Friday, March 6, 2015

The Alexiad of Anna Comnena

Before we get on with the review here, I'd like to take a moment to congratulate Emily H, the winner of the Pendragon's Heir ebook giveaway! I'll be sending Emily her advance copy of Pendragon's Heir soon. For those of you who didn't win, the release date of March 26th is only three weeks away! It will be accompanied by much celebration, including a round of features and guest posts with fellow authors and bibliophiles. What fun!

And on to the review!

As regular readers of my blog are no doubt aware, I've lately been doing some reading in Byzantine history. Most recently I read a primary source--that's historian-speak for an account written by someone living during the time period he describes--by Anna Comnena, the eldest daughter of the emperor Alexius I Comnenus, who wrote in the early 1100s.

I first heard of Anna when I read a young-adult novel on holiday at a friend's place, Anna of Byzantium. This fictionalised account of Anna's life depicted her as a haughty and embittered woman, and centered around her plot to assassinate her younger brother John (later known as John the Beautiful, one of the most able and pious of the Byzantine Emperors) at their father's funeral. Needless to say, I came away from that book with a hearty contempt for its heroine. However, I did learn some of the salient features of Anna's life, including the fact that she wrote an important history of her father's life and witnessed the passage of the First Crusaders through Constantinople on their way to the Holy Land.

Consequently, when I decided to research the Crusades in a bit more depth, I was thrilled to pick up a secondhand copy of ERA Sewter's translation of the Alexiad. Deciding to write a novella set in medieval Byzantium, The Prince of Fishes, kicked this primary source a few more notches up my to-read list. The reason for this is that I consider it impossible to write historical fiction without having read at least some primary sources. Without immersing oneself in primary sources (fiction and poetry for preference, but history was all I had at this time), it is impossible to truly grasp the character, mindset, worldview, concerns, philosophies, and general overall mood of a culture. I was unable to give myself a thoroughly good grounding in Byzantine literature, but I had Anna Comnena to hand, and reading the story of her father's reign was an excellent place to start.

The book, which comes structured into fifteen "books" like most ancient histories, begins roughly in 1070 with the boyhood of its hero, Alexius Comnenus, when at fourteen years of age or thereabouts he began his distinguished military career. By the time he rose to the throne, in a coup against the emperor Nicephorus III Botanietes in 1081, the Eastern Empire was still reeling under the disaster of the Turkish victory at the battle of Manzikert in 1071 and the Turks had successfully occupied most of Asia Minor, including the legendary Christian city of Nicaea just across the Marmara from Constantinople. The first challenge facing Alexius when he took the purple, however, came from the west. Roger Guiscard, the Norman king of Sicily, had crossed the Adriatic with the intention of invading and conquering the Empire. He was accompanied by his son Bohemund, an able military commander.

This sets the stage for two struggles which will characterise the rest of Alexius's reign and, indeed, the rest of Byzantine history. After with difficulty repelling two Norman (or "Keltic") and a Pecheneg (or "Scythian") invasions, Alexius turns his attention to the East, where the Turks are pressing into the south-western coasts of Asia Minor, conquering cities with famous names and long Christian histories--Ephesus, Smyrna, Philadelphia. Anna depicts Alexius acting with all the considerable wile and cunning of Roman diplomacy, but does not admit to Alexius's call for help from the West. She does, however, provide an excellent Byzantine perspective on the passage of the First Crusaders through the imperial dominions--the wait at Constantinople, the friendship forged with Raymond of Toulouse ("Isangeles", or Saint-Gilles), of whom it is said that "whatever the circumstances, he honoured truth above all else," and the Roman distrust of Bohemund, who "inherited perjury and guile from his ancestors". With the aid of the "Kelts", Nicaea is regained and Turkish power in Asia Minor is checked, laying a foundation for further victories against the barbarians; but with old enemy Bohemund setting up a principality in Antioch and carving out holdings in Cilicia on the southeastern border of the Empire, the Norman menace continues from a new quarter.

Caught between the unsleeping threat of Turkish expansion in the east, the ambitions of Bohemund in the west and south, and heresies, intrigues, and assassination attempts at home, Alexius Comnenus emerges even from his daughter's fulsome praise as an unusually wily, capable and magnanimous emperor.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Anna writes well, in a style full of vigour and peppered with classical quotations and allusions (especially from Homer, since she saw herself as writing a new Iliad) to show off her no doubt formidable learning. Her battle scenes are particularly enjoyable: she writes with a keen eye for technological and strategic detail, and never omits a chance to include the tales of peril told by the high-born soldiers when they came home from war--the kind of thing I assumed was only ever made up by Hollywood filmmakers to add a bit of romance to ugly fact. Yet, the Alexiad is full of stories like this (which I have edited ruthlessly for length):
Robert then despatched all his fit men in pursuit of Alexius, while he himself stayed there, gloating over the imminent capture of his enemy. His men pursued Alexius with great determination. The situation was as follows: below there flows the River Charzanes; on the other side was a high overhanging rock. The pursuers caught up with him between these two. They struck at him on the left side with their spears and forced him to the right. No doubt he would have fallen, had not the sword which he grasped in his right hand rested firmly on the ground. What is more, the spur tip on his left foot caught in the edge of the saddle-cloth and this made him less liable to fall. He grabbed the horse's mane with his left hand and pulled himself up. It was no doubt some divine power that saved him from his enemies in an unexpected way, for it caused other Kelts to aim their spears at him from the right. Thus the emperor was kept upright between them. It was at this moment that the horse gave proof of its nobility: he suddenly leapt through the air and landed on top of the rock I mentioned before as if he he had been raised on wings. Some of the barbarians' spears, striking at empty air, fell from their hands; others, which had pierced the emperor's clothing, remained there and were carried off with the horse when he jumped. Alexius quickly cut away these trailing weapons and contrary to all expectation escaped from his enemies. The Kelts stood open-mouthed.
On this occasion, Alexius was pursued further by his enemies and killed several of them before finally rejoining his fleeing army. It makes for thrilling reading, the more thrilling because true--unless Alexius, and the dozens of other old soldiers whose stories are recorded in Anna's history, were exaggerating their adventures. But even if they were, this seems to have been the kind of thing that everyone could believe happening in war; the stories must have been believable to their hearers.

