Michele Psello
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Uomo politico, storico e filosofo bizantino (Costantinopoli 1018-1078). Iniziò la sua spregiudicata attività politica durante il regno di Costantino IX Monomaco insieme a un gruppo di uomini di alta cultura (Licude, Xifilino, Giovanni Mauropode, suo maestro, e altri) che formavano la cerchia dei consiglieri imperiali.

Dopo un breve periodo di ritiro in un monastero (1054-57), riacquistò grande influenza presso Isacco I Comneno e i suoi successori, divenendo talvolta arbitro della politica imperiale; la sua fortuna declinò sotto Michele VII Parapinace.

Grande memorialista, nella sua Cronografia narrò la storia bizantina dal 976 al 1077 (dal regno di Basilio II a quello di Michele VII), illustrando, sia pure tendenziosamente, soprattutto la vita interna e le vicende della corte. L'opera rivela le capacità dello scrittore atticista, seguace dello stile di Platone ed Elio Aristide e abile nell'uso di tutti gli espedienti retorici.

Nonostante le parzialità nell'uso delle fonti e le omissioni volontarie, la Cronografia si distingue per la perfezione stilistica, la vivacità narrativa, la ricchezza di ritratti di fine psicologia e di scene drammatiche sapientemente orchestrate.

Come direttore dell'Università filosofica, fondata a Costantinopoli nel 1045 insieme con quella giuridica, Psello promosse una grande fioritura degli studi, ricongiungendosi alla tradizione neoplatonica, così da potersi considerare il più insigne filosofo bizantino. Oltre che tutte le scienze, coltivò la retorica, lasciando modelli di orazioni, come quelle funebri per Michele Cerulario, Costantino Licude e Giovanni Xifilino (tutti e tre patriarchi), che costituiscono utili fonti d'informazione sui commemorati.

Data la sua posizione, fu oggetto di molti attacchi e pamphlets, pure illuminanti per la storia politica, religiosa e culturale del tempo. Psello esercitò una forte influenza come precursore dell'umanesimo.

Michael Psellos

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 Mauropus, 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 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".

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, Empress 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.

Historical works

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 empresses, 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.

Other works

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 the Wise. Michael Psellos himself was also called "the younger" by some authors. This belief was based on an entry in a medieval chronicle, 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.

Michael Psellus

(Michael ho Psellos), Byzantine statesman, scholar, and author, born apparently at Constantinople, 1018; died probably 1078. He attended the schools, afterwards learning jurisprudence from John Xiphilinos, later patriarch (John VIII, 1064-75). Psellus practised law, was appointed judge at Philadelphia, and under the Emperor Michael V (1041-2) became imperial secretary. Under Constantine IX (Monomachos, 1042-54) he became influential in the state.

At this time he taught philosophy at the new Academy at Constantinople arousing opposition among ecclesiastical professors by preferring Plato to Aristotle. Psellus gained a great reputation as a philosopher. His pedagogical career was cut short by his appointment as Secretary of State (protosekretis) to Constantine IX. In 1054 he followed Xiphilinos to the monastery of Olympos, in Bithynia, where he took the name Michael. He soon quarrelled with the monks, however, and returned to the capital.

He was one of the ambassadors sent to treat with the rebel Isaac Komnenos after the defeat of the imperial army near Nicaea in 1057. When Isaac I (1057-9) entered Constantinople in triumph Psellus had no scruple against transferring allegiance to him. Psellus drew up the indictment against the Patriarch Michael Caerularius in 1059, and preached the enthusiastic panegyric that the government thought advisable after Caerularius's death.

Psellus maintained his influence under Constantine X (Dukas, 1059-67); under Michael VII (1071-8) he became chief Minister of State. Famous for oratory as well as for philosophy and statecraft, he preached the panegyric of the Patriarch John Xiphilinos in 1075. A work written in 1096-7 after Psellus's death has a commendatory preface by him. Krumbacher (Byzant. Litteratur., 434) states that the preface may have been written before the work was begun.

That Psellus was able maintain his influence under succeeding governments, through revolutions and usurpations, shows his unscrupulous servility to those in power. Krumbacher characterizes him as "grovelling servility, unscrupulousness, insatiable ambition, and unmeasured vanity" (op cit., 435). Nevertheless his many-sided literary work and the elegance of his style give him a chief place among contemporary scholars.

Compared with Abertus Magnus and Roger Bacon, he is to Krumbacher "the first man of his time". His important works are: commentary on Aristotle peri hermeneias; treatises on psychology; works on anatomy and medicine, including a poem on medicine and a list of sicknesses; a fragmentary encyclopedia, called "Manifold Teaching" (Didaskalia pantodape); a paraphrase of the Iliad; a poem on Greek dialects; a treatise on the topography of Athens; a poetic compendium of law and an explanation of legal terms. His speeches are famous as examples of style and contain much historical information. His best known panegyrics are on Caerularius, Xiphilinos, and his own mother. About five hundred letters, and a number of rhetorical exercises, poems, epitaphs and occasional writings are extant. His most valuable work is his history (Chronographia) from 976 to 1077, forming a continuation to Leo Diaconus.

