Saturday, December 10, 2011

Michael Psellos between War and Cruelty: Two Letters to Andronikos Doukas and Romanos Diogenes

Presented below are two letters from the Byzantine intellectual, historian, and politician Michael Psellos, which offer very different, but interesting perspectives on the capture and subsequent blinding of Romanos Diogenes as well as the fickle nature of Byzantine court rhetoric. Much to Psellos' civilian dislike, the militarily inclined emperor Romanos Diogenes (1068-1071) had succeeded to the throne following the Turkish inroads and disasters of 1067. While Romanos had reigned, Psellos had written beautiful encomia almost as a form of lip service lavishing praise upon Romanos as the shining sun ( note 19). However, as these two documents show, his opinions quickly changed with the fall of Romanos, whom he addresses as a serpent in document 1.

The second letter is most interesting because it was sent by Psellos to Romanos after he was blinded by what all accounts was a most barbaric manner, perhaps even at Psellos's order (Vryonis 13). It practically half-mocks, half-praises Romanos calling him the most unfortunate man out there, but reveres him almost as a martyr of Psellos's own actions, who though he will no longer see the light as the sun will one day see the divine light. It is a uniquely bizarre message from the victor to the defeated, though perhaps we may seem some of the spirit behind in in Psellos's twisted subordination of religion to the needs of the state in his Chronographia (Kaldellis 47).

Particularly worth noting in connection with the Chronographia and this letter is the amount of effort which Psellos puts forward to exculpate his pupil and Romanos's successor Michael Doukas from involvement in the crime. In the letter below, he practically begs to be believed by Romanos. He writes, "He was distressed on hearing it wailing, grieving, beating his breast in anguish, weeping torrents of tears, wishing to die many times, and utterly agape. Put faith in what I write. It is not false, nor for the sake of favor, but true and far-shining with light. He cannot be comforted and is giving up on this life." From a cynical perspective, it almost seems that Psellos was attempting push blame for the act away from Michael, though interestingly in our records of the time, there is no scapegoat implicated in the act or reprimands as far as we know. Key figures in Michael's government continued to hold power such as Psellos or the Caesar John Doukas who is implicated by Pseudo-Skylitzes (Vryonis 13). While it is possible given the emperor Michael's weak character that he was innocent of the crime and refused to reprimand his powerful ministers, there remains the question of who ordered the blinding of Romanos Diogenes.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 1999. The Argument of Psellos' Chronographia. Leiden: Brill

Vryonis, Speros. 2003. "Michael Psellus, Michael Attaleiates: The Blinding of Romanus IV at Kotyaion (29 June 1072) and His Death on Proti (4 August 1072)." in Porphyrogenita: Essays in honour of Julian Chrystostomides. Burlington: Ashgate.


145. To Andronikos Doukas while on campaign against Romanus Diogenes (transl. from Bibliotheca graeca Medii Aevi. ed. Constantine Sathas. Venice, 1876. v pp. 392-4)

I am not amazed that you have conquered and taken hold of the enemy by your superiority, most noble and martial man, my dearest friend, because of your so great honor, strategic sagacity, and your cunning in war. I praise you for your marches, advances, stratagems, devices, thoughtful invention, and embellished change of scale. I amazed with you for your struggles, presence in the battle, phalanx, the appearances before the routs, the division on both in columns…and of the opponent, either crosswise or on each sides, one of them in columns, the other in the cycles that men cunning in this name them. For it does not thus happen either with great fear or from the first vestibule, resplendent with victory and victories you may be received again by us, but from martial plans, from tactical movements, from lines and divisions, and noble fights and such things as the head of a general is crowned by.

For some time, we all were midair divided in our opinions on both sides and very joyous for any news from where you were. The greater part of us and more divine voices were pleased, thrice-beloved and most magnificent man, to hear from your messengers of your rout and victory. It has thus been written in the above books, or rather from above you have received these noble deeds as gifts.

You, although the head of the serpent has not yet removed, have announced this good news. It has already been lost on us, since the full length of the serpent has not yet been taken care of, while the arch-evil head has not yet been broken, though may the beast may be struck down by your lightning bolt and this, not deep below nor unseen, but high up and manifest as you come upon the den, strip down the remaining parts, and inflict a terrible poison throughout it for the righteous.

