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Higher Education in Byzantium by Michael Psellus

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2002)
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Michael Psellus (1018-c.1080) was a prominent figure in the court of the Byzantine emperors and empresses. He was an aristocrat who was educated in Athens and Constantinople, making him knowledgeable about "the Classics," the art of war, and medicine. He was an especially good public speaker and he became a friend to emperors and patriarchs. In this selection, he discusses types of knowledge that he considered essential to a Classical education.



By the eleventh century when Psellus lived, the Christian world was permanently divided into the Eastern Orthodox (Byzantine) and Roman Catholic churches. In addition, Christianity faced opposition from the Abbassid Muslim caliphs who were strengthened by the large-scale conversion of nomadic Turks from central Asia. The resulting wars, fought in the name of religious principles, stimulated a great deal of interest in learning in an effort to reconcile Old Testament teachings (followed by Christians and Muslims alike) like "thou shalt not kill" and "thou shall not steal" with the day-to-day acts of soldiers and leaders.

Classical education: The search for new ways of learning led in two directions. The first was the study of the classic texts of the Roman and Greek worlds, a practice which dated from the Roman Empire. The goal of Roman education was to create a good citizen by teaching reading, writing with style, the works of classical authors, and Latin grammar. As the empire aged, however, classical education became more rigid and stifling. By the 6th century CE, the teaching of grammar became more conservative in an effort to prevent changes in the Latin language due to barbarian influence. The study of rhetoric was limited to suasoria and controversia (persuasion and argument), and in a typical assignment, students were asked to construct an argument against the burning of Troy. Meanwhile, scholars of geography and history produced extensive lists and compilations based on earlier authors like Pliny, but no new theories.

Classical education became even less relevant because it was only available to the children of the wealthy, and they did little with it that was practical. Instead, some students were so appalled at what passed for education that they ran away from their tutors, while the rest merely returned to their family estates, used whatever knowledge applied to their farms, and forgot everything else. Only a few subjects made advances, like surveying, which was useful for calculating taxes, and medicine which addressed a basic human need.

Christian education: The spread of Christianity in the Roman world provided the second approach to education in Psellus' time. At first, Roman Christians supported the classical form of education because it offered the only alternative to barbarian paganism and heresy. There were no centers for religious study in the late Roman Empire, so clergymen had to learn theology "on the job" after entering the priesthood. Since each priest developed his own understanding of the meaning of the Bible, Christian doctrine varied significantly until the 5th century, when Augustine, a bishop from North Africa, laid down the principles of Christian learning in his book, De Doctrina Christiana.

As Christianity spread, resistance to classical education system developed among the Christian monks. They saw the world in terms of a struggle between Christianity and paganism, and rejected the study of non-Christian texts. One Christian thinker, Caesarius of Arles, condemned oratory for fueling sensuality, and philosophy for misdirecting thought that became the source of Christian heresy.

As monasteries developed into schools for the newly converted, they offered a program of reading and writing that mostly relied on memorizing the Psalms. The object was to impregnate each monk with the Psalms in order to banish earlier memories of profane works and to provide the means to meditate constantly on the Scripture. It is unclear to what extent all of this contributed to learning, since their goal was purity of heart, not clarity of thought.


Troubles in the Byzantine Empire: The introduction to the reading by Psellus mentions that during the time he advised the Byzantine emperors, a number of calamities took place that led to the overthrow of Emperor Michael VII in 1078. The main problem was one of rivalry between military and civilian (both religious and secular) officials in the Byzantine empire, each of which sought to influence the choice of emperor. The conflict was aggravated by a number of outside invasions which led to the loss of all Byzantine territory in Italy to the Normans, and much of Anatolia to the Seljuk Muslims. As a consequence, from 1056 to 1081, two emperors were overthrown, two more abdicated, and only one, Constantine X, died in office.

Emperor Justinian surrounded by military and civilian
officials of the Byzantine empire
Detail of mosaic showing Emperor Justinian surrounded by military and civilian officials.


  1. Psellus wanted to learn "wisdom which is beyond all demonstration, apprehensible only by the intellect of a wise man. in moments of inspiration." How did he try to do this?
  2. What did Psellus think of Christianity?
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