The final hagiographer: Michael Psellus on Symeon Metaphrastes

Writing lives of the saints was something that everybody did in the Greek empire from 400 to about 1000.  After that people stopped writing new lives, or not in the same way.  But up to that point these lives were written by people of all stations.  The forms of Greek used reflect that ordinary people wrote them.  It was genuinely a popular form of fiction.

During the reign of Constantine VII Porpyrogenitus (d. 959), the emperor ordered the creation of all sorts of compilations.  Whether by coincidence or not, soon afterwards we find the creation of a compilation of earlier saints’ lives, revised and with the style made acceptable.  This compilation takes the form of a menologion (see my prior post for this), and it is ascribed in the manuscripts to a certain Symeon Metaphrastes, or Symeon the Compiler.

This compilation became the standard collection of the lives, and the form of each life that Metaphrastes gave it likewise becomes the basis for the future.  It’s like the King James Bible, or the Vulgate; it marks a conclusion and a break with the past.

Among the saints included was Nicholas of Myra, whose lives we have been translating for a while now.

It really is not that clear who Metaphrastes was, or exactly when he lived.  But around a century later Michael Psellus wrote an encomium on him.  This has recently been edited by Elizabeth A. Fisher in the Teubner series of Psellus in the Orationes Hagiographicae.  But I find that she has also made a translation into English of the Encomium for Symeon Metaphrastes, and that a version of it is even online here and more specifically here (although you may need to search; the links move around).  This is marvellous news!

Leaving aside the florid compliments, let’s extract what Psellus says about what Metaphrastes did, to produce the “final version” of the life of St Nicholas (and others).

3.5.   … Symeon possessed noble birth, had acquired a good name from his family, and reveled in extensive wealth and in the things because of which one might avoid learning. Nevertheless Symeon used the resources gained from worldly good fortune to study philosophy. …

3.6. Symeon … did not adopt a different style of dress, nor compromise in any way his truly noble spirit, nor embarrass his family with any sort of silly novelties, nor offer a model of political subjects only to remodel it, nor otherwise play the part of a disreputable sophist. Instead he employed his hereditary affection for honorable conduct as most useful raw material for accomplishing what is good and straightaway took the excellence derived from his studies as the basis both for true nobility of spirit and for brilliance. For as a special favorite of the emperors he was entrusted with the most honored assignments of all; Symeon received a position close to the imperial throne because of his keen intelligence and, due to his natural aptitude, also held an administrative post in government supervising public affairs.

He initially (275) received an appointment to the imperial chancery, privy to confidential resolutions and working with imperial advisors. When his trustworthy character in these duties made him well known, he undertook responsibilities in external affairs in addition to his duties in the palace, with the result that it was he who conveyed to the emperor messages from outsiders and relayed imperial communications to outsiders as well. He was, so to speak, the administration’s precise communications link.

3.7. … Symeon was himself wholly attentive both to the emperor and to public affairs. … He was able to drive the barbarians farther from the territory belonging to the heirs of the Roman Empire, to prevail against them either through military expeditions or by means of artifice, to bring other countries into subjection, and to adopt a ready stance regarding requirements of the moment for the matter at hand.

… Although he was truly noble in dress, in demeanor, and even in the way he walked, he altered his behavior to fit the situation; because he was charming and agreeable, he immediately attracted everyone with his smile. His helping hand was generous because two attributes, his wealth and his inclination, extended it. His hand was always outstretched and open, and whoever wished drew liberally upon his wealth as if it flowed from a river. Such were the qualities of this great man, and he also took part in activities that typically assist our Christian faith, as was appropriate. …

