John Italos & Michael Psellos: masculine troubles in Byzantium

Michael Psellos teaching Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas

For passionate, intimate relationships, most women prefer smart, savvy, vigorously masculine men. The twelfth-century woman intellectual and princess Anna Komnene complained about Byzantine men before her father began his reforming reign as Emperor, under the direction of his mother, in 1081:

men for the most part lived luxuriously and amused themselves, and due to their effeminacy they busied themselves with quail-hunting and other more disgraceful pastimes, and treated letters, and in fact any training in the arts, as a secondary consideration. [1]

John Italos and Michael Psellos lived in gynocentric Byzantine society among the men that Anna Komnene disparaged. Each struggled in his own way to escape gynocentric oppression and live a humane, fulfilling life. Their representations in the deeply perceptive Byzantine satire Timarion indicate how each fared.

From a young age, John Italos was formed in the male gender role that controls men’s bodies, devalues men’s lives, and shortens men’s lifespans. Italos’s father was an Italian mercenary who hired himself out to the Sicilians. Italos himself received a military education as a boy and lived among soldiers. When a Byzantine general defeated the Sicilians, Italos and his father fled to Lombardy.[2]

Italos eventually joined the winning side as a scholar in Constantinople. He attended Michael Psellos’s lectures and succeeded him as holder of the official Byzantine title Chief of Philosophers sometime after 1054. Italos retained a martial personality in scholarly battles. Anna Komnene noted:

he was most unrefined, and subject to violent temper; and this fierce temper annulled and obliterated the credit he gained from his learning. For in arguments this man used fists as well as words and he did not allow his interlocutor simply to lose himself in embarrassment nor was he satisfied with sewing up his opponent’s mouth and condemning him to silence, but forthwith his hand flew out to tear his beard and hair, and insult quickly followed insult, in fact the man could not be restrained in the use of his hands and tongue. [3]

Being refined and rhetorically savvy (social credit) differs from philosophic merit. Anna Kommene added:

The only unphilosophic trait he {John Italos} had was that after the blow his anger left him, tears and evident remorse followed.

Crying is a potent feminine social tactic. Remorseful tears are associated with the Christian understanding of forgiveness. Forgiveness in ancient Greek literature, in contrast, involved making excuses and abasing oneself to mitigate the need for the aggrieved other to regain status through retaliatory action.[4] John Italos didn’t follow the ancient Greek “philosophic” practice of repudiating hurtful acts. Drawing upon his extensive learning in dialectic, Italos counter-balanced the masculine philosophic practice of aggressive argument with the feminine, Christian practice of remorseful crying.[5]

Tacking between masculine and feminine practices didn’t enable Italos to earn enduring acclaim in gynocentric intellectual life. In the Byzantine Hell of the Timarion, Italos attempted to sit next to Pythagoras. The latter was calmly and unemotionally debating matters with Parmenides, Melissus, Anaxagoras, Thales and other eminent pre-Socratic thinkers. That’s how men engaged in thoughtful discussion before Socrates invented philosophy. Pythagoras rebuked Italos:

You filthy rat, you who have put on the mantle of the Galilaeans {Christians} which they call divine and heavenly, meaning baptism, where do you get the nerve to join us, men who spent their lives in epistemology and syllogistic thought? Either take off that strange robe or take yourself off right away from our company. [6]

The intellectual integrity of the pre-Socratics forbade admittance of turncoats like Italos to their circle.

Italos next tried to emulate Diogenes. A Cynic philosopher, Diogenes would pace back and forth and, with his fierce and combative Socratic style, would attempt to provoke arguments. Italos stepped up to confront Diogenes with forceful discussion. The discussion turned into a dog-fight:

To show his contempt for his opponent’s brand of offensiveness, he {Diogenes} snorted and howled like a dog that is always barking. That provoked John {Italos}, who was also an amateur of Cynic dogma, to start howling in his turn. This all ended in a wrestling match. The Italian got hold of Diogenes in the shoulder with his teeth, but Diogenes countered by fastening his onto his rival’s throat and probably would have throttled him, had not Cato the Roman, who didn’t care much for philosophers, extricated John from Diogenes’ mouth.

