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Literature / The Alexiad

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Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things, and drowns them in the depths of obscurity... But the tale of history forms a very strong bulwark against the stream of time, and to some extent checks its irresistible flow...and does not allow [events] to slip away into the abyss of oblivion.
Alexiad, Preface

The Alexiad is a historical document recording Alexios I Komnenos, the Byzantine Emperor who ruled during the time of the First Crusade, written by his daughter Princess Anna Komnene. Modeled after classical epics like The Odyssey and combined with historical events, the text is split into 15 books detailing his rise to power, his military campaign against the neighboring nations, his call for assistance against the Turks that results in the Crusader campaigns, and his eventual death after triumphing against his enemies.

It's one of the most well-known primary sources of the Eastern Roman Empire and provides their perspective on the Crusades, more specifically, the writer's own personal commentary in the events and her own father. The book was written decades after Alexios' death when Anna was exiled by her brother.

The Alexiad contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Action Girl: The Lombard princess Sikelgaita is said to have personally lead her own troops during the Battle of Dyrrhachium. Anna goes as far as comparing her to Pallas Athena.
  • Amusing Injuries: During one of his wars with the Scythian incursions in the north, Alexios was stabbed by one of them in the ass. With a scythe.
  • Antiquated Linguistics: Adopted deliberately, as Anna wished to hearken back to the works of Thucydides, Polybius, and Xenophon as a means of demonstrating both her education and her father's exalted status as a benevolent monarch who single-handedly restored the Byzantine Empire and its people to glory. Written in Attic Greek, it also comes across as highly stilted and artificial, often straying into Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness and Purple Prose (her speech in the preface regarding her grief for her husband is particularly verbose and filled with figurative language); as a result, modern translations tend to be a bit more informal, and even in the centuries after it was written it tended to be paraphrased into vernacular Greek for more readability.
  • Artistic License – History: The enemies that Anna refers to as Scythians were actually a loose collection of tribes that also included Bulgars. The Scythian peoples as we know were extinct for ages.
  • Athens and Sparta: The Eastern Roman Empire is presented by the narrative as the Athens due to being a bastion of Christendom and safeguarding civilization from barbarism in all of its forms with everything else like the Franks and the Turks being the Sparta.
  • Author Appeal: Anna makes frequent references to Greek mythology like comparing Sikelgata to Pallas Athena or her own ultimate fate to the tragic tale of Theban queen Niobe, who turned into stone after her family's murder. She was highly influenced by her people's ancient tales considering the naming convention of her book, which was highly looked down on during that time period because of its paganistic roots and Greece already being Orthodox Christian.
  • Back from the Brink: The Byzantines were caught up in severe civil strife and surrounded by the Turks in the East, the Scythians in the North, and the Normans in the West, until the Komnene restoration started by Alexios would reunify make the Empire strong again (or at least slow its decline).
  • Barbarian Tribe: The Scythians are a nomadic group that made incursions into the northern domains of the Byzantine Empire.
  • Bastard Bastard: Bohemond, the illegitimate eldest son of Robert Guiscard, whose determination to carve out a kingdom of his own around Antioch by any means necessary makes him Alexios's adversary.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The chronicle ends with Alexios succumbing to an illness after stabilizing the Empire through his great efforts, but Anna concludes the tale in a very somber and depressing note as she grieves for his death while living in a convent.
  • Burn the Witch!: Alexios orders the Bogomilian leader Basil to be burned on a pyre for heresy.
  • Cain and Abel: Whenever the subject of her brother John comes up, Anna can barely disguise her contempt for him due to John inheriting the throne and exiling her to a monastery after she tried to usurp him.
  • Daddy's Girl: Though she is occasionally critical of him, it's clear that Anna completely adores her father Alexios and is aware that her account will be biased.
  • Dangerous Deserter: The Seljuk warlord Tzachas was once a Byzantine vassal that was granted his own island to govern until he decided to rebel and become a pirate king that sacked several coastal cities. He even went as far as to challenge Alexios for the Byzantine throne.
