Dueling Historians

Anna Comnena, 12th century princess and writer

Anna Comnena, 12th century princess and writer

Anyone who is familiar with Byzantine history has likely heard of the . Her book, “Alexiad” is an outstanding history of the reign of her father, the Emperor Alexios I Comnenus. While definitely hagiographic, it contains tidbits of life in the Great Palace, stories about the First Crusade, as well as recounting the many battles her father fought.
Less well known is the unfinished history of her husband, Nikephoros Bryennios, which covers much of the same period. His book survives only in random bits, copies of copies, mislaid for years, found and misplaced in various French libraries over the centuries. While E.R.A. Sewter translated Anna Comnena’s masterful work into a fine English version, there is yet no English translation of the Bryennios work.

Leonora Neville is a professor of Byzantine History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She’s written companion books about this historian couple, “Anna Komnene” in 2016 and “Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium” in 2012 about Nikephoros Bryennios. For those of us curious about the Bryennios work, “Heroes and Romans” provides quotes and discusses the material his book covered – more than I’ve found elsewhere so far.

Neville’s books describe the cultural standards that each of these authors was trying to meet in their books. One might think that since they were writing about the same period and the same individuals, and were married to each other, those standards would be the same. However, one would be wrong to think that – these two histories present very different perspectives on Alexios I Comnenus.

Anna Comnena’s book, while distinctly hagiographic as far as Alexios is concerned, also aims to support her right, as a woman, to be a historian, claiming her focus is on reason rather than the typically expected female emotions. Neville’s history points out the many cultural, gender based expectations of women in that period and how Anna tried to both conform to them, and transcend them. I’ve never given much thought to gender studies issues, but I have to admit that I unexpectedly appreciated the discussion of them here.

Bryennios’ book had different goals than Anna’s. It was written at the behest of Anna’s mother, Irene Doukaina, who was also the granddaughter of John Doukas, the younger brother of the Emperor Constantine X Doukas. One also needs to recall that when Alexios Comnenus was a young soldier, he was sent to defeat Bryennios’ grandfather (also named Nikephoros Bryennios) who had rebelled against the then emperor, and defeated the rebel. Neville explains that both of these men were liberally praised in Bryennios’ history as examples of traditional Roman military values. Alexios, on the other hand, is described as willing to resort to trickery to win his battles. Bryennios’ subtle digs at Alexios, while ostensibly praising him, indicate that the writer may have had more than a little resentment towards his father-in-law.

As described by Neville, my impression of Bryennios is of a man who had a hazy, romantic view of Roman military history (I sincerely doubt that the Romans were not willing to resort to “trickery” to win battles when necessary – otherwise they would not have lasted so long), and was more than a little self-serving in relying on that view to support his contentions about his grandfather’s military abilities, as well as how wonderful his mother-in-law’s grandfather (IMHO, the architect of the disastrous defeat at Manzikert) was.

I came away from Neville’s books with a greater appreciation of the tremendous effort Anna Comnena made to write a professional, thorough and memorable history. I didn’t find Bryennios as likable, but his work as described in “Heroes and Romans” does seem to contain worthwhile material and perspectives to learn from.

Both of Neville’s histories are worthy additions to anyone’s Byzantine history collection.

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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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