With the end of the Macedonian house in 1057, all the elements of discord in the Byzantine Empire seemed to have been loosed. Civil war and foreign invasions rapidly succeeded one another, and the empire hastened to its doom. But the downward progress was for a time checked by the rise of the Comneni, a prominent family, who controlled the destinies and exerted a paramount influence over the career of the Byzantine government for over a century, in fact, until its overthrow by the Latin Crusaders in 1204. In the chronicles of the Comneni, its princesses played a notable though not always creditable role; and the undercurrent of Byzantine history for a century and a half was determined largely by woman's influence and woman's artifice.
Of the great families whose names appear on every page of the Byzantine history of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, that of the Comneni is by far the most illustrious. The hypothesis that the Comneni were an ancient Roman house which followed Constantine from Old Rome to New Rome must be given up: so important an item in the family glories of the house would not have been passed over in silence by Anna Comnena and her husband in their historical works. We must accept the testimony of a contemporary, Psellus, that the family was of Greek or Thracian origin, and derived its name from the ancestral seat, the village of Comne in the valley of the Torniga, near the site of the city of Adrianople.
The first of the line prominent in Byzantine annals was the illustrious Manuel Comnenus, who, under Basil II., aided in settling the troubled condition of the East and in reestablishing the Empire on a firm footing. As a result of his labors for the state, Manuel acquired vast estates in Cappadocia, and, from this time, his family ranked as one of the wealthiest and most aristocratic houses of the Byzantine nobility.
Manuel, upon his deathbed, left his two sons, Isaac and John, to the care and the gratitude of his sovereign. The two lads were carefully educated in all the learning and trained in all the manly accomplishments of the day; and their brotherly love became the subject of comment in an age when self-seeking was the most salient characteristic of the aristocratic class. When they attained manhood, both made brilliant marriages which greatly increased the lustre of their family name: Isaac married a captive princess of Bulgaria, and John wedded Anna Dalassena, the daughter of the patrician Dalassenus, nicknamed Charon from the number of enemies he had sent to the infernal regions. Isaac was fated to die childless and his wife is unknown to fame, but Anna, the wife of John, was destined to be the most remarkable woman of her house.
The Empress Theodora, in her last days, had nominated Michael VI., -- Stratioticus, -- an aged and decrepit veteran, as her successor; but his elevation was resented by the soldiers, who plotted and successfully carried through a conspiracy by which Michael was dispossessed and Isaac Comnenus, at that time the most popular general of the East, was elevated to the throne. But the usurpation was not attended with the blessings of heaven: Isaac was stricken with disease before he had reigned a full year, and retired to a monastery to die, abdicating the throne and selecting his brother John as his successor. For some unaccountable reason, and much to the chagrin of his wife Anna, whose ambitions were distinctly imperial, John declined the honor, and persisted in his refusal in spite of the entreaties of his wife and relatives, and with a seeming blindness to the welfare of the state. Possibly he felt that a curse rested upon a dynasty which had usurped the throne. Constantine Ducas, another Cappadocian patrician, was then selected; during his reign of seven troubled years he proved himself to be a sorry administrator. His empress, Eudocia Makremvolitissa, and Anna Dalassena are the two dominating personalities who determined the tenor of court intrigue and largely influenced the course of the events of this period. Anna most intensely hated Ducas and all his house, for they were occupying a throne which she thought should have been retained in her own family; and her relations with the empress were those of rivalry or of friendship, in proportion as Eudocia was acting in sympathy with or in opposition to her husband's family.
Constantine XI. -- Ducas -- was as intensely partisan as Anna; and when he found his end approaching, he wished above all things to assure the elevation of his three children, Michael, Andronicus, and Constantine. Constantine was well aware of the dangers which his dynasty would incur should the empress marry a second time; before conferring upon her the regency of the Empire, he therefore exacted from her a most solemnly attested promise that under no circumstances would she take a second husband. This important document was deposited in the hands of the patriarch, John Xiphilinus. Constantine made the Senate, also, take an oath never to acknowledge any other emperor than one of his own children. Feeling that he had bound his wife by irretrievable bonds, and that every precaution had been taken to assure the implicit fulfilment of his wishes, Constantine breathed his last with a contented mind.
But Eudocia soon discovered the need of a strong arm for the protection of her own rights and those of her sons. A woman of executive gifts, she was also devoted to literary pursuits, and her knowledge of history had taught her with how much reluctance the Byzantines submitted to the sovereignty of a woman. She recalled, too, the experience of the Empress Theophano, who had found prudent guardians for her sons, Basil II. and Constantine IX., in the persons of the soldiers Nicephorus II. and John I., though she was appalled by the vices of this empress, who had married and murdered the first and been scorned by the second guardian. Furthermore, threatening invasions and domestic unrest proved the need of a soldier as her colleague in the Empire. Love came to the assistance of reason, and Eudocia determined to break her vows and to take a second husband.
