Suicide in the Byzantine Empire (G. Tsoukalas, 2013)

NOTE: The following article is taken from Psychiatriki 2013, 24:55–60

Portrait of Gemistus Pletho, detail of a fresco by acquaintance Benozzo Gozzoli, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence, Italy
Portrait of Gemistus Pletho,

Studying the suicide in the Byzantine Empire is difficult due to the limited number of references to it. Their number is greater in the early years of the Empire, mainly because of the persecution of Christians and gradually decreases. The attitude of the Church also gradually hardens, as well as the law. The law was strictly followed to the West, but as far as the Eastern Empire is concerned there are no references of punishment, confiscation of property or vandalism of dead bodies mentioned. Avoiding public humiliation after a public crime or a military defeat, religious redemption, emotional disturbance and debts, are the main cause of suicide. There are some references of mass suicides, while women suicides are relatively fewer, if the early Christian years are excluded. Suicide is more acceptable to the pagans because of their lifestyle. The therapeutic approach comes mainly through the treatment of depression. Aretaeus and Galen cite some ways to deal with the disturbance in the internal balance of black bile. Their view echoes through the centuries and the subsequent doctors embrace it. At least after the 9th century, more importance is given to the patient’s bliss. Gemistus Pletho tried to revive the Platonic view of suicide shortly before the end of the Empire. The Church forbids Christian burial and troubled soul hovers in an intangible journey.


The references to suicide from the 4th to the 15th century in the Byzantium are extremely limited, which explains the reason why the issue has not been studied extensively.1–2 The attitude of most religions towards the suicide is negative, so the Jewish and Christian religion condemn suicide. These religions, being the antipode of individualism, accept reality as a single entity, focusing on the divine element, around which all the other elements are developed, that is the human and the cosmic, the animate and the inanimate, the rational and the irrational. Life belongs to the divine factor of the reality, which determines the rhythm of beings throughout the whole range of their existence. Each one adapts and submits to the cycle of life and death, determined by the divine element. The human thus is not entitled to disrupt the cycle of life and therefore killing another human being or himself is prohibited and considered as the highest contempt for God who created him.3–6 Suicide has been studied only in the references of removal of own life in the Greek Novel from Antiquity to the Comnenian period.2 According to the Romans, nobles’ suicide shortly before an inevitable death, as in the end of lost a battle or after a disgraceful act, is an acceptable fact,1 although by the 3rd AD century the Roman law punishes suicides strictly.7 Since the 5th century AD the references get fewer and are mainly confined to the hagiographic literature.

The sources mentioning suicides or suicide attempts are primarily religious or secular discourses, in which suicide is generally and often referred as an irreverent act. The Byzantine law punishes self-destruction as well as those who lead others to forced suicide, such as a ruler that leads to suicide a slave who has done some penal offense.1 The therapeutic approach to prevent suicide is found in the treatment of depression and mania and is mainly expressed by Aretaeus and Galen, even if they lived earlier than the creation of the Empire.8

Suicide in the early Christian years of the Empire

St. John Chrysostom praises the Martyr Domina, who drowned her two daughters--Bernike and Prosdoke--and then drowned herself to avoid rape.
St. John Chrysostom praises the Martyr Domina, who drowned her two daughters–Bernike and Prosdoke–and then drowned herself to avoid rape.

Despair is a terrible evil and unhealable passion that erodes the human soul. It destroys everything sound in him, it delivers him to the disaster and pushes him to end his life.9 The despair of the Christian martyrs during the persecutions led some of them to suicide in order to avoid rape or humiliation. John Chrysostom says that the three witnesses Bernike, Prosdoke and Domnine, fell into the river near the city of Hierapolis and drowned to avoid humiliation.10 He even connects their act to a Cristian baptism.1 The tendency of Christians to end their life or cause death because of the pagans, during their persecution, was not considered as suicide in the early years of the Church. It is certain that Christianity invites suicide in a way in which other major religions do not. In the early years of Christianity the faithful Christian can commit suicide if he believes that the time of sin is close, while the suicidal death of a martyr is treated with sympathy by the Church to such an extent that it is not considered as suicide.9

The reason of suicide and the causes that led to self-destruction were often attributed to the forces of evil, and which overcome those with weak faith. There are however quotes like this from the teaching of St. Athanasius, in which the Saint, trying to explain what leads a man to self-destruction, simply says “these are only known by God”.11

Suicide in the Byzantine Empire

During the first centuries of the Byzantine Empire the references to suicide are associated with political upheavals and the change in the fate of the aristocracy members. The defeat in a battle or the guilt for a public crime led militaries or politicians of the Empire to choose suicide over public humiliation. The act is equivalent to common murder and the suicide’s property is confiscated.7 Then the law changed and the property was confiscated only in cases where suicide was committed to avoid the consequences of the law.12

Lausaic History of Palladius

The Church condemns suicide and forbids Christian burial, provided the perpetrators were of a sound state of mind, as in this case the suicide has surrendered his soul to the devil. Those who commit suicide on account of distress, grief or lack of courage have no right to Christian burial.13 The first mention of a suicide burial ban is cited in Lausiac History at about 419, where a priest forbids the burial of two nuns who had committed suicide.14 The suicide’s widow is excluded from bereavement and can get married immediately, while in the case of instigator, the punishment was a 10-year exile.1 Regarding the suicides’ corpses, called “viothanon” or “viothanaton” buried in Kynegion, an area where those executed in Istanbul were buried.15 Relatives should not face penance, except for abstaining from meat, they should attend the Divine Liturgy from the antechamber and finally raise a cross at the point of death of the suicide.2

