December 1, 1083
Byzantine princess, historian, and scholar
Anna Comnena, The Alexiad of Anna Comnena, book 14, chapter 3">
"I swear by the perils the emperor endured for the well-being of the Roman people, by his sorrows and the travails he suffered on behalf of the Christians, that I am not favoring him when I say or write such things....I regard him as dear, but the truth is dearer still."
—Anna Comnena, The Alexiad of Anna Comnena, book 14, chapter 3.
Anna Comnena was one of the most famous female scholars of the Middle Ages. The daughter of the emperor of the Byzantine Empire (the successor to the Roman Empire) based in Constantinople, she lived in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and was known for her scholarship in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and music. However, she is best remembered for her fifteen-volume biography of her father, the emperor Alexius I (see entry), and for a history of the Byzantine Empire during his reign that she wrote in her old age. This work provides much information about the First Crusade (1095–99), which came about as a result of her father's request for help from the pope, the Catholic leader in Rome, in fighting invading Islamic forces. In this combination of history and biography she paints interesting and detailed portraits of many of the Christian leaders of the First Crusade. She is considered the world's first female historian.
A Princess of Byzantium
Anna Comnena was the oldest child of the emperor Alexius I and his wife, Irene Ducas, who was herself related to an earlier line of Byzantine emperors. Thus there was royalty on both sides of Comnena's bloodline, and her early years were spent in training as a future empress. While she was still a young girl she was engaged to Constantine Ducas, a cousin on her mother's side and son of the emperor Michael VII, who ruled from 1067 to 1078, an acceptable engagement for the time period. This strengthened her rights to the crown, but when a baby brother named John came along in 1087 suddenly all rights to the throne went to him. Comnena never got over this loss and refused to forgive her brother. Not long after this Constantine Ducas died, as did Comnena's hopes for a royal career.
Comnena focused much of her attention on scholarship, learning poetry, Greek philosophy, and medicine. It seems that she was familiar with the work of the famous Roman physician Galen (c. 130–200 c.e.), and she may even have taught and practiced medicine at Constantinople's medical school. While she was still young, two further events shaped her life. In 1096, when she was only thirteen, the Crusader armies arrived to fight the Muslims (believers in the religion of Islam). These groups of European Christian soldiers, referred to as the Latins or the Franks by the Byzantines, seemed like barbarians to the inhabitants of the sophisticated city of Constantinople. Worse, they did not come to help the empire regain territory it had lost to such enemies as the Seljuk Turks, a Turkic tribe that practiced the Islamic religion, who were invading the eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire. Instead, these Crusaders came to win their own kingdoms and to free the Holy Land, consisting of Palestine and Jerusalem, from Muslim occupation. The men of the Crusader forces made a very negative impression on Comnena. The second major event of these years was her marriage in 1097 to Nicephorus Bryennius, a scholar and historian, who came from a powerful family and thus had a possible claim to the throne through his grandfather. Comnena was only fourteen at the time of her marriage.
Plots and Exile
Comnena came of age during a time when strong-willed women in the Byzantine Empire were not afraid to get involved in politics. Alexius I was himself the product of such a strong woman: his mother, Anna Desassena. Comnena's mother, Irene, was another strong personality and influenced her husband in making decisions about the empire. Comnena behaved much like these women. If she could not become empress, then she wanted her husband to take power upon the death of her father. She and her mother tried to persuade Alexius I to bypass his own son, John, and make Nicephorus Bryennius next in line to the throne. They continued their efforts even as the emperor lay dying in his bed, but they were unable to make him change his mind.
With the death of Alexius I in 1118, Comnena's brother, John, quickly took power and became Emperor John II. Comnena, however, would not give up. She plotted with others to kill her brother, but her husband would not take part, and the plot failed. She was said to complain later that nature had made a mistake with her husband's gender, for he should have been the woman, so timid was he. John discovered the plot against him and made his sister give up her property and fortune. He exiled her (sent her away) from the court in Constantinople to a place in western Asia Minor where she could not make trouble for him. For nineteen years she remained in exile. When her husband died in 1137, she was allowed to return to Constantinople. Comnena entered a convent (a religious institution for women) that had been founded by her mother.
