I received a free digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
If you are at all like me in your knowledge of Byzantine princesses, you might vaguely recall that Anna Komnene was a highly-educated, wannabe-throne-stealing, plotting-against-her-brother kind of princess.
You, like me, would also be wrong.
It's not that I really gave much thought to these characterizations. I knew very little about Anna except for the mentions I had come across on texts relating to the First Crusade.
It shames me a bit that it has taken me so long to learn more about this incredible woman, living in an extraordinary time.
Here the author goes to great lengths to paint as accurate a portrait of Anna as possible. The amount of research that went into this book is staggering. She peels away the layers of misogyny and misrepresentation that have come to define Anna over the centuries as a bitter woman who coveted the throne that belonged to her brother. By placing Anna and her life in its proper context, that of the world of an eleventh century princess, the real Anna comes to life.
Anna was something men all throughout history have feared time and again - a highly educated woman who knew her worth, trusted her own intellect, and carried herself with dignity.
I found that my own lack of prior knowledge did not hamper me in any way from understanding Anna's world and how she fit into. The author does a fantastic job in recreating this world for the reader, in great depth - sometimes almost too much. We learn of her birth and childhood, as well as her all-important education. Anna was no lazy princess, but a seriously gifted and intelligent young woman who we might wish had been born a few centuries later, so we could know her ourselves. My favorite parts were hearing from Anna herself, in her own words. The author makes good use of primary sources.
The author sets the stage well. It was quite easy to lose myself in the grandeur, the dazzling and dizzying world of medieval Byzantium - and of course Constantinople in particular.
It is a wish of the author that those who read this text and learn more about Anna, would in turn look at the Alexiad with new eyes and a deeper understanding of the woman who wrote it. By the time Anna was at work on what would be her greatest achievement, she was retired to a nunnery, though was not a nun herself. Alexios' death in 1118 set off a mad scramble to secure the throne and it is at that point historians insist Anna attempted to steal the throne from her brother. Whatever her role in any conspiracy, the author points out that Anna was not actually forced to live in the convent.
I have not yet tackled the Alexiad, though my interest is renewed now that I have a better understanding of the politics of Constantinople and its people at the time.