Friday, 8 December 2017

Review: The Alexiad, by Anna Komnene

The edition I read was a Penguin Classics version, translated from Greek by ERA Sewter and revised with notes and an introduction by Peter Frankopan.

It’s a biography of the Alexius Komnenos, ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire and widely regarded as one of its best emperors. The history is written by his daughter Anna Komnene, and I think it’s the first history penned by a woman, certainly in Europe.

The biography doesn’t cover the entirety of Alexius’ life, beginning in the late 11th century with Alexius as a senior officer in the Roman army. From this point it describes him fighting rebels and himself rebelling (ostensibly to save his own life from potentially fatal court intrigues), becoming emperor and reigning for decades.

This was a particularly important shift for the Empire as it marked a (temporary) end to short-lived and rubbish emperors, with Alexius’ reign also coinciding with Robert Guiscard’s invasion of the Balkans and the First Crusade. Indeed, Alexius appears to have spent more time fighting with the Franks than the Turks.

I like the author’s writing style quite a lot. It’s more personal than most histories for obvious reasons (early on Anna Komnene refers to ‘her father’/‘my father’ an awful lot) but even when talking about others you get a sense of her character. At one point she refers to a man acting like a demi-god towards a demi-ass, and laments the decline in education thus:
‘Today it is the game of draughts that is all the rage – and other activities which contravene the law’

There is a defensive/apologetic note sometimes, with the author keen to stress that she is not biased and is being objective. There is some evidence to bear this out (she does not omit the fact that when Alexius took the throne his army looted much of Byzantium). The apologetic note slightly reminds me of the letter Machiavelli wrote to Lorenzo de Medici ahead of The Prince.

She does, however, have a penchant both for tangents and writing things out of order. Because of this, the notes are more useful in this history than perhaps any other, clarifying dates and suggesting when the author may be mistaken.

That personal aspect lends added poignancy to the description of her father’s demise which, dealing with a universal part of life, is as emotive today as it would have been when it was written nine centuries ago.

Things I dislike are relatively few. As always, endnotes are inferior to footnotes, and the translation includes a pet hate: the ‘firing’ of arrows. There are not many lacunas, save for the final few pages where they pepper the page and occasionally make it tricky to determine the meaning.

Probably clear at this point that I liked The Alexiad rather a lot. I’ve read a small number of other books that cover the period in less detail (John Julius Norwich’s excellent trilogy on Byzantium, and I’ve read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but can’t remember if he skipped Alexius [I think he covered the Komneni]). That extra context is useful but not essential for understanding the strategically difficult position the Empire was in, and the achievement of Alexius in restoring stability, prosperity and (mostly) victory to the ailing Empire.

The biography is strongly focused, as you would expect, upon the person and successes of Alexius, so other reading is not essential, and The Alexiad is well worth reading on its own.


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