It was then that Anna Comnena began the work for which she is best known, The Alexiad, a fifteen-volume prose poem (a poem that reads like a story) about the reign of her father. This work had actually been started by her husband. At the time of his death, Nicephorus Bryennius had completed four books covering the nine years just before Alexius I took power, a time when Nicephorus's own grandfather was fighting for the crown against two earlier emperors. As John C. Rouman has noted in the Hellenic Communication Service, Nicephorus's "aim in writing was to glorify the reign of Alexius and his Comnenian line." When Comnena took over the project, her goals were no different. Rouman continues: "As one would expect of an educated, dutiful, and devoted daughter, Comnena glorifies the greatness of Alexius." Rouman goes on to compare her history to the work of the Greek historian Thucydides (c. 460–400 b.c.e.), author of the History of the Peloponnesian War.
In the volumes of her book Comnena not only presents an outline of Byzantine history from 1081, when her father became emperor, to his death in 1118 but also looks at military technology, weapons, and tactics. In addition, she supplies information on medical theory, writing about her husband's and her father's final illnesses. A large part of the book also deals with Christian or Latin nobles as well as the First Crusade, including descriptions of knights (trained soldiers) and common people who came through Constantinople in the summer and winter of 1096 and 1097 to fight the forces of Islam.
Historians have pointed out that Comnena's account of the First Crusade must be read with caution. First of all, she was only thirteen when these events happened and could hardly have understood all that was going on around her or known of private conversations between her father and the Crusaders. As John France noted in Reading Medieval Studies Online, "Anna Comnena cannot be regarded as an eyewitness of the First Crusade. She was writing some forty years after the Crusade had passed through Constantinople, so childhood recollections can only have added an occasional vividness to her use of other sources." France also warned that "The Alexiad is a life of her father and is very favorable to him." Despite this slant, the work is still valuable as a piece of history. Comnena had much personal knowledge about events during these years. She also made use of letters and reports from her father's generals and counselors and appears to have had access to the royal archives, or library, where such official documents were kept.
Her view of the Crusades is definitely that of a Byzantine. As such, she does not much care for the Latin soldiers, whom she calls "barbarians." The word in the original Greek simply means someone who does not speak the Greek language. However, even in Comnena's time this word took on the further meaning of an uncivilized person. In fact, these Crusaders were backward by Byzantine standards. Few of them knew how to read or write, and they took little pleasure in arts other than warfare. She presents lively portraits of such Crusade leaders as Peter the Hermit (see entry), the French priest who led twenty thousand common people to their deaths at the hands of the Turks; French nobles such as Godfrey of Bouillon (see entry), Hugh the Great, and Raymond of Toulouse; and an especially interesting look at Bohemund, son of Robert Guiscard and leader of the Norman forces, who was a longtime enemy of her father's. This last Crusader seemed both to fascinate and anger her. While he was a handsome man, according to Comnena he was also "by nature a liar" and not to be trusted. She also describes him as being greedy and disloyal. In fact, Bohemund was all of these things. He joined the Crusade to enrich himself and the Normans, who had already created a kingdom in southern Italy.
In The Alexiad Comnena also writes about battles of the First Crusade, covering the Byzantine and Christian victory at Nicaea, an ancient city close to Constantinople that the Seljuk Turks had once occupied. She gives fewer details of the later siege of Antioch, another former Byzantine possession in Syria. In his article in Reading Medieval Studies Online, France notes that the value of The Alexiad "as a source for the First Crusade diminishes as the army gets farther and farther from Constantinople." More errors of fact, especially in the chronology, or timeline, occur in those sections that deal with the Crusaders moving through the Holy Land to lay siege to (attack) Jerusalem and recapture it from the Muslims.