Romanus Diogenes, the most daring and popular general of the Empire, had been convicted of treason for participation in a conspiracy against her children's throne, and was then in prison awaiting sentence of death from Eudocia as regent. The latter, however, became enamored of her distinguished captive, and his beauty and valor convinced her that he was destined to share with her the throne. The army was clamoring for his release; and when he received a full pardon from the empress-regent, it at first created no suspicion of her romantic designs. The Seljukian Turks were at that time overrunning Cappadocia and it was necessary that the army should be under the control of an able and a daring general. Romanus was therefore raised from the scaffold to the headship of the army.
Before the empress could take any further step toward carrying out her matrimonial intentions, it was necessary to secure possession of the document which evidenced her pledge to her husband that she never would contract a second marriage. Feminine diplomacy enabled her to accomplish this delicate task; and the lack of principle and high moral character in the patriarch caused him to fall readily into the net laid for him by Eudocia.
Xiphilinus at first urged upon her emissary the sanctity of the oath the empress had taken, and the sacred nature of the trust he had assumed; but when it was whispered in his presence that his own brother was destined for the high honor, the patriarch's scruples were relaxed, and he yielded -- out of proper regard, as he alleged, for the welfare of the state. He resigned the important paper into the empress's hand, and at her solicitation proposed and carried through a measure in the Senate, favoring her second marriage, and in addition released the senators from their vow never to recognize as emperor any other than a son of Constantine. Great was the confusion of the credulous patriarch when he realized that he had been outwitted by the clever woman, who, when her plans were fully matured, made an official proclamation that she had selected Romanus IV., -- Diogenes, -- the most brilliant general of the Empire, to share with her the throne and to act as guardian to her sons.
Her choice was the occasion of much satisfaction to the army and the people, but caused jealousy and dissension in the imperial household. John Ducas, the late emperor's brother, held the rank of Caesar and was the natural guardian of his nephews; he at once began to conspire for the overthrow of Romanus and the retirement of Eudocia.
The new emperor at once assumed his duties of warding off the enemies of the Empire, and engaged in a deadly conflict with the Seljukian Turks. Though at first successful, his army was finally routed and almost annihilated, and Romanus himself was taken captive, on the fatal field of Manzikert, 1071, -- a decisive battle that marked the beginning of the end of Byzantine history and presaged the final conquest of Constantinople by the Turks. Romanus's capture produced a revolution at court. John Ducas seized the reins of government, ostensibly in the interests of Michael VII., son of Constantine; and when Romanus, having been released by his gallant foe, returned to Constantinople, Ducas had him seized and blinded and left to die through neglect. Eudocia was forced to retire to a monastery and take the veil; there she devoted herself to literary labors. She is reputed to be the author of a learned work, still extant, entitled Ionia, a species of historical and mythological dictionary. The last public appearance of the hapless Eudocia was on the occasion of the funeral of the valiant Romanus, which she was permitted to celebrate in an imposing manner.
A period of anarchy followed the cruel death of Romanus, and there were at one time no less than six pretenders to the throne. Throughout this trying period John Ducas maintained his power as regent, relinquishing his regency only when his ward, Michael VII., became of age and asserted his rights. Michael was fortunate in the choice of his empress, Princess Maria, daughter of the King of Iberia, whose beauty and grace are celebrated by the historian Anna Comnena. When her husband was overthrown and slain by the rebel Nicephorus Botaniates, Maria married the latter, with the hope of securing the throne for her child and the regency for herself. And from this time on her story is closely interwoven with that of the Comneni princesses, to whom we now return.
John Comnenus died soon after Constantine Ducas, leaving to the widowed Anna the task of bringing up a large family of eight children, -- Manuel, Isaac, Alexius, Adrian, Nicephorus, Maria, Eudocia, and Theodora. But Anna was equal to the task, and deserves to be ranked among the great mothers of the world. She gave herself up to the proper education of her sons and daughters, and to the promotion of their political advancement. She could never console herself for the loss of an imperial crown through the weakness of her husband, and all her tireless energy was directed toward recovering her lost opportunity and reaching the throne through the elevation of one of her sons. What is recounted of her shows that she was a woman of extraordinary intelligence, inexhaustible energy, remarkable political astuteness, and inordinate ambition.
After performing political services of great merit, Manuel, the eldest, died at an early age. The mother sought to make her sons Isaac and Alexius men who could show themselves capable of performing every task imposed upon them in the high station they were destined to acquire; and the proof of the influence she exerted in the formation of their characters is seen not only in their high attainments, but also in the ascendency she retained over Alexius when he had reached the throne.
