Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Byzantine Princess

Anna Comnena in Byzantine mosaic
Anna Comnena (1083-1153) was the daughter of an emperor (Alexios I), the wife of a Caesar, and the mother of a Grand Duke. For many princesses in history, that would have been a sufficient claim to fame. For Anna, however, these were merely incidental facets of her life; she was so much more than a link in a dynastic chain.

For one thing, like most Byzantine royal children, she was well-educated in history and literature, rhetoric and the sciences such as astronomy and math. Medicine was to become her specialty, however: her father established a hospital in Constantinople where taught medicine and treated patients, including her father in his final days. Her fame was known to Sir Walter Scott, who said of her:
During his latter days, the Emperor was greatly afflicted with gout, the nature of which has exercised the wit of many persons of science as well as of Anna Comnena. The poor patient was so much exhausted that, when the Empress was talking of most eloquent persons who should assist in the composition of his history, he said, with a natural contempt of such vanities, 'The passages of my unhappy life call rather for tears and lamentation than for the praises you speak of.' [Sir Robert of Paris]
Whether we can trust Scott's characterization of the Emperor's attitude toward his biography—and whatever her reputation for medicine—what is true is that Anna is best known to us for a fifteen-volume history of her times. True, it was begun by her husband, Nicephorus Bryennius, who was calling it Materials for History, but Anna turned it into an encomium for her father and his ancestors and finished it (as it has come down to us in history) as The Alexiad. Although she was not an eye-witness to much of what she describes, and is surely using hearsay (and filtering through her personal lens that saw her father in a better light), it is still the definitive first-hand work on that period in Byzantine history.

A rare example of political and military history produced by a woman, one of the insights it offers is the Byzantine horror at the masses of Western Europeans come on Crusade to disturb the peace of the Eastern Mediterranean. Although she wrote it ecades after the fact, she would have seen the Latin armies approaching, and watched the siege of Constantinople in 1097, when her husband (at 14, she was already married) defended the walls of the largest city in the world against Godfrey of Bouillon (c.1060-1100), before Godfrey went on to conquer Jerusalem.

She also believed that she should have been empress and tried to make it so, but that's a story or another day.

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