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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Test of Time
I was first hooked on Byzantine history after picking up a copy of John Julius Norwich's abridged History of Byzantium. This led to an abiding interest in the second half of the Roman Empire.
Psellus' turn of phrase and genuine storytelling ability make this book a pleasure to read. I only regret I cannot read it in its original Greek, for I think it would be even...
Published on December 11, 2002 by Lilith Saintcrow

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36 of 45 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Tainted Account from the Byzantine Court
Michael Psellus' Chronographia, written in the 11th Century, gives the modern reader a glimpse into the court and personal lives of fourteen Byzantine rulers. Psellus served as a court advisor and resident intellectual to several of these rulers and had direct contact with most of his subjects, which makes this book a valuable first-person account from an obscure period...
Published on September 10, 2005 by R. A Forczyk


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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Test of Time, December 11, 2002
By 
Lilith Saintcrow "Lili" (Vancouver, WA United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
I was first hooked on Byzantine history after picking up a copy of John Julius Norwich's abridged History of Byzantium. This led to an abiding interest in the second half of the Roman Empire.
Psellus' turn of phrase and genuine storytelling ability make this book a pleasure to read. I only regret I cannot read it in its original Greek, for I think it would be even better. Despite the bias against his female compatriots (only to be expected in that era) Psellus remains fresh, authoritative, winning, and as balanced as can be expected. I love the Penguin editions of classic works- I rarely buy anything else- and my copy of the Chronographia is already dog-eared and underlined.
In short, I truly recomment this edition for any serious or leisurely student of Byzantium. Psellus gives us a window into a sorely misunderstood time and age- as well as being able to tell a ripping good story when the mood takes him.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Psellus is fantastic; Highly-Recommended, August 12, 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
I completely recommend Michael Psellus to anyone who wants to understand a bit more about the Byzantines and this very harsh period of time in their history. Psellus is fun to read, his commentaries are often humorous, and he seems genuinely interested in preserving this period of time as more of a memoir that tries to place together the good and the bad aspects of life. Before his commentary on Constantine IX, he notes that the position of historian, just as the position of emperor, is a very complex one -- you can try your hardest to do it as accurately as possible, but, in the end, one realizes that most people are complex and cannot be quantified in words or even pages, particularly via using the words of other subjective humans. The reviewer at the bottom concerns himself with Western pipedreams; Psellus' (or Psellos') account is a memoir from events that happened in his life, it is *not* a play-by-play logbook.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The most readable book by a Byzantine historian., May 1, 1999
This review is from: Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
I am not an expert on Byzantine history, but I'm not ignorant of it either. For such a one as myself, this book offers an enjoyable insight into what life was like at that time, in that place, and I must say that it was one of the most dynamic and interesting societies ever to exist. As for the author himself, his style was wholly unlike the stuffy, dull writings to be found among his Western contemporaries. It's informative, to the point, and even (gasp) mildly humorous at times. Buy it.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE REAL DEAL ABOUT 11th CENTURY BYZANTIUM, September 21, 2005
By 
Luciano Lupini (Caracas Venezuela) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
Fine edition of an oft forgotten (but indeed important) opus in Byzantine literature and history. The author, Michael Psellus (1018-1078 A.D.), born of an aristocratic family, was a pupil of John Mauropous (Archbishop of Euchaita), became Professor of Rhetoric and then, after being introduced to the court by Michael V, rose to be a first hand spectator of the rise and demise of several emperors, having occupied the posts of Secretary of State, Prime Minister and Grand Chamberlain. This explains why this is a valuable memoir of a contemporary witness to Byzantine life and the workings of the imperial court, under several rulers, from the reign of Basil II (976-1025) to the reign of Michael VII (1071-1078). Originally published as the first whole translation in English of Psellus work in 1953, under the title The Cronographia of Michael Psellus , this revised edition is a wonderful tool for those interested in Byzantine history. The scarce or relative interest that occurred in the field of Byzantine literature until a century ago, compared to the classical period, comprehensive of Greek and Roman history up to the reign of Justinian, has been surpassed due to the fine work of several modern scholars. But it has been clearly noticed that in addition to the well known classical works of Procopius, Menander Protector and Leo Diaconos, this opus by Psellus is unsurpassed or unique for the study of the period covered by the author. Indeed, he was in a position to fully comprehend the events that occurred at the death of Basil II (who ruled for more than 40 years, crushed rebellions, rescued the Empire's army, finances and pride ) in 1078, and the particular decadence that ensued in the following generations due to the unworthiness of the following rulers. So we must concur with the appreciation of Professor Joan Hussey, who wrote the introduction to the second edition of this opus in English, in the sense that Psellus was one man who comprehended the decay in the Empire's fortunes around the eleventh century as a turning point, and that although the Cronographia may give sometimes the impression of vagueness (compared to the works of Cedrenus or Zonaras) it has a colour and variety rarely found in any of its rivals. Not in vain Professor Hussey concludes that Psellus dedication to philosophy was life long and that his contribution to revive classicl learning was truly important:-Renaissance authors owed much to this man-

