Anna Comnena

views updated May 29 2018

Anna Comnena

Excerpt from The Alexiad

Published in The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eyewitnesses and Participants, 1921

"Alexius was not yet, or very slightly, rested from his labors when he heard rumors of the arrival of innumerable Frankish armies."

T he Byzantine (BIZ-un-teen) Empire—sometimes referred to as "Byzantium" (bi-ZAN-tee-um)—was a continuation of the ancient Roman Empire. In fact, the Byzantines referred to themselves as "Romans" rather than using the term Byzantine, which referred to the old name of their capital in Greece. In a.d. 330, the center of Byzantium had become Constantinople (kahn-stan-ti-NOH-pul), capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, Byzantium became more and more separated from Western Europe. This led to a division of faiths, with Western Europe adhering to Latin Christianity, or Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Europe accepting the Greek Orthodox Church. Many differences developed, with Catholics taking their leadership from the pope while members of the Orthodox Church increasingly charted a separate course. In 1054, the Latin and Greek churches officially separated.

Three years later, the Comnenus (kahm-NEEN-us) family assumed the Byzantine throne and established a dynasty, or royal line of succession, that would last for many centuries. But these were troubled times for the empire: in 1071, the Byzantines suffered a crippling defeat by the Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in Armenia. Therefore in 1095, Emperor Alexis I Comnenus (ruled 1081–1118) asked Pope Urban II (ruled 1088–99) to send assistance in the form of troops.

Anna Comnena

Anna Comnena was the eldest daughter of Byzantine emperor Alexis I Comnenus. In 1097, when she was fourteen, she married thirty-year-old Nicephorus Bryennius (ny-SEF-ur-us bry-EN-ee-us; 1067–1137). Nicephorus was a historian and a learned man, and Anna, who received the best education available, would eventually become the world's first notable female historian.

Though the Byzantines had been ruled by females before, Anna knew that her chances of taking the throne were slim, particularly because she had a younger brother, John. Yet in 1118, when she was thirty-five, she made an unsuccessful bid to place Nicephorus on the throne. John defeated the plot and went on to rule as John II for the next twenty-five years, while Anna spent the rest of her life in a monastery, a secluded place for people who have taken religious vows.

There she wrote the Alexiad, a history of the period from 1069 to 1118—that is,

from the time her uncle, Isaac Comnenus, established the dynasty to the end of her father's reign. The suffix -ad usually means that a work is the glorious tale of a nation, and certainly Anna's history provides an image of the Byzantine Empire under her family's rule as a highly civilized realm.

Despite Alexis's request for help, divisions between Byzantines and Western Europeans remained severe. The Byzantines rightly viewed their own civilization as more advanced than that of the westerners, who they lumped together as "Latins," "Gauls," or "Franks." The last two were the names of two tribes who had once controlled parts of the West, and the use of these terms implied that the Western Europeans were barbarians, or uncivilized. Indeed, the term "barbarian" was often used by the Byzantines and their ancient Greek ancestors to describe all non-Greeks.

The Byzantines did not simply look down on the "Franks"—they were also afraid of them, and with good reason. In 1081, a group of Normans—descendants of the Vikings who had earlier terrorized much of Europe—had tried to invade Byzantine territories. Leading the attack was Robert Guiscard (gee-SKARD; c. 1015–1085), aided by his son Bohemond I (BOH-ay-maw; c. 1050–1111). Thus Alexis became alarmed when he learned that huge numbers of Western Europeans were headed east—and that Bohemond was at the head of one army. Later, Alexis's daughter Anna Comnena (c. 1083–1148) would compose an official history of her father's reign, the Alexiad (uh-LEX-ee-ad). In it, she would write of events that occurred when she was in her early teens, when her father was faced with an unwelcome visit from Bohemond in 1096.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from The Alexiad

  • Like many Byzantines, Anna looked down on Western Europeans, whom she referred to by the uncomplimentary nickname of "Gauls." She also called them "Latins," which was not as negative. Ill-will was particularly strong against Bohemond and the Normans, who had tried to invade the Byzantine Empire just fifteen years before.
  • Durazzo (dü-RAT-soh) was a city in what is now Albania, which the Normans attempted to take from the Byzantines in 1081. Larissa is an area in Greece, and Cosmidion was a Greek city.
  • It was common in pre-modern times for kings and other leaders to employ food-tasters, men whose job it was to taste the king's food and drinks and thus ensure that these were not poisoned.
  • Because of differences in language, Anna Comnena renders the name of her father as "Alexius" rather than Alexis, and that of Bohemond as "Bohemund."

