Skip to content

Response to Review of The Alexiad of Anna Komnene: Artistic Strategy in the Making of a Myth

I am grateful for the chance to respond to Elisabeth Mincin’s review of my book because, for all her goodwill and expertise, she does not engage far with my reading of the Alexiad and, where she does, she often misrepresents it.

As an historian, she makes two main points about the Alexiad itself: that it is a flawed history yet a history of real events nevertheless.

[The Alexiad is] clouded by bias and subject to the forgetfulness of time. When Anna so often and blatantly manipulates her plot, what can we really learn about the world of the Komnenoi from her text?

However, it is not always so far removed from the history indicated by other accounts as to seem arbitrarily arranged.

She suggests that I read the Alexiad ‘as primarily a work of literature in the traditional vein, transposed onto the historical events of Alexios’s reign’ (my italics) and that this is incautious:

Most writing has precedent, but that does not have to mean that every facet of a text must fit squarely into a preconceived mould.

In fact, I argue for a continuous interaction in the Alexiad between history and shaping interpretation. The summary of my position, given on page 19 of my introduction, is as follows:

Like a painter from life using complex materials, [Komnene] wrestles with, respects and tries to understand both what she sees and the equipment with which she represents it. What she sees is her historic material. What she brings to it are the literary resources of her age. As she works to shape her legend, she adapts her methods – at times with evident discomfort – to events and documents, the rules of history-writing, the opinions and memories of others. For the Alexiad is a real history and, at the same time, artful narrative using history as genre.

Indeed, the most inventive and original parts of the Alexiad are probably those dealing with the First Crusade and the second Norman war and they are equally among the most valuable as an historic source. The Crusade is a hugely diversionary incursion bringing much unfamiliar material. Komnene has no ‘mould’ to hand and has to work around much that is neos. Her account of these events vindicates her status as a strategically aware historian, while her inventive treatment of style and genre to characterize and mimetically contain the Normans displays her greatness as a writer.

It is the Norman attack on Alexios as Christian Emperor that largely drives the Alexiad’s preparatory and developing insistence on it, from book one to its culmination in 15. Komnene builds up him up in this character defensively and more and more overtly until she grafts that character onto Constantine by name and brings the struggle with the West into the scope of the whole project. Two of my six chapters are given to the Crusade and second Norman war but Mincin’s only reference to them is to say, of the Treaty of Devol: ‘It is not complete fiction, formatted by Anna – there is some grounding within reality’. The reality of the treaty was never in doubt. I considered the possibility that the wording of the treaty as she gives it – like at least one letter she cites – may be her own. Thucydides, after all, is one of her chief models.           

Where bias and manipulation are concerned, I hold Komnene in more regard as an historian than Mincin seems to. In my pages 23–30 I discuss the near-universal reliance on the work by later historians wherever Komnene’s text does not run counter to the view they want to put, and the ease with which they dismiss anything she says if it does not fit their arguments, invoking ‘bias’ as a given that needs no demonstration. Komnene’s ‘bias’ has itself become effectively mythologized.

While I was not attempting to examine her reliability in detail or throughout her history, I did compare the interpretative techniques of Clucas‘s revisionist account of Italos’s trial with Komnene’s and found that, writing from opposed viewpoints, they read the importance of the trial in similar ways and showed a comparable mix of partisanship and respect for the available facts. Again, when I compared her account of the First Crusade with those of westerners, I found far more similarity than difference between them as to what took place and better reasoning in hers. A strong interpretation need not obscure events, even if it affects their tone or patterning.

While Mincin misrepresents my view of the Alexiad as history, she does readily and pleasantly acknowledge that I am offering a literary reading. Unfortunately, she tends to exaggerate and simplify where she engages with it. Of course, any review will be cursory at points, and when she says my first chapter focusses ‘on the theme of the “Emperor Alexios, my father’” … the princess stressing the connection between herself and the emperor’, it is not positively untrue; but it is likely to mislead. It is the writer who stresses her connection with her subject equally and together with his intrinsically imperial character. A large part of my reading bears on the impression the Alexiad creates of a double consciousness, the writer’s voice and mind relaying and amplifying Alexios’s to give the illusion of a man alive to the dilemmas of the moment, processing and searching them, even as it stamps his history with tragic retrospect. The ‘princess’ is incidental to this.

Of the second chapter, dealing with books four to eight, Mincin says I claim that ‘classicising military history reigns supreme’: again, she ignores the shifts and changes I identify and the wide range of models that Komnene draws on. As Alexios learns through a series of defeats how to handle the Norman cavalry, she builds into his developing strategy features of the traditional pious emperor; Heraclius is the immediate model and Constantine the default one. Her strategy is long-term: she is anticipating the later Norman attack on Alexios as true Christian emperor in the east. Books five to eight have long phases in classicizing military styles but these vary. The Normans are a new kind of enemy and for them she draws on a range of models and styles including western ones. For the Turks, who inherit the role of Constantine’s Persians, she prefers classical models and, for the Scyths, she draws on later Byzantine historiographers, Psellos, Bryennios and Skylitzes.   

Of all her models, Psellos’s Chronographia is chief. Psellos is Komnene’s literary mentor, yet one of my main contentions is that the Alexiad is her answer to his thesis about emperors. I explore this extensively but Mincin does not mention it. 

