Anna Komnene – the princess who chronicled Byzantium’s changing fortunes

Byzantine princess Anna Komnene, banished to a convent for her political ambition, devoted her gifts of observation to charting the fortunes of her father's empire – etching her legacy as Europe's first female historian.

Anna Komnene
Anna Komnene

When we think of the names of the great historians of the past, a long and familiar list comes to mind: Herodotus, of course, the ‘father of history’; Thucydides and Xenophon; the great Roman historians such as Livy, Plutarch and Tacitus, to name but three; the historians of the Renaissance like Bruni or Machiavelli; Edward Gibbon, of course, and Thomas Carlyle; Leopold von Ranke and more recently Ferdinand Braudel.

Lists are always contentious. They are bound to provoke debate and discussion about those who are included and those whose names are left off. Few, however, would name Anna Komnene in the list of great historians. That is a shame, because Anna’s contribution to history – as a historian, author and patron of scholarship – should place her in the first rank of those who wrote about the past.

Anna was born in Constantinople in 1083, the daughter of Alexios Komnenos and his wife Eirene, rulers of the Byzantine Empire – the eastern half of the Roman empire that had not only survived but flourished following the sack and fall of Rome six hundred years earlier. Anna was the eldest child of the imperial couple. Ferociously intelligent, she paid close attention to the travails, challenges and achievements of life in the palace, the capital and in the intensive relations that took place in the late 11th and first half of the 12th century.

Anna was talented and ambitious. When her father died in 1118, she was a serious candidate for the throne, ahead of her younger brother John – so much so that the latter apparently slipped his father’s regnal ring off his finger as he lay dying and rushed to have himself proclaimed as emperor to stop his sister taking power for herself and her husband, Nikephoros Bryennios. Anna was such a threat to her brother that she was sent into internal exile, housed at a convent that had an extensive endowment but which prevented her from seeing her husband – as she herself tells us.

While the circumstances and timings of Anna’s isolation are not entirely clear, we know that she was highly active during her lifetime in gathering intellectuals around her and encouraging their research. Anna’s intellectual pretensions attracted barbs from some contemporaries, who dismissed her as being too clever for her own good. Nevertheless, it is hard to exaggerate the importance of the circle of scholars whose work she promoted. Chief amongst these was Eustratios of Nicaea, whom Anna commissioned to produce the first commentaries on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. The result was not only a ground-breaking piece of interpretive and philosophical work in itself but one that had a profound impact on the future of western scholarship: Eustratios’ commentaries were translated by Robert Grosseteste, then used by Thomas Aquinas and served to cement Aristotle in western political thought.

However, it is Anna’s own work that marks her out as being truly remarkable. After her husband died at the end of the 1130s, she set about writing a history of the Byzantine empire during her father’s reign. She called it The Alexiad, an allusion to perhaps the greatest European epic history of all, The Iliad of Homer. The account is remarkable for many reasons, not least its length and its detail. Vividly written and meticulously researched, it provides an astonishing account of one of the most important periods not only in Byzantine history, nor even of the history of Europe, but of the definitive schism of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, an important new crystallisation of the rivalry between western Europe and the Islamic Middle East, and the survival of the empire against all the odds.

As well as the breadth and range of the coverage, The Alexiad is uniquely important for three reasons. First, it was written by a member of the imperial family, which means readers get a perspective of the events described from an extraordinarily privileged and unusual viewpoint. Second, despite the key importance of the period that is covered in the text, broadly c.1070-1118, it was the only major account of this period that was produced in Byzantium, meaning that the information it provides is particularly valuable and fills what would otherwise be a major gap in the historical record. And finally, Anna’s account is of exceptional interest and importance because it is the first narrative history written in a European language by a female author.

Anna’s work is not entirely unknown to later historians, but it has been poorly regarded for many centuries. Edward Gibbon, whose own reputation as a historian could do with a swipe or two, was dismissive of The Alexiad, claiming it ‘betrays, in every page, the vanity of a female author.’ That should come as something of a surprise to anyone who has bothered to read beyond the first few pages and beyond the name of the author at the start of the manuscript – for the text is in fact based on a substantial archive drawn from official records, including letters sent by the emperor, official documents issued by the state, and copious campaign notes that provide witness to an intense period of military activity.

Anna is no more highly viewed by modern scholars, who typically dismiss her work as a eulogy of a daughter devoted her beloved father – which again not only says a great deal about casual sexism and lazy assumptions, but also reveals the most basic lack of engagement with the text. Far from being a glowing portrait of the Emperor Alexios’ reign, The Alexiad in fact tells a story of difficult and often poor decision-making during times of immense pressure, of ineffective leadership and of a leader living on his wits and often surviving by the skin of his teeth.

Anna explains at the start how her father seized power in 1081. A highly capable army officer from a prominent family, Alexios had watched the empire descend into paralysis and chaos during the course of the 1070s. A sharp economic contraction had accompanied rising expenditure, made worse by a rapidly deteriorating position with all of Byzantium’s neighbours which had brought the empire to its knees. Military setbacks had eroded confidence in the army, while a series of invasions reduced productivity and revenues still further. Worse, the empire was led by a geriatric, impulsive narcissist who was out of touch with reality, more worried about giving out favours than taking decisive action that might improve a situation that was already precarious.

Anna explains that by the start of 1080, it looked like the game was up. Turkish raiders had occupied the most economically and strategically important parts of Asia Minor and had reached the Bosporus. Norman knights who had conquered southern Italy and much of Sicily in the previous decade were now looking eagerly at the empire’s western flank in what is today Albania and Greece. And then there were steppe nomad raiders – preludes to the Mongols of the 13th century – who were massing in vast numbers by the Danube with their eye set on pastureland for their livestock south of the Balkan Mountains in the breadbasket of Thrace.

Anna’s account of the coup is a glorious piece of dramatic description. We learn of the build-up and the plans to take power, framed not only by the very real fears of betrayal but also by the worry that the emperor would suddenly decide that Alexios, his brother Isaac and assorted relatives who had thrown their lot in with the young general, were a threat and should be arrested, or worse.

The reckoning came when Alexios and his supporters marched on Constantinople and managed to get through one of the gates protecting the Queen of Cities. However, while Alexios moved on the imperial palace and on the great cathedral of Haghia Sophia, his supporters took matters into their own hands, pulling senators from their horses, stripping them of their clothes and mocking them as they walked through the city, wailing. Anna does not spare her father from blame for the behaviour, and reports how he atoned for the crimes that had been committed. The Alexios that is presented here, and throughout the text, is no swash-buckling hero who can do no wrong, but a determined, devout, almost humourless figure whose only aim is to serve and protect the state.

The travails and challenges that the emperor faced over the course of his reign are covered in detail, often brutally. One of the highlights is a moment when the emperor was on campaign in the Balkans on the eve of the First Crusade – an expedition that saw tens of thousands of men leave their homes in western Europe and march on Jerusalem and that is largely to be explained by the situation in the Byzantine Empire.

On such occasions, Alexios usually left his mother or his brother in charge in the capital, and took his closest rivals with him, so as to keep a close eye on them and to ensure they could not cause trouble in his absence. But it was not enough to stop the formation of a giant conspiracy that involved many of the emperor’s closest allies and even members of his immediate family. Deciding that he had no other options, Alexios gathered all the senior officers in the imperial tent and, having dressed in the garb of a regular officer, rather than as emperor, stood surrounded by guards from Scandinavia and northern Europe who were carrying double-headed axes. He then gave a speech on which his career, his reign and his life depended. The drama that was palpable is captured with eloquence and elegance by Anna Komnene in scenes that would make for a worthy mini-series.

Anna Komnene’s account of her father’s reign is a complex, difficult text. It is written in florid prose, with regular references to biblical texts and to Homer, Plutarch, Xenophon and others. It not only requires careful reading but intelligent interpretation – to explain the gaps, the repetitions and the contradictions which may or may not be intentional. Both Anna and her work should be much more well known, and also better understood.

Anna died in 1153. Her later years, she tells us in The Alexiad, were ones of sadness and loneliness, the result of being kept apart from her family. Instead, she devoted herself to writing her history – a solitary trial that rings a bell with historians from all times and from all places.

There should be no doubt that Anna’s name be added to the lists of great historians: not because she was a woman, but on the merits of The Alexiad, and of her work recording the tumults of a crucial period in world history.


Peter Frankopan