Episode 197 – Anna Komnene with Leonora Neville

Our best primary source for Alexios Komnenos’ reign is The Alexiad written by his daughter Anna Komnene. I talk to Professor Leonora Neville about Anna’s life and writing and how she overcame the obstacles facing a woman trying to write history.

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Categories: Podcast | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Episode 197 – Anna Komnene with Leonora Neville

  1. Russer

    Very interesting stuff. After listening to the episode, I’ve tried to find an audiobook version of The Alexiad. Unfortunately it seems that there’s only been one on cassette (in 1986) and that one doesn’t seem to be available anywhere. That makes me sad!

  2. Spencer

    Interesting interview. (Robin, you get brownie points for interviewing Dr. Neville, as she teaches at my alma mater, UW-Madison.)

    One thing that listening to this interview made me wonder about is who did Anna Komnenos see as her audience? Was her writing meant for a small (a few hundred?) group of Byzantine elites? Or did she think that her writings would be read across Europe and perhaps even in similarly intellectual parts of the Islamic world? As the literate Byzantines of her era were reading Ancient Greek works that were 1000 to 1500 years old, did an author of Anna’s time think that their writings would be read for hundreds of years?

    In a sense, this question can be expanded beyond Anna’s oeuvre. Meaning, 900 years ago, what happened to a writer’s work? (It didn’t get “published” by a publisher or organization and then sold in book shops, right?) Would (or did) Anna’s Alexiad, shortly after completion, get copied multiple times and distributed to friends or other contemporaries? Shipped to other Byzantine cities or towns? My guess is no.

    Robin, I realize these questions are (probably) beyond your expertise. So consider these rhetorical musings :).

    • Hey, it would indeed have been copied and handed out to friends and then to wider literary circles. Hence the efforts made to ‘prove’ that she was a reliable witness and trustworthy. The contemporary Chronicle of John Zonaras borrows from her the sequence of events of Alexios’ reign so we know it was available to local monastery shortly afterwards.

      Certainly Zonaras (who was writing a world chronicle from Creation to now) would have expected to be read for centuries to come. That was his goal – to provide a new history of everything important to be read by Monks of the future. I suspect Anna, though aware of posterity, may have had her mind more on present readership. As Prof Neville and other scholars point out – she seems to be arguing a case against cooperation with the Latins based on her fathers career.

      I don’t think a non-Byzantine audience was ever a consideration. Certainly copies would head both east and west. But the number of people reading Greek and understanding the context would have been so small as to be irrelevant to the authors. Certainly there was no attempt in Anna’s history to educate a foreign audience about Byzantium. On the contrary her work is littered with references to the Bible and Homer with no explanation – so only a fellow Attic Greek reader would have understood her fully.

  3. Spencer

    Robin, thank you for the thoughtful and interesting response to my musings.

    I find all of this endlessly fascinating.

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