Excerpt from The Alexiad

… But when Bohemund had arrived … with his companions, realizing both that he was not of noble birth, and that for lack of money he had not brought with him a large enough army, he hastened, with only ten Gauls, ahead of the othercounts and arrived at Constantinople. He did this to win the favor of the Emperor for himself, and to conceal more safely the plans which he was concocting against him. Indeed, the Emperor, to whom the schemes of the man were known, for he had long since become acquainted with the hidden anddeceitful dealings of this same Bohemund, took great pains to arrange it so that before the other counts should come he would speak with him alone. Thus having heard what Bohemund had to say, he hoped to persuade him to cross before the others came, lest, joined with them after their coming, he mightpervert their minds.

When Bohemund had come to him, the Emperor greeted him with gladness and inquired anxiously about the journey and where he had left his companions. Bohemund responded to all these things as he thought best for his own interests,affably and in a friendly way, while the Emperor recalled in a familiar talk his bold undertakings long ago around Durazzo and Larissa and the hostilities between them at that time. Bohemund answered, "Then I confess I was your enemy, then I was hostile. But, behold, I now stand before you like a deserter to the ranks of the enemy! I am a friend of your Majesty." The Emperor proceeded toscrutinize the man, considering him cautiously and carefully and drawing out what was in his mind. As soon as he saw that Bohemund was ready to consent to swear an oath offealty to him, he said, "You must be tired from the journey and should retire to rest. We will talk tomorrow about anything else."


Counts: Relatively lowranking noblemen.


Deceitful: Dishonest.

Pervert (v.)

Pervert (v.): Corrupt.


Affably: In a cheerful manner.


Scrutinize: Study carefully.


Fealty: Loyalty.


Tact: Skill in knowing what to say and do so as to maintain good relations with other people.

So Bohemund departed … to Cosmidion, where hospitality was found, a table richly laden…. Then the cooks came and showed himthe uncooked flesh of animals and birds, saying: "We have prepared this food which you see on the table according to our skill and the custom of this region; but if, perchance, these please you less, here is food, still uncooked, which can be prepared just as you order." The Emperor, because of his almost incredibletact in handling men, had commanded that this be done and said by them. For, since he was especially expert in penetrating the secrets of minds and in discoveringthedisposition of a man, he very readily understood that Bohemund was of ashrewd and suspicious nature; and he foresaw what happened. For, lest Bohemund should conceive any suspicion against him, the Emperor had ordered that raw meats be placed before him, together with the cooked, thus easily removing suspicion. Neither did his conjecture fail, for the very shrewd Bohemund took the prepared food, without even touching it with the tips of his fingers, or tasting it, and immediately turned around, concealing, nevertheless, the suspicion which occurred to him by the followingostentatious show ofliberality . For under the pretext of courtesy he distributed all the food to those standing around; in reality, if one understood rightly, he was dividing the cup of death among them. Nor did he conceal his cunning, so much did he hold his subjects in contempt; for he this day used the raw meat which had been offered to him and had it prepared by his own cooks after the manner of his country. On the next day he asked his men whether they were well. Upon their answering in theaffirmative , that they were indeed very well, that not even one felt even the least indisposed, hedisclosed his secret in his reply: "Remembering a war, once carried on by me against the Emperor, and that strife, I feared lest perchance he had intended to kill me by putting deadly poison in my food."


Disposition: Attitude.


Shrewd: Clever.


Ostentatious: Conspicuous, like a show-off.


Liberality: Generosity.


Affirmative: Positive—i.e., yes.


Disclosed: Revealed.


Raiment: Clothing.


Bestows: Gives.

