Constantine VIII and Michael Psellos: Rhetoric, Reality, and the Decline of Byzantium, AD 1025-28
By Gary J. Johnson
Byzantine Studies / Etudes Byzanines, Vol. 9:2 (1982)
Introduction: In the seventh book of his Chronographia and by way of elucidating the reign of Emperor Issak Komnenos (1057-59), Michael Psellos proffers a rhetorical exposition on the decline of the Roman Empire in his time. The passage is a masterpiece of metaphor, simplistic and hyperbolic, and predicated upon an apparent diminution in the quality of imperial leadership. During a fifty-year reign (976-1025) the ascetic and militaristic Emperor Basil II Bulgarktonos had raised the empire to the summit of wealth and power. With his death, on 15 December 1025, Psellos detects a decisive break with Byzantine fortunes. Basil’s successors were unworthy, and none more so than the first: his supposedly ineffective and incompetent brother and nominal co-emperor, Constantine VIII, who seemingly had been content for the entire duration of Basil’s long reign to be an emperor in name only.