The Byzantines have a well-deserved A+ in
art class, but their written work is a little… ehhh? Thing is, most Byzantine literature reads
like a modern textbook — sure it’s informative, but the writing is drier than chalk-dust,
and it could stand to lose a couple hundred pages. But there’s one defiant Byzantine historian
out there who does something, plot twist, Cool. We’ve already seen narrative history, political
analysis, and epic poetry, but the Byzantine princess Anna Komnena mixed things up by writing
an Epic History, recounting the reign of her father Emperor Alexios Komnenos in the style
of a Homeric poem. And if that wasn’t rad enough already, Anna
Komnena also happens to be the first woman historian. Hell Yeah! So, to see why Anna is such a fascinating
character within Byzantine History, and to understand why her work represents everything
that Byzantine literature could have and should have been, Let’s do some History! In many ways, Anna Komnena was a typical Byzantine
princess. Born in the Purple Room of the royal palace
in Constantinople, she was the eldest daughter of emperor Alexios, and first in line to succeed
him. So her early years saw lots of tutoring and
imperial training, from music and courtly etiquette to theology, medicine, and a smidge
of philosophy. But aside from studying and entertaining the
occasional dignitary, the average young Byzantine royal didn’t really do all that much. However, Anna was not a typical Byzantine
princess, as she was an extraordinary student with a remarkable eye for literature. She regularly hounded her tutors for treatises
on astronomy, military strategy, history, rhetoric, and mathematics, plus any loose
Aristotle within a hundred-mile radius. But for all the schooling her parents gave
her, and believe me, it was probably the best curriculum either side of 500 years, there
was still one more thing she wanted to learn about. Since the Byzantine empire was firmly Christian,
classical literature was taboo to read on account of all the Paganism. Scholars had called it “Dangerous” for
men and “Especially Insidious” for women. As far as Anna was concerned, those were wimpy
excuses for dumb quitters, so she snuck copies of Homer’s epics out of the imperial library
and read them in secret. You go, Anna. Even among her, let’s say less-than-female-empowering
contemporaries, she was recognized as “devoted to philosophy, the queen of all sciences,
and educated in every field”. But even with the best library in the world
on-tap, Anna made like a Disney Princess and started looking for ways to get out of the
palace — So her father built a 10,000-bed hospital and orphanage specifically so that
Anna could administer it. There she also wrote entire medical treatises,
likely taught some of the doctors at the hospital, and possibly served as a physician herself. We do know that Anna was her father’s primary
caretaker during the last years of his reign, so she clearly got the practice somewhere. So it’s no secret that Anna Komnena was
a genius polymath, no sweat, but the other reason she’s a unique princess is because
her father was a unique emperor. Alexios I came to power at… a bad time,
to put it mildly. The Byzantines had lost a casual half of their
empire a decade earlier, and the ensuing civil wars were, less than fun. In the mid 1070s, Alexios was a general in
the Byzantine army, playing whack-a-traitor against an array of rebelling governors and
mercenaries in Greece. Meanwhile in Constantinople, Alexios’ mother
Anna Dalassene was playing politics to convince the aristocrats that Alexios was the Kataphrakt’s
Pajamas, and should totally be the next emperor. With a silver tongue and an improbable amount
of Nat-20s on her persuasion checks, she bought Alexios the time and resources he needed to
schwoop right onto the Imperial throne. Good work team! From there, Alexios began arguably the hardest
of hard-carries in Byzantine history — with enemies clawing at every border, half of the
empire gone, potential usurpers behind every corner, and a treasury collecting cobwebs,
Alexios’ restoration of Byzantine stability and prosperity over his 37-year reign was
borderline miraculous. Under Alexios, the empire campaigned tirelessly
against invading Normans, Turks, Pechenegs. So far from a quiet upbringing in a chilled-out
Constantinople, Anna’s early years were set against a backdrop of constant political
chaos, and during her father’s reign, she would prove extremely attentive to the imperial
goings-on. But despite all the wars and chaos, the most
significant challenge to Anna’s ambitions would come from her younger brother. In 1092, John Komnenos was designated by Alexios
as the imperial heir, bumping Anna right out of the succession. This understandably made Anna feel quite cheated
out of her imperial birthright. During Alexios’ last years, Anna and her
mom Irene tried to persuade him not to hand John the crown, but Alexios wouldn’t budge. Supposedly, Anna was planning to assassinate
John and throw a coup, but her mother and her husband Nicephorus were too skittish to
go along — which doesn’t even make sense to me. You’re a Byzantine Royal, if you don’t
have the spine for a little coup d’état what are you even doing here? Ugh, anyway, Anna was found out, and swiftly
banished from the palace. When Anna’s husband died two decades later,
John confined her to the Kecharitomene monastery in Constantinople. There, Anna spent the last 35 years of her
life with her library and her mind, dutifully composing what would become the masterwork
of her whole empire: The Alexiad. This book is so impressive because it’s
not only a detailed account of Alexios’ reign, which is already one of the most complex
periods in Byzantine history, but it’s also an entire epic poem. She wrote beautifully in the Attic dialect
of Ancient Greek, and never misses an opportunity to slip in a casual 1500-year-old reference
to someone like Sophocles or Thucydides. As an example, just listen to the first paragraph
of the prologue, where she describes the extremely simple concept of “people forget things
when time passes” — “Time, which flies irresistibly and perpetually, sweeps up and
carries away with it everything that has seen the light of day and plunges it into utter
darkness, whether deeds of no significance or those that are mighty and worthy of commemoration
— then a quick Sophocles quote — Nevertheless, the science of History is a great bulwark