… After this, the Emperor saw to it that a room in the palace was so filled with a collection of riches of all kinds that the very floor was covered with costlyraiment, and with gold and silver coins, and certain other less valuable things, so much so that one was not able even to walk there, so hindered was he by the abundance of these things. The Emperor ordered the guide suddenly and unexpectedly to open the doors, thus revealing all this to Bohemund. Amazed at the spectacle, Bohemund exclaimed: "If such riches were mine, long ago I would have been lord of many lands!" The guide answered, "And all these things the Emperorbestows upon you today as a gift." Most gladly Bohemund received them and with many graciousthanks he left, intending to return to his rest in the inn. But changing his mind when they were brought to him, he, who a little before had admired them, said: "Never can I let myself be treated with suchignominy by the Emperor. Go, take those things and carry them back to him who sent them." The Emperor, knowing thebase fickleness of the Latins, quoted this common saying, "Let the evil return to its author." Bohemund having heard this, and seeing that the messengers were busily bringing these things back to him, decided anew about the goods which he had sent back with regret, and… changed in a moment…. For he was quick, and a man of very dis-honest disposition, as muchsurpassing inmalice andintrepidity all the Latins who had crossed over as he was inferior to them in power and wealth. But even though he thus excelled all in great cunning, theinconstant character of the Latins was also in him. Verily, the riches which hespurned at first, he now gladly accepted. For when this man of evil design had left his country in which he possessed no wealth at all (under thepretext , indeed, of adoring at theLord's Sepulchre , but in reality endeavoring to acquire for himself a kingdom), he found himself in need of much money, especially, indeed, if he was to seize the Roman power. In this he followed the advice of his father and, so to speak, was leaving no stone unturned.


Ignominy: Humiliating or disgraceful conduct.

Base (adj.)

Base (adj.): Low.


Surpassing: Above everyone or everything else.


Malice: Bad intentions.


Intrepidity: Fearlessness.


Inconstant: Unpredictable, changing.


Spurned: Rejected.


Pretext: A reason one claims for doing something, when in fact the real reason is secret—and usually less admirable.

Lord's Sepulchre

Lord's Sepulchre: The place in Jerusalem where Jesus was said to have been buried.

What happened next…

By the time of Bohemond's arrival in Constantinople, the original purpose of the expedition from the West had been lost; 1095 marked the beginning of the Crusades, a series of wars in which popes and rulers in Western Europe attempted to seize control of the Holy Land (Palestine) from the Muslim Turks. The First Crusade, which resulted in the capture of Jerusalem and other cities, would mark the high point of this effort.

Bohemond became ruler over one of those captured cities, Antioch, yet he did not stop when he was ahead. First he was captured by the Turks in a failed attack on another city in 1099, then in 1107 he launched an unsuccessful attack against his old foe Alexis. Alexis got the better of him, more through superior mental skill than through the use of his

armies, and forced Bohemond to sign a treaty in which he recognized Alexis as the superior ruler.

The Crusades themselves, which continued until 1291, were a disaster for Byzantium. The Fourth Crusade (1202–04) ended with the capture of Constantinople by Western Europeans, and the establishment of the so-called Latin Empire. The Comnenus family went on to rule a breakaway Byzantine state called Trebizond, which lasted until 1461. In the meantime, the Byzantines recaptured Constantinople in 1261, but they had been so badly weakened that they were easily defeated by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The Turks gave Constantinople its present name of Istanbul.


Bohemond I—his name can also be spelled "Bohemund," as Anna Comnena rendered it—was a member of a group called the Normans, descendants of the Vikings. He had grown up fighting in the army of his father Robert Guiscard (gee-SKARD; c. 1015–1085), who drove the forces of the Byzantine Empire from Italy and later conquered Sicily, a large island off the Italian coast. In 1081, Robert and Bohemond launched a series of unsuccessful campaigns against the Byzantines in southeastern Europe.

In 1096, Bohemond joined the First Crusade (1095–99), an effort to seize control of the Holy Land, or Palestine, from the Muslim Turks. In 1098 he led the crusaders in the capture of Antioch (AN-tee-ahk), a city on the border between Turkey and Syria, and went on to become ruler of Antioch. In the following year, however, he engaged in an unsuccessful attempt to take another Muslim-controlled city, and was captured by the Turks.

Released in 1103, Bohemond returned to Europe, where he tried to gather support for another campaign against the Byzantines. By now he was well into his fifties and unmarried, but in 1106, King Philip I of France gave him the hand of his daughter Constance—an important match for Bohemond. Confident in the support of his powerful father-in-law, he went on to make war against the Byzantines in 1107, but failed to gain victory.

Did you know …

  • Anna Comnena wrote of one unnamed prince of the "Franks" who was so uncouth that he sat down on Emperor Alexis's throne. When one of his wiser comrades suggested he move, he said of Alexis, "This must be a rude fellow who would alone remain seated when so many brave warriors are standing up." Anna said that when he learned of this, Alexis "did not complain … although he did not forget the matter."
  • Despite his bad relations with most of the Western European leaders, Alexis took a deep and genuine liking to Raymond of Toulouse (tuh-LOOS; 1042–1105). The emperor took the young French count, destined for glory in the Crusades, under his wing and warned him to steer clear of Bohemond. Anna wrote of Raymond, "He was as far superior to all the Latins … as the sun is above the other stars."

