By Leonora Neville
Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, Vol.52:1 (2013)
Introduction: One of the most commonly read and widely available Byzantine histories is the Alexiad, a history of the emperor Alexios Komnenos, who ruled 1081–1118, by his daughter Anna Komnene (1083–1153). Anna’s first-hand descriptions of the passage of the First Crusade are frequently excerpted as expressing a paradigmatic ‘Byzantine view’ of the crusades. Although it is perhaps the most frequently read medieval Byzantine text, it is far from typical of Byzantine histories. Anna’s work is invariably called a history and she describes herself explicitly as writing a history. Yet in its title, Alexiad, and frequent Homeric vocabulary and imagery, it brings the archaic epics to mind. The characterization of Alexios as a wily sea captain steering the empire through constant storms with guile and courage strongly recalls Odysseus. Both in its epic cast and in other factors discussed below, Anna did not adhere strictly to the rules of writing history and rather seems to have played with the boundaries of the genre. The Alexiad is hence an unusual work that defies the expectations of readers who anticipate another volume in the tradition of classicizing Greek prose historiography. This genre did well in the middle Byzantine period, and both medieval and modern readers could easily develop a sense of what was normal for a history in that era. Unsurprisingly therefore, not all readers have liked the Alexiad. Its uneasy fit with its genre can cause discomfort when Anna’s departures from normative style are perceived as ‘mistakes’.
The twelfth century was a time of considerable literary experimentation in which the boundaries of genres were sometimes blurred, if not deliberately crossed. Constantine Manasses’ verse chronicle of world history is a case in point. Homer and classical authors were the subject of intensified study as more kinds of classical literature came to be more widely read. As interest in classical forms grew, new texts were written that masqueraded as ancient novels while offering commentary on twelfth-century rituals and culture. Satire enjoyed a revival and mock-epic poked fun at the pretensions of this Homer-venerating society Despite its composition in this era of literary experimentation, the Alexiad has been overwhelmingly approached as a straightforward work of history, in part because its richly detailed narrations of past events provide a wealth of information for historians. Since nearly all of the Alexiad consists in ostensibly accurate descriptions of events— and since those events are of particular interest to historians—it has been natural to read the Alexiad as a history, albeit an odd history. Examining aspects of the Alexiad that seem uncharacteristic of most Greek history writing can help situate the text more firmly within its cultural context.