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Michael Psellus

Byzantine statesman, scholar, and author, b. apparently at Constantinople, 1018; d. probably 1078

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Psellus, MICHAEL (Greek: Michael o psellos), Byzantine statesman, scholar, and author, b. apparently at Constantinople, 1018; d. probably 1078. He attended the schools, afterwards learning jurisprudence from John Xiphilinos, later patriarch (John VIII, 1064-75). Psellus practiced 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 persons by preferring Plato to Aristotle. Psellus attained 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) suggests that the preface may have been written before the work was begun. That Psellus was able to retain 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 Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon, he is to Krumbacher “the first man of his time”. His important works are: commentary on Aristotle peri ermeneias; 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.



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