Byzantine Laments

Barbara Newman

  • Anna Komnene: The Life and Work of a Medieval Historian by Leonora Neville
    Oxford, 240 pp, £41.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 19 049817 7

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland finds history tiresome because it’s peopled with ‘men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all’. From antiquity until as late as the 1970s, most history was written by men, for men, about men. Its pages seldom noted women’s doings, and they were even more rarely its authors. In the medieval West, a few women wrote lyrics and religious texts; they did not write history. Only two exceptions come to mind. The tenth-century poet Hrotsvit of Gandersheim composed an epic on the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, and five centuries later Christine de Pizan wrote a biography of Charles V of France.

Byzantium also produced a female historian, Anna Komnene (1083-c.1155). Her Alexiad, with its deliberately epic title, is considered an invaluable source for the reign of her father, Emperor Alexios Komnenos. Like most Byzantine histories, it is a tale of wars, conspiracies and heresies. Anna could describe a battle as vividly or refute a heretic as scornfully as any of her male peers. Western historians prize her account of the First Crusade, the only eyewitness view from Byzantium, in which she portrays the Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard and his son Bohemond with horrified fascination. In a period that witnessed the gradual loss of Asia Minor to the Turks, the emergence of Venice and Pisa as maritime powers and the formulation of holy war ideologies in western Christendom and Islam, our knowledge of the Byzantine response to these changes comes largely from the Alexiad. Like all histories, it has its gaps and silences, but also its odd inclusions, such as an excursus on Aristotelian philosophers in the capital. Anna herself would commission the first commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics.

The Alexiad portrays the emperor as the ideal Byzantine ruler, downplaying the military defeats, unpopular economic reforms and concentration of power that caused his reign to be plagued by continual revolt. But despite an obvious partiality for her father, Anna displays shrewd political insight. Some of her material draws on personal experience, since as a young princess she had accompanied the emperor on his campaigns. For the rest, she was able to interview veterans and had access to the imperial archives, from which she cites documentary sources. Though she has been chided for her ‘mummified’ Attic style, Byzantine rhetoric was always classicising, and Anna’s is no exception.

Like almost all premodern texts by women, the Alexiad’s authorship has not gone unchallenged. One historian ascribed it to Anna’s husband, Nikephoros Bryennios, who died before he could bring his unfinished history up to Alexios’s reign. Most Byzantinists, however, have accepted her authorship while punishing her for her transgression. A lurid tale, dating back to Edward Gibbon in 1788, has it that she herself aspired to the throne and, ‘stimulated by ambition and revenge’, plotted to murder her brother John in order to seize it. When her plans were foiled, the guilty princess tried to console herself with writing, but her history ‘betrays in every page the vanity of a female author’ (male authors apparently being exempt from that vice). Subsequent historians added details, positing that Anna nursed a lifelong hatred of her brother, conspired against him with her mother and a faction of clerics, and ended her life imprisoned in a monastery, where she whiled away the years in deepening bitterness. Charles Diehl’s influential account, Figures Byzantines, first published in 1906 and never out of print, charges her with ‘the fury of Medea’. Anna refused to accept John’s forgiveness, Diehl confidently remarks, though the prince had hoped ‘by this chivalrous magnanimity to awaken some remorse in her troubled soul’. So deeply ingrained is the narrative of Anna’s treason that, although it hangs by the slenderest thread, no Byzantinist until now has dared to challenge it. In her courageous revisionist history, Leonora Neville finally does so.

What contemporary sources reveal is only that a cloud hung over John’s succession in 1118, which should have been uncomplicated because he was Alexios’s eldest son. It appears that John had himself proclaimed emperor before his father actually died, and that his mother, the Empress Eirene, may have preferred Anna’s husband to her own son. But no suggestion of a plot against John surfaces before the account of Niketas Choniates, who was born around the time Anna died. Choniates admits that, having poor sources, he relied on hearsay for the early part of his history. Writing in exile after the fall of Constantinople in 1204, he blamed that catastrophe on the Komnenos dynasty and, Neville argues, went out of his way to portray them as a dysfunctional family whose disorder led the empire to its doom. In his telling, the succession crisis of 1118 becomes a tragic drama pitting wife against husband, sister against brother, father against son, in which gender roles are shamefully inverted. Choniates also describes a sketchy plot against John: the partisans support Bryennios but, held back by ‘his sluggish and flaccid custom’, he refuses to kill the emperor. Anna, infuriated by her husband’s lack of virility, rages like Lady Macbeth, fuming that she should have been the man and he the woman. On this scurrilous tale, invented almost ninety years after the events it purports to relate, rests the legend of Anna’s treason.

