Book Review

Book Review: Anna of Byzantium

“How had I fallen so far? Why were my feet not ringing on the polished marble floors of the palace in Constantinople?…” – Tracy Barrett, Anna of Byzantium.

Anna of Byzantium is a historical fiction novel about the rise and fall of Anna Comnena, the daughter of Alexius Comnenos, Emperor of Eastern Rome or Byzantium. In the first chapter, we meet the disgraced Byzantine princess, who has been exiled to a convent in hills. The author then goes back to Anna’s childhood and narrates her story. Having been named the heir to the throne, Anna expects to ascend the throne on Alexios’ death. But when she antagonises her grandmother, Anna Dalassena (who is shown to be the king’s counsellor and the most important female in the empire) Anna is cast aside and John is made the heir-apparent. Thirsting for vengeance, Anna tries to assassinate her brother but she is captured and exiled.

I usually avoid books which are written in first person, but this one was different. The prose is elegant without being too ornate and Anna’s character is drawn well. She is a flawed character (she is impetuous, proud and ill-tempered) but it makes the reader empathise with her more.  I understood her need to acquire what was her birth-right. I couldn’t help but root for her even though I knew that she would never be the Empress of Byzantium. Her fall was spectacular and was nothing short of tragic. Although this book does not deal with military aspects of the First Crusade fought during her lifetime and it does not have layers the way Pride of Carthage does, it does transport you to Anna’s Byzantium.

Nevertheless, the book is so full of factual errors that it made me curious about the author’s sources (which are not listed). The Wikipedia article on Anna Komnene is more accurate than this book. The author’s tone is exceedingly feminist. It would not incorrect to assume that the author’s primary aim was to depict a woman’s struggle for power. However, distorting facts to suit the theme of the narrative is inexcusable.

Although there were several errors, I shall discuss the most glaring ones only. Firstly, Eirene Doukaina (or Irene Ducas, as she is called in the book) and not Anna Dalassena, was the most powerful woman in the empire when Anna was old enough to rebel. There is some evidence of the fact that Anna Dalassena held a lot of power during the early years of Alexios’ reign. Eirene was not a “pretty little thing” with no brains and no interest in administration. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Joannes Zonaras, a Byzantine historian, says that she was so powerful that “even her son and Emperor was subordinate to her”. Alexios had made Eirene the queen regent when Alexios’ health had declined. The real power struggle was not between Eirene and Anna Dalassena but between Eirene and her son, John, who had been crowned co-emperor when he was five. Eirene preferred her first-born Anna and her husband, Nikephoros, to her son.

Secondly, Anna Komnene was brought up by her future mother-in-law, Maria of Alania, Constantine Ducas’ mother (and not by her own mother and grandmother) and later by the mother of Nikephorus. (She was betrothed first to Ducas and later to Nikephoros when Ducas died of illness.) In her book Anna Komnene: The Life and Work of a Medieval Historian, Leonora Neville says, ”As a consequence of her engagement to Constantine, Anna went to live with Constantine’s mother, Maria of Alania, when she was seven…. They (aristocratic Byzantine girls) would move into the household of their future husbands’ families near the time of betrothal so that their future mothers- in- law could raise them and help prepare them for their marriage.”

Thirdly, if Niketas Choniates’ account is to be believed, Anna had tried to convince Nikephoros to kill John, but Nikephoros had refused to commit regicide, so the coup d’état had failed. Nikephoros, like other male characters in this story, gets very little stage time. This book depicts Anna single-handedly trying to assassinate John with a dagger. Nikephoros appears only once in the story (and is shown to be a lot older than Anna. He wasn’t; he only a few years older than her.) I found this part especially difficult to digest since she had four children with Nikephoros.

This book might not appeal to serious readers of Byzantine history, but it is a well-written book. It is just not historically accurate.

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