Anna Comnena (1083–1153/55)

views updated

Anna Comnena (1083–1153/55)

Byzantine princess, first known woman historian, and perhaps the best-educated woman in the entire Mediterranean world between the 5th and the 15th centuries. Name variations: (Greek) Anna Komnena, called "The Tenth Muse" and the "Pallas of Byzantine Greece." Born on December 2, 1083; died at age 70–72, sometime between 1153 and 1155; daughter of Alexius I Comnenus, emperor of Byzantium (r. 1081–1118), and Irene Ducas or Ducaena (c. 1066–1133); married Byzantine noble, Nicephorus Bryennius, in 1098 (died 1138); children: Alexius Comnenus (b. 1098); John Ducas (b. 1100); Irene Ducas or Ducaena (b. ca. 1101/1103); and a daughter whose name is unknown.

Little is known of the education of Anna Comnena beyond the fact that it was profound. As the daughter of an emperor, she surely had the best tutors available but much of what she learned undoubtedly came from a lifelong devotion to classical learning on the very highest levels. She read Homer, the great writers of Greek tragedy, Aristophanes and the lyric poets, the works of the philosophers Plato and Aristotle,those of the orators Isocrates and Demosthenes but, above all, those of the great historians, Thucydides and Polybius. In her own words, she had gone "to the end of the end of Hellenism." Works of theology were less to her taste and, though she read them, she admitted that they made her "dizzy."

Born and immediately proclaimed heir to the Byzantine throne (December 2, 1083); birth of brother John (1085); John proclaimed heir to the throne and Anna lost the right of succession (1091); Anna Dalassena, mother of Alexius I and grandmother of Anna, retired to the convent of Pantepoptes (1100); brother John married Princess Priska of Hungary, daughter of St. Ladislav (1103); twin sons born to John and Priska (1104); death of Anna Dalassena (1105); death of Adrian Comnenus, brother of Emperor Alexius (1105); death of Isaac, brother of Alexius (c. 1106); Anna joined her father and mother at Phillipopolis in Bulgaria (1114); death of father, Alexius I, whose son John succeeded with his empress, Priska, who now took the name Irene (August 15, 1118); Anna's brother, Andronicus, killed in battle against the Turks (1129); death of Anna's mother, Empress Irene, widow of Alexius I (February 19, 1133); death of Anna's sister-in-law, Empress Priska-Irene (August 13, 1133); death of Anna's husband, Nicephorus Bryennius (1138); death of her brother, Emperor John II (1143); Anna completed The Alexiad (1148).

At the death of the Emperor Basil II in 1025, the Byzantine Empire was at the highest peak of its power and glory since the days of Heraclius (610–642); its frontiers extended to Lake Sevan in Eastern Armenia and as far south as Palestine, and its treasury was filled. After Basil's death, however, a period of 56 years of incompetent and unstable rule followed at precisely the time when the empire, struck by the onrushing wave of the Turks, needed the best leadership it could find. During the years immediately following Basil's death, the Turks conquered the newly established Byzantine provinces in Armenia. At the famed Battle of Manzikert (Manazkert) in 1071, the Byzantine armies were overwhelmed, the Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes was killed, and the Romano-Byzantine occupation was swept from Armenia (where it had been a reality for 999 years) and from central Anatolia (where it had been installed for almost 12 centuries). An era had ended in the East, and the Turkish presence would eventually erase the age-old Hellenic influence in this part of the world.

The effects of the disaster of 1071 were felt throughout Byzantine civilization, especially in art and literature, which thereafter became largely sterile. In the words of Rose Dalven : "The springs of progress dried up; there was no longer any power of organic growth; the only change now possible was the passive acceptance of external forces." Though badly mauled by the Turks, and culturally stagnant, the empire survived the initial onslaught for another four centuries, largely due to the efforts of the Comnenid Dynasty and in particular of Anna's father Alexius I and her grandmother Anna Dalassena . In the general decay of Byzantine civilization, Anna Comnena's history of her father's reign shines like a lamp in the gathering darkness.

