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7-08-2015, 23:52

The patriarch and the philosopher: eleventh-century cultural vitality

At Byzantium the events of 1054 gave Patriarch Michael I Keroularios a prominence which he had neither enjoyed nor sought before. His understanding with the people of Constantinople gave him immense power. He was on bad terms with Empress Theodora, openly objecting to a woman ruling the empire. On her deathbed she nominated Michael Stratiotikos to succeed her, as Michael VI (1056–7). He came from the distinguished civil service family of Bringas. He was old and was intended as a figurehead for a faction among the bureaucracy which had come to power with Theodora. The new government dealt generously with potential supporters in the capital, but pleaded poverty when the generals Isaac Komnenos and Katakalon Kekaumenos came seeking promotion and donatives. They were sent packing to their estates in Anatolia. They raised the standard of rebellion and defeated the imperial forces sent against them in a particularly bloody encounter not far from the city of Nicaea. The rebels advanced on Constantinople.Within the capital there was a struggle for power between various factions.Michael VI Stratiotikos hoped to keep the throne by using the good offices of Constantine Leichoudes and Michael Psellos, who had been absent from the political scene and had not crossed the generals. The emperor sent them to the rebels’ camp to offer Isaac Komnenos the rank of caesar and eventual succession to the throne. But Michael Keroularios had already taken things into his own hands by having Isaac Komnenos proclaimed emperor in St Sophia. Michael VI backed down; he was not willing to turn Constantinople into a bloodbath by opposing the entry of Komnenos’ troops. Isaac I Komnenos (1057–9) owed the throne toMichael Keroularios. The patriarch’s reward was the right to appoint to the two most senior posts of the patriarchal administration: those of the oikonomos and the skeuophylax, appointments which in the past had been in the imperial gift. It marked an important stage in the emancipation of the patriarchal administration from imperial control. Isaac I Komnenos did not wish to be beholden to the patriarch. He had been impressed by the way Michael Psellos had conducted negotiations, even if they lacked concrete result. Psellos struck him as amanhe could trust. Isaac needed an experienced minister to supervise his plans for financial retrenchment. Arrears of taxation were chased up; pensions paid to officials were reduced; grants of property made from the imperial demesne were revoked; and there were restrictions on grants to monasteries in line with the anti-monastic legislation of Nikephoros Phokas. Isaac’s intentions were made plain by the iconography of his coinage. It showed the emperor holding an unsheathed sword (fig. 44).He had come to restore the military might of the empire. The essential first step was to impose order on the state’s finances. In theory, Michael Psellos approved, but he thought that Isaac acted too abruptly, alienating too many vested interests by his harshness. Isaac IKomnenos’ conduct aroused PatriarchMichaelKeroularios’ opposition, which Isaac took as a challenge to his imperial authority. Michael Psellos accused the patriarch of ‘daring to usurp imperial authority’.17 The clash ofMichael Keroularios and Isaac Komnenos was a cause c´el`ebre of the eleventh century, raising real constitutional issues. Keroularios assumed the role of moral arbiter, entitled to discipline emperors if they failed to protect orthodoxy or to decide the succession when this was in doubt. He had popular support which he exploited; but this laid Keroularios open to the charge that he was flirting with democracy. This accusation reflected the uncertainties created by the end of the Macedonian line and for the time being of dynastic succession, provoking a debate on the constitutional niceties of selecting an emperor. Michael Psellos looked back to the Augustan settlement for guidance. He recognised that imperial authority rested on three factors: the people, the senate and the army. He objected to Michael VI’s accession on the grounds that he only obtained the consent of the people and the senate, but not that of the army. His charge against Michael Keroularios was that he was using the voice of the people to transfer power from one emperor to another. The constitutional role of the people of Constantinople – the New Rome – was never very clear. Their acclamation of a new emperor was one – some would claim, in accordance with Roman practice, the most important – of the constitutive acts in the making of an emperor. The people might on occasion rise up against an emperor, as happened withMichael V. This could be construed as a right to remove tyrants. Another constitutive act was the coronation, which in times of great political confusion gave the patriarch considerable leverage. Keroularios exploited the constitutional difficulties produced by the end of the Macedonian dynasty, seeking to turn the patriarch