Diogenes then spit abusive words at Italos:

You dirty rat … where do you get the nerve to treat me as an inferior, you of all people, whom the Byzantines treated as scum and who was hated by all the Galilaeans {Christians}? By the Cynic philosophy of which sect I am the leader, if you dare to say as much as one more word to me, you will get a second painful death and burial.

With maternal solicitude, Cato took John by the hand and led him away. When they came upon the sophistic-rhetoricians, the latter jumped up and pelted Italos with stones. They shouted:

Get him out of here, Cato. An imbecile who failed grammar in life, a laughingstock when he tried to write speeches — he doesn’t belong here.

Italos responded to this series of intellectual debacles with a Protean Christian prayer to pagan learning:

Aristotle, Aristotle, O syllogism, O sophism, where are you now that I need you? If only you had been here to help me, I could have wiped the floor with these idiot philosophers and this pig-dealing bag of wind, Diogenes. [7]

Italos never rested his soul in a bedrock sense of his own true nature. That meant trouble for a man in gynocentric Byzantine society.

Recognizing a more propitious path to compassion and privilege under gynocentrism, Michael Psellos identified as fully feminine. In a letter to a prominent figure in the Byzantine royal court, Psellos explained:

with regard to nature I am feminine. … I am not a Scythian in my soul, neither was I born “of oak nor of stone,” but I am by nature a delicate shoot and I am softened with respect to natural emotions. [8]

Meeting childhood friends late in life, Psellos nearly cried with delight from physical intimacy with them:

One after another, they kissed me all over, rubbed themselves against my feet, smiled pleasant smiles, and wondered how, instead of the blond hair of my youth, my head has turned silver. They almost brought me to tears. For my soul is indeed simply feminine and easily moved toward compassion. [9]

Psellos (Ψελλός) comes from the Greek verb “to lisp” (ψελλίζειν). The Timarion suggests that Michael Psellos lisped:

The Byzantine Sophist {Michael Psellos} made the announcement without any hesitation, although he whispered {lowly lisped} most of it, being unable to force out the words clearly through the crookedness of his lips. [10]

In any case, Psellos went as far as to identify with the nipples of women:

I am similar to the nipple of women (do not cast blame upon my example, for this is not a negligible work of nature). How do nipples posses the milk that flows from them? The quality and quantity of milk does not reside in the female body, but rather when the mouths of nursling babies press the breasts and squeeze the frontal muscle, it is they that render wet the moisture spread deep inside and turn it into a stream. … The whole thing seems like the digging of wells. … this is also how I squeeze out my words like fountains, spurred by the well-diggers of my letters. If you dig me, I become watery; if not, I simply freeze up. [11]

Psellos, who had a close relationship with Psellos’s mother, wrote a lengthy ecomium for her. That oration effectively canonized her.[12] Byzantium never developed an authoritative apparatus for administering and enforcing men’s choices of what pronouns should be used in referring to them. If Psellos could have registered pronoun choices with an all-powerful Byzantine bureaucracy, Psellos probably wouldn’t have chosen he/him.

While deploying gendered pronouns without rhetorical artifice, the Timarion represented Psellos as an acclaimed intellectual. In Byzantine Hell, philosophers graciously greeted Psellos. Sophists, providing greater honor, treated Psellos as a revered teacher:

They {the sophists} rose as one man in his honor and gave him an enthusiastic welcome. He got the option of sitting  down  in the middle of their circle if he wanted to relax, or towering over them all in the chair that they offered him as the reward for the gracefulness of his eloquence, the charm and clarity of his diction, his affability, his gift of instant extemporization, his natural skill in every literary genre. They kept hailing him as “Sun King” [13]

As a socially favored person, one doesn’t have to perform impressively. In the Timarion, Psellos read out bureaucratic boilerplate for a court’s judgment.[14] The implications are straight-forward. An ordinary bureaucrat will be honored as a master rhetorician if he identifies as fully feminine.

