By Michael Goodyear
Byzantium was undoubtedly a male-dominated society. Yet despite being rooted in traditional Roman and Christian values that reinforced this status quo, Byzantine women managed to achieve important positions in society: they were saints, poetesses, and even empresses. Perhaps the most famous Byzantine woman, however, was a historian. Anna Komnene was a strong-willed Byzantine princess, born in the imperial palace and the daughter of a sitting emperor, who even tried to overthrow her brother as emperor. Yet today Anna’s legacy is not her political vivacity but the impressive history she wrote of her father’s reign, fittingly called the Alexiad.
The Byzantine Empire produced one of the richest troves of primary sources during the Middle Ages. These Byzantine authors were typically scholars or ecclesiastics, but Byzantine royalty also wrote original texts, such as the emperors Maurice, Constantine VII, and John VI Kantakouzenos. Many of these scholars drew on the education the church or personal wealth afforded them in order to portray the history of Byzantium. An essential part of this education was applying their knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman historians, then writing their own histories in a similar style. Our original sources from Byzantium are nearly unanimously written by men. That fact, coupled with the above restrictions on being a Byzantine historian, created a foreboding barrier for hopeful women historians. Of course, there is the notable exception of the imperial Byzantine princess Anna Komnene, the only female historian who wrote in Greek before the nineteenth century.
The Life of Anna
From the second Anna was born, she was surrounded by the splendor of imperial Byzantium. As was the custom for children of a sitting emperor, she was born in the porphyra chamber of the imperial palace, a room made of purple marble and swathed in purple cloth. The colors of purple and scarlet were imperial monopolies: they could only be worn by the emperor or with his permission, and the dying of these colors was closely guarded. Imperial children were born looking at this color to set their expectations for their new world. Born here, Anna was considered a porphyrogenita, one “born in the purple,” a member of the first family of the empire.
But despite this most luxurious of medieval births, Anna was born at a troubling time for the Byzantine Empire. She was born in 1083, just two years after her father, Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081–1118), ascended the Byzantine throne. Alexios had taken the throne in a coup, as had his predecessor, and, at least partially, his predecessor’s predecessor. Byzantium had reached one of its greatest heights under Basil II (r. 976–1025), but his successors were, almost without exception, weak and vacillating. One of the worst military defeats in Byzantine history, the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, was compounded by a Byzantine civil war, allowing the victorious Seljuk Turks to conquer practically all of the Byzantine heartland of Anatolia. At the same time, the ferocious Pecheneg tribes had broken through the Danube frontier and had started to lay waste to the Balkans while the powerful Norman Duke of Sicily, Robert Guiscard (1015–1085), landed in modern-day Albania seeking to take Constantinople itself.
But Alexios proved to be one of the most successful of Byzantine emperors, and he pushed back the enemies of Byzantium, reconquered lost territories, and stabilized the empire. By the time Anna was growing up, the Byzantine Empire was becoming an important regional power once again. She was close at hand when diplomats arrived with news at the palace, when crusaders met her father, and, naturally, when her father governed the realm.
Strong Women, Powerful Mentors
But for the first decade of her life, Anna grew up in the home of former empress Maria of Alania (1053–1118). She was betrothed practically since birth to Constantine Doukas, the son of the late emperor Michael VII (r. 1071–1078). Following Byzantine custom, she grew up in the home of her mother-in-law, Maria. However, Constantine died when Anna was only eleven and she subsequently resumed palace life.
Maria, as a former empress and coup plotter, was only one of several strong women in Anna’s life. Anna’s grandmother, Anna Dalassene, was even more fearsome. She was the driving force behind the coup that brought Alexios to power in 1081, crafting an alliance with Maria and the powerful Doukas family. Once Alexios became emperor, he gave the title of augusta, or empress, not to his wife, as would be customary, but to his mother, Anna Dalassene. She would serve as regent on several occasions while Alexios was away on campaign. Anna’s mother, Irene Doukaina, despite being shoved aside by her mother-in-law, was formidable in her own right, as would become apparent around Alexios’ death, when she tried to influence the succession. The presence of such powerful women in Anna’s life no doubt encouraged her own confidence and strong disposition.
Anna was married to Nikephoros Bryennios (1062–1137), a Byzantine military commander who was related to both of Alexios’ predecessors. Although it was a political marriage, it appeared to be a successful one, no doubt aided by the fact that Bryennios and Anna shared scholarly interests such as history.
But one issue in their marriage related to a supposed attempted imperial coup. Anna was Alexios and Irene’s first-born child, and as such, she appears to have had imperial ambitions. Those were dashed when her brother John was born. Allegedly, Anna and her mother tried to convince Alexios on his deathbed to designate Bryennios as emperor instead. Yet, when Alexios died, John II (r. 1118–1143) was crowned emperor. Anna stressed her own rightful claim to the throne and supposedly plotted against her brother, although Bryennios refused to help. Once the plot was discovered, Anna’s lands were confiscated and her movements were limited. While the contemporary sources are difficult to align, it appears that at the very least there was a falling out between Anna and John.
Although Anna had intellectual interests before the alleged plot, her role as a historian began after its discovery. Bryennios was a historian in his own right and his mother-in-law, Irene, had encouraged him to write a history about the Komnenos family and Byzantine history, starting with the reign of Isaac I Komenos in 1057. Yet Bryennios died before his writings reached the reign of Alexios, and Anna, who moved into a convent after her husband’s death, decided to take up his mantle and finish the work. This was perhaps in part because Bryennios’ history is less than flattering of Alexios; he depicts Alexios as a craven despot, implying that Bryennios’ own grandfather would have been the better emperor. Anna had an interest in rehabilitating her father. Although both of their works survive today, it is Anna’s that has become one of the preeminent texts from Byzantine history.
