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Ekphrasis in the Alexiad

alexiadEkphrasis in the Alexiad

By Niki Touriki

Diogenes, Vol. 1 (2014)

Introduction: The historical text of the Alexiad written by Anna Komnene in the mid-twelfth century constitutes the prime example of history-writing of the Komnenian period. Too much ink has been shed on the encomiastic nature of the work as well as on the author’s literary devices, such as the effective use of gender. Yet the major issue of characterisation still invites attention. The purpose of this paper is to take a fresh look at the main characters’ construction through the rhetorical technique of ekphrasis. We will firstly examine how Anna uses ekphrasis to describe her characters’ appearance. Then I shall argue that this technique fulfills a powerful persuasive role and in the same time it shows off Anna’s artistic skills.

Physical appearance is significant for Anna’s characters since it is the mirror of their ethos. For almost every character, a shorter or longer description is given. The fact that Anna’s favourite people are beautiful can be justified on that her favourite figures represent the best ethos. Thus, the ideal personage combines inner and physical beauty. Men admire beauty whereas for women beauty leads to a good marriage. Beauty is defined by white skin, rosy cheeks, blond hair, symmetry of the body and high stature for men. Eyes have a prominent role, for they convey messages but there is not one colour specified as the favourite. By contrast, unfavourable figures are usually ugly and they are defined by dark skin, a thin beard, short height and asymmetry.

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The technique with which Anna provides elaborate portraits of her main characters is known as ekphrasis. Ekphrasis belongs to progymnasmata, elementary rhetorical school exercises. It could be independent or embedded into a literary work. It could be a praise of a lifeless or a living viewing subject. Anna attains ekphrasis’s goal; she brings her characters ‘ἐναργῶς ὑπ’ὂψιν’ (vividly before the eyes). Because of its encomiastic nature being also named in manuscripts as ‘ἐγκωμιαστική ἒκφρασις’ (eulogizing ekphrasis), its subject is usually beautiful. Seven elaborate ekphrastic descriptions will be my focus; those of Alexios, Eirene, Maria, Konstantinos, Dalassene, Bohemund and Robert Guiscard.

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