Byzantine Whim

Julián Montaño. Professor. IE School of Arts & Humanities

5 November 2009

A Byzantine chronicle from the 15th century provides an insight into why the brief reign of emperor sage Julius Maximus I Sophistes left an eternal example.

Last summer I visited several monasteries in Syria. In one of them, the Abbott Theophanes took me to the monastery library, where he left me alone for a time. One of the books I looked at was an 18th-century transcription of the history of events of short-lived emperors, by Felix the Deacon, a chronicle from the 15th century I had been trying to find for some time.

In the Chronicle, Felix, the head of the monastery, like Theophanes, writes only one anecdote of the short-lived Emperor Julius Maximus I Sophistes, of Andalusian origin, who reigned in Constantinople in a time that no one remembers.

According to Felix, the patriarch Michael I the Philologist, a man of writing who insisted on the allegorical and moralising interpretation of the Orphic Fragments, was considered one of the wisest men in Constantinople at the time.

Michael I the Philologist also had the guile of the men of his homeland, the region of Catepanato, present-day Calabria, and he was well aware of the fame of the Emperor´s wisdom. Because, the Emperor was known for being even wiser than Michael I and the wisest man who had ever sat on the Justinian throne.

One evening, in the Blachernae Palace gardens, with a gentle sea breeze in the air, the patriarch Michael asked the Emperor:

"Your Imperial Majesty, you who are the light given to us by the Word to light up the night of this land, who is the wisest of all the men who speak Greek?"
The Emperor, who was looking at one of the silver birds that decorated the gardens, replied:

"Your Holiness asks me about the wisest of all the men that speak Greek. As Solomon knows, it is not easy to find the wisest man, but the wisest man is the one who would never ask such a question".

Michael I the Philologist, patriarch of Constantinople, briefly bowed his head and body to indicate how satisfactory and pertinent the answer had been. The Emperor, who was much wiser than the patriarch, gave him a lesson in logic and cunning: (a) the wisest man would never ask who the wisest man was, since he would already know; (b) the Emperor did know and (c) the patriarch was not the wisest man.

According to Felix the Deacon, Michael I the Philologist, who was much less wise than Julius Maximus I Sophistes ended his days locked away in the monastery of Studius, blinded by the Emperor after a conspiracy. In his last years, he constantly repeated, "how can I know if I am wiser?"

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