When Anna Komnene neared the end of her historical account detailing the war between her father, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), and the Norman invader, Robert Guiscard, she diverged from politics and battle to comment on the emerging popularity of astrology and divination. She quickly told her readers that she thought the ‘sciences’ of astrology and occult divination to be foolish distractions, and she emphasized that her father, the emperor, had supported the more beneficial sciences, mathematics, philosophies and histories. Nevertheless, Anna Komnene went on to describe—with hesitant admiration—several astrologers and diviners who attempted to predict future events during her father’s imperial reign.
Anna proposed that a man named Eleutherios Zebelenos was possibly the most prominent astrologer in the Eastern Roman Empire of Constantinople. Yet, she did not mention many of his accomplishments other than agreeing that the man’s predictions were often accurate. She also named Symeon Seth, a philosopher, scholar and writer who dabbled heavily in astronomy. In The Alexiad, Anna Komnene claimed that Seth predicted the death of Robert Guiscard. He wrote the prophecy down on paper and sent the prediction in a sealed envelope to the confidants of Emperor Alexios. Seth told them to keep the letter sealed, but when the death of Robert occurred, he ordered them to open the envelope. Inside was a fortune-cookie-like statement that many believed accurately predicted the death of Robert Guiscard. Anna Komnene claimed Seth’s prophecy stated: “A great enemy from the west, who has caused much trouble, will die suddenly” (Anna Komnene, The Alexiad, Book VI).
The next astrologer Anna showcased was an Athenian known as Katanankes. Like Seth, Katanankes attempted to predict the deaths of important figures. First, he boldly stated that Emperor Alexios would die on a certain day. Fortunately for Alexios, the astrologer’s prediction was flawed and the emperor survived the day—yet, a majestic lion that happened to be held in the palace did die on the specified date, causing the masses to proclaim that Katanankes’ prediction came true. The astrologer quickly rebounded from his bittersweet victory. The Athenian astrologer attempted to prophesy Alexios Komnenos’ death again, stating yet another date on which the emperor would surely die. The day came—and yet again—Emperor Alexios lived. The emperor’s mother, Anna, however, died on the predicted date, once more causing the masses to praise Katanankes’ skill.
After Anna Komnene concisely told the stories of Seth, Eleutherios and Katanankes, she quickly returned back to her main narrative concerning her father’s successful reign as emperor of Constantinople.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, translated by E. R. A. Sewter. New Yok: Penguin Books, 2009.
- The Occult Sciences in Byzantium, by Paul Magdalino and Maria Mavroudi. Geneva: La Pomme d’or, 2006.