Michael Psellos. On Symeon the Metaphrast and On the Miracle at Blachernae: Annotated Translations with Introductions

1. Introducing Michael Psellos, Author of Encomion of His Excellency Symeon the Metaphrast and Discourse on the Miracle That Occurred in the Blachernae Church

1.1. The reader of this slender volume will encounter a figure of immense intellectual stature. Michael Psellos (1018–after 1077) combined the roles of scholar and court dignitary in Byzantium at the time of the Byzantine empire’s greatest territorial extent and political influence in the eastern Mediterranean world. Psellos’ extraordinary skill with words and his ability to ingratiate himself at the imperial court established him in the upper echelons of eleventh-century society in Constantinople and opened possibilities for spectacular public success. Psellos’ intellectual accomplishments earned him distinction among the scholars of his time and the imperial title “Chief of the Philosophers” at the height of his career. He established and maintained this enviable position by means of a prodigious and varied literary output consisting of nearly a thousand separate works—letters, history, poetry, philosophy, theology, and rhetoric.

1.4. Psellos is by no means reluctant to insert his personal opinions and observations into these two logoi. For example, he concludes each one with an appeal to figures he modestly elevates beyond the capacities he claims for himself. A skeptic might suspect false modesty in these pious requests. “Do not regard me in anger for what I have failed to mention,” (389–390) he asks Symeon in concluding his encomion of the saintly scholar (3.16); at the close of the Blachernae logos he appeals to the “compassionate Mother” that she “might not observe an exacting standard in measuring our deeds” (5.28:741–742).

1.5. Whether attractive or repellent to the modern reader, the voice within Psellos’ confident literary persona emerges clearly in these two works. Although Psellos’ Byzantine audience needed no introduction to the biography of an author famous in his own time, the modern reader may benefit from a brief account of events in Psellos’ life that shaped his identity as a writer and as a public intellectual. [4] Born in 1018 in Constantinople, Psellos advanced through the disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, and mathematics that traditionally prepared students for a bureaucratic career. He entered the imperial chancery as a junior secretary about 1040 and quickly gained favor with the emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (1042–1055), rising to such prominence at court as a teacher, writer and public orator that the emperor bestowed upon him the title “Chief (or “Consul”) of the Philosophers.” He was not, however, immune from the caprices of fate. About 1054, Psellos mysteriously fell from favor and withdrew as a monk to a monastery at Bithynian Mt. Olympus, perhaps the casualty of court intrigues. After the death of Monomachos in 1055, Psellos returned to the imperial court and resumed his previous activities on a reduced scale, lecturing publicly and instructing students. Most notable among them was the son of the emperor Constantine X Doukas (1059–1067), who became emperor as Michael VII Doukas (1071–1078). Michael VII commissioned his former teacher to explicate the complicated legal issues that Psellos describes in his logos on the “usual” miracle at the Church of Blachernae. Psellos died after 1077; the exact date is the object of current scholarly contention. A vivid portrait of Psellos with his imperial pupil produced about a century after Psellos’ death shows him in his sober monastic habit and commemorates his imperial connections (Athos, Pantokrator 234 fol. 254r).

1.7. Psellos deliberately cultivated his reputation as a master of rhetoric. While he appreciates Symeon’s level of diction as appropriate to his subject matter, Psellos contrasts his own more learned stylistic register:

I, therefore, admire [Symeon] for the beauty and grace [of his language] no less than for the usefulness of his subject matter; although I have written many [works] on many [subjects], my writings would not stimulate [in others] such a desire to rival and imitate [them]. [My writings] will perhaps seem (285) very desirable to men of letters, [who] will admire them because of their diction and their varied [rhetorical] figures.