You, with hands of gold, arms of steel, and a chest of bronze, when you have completed it, please send news. For I am already devising words of praise for you for when there is final victory and I shall place an uncontaminated laurel gathered from Attic meadows upon your head.

However, there is still the basilisk upon my mind! Of whom do I speak? The most wily Chatatourios (Romanos Diogenes' commander who had eluded capture unlike the emperor), who please do not let escape and slip through your hands. Let the beast be captured at once by your hands, since he is not a part of length of the serpent, but at the same level with the head of the serpent.

After all of this, shall I pour [kisses] around your neck, shall I caress your right hand stained with righteous blood seeing with my own eyes the fair sight, and shall I proclaim you in the middle of the City climbing upon the highest surface so that my voice may be heard throughout the world, if it is possible, to make it heard the furthest away?

What is there for me to make famous of you, most sagacious of all men? For not, if you prescribe it shall it be of a contrary nature, since the memory should not be from set purpose, not from commandment, but bubbling up from below gushing forth in noble substance. I will make you famous even in Hades if indeed that is where spirits are left to remembrance.

You need craft no message about yourself, since this happening suffices for you in the place of any, even this one of mine, even if it will shortly be said that you gave life to the dead empire of the Romans.


82. To the emperor Diogenes when he was blinded (trans. from Bibliotheca graeca Medii Aevi. ed. Constantine Sathas. Venice, 1876. v pp. 316-318)

I am completely at a loss, most noble and miraculous man, whether I should cry for you as a most unfortunate man, or I should be amazed at you a most glorious martyr. When I behold your sufferings surpassing in number and intensity, I count you among the most unfortunate. When I reflect upon your so blameless conscious and your desire for good, I reckon you among the martyrs. Even after myriads of evils, still you remain upright and grateful to God, so I place you above the ranks of the martyrs.

I know not whether any other person has been tried by so many evils and yet been so completely blameless. Know this from me, most divine man: every thing in life happens out of divine providence and reason. There is nothing unaccounted for, nothing unforeseen; the sleepless eye sees all and rewards the patient for their earthly anguish and misery.

I know that it is bitter to be deprived of the light, and this grievously after so many prior evils, but again I am sure that enjoyment of divine light previously readied awaits you to comfort your heart because God will light undefiled light in your spirit, and the day of salvation shall light up for you and the holy sun shall dawn for you so that you shall hate this fresh light and love that recognized and unspeakable light.

Give praise to God that you are a man whom he made his messenger, esteemed worthy to deprive of the better light of sight, and ranked amongst his sufferers [i.e. martyrs] and in depriving you of the mortal adorned you with the heaven-weaved garland.

Reflect on the coming day of judgment when either the good fortuned here will go almost entirely unnoticed on account of this, or will received paltry honor, while you shall stand on the right of just radiantly crowned with the martyr's diadem, eyes opened, inspecting the mysteries and marvels of the divine. The martyrs will caress your pained eyes, the angels will kiss them, and boldly I venture even God himself.

Reflecting upon this joy, be of good cheer, be glad at your sufferings after the divine Apostle: a man on the face of it, who God regarding your heart recognizes the divine part of it in your soul, not choking at earthly wounds body broken but look after the good seed unseen with unseen forces.

Above all and before all, I swear to you by God whom the true Logos serves that the emperor's soul is innocent and completely blameless. When it seemed not evil would happen to you, then this tribulation happened to you. He was distressed on hearing it wailing, grieving, beating his breast in anguish, weeping torrents of tears, wishing to die many times, and utterly agape. Put faith in what I write. It is not false, nor for the sake of favor, but true and far-shining with light. He cannot be comforted and is giving up on this life. You have this fine comfort, you have a lord you loves you, or rather might I say a legitimate and beloved son, and you have him to comfort you, to cry for you, to care for you, to embrace you, and to honor you.

I wanted to inscribe this letter with my very blood or tears, but since this was not possible, I wrote as such, I wrote, wailing and lamenting, that I eagerly desired and wanted to preserve you and was not able to save you from this calamity.

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