Anna Comnena’s “The Alexiad”

Anna Comnena, author of The Alexiad

Anna Comnena, author of The Alexiad

Byzantium produced some well known women Empresses such as Theodora and Zoe. Perhaps the best Augusta they did not have was Anna Comnena, the Daughter of The Emperor Alexius I Comnenus who reigned from 1081 until 1118. Well, in her opinion she is the best Augusta they never had according to her excellent biography of her father known as The Alexiad (Penguin Classics)

Anna was a born in the purple princess. She lived a long and quite exciting life, and was happily married to the Caesar, Nicephorus Bryennius. He served the Emperor loyally and possibly had hopes of becoming Emperor himself. He certainly would have been encouraged by Anna who loathed her brother and the legitimate heir, John II Comnenus (1118-1143).

In the Alexiad, Anna makes strenuous efforts to play the objective, and serious historian. She often reminds us that although she loved her father dearly (and that comes through again and again) she is not biased when she praises him and his achievements! And well she might praise him. In a long reign, Alexius was clearly a very brave soldier, he was not prone to excess, and he brought a degree of stability to the Empire. However, he does not appear to have been particularly popular with his subjects. Perhaps that is the secret of his long reign; general indifference? He was however responsible for asking the Pope, Urban II, for troops to fight the Turks; this inspired Urban to send out the first Crusade which caused all sorts of problems but did help in recovering some of the lands in the Levant lost by the Empire earlier in the Eleventh Century. The crusading zeal continued for the next two hundred years, which eventually led to the sack of Constantinople during the so-called ‘Fourth Crusade’ in 1204, which after the defeat at Manzikert, was the second major nail in the coffin of the Empire.

I have just finished reading the Alexiad and thoroughly enjoyed it (Penguin Classics version translated by E R A Sewter). You actually get to feel quite close to Anna, writing this book after the deaths of her father and her beloved Caesar, in a convent where she was kept out of the way to prevent her meddling in state affairs. As I said, she did not like her brother and was involved on some minor plots against him; he quite rightly kept her out of the way!

I think the book is best left until you have a broad understanding of the general sweep of Byzantine history (read John Julius Norwich’s three volume “Byzantium”  – he also produced a single volume A Short History of Byzantium
due to demand). But if you want to develop a more detailed understanding of the day to day pressures and tribulations of the Empire in the late-Eleventh Century, or to understand how the First Crusade was received as it moved eastwards, then this is the book for you. On the other hand, it also shows that love by daughters for their fathers has not changed much over the last one thousand years!

Buy the books!

The Alexiad (Penguin Classics)

A Short History of Byzantium

Byzantium: v. 1: The Early Centuries: The Early Centuries v. 1

Byzantium: v. 2: The Apogee: The Apogee v. 2

Byzantium: The Decline and Fall v. 3

About proverbs6to10

Interested in Byzantium and Patrick Leigh Fermor
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4 Responses to Anna Comnena’s “The Alexiad”

  1. Pingback: Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades by Jonathan Phillips « Byzantine Blog

  2. janmop3 says:

    Can anyone tell me why Anna called her book ” The Alexiad ” ?

  3. proverbs6to10 says:

    Her father was the Emperor Alexius and it is mostly about him. Think Aeniad etc. That is my view.

  4. janmop3 says:

    Many thanks. I couldn’t get beyond the Iliad connection, maybe because of the spelling difference — the Aeneid.

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