Anna Comnena (Anna Komnene)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Anna Comnena (Anna Komnene)

Anna Comnena (Anna Komnene) (1083-1153) Byzantine historian

Anna Comnena, the world's first acknowledged female historian, produced a classic examination of the Byzantine Empire. The first of nine children born to Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, she was trained from girlhood for service to the realm and expected to become empress. Born “in the purple” (porphyra) on December 1, 1083, she was the porphyrogenita, or first princess. Renouncing girlish amusements she grew up intellectually sophisticated but sheltered and protected from the sexual libertinism expressed in ancient verse. In a household dominated by assertive females, she gained respect for bold women from the wisdom of her paternal grandmother, Anna Dalassena, a widow who administered the state while her son Alexius conducted wars.

After studying astronomy, geography, geometry, history, Homer's epics, math, medicine, and philosophy, in her mid-teens, Anna Comnena organized her father's hospital, refugee center, and foundling home. In 1097, during the First Crusade (1096-1099), at age 14, she wed Caesar Nicephorus Bryennius, a general and statesman 21 years older than she. She subsequently connived with her mother, Empress Irene Dukaina, to replace Anna's brother, John Comnenius, who was four years her junior, because Alexius named him heir to the throne of the Eastern Empire. When the emperor died on August 15, 1118, the 35-year- old princess championed her husband's claim to the position of basileus (king). She lost land and her title by attempting to poison her brother, who became Emperor John II Comnenius.

Following the failure of her plot, Anna Comnena retreated with her mother and younger sister Eudocia to the Convent of the Mother of God Kecharitomene (Full of Grace), which Empress Irene had founded in Constantinople. In solitude, Anna wrote medical texts and family history. Meanwhile, Nicephorus Bryennius, who had not cooperated with her plot, continued to act as a royal adviser to Emperor John. He had also begun work on an essay on the reign of Alexius I Comnenus. After he died in 1137, Anna Comnena assumed the completion of her husband's work, researching the imperial archives, combat data, foreign dispatches, and a history written by John, archdeacon of Bari. Influenced by the style of Greek historians Polybius, THUCYDIDES, and XENOPHON, she thus began an 11-year project, compiling in Greek a major work of CRUSADER LORE: the Alexiad, or Alexias (ca. 1148), a chronicle of Byzantine events from her father's crowning in 1081 to his death in 1118. In 15 books, she presented political and cultural events of the First Crusade (1095-96), when Robert Guiscard and his son Bohemund of Taranto led Norman warriors southeast to recover the Holy Lands from the Saracens. In addition to a biography of the Emperor Alexius I, she reported on etiquette and protocol, disease and healing, field strategy, fire ships, siege machinery and weaponry, learning and divination, state finances, character profiles, and court intrigues of the High Middle Ages.

The Alexiad

The first major history to arise from the medieval Greek renaissance, the Alexiad contrasts the cultures that warred over Constantinople during and after the First Crusade. In mature, focused prose phrased in high literary style, Anna Comnena introduces a dilemma: the two-pronged intrusions of Turks to the east and Norman Franks to the west. She states in Book 4, “Turkish infiltration had scattered the eastern armies in all directions and the Turks were in almost complete control of all the districts between the Black Sea and the Hellespont” (Anna Comnena 2004, 38). At the height of danger, she pictures Alexius as man of the hour, the only savior shrewd and experienced enough to rescue the Eastern Empire. He is paired with the author's grandmother, Anna Dalassena, and the two governors manage a situation that threatens chaos equal to the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths. The author remarks that her grandmother understood “motives, ultimate consequences, interrelations good and bad of various courses of action, penetrating quickly to the right solution, adroitly and safely carrying it out” (119).

Although secluded in a convent, Anna Comnena kept herself informed. She admired her mother in Book 14 for accompanying Alexius on his campaigns and lauded Sichelgaita of Salerno, an Amazonian Lombard called “Gaita” who married Robert Guiscard and followed him into battle against the infidels. According to Anna Comnena, Gaita was “another Pallas, if not a second Athena” (147). The author turned Gaita's courage into high drama. Prefiguring Joan of Arc, Gaita raises the fighting spirit of men by dressing in armor and brandishing a spear while riding at full gallop ahead of the Norman phalanx. Questioning the manhood of deserters, she yells in Homeric style, “How far will ye run? Halt! Be men!” The image, grandly pictorial, preserves for history one of the stunning female warriors of the Middle Ages.

Critics admire Anna Comnena's eloquence, scope, and command of geography, combat tactics, and psychology. Composing in her early sixties, she excelled at characterizing enemies in brief, describing Robert Guiscard as nourished on evil, Bohemond as a streaking thunderbolt, and Gregory VII as a prelate unworthy of the position of high priest. Contemporaries who doubted the authorship offered a left-handed compliment in claiming that so excellent a history could not be the work of a mere woman. The stream of praise to Alexius raises questions of author objectivity, beginning in Book 1, when the text describes Bryennius's failure to murder the emperor as the hand of God preserving Alexius for a great destiny. More favorable critiques value Anna Comnena for detailing the personalities of significant figures—Tancred, Malik Shah, Hugh of Vermandois, Marianus, Kilij Arslan, Henry IV, Godfrey de Bouillon, and Michael VII. Like Greek tragedy, the text winds down from the burning of Basil the Bogomil at the stake in the Hippodrome to Alexius's death, perhaps the most significant moment in the author's life. Like epic, the history preserves Alexius's deeds and statecraft as turning points in the survival of the Byzantine Empire. The high points of Alexius's reign colored an anonymous Bavarian hero tale, Konig Rother (King Rother, ca. 1150), a crusader adventure from the Lombard Cycle.


Anna Comnena. Alexias. Translated by E. R. A. Sewter. London: Penguin, 2004.

Edgington, Susan, and Sarah Lambert. Gendering the Crusades. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Gouma-Peterson, Thalia, ed. Anna Komnene and Her Times. New York: Routledge, 2000.