Incomplete Essay on Anna Comnena’s Views

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Anna Comnena’s Alexiad recounts the years immediately before, during, and after the crusade of Peter the Hermit. In doing so it provides insight on the view of Anna Comnena on the Byzantine Empire, the Turks, and the Crusaders. Specifically, it praises the decisions and actions of the Byzantine actors of the time while simultaneously emphasizing the barbarous character of the Crusaders and Turks. Furthermore, it establishes a religious perspective on occasion by Anna Comnena’s view of the Byzantine Empire is one of a state constantly under siege by hostile forces; in particular the Turks and Franks. Particularly prominent evidence it given on page 262 as Anna dedicates half a page to espousing the efforts made by the emperor to safeguard the Empire from an evidently inexhaustible influx of troubles. Her assertion that the Empire is under constant threat is further repeated throughout the text with especially strong occurrences relating to the crusades. When Comnena first remarks on the Crusades she states that the emperor had had “no time to relax”(274) beforehand, implying a constant pressure. Later in the text, whenever she brings up a new wave of Crusaders, Anna invariably remarks on the calm between the waves, or the lake thereof.

The Byzantine Empire, from Anna’s perspective, is rightfully… Christianity is interwoven into the political and social reality of the Byzantine empire as an overwhelming force of custom. This is in fact, the first thing Anna Comnena establishes in book 10 as she dedicates the first two pages to recounting the ecclesiastical difficulty of Neilos. To elaborate, Anna dictates that Neilos was a scribe who, in his studies, came to an erroneous understanding of a matter of faith and when his error is uncovered and he proves recalcitrant he is put to trial by the Emperor and Patriarch of Constantinople in person (261). Essentially one man’s divergence of faith was sufficient to command the direct application of the highest secular and religious authorities in the Empire. Later on in the text Anna further compounds the importance of the christian faith in the political landscape of Byzantium when the emperor seeks advice from God through the Patriarch and accepts the Patriarch’s decision without question (264). This clearly establishes the, at minimum occasional, superiority of the ecclesiastical might of the Christian faith over the secular power of the Emperor and the rest of Byzantium.

A final point that Comnena elaborates on is the Siege of Constantinople by Godfrey. Anna claims that the initial day of the siege fell on a christian holy day upon which violence was expressly forbidden(286). Anna further claims that due to the religious import of the day the Emperor Alexios took every measure he could to avoid killing Godfrey’s men despite the fact that they were actively assaulting his capitol city. It is mentioned in the footnotes that other historians do not place the day of the siege as of any particular religious import so it is entirely possible that the details of the siege were invented by Anna in order to further discredit the Latin Crusader’s forces. This may be true, but it does not reduce the evidence the passage provides for the sheer import dedicated to the christian faith by the Byzantines. If it is true than the Emperor was perfectly content to allow matters of faith to supersede the secular matter of defending the Empire. If it was invented by Comnena in order to denigrate the Crusaders than she must have considered it plausible enough not to attract a great deal of scrutiny from her readers. Either it actually occurred or she considered it sufficiently plausible to evade further examination. In either case it exemplifies the import that the christian faith held in Byzantium.

Anna Comnena views the western Crusaders as almost invariably untrustworthy, greedy, and hotheaded, and inherently destructive. Given the profusion of assertions she makes in order to communicate this to the reader it almost does not require elaboration but, for completeness. The one of the most prominent passages which Anna uses to establish the covetous nature of the Crusaders is on page 280 wherein she describes how the crusaders who followed Peter the Hermit were easily lured into completely breaking ranks by the promise of riches. To establish their hotheadedness, beyond the manifold explicit statements peppering the text, Anna utilized the character of a Latin priest involved in a naval battle. She makes a point that the priest actively involved himself in the combat and continued fighting far beyond the point of reason when it is customary in Byzantium that men of faith do not inflict harm (283). She further characterizes the man as a typical example of a Latin priest, claiming that all Latin priests are of a similar disposition. As priests are often the least violent people in a given community she uses this priest as an example of the violent nature of the Latins and therefor the Crusaders.

In Anna Comnena’s eyes the crusade was primarily caused by the preaching of Peter the Hermit, who she refers to as Peter the Cuckoo, inciting the Latins into a fervor that was seized by less scrupulous nobles with aspiration of conquering Byzantium. She clearly states such over the pages 275 through 277 and repeatedly mentions the ambitions of the nobles throughout the rest of the text; especially those of Bohemond, who is characterized as a villainous figure over much of the text. The Crusaders relations with the Byzantine Empire, according the Anna Comnena was one of strained tolerance on the Empires part and partially concealed envy on the part of the Crusaders which occasionally erupted into violence despite their shared faith.

Anna Comnena understands God as having guided, through inspiration and dictation, human history and as having provided guides as to the correct structure of society. God is implied by Comnena to have potentially inspired some action three times throughout the text. The first instance was where the Emperor allowed the Patriarch to dictate matters of war with the Patriarch’s decision treated “as though it derived from some divine oracle”(264). Later on in the text when Peter the Hermit was calling for the crusade his impact upon the people who would become Crusaders was described as being “as if he had inspired every heart with some divine command”(275). The final, and most prominent event Anna attributes to divine intervention is described, starting on page 314. In the relevant passage the Crusaders consult a man Anna identifies as their Bishop and are informed that they had erred and must repent.

After they had done so the Bishop locates one of the nails Christ was crucified with and the next day the Crusaders manage a crushing victory against overwhelming odds. Comnena attributes all of these events to intervention by God. It is less clear in the initial ones where simile is used, but the latter matter of the nail Anna flat out declares the Bishop to have been divinely inspired. For an example of how Anna believes God has affected history the passage concerning the warrior priest where she notes that the rules forbidding Byzantine priests from doing harm are derived from longstanding christian tradition. As a christian herself this is equivalent to stating that the rules had been inspired if not initially dictated by God. A similar method of reasoning can be attributed to Anna Comnena views the Byzantine Empire as a state intrinsically imbued with the christian faith.

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