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