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Doing Family History from Byzantium through Today

 

By Ana Núñez (@anac4_nunez)

The Byzantine princess Anna Komnene (1083-1153) appears to have been a most devoted daughter. The first-born of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r.1081-1118), Anna took it upon herself to continue the work started by her late husband, Nikephoros Bryennios, and write a history (The Alexiad) of her father’s eventful imperial reign.[1] From the outset her goal is clear: to record the events of her father’s reign so that they are not ‘swept away on the flood of Time into an ocean of obscurity’.[2] Thus, she proceeds to compose a fifteen-book history of her father’s rule and his many great struggles and triumphs within the borders of the Byzantine Empire and beyond.

Of the events that Anna records, perhaps among the most famous are Alexios’ military dealings with Robert Guiscard, the Duke of Apulia and Calabria and Duke of Sicily, and his son Bohemond of Taranto, one of the leaders of the First Crusade. For Anna, these two men are her father’s greatest enemies, and Anna devotes many pages to describing their reprehensible characters.[3] She describes Bohemond, for example, as a ‘hard’ and ‘savage’ man, whose ‘laugh sounded like a threat to others’, and who possessed an ‘arrogance [that] was everywhere manifest’.[4]

With her own father as the history’s principal protagonist, Anna was not just recording the history of the Byzantine Empire between the years 1081 and 1118, but she was also engaging in the more intimate composition of her own family history. She herself reminds her audience of this very fact, confessing that, ‘if I had written down and given a full account of all the troubles he [Alexios] endured, I would have wept away my very soul…’[5] This very fact, and Anna’s personal intrusions into the narrative, once led previous scholars of Anna and her Alexiad to deride her work as biased and unreliable.[6] While such attitudes have been challenged by later twentieth and twenty-first century scholarship,[7] it is still true to say that Anna’s family history is curated: she picks and chooses which events to include and in what way they ought to be presented to her audience. This careful curatorship of family history might, at first, seem especially foreign to our own modern conventions of recording the history of one’s own family.

Today, our own more-recent family history does not (for the most part) come to us in the form of great historical tomes. Part of this, of course, is owed to the technology that we are able to access today, which, first and foremost, allows the average person—not just a Byzantine princess—to record parts of one’s family history. Often our modern family histories might be captured on video—a birthday, child’s graduation, or important holiday that is deemed worthy enough of remembrance. What is caught on camera is by nature spontaneous. Such spontaneity is certainly lacking in Anna’s long work of history.

Beyond the spontaneous, our modern technological conventions for recording family history favour capturing snapshots, rather than long cohesive narratives. Photos on Facebook or Instagram, for example, do not so much as create a unified narrative of certain events—let alone the work or life of an entire person—as they capture and freeze a specific moment in time. Again, Anna’s long, carefully planned-out history, when viewed as a mode of recording family history, appears different to us: Anna does not capture singular moments, rather she relates wars, religious controversies, domestic disputes, and more in a long narrative that aims to portray her father as the supreme Byzantine emperor.

But despite the differences of scale, technology, and spontaneity between Anna’s Alexiad and one’s own family videos or photos, perhaps we can recognise in Anna, as a daughter writing about her father, a relatable impulse to capture events that we deem ought to be remembered by later family members. In embarking on such a project, we too, like Anna, engage in basic forms of curatorship. For example, a graduation is likely to be deemed more worthy of being videotaped and archived within one’s family history then, say, a routine trip to the grocery store or the post office. While such a decision may seem an obvious one—almost a non-decision—a decision was nonetheless still made to determine what to record, and what not to record, for later memory.

To probe the point a bit further with another example, perhaps when posting photos of a recent family event on Facebook we are again like Anna: aware that we too have an audience, we make decisions about which photos to include in our publicly archived family history. Thus, while few of us may reach the likes of Anna and her immense history of her father, at a very basic level perhaps we share with Anna a desire to record something for later generations, and in her great scholarly efforts, we can recognise some of the ways in which we too, curate our own family histories.

 

References:

[1] Peter Frankopan (ed.), The Alexiad (London: Penguin Classics, 2009), pp.xiii–xviii. For more background, see Frankopan’s other work: ‘Understanding the Greek sources for the first crusade’, in Marcus Bull and Damien Kempf (eds.), Writing the early crusades: text, transmission and memory (Boydell Press, Boydell & Brewer, 2014), pp.113-20; The first crusade: the call from the east (Great Britain: The Bodley Head, 2011).

[2] Anna Komnene, The Alexiad, trans. E.R.A Sewter, rev. and ed. Peter Frankopan (London: Penguin Books, 2009), p.3.

[3] Penelope Buckley, The Alexiad of Anna Komnene: Artistic Strategy in the Making of a Myth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.215-44.

[4] The Alexiad, pp.383-84.

[5] Ibid., p.126.

[6] Leanora Neville, Anna Komnene: the life and work of a medieval historian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), especially pp.153-74.

[7] Ibid. See also, Thalia Gouma-Peterson (ed.), Anna Komnene and her times (New York: Garland, 2000).

Image: Alexios Komnenos (son of John II) (image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

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