For scholars or those generally interested in Byzantine history, mores and decadence, the Cronographia is a must.
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36 of 45 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Tainted Account from the Byzantine Court, September 10, 2005
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This review is from: Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
Michael Psellus' Chronographia, written in the 11th Century, gives the modern reader a glimpse into the court and personal lives of fourteen Byzantine rulers. Psellus served as a court advisor and resident intellectual to several of these rulers and had direct contact with most of his subjects, which makes this book a valuable first-person account from an obscure period of Medieval history. However, Psellus' account is oftentimes less a historical narrative than a piece of deliberate disinformation, as the editor often points out in footnotes. The Byzantine Empire was beginning to decline in the period of the author's narrative and his account often seems designed to conceal or distort his own role in this phase. While the author appears as a fairly sympathetic and intellectual character early in his narrative, by the time he rose to the rank of senior advisor he was clearly corrupted and he admits in the final chapters that he was rewarded financially for his overly flattering portrayals of Emperor Michael VII. At one point, the author admits that "I have passed over in this work many facts worthy of mention" in order to satisfy his benefactors. Thus, read Psellus to gain insight into certain aspects of the Byzantine mindset, but be aware that this is a "tainted history" in which the author's primary loyalty is to his own self-promotion and avarice, not the truth.

Psellus' narrative begins with the 49 year-reign of the Emperor Basil II, whose hard work brought the Byzantine Empire to the pinnacle of its strength, with secure borders and a full treasury. Although Psellus was only a child when Basil's reign came to an end, he bases this part of the narrative on contemporary secondary sources and it seems fairly objective. The six rulers that followed Basil in the next 17 years, when Psellus was a youth, are covered fairly rapidly although the author did have some contact with these individuals. It is with Emperor Constantine IX (1042-1055) that Psellus' narrative begins in earnest and this chapter is fully 25% of the book. Psellus entered the life of the court under this emperor and he admits that he benefited from his reign, but he also admits his overt bias when he says that, "I knew that in many things I should clash with the Emperor Constantine and I should be ashamed of myself if I did not seize every opportunity of commending him." Although the previous rulers had been a string of ineffective mediocrities, even Psellus' account admits that Constantine IX "chose a life of pleasure and luxury" and that he "wasted the imperial treasury" on satisfying the whims of his nit-wit mistress. In short order, the sound military and financial structure built by Basil II was depleted by Constantine II, although Psellus seems to shrug his shoulders at this. Indeed, the author was clearly a sycophantic courtier, who frequently describes the "beauty" of this emperor and compares his head to "the sun in its glory." Psellus admits that "it was not my desire to write a history, nor to acquire a reputation for veracity in that sphere; what I wanted to do was to compose a panegyric in honor of this ruler." Thus, Psellus' shabby gift to the modern reader is a propaganda piece, not objective truth. This is not to say that Psellus conceals his benefactors faults - at one point he admit that Constantine IX protected a nobleman who had embezzled a huge sum from the military budget - but despite this unethical behavior he still describes him as "this very great emperor."

