Monday, November 29, 2010

Penguins on Parade: Michael Psellus!

Some Penguin Classics have the field all to themselves. The imprint actively encouraged popular scholarly endeavor, and throughout its history its editors have actively sought out the best accessible critical work being done anywhere and offered to fold it into the Penguin Classics library. This is going on today (the magnificent recent three-volume Tales of the Arabian Nights is one good example among many), and it was going on forty years ago when the publisher bought E. R. A. Sewter's engaging Yale University Press translation of the Chronographia of Michael Psellus.

Constantine Psellus ('Michael' was his name as a monk, adopted late in life) was born of a noble family in 1018 and given a first-rate education by his doting mother. He attached himself to the court of Constantinople's Emperor Michael V, and through a succession of emperors he rose to Secretary of State, Grand Chamberlain, Prime Minister, and Professor of Rhetoric at the new University of Constantinople. He was friends with all the leading intellectual lights of his time, and he himself was steeped in classical learning - his numerous extant works are filled with echoes and references to Homer, Hesiod, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Demosthenes, Plutarch, the Church fathers, the Stoic philosophers, and the leading medical treatises of the day.

He wrote a vast amount, most of which we still have - including well over 500 extant letters that have never received a popular scholarly edition, despite the fact that there's virtually nothing like them in the entire canon. The first section of the Chronographia was finished around 1063, but the work remains unfinished. Psellus died in 1078, apparently having fallen from imperial favor and been turned out of all his high offices by Michael Parapinaces. We'll probably never know the reason for this sudden turn of fortune, although sometimes, just very occasionally while reading the work here given as Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, we get the faint impression it might have been for the crime of being a bit tedious.

Only very occasionally, though, and Psellus was writing under the conventions of his time. The rulers of Constantinople were hardly the degenerate nincompoops of casual lore, but at their courts they enforced the most slavish Oriental despotism imaginable, and court writers learned the vocabulary of abasement from the cradle - so we can't hold his book's incessant fawning against Psellus. And translator Sewters is entirely correct when he says "Psellus can have few rivals as a vivid narrator of events ... as a picture of Byzantine life and particularly life at the imperial court his work could scarcely be surpassed."

A big key to these superlatives is access - Psellus is mostly writing about things he was personally on hand to see and hear, and that makes his book spellbinding. When he writes of the threat of war with the Russians faced by the emperor Constantine IX in 1042, his reporting is full of first-hand opinionizing:
They [the extorting Russians] mentioned the actual amount,  a thousand staters for each ship, on the understanding that this money should be counted out to them in one way only - on one of the ships in their own fleet. Such were the proposals they put forward, either because they imagined that there were springs of gold in our domains, or simply because they had decided to fight in any case. The terms were impossible, purposely so, in order that they could have a plausible excuse for going to war ...

And our author's subsequent note while narrating the ensuing naval battle is one that becomes familiar throughout the course of this remarkable book: "It was a sight that produced the most alarming effect on every man who saw it. For my own part, I was standing at the emperor's side...

The aforementioned leaning toward sycophancy crops up consistently too, and that can get wearying for modern readers who are accustomed to less bowing and scraping in their historians (with very notable and best-selling exceptions, of course). Our scanty secondary sources about Constantine IX, for instance, paint a slightly different picture of his physical appearance than the one Psellus is so eager to commit to paper:
It was a marvel of beauty that Nature brought into being in the person of this man, so justly proportioned, so harmoniously fashioned, that there was no one in our time to compare with him. To this symmetry she added a robust vigour, as though she were laying the foundations for a beautiful house. This strength that she gave him was not manifest in long hands or the great size of his limbs or other parts of his body; rather, I fancy, she hid it deep in his heart, for it was not revealed in the parts that were visible. They, in fact, were more distinguished for their beauty and proportion than for any unusual size. Indeed, his hands were only moderately big, and the same can be said of his fingers: their medium size was most noticeable, but they were endowed with more than ordinary strength, for there was no object, however hard, which he could not very easily crush with his hands and break in pieces.

He adds to these rather bland superlatives an incredibly revealing further line: "An arm gripped by that man was painful for days." There's only one way Psellus could have come to know that, and the mind boggles at how that came about. And to be fair about all that body-worshipping, when Constantine IX was shortly after stricken with the crippling rheumatism that would afflict him for the rest of his life (his joints deformed, he could scarcely sit up, and his every movement brought sharp pain), Psellus describes it all with equal specificity. He took certain parts of his job as historian very seriously.

And perhaps the most eye-opening part of Fourteen Byzantine Rulers is its continuous reminder that Psellus had lots of history to recount. Sewter, in his playful Introduction, recalls a time not long before when there were scarcely any modern studies being done of the Byzantine era, and when schoolboys were discouraged from inquiring about the ten centuries between the fall of the empire in the West and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 - even though those schoolboys were understandably curious:
However ignorant we may have been, some of us did ask awkward questions: if they were so inferior, how did those wretched Byzantines manage to survive so long after the collapse of the West? And what about Santa Sophia? And wasn't a millennium rather a long time for a sustained decline?

Yes indeed it was, and it's a shame that even today, readers of history know so far less about Byzantine history than about Imperial Rome or the Crusades. But at least Penguin Classics like this one have been out there trying all these years.

1 comment:

Simon Wood said...

I have bought today, in a fabulous old-fashioned London junk shop, a Penguin Classics first edition of old Psellus's "Fourteen Byzantine Rulers", published in 1966 after the hardback was published simultaneously in the UK and USA in 1953.

The cover price is 9 shillings and 6 pence, a huge amount in the 1960s, enough to buy you a whole pub full of beer. The copy cost me 33.3-ever-recurring pence (I bought 3 books for a quid).

The paper is of unusually good quality and has acquired a pleasant cream colour over the years.

But you are right. It is quite dull.

The title is great, "Fourteen Byzantine Rulers", and from it you would expect immense and thrilling sex and slow and painful violence, but I think I will have to pick carefully through the 400 pages to find it.

It starts like a Jackie Collins novel:

"The circumstances in which the Emperor John Tzimsices met his death..."

Choking on the leg of a skinny young boy thrust down his throat?"

"... have already been described."

Oh, come on! I see there is a Princess Zoe somewhere and the story of how the author became a monk, but flicking through, the pages are literally beginning to smell a little musty and lack the required literary narrative drive of "must" and "lust" to pursue from start to end.

Like nearly all books except the totally unpredictable King James Bible, this one is better imagined than read.