Psellos’s way serves men under gynocentrism today. A leading scholar of Psellos’s work explained:

Psellos was effectively at the process of rearranging the discursive field of gender in order to set his female nature and feminine performance at the epicenter of attention. He appropriated femininity, that is, in order to amplify readerly desire and redirect it upon himself. [15]

According to today’s discursive values, Psello’s enacted “a splendid combination of self-effacement by means of his impersonation of a female voice and self-proclamation with the staging of an ineluctable self.” Many men in scholarly writings and postings on Facebook pursue a similar strategy. The life of John Italos indicates difficulties in performing the masculine aggression against men that is at the center of women’s desire for men. Yet figures such as the Byzantine renegade Andronikos I and the extraordinarily self-conscious Digenis Akritis provide men with insight into more humanely and successfully living as masculine men in gynocentric society.

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[1] Anna Komnene, Alexiad Bk. 5, Ch. 8, from Atticizing Greek trans. Dawes (1928). Scholars of that time were “gloomy men of uncouth habits.” Id.

[2] Biographical facts about Italos are from the Alexiad, Bk. 5, Ch. 8; the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (ed. Kazhdan), subject heading John Italus; and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, topic heading Byzantine Philosophy, section 1.3.

John Italos (Ἰωάννης ὁ Ἰταλός) is more consistently transliterated as Ioannes Italos. His name is commonly rendered in English as John Italus. I’ve used the form John Italos rather than Ioannes Italos to make the text more easily readable for non-specialists.

[3] Alexiad, Bk. 5, Ch. 8, trans. Dawes (1928). The subsequent quote is from id. Italos gave learned lectures on the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and the neo-Platonists Proclus, Porphyry and Iamblichus. Trizio (2013) analyzes a specimen of his scholarship.

Italos was charged with paganism and heresy in 1076 and again 1082. He avoided punishment in 1076. In 1082, he was condemned and eleven chapters of anathema against him were added to the Syndikon of Orthodoxy. Italos’s intellectual views were common in Byzantine intellectual circles. Prosecution of Italos seems to have been politically motivated. Clucas (1981).

[4] On the ancient idea of forgiveness, Konstan (2010).

[5] Michael Psellos used the the term unphilosophic {ἀφιλοσόφως} in a more general sense of unemotional:

I want to philosophize about everything, both words and things. Yet my character betrays me, as it is disposed in a nonphilosphical {ἀφιλοσόφως} manner toward the natural affections (or perhaps this is philosophical too, for the other type of man is Skythian). Thus (how might one say it) I become excited about newborn babies, especially if they are dearest and of dearest parents, and when I am faced with their delights and charms.

Psellos, To Konstantinos, nephew of the patriarch Michael Keroularios, when his son Romanos was born {written after 1063- 1065?}, Letter S 157, from Greek trans. Stratis Papaioannou in Kaldellis (2006) p. 173. The Byzantines viewed Skythians (Scythians) as heartless barbarians.

[6] Timarion 43, from Greek trans. Baldwin (1984) p. 72. The subsequent four quotes are from Timarion 44, trans. id. pp. 73-4. I’ve made some non-substantial changes to Baldwin’s translation to make it more accessible to the general reader.

[7] Cf. Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34, John 11:21,32.

Jaworska-Wołoszyn has made one of the most perceptive comments in the scholarly literature about Italos:

Probably the unflattering opinion about Italos was also determined by the fact that he did not have a caring and devoted mother nearby, whereas  his master Psellos managed to ascend to the heights owing to his mother’s help.

Jaworska-Wołoszyn (2014) p. 288. In bonobo society, a mother’s support for her adult son is crucial to his welfare and promotes a peaceful, egalitarian society generally.

[8] Psellos, To the Same {Ioannes Doukas, written 1063-1065?}, from Greek trans. Papaioannou (2013) p. 208 (with Greek text). Papaioannou’s translation in Kaldellis (2006) pp. 172-3 is substantially identical.

Psellos understood the superior position of the female sex. He wrote to his grandson:

The emperor and empress quarreled over who would sponsor you, and the female sex won.

Psellos, To his grandson, who was still an infant, from Greek trans. Anthony Kaldellis in id. p. 165.

[9] Psellos, To an anonymous friend who was a judge in the administrative theme of Philadelphia in Asia Minor, Letter S 180, from Greek trans. Papaioannou (2013) p. 207 (with Greek text).