Her main criticism is that I ‘delineate the 15-book epic into simply two diverging halves’, ‘separate and discrete’. Nothing in the Alexiad is simply anything, as I make clear at every point. I do note a break in the middle of book eight and a change in the second seven-and-a-half books. I speak of a ‘second story’ in which the main events of the first seven books are replayed from a somewhat different point of view. But this is by no means a fixed reading, more like a suggestion or a way of seeing. There is nothing separate or discrete about the two ‘halves’ (a term I now regret using, since it proves so distracting). This section of my case is less important than much else and I say repeatedly that it is a change in coloration and emphasis: ‘All the original elements of the narrative are still present but their aspects are not the same’ (p. 169). In the earlier books, Alexios is consolidating the position he has won by force and the only serious rebellion is his own. In the later books, he withdraws by stages from active combat, suffers from increasingly disabling illness and has to deal with rebellions against himself: his perspective changes and his spokeswoman’s with it. Most importantly, he has a propaganda war to fight under a new kind of attack. But, wherever Komnene changes her characterization of Alexios, she counterbalances with earlier versions of him, to reassure the reader he is still the same person underneath.

Mincin adds that ‘the differentiation between Basil and Constantine as two individualized models plays into this perceived dichotomy’ and asks, ‘why must we assume the intermediary stage of the Basil model? Could not Anna have simply been marking her father as a new Constantine from the beginning? … rather than merely moving towards it within the last books of the history’. Certainly she is marking her father as a Constantine from the beginning, though covertly, and I say so. The Basils figure only in books seven and the first half of eight, Basil II implicitly and mostly in book seven, Basil I triumphantly in Eight. Basil I’s reputation was mighty and enduring; Psellos made Basil II the military hero of his Chronographia; Stephenson has traced the making of his legend, and Magdalino has given the historical context of Komnenoi militarism and Manuel’s military propaganda. These all provide reasons why Komnene might have wanted to show Alexios out-valorizing both. Another, as I suggest, is the degree to which the Vita Basilii had appropriated a Constantinian likeness for Basil I. But my reasons for saying that she does this are intertextual, not assumption.

Although I call Basil I and Constantine the benchmarks for Alexios, and the genocidal slaughter in book eight climactic, Komnene does not give parity overall to Basil I: Basil stood in Alexios’ light almost as an obstacle, the great emperor who could not be by-passed and, worse, the Constantinian one. Even Skylitzes who, in following the Vita Basilii excised most of Basil’s Constantinian image, retained one striking Constantinian detail in the troops’ cry that ‘the Cross has conquered!’.  Komnene borrows much from Skylitzes for Alexios here but she does not include this. Basil I had to be emulated and de-Constantined. In showing Alexios withdraw from genocide and repudiate the Basils’ cruelty, Komnene is freed to return to her underlying project of showing Alexios as the only real Second Constantine and the Last. She reserves her naming of Constantine until the final books for reasons I discuss but she works his presence from the beginning and I trace this in some detail.  

When I discuss the literary treatment of the Bogomil Basil’s trial and burning in book 12, I do not, as Mincin says, ‘come close to ‘denying the reality of Basil having been sent to the stake’. She appears to think I suggest that the burning itself was somehow influenced by later events in the West. If so, she misreads me. She certainly misreads me when she says I contend ‘that the heresiarch’s trial scene in general would have been a “scene familiar to western readers because of the inquisition”’. Four scenes make up the Bogomil narrative. My reference was to the first, where Alexios is ‘luring’ Basil over dinner; the full quotation is: ‘a scene familiar to western readers from the inquisitions that grew out of the Crusades and from imitators such as the Tudor state’ (Buckley, p. 273). This ought to have indicated that I was looking ahead to modern readers but it may have been a distraction to say it there and not in the appendix. I might more usefully have mentioned that Kedrenos, Komnene’s near-contemporary, includes a similar scene of entrapment by Constantine himself. Of the whole event, I do regret my lack of Mincin’s historian’s expertise but I was neither doubting nor discussing its historicity. Basil’s burning is chronologically misplaced for literary effect, and my suggestion (among others) was that its extended and elaborate writing-up may have been influenced by western developments in the period of the Second Crusade.

Mincin also has me say – in the face of its undoubted harshness – that the burning ‘is the centrepiece of a section … devoted to the model of Alexios as quarter-giver’. On the contrary, it is very dark indeed, the culmination of an ambivalent change in his characterization of which ‘quarter-giver’ represents one side, ‘alongside the pacific sweep of the second half of the history … is a parallel deepening of repressive and punitive drives … The more deeply and persuasively Alexios is immersed in his Christ-like role, the darker the shadows’ (Buckley, p. 173).

Mincin’s final criticisms are that I do not engage with feminist scholarship or questions of audience and transmission, that I use published translations rather than my own, and that 'the reader is provided with only the English translation (and reference) for the many quotations employed'. Of this last, I should like to make it clear that my 'reference' is always to the Reinsch and Kambylus Greek edition as well as to both translations (unless I give my own).  Feminist scholarship and theory tend to use a specialized vocabulary and to occlude other perspectives: I gave my reasons for choosing to leave feminist analysis aside but emphasized that it is an important and fruitful area. Any speculation about audience is likely to be founded on biographical assumptions and I do not trust these in their current received state. Transmission and reception require a study of their own. I used Sewter’s translation, as I explained, because it is the great translation needed to discuss the Alexiad as a great literary work. I do use my own in a few instances, but no overall translation I might have offered could have approached Sewter’s in quality. Frankopan’s revision gave him the opportunity to correct certain mistakes, while allowing him to leave much unchanged. He wisely did so; elsewhere, at times, he gives an impression of straining to word differently for the sake of it. Any translation I offered would have done just that: it would have been an artificial exercise.

The book was never meant to be definitive or comprehensive. It is a reading, inviting other readings. Mincin is right to say that it ‘is not a study to be relied on in isolation as an introduction to the Alexiad’. It is also largely not as she describes but I am grateful that she has taken the trouble to review it.