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

2. Introduction to the Encomion of His Excellency Symeon the Metaphrast: The Very Model of Scholarly Sainthood

2.2. Psellos states that Symeon undertook his great project at the request of an unnamed emperor (3.14:331–333). Two other eleventh-century sources note that Symeon became known for his menologion ca. 980, early in the reign of Basil II (976–1025), [4] that is, approximately a century before Psellos composed Symeon’s encomion. Arranged chronologically beginning with the start of the ecclesiastical year in September, a menologion presents a narrative for each liturgical feast day to be read aloud during the service of orthros on the saint’s commemoration day. To assemble his unique and innovative collection, Symeon adopted and adapted existing narratives of the lives of martyrs and ascetics, correcting factual errors, applying proven rhetorical techniques to engage his audience, and rephrasing (or “metaphrasing”) the humble diction of the original texts at a uniform and elevated stylistic level. He replaced their simple sentence structures, colloquial vocabulary, and loose grammatical constructions with the polished “Attic” literary style cultivated by the Byzantine educational system and characteristic of classical and patristic literature. [5] As Psellos observes of Symeon, “He completely transforms the type of style without altering the substance [of the original], but he corrects what was amiss in its forms [of expression]; he does not invent the contents but he alters the manner of diction” (3.12:288–291). [6] His texts offered an alternative to older versions written in a style that seemed ridiculously rustic to Symeon’s learned contemporaries (3.9:184–186).

2.4. A variety of evidence indicates that the Metaphrastic menologion rapidly gained currency both in Constantinople and beyond in the course of the eleventh century. Its provision of a hagiographic text—in some cases quite lengthy—to be read each day is particularly appropriate for the life of a monastic community. [8] In fact, the typikon of the Monastery of Euergetis (1054) specifically designates the Metaphrastic menologion as the source of each day’s reading during the early morning service of orthros; long readings could be divided into segments. [9] Also in the second half of the century, some thirty separate illustrated editions of the ten-volume set were produced for the wealthy, who perhaps intended to donate such a precious item to a monastery or church. [10] Palaeographical details and iconographical features of these deluxe menologia suggest that they were produced by scribes and illuminators connected with the imperial court. [11] Members of the intellectual elite in Constantinople can be identified as owners of copies (e.g. the founder of the Euergetis Monastery, Kyr Paul; the imperial official Eustathios Boilas, the historian Michael Attaleiates, et al.). [12] Moreover, the Metaphrastic menologion traveled far afield from the imperial court and elite of Constantinople. In the late eleventh century, the prolific translator Eprem Mtsire produced a Georgian version accompanied by an intriguing preface entitled “Brief Reminiscence on Symeon Logothetes and the Story of Those Responsible for the Translation of the Present Readings.” [13]

2.6. Symeon evidently attained prominence at the imperial court of Byzantium under several emperors of the mid-tenth century CE. Born to a wealthy family in Constantinople, he began his career at court as a secretary in the imperial chancery, perhaps under Romanos II (959–963), and eventually rose to the office of Logothetes tou Dromou (or ‘Chief of Imperial Communications’) [16] at some point during the reign of Nikephoros Phokas (963–969), of John Tzimiskes (969–976), or of Basil II (976–1025). By 975 he had also received the honorific title “Magister”; two seals of “Symeon Magister and Logothete” survive from the 970’s or 980’s. [17] At this point in his career Symeon complied with the imperial request to compose his menologion. For unknown reasons, he never completed this task. An intriguing and perhaps legendary tale preserved by the Georgian translator Eprem Mtsire claims that Basil II took great offense at a statement recorded in Symeon’s Life of Theoctiste (November 10) that the good fortune of Byzantium perished with the emperor Leo VI (886–912); reacting to this statement, Basil II dismissed Symeon in disgrace, stopped work on the Metaphrastic menologion, prohibited its public reading, and ordered all copies of it destroyed. [18] Sometime after the termination of his menologion project, Symeon died, perhaps spending the final years of his life as a monk. His death evidently occurred on November 28 sometime after 987, [19] when Nikephoros Ouranos returned to Constantinople and could have composed his poem lamenting the death of Symeon. Travelers and pilgrims visited Symeon’s grave in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries at the Church of the Virgin Hodegetria in Constantinople near the imperial palace. [20]