[10] Timarion 41, trans. Baldwin (1984) p. 71. The Greek word translated as “whispered” is a form of the Greek verb hypopsellizon. Id. p. 127, n. 224. That word, along with other evidence in the Timarion, is the basis for identifying Psellos with the Timarion’s references to the “Byzantine Sophist” (which Baldwin translated more loosely as the “Byzantine Professor”). Psellos may have been an acquired personal epithet rather than an inherited family name.

[11] Psellos, To Konstantinos, nephew of the patriarch Keroularios, Letter S 117, trans. Papaioannou (2013) p. 229 (with Greek text).

[12] Psellos, Encomium for his mother, available in English translation in Kaldellis (2006) pp. 51-109. Psellos’s mother was named Theodote (Theodota). The Encomium is styled as:

a funeral oration being addressed to relatives and others who wish to know about the saintly qualities of his mother {Theodote}. … the Encomium effectively canonizes Psellos’ mother.

Id. p. 33. Theodote became a devout, ascetic Christian. Psellos formed her to his ideal of intellectual motherhood:

Theodote stands in this final image as the divine source, or an embodiment of that source, from which Psellos has received the life that he will not betray: the life of logos as embodied in the classical secular-humanist paideia, and in the rhetorical, political, philosophical, and pedagogical career of a “Byzantine sophist.”

Walker (2004) p. 99.

Psellos’s Encomium for his mother, not surprisingly, was a highly successful Byzantine work. The Encomium was “studied and admired by later generations of Byzantine writers.” Kaldellis (2006) p. 29. Gregorios Pardos, bishop of Corinth early in the twelfth century, stated:

Above all the consummately excellent speeches that we know, the four best are these: Demosthenes’ On the Crown, the Panathenaic Speech of {Aelios} Aristeides, the Theologian’s {Gregory of Nazianzos’} epitaphios for Basil the Great, and Psellos’ {epitaphios} for his mother.

From Greek trans. Walker (2004) p. 53.

[13] Timarion 45, trans. Baldwin (1984) p. 74.

[14] Timarion 41 gives the entire text of what Psellos read to the public assembly:

It has been resolved by this most worshipful college of great physicians, not forgetting the divine Aesculapius, that Nyktion and Oxybas, in so much as they have transgressed against the laws of the dead, shall be removed forthwith from their office of conductors of souls, and that Timarion shall be restored to life and live in his own body. In due time, when he has completed his allotted span, and has had the holy rituals performed over him, then and only then shall he be brought back to Hades by the legally apppointed conductors of the dead.

Trans. Baldwin (1984). That’s the sort of bureaucratese that ordinary Byzantine bureaucrats regularly produced.

[15] Papaioannou (2013) p. 231. The subsequent quote is from id.

[image] Michael Psellos (on left) teaching Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas (on right). Codex 234, f. 245a, Mount Athos, Pantokrator Monastery. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Baldwin, Barry, trans. and commentary. 1984. Timarion. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Clucas, Lowell. 1981. The trial of John Italos and the crisis of intellectual values in Byzantium in the eleventh century. München: Institut für Byzantinistik, Neugriechische Philologie und Byzantinische Kunstgeschichte der Universität.

Dawes, Elizabeth A. S., trans. 1928. The Alexiad of Princess Anna Comnena: being the history of the reign of her father, Alexius I, Emperor of the Romans, 1081 – 1118 A.D. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Jaworska-Wołoszyn, Magdalena. 2014. “John Italos Seen by Anna Komnene.” Peitho: Examina antiqua. 5: 279-294.

Kaldellis, Anthony, ed. and trans. 2006. Mothers and sons, fathers and daughters: the Byzantine family of Michael Psellos. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Konstan, David. 2010. Before forgiveness: the origins of a moral idea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Papaioannou, Stratis. 2013. Michael Psellos: rhetoric and authorship in Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Trizio, Michele. 2013. “Escaping through the Homeric Gates: John Italos’ Neoplatonic Exegesis of Odyssey 19.562-567 Between Synesius and Proclus.” Documenti e studi sulla tradizione filosofica medievale. 24: 69-83.

Walker, Jeffrey. 2004. “These Things I Have Not Betrayed: Michael Psellos’ Encomium of His Mother as a Defense of Rhetoric.” Rhetorica. 22 (1): 49-101.

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