I have enjoyed many primary sources, but this book was particularly enjoyable. Anna gives her readers a front-row seat to roughly four decades' worth of adventure, military tactics, palace intrigue, diplomatic skullduggery, assassination attempts, and last-minute reprieves--drama, excitement, and tragedy. It's excellent reading.

Her character sketches are fascinating, but unavoidably coloured by her prejudices. Alexius, the hero of this epic, wears the same halo inside the book as he does in the manuscript picture on its front cover, although I admit that if half of his virtues, as Anna describes them, were real, then he must have been a very great and a very good man. With Alexius's nemesis, Bohemund, and the other "Kelts", or Latin Christians, Anna is grudging in her praise and vindictive in her accusations. I lost it completely when she goes overboard in describing their greed by saying that "they would sell their own grandmothers for a song!" (it apparently not being heinous enough that they would sell them for a reasonable market price); and as for Bohemund, "He was the supreme mischief-maker. As for inconstancy, that follows automatically--a trait common to all Latins."

Irene Ducas, Alexius's wife and Anna's mother, receives an extraordinary amount of praise. Anna does not, of course, tell us whether the empress was implicated in the plot to assassinate Anna's brother John; other sources tell us that both women joined to plead with Alexius on his deathbed to make Anna's husband, Nicephorus Bryennius, emperor instead of John. Perhaps it is out of gratitude for her mother's support that Anna is so fulsome in her praise. But on the other hand, Irene appears to have been a fairly remarkable character in her own right: later in Alexius's life, she would travel about with him on campaign, massaging his feet to relieve the pain of his gout and acting as a kind of bodyguard whose constant vigilance was needed to deter assassination attempts. "She was a brave and resolute woman," says Anna. "Like the famous one praised by Solomon in the Book of Proverbs, she displayed no womanly cowardice."

As for her brother John himself, apart from two or three passing mentions, Anna more or less blackballs him from her history. Nor does she spend much time on the prince to whom she was betrothed as a child, Constantine Ducas (son of a previous emperor and heir presumptive until his early death), nor on "my Caesar", her husband Nicephorus Bryennius, a high-ranking army officer and historian. But they are acknowledged; John, although co-emperor with his father from a reasonably early age, and presumably present on many of Alexius's later campaigns, hardly rates a mention.

Indeed, apart from Alexius, the person of whose character we get the clearest picture in this history is Anna herself. Historians have been tutting for years over Edward Gibbon's contemptuous dismissal of Anna's history as "betraying in every page the vanity of a female author." I yield to none in my dislike of Gibbon, but I think he's on to something here. The picture I get of Anna is of someone snippy, hoity-toity, sourpussish, superior, and deeply, sadly embittered. She hates stiffly, proudly, and passionately; she loves dutifully, even hysterically, but always with an eye to public opinion. She is, above anything else, rather painfully self-conscious, jealous of her reputation as a princess and a historian, perhaps motivated by a desire to vindicate herself, at the end of a disappointed life, as the most dutiful and loving of her famous father's children. Her history finishes with a full-scale emotional meltdown bewailing her father's death in 1118, her mother's death in 1123, and her husband's death in 1137; she says that "the grief caused by these events would have sufficed to wear me out, body and soul, but now, like rivers flowing down from high mountains, the streams of adversity united in one torrent flood my house."

Yet, as the translator remarks dryly in a footnote, "One could hardly regard three such bereavements in the course of some twenty years as a crushing blow."

Generally speaking, however, despite (or perhaps because of) the author's idiosyncracies, the Alexiad of Anna Comnena was an intensely enjoyable read: more human, more immediate, more passionate than any modern-day account. Excellent stuff.

Find The Alexiad on Amazon, The Book Depository, or the Internet History Sourcebook.


Jamie W. said...

I'm studying this time period in history (which at the moment consists of reading Gibbon and trying not to yell at the book). I hadn't planned to read Anna Comnena, but she sounds like a very interesting, very Byzantine author. Maybe I can squeeze her in.
Thanks for the great review!

Kim Marsh said...

Thanks for the review I am ashamed to say that I haven't read this.despite meaning to for forty years or more! Again I would recommend JJNorwich The Normans in the South as the preceding years of Norman aggression are the probable cause of Alexius' distrust of the crusaders. On another matter I cannot find Pendragon's Heir on Amazon although you other books are there.
Regards Kim.

Suzannah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Suzannah said...

Jamie--it's an excellent read. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Kim--glad you enjoyed the review. Pendragon's Heir still has another week and a half to go till its release date on March 26, and I've had a bit of a delay getting it up for pre-order on Amazon. I hope to have that resolved by the end of the week :).

Kim Marsh said...

Thank you. K


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