Owing to her undying hatred of the house of Ducas, Anna attached herself to the party of the Empress Eudocia and Romanus, and, being then in high favor at court, she married her daughter Theodora to Romanus's son Constantine. The revolution made by John Ducas to the advantage of himself and his ward, Michael VII., upset all the well-laid plans of Anna Dalassena; and the fall of Romanus marked for a time the end of the favor of the Comneni. Anna showed her firmness of character by remaining faithful to the cause of the dethroned emperor. Her correspondence with him was detected, and she was exiled, with her children, to one of the Prince's Isles. Her exile did not last long, however, for she was recalled and restored to favor; and Michael VII. brought about the marriage of Isaac, the eldest son since the death of Manuel, to Irene, daughter of an Alanian prince, and cousin-german to the Empress Maria.
Meanwhile, another matrimonial scheme was being matured, which was not at all in accordance with the wishes of Anna and the empress. John Ducas, from the monastery to which he had retired, projected the marriage of his grand-daughter Irene, with Alexius Comnenus, who was rapidly growing in promise and influence, and was already giving evidence of his political astuteness and diplomacy. Alexius gladly welcomed an alliance which would unite the two most powerful families of Constantinople in his interest, but his patrician mother opposed any affiliation with the rival house, and hated the very name of Ducas. The Empress Maria also had plans for Alexius, with which she feared this alliance would interfere, and at first threatened open opposition. But Alexius won his point with his usual cleverness. Anna finally yielded to his persuasion, and the empress gave her reluctant consent. The result of the union was that Alexius at once became the most powerful of the younger nobles at the court.
The next step in his career was also determined by the profound wisdom or wily caprice of a woman. To the surprise of her friends and consternation of her enemies, the Empress Maria adopted Alexius as her son. Anna Dalassena in all probability had a hand in this move for the elevation of her house, but it is difficult to see what was the motive of the empress, who had a young son, Constantine, whom she wished to succeed to the purple. Perhaps she felt the need of a strong hand to support the claims of herself and her son against her second husband, the usurper Nicephorus Botaniates. Perhaps she was captivated by the manly vigor and personal charms of the young man, and wished to play with Alexius the role of Theophano with Zimisces. It is impossible to state her motive, but the step was the first move toward the final overthrow of her house and the succession of the Comneni.
Alexius had now all the reins of power in his hands, and a revolution against Botaniates ensued. The usurper was overthrown and Alexius was proclaimed emperor by the army. At first Constantine, the son of the Empress Maria and Michael VII., was associated with him on the throne, though still in his minority. Anna Dalassena and Maria, dreading the ascendency of Irene Ducas, wife of Alexius, plotted to prevent her coronation as empress, but the patriarch, who was a partisan of the house of Ducas, defeated their intrigues; a few days after Alexius assumed the purple, Irene, with imposing ceremonies, was crowned empress.
Alexius well knew how to gain over to his support and utilize for his schemes the intriguing women who were about him. He had a profound respect for the political sagacity of his mother and during the earlier years of his reign her word exerted a deep influence on the course of government. When he was called away from Constantinople by the wars that demanded his personal attention, he left his mother as regent during his absence.
The first offspring of the union of Alexius and Irene was a daughter, Anna Comnena. She was in her infancy affianced to Constantine, and the two were regarded as heirs to the throne, much to the delight of the ex-Empress Maria. In the ceremonies of the court, the names of Constantine and Anna immediately followed those of Alexius and Irene.
Finally, in 1088, the empress bore a son, the third of her children. The joy of Alexius was unbounded. Seeing the possibility of his son carrying on the dynasty and perpetuating the name of Comnenus, Alexius determined to set aside the claims of Constantine and his eldest daughter. An estrangement with Maria Ducas followed. In 1092, John in his fourth year was proclaimed emperor, and Constantine was deprived of his rights. The rupture between Alexius and Maria was a source of enmity to the reigning house. Chagrined at the failure of her plans, and at the usurpation of one to whom she had shown every kindness, the ex-empress took part in a conspiracy against Alexius. But the plot was exposed in time, and all who were engaged in it were severely punished, except the ex-empress, who was permitted by her adopted son to go into peaceful retirement.
Constantine, though no longer associated on the throne, was still affianced to Anna, but an early death removed him from the scene of action and the intrigues of the court. In 1097, Anna was married to Nicephorus Bryennius, scion of a noble house. The mother, Anna Dalassena, continued for some time to be a powerful factor at court, but, becoming unpopular and realizing that she was losing her hold on her imperial son, she finally followed the usual custom of retiring to a monastery.
Thus the ex-Empress Maria and Anna -- the real founder of the fortune of her house -- found in religious retirement and meditation a life of peace and tranquillity after the turmoils of revolutions and the intrigues of imperial politics. The one had seen the failure of her plans and the downfall of her house; the other could look with pride upon the full fruition of her plots for the elevation of the Comneni.
