Chronographiaby Michael Psellus
GIBBON'S legend of a decadent East Roman Empire dies hard in ordinary English circles. But research of the last half century should by now have made it abundantly clear that Byzantine civilization can hold its own in the medieval world. That is not to deny that it had its ups and downs and changed a good deal in
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GIBBON'S legend of a decadent East Roman Empire dies hard in ordinary English circles. But research of the last half century should by now have made it abundantly clear that Byzantine civilization can hold its own in the medieval world. That is not to deny that it had its ups and downs and changed a good deal in character in the course of more than a thousand years. The eleventh century, in which Michael Psellus lived, was a crucial time, not because of the fact of its acute political difficulties — after all, the Empire had faced danger time and again — but because it was now brought up against certain new and ominous developments both within and without which it failed to control, and hence its total downfall in the fifteenth century may be traced back to this period. Now and then Psellus shows partial understanding of such dangers, as for instance when he comments on the vital importance of Constantinople's military defenses, but he could not foretell the gathering impetus of the western crusading movement which so violently disrupted Byzantine life in the Aegean world, nor did he realize that the Seljuk Turks were preparing the way for the almost complete loss of the Empire's great storehouse, Asia Minor, or that the rumblings in the Balkans were to herald the growth and emancipation of the young Slav nations. After all, he was living and writing in the heyday of the eleventh century when the disastrous turn in imperial fortunes was scarcely perceptible, and when Constantinople could still to some extent bask in the accumulated glories of the great days of the tenth century with its classical revival and its expansion of the frontiers. And indeed whatever weaknesses might have alarmed a discerning eye in the years to follow, satisfaction could always be found in the steady maintenance and development of cultural activities, certain aspects of which were passionately near to Psellus's heart.
Whatever his father's claims to aristocratic forebears, Michael Psellus grew up in the milieu of a middle-class family. His writings,  and particularly his funeral oration for his mother, reveal a fair amount about his childhood and his own personal appearance and castes. In physique he resembled his father who had merry eyes and well defined eyebrows and was handsome as a 'well-grown cypress'. But his father's even-tempered disposition and quiet way of life, moving from day to day as silently and smoothly 'as flowing oil', were not inherited by the son. In outlook and temperament he was more like his mother who was clearly the mainspring of the family. Psellus says that she was attractive and 'like the rose needed no further adornment'; she was also energetic, of quick intelligence, and above all a devout Christian. She certainly bequeathed her dynamic qualities to her son, though his subtlety of approach was in contrast to her more simple adherence to the Christian faith, and his achievements in intellectual fields, however much they owed to her early efforts and encouragement, were in substance his alone.
Born in Constantinople in 1018 he grew into an exceedingly alert, intelligent child and he was brought up on Homer as Greek children were and are. His mother managed to prolong his education until he was in his teens and then the need to provide a dowry for his sister made it difficult to support him any longer. He became a clerk to a provincial judge, but on the unexpected death of his sister he returned to Constantinople and continued his studies. He was taught by John Mauropous, afterwards Archbishop of Euchaita, but then a private tutor in Constantinople. John, both from Psellus and from other sources, is revealed as a single-minded scholar and a man of great integrity. He evidently coached a number of clever young men, all of whom later made their mark and remained firm friends with each other and with their tutor. John Xiphilinus became Head of the Faculty of Law in the University of Constantinople, then monk and Abbot of a monastery in Asia Minor, and finally Patriarch of Constantinople. Constantine Ducas, another well-known member of the group, eventually succeeded to the throne as Constantine X. Constantine Psellus—he later changed the name of Constantine for that of Michael by which he is usually known—managed to make his way in court circles and the story of his rise to power can be read in his Chronographia and filled out from other contemporary sources....
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Michael Psellus: Chronographia, trans E.R.A Sewter, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953) This copyright on this text was not renewed. Extensive inquiries were made in the records of copyright renewals, and then a correspondence with Yale University Press (on file) confirmed the situation.
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