Your RDA of Irony

A Frustrated Princess Makes A Great Historian

Of course, the Emperor Alexius I would have preferred a son. But, knowing Byzantine women, he had no doubt that his infant daughter Anna would have a natural affinity for power. Yes, she would need a husband for propriety’s sake, but she would be perfectly capable of ruling through her hapless mate. So Anna Comnena, born December 1st in 1083, received the education and attitudes of an empress. By the time she was four, the princess knew her place in the world–at its apex.

But then the future Empress was undone by an act of treachery: the arrival of a little brother. Through the accident of gender, this unaccomplished infant replaced Anna as the heir to the Empire. Worse, this usurper had the further effrontery to survive the usual childhood diseases; Prince John grew to become a pleasant, dutiful if bland young man. There was nothing about him his sister could slander. Nonetheless, having a Byzantine aptitude for conspiracy, Anna did her best to disinherit her brother. The women in the royal family, including the Empress, sided with the dynamic Anna over the dull John. However, the Emperor Alexis had the final word and it was on his death bed in 1118. While his imminent widow and indignant daughter begged that the throne pass to Anna, the dying Emperor anointed his son.

As the ruler of Byzantium, John had to contend with invading Turks, encroaching Crusaders and a relentless sister; but only one of those three wanted him dead. And Anna wasn’t wasting time. The first assassination attempt was at their father’s funeral, but the Emperor was warned in time. Anna next choreographed a coup and murder at the summer palace. The conspirators assembled there, awaiting a signal from Anna’s husband. (Yes, Anna succumbed to that social expectation.) However, her husband decided that he actually liked the Emperor–certainly less frightening than Anna–and foiled the plot.

Something had to be done about Anna; she was impossible to ignore. The Emperor would have been entitled to execute his sister or at least subject her to the mutilations that were a Byzantine specialty. (Eyes, nose, tongue–when you lost face in Constantinople, it was literal.) But drab John also was remarkably merciful. He was content to have Anna banished to a comfortable convent for the rest of her life. Of course, John also knew that a sedentary existence would be the ultimate torture for his dynamic sibling.

She would spend her remaining 35 years in that convent: from 1118 to 1153.  But if Anna was banished from the Court, the politics and the glory, she found a way to relive it all. In fact, she attained a greatness that she might never have achieved on the throne. In her confinement, Anna wrote the definitive history of her era: “The Alexiad.” The chronicle of her father’s reign, it relates the history of the Byzantine Empire and the First Crusade from the unique and invaluable perspective of a member of the imperial family. Her account of the Crusaders is especially edifying. Through Anna, we know the Byzantine reaction and attitude to their dismaying and quite unwelcome allies: the Crusaders were more barbaric than the Turks and just as dangerous.

But it is Anna’s personal anecdotes and insights that distinguishes “The Alexiad” among histories of the period. The young princess saw, heard and all-too-often smelled the leading figures of the Western armies as they passed through Constantinople and imposed themselves on the Byzantine Court. Even after the passing of decades, the middle-aged writer still nursed a teenage crush on one of those fascinating barbarians: the tall, handsome and dangerous Bohemund of Southern Italy…”He had about him a certain charm…there was a hard, savage quality in his aspect–owing I suppose to his great stature and to his eyes: even his laugh sounded like a threat to others.

(That was written eight centuries before Judith Krantz and Barbara Steele. No, the rest of “The Alexiad” is not as racy; otherwise, it would have been made into a movie by now.)

If Anna had become Empress, she would have been just a medieval Arianna Huffington. They were common enough in Byzantine history. In failing, however, Anna attained a greatness that eclipses her brother’s claim in history. Yes, he was the Emperor–and a good one–but he is best remembered for being the brother of Anna Comnena.

  1. Michael says:

    …”He had about him a certain charm…there was a hard, savage quality in his aspect–owing I suppose to his great stature and to his eyes: even his laugh sounded like a threat to others.”

    (That was written 8 centuries before Judith Krantz and Barbara Steele.

    The purple prose is perhaps attributable to Anna being Porphyrogenita.

  2. Michael,

    I wish that I had said that!


  3. Peggles says:

    What? No heaving bosoms?

  4. Peg,

    Yes, but unfortunately only on the court eunuchs.


  5. Joan Stewart Smith says:

    35 years in a convent? No surprise that Anna had a few fantasies about ” the tall, handsome and dangerous Bohemund …”!

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