  • Decadent Court: Byzantine politics really show why the term is synonymous with this trope. Alexios is able to secure his position as emperor via court intrigue and has to tangle with several usurpers from within his court trying to take the throne.
  • Enemy Mine: Alexios' call for aid against the Turks leads to his side including his previous hated enemies, the Franks.
  • The Empire: The Byzantine Empire is a natural given, but from the Byzantines' perspective it's the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum that is creeping into their territory in Anatolia. Of all Alexios' enemies, they end up being the climactic foe that he faces at the end (if you don't count the Bogomilians).
  • Excessive Mourning: Several times Anna has to berate herself to cease crying for her husband, mother, and father so as to continue the story; the excessiveness is apparent not only in her long and flowery descriptions of her grief but in how she compares her sufferings to those of Niobe (who literally wept for her loss even while turned to stone) and states her whole life was such a "long series of storms and revolutions" that her misfortunes would make anyone weep in sympathy the same as Orpheus' music. That said, she does express it with poignant simplicity on occasion, such as thinking she must be dreaming her tragedies, or that "living I died a thousand deaths."
  • Guile Hero: Alexios, both as Grand Domestic and as Emperor, uses his wits frequently to outmaneuver his enemies.
  • Great Big Book of Everything: The Alexiad itself served this purpose for the Alexios' period.
  • The Greatest Story Never Told: Anna's reason for writing the Alexiad is to avert this trope—for her whole family and its reign, but especially for her father. Not only is she afraid future historians will think poorly of him, believing him to have been weak, a coward, or the downfall of the empire, she believes he might simply be forgotten entirely if his story is not written down while those who knew him and witnessed the events of his reign were still living and could attest to them. The page quote, from the closing paragraphs of the preface, speaks to this fear.
  • The Heretic: At several points during his life, Alexios tries to put down cults regarded as heretical such as the Paulicians and Bogomilians with the obligatory death by fire. Anna wishes she could devote some time explaining what Bogomilism entails to the readers, but decides not to because she doesn't want to "defile her tongue". She at least devotes some words debunking Palicianism in her text - that is how much she hates Bogomilism.
  • Hordes from the East: The Byzantine Empire is surrounded by all sorts of enemies like these such as the Seljuk Turks, including the West (the Franks) and the North (the Scythians).
  • Memetic Mutation: In-Universe; Anna notes that one of Bohemond's boasts, "I have thrown Alexios to the wolf's mouth," is a subject of much repetition and parody in her time.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: The Franks in general. While Anna regards them as savages, she cannot but help admire their bravery such as Sikelgata's charge and the Crusaders attacking the Saracens shouting "God with us".
  • Puppet King: Robert Guiscard props up some monk as the exiled emperor Michael VII Doucas in order to overthrow Alexios and place him in power under the excuse of restoring him to the throne.
  • Self-Deprecation: In the book's introduction, the narrator is aware that because she is Alexios' daughter, her account of his life will be accused by others of only praising him and as such tries to be impartial as much as she can. "And wherever I perceive my father made a mistake, I unhesitatingly transgress the natural law and cling to the truth, for though I hold him dear, I hold the truth dearer still."
  • Sketchy Successor: Given that Anna was exiled to her monastery by her brother, John II, it might not be surprising that she takes every opportunity to portray him as being unable to live up to the legacy of their illustrious father. In reality, by all accounts John II was a very capable and competent emperor, though unfortunately lost between the reigns of his romanticized father and illustrious son.
  • The Starscream: Alexios is a rare heroic-ish example. As Domestic of the Schools, he is technically second to the emperor in the army, and Alexios uses this position to become emperor himself.
  • Survivor's Guilt: While some of this is for the glory of her house (and her being passed over as empress), the fact she outlived her husband as well as her parents, and that her study of medicine meant she was one of those treating Alexios' illness near the end of his life, clearly had a deep and lasting effect on Anna. "Even now I cannot believe that I am still alive and writing this account of the emperor's death. ...How comes it that when he is dead I am still numbered among the living?"
  • Vestigial Empire: The Byzantines have entered a state of decline by the start of Alexios' career and are threatened to be carved up by enemies everywhere - from all sides and within.
  • Warrior Prince: Alexios was already a kickass military commander before his coronation and managed to singlehandedly keep the empire from collapsing.