Over the years the nobles’ or militaries’ suicides continued, with examples the suicides of Maximinianus Augustus, Magnentius, Arbogastes and Gerontios. For Gerontios especially, because of the fact that he was British, it was considered that he perceived “the insane of the barbarian kind” and preferred to be burned alive than surrender.16 To the antipode suicides of the ordinary people were confined among the Christians, due to the reaction of the Church, but were increased among the pagans as they were more vulnerable to violence, or because the act was considered as a form of reaction.1 The philosopher Iamblichus, having been involved in the pagan apposition, was captured by Christians and drank poison to die.1 We have now reached the time when pagans commit suicide to save themselves from Christians. The most prominent cases are those of Maximos of Ephesus, patrician Phocas, Asclepiodotos. Ordinary soldiers are often victims of depression and attempted suicide. In this case, an enquiry is conducted and in case of cowardice follows a disgraceful retirement or death.17–18 Suicides of women were also reduced and limited mainly to emotional reasons, such as loss of a loved one.1 Thus Miroslava, the daughter of the Bulgarian ruler Samuel, threatened to commit suicide if not allowed to marry her lover Ashot. There were also cases of suicides of women who could not stand living anymore with their husbands, whom they abhorred.2,19


There are references of mass suicides like those in the time of Theodosius II, when many were unable to collect the tax required by Attila,20 or when the Phrygian Montanists refused to change their religion coerced by Justinian.1 The exploitation of the poor by the rich or the debt burden often led to suicide. Since the middle Byzantine period and later, suicides are rarely mentioned in relation to the later years of the empire. This means either that there were generalized and thus ceased to be a memorable event, or that they had become more acceptable since the transition of pagans to Christianity. Perhaps suicides simply were not recorded anymore. The few references concern plots and plans of revolution in the army, as in the cases of Agallianos Kontoskelles and Eustathios Argyros.1

Suicide was rarely mentioned in medical books of the time, and according to them the reason was depression, mania or the imbalance of one of the four bodily humors.1,18 In the last centuries of the Empire the references are even more rare and the causes more accidental, such as intolerable life, avoiding execution, demons and passions. Georgios Plethon Gemistos (1360–1452) had a strange vision about suicide, which he recorded in his essay “Book of Laws”. Suicide kills only what is mortal in the immortal soul. The soul is separated from the body and thus all the vicissitudes that can affect its well being, the so-called “eudaemony”.1,21 Plethon proposes in his writings a way of “rational withdrawal”, probably influenced by the course of the Empire, a conscious attempt to escape from the grim realities of the years immediate before the Fall.1

Suicide in literature

Except from the love romances, drama and humorous texts, suicide as a literary motive is encountered in poetry. In humorous poems a crummy husband begs to drink poison in order to avoid his talkative wife.1 The bulk of reports relating to suicide were found in hagiographic literature, which is caused by demonic forces, when the victim is under spell having lost his mind and the control of himself.1 Saint Pachomius says many eremites committed suicide since they did not realize that they had been possessed by unclean.22

The therapeutic approach to suicide


Aretaeus, in his work entitled “On melancholy and On Mania”, correlates mania with crisis of melancholy and projects their periodicity, and the fact that mania frequently affects the youngsters whereas depression the elders.23 He thinks that the cause of the disease is found in the blood and bad humors,23 while especially melancholy implicates the black bile.24 However, he indicates that the main cause of the disease can be found on the nerves. Patients are calm or very serious or unreasonably inert, they get furious, they are smelly, they have agitated sleep, insomnia, irrational fear, they change opinion easily, they are shameless, petty, simplistic, prodigal, exaggerated, they avoid people, they get frightened by dreams, they complain about life, they wish death. Many people’s mental state leads to derangement and stupefaction and the feeling ends up in sorrow and depression, causing resolute anger, sadness and melancholy. Patients are suspected of poisoning and misanthropy, they are considered superstitious, they feel hatred for life and may lead to suicide.23 He is also the first to recognize the impaired function of neurovascular centers in the hypothalamus and the reticular formation,8 indicating that the patients are very slim while eating a lot, their intestines are dry without stools, their skin breaks down, the color is dark green, the pulses are small, inert, inactive, frequent as due to cold, and the urine is sparse, containing acids and bile.23

For its treatment he suggests an etiopathologic approach to the disease. Thus he removes blood from the liver, in which the black bile is produced, while, at the same time, he administers drugs that inhibit its production, such as absinthe juice. Concurrently, he places a suction cup to the head, so that a direct effect on diseased nerves is created. He also suggests a supportive treatment with proper diet, often warm baths, gentle rubbing, swinging and administration of laxatives.8,24 Vomitives are also provided for the elimination of black bile.

Aretaeus also considers that melancholy is the beginning and part of the mania, leading to convulsions and paralysis and in this case hellebore should be administered. In advanced disease asphalt, sulfur and astringent soil that contains aluminum and hydrochloric acid should be used.24 Mania is a chronic confusion of mind and the cause lies in the head and the area of hypochondria. Nocturnal emissions, lust and venereal pleasures are also characteristic symptoms. Eventually, they isolate and lament for their plight, which also can lead to suicide.23

Four Humors Drawing
Four Humors Drawing

Galen generally agrees with Aretaeus that suffering, fear, unwillingness to eat or drink, dark thoughts, are all associated with causes and symptoms of melancholy and self-destruction is a major risk.25 Galen recognised emotional states as factors in disease. Some problems were for Galen purely emotional in origin: one patient worried obsessively that the mythical Atlas would grow tired or sick and drop the sky, crushing the earth. This patient’s anxiety, according to Galen, had developed into melancholia, an overabundance of black bile, which, when accumulated in the brain, caused delirium, aggressive or suicidal behaviour and other psychological problems. Anxiety is, along with anger, the emotion Galen mentions most often as a cause of disease. Both could cause or exacerbate epilepsy; along with diet, temperament, lifestyle and environmental factors could contribute to any number of feverish illnesses; anxiety, in particular, could trigger a sometimes fatal syndrome of insomnia, fever and wasting, or transform into melancholy.26

Although Aretaeus and Galen lived on the early Byzantine Empire, their views on depression and mania survived through the centuries, and marked the therapeutic approach of these diseases.

