Michael Psellus On The Challenge Of Being An Emperor


Michael Psellus (1017-1078?) was a Greek cleric, historian, and advisor to a number of Byzantine emperors.  His work, known by the name Chronographia, is a series of biographical portraits of fourteen emperors occupying the throne of the Eastern Roman Empire from about 978 to 1050.  Although not a well-known work, it is a candid and intimate record of palace events that the author had first-hand knowledge of.

Here Psellus muses on the tribulations of those who have been blessed–or cursed–to wear the imperial diadem.  It is taken from Chronographia VI.26:

Most men who have set themselves to record the history of the emperors have found it surprising that none of them kept his reputation untarnished in every particular.  Some won greater praise for their conduct in early life, others impressed more in their later years, and while some preferred a life of pleasure, others dabbled in philosophy, only to confound the principles they had elected to follow and end in muddle.

For my own part, I find such inconsistency nothing to marvel at; on the contrary, it would be extraordinary if someone were always unalterable.  Of course, it is possible that you may discover some private citizen who pursued the same undeviating path throughout life, from the very beginning to the very end (although there cannot be many examples of such consistency) but an emperor, one who inherited from God supreme power, especially if he lived longer than most, would never be able to maintain the highest standards all through his reign.

In the case of the private citizen, his own nature, plus a good start in life, may be sufficient to ensure virtuous behavior, for the simple reasons that he is not overmuch troubled by outside affairs, nor do external events have any effect on his private disposition.  How different it is with an emperor, whose private life is never, even in its most intimate detail, allowed respite from trouble!

Consider how brief are the moments when the sea is calm and peaceful, and how at other times it is swollen, or lashed by waves as Boreas [the north wind], or Aparktias [a north wind], or some other storm-wind disturbs its rest–a sight I have seen myself again and again.  An emperor’s life is like that.

If he seeks recreation, at once he incurs the displeasure of the critics.  If he gives rein to kindly sentiments, he is accused of ignorance, and when he rouses himself to show interest, they blame him for being meddlesome.

If he defends himself or takes blunt reprisals, everyone levels abuse at his “wrath” or his “quick temper.” And as for trying to do anything in secret–[Mount] Athos would be more likely to hide itself from human gaze than an emperor’s deeds to escape the notice of his subjects.  No wonder then that no sovereign’s life has been blameless…And there we must leave the matter and return to our narrative.

[Translation by E.R.A. Sewter from his Fourteen Byzantine Rulers].


Nearly anyone faced with great responsibility would likewise concur with the above passage.  The responsibilities and sacrifices involved in leadership are tremendous, and far too often not appreciated.

The head of the critic or the commentator never lies heavy, for it never wears the crown.


To learn more about how to prepare yourself to bear the burdens of life, take a look at my On Duties, which is the most complete and explanatory edition of this classic available.