into the arbiter of the constitution.18 This was seen by Psellos as a threat to imperial authority. Under his prompting Isaac I Komnenos exiled Keroularios from Constantinople. Psellos was put in charge of the prosecution, but his speech against the patriarch was never delivered. Keroularios died on 21 January 1059, before he could be brought to trial. Michael Psellos’ evident dislike of the patriarch was something more than a clash of personalities. The two men stood for very different ways of life. Psellos accused the patriarch of being an exponent of the mysticism which was then fashionable in some Constantinopolitan circles. It centred on the cult of Symeon the New Theologian, who died inMarch 1022. The cult was promoted by Niketas Stethatos, a future abbot of the monastery of St John Stoudios, and Keroularios supported his campaign for Symeon’s canonisation. His teachings provided some of the inspiration behind the monastic revival, now associated with the monastery of the Theotokos Evergetis, which was gathering strength at Constantinople.19 Psellos spelt out the dangers of mysticism. It exalted ignorance and denied human reason. It was divorced from everyday life. Psellos, for his part, gloried in his own humanity: ‘I am an earthly being’, he told the patriarch, ‘made of flesh and blood, so that my illnesses seem to me to be illnesses, blows blows, joy joy.’20 Psellos came close to admitting that he believed that ‘man was the measure of all things’. He certainly emphasised the primacy of human experience. He saw no contradiction between Christianity and life in society; had not Christ often frequented the market places and much less frequently the mountains? Psellos was preaching a Christian humanism. Society was held together by the bonds of a Christian faith, friendship and reason. It possessed its own logic and justification.However, it was shaped and guided by the ‘philosopher’, and Psellos set his authority as ‘philosopher’ on the same level as that of the patriarch. If he did not challenge imperial authority quite so directly, his Chronographia dwells on the human frailties of individual emperors. Its message is that without the wisdom of a ‘philosopher’ to guide him an emperor was incapable of living up to the responsibilities of his office.21 Niketas Stethatos was less circumspect in his promotion of the mystic. He exalted the primacy of the mystic over ‘emperor, patriarch, bishop or priest’.22 The emphasis on the role of the mystic and the ‘philosopher’ devalued traditional authority at Byzantium. They had access to ‘knowledge’ that was of immediate benefit to a Christian society.Mystical experience opened up direct access to the Godhead. Symeon the New Theologian saw this as a guarantee that Christ’s ministry was ever present and not set in some distant past. Psellos had the harder task of explaining the relevance of classical learning in a Christian society. He was not simply content with the traditional justification that it was an educational tool, a means of cultivating human reason. Learning made possible an understanding of the natural world, which offered clues to God’s existence and purpose. Psellos sought to build on the classical heritage and bring it up to date. His letters and rhetorical works are not redolent of the drab encyclopaedism of the previous century, but are full of emotion and concrete detail. Unlike earlier Byzantine histories, his Chronographia is not dominated by the workings of Divine Providence, but emphasises instead the human element as a decisive historical factor. Psellos did not see any contradiction between Christianity and the classical tradition; to his way of thinking the former fulfilled the latter. He liked to think of himself as in the tradition of the Cappadocian fathers who used their profound knowledge of Greek philosophy to deepen understanding of their Christian faith. Psellos never grappled with theology in any systematic way. This task was left to his pupil John Italos, who reopened many of the basic questions of Christian dogma. The work of John Italos was just one more sign of the cultural vitality of the eleventh century. The decline of imperial prestige raised basic questions about the ordering of a Christian society. The rivalry of mystic and humanist will sometimes have sharpened the edge of debate, but not all agreed with Michael Psellos that they were diametrically opposed. Most saw their approaches as complementary.23 They gave a new breadth to Byzantine culture. Equally, the claims of mystic and humanist were subversive of traditional authority at Byzantium. Some of the strongest social ties were those that formed around them among their followers. In this way, they gave a Christian society a degree of independence of the hierarchical authority exercised by emperor and patriarch. The exchanges between Psellos and Keroularios show how traditional assumptions about the ordering of Byzantine life were being reassessed in the mid-eleventh century. Cultural flux mirrored political uncertainties.

 

 

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