Due to the fact that love often led to suicide, Ovid gave the remedies for love, or Remedia amoris. Some of them are that the lover should cure the wound of love when it is still fresh and new, without waiting, because being on time is almost a medicine. Moreover a lover should be busy and avoid idleness and excessive sleep. Going to the country could also help, but the lover should know that the recovery process will be very painful, mainly because he needs to forget his beloved and think ill of her, and no pills or witchcraft will alleviate the pain. A lover who wants to recover from the lovesickness should pay attention to his beloved’s faults and show no grief. Most importantly, the lover should not avoid intercourse, because if he remains alone he will become sad. Finally, a certain diet should be followed, where onions should be avoided, he should eat rue because it sharpens the eyesight and drink wine, but only the perfect amount only, otherwise the lover might feel too drowned by alcohol, or the wine might have prepared his heart for love.27

Constantine examines patients' urine
Constantine examines patients’ urine

The next generation of physicians having a great influence on Byzantine thoughts was that of the Arabic physicians. Among them were Rhazes (865–923), Haly Abbas (994) and Avicenna (980–1037), whose thoughts were developed from the Byzantine compilers. Avicenna’s work gained notice to the West by the second quarter of the thirteenth century. The thoughts of these Arabic physicians and philosophers influenced the whole world because they were translated into Latin by Constantinus Africanus (1010–1087) Constantinus recognized the three types of melancholy as indicated by Galen, and added a variety of causes and symptoms related to melancholy. With him, the association of lovesickness, acedia, and mourning with melancholy was introduced. As for the cures for all illnesses associated with melancholy, purgatives and coitus were recommended. It should be noticed that the same cures are recommended for all the illnesses likened to melancholy.28 One observes a circle with the Arabs being affected by the Byzantines and the knowledge returning filtered and refreshed to the West and Byzantium.

The seriously ill sought their healing often in sanctuaries  and if their situation persisted they resorted to sacred grounds of the church, seeking treatment by the patron Saint at the crucial moment.1 The patient’s treatment in hospitals, as for example in the Guesthouse of the Pantocrator in Constantinople, where there was a remote psychiatric ward, can be derived indirectly through the reports of the hospital of the city of Cairo (873 AD). The hospital operated according to Byzantine standards and the mentally ill were treated with extreme caution, always focusing in the bliss of the patient, that is his mental tranquility.29


The references to suicide in the Byzantine empire are numerically much less than expected and their largest number is recorded between 4th and 6th century. In late antiquity, in many cases, such as military defeat or disgrace, suicide was considered an offense consistent with the code of honor, a moral duty. During the early Christian period, suicides proliferate and sometimes are treated with sympathy. Then the attitude of both the church and the legislature hardens. Despite the strict laws though, in Greek literature resources it is not mentioned any case of indignities inflicted upon the suicide’s body or ravages and arbitrary confiscation of his property, in contrast to what happened in the Western Empire.1–2 Perhaps the attitude of the society or the medical influence in favour of the victim, overrode the law. Mental patient or mentally ill, the suicidal always triggered the society, creating feelings of sympathy or repulsion, depending on the reason and time of commitment of the act. Melancholy, mania, depression, emotional frustration, shame, demonic forces, redemption, loss, debts, religion, tortures, such diverse concepts which still all resulted in their zenith in the self-destruction of the mortal body, with the hope of a better trip of the soul in the “afterlife.”


  1. Karpolizos A. Suicide in Byzantium. Ελληνικά 2007, 57:79–104
  2. Karpolizos A. Suicide in Byzantium. Αρχαιολογία και Τέχνες 2006, 99:8–14
  3. Nektarios St. On true and false education. On suicide. Panagopoulos N. Athens, 1989
  4. Boulgarakis H. Suicide and ecclesiastical burial. Armos, Athens, 2000
  5. MacAlister S. Dreams and Suicides. The greek novel from antiquity to the Byzantine Empire. Routlege, London-NewYork, 1966
  6. Begzos M. Suicide and religion. Αρχαιολογία και τέχνες, Athens, 2006, 99:23–29
  7. Corpus luris Civilis, II, Corpus Justinianus, IX,6,5. Krüger P, Hildesheim, 1889: 373
  8. Tsoukalas I. Greek Pediatry from Homer until today. Science Press, Skopelos-Thessaloniki, 2008:399–415
  9. Baruch AB. Suicide and Euthanasia: Historical and Contemporary Themes. Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht, 1989:77–80
  10. De sanctis Bernice et Prosdoce, MPG 50:629–640 (Cod: 5,354: Encom Hagiogr Homilet)
  11. Teaching towards Antioxon. PG 28, 637D–640A
  12. Corpus luris Civilis, I. Digesta, XLVIII,21,3 and 8. Weidman, Berlin, 1888: 870–871
  13. Rhalles-Potles, Matthaios Blastares, ch. 12,1. Περί των βιο-θανών, ήτοι των εαυτοίς αναιρούντων. Petrakakos DA, Die Toten im Recht nach der Lehre und den Normen des orthodoxen morgenlandischen Kirchenrechts und der Gesetzgebung Griechenlands. Leipzig 1905: 52ff
  14. Buttler C. The Lausiac History of Palladius, II. Cambridge, 1904, 97:3–18
  15. Rhalles-Potles. Constantinople in the early eighth century: The Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai. Cameron-Herrin, Leiden, 1984:201
  16. Ioannes Antiocheus. FHG IV. Muller, Paris, 1883:610
  17. Basilica, LVII,1,6. Fabrotus, 1647
  18. Corpus luris Civilis. I. Digesta, XLIX. Weidman, Berlin, 1888:16,6
  19. Angold M. Church and Society in Byzantium Under the Comneni,1081–1261. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995:419
  20. Moschos Ι. Pratum Spirituale. PG b7,3:3048AB. Fronton du Duc, Paris, 1624
  21. Pléthon. Traité des Lois. Alexandre, Paris, 1858: 248–252
  22. Halkin F. Les Corpus Athénien de Saint Pachome. Geneve, 1982:47
  23. Aretaeus of Cappadocia. De causis et signis acutorum morborum. In: Hude K. Aretaeus (ed) Berlin, 1958: Α΄, V & Α΄, V, 4–5. & Α΄, V, 2 & Α΄, V, 3 & Α΄, V, 5 & Α΄,V, 7–8 & Α΄, VΙ
  24. Aretaeus of Cappadocia. On Chronicle Diseases Therapeutics. Kaktos, Athens, 1997:Α΄, V, 1–4, 7–9
  25. De locis affectis libri vi. In: Kühn CG (ed) Claudii Galeni opera omnia. Vol. 8, Leipzig, 1965re
  26. Mattern S. Galen and his patients. The Lancet, 378:478–479
  27. Jacob and Richard Tonson. Ovid. Art of Love 1.123–1.243. London, 1709
  28. Mertz-Weigel D. Figuring melancholy: from Jean De Meun to Moliere, via Montaigne. Descartes, Rotrou and Corneille. Ohio State University, 2005:40
  29. Dols M. Insanity in Byzantine and Islamic medicine. Dumbarton Oaks Papers. JSTOR 1984, 38:135–148

