Anna Komnene (1083-1153) was an extraordinary woman. She was an erudite scholar of multiple intellectual fields and a cunning political schemer who is believed to have attempted to climb to ultimate power in the Byzantine Empire. Yet, her greatest claim to fame resulted from her ambitious history, The Alexiad, which detailed the military and diplomatic accomplishments of her father, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, the emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 1081-1118.
The Brilliant Princess
Anna Komnene was born to Emperor Alexios and Empress Eirene in 1083, just two years after Alexios wrested the imperial throne from his predecessor, Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates, after a typical Roman civil war. As a child, Anna gained a broad, but thorough, education. She was interested in many topics—literature (plus grammar and rhetoric), medicine, philosophy, metaphysics and geography. She continued to be fascinated by intellectual pursuits all her life. She would later gather salons of great thinkers and give them patronage to encourage them to continue writing and making new discoveries. She also helped with the construction of the important Nichomachean Ethics, which served as a standard for the study of philosophy and the works of Aristotle in the Western civilizations.
The imperial family was always on the lookout for political alliances. Unfortunately for Anna, that meant arranged marriage. While she was still very, very young, Anna Komnene was betrothed to a man named Constantine Doukas, but the man mysteriously disappeared and the betrothal was void. In 1097, however, when Anna was only fourteen years old, she was married to Nikephoros Bryennios, a man who would be a close friend and advisor to the emperor, especially during the later parts of Alexios’ reign. Though this match, too, was an arranged marriage, Anna Komnene grew to love her husband truly and deeply. When she wrote The Alexiad, the then widowed Anna Komnene accompanied every mention of her husband with passionate exclamations of love, mourning and longing.
Anna Komnene lived an exciting life, at least while her father lived. As a princess of the Byzantine Empire, she had a unique perspective on the events that occurred in her lifetime and could meet face-to-face with many of the people who would later feature in her history. Her connection to the imperial family would also become ceaselessly useful in her search for source material—she learned where information was archived and how it could be obtained.
Anna Komnene watched her father grow old as he faced off against threats from all angles, within and outside of the Byzantine Empire. By 1118, Alexios’ life was drawing to a close. Anna Komnene, still interested in medicine since her childhood, tried to diagnose her father’s illness. Unfortunately, all she could deduce was that Alexios was dying slowly, wheezing away life one painful, irritable and uncomfortable labored breath at a time. As the emperor neared his end, the Byzantine historians John Zonaras and Niketas Khoniates claimed that Anna Komnene and Empress Eirene attempted to sway Alexios into naming Anna’s husband, Nikephoros Bryrennios as the imperial heir. Despite their pleading, Alexios’ heir remained Anna’s younger brother, John—the future Emperor John II Komnenos (1118-1143).
After Emperor John II ascended to the imperial throne, Anna Komnene continued to plot, hoping to usurp power from her little brother. Nevertheless, John II and his network of agents discovered the plot, seized Anna’s property and forcibly retired her into a convent. Anna Komnene likely was the mastermind of the plot, for her husband, Nikephoros Bryennios, remained in fairly good standing until his death in 1138. Even though being exiled to a convent clearly annoyed Anna Komnene to no end, it also gave her decades of downtime to prepare and write her greatest achievement—The Alexiad. Scholars surmise that Anna Komnene wrote her history during the last decade of her life, a timeframe dating from 1143-1153.
The History of Anna Komnene
Most historians recognize Anna Komnene as the first female historian, or at least The Alexiad is the first known history to have been written by a woman. As for her motive, different historians propose different reasons about why Anna wrote her history. Some claim she used the book to undermine Alexios’ imperial successors (she has few complimentary words for them) and to reassert her bid for the throne. Other historians take Anna Komnene at her word when she claimed her goal was to leave a record, for the sake of posterity, about the eventful life of her father, Emperor Alexios.
Alexios Komnenos was the emperor of the Byzantine Empire in an unbelievably chaotic time of history, and his daughter, Anna Komnene, was alive to witness most of the major events that occurred in his reign. Even though Anna Komnene restricted her history to her father’s lifetime, there was no shortage of historical happenings for her to cover.
The Alexiad consists of a prologue and fifteen books, and extends, at least in English translations, to nearly five hundred pages. In scope, Anna began her history at Alexios’ early military career in the army of the Byzantine Empire. The history follows the life of Alexios, though sometimes selectively and chronologically incorrect, from war to endless war, until the book ends with the death of the emperor in 1118. While Anna Komnene collected all of this history into a concise text, she also imbued the prose with a distinct tone and personality—it is one of her unique characteristics as a historian. Anna Komnene was never afraid to give her personal opinion on people or events, and she filled her history with ample allusions to classical epic poems and mythology. In fact, the title of The Alexiad was meant to draw a comparison between the war-torn life of her father and the legendary warriors of The Iliad.
Even though The Alexiad is a history about the events in Emperor Alexios’ life, not all events were treated equally. Anna Komnene focused most of her time on five major instances. The first is the invasion of the Normans into the Byzantine Empire from 1081-1085, which was led by Robert Guiscard and his son, Bohemond. Next, Anna shifted her focus to the recurring invasions of the Pechenegs, which occurred in the 1080s and 1090s. That was a chaotic time where the Pechenegs posed a major threat, but Alexios also had to be simultaneously cautious of the Cuman and Turkish forces that were all operating in his empire. The climax of the history is considered by many to be Anna Komnene’s book about the First Crusade (1095 (pope’s speech)-1099 (capture of Jerusalem)). There, she wrote valuable eyewitness descriptions of the crusade leaders and their dealings with Emperor Alexios. Another important section of her history deals with Byzantine-Turkish relations, though this section is where most of Anna Komnene’s errors can be found. Finally, the last major historical event covered by The Alexiad consists of Bohemond’s invasion of the empire in 1107. Anna Komnene’s history covers many more events and people than these five, but the majority of the book deals with these issues.
There is no known list of sources recorded by Anna Komnene, but scholars suspect she had an abundance of records and materials. In The Alexiad, Anna claimed that she gathered written accounts (and possibly oral interviews) from veterans of her father’s military to support her history. Along with the accounts of veterans, she must have had access to a military archive. In addition, she managed to obtain several documents, letters and treaties, several of which she wholly quoted in her history. She also admitted that she relied on her own personal upbringing and experience—she was the daughter of Emperor Alexios and knew many of his trusted generals. She especially relied on her own senses for describing the appearances of people. She seemed to enjoy assessing people by their looks, and compared many a warrior to the legendary heroes of Homer’s epics.
The result of her work is a timeless piece of history—it is still read by students, teachers and history enthusiasts to this day, even after more than eight hundred years.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Check out some great quotes from Anna Komnene, HERE.
- The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, translated by E. R. A. Sewter. New Yok: Penguin Books, 2009.