The reign of Alexius I., -- Comnenus, -- occupies a considerable place not only in Byzantine, but, also, in general history. It inaugurated a new era in the relations between the East and the West, between the Greek and the Latin, both in affairs of Church and state, and the events of which the tragic expedition of 1204 was the climax had their beginning in the days when the courtiers of Alexius revelled with the companions of Godfrey of Bouillon. Equally important is this reign from the point of view of the Byzantine Empire; it put an end to the anarchy of the eleventh century, it established a dynasty which restored much of the territory that weak rulers had lost, and for over a century it preserved the tottering Empire from its inevitable fall. It was a period in which woman's influence was marked, and its record is well known to us because of the literary skill of Anna Comnena. This imperial princess is the first woman in the world's annals to write an extended history. Both in learning and in personality she has won a place among the notable women of the world, and hers is the last great name in the chronicles of Byzantine womanhood.
In the comprehensive education which Anna received, we have a view of the literary prominence of the Comnenic epoch. She had the best masters the Empire afforded, and in her childhood she exhibited a phenomenal capacity for learning. Her teachers gave her thorough training in the works of classical authors. She read Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Aristophanes, the Tragedians and Polybius under suitable guidance, and without assistance mastered the writings of the church fathers. She studied with avidity ancient mythology, geography, history, rhetoric, and dialectic, and was also versed in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. It was in history, however, that she found her chief delight, and she early conceived the idea of composing a work in honor of her father's reign.
We have already mentioned the incidents of her childhood. Anna never forgave her brother John for supplanting her, and this disappointment of her tender years largely influenced the course of her later life. She was devoted to Maria, the mother of her first betrothed, and no doubt imbibed from her much of the ambition and hatred which were the marked characteristics of her career in politics. Her empress-mother, Irene, also exhibited a marked partiality for her eldest daughter, to the disparagement of her son, whom Alexius had destined for the throne. Irene was a beautiful and intriguing princess of much natural ability, and stood in awe of the greater learning of her daughter. The two became companions in intrigue and diplomacy, and worked together for the promotion of their own interests, against the schemes of Alexius and John. Anna was married at a tender age to Nicephorus Bryennius. He was the representative of one of the most aristocratic and powerful families of Constantinople, and exhibited much ability both in authorship and statecraft, but he seems mediocre and colorless by the side of his spouse.
Walter Scott laid the scene of his Count Robert of Paris in the Constantinople of this period, and he presents an interesting picture of Anna as a devotee of the Muses, and of the principal heroes and heroines who figure in the intrigues of the court at this time:
|It was an apartment of the palace of the Blaquemal, dedicated to the especial service of the beloved daughter of the Emperor Alexius, the Princess Anna Comnena, known to our times by her literary talents, which record the history of her father's reign. She was seated, the queen and sovereign of a literary circle, such as the imperial princess, Porphyrogenita (or born in the sacred purple chamber itself), could assemble in those days, and a glance round will enable us to form an idea of her guests or companions.
|The literary princess herself had the bright eyes, straight features and comely and pleasing manners which all would have allowed to the emperor's daughter, even if she could not have been, with severe truth, said to have possessed them. She was placed upon a small bench, or sofa, the fair sex here not being permitted to recline, as was the fashion of the Roman ladies. A table before her was loaded with books, plants, herbs, and drawings. She sat on a slight elevation, and those who enjoyed the intimacy of the princess, or to whom she wished to speak in particular, were allowed during such sublime colloquy to rest their knees on the little dais or elevated place where her chair found its station, in a posture half standing, half kneeling. Three other seats, of different heights, were placed on the dais, and under the same canopy of state which overshadowed that of Princess Anna.
|The first, which strictly resembled her own chair in size and convenience, was one designed for her husband, Nicephorus Bryennius. He was said to entertain or affect the greatest respect for his wife's erudition, though the courtiers were of the opinion that he would have liked to absent himself from her evening parties more frequently than was particularly agreeable to the Princess Anna and her imperial parents. This was partly explained by the private tattle of the court, which averred that the Princess Anna Comnena had been more beautiful when she was less learned; and that, though still a fine woman, she had somewhat lost the charms of her person as she became enriched in her mind.
|To atone for the lowly fashion of the seat of Nicephorus Bryennius, it was placed as near to his princess as it could possibly be edged by the ushers, so that she might not lose one look of her handsome spouse, nor he the least particle of wisdom which might drop from the lips of his erudite consort.
|Two other seats of honor or, rather, thrones -- for they had footstools placed for the support of the feet, rests for the arms, and embroidered pillows for the comfort of the back, not to mention the glories of the outspreading canopy -- were destined for the imperial couple, who frequently attended their daughter's studies, which she prosecuted in public in the way we have intimated. On such occasions, the Empress Irene enjoyed the triumph peculiar to the mother of an accomplished daughter, while Alexius, as it might happen, sometimes listened with complacence to the rehearsal of his own exploits in the inflated language of the princess, and sometimes mildly nodded over her dialogues upon the mysteries of philosophy, with the Patriarch Zosimus, and other sages.|
Scott's description gives a graphic presentation of the Princess Anna and of her relations with the various members of her family; and if we add the heir to the throne, her younger brother John, for whom she had profound contempt in spite of his many virtues, we have the group about whom revolve the narrative of her history and the chief events of her life.