In The Alexiad, Anna Comnena provides a firsthand account of the First Crusade from the Byzantine point of view. Hers is one of several eyewitness accounts that later historians have used to assemble a true picture of events at the end of the eleventh century. Another is Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum (History of Deeds Done beyond the Sea), by William of Tyre (1130–c. 1184). Like Comnena's account, William's version of events also comes from someone outside Europe, for he was born and grew up in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the territory in Palestine that the Crusaders captured after the First Crusade. Unlike Anna Comnena, however, he came from a very humble, simple family. It is uncertain if he was of French or English origin. He showed a talent for scholarship that led him to become a priest, serving as an assistant to the archbishop, or chief religious leader, of Tyre, an ancient city located in present-day Lebanon. He was sent to Europe to complete his education and training and by 1163 was back in Tyre, where he became archdeacon in 1175.
William knew many languages, including French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Persian, and Arabic. He soon became the official historian of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He wrote histories of church councils as well as a history of the Middle East from the time of the prophet Muhammad, but he is best known for his work on the Crusades and the Kingdom of Jerusalem up to 1184. Like Comnena, William was writing long after the fact. Unlike her, however, he was able to use documents in many languages to present a more objective history of the events of the First Crusade. His History of Deeds Done beyond the Sea, taking up twenty-three books, became the standard text for centuries. Translated into English by William Caxton, the man who introduced the printing press to England, the book was published in 1481 as Godeffroy of Boloyne; or, The Siege and Conqueste of Jerusalem. It is still used today and remains an invaluable resource for scholars and students of the Crusades.
Comnena completed her history in 1148. Little of her life is known after that point. A funeral oration was held in 1156, but this does not appear to have taken place very close to the time of her actual death. Historians think she died around 1148 or, at least, before 1156. The Alexiad remains for us a fascinating document from the medieval Byzantine world. As many scholars have pointed out, it is clearly biased—that is, it is not objective. Nevertheless, it provides an inside look at life in the Byzantine Empire during the time of the First Crusade and lets modern readers know how the Byzantines felt about the European Christians of the same period. For James Howard-Johnson, writing in the English Historical Review, her biography is "arguably the finest work of history written in the course of Byzantium's ... existence." The fact that the book is less than objective does not take away from its importance: "It ... provides a matchless record of an era of dramatic change in Byzantium and the surrounding world. It is packed with solid data (normally well ordered) and expressed in an elegant but not over-ornate classical style." Also important, according to Howard-Johnson, is the fact that The Alexiad "is distinguished by being the first history to come from a woman's pen."
For More Information
Comnena, Anna. The Alexiad of Anna Comnena. Translated by E. R. A. Sewter. Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1969.
Gouma-Gouma-Peterson, Thalia, ed. Anna Komnene and Her Times. New York: Garland, 2000.
Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. New York: Vintage, 1998.
Ostrogorsky, George. A History of the Byzantine State. Translated by Joan Hussey. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.
Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.
Howard-Johnson, James. "Anna Komnene and Her Times." English Historical Review (September 2002).
"The Alexiad." Internet Medieval Sourcebook.http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/AnnaComnena-Alexiad.html (accessed on April 14, 2004).
"Anna Comnena." About's Who's Who in Medieval History and the Renaissance.http://historymedren.about.com/library/who/blwwannacomnena.htm (accessed on June 24, 2004).
"Anna Comnena." New Advent.http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01531a.htm (accessed on June 24, 2004).
"Anna Comnena/Komnene (1083–bef. 1186)." Other Women's Voices.http://home.infionline.net/~ddisse/comnena.html (accessed on June 24, 2004).
"Anna Comnena, the Alexiad and the First Crusade." Reading Medieval Studies Online. 10 (1984). http://www.deremilitari.org/RESOURCES/PDFs/FRANCE2.PDF (accessed on June 24, 2004).
"Nicephorus Bryennius and Anna Comnena: The 'Roman' Xenophon and Thucydides of Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Constantinople." Hellenic Communication Service.http://www.helleniccomserve.com/comnena.html (accessed on June 24, 2004).