Psellos could expect the “men of letters” in his audience to recognize his reference here to Hermogenes’ recommendations in On Types of Style (1.1.11) and to appreciate similar references in these logoi to rhetorical handbooks and commentaries familiar to educated Byzantines. Abundant and casual reference to works of the Greek literary heritage is a typical feature of Psellos’ rhetorical style. [
7] Because readers today might not be as closely attuned as Psellos’ Byzantine audience to succinct literary allusions like the “pine and the oak” of Homer, Odyssey ix 186 (3.13) or the “worldly sanctuary” of Hebrews 9.1 (5.4), such references are identified in notes to the translations. Notes also explicate the realia of the past that Psellos adopts and adapts readily in his writings. A disappointed party in a lawsuit “received a black pebble” (5.10), for example, and Symeon’s scholarly exertions resemble a footrace on a double (i.e. horse-shoe shaped) track (3.13). Psellos also seeks opportunities to use technical vocabulary that illustrates his broad expertise in various specialized fields. The reader will find notes to the translations that identify and explain such vocabulary as the “ecliptic conjunctions” (5.5) of astronomy, the “emmelic chords” (3.11) of musical theory, the “consumption of the flesh” (3.8) discussed by medical writers, and the “period” and “circle” 5.24) of literary analysis. No stranger to rhetorical tropes and figures, Psellos savors such devices as hyperbaton (“if someone should throw a discus up beyond the clouds …” at 5.21) and paraleipsis (“I omit mentioning Hezekiah, when the sun traveled backwards …” at 5.14). Throughout his logoi, Psellos maintains scrupulous regard for classical Greek morphology and syntax, which the learned readers and writers of Byzantium studiously emulated and reverently termed “Attic.” In the section from the Encomion of Symeon quoted at the top of this paragraph, for instance, Psellos correctly observes the genitive complementing ζηλῶ (τῆς τοιαύτης εὐστομίας καὶ χάριτος 322), the genitive of comparison in the expression οὐδὲν δὲ ἧττον τῆς εὐχρηστίας (323) and proper disposition of particles (μὲν οὖν … δὲ 322–323, εἰ γὰρ 324, and ἀλλὰ λογίοις μὲν ἴσως 326). Although Psellos’ Greek prose is carefully crafted, I have occasionally found it necessary to abandon his sentence structure in order to resolve his lengthier and more complex locutions into manageable English units and in order to supply from context material implied but not stated in the original text. The grammar of the Greek language is simply better suited than English to the complex logical patterns of Psellos’ mind. Pointed brackets in the translations indicate the material I have expanded from context. [8]

1.8. The techniques of logical argumentation and a concern for “philosophy” also permeate Psellos’ Encomion of Symeon as well as his discussion of the legal process connected to the “usual” miracle at Blachernae. In his presentation of Symeon’s accomplishments, Psellos counterpoises skill in rhetoric and in philosophy, noting that Symeon successfully integrated both disciplines:

He used rhetorical skill to guide his [knowledge of] philosophy into a more pragmatic function plainer [to understand], at the same time elevating his rhetorical skill by means of philosophy and commingling the two [disciplines] each with the other by [using] the attractions particular to each one. In a manner of speaking, he gave his intellect a voice and his tongue intelligence. Indeed, he presented philosophy with the [power of] persuasion that expressed moral character and practiced rhetoric with a mental profundity [characteristic] of philosophy.


In Psellos’ estimation, Symeon possessed a natural ability to apprehend ethical concerns using the processes of Aristotelian logic:

Thus without any training he spoke with an orator’s skill, while the depths of his soul produced philosophical concepts in abundance. When he examined carefully the discourses of the philosophers and gained from that study first principles as starting points for finding what he sought, he emerged suddenly, elevated on high and discovering the Sun from its rays or, so to speak, from the Sun he gazed at its rays. In the former case by means of a syllogistic argument he inferred the primary [source] from its secondary [effects] and in the latter case he drew as a syllogistic conclusion [effects] secondary in nature from their primary causes.