It is not necessary for us to enter into the story of the First Crusade, and of the incidents of the intercourse of Franks and Greeks, which Anna tells so graphically in her history; but before calling attention to the literary qualities and historical value of her work, we must note those events which unfolded her character and, in her later years, brought about her exclusive devotion to literature.
Owing to his duplicity and lack of confidence in men, Alexius made his wife and his learned daughter his confidantes and his advisers in many of the affairs of State, and frequently utilized their services in gaining his ends. Both the imperial ladies were apt pupils in the school of political intrigue, and, in the last years of the emperor, endeavored to utilize their influence over him to the detriment of the heir-apparent and the elevation of Anna and her husband, the Caesar Nicephorus. They accordingly formed a plot, during Alexius's last illness, to dispossess the eldest son John, that the three might share the government among them.
The empress introduced soldiers into the palace, and in the closing hours of the emperor's life sought to prevail on him to pronounce the words which would bring about the change in the succession. But the astute emperor realized his son's eminent fitness to wear the crown, and was not in sympathy with the ambitions of his learned but unscrupulous daughter. To all the entreaties of the empress he but cast his eyes heavenward and remarked on the vanities of human greatness. Despairing and enraged, the empress at last hastily left the room with a parting thrust at her imperial consort, which might fitly have been inscribed as an epitaph on his tomb: |You die as you lived -- a hypocrite!| Meanwhile, during her absence, John entered the room, and, with the tacit consent of his dying father, removed from his finger the signet which gave him command of all the forces of the palace; and crushing, in their inception, the plots of the empress and her daughter, he was solemnly crowned the moment his father breathed his last.
John proved to be the most amiable character that ever occupied the Byzantine throne. But all his virtues did not suffice to quell the malice and disappointed ambition of his imperial sister. In spite of the failure of the first conspiracy, the Princess Anna, |whose philosophy would not have refused the weight of a diadem,| entered into another plot to dispossess her brother -- already secure in the confidence of courtiers and subjects -- and to elevate her husband, whom she felt sure of ruling. As John was already on the throne, however, the only way by which he could be disposed of was to have his eyes put out or to resort to the still worse crime of secret assassination. When her mild and gentle husband recoiled at the thought of such cruelty, Anna made to him the memorable response that Nature had mistaken the two sexes and had endowed him with the soul of a woman, contemptuously contrasting what she termed his feminine weakness with her own manly inhumanity.
This conspiracy, however, was also revealed before it had made any serious headway, and John deemed it necessary to confiscate his sister's wealth in order to make further intrigues impossible. He caused the Princess Anna to retire to a convent and bestowed her luxuriously furnished palace on his favorite minister, Axouchus. But the noble nature of Axouchus recoiled at being benefited by the princess's fall, and thought more of turning the situation to the emperor's advantage than of enriching himself. Accordingly, he suggested to the emperor that it would be better policy to ward off the malice of his enemies by restoring the palace to Anna, and seeming to ignore her futile plots. John felt the prudence of the advice, and impressed by the unselfish devotion of his friend, -- a quality most rare in late Byzantine times, -- replied in like spirit: |I should, indeed, be unworthy to reign if I could not forget my anger as readily as you forget your interest.| Anna was reinstated in her palace.
But little is known of the rest of Anna Comnena's life. Tiring finally of the vanities of court life, disappointed in all her intrigues for absolute power, and becoming ever more absorbed in her literary undertakings, she seems to have voluntarily sought the life of the cloister and to have spent the last decades of her career in peaceful retirement, engaged on her monumental work. She survived her brother John, who died in 1143, and was still at work on her history in 1145. The date of her death is unknown.
The great work of Anna Comnena is entitled the Alexiad, and is one of the most important works in the voluminous collection of the Byzantine historians. In fifteen books, it narrates the history of Alexius Comnenus; and is a completion and continuation of a work in four books, left by her husband, Nicephorus Bryennius. The first two books of Anna's work treat of the rise into power of the Comneni house, and of the early life of Alexius; the remaining thirteen are devoted to the events of his reign.
The work of Anna, as a contribution to historical literature, has very decided deficiencies. In spite of her professed love of truth, her filial vanity tempts her at all times to put her father and her family in the best light. The very title, Alexiad suggests rather an epos -- a poem in prose -- than a serious historical work, and emphasizes its epideictic tendency. As a woman, she is impressed with the concrete rather than the abstract, and describes brilliant state functions, church festivals, imposing audiences and the like with much more familiarity and enthusiasm than she displays in her treatment of the underlying causes and inner connections of events. But with all their faults, these memoirs are an authoritative account of a brilliant and important epoch, and of a ruler who for his military sagacity and political shrewdness ranks among the great personages of the Middle Ages.