Readers will probably find Psellus a vain and smug intellectual, who claims superior knowledge in all spheres, including warfare and medicine. At one point, Psellus wrote that, "I know that perfumes give off a vapor which drives away evil spirits..." and he seems to confuse reading about warfare with expertise in warfare.

One theme that does appear throughout Psellus' narrative is that a very poor state of civil-military relations contributed to the decline of the Byzantine Empire, by causing rebellions and a low state of military preparedness. Weak emperors viewed their mobile field armies as a potential source of rebellion and consequently deprived them of resources, despite near-constant threats on the borders. Promising military leaders were denied promotion or even cashiered, lest them become rivals to mediocre emperors. Instead, weak emperors preferred to rely upon fixed fortifications, particularly the redoubtable walls of Constantinople, rather than mobile forces. However, this neglect of the mobile armies weakened the ability of the empire to ward off external threats and began the reliance on foreign mercenaries. It is also apparent that Psellus was part of an anti-military cabal and that some of his advice contributed to the declining fortunes of the empire.

Psellus' description of the reign of Romanus IV (1068-1071) and the disastrous Manzikert campaign against the Turks appears deliberately unfair to the one emperor who tried to revive the empire's military fortunes. After Manzikert, Psellus was apparently part of the conspiracy that removed Romanus and at that point his narrative becomes rather sickening in its blatant bias. Psellus became particularly attached to the young emperor Michael VII, another nitwit who is described as "a prodigy," "a divinity" and a "God-like emperor." Psellus admits, "favors were heaped upon me, gifts were sent to me... augmenting the wealth that I already possessed." In fact, Psellus even admits that Michael submitted his own version of his biography for Psellus to include in his work. Thus, while the Turks were massacring Byzantine civilians in Anatolia and depopulating the eastern empire, this author was getting rich writing a whitewashed history of a conniving thug. Although the editor writes that what happened to Psellus after 1078 is not known, one might hope after reading this shameless piece of disinformation that the author's head ended up on a Turkish spearpoint.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative, erudite and biased, April 30, 2005
This review is from: Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
Michael Psellus was an 11th century Byzantine scholar, historian and member of the court. After the emperor Basil II, there followed a host of emperors and empresses from the Macedonian house. It is widely beleived that their collective rule contained much mismanagement, as they were more interested in (empty) learning, ritual and intrigues concerning their city of Constantinople, while ignoring the international political and military predicament of the Byzantine state.

Psellus's Chronographia is his attempt to write a history of these rulers (the Macedonian house as well as the two following houses of Comnenus and Ducas) while utilising a more classical Greek historiography and methodology. The work can be seen as part of the Byzantine "Golden Age" where learning, literature and the arts became increasingly important. This is reflected in the work - it is full of quite dense narrative styles, literary allusions and other fragments of Greek learning. However, being written by such a versatile historian, it does contain a detailed and intelligent description of the Byzantine rulers and their works.

The issue of bias comes from the fact that Psellus was himself involved in the politics for much of his life, and this is quite obvious, especially towards the end of the work where he launches into a vomit-like praise of the last few rulers. Also, he was himself part of the scholars so he can also be accused of many of the failings as his contemporary emperors and empresses.

