Wednesday, May 06, 2020

63. Anna Komnene and the Alexiad

Anna Komnene and the Alexiad: The Byzantine Princess and the First Crusade. 2020. [July] Pen and Sword. 272 pages. [Source: Review copy] [nonfiction]

First sentence: Anna Komnene is one of the most intriguing figures in the history of an intriguing empire. The Eastern Roman Empire, as it was properly called, or Byzantine, as it is mostly known, took over from Rome in 330 AD and flourished for over a thousand year until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Anna was an imperial princess, daughter of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081–1118) and his wife, Empress Eirene Doukaina. A woman of extraordinary education and intellect, Anna Komnene is the only Byzantine female historian and one of the first and foremost historians in medieval Europe.

Premise/plot: Kolovou offers readers a new biography of Anna Komnene, author of The Alexiad. The book focuses on Anna's life as a daughter, granddaughter, sister, wife, mother princess, scholar, author, historian, and nun. (Though she only became a nun her last day of life.) What was it like to be born into a newly royal family? What was it like to be the first born? What were her parents like as rulers and as parents? What was family life like? What things would she have learned? How extraordinary were her circumstances? How did she feel about her siblings? Did she truly hate her brother the heir-apparent? Did she love her husband? Was she a good mother? How did she feel about the first and second crusade? What were her impressions of individual crusaders? What can we learn about the times by reading her book? What contexts are necessary to understand it? What kind of legacy did she leave behind? Why has she been so misunderstood throughout the centuries? How much can we actually know about her?

This book aims to present Anna Komnene, the fascinating woman, pioneer intellectual, and charismatic author to the general public. Drawing on original medieval Greek texts as well as on the latest academic research to reconstruct Anna’s life, personality, and work, it moves away from the myth of Anna the conspirator and ‘power-hungry woman’which has been unfairly built around her over centuries of misrepresentation. At the same time, it places Anna Komnene in the context of her own time, the medieval Eastern Roman Empire, known as Byzantium for its capital city, the ancient Greek colony and later magnificent city of Constantinople.

My thoughts: I definitely enjoyed this one! I did. I said YES on a whim. If you'd asked me before I wouldn't have said that the Byzantine empire was high on my list of interests...but it sounded intriguing to me. I liked the idea of reading about a female historian, one of the earliest. I liked the idea of spending time in the company of someone who LOVED to learn and valued education and knowledge. My curiosity was rewarded. I am glad I read it. I'm not sure there's a huge audience for this one. It isn't your typical beach read, your light and fluffy cozy mystery, your bodice-ripping romance. But I don't usually go for typical when I'm seeking my next book.

I thought the book was mostly clear. It includes a glossary of characters at the beginning. The chapters aren't always strictly chronological. Sometimes things are a bit messy here-and-there--topics get mentioned more than once. But. The chapters do have an arrangement--a progression of how she is presented and to be understood.

© 2020 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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