For More Information


Barrett, Tracy. Anna of Byzantium. New York: Delacorte Press, 1999.

Anna Comnena. The Alexiad of the Princess Anna Comnena: Being the History of the Reign of Her Father, Alexius I, Emperor of the Romans, 1081–1118a.d. Translated by Elizabeth A. S. Dawes. New York: AMS Press, 1978.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, second edition. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Krey, August C. The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eyewitnesses and Participants. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1921.

Web Sites

"Medieval Sourcebook: Anna Comnena: The Alexiad: On the Crusades." Medieval Sourcebook. [Online] Available (last accessed July 28, 2000).

Anna Comnena

views updated May 23 2018

Anna Comnena

The Byzantine princess and historian Anna Comnena (1083-1148) was one of the major court figures of the Comneni period. She was the author of the "Alexiad," a history of her father's reign.

Anna Comnena was the oldest daughter of the emperor Alexius I, a member of the military aristocracy who seized Constantinople and the throne in 1081, and Irene Ducas. Comnena was born in the room reserved for imperial infants and entered the world as heiress to the throne. At an early age she was betrothed to Constantine Ducas, son of Michael VII and a cousin in her mother's family, who also had a claim to the crown. In 1088 a son, John, was born to Irene and Alexius; and as the male heir, the rights of succession were soon transferred to him. Comnena never reconciled herself to this turn of fortune's wheel, and she nurtured a pathological hatred of her younger brother. A second blow to her ambitions was the premature death of her fiancé.

Anna entered into a conspiracy with her mother against John. In 1097 she married Nicephorus Bryennius, a competent commander who took part in the Byzantine defense in the First Crusade, and a pretender to the throne. This man then joined mother and daughter in an attempt to convince Alexius to disinherit his eldest son. It is well known that at various times in Byzantine history imperial court politics were dominated by strong-minded women, and the reign of Alexius was such a time. Comnena took her place beside Maria, the mother of Constantine Ducas, and Anna Dalassena, the Emperor's forceful mother, as a member of the circle that exerted extraordinary influence. Alexius, however, withstood the assault, although even on his deathbed Comnena tried to make Alexius change his mind.

John moved quickly to have himself proclaimed emperor on his father's death in 1118. Such was Comnena's rancor and her obsession with her brother's success that she made an attempt on his life. It failed; John pardoned her and Comnena came to terms with the situation. She spent her final years in a convent. "I mostly keep in a corner," she wrote, "and occupy myself with books and God."

Comnena's reputation rests upon the history of her father's life and reign, the Alexiad, which she completed many years after his death. It is the chief source for this dynamic period in Byzantine history. Comnena was a capable historian. Her high position allowed her access to information that would ordinarily never have been known, and her intelligent handling of a vast amount of material makes an engaging narrative. Her classical instruction is apparent in her references to Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and Euripides, and in her use of heroic figures such as Achilles and Heracles to portray the virtues of valor and prowess among her contemporaries. She had the Greek fondness for physical beauty and a horror of the barbarian, views encouraged by her aristocratic upbringing. Thus she was both attracted and repelled by the crusader Bohemund, so perfect in body and speech, yet the leader of the bellicose Westerners and the main adversary of her father.

Comnena placed great emphasis on the violent nature of Byzantine political life and on the disruptive tendencies of religious heresy. She wrote of the difficulties connected with raising troops and keeping them in the field. Her history is marred by some confusion in chronology, an anti-Western bias, and an overenthusiastic appreciation of the Emperor. Yet as a narrative of the reign, it rises above these defects to become one of the great contributions to Byzantine history and literature.

Further Reading

Georgina Buckler, Anna Comnena (1929), is a detailed study of the princess as seen through the pages of the Alexiad. There is a sparkling profile in Charles Diehl, Byzantine Portraits (trans. 1927). Naomi Mitchison, Anna Comnena (1928), provides useful information on her career. Ferdinand Chalandon, Essai sur le règne d'Alexis ler Comnène (1900; repr. 1960), in French, is fundamental. □

About this article

Anna Comnena

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic