Anna Comnena, a very biased biographer

Aug 2013
956
Italy
#1
Princess Anna Comnena was an exceptionally ambitious, extremely opinionated female practically from the time she was "born in the purple" in Constantinople. Daughter of Alexios I Comnenos, founder of the dynasty, Anna believed from the very start that she...in spite of not being male...was the rightful heir to the throne of Byzantium. During all of her youth, she strove to cajole and persuade her doting father to name her as official heir. Alexios admired his daughter's intelligence, high spirits and energy; he felt that she would have made a fine ruler; but there was a little prince to consider, his son John, who according to the norms of succession could not simply be overlooked as heir. When Alexios finally decided to name John as his successor, Anna was outraged. She spent the rest of her life opposing her younger brother and endeavouring to defame him, especially after he became Emperor.

If Anna Comnena's "Alexiad" is mostly considered to be a biographical glorification of her father, whitewashing all of his many faults, it should also be seen as an acidy, unfairly biased calumny against the brother whom she considered to have stolen "her birthright", that is, the Byzantine crown.

Anna had organized a military conspiracy against John; she had desired the Emperor's death; this was high treason, and according to Byzantine standards of justice, she could have expected nothing but public disgrace and execution. In spite of this, John Comnenus...a far nobler man than Anna's slanderous writings would lead us to suspect...deigned to forgive and spare her, sending her to a pleasant convent where she could spend the rest of her life. In peace? Anna was too embittered to find peace. Until her death she continued to spew out venom against the brother who had been so tolerant and merciful to her.
 
Aug 2013
956
Italy
#3
She had the hots for Bohemond, that's for sure...
Anna was a passionate woman with the soul of a man. She was married to a very handsome but meek,weak and boring gentleman named Nicephorus. Because he refused to support her in her dynastic ambitions and in her attempt to overthrow Emperor John Comnenus, Anna despised him. She even wrote salaciously to the effect that it was she who possessed the (male) attributes; in her opinion, Nicephorus was as timid and useless as a frightened girl.
 
Jan 2010
4,262
Atlanta, Georgia USA
#4
So I've heard, and so I've never read her. Is there something in her work (for non-specialists in the Byzantine Empire) that makes it worth reading even given the "hagiography"?
 
Aug 2013
956
Italy
#5
So I've heard, and so I've never read her. Is there something in her work (for non-specialists in the Byzantine Empire) that makes it worth reading even given the "hagiography"?
Only the fact that her book is a curiousity. A fascinating one, in spite of modern readers' aversion to its author. Anna Comnena was as unattractive (in terms of personality) and as unlovable as a princess has ever been. Only her mother ever understood her completely; but no one ever gave her the gift of total, unconditional love, with the possible exception of the most unlikely person: her brother John, whom she hated from the day of his birth. John, contrary to everything Anna ever said or wrote about him, was a kind, moral, tolerant human being who had inherited none of the cold craftiness of his father and resembled in no way his humourless, suspicious, superstitious son Manuel. John, following the example of Christ, was willing and ready to forgive even his worst enemies. The fact that he could find it in his heart to forgive even the harpy Anna is eloquent testimony to his benevolence.
 

pugsville

Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
8,318
#6
Yeah sure she got bias but she is writing about her times and she had good access to people of influence and decision makers. We simply do not have that many sources. Nearly all sources have bias, but if you know and understand date bias it's normal workable, its not like you don't know where she is coming from.
 
Jan 2012
793
#7
Feb 2017
425
Rock Hill, South Carolina
#8
Every source is biased. God just even try Jordanes...

But yeah, Anna is actually still a great source and a remarkable woman of her time. Honestly she'd make for a good TV series.
 
Aug 2014
3,811
Australia
#9
All sources are biased. Part of being a historian is to discover what those biases are and to allow for them when studying the subject. A decent history course will teach source analysis, which involves detailed research on the writer to learn where he/she was brought up, whether he/she was an eyewitness to the events, type of education, degree of expertise on the subject matter, access to official records, who is paying for the work, who the target audience was, etc etc.
 
Last edited:
Aug 2013
956
Italy
#10
Anna was more than just biased. She was also malicious. And malicious people malign others. So we must read her accounts of her brother as calumny, not history.

Anna had mixed feelings for her father Alexios...It was he, after all, who eventually decided to exclude his over-ambitious daughter from all imperial aspirations...Yet in order to glorify herself...a burning, obsessive desire... Anna felt that she would first have to glorify Alexios. If she could not rule Byzantium in her own right, she would at least go down in history as "most worthy daughter of the greatest Emperor who ever was".

Twisted reasoning? Yes, because no one who knew Anna would have described her as "most worthy". But Anna Comnena had a twisted mind. And it is this which makes her such an intriguing personage. Well worth reading, if only for Freudian analysis...
 

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