Anna Komnene (c. 1083-1153) was a princess from the dwindling realm of the Eastern Roman Empire (also known at this stage of history as the Byzantine Empire), centering around Greece and the imperial capital of Constantinople. Anna was the daughter of the successful usurper and competent emperor, Alexios Komnenos (r. 1081–1118), who led the struggling realm against Norman incursions from the west and nomadic attacks from the north, while also defending against Islamic forces encroaching from the south and east. Around the same time, he was also negotiating with rowdy armies of international crusaders marching through his lands. Anna Komnene watched all of these events transpire from the safety of Constantinople, protected by its famous walls. The princess did not squander her regal position and privilege, with all of the resources and educational access that it provided—instead, she became a well-educated woman, keeping herself up to date with history, current events, philosophy and theology, as well as pseudo-sciences such as astrology and divination. Her intellectual pursuits culminated in The Alexiad, a biography and history that Anna Komnene wrote about the reign of her father, Emperor Alexios. The Alexiad is an admirable historical text and a great amount of valuable information can be gleaned from its enjoyable pages. Yet, for the purpose of this article, we are going to take a look at instances when Anna Komnene unleashed her inner Roman princess, letting slip curious remarks about foreign peoples and groups that interacted with the empire of Constantinople. Many of these comments were written in the formula of “such is the way of [insert group of people],” followed by an often-amusing stereotype or generalization about whoever Anna was describing.
Perhaps Anna Komene’s comments about crusaders would be a decent place to start. To this, we can also add groups of people that the Roman princess loosely described as Latins and Kelts, referring to Normans, Italians, French and other peoples who were involved in the First Crusade. Incredible numbers of these armed pilgrims marched through Anna Komnene’s homeland, and the spectacle left a great impression on the princess. She wrote, “Full of enthusiasm and ardour they thronged every highway, and with these warriors came a host of civilians, outnumbering the sand of the seashore or the stars of heaven, carrying palms and bearing crosses on their shoulders. There were women and children, too, who had left their own countries. Like tributaries joining a river from all directions they streamed toward us in full force, mostly through Dacia” (Anna Komnene, The Alexiad, X.5). As the leadership figures from among the crusaders made contact with Emperor Alexios’ court, Anna Komnene was able to become acquainted with a large number of European noblemen, but she evidently had trouble pronouncing and remembering the names of many of these foreigners. She did make note of and record the names of the most famous leading lords commanding the crusader armies, but she gave up on trying to remember the names of lower officers. The exasperated princess wrote, “For all my desire to name their leaders, I prefer not to do so. The words fail me, partly through my inability to make the unpronounceable barbaric sounds and partly because I am put off by just how many of them there were. In any case, why should I try to list the names of so enormous a multitude, when even their contemporaries became indifferent at the sight of them?” (Anna Komnene, The Alexiad, X.10).
As was said earlier, Anna Komnene labeled many of the crusaders as Latins or Kelts. Although the princess often used these designations interchangeably, she seemed to use the word “Latins” more often, usually referring to the forces and allies of the Norman lords, Robert Guiscard and Bohemond, who launched attacks against Emperor Alexios’ realm from Italy. On these so-called Latins, Anna Komnene wrote, “As I have said before, the Latin race at all times is unusually greedy for wealth, but when it plans to invade a country, neither reason nor force can restrain it” (The Alexiad, X.6). Additionally, as there was a rivalry between the popes of Rome and Constantinople’s own ecclesiastical patriarch, it naturally followed that Anna Komnene was biased against the religious beliefs of the so-called Latins. The pro-Constantinople princess wrote, “The Latin customs with regard to priests differ from ours. We are bidden by canon law and the teaching of the Gospel, ‘Touch not, grumble not, attack not—for thou art consecrated.’ But the barbarian Latin will at the same time handle sacred objects, fasten a shield to his left arm and grasp a spear in his right…Thus this barbarian race is no less devoted to religion than to war” (Anna Komnene, The Alexiad, X.8). As for Anna Komnene’s label of Kelts, she did not lambast or stereotype this group as often as the Latins. Nevertheless, she did write one of her longest generalizing descriptions while discussing “Keltic” crusaders. She wrote:
“The truth is that the Keltic race, among other characteristics, combines an independent spirit and imprudence, not to mention an absolute refusal to cultivate a disciplined art of warfare; when fighting and warfare are imminent, inspired by passion they are irresistible, evident not only in the rank and file, but in their leaders too, charging into the midst of the enemy’s line with overwhelming abandon—provided that the opposition everywhere gives ground; but if their foes chance to lay ambushes with soldier-like skill and if they meet them in a systematic manner, all their boldness vanishes. Generally speaking, Kelts are indomitable in the opening cavalry charge, but afterwards, because of the weight of their armour and their own passionate nature and recklessness, it is actually very easy to defeat them” (Anna Komnene, The Alexiad, XI.6).
