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Sunday, August 8, 2021

Opening Lines of the Alexiad

Failed coup plotters can be great historians. Anna Komnene, the author of the work of Byzantine history, The Alexiad, was the leader of a failed coup against her brother John II Komnenos, the heir to the throne of the Byzantine Empire. She wrote The Alexiad after she was defeated in the power struggle and was exiled for the rest of her life to a monastery on her brother’s orders.

The opening lines of The Alexiad are marvelous. Here’s a translation by E A Dawes:

TIME in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things, and drowns them in the depths of obscurity, no matter if they be quite unworthy of mention, or most noteworthy and important, and thus, as the tragedian says, “he brings from the darkness all things to the birth, and all things born envelops in the night.”

But the tale of history forms a very strong bulwark against the stream of time, and to some extent checks its irresistible flow, and, of all things done in it, as many as history has taken over, it secures and binds together, and does not allow them to slip away into the abyss of oblivion.

Now, I recognized this fact. I, Anna, the daughter of two royal personages, Alexius and Irene, born and bred in the purple. I was not ignorant of letters, for I carried my study of Greek to the highest pitch, and was also not unpractised in rhetoric; I perused the works of Aristotle and the dialogues of Plato carefully, and enriched my mind by the “quaternion” of learning. (I must let this out and it is not bragging to state what nature and my zeal for learning have given me, and the gifts which God apportioned to me at birth and time has contributed).

However, to resume—I intend in this writing of mine to recount the deeds done by my father for they should certainly not be lost in silence, or swept away, as it were, on the current of time into the sea of forgetfulness, and I shall recount not only his achievements as Emperor, but also the services he rendered to various Emperors before he himself received the sceptre.

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