Saturday, August 31, 2013


Anna Comnena's Alexiad contains many interesting stories, among them those concerning Robert Guiscard and his son Bohemond. The death of the former in 1085 she recounts as follows:
... while he was still waiting near Ather (a promontory of [Kephalonia]), he was attacked by a violent fever. Unable to bear the burning heat, he asked for some cold water. His men, who had scattered everywhere in search of water, were told by a native: 'You see the island of Ithaka there. On it a great city was built long ago called Jerusalem, now in ruins through the  passage of time. There was a spring there which always gave cold drinkable water.' Robert, hearing this, was at once seized with great dread, for a long time before some persons had uttered a prophecy (the kind of prediction sycophants usually make to the great): 'As far as Ather you will subdue everything, but on your way from there to Jerusalem, you will obey the claims of necessity.' Whether it was the fever that carried him off, or whether he suffered from pleurisy, I cannot say with certainty. He lingered on for six days and then died.
This sounded curious familiar, like something I had read before. And of course I had, in Henry IV, Part 2, Act IV, scene 5:

Doth any name particular belong
Unto the lodging where I first did swoon?
'Tis call'd Jerusalem, my noble lord.
Laud be to God! even there my life must end.
It hath been prophesied to me many years,
I should not die but in Jerusalem;
Which vainly I supposed the Holy Land:
But bear me to that chamber; there I'll lie;
In that Jerusalem shall Harry die.
I suppose the pattern falls more generally into the deceptive prophecy pattern--Macbeth invincible until Birnam Wood should come to Dunsinane, and so on.

Anna Comnena is well worth reading. Her accounts of the campaigns of her father Alexius I recall now and then Musil's observation that (like every other state) Austria-Hungary had won every war it had ever engaged in, but unfortunately most of them had ended with it giving up some territory. Yet one can look at the results and make allowances.

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