Anna Komnene: The Byzantine Biographer Princess and First Female Historian
These days, it seems that if an author wants to go straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, all they need to do is release a tell-all memoir or biography aimed at a famous politician or a member of a royal family. This is not a new phenomenon; people have been writing books like these since the invention of writing. Yet the most successful tell-all texts have the same thing in common: access to the subject. A great example is Anna Komnene’s Alexiad. As the eldest daughter of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komenenos, she had almost unlimited access to the royal court. Today, her work is one of the greatest resources historians have for studying the Byzantine Empire, and is seen as one of the greatest biographies of all time.
- A Millennium of Glory: The Rise and Fall of the Byzantine Empire
- The Komnenian Dynasty: The Byzantine Royal Family that Kept Coming Back
A 12th-century manuscript of Anna Komnene’s Alexiad (Sailko / CC BY SA 3.0)
The Early Life of Anna Komnene
Anna, born in 1083 AD, was the eldest daughter of Alexios I Komnenos and his wife, Empress Irene Doukaina. Like most other Byzantine royal babies, she was born in the Porphyra Chamber of the royal palace in Constantinople.
The emperor wasted little time marrying his eldest daughter off to Constantine Doukas, the son of former emperor Michael VII. At that point, Alexios had no sons, which meant that Anna was next in line to the Byzantine throne following her betrothal. She was seemingly happy with her betrothal, stating later that Constantine “was endowed with a heavenly beauty seemingly not of this world”.
As was tradition, Anna left her family palace and went to live with her future mother-in-law, Maria of Alania. As a royal, the young woman was tutored in mathematics, philosophy, and medicine. She was a keen student who hungered for information.
Unfortunately, it was considered unbecoming for a lady at court to receive higher education. Anna begged to be allowed to continue her studies, but these pleas fell on deaf ears. Anna was not one to give up, however. In secret, she hired Michael of Ephesos to tutor her in the higher levels of philosophy. Aristotle was a particular favorite.
Everything began to change for Anna in 1087 AD. Her mother finally provided her father with the heir he had always hoped for, John. Despite being the youngest child, John was made his father's new heir. Anna was consumed with a jealous hatred of her young brother.
- The Fall of Constantinople: Relentless Ottoman Fire Power Finally Pulverizes the Last Vestiges of the Roman Empire
- Did Constantinople Fall Because Someone Forgot to Lock the Gate?
Alexios I Komnenos and Irene Doukaina playing with their daughter Anna Komnene (MidJourney AI / Public Domain)
Then, in 1097 AD, her husband Constantine passed away at the tender age of 23. Anna was only 14 at the time, but was already aware that, thanks to her brother, her only chance of ever seeing a throne was through marriage.
She promptly married a well-respected and skilled general, Nikephoros Byrennios the Younger. Anna played the role of the good wife and gave the general four children. Behind the scenes, however, she joined forces with her grandmother, Anna Dalssene, to usurp her father and put her husband on the throne.
Her grandmother was experienced in plotting coups, having helped put Alexios on the throne in the first place. Sadly, Anna’s plan had one fatal flaw, her husband was loyal to her father the emperor. As a rebel force prepared to seize control of the palace, Nikepheros chose to make himself scarce. The coup attempt gained no traction and quickly failed.
Disease did what Anna and her conspirators failed to do and killed her father on August 15th 1118 AD. Anna’s hated brother became Emperor John II Komnenos. During Alexios’s funeral, an assassination attempt was made on John’s life. The attempt failed, but it seemed more than likely that Anna was involved.
John was no fool and saw the threat his big sister posed. Less than a year after his father’s death, he had Anna banished to the Theotokos Kecharitomene Monastery, which had been founded by their mother. Everything Anna owned was seized, and she was banned from ever returning home. Anna did not take this punishment well, and chose to spend her expulsion wreaking revenge on her family. She did this by writing the Alexiad.
Anna Komnene’s Alexiad
Anna’s second husband died in 1137, and later the same year she began writing the Alexiad. Starting in 1137, she carried on writing the book through the mid-1140s. The series covers the period spanning 1069 up to 1118 AD.
Anna claimed to have written the book as a tribute to the reign of the father she had tried to overthrow. The book is a brilliant mixture of impressive research, insightful opinions, and humorous comments. It is also the only book of its kind written by a woman during the Middle Ages.
Anna Komnene wrote the Alexiad in Attic Greek (also known as classical Greek). It is divided into thirteen books, which can broadly be split into four areas of focus. The first three books deal with her family's rise to power. Despite her rocky relationship with her family, she spent time justifying their seizure of power.
Books four to nine cover much of her clan's military history. She went into the details of various wars, including those against the Normans, Scyths, Turks, and Cumans. Books ten and eleven covered more specific military history, namely the First Crusade of 1096-1104 AD, and the 1105 Norman invasion of Byzantium. She rounded out the last two books with yet more military history and spent time describing domestic issues like high-profile church heretics.
Anna Komnene did not rely solely on her former position in the court when writing the Alexiad. She leveraged former works, such as the ChronographiaI by Michael Psellos, and backed up her information through official reports, treaties, records, and eyewitness accounts of battles. On top of these more reputable sources, she was not afraid to throw in some hearsay with a pinch of courtly gossip.
What really makes the book such a fascinating read, however, are her recollections of life at court. She was actually there as history was being made. This means her work included the kind of physical descriptions and details of protocols and people’s clothing that other accounts do not include.
Picture of Alexios I Komnenos and Hugh the Great and Crusader Council from Anna Komnene’s Alexiad (Public Domain)
Alexiad as a Historical Source
The fact that the Alexiad has become an invaluable tool for historians does not mean it is without its fault. It is always important to check a historical source for prejudices, and the Alexiad is certainly no different in this regard.
Anna set out to make the text as impartial as possible, but even she admitted that her work was ultimately prejudiced by her own opinions. The author’s bias is most apparent in sections relating to the reign of her father, which is much of the book. Anna painted her father as a moral and laudable leader who seemingly could do no wrong. In one section she described him as “a fiery whirlwind…radiating beauty, grace and dignity, and an unapproachable majesty”.
Sections of the book detailing her father's martial prowess made him sound akin to an ancient Greek hero. One such section detailed how Alexios supposedly took on three skilled Latin knights with little trouble. Anna’s writing was clearly influenced by ancient Greek writers. In particular, the way she described her father and his military genius was very similar to how Odysseus was often portrayed.
Anna Komnene also displayed the classic Byzantine superiority complex over other cultures. She described the Latins and Franks as barbarians and had little nice to say about Turks or Armenians. The book very much took the Byzantine side in relation to the empire’s foreign policy, especially the Crusades.
While Anna spent much of the book espousing the virtues of her father, the same cannot be said for her brother or nephew. Anna avoided mentioning her brother John or his son as much as possible. When she did mention them, she had little nice to say. She took some time to criticize her brother for his accession to the throne, something she appeared to have seen as hers by right.
Defending the Alexiad
When assessing Anna Komnene’s work, we must remember that she was a woman writing at a time when women did not enjoy the freedoms that most do today. Anna stated in the beginning that the purpose of writing the book was to mourn her father and husband.
The book was supposedly written as a monument to her father. However, it is also possible that this was a front. The only way Anna could get away with writing the Alexiad in the first place was to make it a monument.
There has been extensive analysis of the apparently subjective way Anna wrote about her father, and it is undeniable that the Alexiad is biased. Yet it is at least partly likely that this was down to necessity. Respect for one's parents was a key facet of Byzantine culture, and Anna was forced to balance being critical of her father and being a dutiful daughter.
Anna was a gifted writer, and when you read between the lines, what initially seems like praise for her father can actually be construed as veiled criticism. Anna was adept at wrapping up her father's failures as successes like a gifted spin doctor.
Take, for example, her account of the Battle of Dyrrhachium. Alexios lost the Battle of Dyrrhachium and was forced to flee. Except in Anna’s version, he fled heroically, and she likened his horse to Pegasus. Later, when Alexios was defeated by the Pechenegs and lost the sacred veil of the Virgin Mary, Anna claimed that he in fact hid it - so well even he couldn’t find it again.
Anna Komnene also deserves credit for the times in the Alexiad where she seemingly called out her father’s behavior. For example, she chose not to embellish her father's capture of Constantinople from Nikephoros III Botaneiates.
During this battle, her father’s force, predominantly made up of Turks that the Byzantines looked down upon, looted the great city. Anna could have simply said her father captured the city, without going into detail, but she opted not to. She mentioned how her father broke religious law by invading on Maundy Thursday, a religious holy day during which fighting was banned, even though it doesn’t exactly paint her father in the best light. This showed she was not afraid to criticize her father.
Portrait of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (Public Domain)
Anna Komnene’s Alexiad was a smashing success. She was a true standout of her time, becoming a major scholar of note, despite the fact she was a woman. She died in 1153 at the age of sixty five. At her funeral, Georgios Tornikes praised her beauty, charm, wit, and intellect. He also described her as a woman “more wise than men in words, more manly in acts and more prudent in tests”.
Tornikes described her as a “rival star” to Constantinople’s relative galaxy of great male academics. For the period in which they lived, there could be little better praise for a female scholar. To not only be listed as among the best male scholars, but better, was a great achievement.
Sadly, later scholars dedicated themselves to tarnishing Anna Komnene’s name. For almost a millennium, Anna was associated with the negative, rather than her work being recognized as the masterpiece it is. Thankfully, this has changed in recent times, and scholars have spent more time focusing on her great achievements in both literature and history.
Top Image: Pastel style drawing of Anna Komnene writing the Alexiad in the monastery of the Virgin Mary Full of Grace. Source: Midjourney AI / Public Domain
By Robbie Mitchell
Cartwright, M. May 3, 2018. Anna Komnene. World History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/Anna_Komnene/
Goodyear, M. April 2022. Anna Komnene: The Purple-Born Historian. Medievalists.net. Available at: https://www.medievalists.net/2022/04/anna-komnene-purple-born-historian/
Shepard, J. 2009. The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire c.500-1492. Cambridge University Press.
White, E. March 2, 2018. The Misunderstood Byzantine Princess and Her Magnum Opus. The Paris Review. Available at: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/03/02/byzantine-princess-magnum-opus/