Michael Psellos

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Michael Psellos or Psellus (Greek: Μιχαήλ Ψελλός, Mikhaēl Psellos) was a Byzantine writer, philosopher, politician and historian. He was born in 1017 or 1018, and died in 1096.


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 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.[1] Some time before 1042 he returned again to Constantinople, where he got a junior position at court as a secretary (ὑπογραμματεύς) 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 University of Constantinople, bearing the honorary title of "Consul of the Philosophers" (ὕπατος τῶν 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, 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 stepfather 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.[2] 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,[3] although some scholars have also proposed later dates.[4] What is known is that Theophylaktos of Bulgaria wrote a letter to Psellos's brother comforting him on the death of his brother saying that, "Your brother has not died, but has departed to God released of both a painful life and disease [5]

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