Priska-Irene of Hungary (c. 1085–1133)

Byzantine empress. Name variations: Princess Prisca of Hungary; Irene of Hungary. Born around 1085; died on August 13, 1133; daughter of St. Ladislaus also known as Ladislav or Ladislas, king of Hungary (r. 1077–1095) and Adelheid of Rheinfelden (c. 1065–?); married John II Comnenus, emperor of Byzantium (r. 1118–1143), in 1103 (died as the result of a poisoned arrow on April 8, 1143); children: four sons and four daughters, including twin sons Alexius (1104–1142) and Andronicus (1104–1142), and Manuel I Comnenus (1120?–1180), emperor of Byzantium (r. 1143–1180).

When Priska-Irene of Hungary died young, her husband John II vowed to remain true to her memory. By all accounts, he did just that. Among the most famous mosaics of Hagia St. Sophia in Istanbul is a panel depicting John and the sandy-haired Priska-Irene on either side of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child. Their son Manuel I Comnenus reigned from 1143 to 1180 and married Bertha-Irene of Sulzbach and Marie of Antioch .

The Comnenids were of a Greek family first mentioned in the time of Basil II. Originally from a village near Hadrianople in Thrace (modern Edirne in European Turkey), they later became a part of the large, landowning rural aristocracy in Asia Minor. Neither Anna nor her husband dwell on the origins of the Comneni, which may thus have been rather humble; attempts, however, to ascribe the family a Vlach (Wallachian, i.e. Rumanian) origin have been unsuccessful. Nicephorus Comnenus was governor of the new Byzantine province of Asprakania or Basprakania (Vaspurakan) in Armenia under Basil II, while another Comnenus, Manuel, great-grandfather of Anna, was a close friend of the same emperor and his representative in the negotiations with the rebel Bardas Sclerus.

At Manuel's death, he left two sons, Isaac and John II Comnenus, whom, their mother having died, he had placed under the emperor's care. Basil saw to the education of the boys and trained them for military careers; he then gave them high positions in his military guard. Isaac married Catherine of Bulgaria , daughter of King Samuel of Bulgaria, and briefly became emperor (1057–59); John, Anna's paternal grandfather, married Anna Dalassena, daughter of Alexius "Charon" Dalassenus, Byzantine governor of Italy. John Comnenus and Anna Dalassena had eight children, five sons of whom Alexius, Anna's father, was the third, and three daughters. Anna thus had, in addition to her seven siblings, a large number of uncles, aunts, and cousins of varying degrees. Through her paternal grandfather, Anna was at least partly Armenian; through her paternal grandmother, one-quarter Bulgarian. Despite its size and public position, the Comnenus family was an unusually devoted one, so much so that it would manage to survive the upcoming treason.

When Anna's father Alexius came to the throne in the revolution of 1081, his ascension represented the triumph of the growing power of the provincial aristocrats over that of the civil bureaucracy centered in Constantinople and brought the period of disaster and chaos (1056–81) to an end. It also led to the establishment of the norms that were to guarantee the survival of the empire, in its new truncated form, as a Greek national state, thereby rolling back time as if Alexander the Great had never lived and his dream of a combined Hellenic and Oriental world empire had never been. From then on—instead of dominating the entire east Mediterranean world as it had until the 7th century, and the northern half until 1071—the Byzantine "Empire" would be no more than another of many states in the increasingly fragmented Middle East. Alexius stabilized the surviving empire after the Turkish onslaught, resisted the invasion of the Patzinaks (a major Turkish tribe), Cumans, and Seljuk Turks, and established a fruitful, if costly, alliance with Venice.

At home, Alexius reorganized the provincial administration, restored the empire's defensive system, used the higher clergy as a check on the growing power of the great landowners while appeasing the latter with high-ranking titles and other honorifics. In addition, he vigorously fought the adherents of the Bogomil faith, a sect largely imported into the Balkans by Armenian heretics settled there by his predecessors. With the coming of the First Crusade, Alexius had to deal with numerous conflicts between the rough-hewn leaders of these armies from Western Europe and the cunning officials of his own bureaucracy. Distrusted by the Westerners, he is today regarded as one of the ablest rulers, military commanders, and diplomatists that the empire ever produced. All of these activities and accomplishments are detailed by Anna in the history of her father's reign.

Catherine of Bulgaria (fl. 1050)

Byzantine empress. Name variations: Aikaterini. Daughter of King Samuel of Bulgaria; married Isaac I Comnenus, emperor of Byzantium (r. 1057–1059).

A princess of Bulgaria, Catherine married Isaac Comnenus long before he became emperor of Byzantium. On his illness and abdication, Isaac took monastic vows.

Anna was born on December 2, 1083. At the time, her father had been emperor for two years, making her, in the eyes of the Byzantines, a porphyrogenete, i.e., one born to the purple, the reference being to the purple-hung chamber where the consorts of the reigning emperor gave birth to their children. Her father, Alexius, who was to be the subject of her historical work, was born in 1048, the nephew of the Emperor Isaac I Comnenus (r. 1057–59) and the son of the extraordinary Anna Dalassena. Her mother was Irene Ducas (1066–1133) of the great Byzantine house of Ducas. Anna appears to have loved both her parents and siblings deeply, the exception being her brother John, toward whom she developed a great animosity that may have been at least partly due to sibling rivalry for, until his birth, she had been the heir to the throne. In her childhood, and indeed until she was 17, the house of Comnenus, the Byzantine court, and, at times, even the empire were dominated by her paternal grandmother, the remarkable Anna Dalassena. Daughter of a high official of a distinguished Asiatic family, Anna Dalassena was a woman of great gifts and a high intellect. Pious and virtuous, she steadied the morals of the court and was so capable in public affairs that her son not only credited her with his having successfully attained the throne (thus earning her the title "Mother of the Comneni"), but thought nothing of leaving her as regent with full power to act in his stead when he was absent from the capital. Educated and well-read, Anna Dalassena played a dominant role in the politics of the empire, the life of the court, and in the upbringing of her children and grandchildren alike. It seems more than likely that Anna Comnena inherited much of her intellect from Anna Dalassena, who may have served as her great role model as she grew to maturity.

Although devoted to her father, with whom her life was totally intertwined, and loyal to his family, Anna seems to have actually been closer to the family of her mother, Irene Ducas. The Byzantine house of Ducas was one of the most illustrious of the great families of the empire. Indeed, Anna, while silent on the origins of the Comneni, claims for the Ducas family a Roman origin tracing it from a cousin of the Emperor Constantine I (280?–337) and asserting that the family name was derived from the title that Constantine granted to his cousin: "Duke of Constantinople." Anna's maternal grandmother, Marie of Bulgaria , another relative of King Samuel, was descended on her mother's side from Greek families including the house of Phocas. Maria married Andronicus Ducas, by whom she had two sons and three daughters, the eldest of whom was Irene, the mother of Anna Comnena. Andronicus was a distinguished military man but his desertion of the Emperor Romanus Diogenes at the Battle of Manzikert was in part responsible for the disaster that ensued. His failure to stand firm and Romanus' capture led to the defection of the Armenian general Philaretos, which guaranteed the triumph of the Turks.

Anna's mother, Irene Ducas, was devout and retiring, and Anna, who loved her dearly, inherited her reverence for the Orthodox faith. Irene, on her part, was devoted to her daughter and used her influence to try to have Anna's husband named as heir to the throne. Since the emperor, by definition, was supposed to be able to command the army, women—Roman or Byzantine—had never been permitted to ascend the imperial throne; this accepted norm, however, had been violated by the empress Irene of Athens (c. 752–803) as early as 797, while, much more recently, Basil II had been successively followed by his two daughters. The short, but recent, reigns of these last two empresses doubtless served as Irene's models for her ambitions for her daughter.

Despite their intrigues, piety ran in the women of both sides of Anna's family: in 1100, Anna Dalassena retired from public life to become a nun in the Convent of Pantepoptes, which she had founded; she died there five years later. As for Irene, she entered the convent of Kecharitomene, which she had founded, dying there in 1133. Anna Comnena would retire there as well, and there she too would die. Anna's piety, however, did not deter her from intriguing nor, as we shall see, from an attempt at fratricide.

As a young girl, Anna Comnena was closely involved with both sides of her family and, indeed, was early engaged to her second cousin, Constantine Ducas, the son of the Emperor Michael VII (r. 1071–1078) and Maria of Alania , a daughter of the king of Georgia. Constantine, however, died when Anna was still a child, and she was then betrothed to Nicephorus Bryennius, a youth of noble birth, whose father was a leader of the conspiracy that had put Isaac on the throne in 1067, and whose grandfather was in rebellion against the emperor in 1068–71. They were married in 1098, when Anna was 15.

