The first great modern history: Anna Comnena’s Alexiad
“In formaler Hinsicht ist die Alexias das erste grössere Denkmal der litteraturischen Renaissance, welche, durch Männer wie Psellos wirksam vorbereitet, im Zeitalter der Komnenen ihre schönsten Früchte zeitigte.”
Krumbacher, Karl. Geschichte der byzantischen Litteratur vor Iustinian bis zum Ende des oströmanischen Reiches (527-1453). Munchen: Beck. 1897. p. 276
Anna Comnena’s unique situation in the Komnenian dynasty of the late 1140s may have had a lot to do with the qualities that make her Ἀλεξιάς (Alexiad) unique in Byzantine historical writing. It helps to explain the epic style and proportions of the history, as well as the extensive quotation of official documents, so unusual for a work of classical historiography. It can also account for her repeated references to herself and may have contributed to her defensive self-consciousness about the genre in which she is writing. She insists that what she is writing is not encomium but history, perhaps even tragedy.
Herodotus is credited with inventing the genre historia and it was Thucydides who defined its principles and practices. Thucydides viewed history as the result of human choices and actions. He worked from experience, his own or others that he knew. He looked for naturalistic causes and effects, and tried to maintain a neutral or objective point of view. And he wrote in the Attic Greek dialect native to classical era Athens. This style was highly influential and was imitated by Xenophon, Polybius and the Roman historians.
This classical style of historiography was the primary approach employed in the early centuries of the Byzantine Empire. Procopius’ Hyper ton polemonand and Agathias’ Historia continues the tradition of Thucydides in the era of Justinian. Theophylact Simocatta’s Historia attempts to continue this tradition in the early 7th century but he no longer seems able to master the archaic style of Attic Greek. After Nikephoros, the Historia will disappear fade from use. It is replaced by the Chronikai, written in imitation of the Old Testament books of history and in the current dialect of common Byzantine Greek. This style of historical prose will dominate for the next two and a half centuries.
Then, in the 11th century we see a great resurgence of the classical Greek style of historical prose writing. Nikephoros Bryennios’ Historia imitates the style and the language of Xenophon with some degree of success. His writing is direct and clear, avoids the excess of earlier Byzantine writers and returns to a more objective and analytic narrative. But it is the creativity and invention of his wife, Anna Comnena, and her mentor, Michael Psellos that take Byzantine historiography beyond the imitation of classical models. They combine the approach and style of classical Greek narrative with a form based in Christian didactic hagiography to develop an entirely new and truly Byzantine approach to history. Anna Comnena takes these developments a step further by merging the new biographical history with the narrative style and literary devices of the epic to create a powerful and moving new formal style for recounting the events of the recent past.
This is what makes the Alexiad so compelling and modern. It escapes the sterile formalism of much medieval history writing and gives us a story that is immediate and engaging. It overcomes the bland tabluation of religious chronicles and restores the characterization and fast paced narrative structure of the best classical literature.
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