Michael Psellos’ Repudiation of Monasticism (11th Century)

NOTE: The following article is the 10th chapter of The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia, pp. 80-89:


The greatest ascetic in the Chronographia, the Emperor Basil II, was not a monk, far less a holy man. Basil’s rejection of the immediate pleasures of earthly life did not stem from his devotion to Christian ideals, or to any other ideals. It was rather an expression of his implacable will to power. In this sense Basil can also be called the most worldly of men. He ruled over himself in order to dominate others. His worldly ambition and asceticism were concurrent expressions of his nature. Yet even after we recognize the non-Christian nature of his ethos, we must still acknowledge that his asceticism was more sincere and profound than that of any professional monk described in the Chronographia. Monks lay claim to a supernatural authority, but utterly failed to live up to its demands. They were surpassed by a man who aimed at merely human authority. As the greatest enemy of orthodox Platonism later put it, “with some, chastity is a virtue, but with many it is almost a vice. These people abstain, it is true: but the bitch Sensuality glares enviously out of all that they do.”1

Painting of Basil II, replicated from an 11th century manuscript.
Painting of Basil II, replicated from an 11th century manuscript.

Every mention of monks in the Chronographia contributes to the same indictment. Romanos III added a monastery to his grand church, but in order to support its idle inhabitants, “another world was explored, and the sea outside the Pillars of Hercules was investigated; the former was to furnish delicious sweetmeats, the latter large fish and even whales” (3.16.10-13). The monastery founded by Michael IV Paphlagon is deliberately described in highly sensual language, to emphasize the irony of the virtual paradise created by nature and art for the habitation of alleged ascetics (4.31). Psellos highlights the bodily appeals of Byzantine religious art, which his contemporaries would have been loath to acknowledge. He employs the same technique to describe the church and monastery built by Constantine IX Monomachos (6.185-188).2 This description is the most extravagant yet, and purposefully seeks to arouse the readers’ senses by the evocative use of language so voluptuous that it mirror, perhaps even rivals, the attractions of the edifice itself.

A mosaic in Hagia Sophia showing Constantine IX Monomachos.
A mosaic in Hagia Sophia showing Constantine IX Monomachos.

The entire building was constructed in a very artistic way; gold-leaf gilded the ceiling, while bright green gems both paved the ground and were affixed to the walls one above the other, either juxtaposed, or in alternating patterns of contrasting colors … The church was like some heavenly dome adorned with golden stars, but the natural sky is merely studded with their golden lights: every part of this dome was entirely covered with gold… All around, the grounds were lined with flower-beds, some surrounding the buildings, others running along the center of the complex. There were springs of running water that filled fountains, while of the gardens some were hanging, the rest arranged on the level ground; there was a bath of indescribable beauty and grace… No one could easily survey all of those gardens, either with his eyes or even with his imagination. For it was not just that the entirety was of exceptional beauty as it was composed of beautiful parts; each of those parts was no less capable of arresting the spectator’s attention… Each passionately admired a separate detail: the size of the church, the beauty of its symmetry, the harmony of its components, the mix and variety of its graces, the streams of water, the surrounding grounds, the flowery lawns, the dewy grass, always sprinkled with water, the shade provided by the trees, the gracefulness of the bath.

Yet the construction of such monasteries,–“for this was the name they gave to these buildings,” Psellos wryly comments elsewhere (7.59.12-13)—imposed a severe burden on the treasury (cf. 10). Imperial funds were wasted “so that those men, who were idle by nature and contributed nothing to the support of the commonwealth, could live in luxury and disgrace the name and practice of virtue, while our armed forces were being diminished and weakened” (7.59.19-22).3 In this passage faith is again subordinated to political necessity. The suggestion that men should be judged by their contributions to the commonwealth reveals Psellos’ rejection of the otherworldly values of Christianity, whose chief concern is the closeness of one’s soul to God.

Far from indicating hostility to the pleasures of art and nature, Psellos’ magnificent description of Constantine’s church shows his appreciation for the attractions of both. Elsewhere he openly admits that sensory experience is essential to human life, so much so that “the affections of the soul are fitted to our bodily life” (6A.7.15-16; cf. 23). Even sensual experience has its place, although it should not be allowed to dominate (6A.8.10-11). Thus Psellos does not attack monks out of hostility to the pursuit of bodily goods, believing that they had failed to renounce them sufficiently. Instead, the point of his attack is to emphasize that sensual experience, and all the affections of bodily life, necessarily shape the lives of so-called otherworldly ascetics, whether they like it or not. Psellos aims to refute the very principles of the monastic ideal: since bodily goods cannot by their nature be renounced, any effort to do so will inevitably result in hypocrisy and failure (cf. 12).

This critique is prominent in his account of a group he calls “our Naziraioi” [λέγω δὲ τοὺς καθ᾽ἡμᾶς Ναζιραίους] which is really a sarcastic reference to Byzantine monks in general (6A.18.5).4 This word had a respectable Biblical pedigree, and was associated with positive values by many important Christian authors. According to Eusebios of Caesarea it had connotations of such holiness and purity that it could be applied to Jesus himself.5 Gregory of Nazianzos referred to “those who have separated themselves from the world and consecrated their life to God” by using exactly the same phrase employed by Psellos [λέγω δὲ τοὺς καθ᾽ἡμᾶς Ναζιραίους].6 Psellos’ hostile and sarcastic tone indicates his complete rejection of the values upheld by those authors:

“Even before they have escaped the bounds of human nature, they behave as though they were demigods dwelling among us… Some of them claim to be able to alter the limits imposed on our existence, suspending some while extending others, to immortalize our limited nature, and to halt the process of natural change. They prove these claims by saying that they always ‘wear iron’ [σιδηροφορουσιν], like the ancient Acarnanians, and that they can walk in the air for long periods of time—but they hurry down very quickly when they smell the odor of savory meat!” (6A.18.7-8, 14-20)

In Christian monastic literature, the word σιδηροφορουσιν was applied to monks who wore heavy iron chains in order to highlight their voluntary endurance of pain and disregard for personal comfort.7 Yet Psellos’ brief mention of the Acarnanians undermines the word’s positive connotations. In Thucydides (1.5), whom Psellos follows here, the same word is used to describe the ‘armed’ bands of Acarnanians who terrorized the Greek countryside with piracy and brigandage. It is extremely unlikely that Byzantine hagiographers intended to draw a comparison between their subjects and the ancient Acarnanians, or knowingly cited Thucydides. Instead, Psellos has found a derogatory classical meaning of the word and has used it to delegitimize a positive Christian one (cf. 19). But only the reader who knows Thucydides will catch the double meaning. The allusion casts monks as holy terrorists.