The two appear to have been well-matched. Born in 1081, Nicephorus was but two years older than his bride, and both of them were well-educated and steeped in the classics. He, too, was a historian, and this may have influenced Anna in her choice of the same occupation. We know that he had planned to write a history of Alexius' reign and had actually gathered materials for it. He had even written a chronicle of the events of the period 1070–79 before he died. It is likely that these papers were available to his widow and would have been incorporated in some way into her own text. At least four children were born to this marriage: Alexius Comnenus, John Ducas, Irene Ducas (born between 1101 and 1103), and a second daughter whose name is not known. Under Anna's attentive supervision, all of them married well.

Anna was remarkably devoted to her father, whom she called "The Whole Sun," "The Great Lighthouse," and even "The Thirteenth Apostle." Sleepless, she attended him in his last illness—along with her mother and her sisters Maria Comnena and Eudocia Comnena —preparing his food, consulting with the physicians, and disputing their diagnoses and methods of treatment. Her profound knowledge of medicine is readily apparent from her detailed description of the progress of his final illness, and at one point in her narrative she offers the observation:

It seems to me that if the body is sick, the illness is often aggravated by external influences, but that sometimes too, the causes of an illness may arise of themselves, although we are apt to blame the irregularities of the weather, faulty diet, or perhaps, also, the humors of our animal fluids, as the cause of our fever.

Hostile to her father's designation of her brother John as his successor, Anna worked assiduously to secure the throne for her own husband, developing an elaborate, though unsuccessful, scheme to get her father to name Nicephorus his heir in her brother's place. On her side were her mother, her husband, and her brother Andronicus; on her brother John's side were the patriarch of Constantinople, head of the Greek Church, and his brother Isaac, whom the patriarch supported almost as a co-ruler with John.

I, Anna, daughter of Emperor Alexius and Empress Irene, born and reared in the purple, not inexperienced in the sciences and having devoted myself pre-eminently to the study of all that is Greek, well acquainted with the system of Aristotle and the Dialogues of Plato … wish in this work to describe my father's deeds, which should on no account be passed over in silence.

—Anna Comnena, opening lines of The Alexiad.

Anna more than dabbled in politics and even went so far as to organize and launch a plot to assassinate her brother less than a year after his accession to the throne. The plot was supposed to transpire while he was spending the night at the hippodrome of Philopation, an imperial residence outside the city walls near the Golden Gate, the ceremonial entrance to the capital. The guards had been duly bribed, but when Anna's husband was supposed to give the signal to storm the residence and effect the murder, Nicephorus could not go through with it. The plot thus failed and the details were all shortly discovered. Anna, enraged, lamented: would that Nicephorus had been the woman and she the man. The conspirators benefitted enormously, however, from the mild character of John II Comnenus. In a milieu in which horrible deaths or at least the cruelest mutilations were imposed upon would-be usurpers, the heaviest punishment meted out was the confiscation of property. Anna's wealth was given to John Axuchus, a Turk in the Byzantine service, but he declined to accept it, and at his urging everything eventually reverted to Anna.

Although treated with almost astonishing leniency by her brother, there is no evidence that Anna and John were ever reconciled. Forced from the court, even though her husband was welcomed and continued to hold high office there, she appears to have retired from public life, spending much of her time at the convent of Kecharitomene overlooking the Golden Horn. After the death of her husband in 1138, she retired there permanently in the company of her daughter Irene.

At Kecharitomene, Anna surrounded herself with a circle of philosophers and men of letters, forming a kind of salon of which she was the director and chief inspiration. She was particularly drawn to the works of Aristotle and encouraged the writers of commentaries upon them, in particular Michael of Ephesus, who is said to have ruined his eyes writing treatises on Aristotle's Politics and Rhetoric, and on his zoological and anthropological works. It was during her long years at this convent that Anna found the peace and tranquility to compose her history of her father's reign, the work for which her name has become famous. She died at Kecharitomene in either 1153 or 1155. On her deathbed, she is said to have taken the veil (obviously, her vaunted religiosity was in sharp contrast to her attempt to murder her own brother and the bitterness that she held toward him after his generosity when the plot was revealed). Although no portraits of Anna Comnena survive, in physical appearance, she was said to have resembled her father, with large, dark, lively eyes, a nose slightly turned down, a round face, an agile figure, and a white skin that retained a rosy hue until late in life.

