Michael Psellus – Fourteen Byzantine rulers

This review takes us to a time and place few will be familiar with. It is a part of history that is mostly forgotten, because it is about an empire that was only renowned in it’s early years and when it finally fell: the Byzantine Empire. And this is odd, because this empire existed for a long time: from 395 until 1453. An empire that spanned the Middle Ages and thus upheld the classic times until the Renaissance.

I have been gathering a number of histories of the Byzantine Empire written by contemporaries. The first of those histories is Fourteen Byzantine rulers (Chronographia) (c. 1085) by Michael Psellus. It tells of the emperors of the Byzantine Empire ruling between 976 and approximately 1078. Michael Psellus was born in 1018 and became a courtier early on, living at the imperial court and thus being intimate with the emperors and ongoing politics. Actually, Psellus grew in power, starting as a secretary in 1042 and ending up the head advisor to the emperor in 1071, virtually controlling politics to a large extent. Psellus thus plays a big role in history himself and he doesn’t hesitate to mention the parts he played and the reasoning of his actions. This is a perspective few historians ever had. Of course, being part of history, it makes his history less objective, so one has to read between the lines. I will get to that later.

The history of Michael Psellus isn’t actually a history in the true sense. I have read quite a variation of classic histories, but this one lacks. This history is mainly a limited biography which resembles The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. Each emperor is characterized and some background is given. The historical events described are almost random in order. He mentions no dates and doesn’t mind going forward and backward in history to explain certain developments. Historical events and character descriptions are mixed randomly, so there is also a lack of structure. A lot of text is used to described the fall and rise of subsequent emperors. As there was no dynastic succession after 1028 this played an important role. In a sense this is very interesting to know in such detail, but it’s a pity other historic events are not treated with the same accuracy.

Psellus main flaw is the fact that he is a courtier. His life revolves about Constantinople and he rarely ventured to other parts of the empire. He has little knowledge of geography and warfare. Battles are mentioned and described, but the circumstances and location remain rather vague. Campaigns lack details and events outside of the capital are hardly known unless it’s about a revolt. We have little view of the Byzantine Empire beyond the capital. Also quite annoying is that he often does not use names of peoples involved in events. If you write a history, tell who it is about. In many cases it remains vague and only because of the notes to the book I got to know who events were about.

Psellus was a courtier and philosopher and most of all part of the peace faction at the court. The latter meant that his point of view is mostly that peace has to be maintained. War has to be prevented and when internal conflicts arise compromises have to be sought so everyone is happy. War is only allowed in dire circumstances. When reading his history one will slowly notice this stance that Psellus upholds when describing the emperors. He praises those who are peaceful and clement and is critical to those who are harsh and willfull. Overall he praises most of the emperors, but on most he is also critical, usually because they are wasting the treasury and ignoring the state of the army for the defense of the empire. While Psellus rises in power one notices that he complains but never seems to act to do something about it. Psellus lacks strength and also the insight in the troubling affairs in outer parts of the empire, because the empire is seriously in decline and while Psellus acknowledges it and sees the causes, he fails to do something about it. Most of the emperors are incapable of restoring the military power of the empire and mainly ignore this. They live vainly in a court that is only self-centered.

Fourteen Byzantine rulers is decently written for a history. The writing style is not troublesome and as Psellus often writes from his own viewpoint there is a smooth pace. He does not manage to keep the reader interested. The fact that he often remains vague about persons and events make it sometimes hard to keep your attention. Overall it certainly is an interesting work and recommendable for anyone interested in Byzantine history and the lives and nature of it’s emperors.

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