The human traits of the author reveal themselves in every chapter of her work. Anna possessed a womanly weakness for gossip and slander, and mingles her praise of the other prominent women of her time with a tincture of disparagement that must often be attributed to feminine jealousy. She possessed considerable wit and irony, but was intensely vain of her rank, her Greek origin and especially of her literary attainments. Nor must we fail to note the vaulting ambition of this otherwise attractive woman, an ambition which made her untrue to her brother and a conspirator against his throne and his life.
Anna Comnena realized that the chief censure of her work at the hands of contemporaries and of posterity would be the charge of partiality, and against this she seeks to defend herself in a striking passage:
|I must still once more repel the reproach which some may bring against me, as if my history were composed merely according to the dictates of the natural love for parents which is engraved on the hearts of children. In truth, it is not the effect of that affection which I bear to mine, but it is the evidence of matters of fact, which obliges me to speak as I have done. Is it not possible that one can have at the same time an affection for the memory of a father and for truth? For myself, I have never directed my attempt to write history otherwise than for the ascertainment of the matter of fact. With this purpose I have taken for my subject the history of a worthy man. Is it just, then, by the single accident of his being the author of my birth, his quality of my father ought to form a prejudice against me, which would ruin my credit with my readers? I have given, upon other occasions, proofs sufficiently strong of the ardor which I had for the defence of my father's interests, which those that know me can never doubt; but, on the present, I have been limited by the inviolable fidelity with which I respect the truth, which I should have felt conscious to have veiled, under pretence of serving the renown of my father.|
The authoress felt assured that a number of disturbances of nature and mysterious occurrences as interpreted by the soothsayers, foreboded the death of Alexius; thus she claimed for her father the indications of consequence, which were regarded by the ancients as necessary intimations of the sympathy of nature with the removal of great characters -- from the world. During his latter days, the emperor was afflicted with the gout. Weakened in body, and gradually losing his native energy, he once responded to the empress, when she spoke of how his deeds would be handed down in history: |The passages of my unhappy life call rather for tears and lamentations than for the praises you speak of.| Finally asthma came to the assistance of the gout, and the prayers of monks and clergy, as well as the lavish distribution of alms, failed to stay the progress of the disease. At length passed away the Emperor Alexius, who, with all his faults, was one of the best sovereigns of the Eastern Empire.
His learned daughter, in the greatness of her grief, threw aside the reserve of literary eminence, and burst into tears and shrieks, tearing her hair, and defacing her countenance, while the Empress Irene cut off her hair, changed her purple buskins for black mourning shoes, and, casting from her her princely robes, put on a robe of black. |Even at the moment when she put it on,| adds Anna, |the emperor gave up the ghost, and in that moment the sun of my life set.|
Anna continues to express her lamentations at her loss, and upbraids herself that she survived her father, |that light of the world|; Irene, |the delight alike of the East and of the West|; and, also, her husband, Nicephorus. |I am indignant,| she adds, |that my soul, suffering under such torrents of misfortune, should still deign to animate my body. Have I not been more hard and unfeeling than the rocks themselves; and is it not just that one who could survive such a father and a mother and such a husband should be subjected to the influence of so much calamity? But let me finish this history, rather than any longer fatigue my readers with my unavailing and tragical lamentation!| The history then closes with the following couplet:
|The learned Comnena lays her pen aside,
What time her subject and her father died.|
Taking it all in all, the best appreciation of the Alexiad is that of Gibbon, who thus characterizes the qualities of the work:
|The life of the Emperor Alexius has been delineated by a favorite daughter, who was inspired by a tender regard for his person and a laudable zeal to perpetuate his virtues. Conscious of the just suspicion of her readers, Anna Comnena repeatedly protests that, besides her personal knowledge, she has searched the discourse and writings of the most respectable veterans; that after an interval of thirty years, forgotten by, and forgetful of, the world, her mournful solitude was inaccessible to hope and fear; and that truth, the naked perfect truth, was more dear and sacred than the memory of her parent. Yet instead of the simplicity of style and narrative which wins our belief, an elaborate affectation of rhetoric and science betrays, in every page, the vanity of the female author.
|The genuine character of Alexius is lost in a vague constellation of virtues; and the perpetual strain of panegyric and apology awakens our jealousy to question the veracity of the historian and the merit of the hero. We cannot, however, refuse her judicious and important remark that the disorders of the times were the misfortune and the glory of Alexius; and that every calamity which can afflict a declining empire was accumulated in his reign by the justice of heaven and the vices of his predecessors.... The reader may possibly smile at the lavish praise which his daughter so often bestows on a flying hero; the weakness or prudence of his situation might be mistaken for a want of personal courage; and his political arts are branded by the Latins with the names of deceit and dissimulation....|
The story of the remaining princesses of the Comneni family is merely the mirroring of feminine beauty and frailty; and its sad chronicle goes to show that the Empire was deservedly hastening to its doom because the stamina sufficient to keep it alive was lacking.