2.7. Psellos begins his encomion by sketching Symeon’s early career (3.1–3.7:1–155) and then turns his attention to Symeon’s great achievement, the menologion (3.7–3.15:156–375). He assesses the significance of the menologion at length and provides a unique description of the process that enabled Symeon to produce it. According to Psellos, Symeon dictated an oral version of a vita to scribes who recorded it in stenography, then passed the stenographic text to others who transcribed it and submitted the transcription to final redactors for correction against Symeon’s original dictation (3.14:333–341). Constrained by the magnitude of the project, Symeon apparently entrusted the final version of a text to these redactors, while he himself continued the massive task of composing each metaphrasis orally. [21] Modern scholars examining the metaphrastic lives have further refined Psellos’ description of Symeon’s methods. Of the 148 lives in the menologion, 120 conform to the pattern Psellos outlines. [22] In the case of the remaining lives, Symeon admitted some 14–18 texts into his collection without alteration, either because they were already written in an acceptably “Attic” style (e.g. Nov. 10, Life of Theoctiste by Niketas David Paphlagon) or because the existing old version enjoyed the status of a classic that could not be changed or improved (e.g. Jan. 17, Life of Antony by Athanasios of Alexandria). [23] Symeon also created eight new texts by combining two or more written and oral sources into something different from any one of them (e.g. Sept. 1, Symeon Stylites). [24] To each text in his collection, Symeon added his own preface composed in a standardized form. In these prefaces, Symeon emphasized the utility and pleasure to be gained by reading the heroic deeds of martyrs and ascetics but avoided any reference to himself or to his own times; occasionally, he inserted brief comments upon his sources. [25] Psellos specifically commends Symeon’s prologues as models of clarity, brevity and organization: “For the prologues to [Symeon’s] discourses straightaway engage with [their] subject matter, and he proceeds in short order to declare his intention for the work clearly …” (3.12:276–279). [26]

2.12. In closing Psellos applies a topos of hagiography to his virtuous secular subject and describes Symeon’s joyful ascent to heaven at the conclusion of his life on earth, [34] noting the miraculous fragrance that suffused his gravesite [35] until it was desecrated by the intrusion of a second corpse (3.16). Psellos ends his encomion with a prayer to Symeon, treating his illustrious subject as a veritable saint before God:

[O Symeon,] whom I consider the best and most eloquent of men, this miracle of yours (i.e. the gravesite’s fragrance) reveals abundantly your purity and holiness after your other [accomplishments] brought [you] to utter perfection in virtue. May you be gracious unto me, if I have not accurately expressed your virtue in its entirety nor apportioned to you the praise and honor [flowing] from all your noble [traits]. Do not regard me in anger for what I have failed to mention, but may you hold me in memory for what I have written, if any memory of [those] here [on earth] exists for the purified souls in God’s image that belong to [those of] you [now in heaven].

Among the topoi of traditional hagiography is the closing invocation of a saint like that offered by Psellos. [
37] Psellos’ prayer to Symeon concludes with the concern that his work may be an inadequate expression of Symeon’s great virtues; such a tone of self doubt is most uncharacteristic of Psellos’ literary persona, but completely consistent with the topos of modesty found in the epilogue to a saint’s life. [38]


[ back ] 1. τῶν συγκροτούντων τὸ εὐαγγέλιον ἡ τῶν ἁγίων ἀνάγραπτος μνήμη κεφάλαιον τῶν ἄλλων καθέστηκε.

[ back ] 2. Modern scholars, however, typically fault the loss or suppression of authentic and more ancient texts in favor of Symeon’s homogenized and polished versions.

[ back ] 3. N. Ševčenko 1990:1.

[ back ] 4. Høgel 2002a:66–69. Høgel’s thorough and well-documented study examines in detail the topics of scholarly controversy surrounding Symeon’s life and the Metaphrastic menologion itself.

[ back ] 5. 3.12:280–295. For a description of the “Attic” style imposed upon older texts by Symeon, see I. Ševčenko 1981:298–303.

[ back ] 6. καὶ τὴν ὅλην ἰδέαν μετατυποῖ, οὐκ ἐναλλάττων τὴν ὕλην, ἀλλὰ τὸ ἡμαρτημένον τῶν εἰδῶν διορθούμενος, οὐδὲ καινοτομῶν τὰς ἐννοίας, ἀλλὰ τὸ τῆς λέξεως σχῆμα μετατιθείς·

[ back ] 7. N. Ševčenko 1990:6.

[ back ] 8. Høgel 2002a:224.

[ back ] 9. N. Ševčenko 1990:3–4.

[ back ] 10. N. Ševčenko 1990:204; Høgel 2003:224–226.

[ back ] 11. Høgel 2003:227.

[ back ] 12. N. Ševčenko 1990:4.

