhetorical exercises and essays on set themes.
- Occasional, satirical, and epigrammatic verse.
Psellos was a universally educated personality and had a reputation as being one of the most learned men of his time. He prided himself of having single-handedly re-introduced to Byzantine scholarship a serious study of ancient philosophy, especially of Plato. His predilection for Plato and other heathen philosophers led to doubts about his orthodox faith among some of his contemporaries, and he was at one point forced to make a public profession of faith in his defense. He also prided himself as being a master of rhetoric, combining the wisdom of the philosopher and the persuasiveness of the rhetorian into an ideal 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 servile and opportunistic, because of his ostentively uncritical stance towards some of the emperors and because of his many shifts of political loyalty during his life. However, some other commentators argue that there is a powerful ironic undercurrent throughout his work, especially the Chronographia, transmitting highly critical and subversive messages about the emperors portrayed, or even about Byzantine Christian beliefs and morality at large.
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. Michael Psellos himself was also called "the younger" by some authors. This belief was based on an entry in a medieval chronicle, the Σύνοψις Κεδρηνού-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 existed.
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.
- 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. Ed. Leendert G. Westerink. Utrecht 1948.
- De operatione daemonum. Ed. Jean-François Boissonade. Nürnberg 1838, reprint Amsterdam 1964.
- '"Éloge inédit du lecteur Jean Kroustoulas." Ed. Paul Gautier. Rivista di studi bizantini e neoellenici, n.s. 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. Geoge 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. Leedert 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.
- Perikles P. Joannou: "Psellos et le monastère *Του Ναρσού". Byzantinische Zeitschrift 44: 283-290.
- Herbert Hunger: Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner. 2 vols. München 1978.
- Ioannes Polemis: "When did Psellos die?" Byzantinische Zeitschrift 58: 73-76.
- Efthymia Pietsch: Die "Chronographia" des Michael Psellos: Kaisergeschichte, Autobiographie und Apologie. Wiesbaden 2005.
- Anthony Kaldellis: The argument of Psellos' Chronographia. Boston 1999.
- Paul Lemerle: Le premier humanisme byzantin: Notes et remarques sur enseignement et culture à Byzance des origines au Xe siècle. Paris 1971. (ch. 6)