Psellos calls them “hypocrites” because they “imitated the outer form of angels” and yet could not “put the passions within us to sleep” (6A. 18.1-10). As we have seen, Psellos believes in a relatively fixed human nature (as did nearly everyone until the advent of the so-called social sciences and of post-modernism). It is precisely this which he accuses monks of being unable to overcome: nature is more powerful than religion in the Chronographia cf. 12, 23). Monasticism in 11th century Byzantium is thereby presented as a complete failure. Psellos’ accusations of hypocrisy, greed, and lack of discipline, anticipate by almost a century the criticisms of monasticism by the learned and urbane men of the 12th century such as Eustathios, Theodore Balsamon, Niketas Choniates.8


The attack on the monks in the Chronographia has obvious political ramifications. Emperors are discouraged from squandering resources to gratify the abstainers’ bodily needs, and are urged to protect the State from the total failure of Christian ideals. They should devote their attention to the army instead, and, to the extent that Basil II constitutes an Imperial role-model, are even encouraged to confiscate the accumulated wealth of monasteries—for the good of both the State and the monks. For Basil’s sole action relating to the Church in the Chronographia is the methodical demolition of a monastery constructed by his former benefactor and victim, Basil the parakoimomenos, and dedicated to St. Basil the Great.9

“It had been built on a magnificent scale, and at a great cost of labor it had been beautified in the most diverse manner. An abundance of funds, far in excess of what was required, had been provided for its construction. Basil now wanted to tear it down to its foundations, but he was cautious lest he incur the charge of impiety. So he removed one part at one time, destroyed another part later, and acted similarly with the furniture and the mosaics, and indeed with the rest of the building. He would not stop, he playfully [χαριεντισάμενος] remarked, until the monastery [Φροντιστήριον] became a house of thought [φροντίδος]—the thought which those who lived inside would have to take to secure the necessities for life!” (1.20.11-22)

The account of this prudent demolition occurs in the very middle of Book1, the book on the reign of Basil..

Besides giving another example of Psellos’ opposition to the construction of expensive churches, this passage offers valuable insight into the motivation of his favorite Emperor. In the first place, the fact that Basil wanted to avoid the charge of impiety does not at all mean that he was pious, only that he was prudent.10 Psellos does not deny that the action was impious, and had Basil wished to avoid acting in an improper way, he would not have destroyed the monastery. His caution and methodical approach were an attempt to forestall not the substance of impiety, but only its appearance.

Why did he demolish the monastery at all? At first it seems that he wanted to destroy everything that glorified his teacher and victim, Basil the parakoimomenos. Yet during the course of section 1.20 his motivation is significantly altered, and the original context of his action is forgotten. At the end of the passage he seems to be acting out of hostility to the monks themselves. Specifically, the Basil who emerges at the end of section 1.20 despised monks for exactly the same reasons that Psellos did.11 He realized that the destruction of their little palace would force them to live in poverty, thus ensuring that they pursued their ostensible calling, which their own insincere renunciation of earthly goods could not do. Yet the fact that he justified his action in a “playful” manner indicates his cynicism. He did not really  care whether the monks fulfilled their vows, but rather took pleasure in forcing despicable hypocrites to live up to their own exalted principles of abstinence and poverty. His “playfulness” manifested more cruelty than genuine concern. He was an enemy, not a reformer.

Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas
Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas

Basil’s action stands in contrast to the famous novel de monasteriis issued in 964 by the Emperor Nikephoros Phokas, even though the two converge on many important points. Nikephoros sought to curtail the flow of property which was transforming some monasteries into powerful landowners, and to curb their concomitant greed and ambition. There is nothing “playful” in the dour tone of the pious general:

“Observing what is happening in the monasteries and other holy houses, I note an obvious disease, for it is only by disease that I can describe greediness… They have turned all the attention of their souls to the care of acquiring daily thousands of measures of land, superb buildings, innumerable horses, oxen, camels, and other cattle, making the life of the monk no different from that of the layman with all its vain preoccupations… I do not know why I should call all this an empty theatrical show invented for the derision of the name of Christ… Piety has become a screen for vanity.”12

Nikephoros feared that the accumulation of land by monasteries would have a negative effect on the State’s ability to control and exploit its resources. But he was also a very pious man who devoutly believed in the superiority of the monastic life—so long as it was practiced sincerely. He was worried that economic and social developments were jeopardizing the conditions that made asceticism possible. This explains the reforming zeal of his novel.13 In contrast, Psellos’ attitude exhibits no respect whatsoever for the ideals of the monastic life. There is no indication that he, or Basil, would be opposed to its thorough abolition.

A figure closer to Psellos’ Basil than Nikephoros Phokas is the Emperor Julian (ruled 361-363), a passionate enemy of Christianity who als enjoyed making Christians live up to their own impossible principles. We mention briefly his controversial edict which prohibited Christians from teaching the Greek classics on the grounds that their professed religious beliefs were incompatible with the texts’ explicit polytheism.14 According to the ecclesiastical historian Socrates (3.13), Julian also forbade Christians from being provincial governors, claiming that they were not allowed by their faith to inflict capital punishment. His concern for their salvation is doubtful.