[ back ] 13. Cited by Høgel 2002a:69; for information on Eprem’s career and translations, see ODB s.v. “Ep’rem Mcire.”

[ back ] 14. Høgel 2002a:64–65.

[ back ] 15. ODB s.v. “Symeon Logothete.” Høgel 2002a:62–76 evaluates the medieval sources for Symeon’s career on and examines (76–87) biographical data that scholars sometimes assign to him on less than solid ground. More recently Wahlgren 2006:3–8 leaves open the question of whether Symeon Metaphrastes may be identified with the tenth-century chronicler known as Symeon Logothete.

[ back ] 16. Høgel 2002a:64–74. For a description of this important office, see ODB s.v. “Logothetes tou Dromou.”

[ back ] 17. Oikonomides 1973:323–325.

[ back ] 18. Høgel 2002a:69 and 128n4.

[ back ] 19. Symeon’s feast day was eventually transferred from November 28 to November 8. N. Ševčenko 1990:2.

[ back ] 20. Høgel 2002a:61, 72–73.

[ back ] 21. Høgel 2002a:93–94 interprets Psellos’ somewhat cryptic account of Symeon’s working methods; he revised his interpretation in Høgel 2003:222, as well as in Høgel 2002b:30 For a full discussion of this passage and its interpretation, see note 38 to the translation.

[ back ] 22. Høgel 2002a:96–102 compares several “metaphrased” texts with the older texts Symeon adapted.

[ back ] 23. Høgel 2002a:92–93.

[ back ] 24. Høgel 2002a:102–109.

[ back ] 25. Høgel 2002a:141–145.

[ back ] 26. τά τε γὰρ προοίμια τῶν λόγων αὐτῷ ἁπτόμενα εὐθὺς τοῦ ὑποκειμένου καὶ βραχύ τι προϊὼν τὸν τοῦ συγγράμματος ἀναφαίνει σκοπὸν καὶ τὴν πᾶσαν ἐπ’ ἐνίοις τῶν λόγων ὑπόθεσιν ….

[ back ] 27. φράσεως δὲ πολλοὺς μὲν ἠπίστατο τρόπους, κέχρηται δὲ τῷ ἀποχρῶντι πρὸς τήν τε τῶν σπουδαίων καὶ τῶν πολλῶν ἅμα ἀκρόασιν. καὶ ἤρκεσέ γε κατὰ ταὐτὸν ἀμφοτέροις τοῖς γένεσι.

[ back ] 28. ἀκριβεστέραν δὲ ἰδέαν οἷς εἵλετο συνθέσθαι συγγράμμασιν οὐκ οἶδα εἴ τις τῶν πάντων συνήρμοσεν.

[ back ] 29. ζηλῶ μὲν οὖν ἐγὼ τὸν ἄνδρα καὶ τῆς τοιαύτης εὐστομίας καὶ χάριτος, οὐδὲν δὲ ἧττον τῆς εὐχρηστίας τῶν ὑποθέσεων· εἰ γὰρ κἀμοὶ πολλὰ καὶ περὶ πολλῶν συγγέγραπται, ἀλλ’ οὐκ ἂν ἔχοι τοιοῦτον ζῆλον καὶ μίμησιν τὰ σπουδάσματα. ἀλλὰ λογίοις μὲν ἴσως ἀνδράσι φανήσεται περισπούδαστα καὶ ζηλώσουσι ταῦτα διὰ τὴν λέξιν καὶ τὸν ποικίλον σχηματισμόν, καταφρονήσουσι δὲ οἱ πολλοί, ὅτι μὴ μέλον αὐτοῖς ζητημάτων καὶ ἐννοιῶν ἀπορρητοτέρων.

[ back ] 30. For example, the first paragraph of the encomion consists of twenty-nine lines and three sentences; I have broken it into two paragraphs and six sentences in the English translation.

[ back ] 31. Progymnasmata 7.15–16 ed. Rabe 1913; translation by Kennedy 2003:82.

[ back ] 32. δύο δὲ ταύτας ὁδοὺς αὑτῷ θέμενος, μαρτυρικὴν ἔνστασιν καὶ ἀσκητικὴν καρτερίαν,τρέχει μὲν ἐπ’ ἀμφοῖν τοῖν σταδίοιν οὐ μετὰ ποδῶν ὠκύτητος, ἀλλὰ μετὰ λογισμῶν ὀξύτητος.

