Ioulia Kolovou, Anna Komnene and the Alexiad (Pen & Sword, 2020)
If you think you know Anna Komnene, the 12th Century Byzantine princess, as a ruthless and ambitious shrew who plotted to kill her brother and take the throne, then Ioulia Kolovou is here to put you straight. Anna was none of those things. She was a pioneering intellectual, opinionated, strong in character, and a victim of historical misunderstanding and misogyny.
Kolovou sets the scene with the cast of characters inhabiting the opulence of mediaeval Byzantium. Anna Komnene sits in a nunnery in 1147, writing a eulogy to her father, Alexios I Komnenos, called The Alexiad. Kolovou uses that piece of historical fiction to introduce Anna, her history, and its impact on future historians. Kolovou draws back to narrate the rise of the Komnenoi family in Byzantium. It wasn’t pretty, but in his ascendancy Alexios I Komnenos married and united two great families and secured the throne. Anna’s birth consolidated the dynastic marriage. Kolovou follows Anna as she grew up in Byzantium; her family life in the Imperial palace; her betrothal and moving in with her intended in-laws at 7; her return at 12 after all that fell apart; and her education. Then came marriage to a suitable, beautiful, noble match, when she was 14. Her husband, Nikephoros Bryennios, encouraged Anna’s studies, and she was a brilliant student. She also had children, and Kolovou highlights that it is easier to recover Anna’s boys than her girls in the historical record. With that Kolovou takes us on a tour of the Imperial family and the nature of power in Byzantium.
In 1118, Alexios died, setting off a power struggle that Kolovou presents through the various sources, concluding with a discussion of Anna’s role in it against her brother. Kolovou moves on to Anna writing the Alexiad in the nunnery. She takes great pains to point out that Anna was not forced into the convent, or that she lived out her life as a nun; this was just her new home. With her husband’s death in 1138, Anna was free to pursue her intellectual life and writing her famous history. Kolovou analyses Anna’s take on the First Crusade in a lengthy exegesis for what is a relatively short biography. That precedes her account of Anna’s death as a proper nun in 1153 and a discussion of her legacy. Kolovou tidies up her biography with appendices of maps, genealogy, and chronology.
Kolovou’s hope for her biography of Anna Komnene is that you will read The Alexiad with a new understanding of the woman who wrote it. She therefore writes in a looser style for public consumption rather than for academic scrutiny, but still with authority. Kolovou succeeds in penetrating the elite Byzantine world and making it accessible, which is no mean feat. She also rescues Anna from the talons of misogynist historians and places her where she belongs as an extraordinary, but very human, woman, not the monster we have been led to expect. In doing so, Kolovou has performed a useful service to Anna Komnene and history.