3.8.  … However, until recently the way they lived on earth, or rather our recounting of their lives, was not recognized as brilliant, although accurate accounts of the [facts] of their martyrdom and of their ascetic practices are indeed preserved in the secret books that the angels will read out for the multitudes at the Restitution [of all things]. [21] Moreover, before [the time of] the remarkable man [Symeon] those who wrote of [the saints’] deeds here on earth by no means approximated their nobility of spirit. Instead, in some cases they gave erroneous reports of their [deeds], while in other cases, because they were incapable of an appropriate presentation, they described their virtue as rude and paltry by failing to demonstrate nobility of thought, [22] or to employ attractive adornments of diction, or to describe accurately either the ferocity of [the saints’] persecutors or their shrewdness in answering when they gave [Christian] witness. [These earlier writers] also presented an adulterated version of the ascetics’ practices by describing their earnest efforts without any artistry and seemingly with whatever [words] came to mind. (278)

3.9. …. some had no patience for reading the annals [of the martyrs] because they were so crudely written, while others considered the accounts objects of derision. Their awkward composition, incoherence of thought, and mediocre style were harsh to the ear and repulsed rather than attracted an audience. Because of the authors who wrote about them, we habitually satirized the marvelous struggles and monumental victories of the servants of Christ.

Although everyone complained loudly about the situation, those who had the ability to replace these writings with better ones lacked the will to do it, and those who had the will lacked the ability—some because of timidity of spirit, others because the enterprise was all engrossing, and one man’s lifetime would not be sufficient for it all.

The marvelous Symeon did not feel the same as those who were stricken by these difficulties. He joined them as far as finding fault with the accounts that were written, then went farther and had the confidence for a daring project—or, rather, he succeeded in an undertaking where no one else had. …

3.10. … the literary accounts which this noble man [Symeon] constructed for the martyrs and the ascetics demonstrate amplification appropriate to discourse and have a two-fold objective—both to inspire imitation of their skillful composition and to encourage imprinting of the self with saintly morality in the best way possible. I, however, might mention a third consideration, not inferior to these other two, but both more to the point and more elevating: namely, that the literary commemoration of the saints is the final chapter of the works that confirm the Gospel message. …

3.12. … He does not alter the facts for the sake of his art, but in each case he interprets the particularity of the facts as they happened (283) and the particularity of the individuals involved. He fixes his attention upon the older works as his models and does not deviate from them in order to avoid the appearance of creating something that is different from his original and to avoid violating it. He completely transforms the type of style without altering the substance of the original, but he corrects what was amiss in its forms of expression; he does not invent the contents but he alters the manner of diction.  …

3.14. People do indeed say that Symeon did not undertake the project as a hobby nor simply set it for himself, except to the extent that he was willing to do it. However, fervent appeals from the emperor moved him to undertake this project as well as appeals from those who valued intelligent discourse.

He had his preparations ready at hand and had a team of considerable size composed both of those who initially took down his dictation stenographically and of those who subsequently transcribed it in full; each group worked in support of the other, one producing an initial text, the other a second draft. After them, the final redactors went over the written texts to compare them against the content intended by Symeon and to correct whatever error might have escaped the notice of those who drafted the texts, because Symeon could not possibly review the same works repeatedly himself due to their great number.

We can draw a number of conclusions from this.

First, the lives of the saints were not considered particularly reputable by the highest literary circles.  The style was such as to provoke satire.  In fact even after Metaphrastes’ work, the lives were not on the same level as the Greek classics.  But at least they were not an embarassment.  The style was improved, the material paraphrased (or metaphrased) to produce something readable.

If I can get a translation made of Metaphrastes’ life of St Nicholas, it will be interesting to see how this reflects the earlier materials.

4 thoughts on “The final hagiographer: Michael Psellus on Symeon Metaphrastes

  1. Hi Roger,
    The Encomium on Symeon Metaphrastes was also recently published in ‘Michael Psellus on Literature and Art’ (ed. Barber and Papaioannou) UInversity of Notre Dame Press, 2017, pages 193-217. This translation is also by Fisher.

    There continued to be plenty of hagiography written in later Byzantium and beyond after Symeon Metaphrates.