John Comnenus was succeeded by his younger son Manuel, a renowned warrior about whose name have gathered many of the romances of chivalry. He was twice married, first to the virtuous Bertha of Germany, and, after her decease, to the beautiful Maria, a French or Latin princess of Antioch. Bertha had a daughter, who was destined for Bela, a Hungarian prince educated at Constantinople under the name of Alexius and looked upon as the heir-apparent. But his rights were set aside when Maria had a son named Alexius, who was in the direct line of male succession. Notwithstanding the virtues of his queens, Manuel, who was so valiant in war, showed himself in peace a licentious voluptuary. |No sooner did he return to Constantinople than he resigned himself to the arts and pleasures of a life of luxury: the expense of his dress, his table and his palace, surpassed the measure of his predecessors, and whole summer days were idly wasted in the delicious isles of the Propontis in the incestuous love of his niece, Theodora.|
Manuel had a cousin, Andronicus, who was even more of a voluptuary than he -- one whose career as a soldier of fortune and as a heartless roue marks him as the Byzantine Alcibiades. He indulged his favorite passions, love and war, without any regard to divine or human law. His lofty stature, manly strength and beauty, and dare-devil manner were so seductive that three ladies of royal birth fell victims to his charms. His mistresses shared his company with his lawful wife, and divided his affections with a crowd of actresses and dancing girls. He was a partaker of the pleasures, as well as of the perils, of Manuel; and while the emperor lived in public incest with his niece Theodora, Andronicus enjoyed the favors of her sister Eudocia. So enamored was she of her handsome lover, and so shameless in her conduct, that she gloried in the title of his mistress, and accompanied him to his military command in Cilicia. Upon his return, her brothers sought to expiate her infamy in the blood of Andronicus, but, through Eudocia's aid, he eluded his enemy. Proving treacherous, however, to the emperor, he was imprisoned for a long period in a tower of the palace at Constantinople, where his faithful wife shared his imprisonment and assisted him in making his escape.
Andronicus was later given a second command on the Cilician frontier. While here, he made a conquest of the beautiful Philippa, sister of the Empress Maria, and daughter of Raymond of Poitou, the Latin Prince of Antioch. For her sake, he deserted his station and wasted his time in balls and tournaments; and to his love the frail princess sacrificed her innocence, her reputation, and the offer of an advantageous marriage. The Emperor Manuel, however, urged on by his consort, resented this violation of the family honor, and recalled Andronicus from his infamous liaison. The indiscreet princess was left to weep and repent of her folly; and Andronicus, deprived of his post, gathered together a band of adventurers of like spirit and undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. With bold effrontery, he declared himself a champion of the Cross; and his beauty, gallantry, and professions of piety captivated both king and clergy. The Latin King of Jerusalem invested the Byzantine prince with the lordship of Berytus, on the coast of Phoenicia. In his neighborhood there dwelt the young and handsome queen, Theodora, -- the daughter of his cousin Isaac, and great-grand-daughter of the Emperor Alexius, -- who was widow of Baldwin III., King of Jerusalem. Because of her beauty, her talents, and her prudence, Theodora enjoyed the respect and admiration of all the Latin nobles. Andronicus became deeply enamored of his fair cousin, and she, returning his passion with equal ardor, became the third royal victim of his lust. So debased was the state of society among the Latin Christians -- which was the case at Constantinople also -- that the cousins carried on their amours with little affectation of secrecy. The Emperor Manuel being again enraged by the disgrace to the family name through the moral fall of another Comneni princess, Andronicus had to flee for his life, and Theodora accompanied him in his flight. She and her two illegitimate children were later captured and sent to Constantinople. Andronicus finally sought forgiveness from the emperor, and such was his charm that he was pardoned; he returned to Constantinople, and soon began the career of intrigue which eventually placed him on the throne.
Upon the death of Manuel, the Empress Maria acted as regent for her son Alexius II., a lad of thirteen. Her prime minister was Alexius Comnenus, a grandson of John II. Maria's beauty and charm of manner gave her considerable power over the young nobility. In the conflicts of the nobles she warmly espoused the cause of her prime minister, and it was believed that a criminal attachment existed between them. The young emperor's sister Maria, with the Caesar, her husband, attempted to drive the prime minister from power by a popular uprising. In the turmoil and chaos that followed, all eyes turned toward Andronicus. The voluptuary and adventurer responded to the call, and entered the city to be enthroned, alleging that it was his purpose to deliver the young emperor from evil counsellors. Cruelty was now added to his other serious crimes. The Princess Maria and her husband, the Caesar, were poisoned; the Empress Maria, on a charge of treason, was condemned to death, and strangled; and Alexius II., the legitimate heir to the throne, was deposed and subjected to the same form of death as his unfortunate mother. The tyrant kicked the body of the innocent youth as it lay before him, and addressed it with a sneer: |Thy father was a knave, thy mother a whore, and thyself a fool!|
Owing to debauchery and crime, the family of the Comneni had degenerated. Through the nobility and greatness of its women in an earlier period, it had risen to the height of power; and through the debasement and weakness of its women, it finally fell. Andronicus was the last of the line -- the most heinous monster that ever sat on the Byzantine throne. But his career in crime was cut short. The people rose up against the author of so many assassinations. Isaac Angelus, a nobleman, accused of treason, resisted arrest, and fled to Saint Sophia. A mob gathered and took his side against the mercenaries of Andronicus. The tyrant himself was seized and torn to pieces, and the Angeli succeeded the Comneni on the throne of Constantinople.