In fairness to Byzantinists, scheming empresses weren’t rare: murder and revolt were common means of achieving the throne. Alexios himself attained it by overthrowing his predecessor; it was the peaceful succession of his son that was atypical. There is little reason even so to think Anna guilty of Choniates’s charges, much less of those elaborated later on. Neville observes that in the 18th century, when the tale of attempted fratricide took shape, historians were less sensitive to the rhetorical strategies of their sources. In Anna’s case, however, the problem was not that Gibbon, Diehl and the rest failed to note Choniates’s bias, but rather that they shared it. A woman so intrepid as to write history, that most masculine of genres, must have been power-hungry enough to wish, as Choniates claims, that she had ‘the long member and the balls’. Paraphrasing the words he put in her mouth, modern historians took them not only as fact but as the key to her character. In fact Anna had anticipated these slanders and went to great lengths to disarm them in advance. But, while her rhetoric might have worked with her peers, it was misunderstood by historians writing centuries later. Instead of winning sympathy as she had intended, the strategies she used to deflate the appearance of pride only made her seem bitter, overwrought and self-contradictory.

Constructions of gender in antiquity have long been studied. But the subject is relatively new to Byzantine history and enables a fresh understanding of Anna’s more puzzling strategies. Modesty and seclusion remained central to the feminine ideal, as they had been in classical Greece; a good woman was rarely seen and more rarely heard. One of the few speaking roles permitted her was lamentation, for women mourned in both Attic tragedy and Orthodox liturgy. Knowing that her contemporaries might consider a princess who wrote history as being unacceptably masculine, Anna compensates by ‘performing the feminine’ to show that, despite the anomaly of her authorship, she remains a modest woman. Whenever she makes a self-authorising gesture to enhance her credibility, such as citing her classical education or acquaintance with reliable sources, she neutralises it by adopting a feminine posture of mourning. Although her laments occupy a tiny proportion of the Alexiad, they stand out by virtue of their emotional intensity, another feminine trait. Anna bewails the deaths of her childhood fiancé, her brother Andronikos, her husband, and above all her father, whose demise ends the narrative. By the canons of Byzantine rhetoric, Neville explains, such expressions of mourning evoked an audience’s pity, serving as a captatio benevolentiae. But for modern historians, Anna’s histrionic grief for a father who had died thirty years earlier seemed so excessive that they sought a different explanation for her ‘bitterness’ – and hit on disappointed ambition. (Her French contemporary Héloïse also excelled at lamenting her woes and was no less misunderstood.)

The conflict between history-writing and feminine meekness wasn’t the only dilemma that constrained Anna’s project. In order to show herself a good daughter she had to demonstrate loyalty to her parents, yet to prove herself an unbiased historian she had to criticise her father when his actions deserved it. As a virtuous woman, she couldn’t leave home except in dire necessity, yet as a historian, she needed access to sources, especially soldiers who had fought in key battles. But conversation with men not related to her infringed a modesty taboo, posing yet another hurdle. In short, Anna had ‘to build an authorial persona that, on the one hand, was strong, impartial, intellectual, accurate, driven by research, trustworthy and authoritative, and on the other, female, modest, devoted and humble’. Under the circumstances, it’s astonishing that she succeeded at all. Yet her efforts to prove herself both a good woman and a good historian have led generations of Byzantinists to paint her as a fratricidal traitor.

It is now thirty years since the American Historical Review published Joan Scott’s article ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’. There she remarked that ‘because, on the face of it, war, diplomacy and high politics have not been explicitly about [gendered] relationships, gender seems not to apply and so continues to be irrelevant to the thinking of historians.’ Beliefs about gender and history have changed more rapidly since 1986 than they did between Anna Komnene in 1150 and Charles Diehl in 1900. A princess who presumed to write military history, Anna has long remained a baffling, anomalous figure. It is only now, with the creation of greater ‘analytic distance between the seemingly fixed language of the past and our own terminology’ (in Scott’s words), that her valour, as well as her vulnerability, comes into clear focus.