So why read this book, if you're not a historian? It is an erudite journey into a very different world. Written by someone with some definite opinions as to what history, learning and politics are, it opens to us the world of the Byzantine "Rennaisance" scholars, philosophers and politicians. Despite providing a whole heap of genuinely well-thought out and careful history, on a wider scale, it provides a Byzantine counterpart to the European Rennaisance man in Psellus, and shows a great deal of the power, versatility and bias of the human.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A magnificent contemporary view of 11th century Byzantine rulers., December 11, 2012
By 
DKS "Dayle Smith" (Brisbane, Queensland, AU) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
It is very difficult not to like the freshness of approach adopted by the author in his dealings with the good, the bad and the indifferent rules he writes about, and mostly from close observations or first hand knowledge.
In a few instances it has been suggested that he has fashioned his view of some of the rulers to suit his political purposes.
He writes of his own contacts with the various emperors, challengers to the throne, good and bad generals, and the theological dramas of the day between the western inheritor of the former part of the Roman Empire, the Roman Pope and the military position in which Byzantium found itself after the two serious military losses it sustained in 1071`: the defeat of Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes at the battle of Manzikert in the far east, and the capture by the Normans of the city of Bari in the west, actually in southern Italy. Thus war on two fronts threatened the empire.
Psellus was born in Constantinople in 1018 and was taught by a celebrated teacher. Psellus was distinguished from his fellow students by his mastery of both science and humanistic studies. He is said to have been a polymath and his work shows him to have been a brilliant, if slightly self important, writer.
His observations of the intrigue's at court after 1071 captures the intrigue's of the Byzantine court struggles between rival groups for influence, political and military, over the empires responses to the setbacks of 1071.
His description of the manner in which the great schism between the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch in Constantinople (both were equal, according to longstanding Byzantine authority) when both sides excommunicated the other!
His capacity to be only slightly judgmental on some subjects allows hi to be quite humorous on others.
Overall this is an exciting work by an author who wrote of his own time in a fresh and fairly unrestrained style.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pretty average Penguin; decent appendices, August 3, 2011
This review is from: Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
This is a primary source, and thus I am reviewing the edition, not the historian. That is material best left to academic journals, and even a cursory survey would far exceed the length of the review. It would also be rather useless on Amazon. A brief introduction will be given to start this off, followed by a few comments on the edition itself and some recommendations for further reading.

Michael Psellos was a Byzantine courtier who wrote sometime at the end of the eleventh century, a rather difficult time for Byzantium after enjoying a relatively stable century of expansion and consolidation. As a highly-placed official, Psellos was intimitaly involved in palace politics. If you are interested in reading an account of the inner dealings and factionalism inside the Byzantine court in the era before the crusades, then Michael Psellos is the account to read. The very fact that he was involved up to his neck in the political wranglings just makes this account even more fun to read. However, if you are looking for an account that details what was going on involving the Byzantine Empire and its neighbours during Psellos' era, then this is not the book to read. The perspective is almost wholly limited to Constantinople, and it is extremely unclear from Psellos' account alone just what was going on beyond the walls of the imperial capital. If that is what you are interested in, read John Skylitzes: A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811-1057: Translation and Notes, who also covers most of Psellos' period and can provide a different take on events. You can read some other works of Psellos in translation as well. Anthony Kaldellis has translated a number of his personal works concerning his family in 'Mothers and Sons, Fathers and Daughters: The Byzantine Family of Michael Psellos'. I'd insert a link but Amazon seemingly cannot find it, although a quick search will reveal it. You can also read a book of his on magic in 'Michael Psellus on the Operation of Daemons'.

As for the edition, the translation is easily readable. The notes are basic, but sufficient for anyone unfamiliar with Byzantine civilization to have little trouble getting through this rather easy and very entertaining read. There is a nice glossary that helps to explain some of the offices that will be encountered in the book. There are four appendices. Two are genealogical tables of the Houses of Macedon and Komnenos. Both are relevant, but would it have been terribly difficult to include a genealogy of the House of Doukas, who play a critical role towards the end of the book? There is a decent essay on George Maniakes as well, and a very little note (still called an appendix, however) on Greek fire. The latter is pretty basic and mediocre and is little more than a paragraph, but these are nice little additions to the book. This is a good read, an important source for Byzantine history, and a solid edition.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Original History, August 16, 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
I always like to read the original texts that historians tend to paraphrase.
This is definitely not one of those antique histories written by a forgotten author. Instead, Psellos writes across a range of topics: psychology of leadership, geography, Orthodox Christianity, statecraft, and let's not forget philosophy. This historical work is a tribute to the power of the Medieval empire of the Greeks, the high extent of its culture, and its heritage.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A readable history of the 11th Century Byzantine Empire., April 17, 2014
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The author (Psellus) writes of a time and people he knew. He was an intimate of the Byzantine Court, so he is able to describe events and people who played a part in that era. There is some personal opinions and prejudices expressed, but generally he has written a factual and honest account of life in the Byzantine Court from 1025 to 1071. I found very interesting the ways emperors spent much of the state's funds on themselves and personal projects while allowing the civil service, the army, and the common people to suffer neglect.
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