Tuesday, October 7, 2014


Frederick Lauritzen, The Depiction of Character in the Chronographia of Michael Psellos. Studies in Byzantine history and civilization, 7. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2013. Pp. x, 260. ISBN 9782503548418. €65.00.

Reviewed by Christian Høgel and Jonas J. H.​ Christensen, Centre for Medieval Literature, University of Southern Denmark (hogel@sdu.dk; Jonchr@sdu.dk)

Version at BMCR home site


It takes courage to make Psellos' Chronographia the subject of major study. Not only has the scholarly world been awaiting such a study for decades, but many editions needed for making a full investigation of Psellos are also still lacking. Initial steps for any major enquiry into his works are therefore quite difficult. In this revised version of his thesis, Frederick Lauritzen has produced such a study and it yields new and important results. Nevertheless, the text also displays a number of shortcomings. Both qualities and drawbacks will be discussed below, as fairly as can be done taking the difficulties faced by the author into account.

Psellos' Chronographia has, since the appearance of the first modern edition in 1874, been the object of much discussion. While nobody can criticize its literary qualities (Lauritzen correctly states that it may be the only Byzantine text that can be taken in without any commentary by a modern reader), quite a number of modern historians have complained about the lack of precise, or in fact any, information on central events, dates, circumstances, etc. It is therefore not surprising that this monograph will focus upon the depiction of character, rather than on some historical issue. Some have called Psellos' composition memoires, and, as witnessed by Lauritzen's discussion, the generic nature of Psellos' text is in no way simple.

Though the title of Lauritzen's book indicates that the depiction of character is the central theme, the main point seems rather to be the centrality of character in the portraits of emperors and in the interpretation of the Chronographia. Lauritzen identifies several different approaches to the question of character and accordingly structures the book into more or less independent chapters. The introduction places the work within the context of the author and his near-contemporaries and opens some of their central discussions, most prominently the critique by Skylitzes against authors who seek to "fill the listeners with dizziness and anxiety [ἰλίγγου καὶ ταραχῆς]" (p. 24), an accusation that is at least obliquely directed at Psellos. The first chapter introduces the idea that the Chronographia "(…) is a study of character and not of events" (p. 21), a central distinction which, however, proves very difficult to follow through, as the defining trait or character is most clearly revealed in circumstances and behavior. A central tenet of chapter two is the relationship between the hidden inner parts of a person, Soul and Mind, and of the revealing outer parts, Manner and Appearance. Together they make up a character, and the outer parts provide the careful observer with a starting point for analysis of the inner. This leads to chapter three, where the unity of character, composed of the four elements, is at the fore of the analysis. Unity here implies consistency, and the concept of defining vice or virtue is introduced: "Psellos identifies the single virtue or vice guiding a person through his life, and which defines the person from the time of his birth to the end. The only alteration that can occur is one of degree. Thus the external world has a role in the final shaping of a person, but does not fundamentally change it. Outside influence only affects the person as to increase features already present (…)" (p. 55). The chapter offers analyses of the often complex ways the vices and virtues are presented by Psellos, and ends with an example of how vices and virtues are thought to have defined the lives of some of the emperors. Chapter four 'Platonic Personality' combines the results from the earlier chapters with the philosophical outlook of Psellos. Unity of character thus becomes recognizable as a kind of Platonic psychology, and more specifically the unity between the outer, material and the inner, spiritual parts, points towards Neoplatonist thought as outlined by Proclus and Christianized by Pseudo-Dionysius. Lauritzen convincingly argues that Psellos did not synthesize Plato and Aristotle, but made a conscious choice to exclude Aristotle. A direct result of this choice is the absence in the Chronographia of weakness of will: intention is of secondary (or rather of no importance) when gauging the actions of an emperor. Chapter five describes the rhetorical strategies and devices of Psellos. Chapter six treats the use of classical literature. The conclusion elaborates on the relationship between the Chronographia and Plutarch's Lives. The main conclusion drawn from the latter is the incommensurability of Psellos' characters: each was a unique mixture of virtues and vices and direct comparison as made by Plutarch was therefore not possible.

