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Anna of Byzantium: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

The lesson explores Tracy Barrett's 'Anna of Byzantium,' historical fiction for young adults. We will learn about Princess Anna Comnena and her life in the Byzantine Empire. We will also discover how Barrett embroiders real history with an engaging first person narrative.

Meet Anna Comnenus

Tracy Barrett's historical fiction Anna of Byzantium takes place in the Byzantine Empire at the height of its power. King Alexius I Comnenus (1081-1118) declares war on the Turks, initiating what will later be called the First Crusade, the attempt of Christians to recapture the Holy Land in Jerusalem from the Ottoman Turks. When King Alexius is away at war, his young son John sits on the throne.

Painting of Alexius I, from a Greek manuscript in the Vatican library
Alexius I

Anna Comnenus, his first born and the next to rise to the throne, begrudgingly yields to her younger brother. Though she is betrothed, she is not yet married and, without a husband, she has no authority. Anna invites us into her world: Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire (now Istanbul, Turkey). We follow Anna from age 11, on the crest of womanhood, to age 17. Readers will learn about Byzantine history, culture, and social customs.

Barrett brings her expertise in Byzantine history to the page in this, her first work of fiction. Having studied the real-life Anna Comnenus at length, Barrett integrates historical fact with occasional embroidering to bring the Princess' story to life.

Map of the Byzantine Empire
Byzantine Empire

Coming of Age in the Middle Ages

Anna (11) hates that she has to sit all day in the cold manuscript room, copying books and other documents. But at least it's a little warmer in the library than it would be anywhere else in the palace. With her father away fighting the Turks, Anna watches from the sidelines as John (6), sits in the seat of power. She calls him 'imp' and 'little monkey.' Anna dreams of the day she will inherit the throne with Constantine at her side.

Because of the war, Anna is thrust prematurely into an adult role. ''As an eleven-year-old, I was nearly a woman. The woman is the head of the household, and when I was empress, I would have an enormous household to supervise.''

In the Library

Reading, writing, literature, and literacy are all important aspects of the novel. Early chapters document the tutelage of medieval scribes. The Comnena children, Anna, John, and their sister Maria, take classes with Simon, the librarian. Simon teaches them about Greek and Roman literature, myths, and the stories of great rulers. Simon teaches Anna about Greek mythology. In one lesson, they read and analyze the story of Icarus and Daedalus. ''Don't fly too near to the sun, Little Beetle,'' warns Simon.

Family Feud

The empire is ruled by three powerful families: Comnena, Ducas, and Dalassena. Anna reminisces: ''My family used to joke that someday people would find it difficult to understand how we were all related to each other, especially after I married, because then our already complicated family trees would be intertwined. ''Readers benefit from the family tree and map of the Byzantine Empire that preface the novel.

The rivalry of the Ducases against the Comnenas and Dalassenas becomes clear through the conflict between Anna's mother and grandmother.

Anna's paternal grandmother (also named Anna) represents the Dalassenas, an ancient, noble, and once-powerful family. Anna's mother, the Queen, is a Ducas. The Comneni (descended from the Dalassena clan) took control of the throne from the Ducas family many years ago.

Anna is devastated to learn that her grandmother disapproves of her betrothal to Constantine Ducas (her cousin). Anna Dalassenas calls the Ducases 'loose' and weak-minded. Of course, this makes Anna's mother furious. To the Queen, the Dalassenas and the Comneni are 'barbarians,' 'goatherds' and 'illiterate peasants.'

Treason

Overcome by the ambition to rule the Empire, Anna oversteps her bounds. Like Icarus, she pays a high price. In one important exchange, Simon asks Anna,

''And what will be your first act as Empress?''

''I will exile John,'' I said. ''I will send him to a cold place, like the mountains, and not allow him ever to enter the city again…. And then, I would make my grandmother fall to her knees and swear that the Dalassena family is nothing, that the Ducases are far superior to them. And then I would wed Constantine, and we would rule together and undo all the evil that my grandmother had done.''

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