In writing the Alexiad, Anna was faced with a slate of contradictions: she had to navigate interviewing witnesses while being subject to restrictions as a woman, being a passionate woman and a neutral historian, and being a dutiful daughter but an objective narrator.
Anna interviewed eyewitnesses, reviewed old reports, and accessed the imperial archives (a perk of being an imperial princess). Women in Byzantium were by custom secluded and did not have the ability to talk to, let alone interview, men to whom they were unrelated. Having imperial prestige certainly helped loosen these bonds to an extent, but it was no doubt most valuable that she was related to many of the key players of her father’s reign. For example, she could talk to her uncles who had served as Alexios’ generals.
The gender stereotypes of Byzantium also held that women were driven by their passions, but the traditional historian had to be neutral and adhere to the facts. Anna provides an enormous amount of detail in her text and mimics the writing style of the ancient Greeks such as Thucydides and Xenophon; her education is unquestionable. Yet, if Anna stayed completely passionless, she would be seen as breaking with the expectations of being a Byzantine woman. Anna therefore does include passionate laments, mourning her dead father and husband. The entire book, a monument to her father’s reign, was apparently prompted by her own grief. Being female entitled her to engage directly with her times rather than remain entirely neutral, preserving both her positions as a Byzantine woman and as a historian.
Anna also had to toe the line between being objectively critical of her father’s reign while also being a dutiful daughter, as respect towards one’s parents was expected of Byzantine sons and daughters. She had an ingenious way of relaying Alexios’ faults while staying loyal to her father: Anna wrapped failures in a heroic light. For example, when Alexios lost the Battle of Dyrrhachium, Anna portrays him fleeing heroically, with his horse likened to Pegasus. When Alexios loses a battle against the Pechenegs and loses the sacred veil of the Virgin Mary, she says he hid it.
Yet Anna does not shy away from telling the worst aspects of Alexios’ reign. When he captured Constantinople from Nikephoros III Botaneiates (r. 1078– 1081) to become emperor, Alexios commanded a mostly foreign force of Turks and his forces looted the city. Anna not only says this instead of merely saying he captured the city, she also tells her readers how it was captured on Maundy Thursday, a holy day on which fighting was proscribed. The Alexiad was first and foremost a panegyric about her father’s reign.
A Crusade chronicle
The Alexiad is the preeminent source for Alexios’ reign and invaluable to Byzantine historians. It is the main source for understanding Robert Guiscard’s invasions and eventual defeat at the hands of Alexios. It provides important insights into the religious persecution of the Bogomils, the loss and recapture of parts of Anatolia from the Seljuk Turks, and Alexios’ domestic policy.
Yet, it is perhaps most often cited for its portrayal of the First Crusade, as it is our only Byzantine source on the matter. Anna had access to many of the men who would have been in the palace when the crusaders arrived. She explained the alarm of the Byzantine nobility at learning of the size of the First Crusade. While Alexios had asked the Pope for assistance in reconquering parts of Anatolia, it was assumed that a small retinue of troops would be provided, not the armies of a pan-European holy war marching through his territory. Anna provides us with an account of what occurred during the discussions between the crusader leaders and Alexios’ court, giving us an especially vivid depiction of the Norman prince Bohemond of Taranto (1054–1111). The son of Robert Guiscard, Bohemond is scathingly referred to by Anna as an ambitious but untrustworthy man. Anna may have been inspired to write about the First Crusade in such anti-Latin detail because at the time of her writing, the Second Crusade was passing through Constantinople. Her history could play a role in the politics surrounding the Second Crusade as well as potentially influence her nephew, the reigning emperor.
As demonstrated by her laments of sorrow at the death of her father and her portrayal of Bohemond, Anna does not maintain an objective third-person perspective but offers a passionate commentary on events. Being a woman allowed her to take this approach while male historians were prevented from doing so by the rules of traditional Greek historical writing. The results of Anna’s compromise between her gender role and traditional historical writing add to the Alexiad’s value, and indeed make it a rarity for the time: not just well researched and well written, but also passionate.
See also: Anna Comnena and the First Crusade
The Lasting Impact of the Alexiad
The Alexiad has remained Anna’s legacy. Although it was just one part of Anna’s much broader body of works that contemporaries could have seen, it is the lone survivor. It is one of the essential primary sources for Byzantine history and remains a standard read for students studying the period. For a woman who dreamed of the imperial throne, it may be far from what she wished her legacy to be, but her history has proved invaluable for historians who now wish to understand her life, the life of her father, and the events of her times. For a Byzantine woman at this time, the Alexiad is a remarkable legacy.
Michael Goodyear is a lawyer, having received a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. He has an A.B. in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Byzantine history. He has been published in a variety of academic and general-interest publications, including Le Monde diplomatique, Ancient History Encyclopedia, and the Vanderbilt Historical Review.
The Alexiad by Anna Komnene, trans. by E. R. A. Sewter (Penguin, 2009)
Anna Komnene and the Alexiad: The Byzantine Princess and the First Crusade, by Loulia Kolovou (Pen and Sword, 2020)
Kyle Sinclair, “Anna Komnene and her Sources for Military Affairs in the Alexiad,” Estudios bizantinos, Vol.2 (2014)
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: Detail from Icon of the Virgin and Child, Hodegetria variant, 13th century – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art