Isaac and Alexius Angelus, the two emperors whose reign occupied the years 1185-1204, between the fall of Andronicus and the conquest of Constantinople by the Crusaders, were the two most feeble and despicable creatures who ever occupied the imperial throne. Euphrosyne, the empress of Alexius, however, was a woman of strong personality, though of licentious ways, and, as the last of the Byzantine empresses before the fall of Constantinople, she exhibited the strength as well as the weakness of that long line of self-asserting princesses whom we have been considering.
Owing to the idle disposition of her worthless husband, Euphrosyne assisted in conducting the business of the Empire; and so masterful was she that no minister dared take any step without her approval. Gibbon considers that there was no greater indication of the degradation of society at this time than that the proudest nobles of the Empire, members of the celebrated families of Comnenus, Ducas, Palaeologus, and Cantacuzenus, contended for the honor of carrying Euphrosyne on her litter at public ceremonies. Her influence over the nobility was due to her beauty, her talents and her aptitude for business. But her inordinate vanity, reckless extravagance, and flagrant licentiousness brought great scandal upon the Empire even in those vicious times, and frequently led to violent quarrels with Alexius. Finally, the jealousy of the emperor at her licentious conduct lost all bounds. Alexius ordered her paramour to be assassinated, and the female slaves and the eunuchs of her household were put to the torture. The beautiful and accomplished Euphrosyne was compelled to leave the palace, and, like so many imperial dames noted for their devotion or their license, was immured in a convent.
The court, however, soon missed her talents and energy; Alexius himself was not equal to the ordinary duties of his office; the courtiers were unrestrained in their peculations, and nowhere was there a restraining hand. Euphrosyne was recalled to save the dynasty, and, with even more than her former insolence, she entered once more upon a career of extravagance and shame. While her energy and skill in the affairs of state won admiration, her lavish expenditures of the public funds excited the dismay of the few thoughtful men of the day. The crowd enjoyed the splendid spectacle of her hunting parties and applauded their empress as she rode along on her richly caparisoned steed, with a falcon perched on her gold-embroidered glove, but such extravagances were but hastening the end of the doomed city.
The rest of the story is but too quickly told. Alexius III., -- Angelus, -- had, by a clever coup d'etat, displaced his brother Isaac; Alexius IV., son of Isaac, implored outside aid, and gave the marauders of the fourth Crusade an excuse to attack the city. Alexius III. fled for his life, and Alexius IV., after a brief reign, was caught and strangled by the usurper, Alexius Ducas. The Crusaders assaulted and sacked Constantinople when Alexius V., Ducas, the last of the emperors, fled in a galley by night, taking with him the Empress Euphrosyne and her daughter Eudocia whom he had married. He was afterward captured, tried for the murder of the young Alexius, and suffered death by being hurled from the top of a lofty pillar.
The end of Euphrosyne and her daughter Eudocia is not known. The latter had already had a sufficiently tragical history. Eudocia had first been married to Simeon, King of Servia, who later abdicated the throne and retired to a monastery. His son Stephen, enamored of the beauty of his young stepmother, married her. Later, a disgraceful quarrel arose. Eudocia was divorced by her second husband and, almost naked, was expelled from the palace.
In her desperate condition, abandoned by all, she would probably have perished had not Fulk, the king's brother, taken pity on her and sent her back to Constantinople. Alexius Ducas, who had already divorced two wives, was willing enough to wed the daughter of Euphrosyne, and after his execution the hand of the accommodating Eudocia was bestowed on Leo Sguros, the chief of Argos, Nauplia, and Corinth.
The stories of Euphrosyne and Eudocia are a sufficient confirmation of the corrupt state of society in the latter days of the Comneni and the Angeli. Andronicus and his mistresses, and Euphrosyne and her daughter, are no exaggerated types of the higher classes of the Empire. The clergy had grown indifferent to the licentiousness of the age, and many bishops and patriarchs were themselves venal and degraded. The people were too ready to follow in the footsteps of the higher classes. Therefore, through the loss of womanly virtue and manly strength, the Empire was on the verge of ruin.
Thus fell, on April 13, 1204, Constantinople -- |The eye of the world, the ornament of nations, the fairest sight on earth, the mother of churches, the spring whence flowed the waters of faith, the mistress of orthodox doctrine, the seat of the sciences, draining the cup mixed for her by the hand of the Almighty, and consumed by fires as devouring as those which ruined the five Cities of the Plain.|