My Muses: Clio and Anna Comnena

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I’ve already mentioned that my ability to enjoy relaxation is limited. So, in an attempt to dampen the sunny fun of my vacation, I’ve created a small project for myself. For the nine days that I’m on holiday, I will assign a real-life, honest-to-goodness lady to an appropriate Greek Muse. So far, I’ve managed to feature Bessie Stringfield as a flesh and blood version of Calliope. Today, I will be looking at the life of Anna Comnena, widely recognized as the first female historian. Appropriately, she will serve as my real-life Clio. My muse of history.

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Anna was “born and bred in the purple,” as she puts it in her historical masterpiece, the Alexiad. She came into the world on December 1st, of 1083, and grew up in the Imperial Palace of Constantinople. Anna’s mention of the luxurious color purple is a nod to her position as a Byzantine princess (her father was emperor Alexios I). In the medieval ages, the color purple was generally reserved for royalty and nobility under sumptuary law. But, even if a poor-old peasant wanted to break the law and don the color purple, the dye-stuff was too expensive and rare for a “commoner” to obtain. The reason: one of the major sources for purple dye at the time were murex snails, which populated the Mediterranean Sea. Divers were required to harvest the sea snail, and then the snail shell had to be cracked open and the hypobranchial gland removed, which secreted the blue tinted chemical, dibromo-indigotin. 10-12,000 murex snails were required to make one gram of Tyrian or royal purple dye, so you can imagine the dye was costly, at the expense of both humans and snails. (Thanks for joining me on this tangent about murex snails!)

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Back at the royal palace, Anna was receiving an exemplary education, as she was prepped for rule. She studied astrology, mathematics, philosophy, literature, geography, Greek language, medicine rhetoric and…yes…history. She was a tailor-made royal. She had brains. She had ambition. But, what she didn’t have were balls. You can imagine that she was pretty peeved when her younger brother, John II, was offered the throne. She was preparing to place the royal diadem on her brow and the brow of her husband, Nikephoros Bryennios. And, because she could not tolerate B.S., she formed a conspiracy to murder and overthrow her brother. However, the plot was uncovered and poor Anna was booted out of court.

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After her plot to take over the throne was thwarted, and her husband died in 1137, Anna lived out the rest of her days in the seclusion of the convent. This might sound like a grim existence, but any writer knows that living like a hermit in a cloister-like setting is ideal for producing prose. It was during Anna’s time at the convent that she finished the history of her father, Alexios I, known as the Alexiad, which her husband had started before he croaked. Beyond the document’s importance as the first known history written by a woman, the Alexiad contains rare accounts of the First Crusade from the point of view of the Byzantines. Anna’s brilliant mind and brimming ambition could not be suppressed, and the Alexiad is a testament to her glowing talent. Amongst the mortals, she is my Clio. My muse.

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