against this stream of time; in a way it checks this irresistible flood, it holds in a tight
grasp whatever it can seize floating on the surface and will not allow it to slip away
into the depths of oblivion.” Then she gives her literary resume, in which
she quantifies reading all of Aristotle and Plato as “some acquaintance with literature”. SO, safe to say the princess knew her way
around a quill. At the risk of turning this video into a Komnena-Quote-Fest,
I’m gonna pivot off the epic writing style, but rest assured that all the history in this
book reads like silk. The other of Anna’s defining characteristics
is her perspective. It’s as far from a dry, detached look at
history as can be, because she was there when a lot of this stuff was going down. She was a teenager during the first crusade! She describes meeting with the kings of Europe,
she describes how she was not impressed. And when Anna isn’t working from her own
experience in the royal court, she had access to prior historical works, official reports,
treaties and archived documents, eye-witness accounts from battles, recorded speeches,
plus the emperor’s own recollection. Very few Byzantine historians could boast
a bibliography that stacked. Okay, now, let’s look at what Anna actually
recounts in her Alexiad. The work is split into 15 books, plus a preface. 1-3 describe Alexios during the revolts and
civil wars, from his time as a general up through his ascension to the throne. After his coronation, Books 4-9 are damage
control, as Alexios wages wars against the invading Normans to the west, Pechenegs to
the north, and Seljuk Turks to the east. But then just as things are starting to calm
down, the pious armies of Europe arrive to save the day, and by that I mean the bandit
hordes take two steps into an empire that’s shinier than theirs and immediately started
stealing things. As you might have guessed, Books 10 and 11
are about the Crusades! After dodging that two-ton wrecking ball,
books 12-14 describe even more conflicts with Normans and other assorted enemies. And finally, book 15 wraps the tale with a
sorrowful account of Alexios’ death and Anna’s grief. Anna’s monumental devotion to her father,
for all that tragic pathos, is also where the Alexiad runs into trouble. On a purely factual level, Anna misplaces
some dates and whiffs a battle here and there, but Anna is most consistently criticized for
her nearly spotless praise of her father. And since the Alexiad leans more toward the
first portion of Alexios’ reign, we’re left wondering if maybe the second half wasn’t
as great a time? And those are valid points! It’s important to recognize source bias
in any historical document, but it’s also good to understand what we can gain by a fundamentally
biased account. Anna gives us a vivid and rare picture of
the Byzantine world from a Royal perspective, and she helps us read her work critically
because she doesn’t mince words. She thought her dad was the coolest dude,
and she thought the Europeans were a bunch of gold-hungry morons. And, I mean, come on, her representative sample
size was the crusaders, of COURSE she thought the Byzantines were better in literally every
way. Now for some scholars, this all raises the
question of whether the Alexiad is more a piece of literature or more of a history. But I’d say that balance is exactly what
makes Anna’s work so special! Despite the vast literary catalogue of medieval
and classical Greece available on tap, Byzantine authors weren’t being particularly inventive
with any of it. So in an empire where history was plain and
literature was longwinded, Anna flipped the script by taking the best of both, combining
the personal significance of History and the elegant stylings of epic poetry into something
wildly new but still distinctly Byzantine. Anna’s account of Alexios evokes the image
of a classical epic hero while seamlessly pulling tropes from Greek Hagiography to paint
Alexios as a pious and saintly emperor. The Alexiad is so darn cool because it builds
on so many wildly diverse aspects of Greek writing across the entire 2000-year span. So that’s what I mean when I say that this
is what Byzantine literature could have and should have been. It’s okay though, as we’ve seen before
and will see again, this is hardly the most tragic screwup in Byzantine history. That honor would go to Byzantine History. But even if the Alexiad is a lone triumph
in a sea of medieval meh, Anna undeniably earned her place alongside Greece’s greatest
writers. And not to hammer the point too finely, but
Greek literature is a sausagefest, so Anna Komnena is clearly an odd one out here. In celebrating her as the first woman historian,
it’s important that to recognize how hard she worked to get her education, as well as
why she only wrote the Alexiad because she got screwed out of her throne. It’s easy to lessen her story to just “princess
wanted to be empress, failed, got mad, sulked, and wrote a history about it”. And historians like Edward Gibbon have famously
done exactly that, and in case their point wasn’t clear, he made sure to also trash
her as jealous, manic, and full of the female vanity — that’s a quote! Even if we’re not being a colossal knob-end
about it, Anna’s work does have distinctly feminine characteristics, which she openly
acknowledges. Anna’s perspective on history is much more
personal and emotive than the straight-laced works of her all-male peers. Their Man histories for Macho Men were expected
to be Stoic and Aloof because that was the Manly thing to do, so Anna actively leaned
into certain gender conventions in order to break out of restrictive authorial conventions. And so, 2 millennia after Homer and some 1500
years post-Herodotus, Greece got its first epic poet historian in Anna Komnena. Step up your game, boys. Thank you all so much for watching, and also
happy start-of-women’s-history-month! If you’re looking to celebrate, what better
way than to read the Alexiad? Learn a bit of Byzantine history, recognize
the coolest cat in the empire, what could be better! As always, I want to thank our brilliant and
amazing Patrons, whose names you can see on the screen right now. Red and I know there are a lot of amazing
content creators out there, so we’re very honored that you choose to support us here
at OSP. Thank you lots, and I’ll see you all in
the next video!