Portrait of Emperor Julian on a bronze coin from Antioch minted in 360-363
Portrait of Emperor Julian on a bronze coin from Antioch minted in 360-363

Yet the Emperor most famous for the destruction of monasteries and hostility to the monastic way of life was the notorious Constantine V (ruled 741-775). This arch-iconoclast Emperor and theologian, who was reviled in shrill tones for centuries by his iconophile enemies, converted churches and monasteries into armories and barracks, ordered his minions to auction monastic property, and appropriated their assets for the State. Like Psellos’ Basil, he tore down monasteries out of sheer hostility to the monks who dwelled in them. 15 Also like Basil, “Christ’s enemy Constantine proved to be a new Midas, who stored away all the gold.”16 Psellos’ “precious treasure and glory of the Roman Empire” raises uncomfortable memories.

Emperor Constantine V, the Dung-Christened.
Emperor Constantine V, the Dung-Christened.

The Emperor with the closest ties to the monastic community in the Chronographia is Michael IV Paphlagon. Psellos, who recognizes his many positive qualities, does not criticize him too harshly for this. Nevertheless, the nuances of his account reveal that Michael did not benefit from the favor he showed to the monks. The trusting Emperor constructed a magnificent church for them, but they neglected his most elementary needs after he had joined them there as a monk in the final days of his sickness (4.54). He poured money into their coffers, but many of them, on the basis of some unfounded rumors, refused to pray for the forgiveness of his sins (4.36-37). He placed his trust in these men who allegedly “spoke directly with God and hence were all-powerful” (4.37.3-4), but they could do nothing at all to heal his epileptic seizures (12). In order to save the prostitutes of the City, he built a “grand, beautiful, and magnificent nunnery,” and proclaimed that “if any one of them were willing to renounce her trade and live in luxury… she would no longer fear a life of privation, as everything would bear fruit for her without her ever having sowed or plowed” (4.36.14-15, 17-21; cf. 7A.3.4-5). Many prostitutes rushed to accept the offer and became nuns: “a youthful army in the service of God enrolled in the military lists of virtue,” adds Psellos sarcastically (4.36.24-25). This “army” was exempt from fighting battles. Their new “virtue” was really “luxury” provided by the State.

The extent of the moral weakness of the monastic community was revealed to Michael’s nephew and successor, Michael V Kalaphates. Forced by an angry mob to abandon his throne, he fled with his uncle Constantine to the monastery of Stoudios where both were tonsured and became members. They begged the monks, and God, not to allow them to suffer harm at the hands of the mob. But the monks “did not dare to oppose the course of events at all. They received pledges from the mob and trusted in the sworn word of its leader” (5.45.9-12). That word was quickly broken, as most are in the Chronographia, and both men were blinded. The monks of Stoudios, who had once proudly defied the iconoclast Emperors and fought zealously for the restoration of the icons, were now too timid to protect an Orthodox Emperor seeking asylum among them.17

Histamenon that may have been issued during the reign of Michael V: obverse (left) Christ Pantokrator; reverse (right) the Emperor (crowned by the hand of God) and the Archangel Michael holding a labarum.
Histamenon that may have been issued during the reign of Michael V: obverse (left) Christ Pantokrator; reverse (right) the Emperor (crowned by the hand of God) and the Archangel Michael holding a labarum.

Psellos demythologizes the monastic vocation just as he exposes the ugly truths hid behind, or sat upon, the Imperial throne. But the Empire needed an Emperor; it is doubtful whether it needed any monks. Their prayers were utterly ineffectual. They consumed the resources of the State and gave trusting rulers false hopes. Psellos instructs Emperors like Isaac Komnenos, who wished to emulate the success of Basil II (cf. 24), not to be deceived by the so-called practitioners of virtue. Though their eyes appeared to be fixed on eternity, their hearts craved petty pleasures.

When Isaac Komnenos triumphantly entered Constantinople in 1057, with the philosopher Psellos at his side, a large number of people came out to greet him. psellos emphasizes that the crowd consisted mostly of

“those who pursued a higher philosophy, and those who lived on the mountain-tops, or who lurked in caves; all of them had now left their common dwellings, whether coming down from their position mid-way between the heavens and the earth, or coming out of their homes in the rock” (7.40.12-16, cf. 23).

But Isaac, Psellos’ new patron and student, “had a quick mind, and was neither deceived nor elated by this vain display” (7.41.1-2). Power and influence had now passed away from the hermits and into the hands of a true philosopher, who was more interested in the reality of political affairs than in attaining a “position mid-way between the heavens and the earth.”

Mosaic of Isaac Komnenos the Porphyrogennetos from the Chora Church.
Mosaic of Isaac Komnenos the Porphyrogennetos from the Chora Church.