The quality of these chapters varies, and they are all very dependent upon the conclusions of chapter two. Here the author presents a fourfold scheme of soul, mentality, manner, and appearance (psyche, gnome, ethos, eidos). It seems justifiable to make these four concepts, and the way they appear and function in Psellos' text, a fundamental approach to Psellian character, and they are in themselves hardly surprising. The following chapter (ch. 3), on the 'unity of character', takes these observations a bit further, and in fact too far. Here Lauritzen insists that every emperor in Psellos' account displays a single main characteristic. This reading is reached by placing a set of passages from the Chronographia into a straightjacket. Constantine IX was careless in state matters and frivolous; he may therefore be labelled 'not stable' (p. 74). Basil II wanted, according to Lauritzen's reading of Psellos, 'to appear greater than he actually was' (p. 76). Three main characteristics of Michael V (secrecy, envy, cowardice) can be combined into 'diffidence and mistrust of others' (p. 77). This produces a boring reduction of Psellos' intriguing depictions; also we encounter rapid readings of extracts for which no principle of selection is given. On the way, strange interpretations are offered: on p. 62 we read that it is 'nearly impossible to understand what Michael IV Paphlagon's physical appearance was'; but he was obviously good looking, with bright eyes and red cheeks, which is why the empress fell in love with him. Also the concept of poikilia 'variability' is repeatedly picked out as a negative sign in Psellos' depictions (p. 61, 63) without citing any clear indication of this, and yet already on p. 41 Lauritzen acknowledges that labelling Michael VII Doukas, whom Psellos lauds as poikilos, shows that this designation is not universally negative.

If these central results seem quite unconvincing, the following chapters on Platonic Personality (ch. 4) and Rhetorical Creation (ch. 5) argue their case better. As put on display in two tables, there seems to be a close correspondence between Psellian thinking and Proklos' version of Neoplatonism, and Psellos' descriptions of emperors do have a tendency to follow the prescriptions of Menander Rhetor for encomiastic speeches. However, the insistence on a single model for the analysis of character flounders on the diverse aims of the chapters. Intention is, as mentioned, seen as secondary in the chapter on Platonic unity, but assumes central importance in the conclusion, as can be seen from the following two quotations: "However, the background is different since each person represents a unique personality and Psellos is not interested in discussing intention. The Chronographia studies only the relation of character to action and this makes it a profoundly Platonic text" (p. 103); vs. "Thus history is the definition of intention originating from inside a unique person, rather than the combination of external factors pressing a person into action" (p. 202). This is confusing. Are we to deduce that intention is of less importance to Psellos the Platonic philosopher than to Psellos the Historian? Likewise, the unchanging aspects of character change with the chapters and contribute greatly to the confusion of the arguments.

Thought has evidently gone into the arrangement of the chapters. Unfortunately the meticulous buildup of observations and conclusions only reaches a convincing critical mass in chapter four, leaving the frustrated reader in the dark much of the time. However connected with the overall drift of argumentation in the book, the chapters are almost stubbornly self-contained and severely lacking in internal referencing. Therefore the reader will encounter the same quotations and the same references time and again, nearly always without reference to treatment in other chapters, and in the rare cases where such treatment is mentioned always without direct reference. In some chapters the same passage will be quoted twice with only a couple of pages of separation and the same reference made time and again. A worrying aspect of the praxis of reusing quotations is the lack of consistency. Nearly all passages quoted more than once differ in some aspect, ranging from different wording, over rearrangement of structure, to difference in meaning/translation. For example, Psellos' φυσιογνωμονῶν (Orat.Pan., 4.285) on p. 93 is translated "study Physiognomy", but on p. 98 with "apply Physiognomy". In the first case it gives Lauritzen the clue to state that physiognomy (which is strangely capitalized throughout the book) is "a well-known science"; the second translation gives the obvious, general meaning, with no implication that Psellos made any reference to a science.1

In combination with the lax standard of editing in general—missing words, strange spaces appearing in the Greek text, wrong referencing, unfinished sentences, redundant sentences –the book makes hard reading, especially when offering slight, and not so slight, differences in its translations.

The book contains inspiring and interesting observations, but the attempt to make a one size fits all model for the study of character in the Chronographia, based as it is on conflicting analyses and material, impairs its general argument.


1.   An aggravating and, one might suggest, tendentious example is found in the introduction: "For the moment, I leave aside to explain all that follows, to define each one from which ranks he started and to which dignities he arrived, (…)"(p. 21) (Τὰ μὲν ἐφεξῆς πάντα διεξιέναι, ἕκαστόν τε ἐξακριβοῦσθαι ἀφ' οἵων ἀρχῶν εἰς οἷα τέλη κατήντησε, (…) εἰς τὸ παρὸν ἀναβάλλομαι (6.73.1-6).) The same passage is used in chapter five, now translated "Therefore for the present time I am putting off to explain everything in order, and to precise each event from which origins it reached which results (…)" (p. 121), with the comment "He [Psellos] is describing the course of people's lives, not the events" (p. 122). Now, it is clear from Psellos' preceding chapter on the calamities that befell the Roman Empire that the latter translation is the more correct. What leads Lauritzen to the first translation is clear from the context. Lauritzen argues that John Mauropous had criticized Psellos' flattering inclusion of friends and benefactors in an earlier version of the Chronographia and that the above passage was an answer to this critique: "Apparently one of the early drafts referred to the many players at the court of the emperor. (…) Interestingly the version which has survived has few names of such courtiers, indeed the focus is clearly on each of the rulers" (p. 20). This explains why Lauritzen would in this instance want the text to be about persons, namely all the people and their curricula left out of the narrative, and not events.

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