The Alexiad of Anna Comnena, openly modelled after Homer's Iliad, is not only one of the most original works of Byzantine historiography, it also began the Byzantine classical renaissance, which lasted for 300 years until the empire's demise. Consisting of a prologue and 15 books (i.e. chapters), the work begins with the year 1069 and ends with the death of her father, the Emperor Alexius, in 1118. It thus follows up the work of her late husband and is itself followed up by the history of Choniates. The text is written in the stilted imitation of Classical Greek, which was utilized as the literary language of Byzantine literature and which forced the Byzantines, Anna included, to write, in effect, in a foreign tongue. She calls the Patzinaks the "Scythians," the Danube the "Ister," and apologizes to the gentle reader for having to introduce into her Hellenic prose the barbarous names of her father's enemies. Only Anna's superb education and thorough knowledge of Classical Greek made it possible for her to rise above the artificiality that characterizes so many other medieval Greek writers. Though rambling, gossipy, filled with exaggeration and naturally biased, her history is remarkable for its detachment, with Anna preferring to pass over embarrassing topics in silence rather than to misrepresent what actually occurred. She has the outlook of her class (the landed aristocracy), is credulous in matters of religion, and frequently refers to visions and oracular dreams in a way that shows that she takes them seriously. A devout Orthodox Greek, Anna attacks heresy and rails against the plots and machinations of the Catholic and Muslim enemies of the empire. Extolling the empire and her family's role in its affairs, she regards all outsiders as more or less barbarous and, a true Byzantine, she praises the wiles and ruses of her father whereby these enemies were duped, tricked, and otherwise outsmarted. In particular, she detests the Latins of the West, calling them: "by nature brazen-faced and insolent, greedy for money, incapable of resisting any whim, and, above all, more talkative than any other men on earth."

The most important contributions of her work are her account of the First Crusade, the detailed description of the expansion of the Turks into the empire, and her telling of the history of the Patzinaks, a major Turkish tribe of the Russian steppes that loomed large in this period and were destroyed by two Cuman chieftains in the Byzantine pay. Indeed, Anna is extremely well-informed about the Seljuk Turks and tells us much of their character, internal affairs, and methods of warfare. Her descriptions of life at the Byzantine court are vivid as are her accounts of the intrigues and struggles within it. She also has much to say about the religious situation of her day and preserves for us the texts of several important documents and letters. More forthright than Michael Psellus, whom she freely imitates and occasionally borrows from (to the point of plagiarism), Anna's chief model is Thucydides and, though she can be vitriolic when she wishes to be (she describes Bohemond, her father's Norman nemesis as "of insignificant origin, in temper tyrannical, in mind most cunning, brave in action, very clever in attaching the wealth and substance of great men, [and] most obstinate in achievement, for he did not allow any obstacle to prevent the execution of his will"), she is generally fair in her assessments.

Hostile to her brother, John, her father's successor, Anna has little to say about him and nothing at all about his reign, though she completed her history after his death when his reign had long been over. There are problems with her chronology, her geography is not at all clear, her descriptions of battles (which she had probably never witnessed) are poor, her work has several lacunae and minor contradictions, and she leaves many loose ends and questions unanswered. A sense of gloom hangs like a pall over the entire narrative. Yet, for all this, she is easy to read, vivid and urbane, and her work is a far more cultivated and sophisticated piece of literature than anything written in the West in her time. The Alexiad was not Anna's only work. She has left us a ten-line poem dedicated to the Logos, two seals and a four-page prologue to her will.

Anna Comnena is one of the most remarkable women in history prior to the emergence of the Western World. Her history of her father's reign is an important historical document and is invaluable for our understanding of the period in which she lived. The first woman historian, and one of the best educated women before modern times, she came close to sitting on the throne of the Caesars, and there appears to be little doubt that she would have worn the crown with distinction.


Anna Comnena. The Alexiad. English translation by E.R.A. Sewter. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969.

Buckler, Georgina. Anna Comnena: A Study. London: Oxford University, 1929 (reprinted 1968).

Dalven, Rose. Anna Comnena. NY: Twayne, 1972.

Psellus, Michael. Chronographia. English translation by E.R.A. Sewter as Fourteen Byzantine Rulers. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1953.

suggested reading:

Charanis, Peter. "The Byzantine Empire in the 11th Century," in A History of the Crusades. Edited by K.M. Sutton. Philadelphia: 1955.

Ostrogorsky, George. The History of the Byzantine State. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1957.

Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey, and author of a book and several articles relevant to late Roman and Byzantine history

About this article

Anna Comnena (1083–1153/55)

Updated About content Print Article