The Catholic Encyclopedia

Michel Psellos

Michel Psellos est issu d'une famille non aristocratique: son père est un fonctionnaire modeste, mais sa mère est une femme instruite qui veille à son instruction. Psellos loue l'action éducative de cette dernière auprès de lui dans l'Eloge funèbre qu'il lui consacre.

Psellos étudiant

Psellos vante son intelligence: il aurait expliqué et commenté Homère à l'âge de 9 ans. Il fait ses études à Constantinople, mais n'est pas un étudiant aisé: pour des raisons financières, puisque les maîtres sont payés par les étudiants et leurs familles, il doit temporairement interrompre ses études pour aller occuper un poste dans l'administration en Anatolie.

Pendant ses études, Psellos fait la connaissance d'hommes qui deviendront de grandes personnalités de l'empire: Constantin Doukas, futur empereur; Nicétas Byzantios, futur professeur d'éloquence et de grammaire dans l'"université" restaurée par Constantin X; Jean Mavropous, futur maître de rhétorique et évêque d'Euchaïta en Asie Mineure; Constantin Lichoudès, futur "premier ministre", président du sénat et patriarche; Jean Xiphilin, futur écrivain et jurisconsulte qui succèdera à Constantin Lichoudès dans le patriarcat après avoir été directeur de l'école des Manganes. Ces hommes feront partie du cercle de lettrés qui entourent les empereurs de la seconde moitié du Xe siècle: l'historien Paul Lemerle parle à cet égard d'un "gouvernement des philosophes".

Psellos professeur et homme politique

Psellos commence sa carrière comme secrétaire d’un juge civil, avant de devenir juge à Philadelphie en Asie mineure. Lorsque Constantin Lichoudès devient ministre de Michel V (1041-1042), il le fait venir à la cour comme secrétaire d’un tribunal impérial. A partir de ce moment, Psellos gravit rapidement les échelons. Sous Constantin IX, il est l’une des personnalité les plus marquantes de l’empire: Constantin IX lui donne les titres d'hypertime et de consul des philosophes (« hypatos tôn philosophôn »). Il devient ensuite professeur de philosophie dans l'Académie restaurée de Constantinople: pendant 9 ans, il contribue, avec Jean Xiphilin, à la renaissance littéraire et scientifique du XIe siècle.

Son savoir est divers: philosophie, rhétorique, géométrie, théologie, médecine, histoire… Psellos se distingue également par son intérêt pour l’Antiquité, lui le conduit parfois à se dresser contre l’Eglise. En raison de ses conceptions néoplatoniciennes, il doit, en 1054, faire une profession de foi.

Psellos fait lui-même l'éloge de son éloquence: il écrit que les Arabes et les Occidentaux se mettaient à ses pieds pour l’écouter, de même que la cour et les empereurs eux-mêmes. Son éloquence est de type asiatique, c'est-à-dire très expressive, foisonnante.

D'un point de vue politique, Psellos fait partie de tous les gouvernements entre Constantin IX (1042-1055) et Michel VII (pouvoir effectif 1071-1078). D'abord, en tant que prôtoasékrétis, il rédige les préambules des chrysobulles dans une langue sophistiquée, en faisant de nombreuses références à des auteurs antiques et aux Ecritures. Il est aussi vestarque, ce qui correspond à un grand chambellan. Dans sa Chronographie, il prétend avoir été le principal conseiller des empereurs de la 2e moitié du XIe siècle jusqu’aux années 1070. Il est en effet l'auteur de l’acte d’accusation contre Michel Cérulaire demandé par Isaac Comnène contre le patriarche. Psellos apparaît aussi comme un faiseur et défaiseur d’empereurs: il est chargé de la négociation après la révolte d’Isaac Comnène contre Michel VI; il contribue à l’élévation au trône de Constantin X Doukas (1059) et à la chute de Romain IV Diogène (1071).

Sous Constantin X, sa carrière connaît une éclipse temporaire: en 1054, il est disgracié en même temps que Constantin Lichoudès. Les deux hommes, ainsi que Jean Xiphilin se retirent dans un monastère sur le mont Olympe de Bithynie. Psellos devient moine. Mais en 1057, il est de retour à la cour et dirige une délégation envoyée par Michel VI auprès de l’usurpateur Isaac Comnène pour connaître conditions fixées par le nouveau maître de l’empire. Il connaît une nouvelle disgrâce temporaire sous Constantin X.

