It’s often said that today’s society is marked by vitriol and contempt for one’s political rivals. However, few can match the 12th century chronicler Constantine Manasses when it comes to inventive ways to criticize a ruler.
The Chronicle of Constantine Manasses, recently translated into English by Linda Yuretich, is a Byzantine history that goes from the beginning of the world to the year 1081. Manasses was a scholar living in 12th century Constantinople, and was commissioned to write this work, known as Synopsis Chronike, as a kind of “entertaining sketch” of history. He certainly was very inventive in his writing, sometimes with praise for rulers, but other times fiercely chiding them for their failures. The Chronicle was quite popular in the Middle Ages, with at least 100 manuscripts in its original Greek.
Here are five Byzantine rulers that Manasses was critical of, which he did in his own invective-filled style:
Phokas (reigned 602-610)
When Phokas took power and the sceptre, immediately, from the very first starting line, as they say, he disclosed the bitter-hearted beast hidden inside him. He was bent on murder, pleasure-loving, rabid, a drinker of undiluted wine, quarrelsome when drunk, quick-tempered and prone to imbibe. He drank up blood like an ill-tempered lion and feasted on the flesh of countless men. Phokas even considered the drink pleasant, sweeter than nectar.
Constantine V (741-775)
And so, the abominable, blood-drinking wolf ruled, O all-seeing Sun, Emperors and Law. He was a sorcerer and wizard, who delighted in the slaughter of animals and the foul mystical rites of liver reading. He was an outright pig, who lived in the mire and ate mud. What oppressive actions would this intemperate slave to his stomach not contrive?…After ruling thirty-four years, he was justly sent to the punishments of hell.
Nikephoros I (802-811)
At some point it raised on high Nikephoros, who was a murderous man, immoral, with evil ways, a gold-loving slave to gold, stingy, petty, like Midas who once ruled the Phrygians. Nikephoros sold the leadership of cities, distributing the honours by wealth and not merit. He had gold on his lips, an ox on his tongue, gold on his table, and he dreamed of gold. To others he would seem sad and dejected, but if someone were to bring a weight of gold in his pouch, then indeed, he would show a kindly eye, and the dark, sullen look would no longer be upon his face. From that time on, he instigated all contrivances and practices, and dug up all evilly invented tricks, so that wherever gold would be found, it would be emptied and transferred to him. O, the passion for riches!
Michael III (842–867)
He abandoned himself to a liquid life, just like another Nero, a drunkard, cowardly, wanton and a drinker of unmixed wine. He squandered endless amounts of riches on his playmates, jesters, sordid charioteers and actors. From the first thing in the morning, they drank unmixed wine, lived a luxurious and sybaritic life, hungered for feasts of rich delicacies and spent the day with wanton women; they drank and made merry, and were lechers like Sardanapalus, who once ruled Nineveh. It was with corrupt people of this sort that Michael spent his time: drunkards, the depraved, evildoers and performers of evil rites. He became the companion of thyrsus-bearing Maenads, and revelled in Dionysiac orgies, which led on to drinking, dancing, intoxication, kraters, the shouting out indecent, lewd songs, the gyration of jesters and everything sordid.
Michael V Kalaphates (1041-2)
He was raving mad, swinish, with the mind of a sheep and was innately uncouth…. When the ill-advised, haughty and impudent young man undertook such things, fizzing and bubbling like newly pressed wine, he was not strong enough to endure the kindness of Luck. Thus he was hurled into a deep chasm, for prosperity is like a heavy load, as they say. If the burdens falls on who is not strong, it throws him headlong to the ground and smashes him.
The Chronicle of Constantine Manasses, translated by Linda Yuretich, was published in 2018 by Liverpool University Press under its Translated Texts for Byzantinists series. Click here to view the publisher’s website or buy this book from Amazon.com.
Top Image: An image of emperors from the Chronicle of Constantine Manasses – this manuscript was made in the 14th century and is now kept in the Vatican Libraries.