Readers may have noticed in some of Anna Komnene’s previous quotes that she had a habit of referring to foreigners as barbaric or barbarians. There are many more quotes from Anna’s text in which she whips out the barbarian label while talking about various peoples and groups that interacted with her father’s realm. By today’s standards, her dialogue concerning “barbarians” is inconsiderate and insensitive, yet these statements are also some of her more amusing comments. A few choice examples are as follows. For one, Anna Komnene wrote, “That is the way of all the barbarians: their mouths gape wide for gifts and money, but they have no intention whatever of doing the things for which the money is offered” (The Alexiad, XIV.2). She also claimed, “barbarians are arrogant by nature, with their heads almost in the clouds” (Anna Komnene, The Alexiad, XV.6). Speaking of violence, the Roman princess wrote, “Such is every barbarian—constantly lusting after massacre and war” (The Alexiad, IX.3). Lastly, in one final jab, Anna Komnene wrote: “The truth is, all barbarians are usually fickle and by nature are unable to keep their pledges” (The Alexiad, VII.6).
In addition to the crusaders, Latins, Kelts and barbarians, Anna Komnene also took time to critique mankind, in general. Speaking of medieval slavery and serfdom, Anna Komnene commented, “It is a fact that slaves are in any case by nature hostile to their masters, but if they cannot strike at them, they seize the chance to become intolerable to one another” (The Alexiad, II.4). She had more to say about the flip-flopping ways of the masses and the carousel of ambitious individuals vying for power. Concerning the changing whims of mankind, Anna Komnene wrote, “weak-minded folk are quite unstable, moving with the current, first one way, then another, like Euripos” (The Alexiad, II.3). Expanding on this belief, the Roman princess later wrote, “Such is the way of men—today they cheer, escort, treat with honour, but once they see the fortunes of life reversed, they act in the opposite manner, without a blush” (Anna Komnene, The Alexiad, IX.9). On the potential leaders (in this case a so-called Kelt) trying to sway the impressionable masses, Anna wrote, “That is typical of the Kelts: they are inconsistent, changing to opposite extremes in the twinkling of an eye. You can see one and the same man boasting that he will shake the world and the very next minute cringing prostrate in the dust—and this is even more likely to happen when they meet stronger characters” (The Alexiad, XIII.10). Curiously, that quote addressing a supposed Kelt was actually about the Norman nobleman, Bohemond, and his chaotic back-and-forth relationship with Emperor Alexios.
It should be pointed out that all of the quotes listed above have been cherrypicked for entertainment value; they do not represent Anna Komnene’s views, as a whole, but only represent one small aspect of the Roman princess’ tone and character, devoid of fifteen chapters-worth of context from her complete text. The awkward quotes about fickle and greedy barbarians are outnumbered and outweighed by Anna Komnene’s many passages containing sage advice and wisdom that is still applicable to this day. That aside, at least by this writer’s judgment, there is still some entertainment to be found in reading a Roman princess’ critiques of supposed barbarians.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Pedestal of the Obelisk of Tuthmosis III in Constantinople, by Melchior Lorck (c. 1526 – 1583), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Statens Museum for Kunst).
- The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, translated by E. R. A. Sewter. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.