February 2020

Prof Jonathan Harris

Dept of History, Royal Holloway, University of London

Anna Comnena and the Alexiad

Professor Jonathan Harris from Royal Holloway, University of London, gave a very informative and entertaining lecture entitled “Anna Comnena and the Alexiad”.

Professor Harris is an expert on Constantinople and has previously spoken at the Society – albeit about 20 years ago!

He explained who Anna Comnena was and gave us some background information about the Byzantine Empire in the 11thand 12th centuries.  Anna was the eldest daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I and Professor Harris explained the meaning of the phrase “born in the purple”, where royal children like Anna were born in a special room in the palace, decorated in purple.

He went on to show us how Anna had an educated upbringing, studying poetry, philosophy, mathematics and medicine.  We also learned about the failure of a plot to make her husband Emperor after her father died, resulting in her being distanced from the court and becoming a writer and historian.  Anna wrote a book (building on an unfinished work by her husband) detailing the reign of her father, which was the “Alexiad”.

Professor Harris entertained us with Anna’s presentation of her father’s reign in the best possible light – an example of a medieval spin doctor!  However, Anna was also a careful historian and made careful use of sources to garner correct information and, unusually for the time, explained what her sources were.  The Alexiad also gives a flavour of who Anna was: she didn’t hide herself and we learned about the strong narrative voice running through the book.  The lecture finished with a summary of Anna’s achievement in recording the life of Alexios I.  It was a stimulating and informative lecture, well-presented by Professor Harris and John gave the well-deserved vote of thanks.

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