Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.47 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.47

Michael J. Jeffreys, Marc D. Lauxtermann (ed.), The Letters of Psellos: Cultural Networks and Historical Realities. Oxford studies in Byzantium.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. x, 468.  ISBN 9780198787228.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Elizabeth Fisher, George Washington University (


The epistolary legacy of Michael Psellos presents scholars with both a magnificent opportunity and a profound challenge. The volume of his correspondence is huge—516 individual letters preserved in 44 manuscripts and published in various venues since the late nineteenth century; the recipients of those letters represent a wide spectrum of eleventh-century figures— emperors, patriarchs, imperial officials, ecclesiastical dignitaries, simple monks, students, and colleagues of Psellos. His comments on the realia of life in Byzantium and on the great and near great personalities of his day spice his correspondence. Fortunately, an authoritative critical edition of all the letters is at last in the final stages of preparation for the Teubner series, due to the diligence and consummate scholarship of Stratis Papaioannou; he generously allowed the contributors to this volume pre- publication access to his text of individual letters and provided advice on translating particularly difficult passages. Such passages abound in the letters of Psellos. In the words of Marc Lauxtermann (p. 11), “the Greek is difficult, and sometimes incomprehensible.” Nevertheless, the scholarly contemporaries and successors of Psellos in Byzantium considered him a model epistolographer and exemplary master of rhetorical devices, of subtle literary allusions, and of the complex and artificial “Attic” linguistic register favored for serious literary composition.

The volume consists of two independent but related parts. Part I (pp. 13-140) contains five thematic essays based upon the letters: Psellos’ educational networks (Floris Bernard), his monastic contacts and concerns (Michael Jeffreys), the Patriarch Keroularios’ nephew Constantine (Michael Jeffreys), Psellos and his long-time associate John Mauropous (Marc Lauxtermann), and Psellos’ use of irony in letters to the problematic protosynkellos Leon Paraspondylos (Diether Roderic Reinsch). Part II (pp. 143-445) contains Michael Jeffreys’ careful summaries of every letter in the Psellan canon, including four letters from Psellos’ correspondents that regularly accompany his letters in manuscript collections. The summaries are generally presented in the order in which they appear in Kurtz-Drexl (KD), Gautier (G), Maltese (M), and Sathas (S).1 Jeffreys deviates from this pattern in the case of 30 small groups of letters on a unified theme (e.g., “Support for a Young krites of Armeniakon. Probably Psellos’ Son-in-Law,” i.e., five letters collected and reordered from KD and S (pp. 194-96)). An appendix on dating the letters, a bibliography, and an index primarily to the summaries follows. As Lauxtermann explains in the introduction (p. 11), the summaries are a guide for scholars to use in efficiently locating letters that may respond to their individual interests. These summaries are not translations, but rather a tool enabling scholars to focus upon letters within this huge corpus that might justify investing the time and effort required to explore passages of value to their own work.

The four contributors to this volume are skilled practitioners in the delicate art of reading, interpreting, and translating Psellos’ work. Each has provided two or three letters in elegant and readable translations that support the argument of their chapter. The nine translations are reason enough to commend this collection, for they successfully represent in English the extraordinary charm and literary value of Psellos’ compositions. What has discouraged modern scholars from exploiting Psellos’ letters in their research? Marc Lauxtermann articulates three problems (p. 6): (1) the complexities of intimate references to a remote historical period, (2) the generic conventions and deliberately obscure nature of a letter as expected by the writer and the recipient, and (3) Psellos’ deliberate and habitual use of irony and misrepresentation. Lauxtermann illustrates his point by presenting four responsible interpretations of the leopard and the snake mentioned in Kurtz-Drexl 190 (pp. 5-6). Is the leopard Psellos’ personal pet (Papaioannou), an allusion to persecution Psellos experienced for abandoning the monastery (M. Jeffreys), a game of rhetorical gender codes (Papaioannou), or an instance of Psellos’ “erotic mischief” (Lauxtermann)? As Lauxtermann concludes (p. 6), “Each reader creates his own Psellos.” The five thematic essays identify and investigate the interpretive problems occurring in the letters under discussion.

Floris Bernard (“Educational Networks in the Letters of Michael Psellos”) examines Psellos’ letters to his teachers, fellow students, and pupils as well the broader topics of Psellos’ own activities as a teacher and the mechanisms he uses to build networks supporting the careers of individuals and promoting his own reputation for learning and influence. The language of kinship is key to Psellos’ purposes and must be carefully interpreted and parsed, a task which Bernard accomplishes succinctly and clearly. At the close of the chapter, three letters gracefully translated illustrate Psellos’ learned tone and personal approach to a fellow student (KD 11), to a pupil embroiled in a tax dispute with a monastery protected by Psellos (KD 53), and to the prospective patron of a former student (KD 91).

Michael Jeffreys (“Michael Psellos and the Monastery”) reviews Psellos’ personal connections to monasteries and monastic life, focusing upon his family, his friends, his own tonsure, his brief withdrawal from Constantinople to live as a monk on Mt. Olympos, and his subsequent career as a monk in the capital. Jeffreys uses this framework to discuss Psellos’ correspondence with individuals, citing letters that illuminate Psellos’ experiences and relationships at crucial periods of his life. Psellos himself owned several monasteries as charistikarios, providing advice, financial support and representation of the monastery’s interests before imperial officials; in return he sometimes received some profit from the monastery’s holdings. Jeffreys concludes by enumerating and briefly describing Psellos’ interactions with specific monasteries, some famous (for example on p. 55, Ta Narsou in Constantinople) and some obscure (for example on p. 57, a nun’s tiny, starving foundation). Translation of a few letters mentioned in the chapter would have been a welcome conclusion to it; the three letters regarding the monastery of Acheiropoietes near the Golden Gate (KD 77, 124, and 250) would have illustrated Psellos’ role as charistikarios, for instance.