  1. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘On Chasity.’
  2. this complex and its history, see R. Janin, Les eglises et les monasteres, 70-76.
  3. a scholarly confirmation of Psellos’ position (although it is not offered as such), see R. Morris, Monks and laymen in Byzantium, part II. Morris demonstrates that by the 11th century many monasteries had expanded their land-holdings at the expense of the lay population, compromised their spiritual calling, and eventually managed to accelerate and exacerbate the problems faced by the State.
  4. For a brief history of this word and its irreverent use by Psellos, see the note on this passage in the Italian edition of the Chronographia, 2, pp. 425-6, n. 600)
  5. Eusebius of Caesaria, Demonstratio Evangelica, 2.46-51.
  6. Gregory of Nazianzos, Or. 43.28; cf. also Ors. 18.35, 42.26; cf. Nikephoros, Short History 83; Constantine V “insulted the sacred habit of the Nazeraioi,” referring to Orthodox, i.e., iconodule, monks; Theodore of Stoudios, Oratio funebris in Platonem 17: “which one of our Naziraioi did [Constantine V] not eliminate?” referring again to iconodule monks.
  7. g., Theodoret, Historia Religiosa 29.4.1; for this practice in times closer to Psellos, see the Vita S. Lucae Stylitae 5; and Eustathios, De simulatione 35.
  8. For their criticisms, see P. Magdalino, ‘The Byzantine Holy Man in the Twelfth Century,’ and on the attitude of Eustathios in particular, A. Kazhdan, ‘Eustathius of Thessalonica: the life and opinions of a twelfth-century Byzantine rhetor,’ pp. 150-4. For Choniates, see esp. his Annals 206-208. For Psellos’ fascinating descriptions of the ribald monk Elias, see G.T. Dennis, ‘The Byzantines as Revealed in the Letters,’ pp. 162-165.
  9. For this monastery and it’s history, see R. Janin, Les eglises et les monasteres, 58-59.
  10. Pace P. Thomas, ‘A Disputed Novel of Basil II,’ p. 278.
  11. This incident is recorded only by Psellos and may well be fictional. The allusion to in Zonaras (Epitome 7) is entirely derivative.
  12. For the translation and a historical discussion of this text, see P. Charanis, ‘The Monastic Properties and the Staet in the Byzantine Empire,’ pp. 56-61.
  13. See also R. Morris, ‘The two faces of Nikephoros Phokas,’ pp. 100-111, for his monastic connections and personal ascetic aspirations.
  14. For Psellos highly favorable view of Julian, see J.N. Ljubarskij, ‘Some Notes on the Newly Discovered historical Work by Psellos,’ p. 219.
  15. See Theophanes the Confessor 440, 443, 445-6 (cf. 489: the attitude of Nikephoros I); for Constantine V’s religious policies see the excellent treatment by S. Gero, Byzantine Iconoclasm During the reign of Constantine V, 138-9 for the laicization of monasteries.
  16. Nikephoros, Short History
  17. Yet among some Byzantine the Studites still had a reputation for being obstinate and fierce defenders of their beliefs and independence. Even in the early 11th century, the Patriarch Sergios could reply to the irrepressible monk Symeon, the so-called New Theologian, by saying, “you are truly a Studite, master Symeon…” (Niketas Stethatos, Life of Symeon the New Theologian 108).
  18. Michael Psellos in monastic garb (left) with his pupil the emperor Michael VII Doukas

Historical Cases of Child Sexual Abuse in the Byzantine Empire (324-1453 A.D.)


Objective: The aim of this article is the presentation and brief analysis of some historical cases, unknown in the broader medical bibliography, of child sexual abuse in Byzantine Society (324-1453 A.D.).

     Method: The original texts of the Byzantine historians, chroniclers and ecclesiastical authors, written in the Greek language, were studied in order to locate instances of child sexual abuse.

     Results: Although the punishment provided by the laws and the church for cases of child sexual abuse were very strict, a number of instances of rapes under cover of premature marriages, even in the imperial families, are revealed in these texts. Furthermore, cases of child prostitution, pederasty, and incest are included in the historical texts and some contemporary authors continued the presence of many such cases in all classes of Byzantine society.

Conclusion: The research of original Byzantine literature disclosed many instances of child sexual abuse in all social classes even in the mediaeval Byzantine society which was characterized by strict legal and religious prohibitions.


CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE today constitutes an alarming social phenomenon the instances of which, reported daily, appear to be increasingly widespread (Leventhal, 1998; Wyatt, Bums Loeb, Solis, & Vargas Carmona, 1999).

Research of historical sources, however, reveals the existence of the problem from antiquity and that the endeavors of the state to combat it were always intense and systematic. In particular, our research into the original texts of Byzantine historians and chroniclers indicates that child sexual abuse flourished even in a religious mediaeval society such as that of Byzantium, a state which comprised the rational continuation of the Roman empire and which was the most important state in the known world for 11 centuries (324-1453 A.D.). The state with its strict legislation and the church with the spiritual pressures at its disposal both made every effort to restrict this social phenomenon, which in Byzantium took the forms of rape under cover of premature marriages, child prostitution, pederasty, and incest.


 Premature Marriages

The Roman law had established the age of marriage at 12 for girls and 14 for boys. Under-age marriage of both spouses were then customary mainly among aristocratic families, which by such means arranged political alliances and pacts. The Roman law was applied in Byzantium with the addition that the husband who married an under-aged wife should wait for her to reach 12 years old before entering sexual relations (Lingenthal, 1931). Usually, however, the law was not followed and frequently parents declared false ages for their daughters (Bees, 1976). In cases of breach of the law, the church dissolved the marriage and unfrocked the priest concerned. The bishop of Arta, Demetrius Chomatianos (13th century), dissolved an engagement which had been arranged for a girl of 5 because her intended husband regularly sexually abused her between the ages of 7 and 12. When she reached 12 years old, she requested dissolution of the engagement, threatening to jump from a cliff or into the sea if her request was not granted (Pitra, 1891).

Another case referred to was the engagement of a girl of 7 after a false declaration by her father that she was 12. The intended bridegroom raped the girl because she refused sexual relations with him, “sealing her mouth to the extent that blood poured out of her ears. For the rest of her life, she feared the sight of any man” (Tourtoglou, 1963).

The most celebrated instance of child sexual abuse is referred to in the case of Princess Simonis, only daughter of Emperor Andronicus II, Palaeologus (1282-1328), who at the age of 5 was given in marriage to the 40-year-old Sovereign of the Serbs, Stephan Milutin, for reasons of state alliance. The husband, however, as the historian Nicephorus Gregoras (14th century) confirms, “did not abide by the legal requirements for the wife to reach legal age and raped her at the age of 8, causing injuries of the womb, which prevented her from bearing children, and mental suffering which obliged her to return in tears to her homeland to be a nun.” Her parents, however, obviously respecting the political implications of the marriage which created conditions of friendship between Byzantium and Serbia, forced her to go to her husband; she did so and became a widow at the age of 21 (Schopen, 1829).

The Princess Simonis. (14th century fresco of Gratsanitsa Monastery, Serbia).
The Princess Simonis. (14th century fresco of Gratsanitsa Monastery, Serbia).

It should be emphasized that there are some indications in the historical texts that the psychological reactions of the victims were very similar to those described in today’s medical literature (Calam, Home, Glasgow, & Cox, 1998; Verduyn & Calam, 1999) such as the cases of the 7-year-old girl who feared men all the rest of her life and the princess who perhaps presented depression and wished to become a nun.

The imperial family ignored the marriage legislation in numerous cases. Emperor Andronicus I, Comnenus (1183-1185) violated the law when at the age of 63, he married the 11-year-old Agnes Anna, daughter of Louis VII of France, already the widow of Alexius II Comnenus whom he had overthrown and killed. Immediately after the ceremony Andronicus rushed to satisfy his sexual desire to consummate the marriage, as the historian Nicetas Choniates (12th century) narrates (Dieten, 1975).