[ back ] 33. τοῖς περὶ τὸν τοῦ εὐαγγελίου λόγον πονήσασι καὶ τὸ τοῦ λόγου βάθος διερμηνεύσασιν. ὧν γὰρ ἴσα τὰ τέλη, τούτων καὶ αἱ ἀρχαὶ παραπλήσιοι· καὶ εἰ σωτηρία ψυχῶν παρ’ ἀμφοῖν τὸ τέλος τῶν ὑποθέσεων, πῶς οὐχὶ καὶ τὰ αἴτια ἐν ἴσῳ καθεστήκει ἀλλήλοις καὶ οἱ συγγραφεῖς ἐπὶ τῆς αὐτῆς σταῖεν στάθμης ἤ, ἵνα τὸ ἡμέτερον εἴπω, τῶν ἴσων κληρονομήσουσι;

[ back ] 34. Høgel 2004:193.

[ back ] 35. The “odor of sanctity” frequently marks a saint’s blessed death and sanctified corpse; for a discussion of its significance, see Harvey 2006:220–228. A few examples will provide a context for Psellos’ application of the hagiographical topos here. “Stooping to look into the tomb, they saw the blessed woman lying intact, and smelled the fragrance that issued forth” (Laiou 1996:269); and “magnificent perfumes and incense … could not match the fragrance that issued from her skin … there they solemnly buried her, the corpse emitting the same, nay a much more wonderful fragrance” (Rosenquist 1986:110–111); and finally, “… as when someone sleeps happily and his face is illuminated from wondrous drowsiness, even to this time Basil is there illuminated with the same glory and emitting such sweetness of fragrance, lying intact and whole and totally uncorrupted …” (Sullivan 2014:677–678). I am grateful to Denis Sullivan for these citations. Further instances of this topos are available from the Dumbarton Oaks Database of Byzantine Hagiography under the word “euodia.” (http://www.doaks.org/research/byzantine/resources/hagiography-database)

[ back ] 36. τοῦτο μὲν δή σοι τὸ θαῦμα, κάλλιστέ μοι πάντων ἀνδρῶν καὶ ἐλλογιμώτατε, εἰς περιουσίαν ἐστὶν ἀποδείξεως τῆς σῆς καθαρότητός τε καὶ ἁγιότητος, ἐπεὶ καὶ τἆλλα ἀποχρῶντά σοι πρὸς τὴν τῆς ἀρετῆς ἀκριβεστάτην τελείωσιν. σὺ δέ μοι ἵλεως εἴης, εἰ μή σοι σύμπασαν διηκριβωσάμην τὴν ἀρετὴν μηδ’ ἐκ πάντων τῶν σῶν καλῶν συνεμέτρησά σοι τὴν εὐφημίαν. καὶ μή με, οἷς ἐλλέλοιπα, δι’ ὀργῆς ἔχοις, ἀλλ’, οἷς συγγέγραφα, διὰ μνήμης ἄγοις, εἴ τίς ἐστι μνήμη τῶν ἐνταῦθα ταῖς καθαρωτέραις ὑμῶν καὶ θεοειδέσι ψυχαῖς.

[ back ] 37. Pratsch 2005:351–353.

[ back ] 38. For a general discussion of the topos of modesty, see Pratsch 2005:341–342.

[ back ] 39. At the time of Psellos, saints were not officially canonized but rather informally recognized through various popular manifestations of devotion: veneration of their gravesites and relics, prayers offered to them, liturgical commemoration of their feast days, creation of a biography celebrating their holy deeds and miracles, and/or incorporation of their images on icons and in churches. See ODB s.v. “Canonization.”

[ back ] 40. Greek text, Poema 23, ed. Westerink 1992:277–283.

[ back ] 41. N. Ševčenko 1990:4 and Høgel 2002a:156.

[ back ] 42. For Psellos as a rhetorician, see “Introducing Michael Psellos” (1.7) and for a discussion of Psellos as a philosopher, see “Introducing Michael Psellos” (1.9).

[ back ] 43. For details of Psellos career, see above “Introducing Michael Psellos” (1.5).

[ back ] 44. Text published in Fisher 1994:1–94. For a discussion of the rhetorical aspects of this work, see Fisher 2006.

[ back ] 45. Kazhdan 1983:546–556; discussed by Høgel 2004:192–193.

[ back ] 46. Kaldellis 2006:30 and 33–34.

[ back ] 47. Papaioannou 2013:50n79.

[ back ] 48. Høgel 2004:193.

[ back ] 49. ODB s.v. “Psellos, Michael.”

[ back ] 50. I am indebted to Stratis Papaioannou for this stimulating suggestion.