The princess who rewrote history by Leonora Neville (TED ed). Alexios Komnenos, Byzantine emperor, led his army to meet the Scythian hordes in battle.
For good luck, he carried one of the holiest relics in Christendom: the veil that had belonged to the Virgin Mary. Unfortunately, it didn’t help. Not only was his army defeated, but as they fled, the Emperor was stabbed in the buttocks. To make matters worse, a strong wind made the relic too heavy to carry, so he stashed it in some bushes as he escaped.
But even as he fled, he managed to slay some Scythians and rescue a few comrades. At least, this is how Alexios’ daughter Anna recounted the story, writing nearly 60 years later. She spent the last decade of her long life creating a 500-page history of her father’s reign called The Alexiad. Written in Greek, the book was modeled after ancient Greek epics and historical writings.
But Anna had a different, trickier task than the writers in these traditions: as a princess writing about her own family, she had to balance her loyalty to her kin with her obligation to portray events accurately, navigating issues like Alexios’s embarrassing stab to the buttocks. A lifetime of study and participation in her father’s government prepared Anna for this undertaking.
Anna was born in 1083, shortly after her father seized control of the Roman Empire following a decade of brutal civil wars and revolts. The empire was deep in decline when he came to power, and threatened from all sides: by the Seljuk Turks in the East, the Normans in the West, and Scythian raiders to the north.
Over the course of Anna’s childhood and adolescence, Alexios fought constant military campaigns to secure the frontiers of his empire, even striking up an uneasy alliance with the Crusaders. Meanwhile in Constantinople, Anna fought her own battle. She was expected to study subjects considered proper for a Byzantine princess, like courtly etiquette and the Bible, but preferred classical myth and philosophy.
To access this material, she had to learn to read and speak Ancient Greek, by studying secretly at night. Eventually her parents realized how serious she was, and provided her with tutors. Anna expanded her studies to classical literature, rhetoric, history, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.
One scholar even complained that her constant requests for more Aristotle commentaries were wearing out his eyes. At age fifteen, Anna married Nikephoros Bryennios to quell old conflicts between their families and strengthen Alexios’s reign.
Fortunately, Anna and Nikephoros ended up sharing many intellectual interests, hosting and debating the leading scholars of the day. Meanwhile, Alexios’s military excursions began to pay off, restoring many of the empire’s former territories. As her father aged, Anna and her husband helped her parents with their imperial duties.
During this time, Anna reportedly advocated for just treatment of the people in their disputes with the government. After Alexios’s death, Anna’s brother John ascended to the throne and Anna turned back to philosophy and scholarship. Her husband had written a history arguing that his grandfather would have made a better emperor than Alexios, but Anna disagreed.
She began working on the Alexiad, which made the case for her father’s merits as emperor. Spanning the late 11th and early 12th centuries of Byzantine history, the Alexiad recounts the tumultuous events of Alexios’s reign, and Anna’s own reactions to those events, like bursting into tears at the thought of the deaths of her parents and husband.
She may have included these emotional passages in hopes that they would make her writing more palatable to a society that believed women shouldn’t write about battles and empires. While her loyalty to her father was evident in her favorable account of his reign, she also included criticism and her opinions of events.
In the centuries after her death, Anna’s Alexiad was copied over and over, and remains an invaluable eyewitness account of Alexios’s reign today. And through her epic historical narrative, Anna Komnene secured her own place in history.
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Credit: Leonora Neville