The vocabulary of Aristotelian analysis is an integral part of Psellos’ own thinking, evident not only in his Encomion of Symeon but in the Blachernae logos as well. For example, he concludes an examination of chance events in legal processes by turning to Aristotle’s Prior Analytics: “For let ‘chance’ be taken in the more common sense [of the word], even if among the philosophers chance and spontaneity, when enumerated among the causes, possess some distinction [from the others]” (5.22:608–611). [

1.9. For Psellos, however, the study of “philosophy” embraced concerns far beyond those of Aristotle’s vast corpus. In the closing sections of the Blachernae logos, he observes, “… we interpret these [superior matters] especially in a manner more spiritual but not Aristotelian” (5.27:725–726). In this careful statement, Psellos refers to his study of Neoplatonic writers, which has frequently informed his discussion of the “usual” miracle (e.g. at 5.2, 5.16, and 5.25–27). In those sections of the Blachernae logos where Psellos discusses the relationship between the material world of human experience and a higher, spiritual realm, his vocabulary derives from Neoplatonism [11] and his explanations reveal a close study of its doctrines. For example, Psellos turns from an inventory of mysterious sensory phenomena like images and statues that perspire, figures that unaccountably materialize from thin air, wells and springs that emit strange sounds, etc. and observes:

The truest cause of these [phenomena] God in fact would know and anyone who approaches the nature of the divine; what we then have learned from the more esoteric branch of philosophy, if we could say [this] with modesty, will be sufficient for our audience. Let this first be agreed: some beings are precisely that, ‘truly beings,’ both divine and supernatural, while others are inferior to them; their abasement descends even to sense perception (227) and to matter itself, and their bodies here [on earth] receive certain reflections and disclosures of the superior things, for the inferior partake of the superior.


He found those doctrines expressed most provocatively in the writings of the influential Neoplatonist Proclus and in the so-called Chaldean Oracles, late antique works important in the history of philosophy but virtually forgotten by the time of Psellos. Psellos played a unique role in reviving the study of these neglected works and others like them, although he carefully avoided implying that he himself believed the proscribed pagan doctrines or practiced the magical procedures they describe. [
12] Nevertheless, Psellos gained such a long-lasting reputation as a master of the occult that Samuel Taylor Coleridge mentioned him in an annotation to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

And some in dreams assured were
Of the Spirit that plagued us so;
Nine fathom deep he had followed us
From the land of mist and snow.


Coleridge supplies in the margin,

Psellos himself, however, insisted vigorously that mastering and reconciling both Christian wisdom and Hellenic learning from antiquity was essential for the philosopher eager to attain full knowledge of the truth. As he observes in a philosophical essay addressed to an unidentified audience,

1.10. I leave Psellos to provide these words as a fitting introduction to my translations of his Encomion of His Excellency Symeon the Metaphrast and of his Discourse on the Miracle That Occurred in the Blachernae Church.


[ back ] 1. See 5.4 of the translation with accompanying notes.

[ back ] 2. See 3.14 of the translation with accompanying notes.

[ back ] 3. For a revealing account of Murray’s achievement, see Murray 1979.

[ back ] 4. Alexander Kazhdan proves a succinct sketch of Psellos’ life and writings in ODB 3. 1754–1755; see more recently, Fisher 2010:789. For a detailed scholarly discussion of aspects of Psellos’ biography and writings, see Papaioannou 2013:4–20.

[ back ] 5. For a discussion of On the Four Parts of the Perfect Speech, see Papaioannou 2013:264.

[ back ] 6. The classic discussion of stylistic registers in Byzantine literature is by I. Šev [ back ] enko 1981.

[ back ] 7. For an illuminating discussion of Byzantine literati at the time of Psellos and the texts they favored, see Papaioannou 2013:15–19.

[ back ] 8. Translations and line numbers are based on my edition of these texts, Fisher 1994:199–229 and 267–288.

[ back ] 9. Cf. Aristotle Prior Analytics 24b18 and 68b15.

[ back ] 10. Cf. Aristotle Physics 2.4–6, esp. 195b32–196a16

[ back ] 11. For a brief survey of the history of Neoplatonism, a summary of its doctrines, and further bibliography, see ODB s.v. “Neoplatonism.”

[ back ] 12. For illuminating discussions of Psellos’ stance, see Duffy 1995:83–88; Ierodiakonou 2007:20–24; and Magdalino 2006:92–95.

[ back ] 13. Gardner 2003:59.

[ back ] 14. Michaelis Pselli Philosophica minora I, Opusculum 7 (ed. Duffy 1992) titled Εἰς τὸ ‘οὐσία πρᾶγμα αὐθύπαρκτον’ 118–123, translation by Duffy 2002:145–155, esp. 150.