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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

What am I reading?

Commenter Adam DeVille asked what I'm reading about in things Byzantine.

Every now and then, I do do requests.

Two things Byzantine are at my bedside for the moment. The first is The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos 1143-1180 by British historian Paul Magdalino and the second is Anna Comnena's Alexiad.

I'm about two-thirds of the way through the first work, and I am very, very impressed. Despite the title, it really is an overview of the entire Komnenian Dynasty (1081-1185), with a focus on the last effective Emperor, Manuel I. The Komnenian period represented the last revival of the Empire as an effective political entity. It's not organized as a straight history. Rather, it starts with an historical overview and then goes subject by subject through major themes such as the Imperial family, the Church, literature and so forth. What Magdalino does a very good job of showing what a creative and vibrant period it was, and the effectiveness of Manuel's leadership. Manuel is sometimes blamed as being a flighty spendthrift who went from opportunity to opportunity without a grand plan for preserving the gains of his father and grandfather. Magdalino demonstrates that this is based on an overreliance upon the most popular of the historians of the time, a stern critic of Manuel named Nicholas Choniates (available on Bookfinder for the equivalent of a mortgage payment, if you are interested). Sure, Manuel had his flaws (a near-satyriasis which was quite grim, as Choniates correctly noted). But his leadership decisionmaking was reasoned and thoughtful, though quite unlucky, especially near the end. An essential book if you are interested in the period.

The second is the classic Alexiad, written by Manuel's aunt Anna. The Alexiad is an account of the life and times of Anna's father, the Emperor Alexius I (1081-1118). I've jokingly told my wife that it could be subtitled "My Dad Is Awesome!" given the fulsome praise she rains upon her father. But in this case, it is pretty well deserved and despite Anna's understandable bias, it makes for good history. It could also be subtitled "And My Brother's a Turd."

You see, Anna almost certainly hated Manuel's guts because she hated his father, John II, who had the grotesque character flaw (in her eyes) of being born. Before John's birth, the plan was for Anna to marry Constantine Ducas, the son of a previous feckless Emperor, and to take the throne with him. When John was born, Alexius thought better of it and made his son his heir, dispossessing Anna in the process. Later, Anna was involved in a coup attempt while her father Alexius was on his deathbed, the plan being to supplant her younger brother and to place Anna and her husband Nikephoros Bryennios on the throne.

John learned about it beforehand (almost certainly from the reluctant Bryennios himself) and took the throne before the plotters could act. For a Byzantine Emperor, John II acted with singular mercy, merely confiscating properties and putting some of the plotters under comfortable house arrest (including Anna, but not Nikephoros(!)). House arrest gave Anna plenty of time to write, and thus The Alexiad was born. I'm about a quarter of the way through it, but it is an excellent translation and Anna is a fine, careful historian. I am eagerly awaiting her recounting of the First Crusade through Byzantine eyes. Strongly recommended as both history and a milestone of historical writing.

Oh, and I'm also reading The Sword of the Lady, which is now complete. Book review in September.

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