Anyone familiar with Byzantine history has likely heard of Anna Comnena. Her book, “Alexiad,” is an outstanding history of the reign of her father, the Emperor Alexios I Comnenus. While hagiographic, it contains tidbits of life in the palace, stories about the First Crusade, and recounted her father’s battles.
Less well known is the unfinished history of her husband, Nikephoros Bryennios, covering the same period. His book survives only in random bits, copies of copies, mislaid for years, found in various French libraries. 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 those standard would be the same since they were writing about the same period and the same individuals, and were husband and wife. However, these two histories present very different perspectives on Alexios I Comnenus.
The Princess Writer
Anna Comnena’s book, while complimentary of Alexios, aims to support her right, as a woman, to be a historian. She claimed her focus is on reason rather than the expected female emotions. Neville’s history points out the many cultural, gender-based expectations of women in that period. She points out how Anna tried to both conform to them, and transcend them. I’ve never given much thought to gender studies issues, but I appreciated the discussion of them here.
Bryennios’ book had different goals than Anna’s. He wrote at the behest of Anna’s mother, Irene Doukaina, who was also the granddaughter of John Doukas, the brother of Emperor Constantine X Doukas. One needs to recall that when Alexios Comnenus was a young soldier, he defeated Bryennios’ grandfather (also named Nikephoros Bryennios) who had rebelled against the then emperor. Neville explains that Bryennios’s history liberally praised both of these men as examples of traditional Roman military values. On the other hand, he describes Alexios as willing to resort to trickery to win his battles. Bryennios’ subtle digs at Alexios, while ostensibly praising him, indicate that the writer felt some resentment toward 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/Byzantines were not willing to resort to “trickery” to win battles when necessary. I found his opinions were self-serving, if understandable, in his contentions about his family’s military abilities. He also generously praised his mother-in-law’s grandfather, Andronikos Ducas, the architect of the disastrous defeat at Manzikert.
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” contain worthwhile material and perspectives to learn from.
Both of Neville’s histories are worthy additions to anyone’s Byzantine history collection.