However, whenever cases of child sexual abuse in marriage were referred to the Patriarchate, voidance of the marriage by decision of the Patriarch was the outcome. One of these decisions was based on a certification of virginity signed by a midwife (Miklosich & Milller, 1970).

Even more serious was the crime of child sexual abuse outside marriage or engagement. In this case the perpetrator was punished with various penalties during the period of the Byzantine empire, from money fines paid to the victim, dragging of the offender through the streets, to rhinocopy (cutting off the nose), exile, and in extreme cases, capital punishment (Pitsakis, 1971).

   Child Prostitution

Child prostitution was the result of parents’ decisions, in their abject poverty, to sell their daughters for 5 gold coins or to hire them out, as the chronicler Malalas narrates (Dindorf, 1831). The defloration of the girls was a matter of public auction. Frequently under-aged prostitutes satisfied clients in the brothels with anomalous sexual acts.

As the contemporary historian Procopius writes, the famous Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian I, the Great (527-565), when previously an under-aged prostitute, satisfied her clients in such ways. As is well-known, Theodora and her two sisters were, when child orphans, working in the theater. Theodora assisted in comic performances of clowns and removed her clothes “to show the men from front and rear that which should have remained hidden from their eyes,” as Procopius states (Wirth & Haury, 1963). Her childhood and adolescent experiences led to two births and numerous abortions which probably were responsible for her sterility during her marriage to Justinian the Great (Wirth & Haury, 1963).

A contemporary portrait of the Empress Theodora (521-548) (mosaic of St. Vitalius, Ravenna).
A contemporary portrait of the Empress Theodora (521-548) (mosaic of St. Vitalius, Ravenna).


Many Byzantine authors referred to the extent of the problem of pederasty during the whole period of the Byzantine empire. Eminent Byzantines were accused of being pedophiles, among them the Emperor Theodosius II (408-450), Constantine V (741-775), and the Eparch of Constantinople, during the reign of Justinian I, John Cappadoces, who “regularly sexually assaulted small pre-adolescent children who had not acquired the signs of manhood, especially hair” (Kukules, 1955; Niebuhr, 1837).

A great number of abductions of children, even outside their homes, is referred to; mothers frightened their children not to wander far from home because they “ran the risk of sexual attack by pedophiles offering sweets and nuts” as Saint John Chrysostome writes (Migne, 1858-1860).

Punishments were especially severe for pedophiles. The first emperor of Byzantium, Constantine the Great (324-337 A.D.), imposed lengthy Terms of imprisonment, the emperor Constas II (641-668) capital punishment, and Leon VI the Wise (886-912) added exile and drowning with weights in the sea.

Chroniclers record, during the reign of Justinian I, the punishment of a group of pedophiles, among them the Bishop of Rhodes, Isaias, and the Bishop of Dion in Thrace, Alexander, with mutilation of the penis, dragging nude through the streets, and death (Bekker, 1838; Boor, 1883; Boor & Wirth, 1978; Dindorf, 1831).

Capital punishment remained the usual penalty for pedophiles for many centuries in Byzantium; the victims were also punished with incarceration in a monastery which had the characteristics of the modern reformatory (Migne, 1857). However, Constantine VII the Porphyrogenitus (913-959) provided in his legislation “Ekloge” (which means “Selection”) for the immunity from penalties of children under 12 who had passive sexual relations; on the contrary adult pedophile rapists were punished with decapitation by sword (Pitsakis, 1971).

The church also attempted to confront the phenomenon, including it among the most serious sins and imposed a penalty of 19 years withholding of holy communion (Kukules, 1955).

A well-known case of intended sexual abuse was that of the son of the Grand Duke Lucas Notaras, 11-year-old Isaac, who was the intended victim of Sultan Mohammed II after the fall of Constantinople, as the historian Ducas confirms (Bekker, 1834). The same happened to John, the son of the historian Sfrantzes. The two young boys and their parents refused to submit to the anomalous sexual desires of the Sultan who killed them all except the historian, who managed to escape (Bekker, 1834; Schlumberger, 1914).


More than any other form of child sexual abuse, incest is covered by a conspiracy of silence to protect his family secret. The penalties provided by each succeeding law during the Byzantine period, which included capital punishment and the ecclesiastical degrees of family relationship which prohibited marriage, all demonstrate the extent of the problem. The historian Agathias (6th century) states that “the phenomenon of incest is widespread and many brothers have shameless relationships with their sisters, fathers with their daughters, and worst of all, sons with their mothers” (Niebuhr, 1828).

Statue of the Emperor Heraclius (Barletta).
Statue of the Emperor Heraclius (Barletta).

The best-known incestuous emperor was Heraclius (610-641) who, with his second marriage, “legalized” his long incestuous relationship with Martina, his sister’s 14-year-old daughter, by whom he had about 10 children, many of whom suffered from various physical disabilities (Lascaratos, PouIakou-Rembelakou, Rembelakos, & Marketos, 1995). It appears that the desires of this all-powerful emperor were above the law and moral codes. The Byzantine historian Nicephorus (Bekker, 1837) and the chroniclers Leo Grammaticus (Bekker, 1842) and loannes Zonaras (Buttner-Wobst, 1847) attributed congenital anomaly of the emperor’s urinary system (epispadias) to divine punishment due to this incestuous marriage.


In conclusion, historical accounts by Byzantine writers confirm that child sexual abuse is an ancient social phenomenon, which has many similarities with, modern attitudes as regards its widespread social-impact and its influences on the psychological balance of the victims.

Historical cases compiled from the works of Byzantine writers, unknown to the broader medical bibliography, prove that, despite the strict state legislation and church prohibitions from the early times of the Eastern Empire, the problem seems to have remained endemic in all social classes. (Dr John Lascaratos, Dr. Effie Poulakou – Rebelakou, Department of the History of Medicine, Medical School, National Athens University and International Hippocratic Foundation of Kos).

See also An Analysis of Child Sexual Abuse During the Byzantine Empire By Lorissa Kingston:


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