Comnena – Alexiad
Kings and queens, knights and dragons, serfs and Vikings – these are the typical images of the middle ages in Europe after the fall of Rome. But when it collapsed, around 500, half of the Empire lived on. Constantine shifted the official capital to Byzantium (later Constantinople, later still Istanbul) in 330, and under Heraclius in the 600s the empire distinguished itself as ‘Byzantine’ from Roman ties. (Traditions remained. Comnena refers to her husband by his honorific ‘Caesar’ throughout.)
The Byzantines spoke Greek, were Christian, and had cultural connections to Europe. A number of Byzantine chronicles exist, but none is so interesting at the Alexiad, regarding Emperor Alexius I, written by his princess daughter, Anna Comnena (1083 – 1153). In it is a particularly remarkable account of the First Crusade, one of the most important and defining actions of the Middle Ages. The Byzantines found themselves at an unusual crossroads, with tens of thousands of European crusaders marching through their land on the way to the Holy Land. The Byzantines were a wealthy empire, as the western Europeans had rediscovered only recently, and were made nervous by the invader’s presence.
Around the millennium there was an assumption that the world was going to end. As such, a large volume of holy pilgrims went to Palestine seeking to be present when Jesus returned. But the End did not come. Instead, what they found there was a wealthy Eastern church, and a variety of other, forgotten Christian sects. When Alexius I petitioned the western Europeans to help against the Turks the rift between churches was still very decisive. But Pope Urban II had lifted a prior excommunication on the eastern emperor, and so pledged support, and told the knights “God wills it.”
The Crusades were critically important. (The idea that Christians could kill was rather novel.) Perhaps they were due to a psychological rift, in that the Book of Revelations had said the Prince of Peace would return after a thousand years, and his not doing so caused Europeans to lash out against the Muslims and Jews. The First Crusade was successful, in that they captured Jerusalem. But the initial holdings would not last, and as the Crusades continued, until nearly 1300, the Muslims retook the territory. All the same, this exchange of culture, travel and trade, and rediscovery of the Greeks and Romans, would lead to the Renaissance. The Crusaders went to the Levant a variety of ways, by land and sea. But they always came back through Italy and the Papal States, to report to the Pope and give tribute. So it is not surprising that the Italian city-states would begin to rise in prominence during this period.
Byzantine culture wouldn’t long survive the Crusades. They had fought the Normans for years when the Crusaders showed up, led in half by Norman princes. Indeed, part of the First Crusade saw a renewal of this conflict. In 1453 the last Byzantine holdout, the city of Constantinople itself, fell to the Turks. In English ‘byzantine’ has come to be synonymous with the devious and intricate. The court politics and the centuries-long shuffle of Roman customs have always been looked down upon from a Western European point of view. (Part of this seems due to jealousy, that the Byzantines had gold in their coffers while the western kings lived in dreary castles.) Yet that the Byzantines were a critical part of the Western heritage shouldn’t be forgotten. Their last legacy would be by marrying the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor to Russia’s Ivan III. With this symbolic movement, in 1472, Russia took on the Eastern Orthodox religion, proclaimed Moscow the third Rome, and adopted the double-headed eagle as their imperial symbol. (The title of ‘czar’ was also a connection to Byzantine and Roman ‘Caesar’.)
Anna Comnena, our chronicler, was not some submissive girl who loved her daddy. Indeed, she was extraordinarily well-educated, and a skilled physician as well. There is an interesting amount of debate as to whether she plotted in the death of her father. She would end her last days instead in a convent, but she seems to have come quite close to having become de facto Empress, for which there were numerous precedents in Byzantine history. As far as style goes there are a few considerations to bear in mind reading the Alexiad. Obviously, with her husband going off to war, and as part of the royal family, she has an important first-person view, with obvious sympathies and subjective interests. Also, some of the accounts happened when she was a child, or later when she was in the convent, and so are second-hand. But the selection following deals with the arrival of these Crusaders and the Byzantine’s perception of them, and therefore is not plagued by this latter difficulty.