    A good post-Byzantine example is Nicodemus of Mt Athos in the 18th century wrote an extensive collection of lives of the Neomartyrs.

    While some hagiography contained fictional elements the Byzantines did not consider lives of saints to be fictional.

    Finally, the educated Byzantine elites were snobs. The rewriting of hagiography into a higher register didnt prevent the earlier versions from continuing to circulate.

  2. The writing of lives of Saints continues to this day, because Saints continue to be proclaimed. It is obviously impossible for Symeon Metaphrastes (which means translator) to have written the live of St Paisios who fell asleep in the lord in 1994. The creation of the life of a Saint is associated with his or her proclamation. The practice has become among the Greek speaking Churches is that an interested party complies the Life of the person under consideration and sends it to the nearest synod. The Synod of the Church (e.g. the Synod of the Church of Cyprus) then discusses the issue and if in agreement forwards the person to Constantinople for proclamation as Saint. The Ecumenical Patriarch will then proclaim the person as a Saint and the first Life of the Saint will be the report attached to the petition detailing why said person should be a saint. This particular petition will find its way in the next synaxaria produced. Other Orthodox churches work similarly minus that they do not send the Saint for approval to Constantinople but proclaim him themselves. The only recent case where Constantinople did not proclaim a Saint but he was proclaimed by the a Greek speaking Church was with Saint Chrysostomos of Smyrna and the other clergy and laity murdered by Kemal Attarurk and the Young Turks before him during the Greek Genocide for the obvious reason: The Patriarch of Constantinople operates under the limitations imposed to him by the post Kemalist Turkish state. Turkey to this denies there was ever any Genocide during and right after WWI.

    This particular process has been somewhat unraveled by the invention of printing and especially the creation of the independent Greek State. Even during the Byzantine era anyone could have written another Life of a Saint other than the proclamation petition, but unless that person was a major personality that particular Life could have easily been lost to the ravages of time. For that matter we have many Saints where their Life was lost and all we have is the mention in some Menologia, and all we really know is that they died by the sword or drowning or during the reign of King or Emperor X of whatever State. At time we do not even have the earthly ruler, just the method of Martyrdom. Nowadays, when there are still people around who do remember St Nektarios or Saint Chrysostom of Smyrna or Saint Paisios and especially for major personalities like them they will write a book or will give a panegyric on their feast day or anniversary. As a result entire biographies are published on a regular basis, superseeding somewhat their Lives. However no priest can really read during or after liturgy an entire volume, a small sized life is needed so they are produced. Also Christian presses in Greece still produce Lives of Saints which a very popular book with the faithful.

    St Symeon Metaphrastes is most definitely a diving line in Byzantine Hagiography but also the history of the Greek language. His main contribution is that he translated the Lives he had from the spoken Greek they were written in into Attic, thus making them acceptable among the literary circles of the Empire. The problem is that this way we have lost contact with the vernacular during the long centuries between the Three Fathers and the Akritika songs. Our only sources of spoken Greek between the Three Fathers and the Akritika are the Lives that survived which Symeon did not translate; for those that were translated the original was lost. The Empire wrote its laws and edicts in Attic rather than spoken Greek and learned people also mostly used Attic, even if with some vulgarizations. The few Lives that escaped translation and were written in the vernacular are what little we have, until the beginning of the Modern Greek oral tradition which reaches to the Akritika songs and the Epic of Basil Digenis Akritas

  3. Thank you for this very instructive post! 3.12 is particularly striking – how I would like to see a sample study exploring what it has meant in practice – or how its description has compared to practice – in a given case.

    Stefano’s grateful observation – “The rewriting of hagiography into a higher register didn’t prevent the earlier versions from continuing to circulate” – makes me wonder about possible different approaches in different circumstances after Symeon Metaphrastes and what is attributed to him here.

    And, I wonder how Latin usage compared (and in how far differed, and where, and when, and why – are there similar Latin statements of approach to ‘metaphrasis’?).

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