In a second essay (“Constantine, Nephew of the Patriarch Keroularios, and His Good Friend Michael Psellos”), Michael Jeffreys uses sigillography, prosopography, documentary evidence, and the precedence of offices and dignities to determine the biography of a significant but little known member of the Byzantine ruling class with whom Psellos maintained a long-term correspondence. Jeffreys outlines the chronology of his subject’s life (pp. 62-3) and sketches the family tree of the Patriarch Keroularios (p. 65), surveying the family’s involvement in the turbulent politics of the time as reflected in Psellos’ letters and selected essays. “For me,” observes Jeffreys, “the major purpose of arguments over details of promotion which dominate this paper is to set parameters for discussing the changing dynamics of Byzantine political society and their impact on government” (p. 74). Two elegantly translated letters to Constantine, nephew of Keroularios, close the chapter (KD 214 and G 21, both written shortly before Constantine’s death).

Marc Lauxtermann (“The Intertwined Lives of Michael Psellos and John Mauropous”) describes and contrasts the authorial personae of his two subjects, who sought very different levels of engagement in public affairs. Mauropous was a reluctant and evasive bureaucrat, but Psellos advertised his important position in the government at every opportunity. Lauxtermann first analyzes the poems, homilies, and letters of Mauropous, collections which the author selected and organized himself to emphasize stages in the traumatic episode of his career as metropolitan of Euchaita. The letters, Lauxtermann notes, represent only a brief period within his long and productive life. Within this collection are four letters evidently addressed to Psellos, including letter 33 which suggests that Mauropous wrote an unspecified encomion to be presented by Psellos as his own composition (p. 100).2 Were parts of Psellos’ immense literary production actually written by others on commission from Psellos? After registering this stunning possibility, Lauxtermann examines Psellos’ letters to Mauropous. Although the letters of Psellos are notoriously difficult to date and do not survive in a collection curated by Psellos himself, Lauxtermann identifies 18 letters surely or probably addressed to Mauropous and presents them in a logical sequence, arranged according to whether they were written before, during, or after the period of Mauropous’ episcopate. After examining Psellos’ tone and strategies in these letters, Lauxtermann provides background for assessing the exchange of two letters between Mauropous and Psellos which are translated as an appendix to the chapter. Relevant topics include the role of Xiphilinos as Nomophylax and Psellos as “Consul of the Philosophers” in the various educational structures that scholars have reconstructed from contemporary sources and from Psellos’ own compositions and letters (pp. 113-123). Three readable and lively translations close the chapter: KD 34, in which Psellos chides Mauropous for his reluctance to go to Euchaita, and the two letters exchanged by the friends and discussed at length in the chapter (Mauropous letter 23 and Psellos M 12). Particularly in the case of this rich chapter, the reader longs for a full index to Part 1 of the volume; the index (pp. 459-468) covers the summaries in Part 2 with only occasional references to Part 1.

Diether Roderich Reinsch concludes Part 1 of the volume with his essay “Venomous Praise: Some Remarks on Michael Psellos’ Letters to Leon Paraspondylos.” Paraspondylos enjoyed prominence at court in the 1050’s as attested by Attaleiates, Skylitzes, and by Psellos himself in the Chronographia, in nine letters to Paraspondylos, and especially in his logos that characterizes the excellence of the protosynkellos Leon Paraspondylos.3 The difficulty of establishing a chronology for Psellos’ letters and other writings complicates any attempt to trace the dynamics of the relationship between Psellos and Paraspondylos. Reinsch’s goal in his essay, however, is not historical but rather literary—to isolate and explore Psellos’ deployment of “the hidden venom of irony,” which, as Reinsch observes, artistically enables a letter writer “to conceal from the addressee the aggression which is connected with the statement, or at least to make it intangible” (p. 131). Reinsch illustrates Psellos’ mastery of this elusive rhetorical device by skillfully juxtaposing passages from letters of Psellos with characterizations of Paraspondylos in Psellos’ Chronographia and in his logos on the “excellence” of Paraspondylos. Two letters of Psellos to Paraspondylos (S 7 and S9) are the source of the passages that Reinsch contrasts with Psellos’ other compositions to isolate and inspect his use of irony; these letters are elegantly translated at the conclusion of the essay.

In summary, this volume is an exceptionally rich resource for students of Psellos at any level of acquaintance with his life and work. It abundantly rewards careful study and further reflection.


1.   Kurtz, E., and S. Drexl (eds), Michaelis Pselli Scripta minora magnam partem adhuc inedita II: Epistulae (Orbis Romanus 12) (Milan, 1941). Gautier, P., ‘Quelques lettres de Psellos inédites ou déjà éditées’, REB 44 (1986) 111-97. Maltese, E.V., ‘Epistole inedite di Michele Psello’, SIFC, terza serie 5 (1987) 82-98, 214-23; 6 (1988) 110-34. Sathas, K.N., Μεσαιωνική βιβλιοθήκη η συλλογή ανεκδότων μνημείων της Ελληνικής ιστορίας. Μιχαήλ Ψελλού ιστορικοί λόγοι, επιστολαί και άλλα ανέκδοτα, vol. V (Venice-Paris 1876).
2.   Published by A. Karpozilos, The Letters of Ioannes Mauropous Metropolitan of Euchaita (Thessaloniki, 1990) 227-28.
3.   Λόγος χαρακτηρίζων τὴν τοῦ πρωτοσυγκέλλου ἀρητήν, Dennis, G.T., (ed) Michael Psellus Orationes panegyricae (Stuttgart-Leipzig 1994) 134-39.

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