Sous Michel VII, Psellos est en retrait. Pourtant, cet empereur lui doit à la fois son éducation et son élévation au trône impérial. Lui est préféré Nicéphoritzès comme premier ministre. Au règne suivant, il est complètement ignoré de Nicéphore Botaniates.

La mort de Psellos

Psellos se montre très affecté par la mort de sa fille Styliané, de ses condisciples Constantin Lichoudès, Constantin Doukas et Jean Xiphilin. En 1078, il meurt disgracié et dans l’isolement.

Une œuvre abondante et variée

Psellos est un polygraphe: il écrit sur tout et a une ambition encyclopédique. Mais ce sont surtout des notes de cours des élèves qui nous sont parvenues. Il est l'auteur de multiples traités sur sujets divers: étymologie, médecine, démonologie, tactique, droit…

L'on compte également dans son oeuvre sept éloges funèbres, dont un à sa mère Théodotè (vers 1054, qui tient en fait lieu d’autobiographie de Psellos lui-même), un à sa fille Styliané, et une à son maître Nicétas. Figurent également des éloges des grands patriarches de l’époque: Michel Cérulaire (84 pages), Constantin Lichoudès, Jean Xiphilin (41 pages).

Parmi les éloges de personnes vivantes dont il est l'auteur, l'on peut citer celui de Constantin Monomaque et celui de Jean d’Euchaïta/Mavropous.

Sa correspondance compte environ 500 lettres qui ne sont pas toutes éditées. Ces lettres lui sont souvent suggérées par des événements de sa vie publique et privée, de ce celle de ses correspondants. Elles sont parfois aussi provoquée par des sollicitations extérieures, contrairement aux lettres de Synésios et de Photios dont les sujets sont souvent fictifs. Ces lettres présentent un grand intérêt documentaire: elles apportent des informations à la fois sur Psellos et sur l'empire. L'auteur est un puissant qui a des clients et des amis dans tout l'empire. Les thèmes abordés sont multiples, qu'il s'agisse des personnes, des mœurs de son époque, des monuments, de politique, d'histoire…

La Chronographie 976-1078

Le support par lequel la Chronographie est connue est le manuscrit de Paris, parchemin du XIIe siècle qui contient aussi Léon le Diacre, Michel Attaliate et Jean Skylitzès. Il s'agit d'une chronique de l'avènement de Basile II (976) à celui de Nicéphore Botaniates (1078).

Psellos en aurait eu l’idée en lisant à l’avènement de Constantin IX un panégyrique retraçant les événements depuis Basile II. Il commence juste après la narration de Léon le Diacre, qui s’arrête quant à lui à à Jean Tzimiskès.

L'œuvre comporte deux parties. La première, consacré aux événements de Basile II à Isaac Comnène (976-1059) a été écrite entre 1059 et 1063 à l’instigation de personnages illustres et est relativement impartiale. Elle dresse un coup de pinceau rapide sur les événements: Psellos dit manquer de renseignements exacts et avoir été trop jeune au moment des faits pour avoir vu lui-même les choses. Les personnages seulement décrits à grands traits. De Michel V à Isaac Comnène est le récit d’un témoin oculaire. Michel V est présenté comme odieux, Constantin IX comme joyeux, Michel VI comme incapable, Isaac Comnène comme valeureux. La seconde partie, de Constantin X Doukas à Michel VII Parapinace (1059-1078) est une partie que l’auteur dit avoir écrite à la demande de Michel VII. Elle est plus grande partialité: y est fait l'éloge de Constantin Doukas (son condisciple) et de Michel VII (son disciple et le commanditaire de l’œuvre). En revanche, l'auteur ne cache pas son dédain envers Romain IV Diogène et ses rivaux.

L'œuvre s'inscrit dans la suite de Léon le Diacre: la Chronographie occupe un vide dans l’historiographie byzantine. Ses successeurs seront Nicéphore Bryennos, Anne Comnène, Jean Skylitzès, Zônaras, qui s'inspireront fortement de lui.

Psellos ne donne pas tous les événements et tous les détails, contrairement à Skylitzès qui s’en vantera: « Je ne note pas en détail chaque événement, car mon but est de tenir le juste milieu entre les anciens historiens de la vieille Rome d’une part, et nos modernes chronologistes d’autre part, évitant la prolixité des premiers et la concision des derniers, et de faire en sorte que ma narration ne puisse ni fatiguer le lecteur ni omettre des événements essentiels. » Sa conception de l'histoire entremêle libre arbitre humain et rôle de la Providence, qui a la haute main sur la conduite générale des affaires des hommes. Pour lui, la valeur de l'histoire est sa signification morale.

Stylistiquement, les points forts du texte sont les récits, les portraits et les tableaux scéniques. La langue de Psellos est une imitation du grec ancien, de son vocabulaire et de ses formes. Il est l'un des derniers "Grecs classiques", d'un point de vue du style.