Post-classical history

Anna Komnene

A woman wiser than men in words, more manly in acts, more firm in plans, more prudent in tests… a woman enriched by three eyes of perception, those of her natural perspicacity, of scientific penetration and of consummate experience.

George Tornikes’ Funeral Oration, for Anna Komnene,

twelfth century

No book on Byzantium worth its salt would lack a chapter devoted to the twelfth-century princess Anna Komnene. She is one of Byzantium’s best historians and most celebrated scholars and the author of the Alexias, a history of her father Alexios I Komnenos. She began work on it in about 1137 and was writing the final pages ten years later as she was dying.

Anna regularly reminds the readers of her book that she was born in the porphyra of the Great Palace in 1083, the eldest child of Alexios and his wife, Irene Doukaina. Her birth symbolized the alliance of the Komnenos and Doukas families, which brought greater stability to the turbulent eleventh century. As part of this alliance, her father adopted Constantine Doukas, son of Michael VII (1071–8) and Maria of Alania, and betrothed Anna to him. When she was a child, Anna could remember occasions when her father was acclaimed in public, and she and Constantine were also acclaimed. Whenever the emperor and his family left the palace, the factions would accompany them chanting: ‘Many years to the emperor! Many years to the empress!’, usually repeated three times. Anna anticipated that they would in due course inherit imperial power. This future was dashed by the birth of a son, John, to Alexios and Irene in 1087. He replaced Constantine as heir apparent and Anna lost her role as future empress. As she describes these events sixty years later, she is still full of hatred for her younger brother, although she must have known that it was normal for a Byzantine ruler to appoint his own son as his successor.

Anna had very happy memories of Constantine Doukas and his mother Maria of Alania. In the custom of arranged marriages, when she was about seven years old Anna was sent to live with them, and she recalled this period of her early life with great happiness. She cannot praise Maria and her fiancé enough. Constantine, who was about nine years older than Anna, was ‘seemingly endowed with a heavenly beauty not of this world, his manifold charms captivated the beholder, in short, anyone who saw him would say, He is like the painter’s Cupid’. The widowed empress Maria ‘was considered Love incarnate… a living work of art, an object of desire to lovers of beauty’. From other sources it is clear that Maria was considered very beautiful; she also succeeded in protecting her son’s rights to the throne for several years. She ran a literary salon and commissioned works from distinguished authors such as Theophylaktos of Ohrid and Eustratios of Nicaea. She may have encouraged Anna to read and study.

Some time after 1094, however, Constantine died and Anna returned to her own family. At this stage in her life her intellectual studies began in earnest, developing her obvious aptitude and curiosity. She mastered the higher quadrivium of mathematical subjects as well as philosophy and medicine. When her parents tried to restrain her from pursuing more advanced knowledge of Aristotelian texts, she engaged Michael of Ephesos, a known expert, in secret. She greatly admired her paternal grandmother, Anna Dalassene, after whom she was named, who held supreme power in Constantinople while Alexios I was away on campaigns. Anna describes her in loving detail as a paragon of womanhood with a manly mind wedded to extreme piety, great strength of character and intellectual capacity. Her example may have nourished Anna’s own political ambitions.

At the age of fourteen she was married to Nikephoros Bryennios, another ally of her father’s, and in due course they had four children. Nikephoros came from a well-known military family and served Alexios loyally throughout his reign. Anna always speaks with devotion of Bryennios, whom she calls ‘my caesar’. Throughout her adult life, she pursued her studies of philosophy, medicine, scientific works and literature, reading widely in both ancient and contemporary writings. Like Maria of Alania, she ran a literary salon where scholars, poets and clerics read and discussed their recent work.

Despite her brother’s natural determination to succeed their father, Anna never seems to have accepted her fate – to be denied the role of empress. Her mother, Irene Doukaina, encouraged her in this misguided opposition to John. Irene tried to persuade her husband to nominate Bryennios as his successor, and Alexios did not rule out the possibility. But Bryennios himself realized that a son-in-law would stand no chance against a legitimate son, and refused to participate in Anna’s schemes. So when Alexios I lay dying, in 1118, it was John who took the ring from his father’s finger and got himself acclaimed emperor. Even after this normal succession, Irene and Anna still continued to plot against him, and one year later he forced them to retire to the monastery of the Virgin Kecharitomene (Full of Grace). There, in 1127, her mother died and after her husband’s death in about 1137 Anna set to work on her magnum opus.

The Alexias (usually identified as Alexiad in English) is devoted to Alexios. The title echoes Homer, implying that her father was an Odysseus. Although it is not as extended and is written in prose rather than verse, Anna’s history is conceived on an ambitious scale to cover most aspects of Alexios’ rise to power and his long thirty-seven-year reign. It runs to nearly five hundred pages in the Penguin Classics translation and is full of exciting stories and amusing details. The first three books are designed to absolve the Komnenos family of blame for usurping imperial power. Books IV to IX are devoted to the wars against Normans, Scyths (northern tribes who fight with ‘barbaric’ weapons), Turks and Cumans. In Books X to XI she gives a famous account of the First Crusade (1096–1104), which may be compared with western records. She continues with the Norman invasion of the empire led by Bohemond, Robert Guiscard’s son, in 1105, and its defeat. Two final books cover additional military campaigns, the treatment of dualist Manicheans and Bogomils (heretics whom Alexios had to root out) and the founding of the Orphanage in Constantinople. Amid this concentrated account of heroic military and other activity, Anna frequently relates events out of chronological order and says little about internal developments.

Yet clearly her father restored imperial power and left a much strengthened empire to John II. Anna documents this process indirectly, showing how he developed imperial qualities:

Once he had taken over the leadership of the Romans, being always a man of action, he at once became immersed in matters of state… Alexios, the master of the science of government, directed all his innovations towards the good of the Empire itself.

He relied mainly on his own relations to fill key posts in the administration, including his mother, Anna Dalassene. One of his first acts as emperor was to commit the entire administration to her care:

I therefore decree… that in virtue of her ripe experience of worldly matters… whatever decrees she gives in writing… shall have the same abiding validity just as if they had been dispensed by my own serene Majesty… And whatever solutions or whatever orders, written or unwritten, reasonable or unreasonable, she shall give, provided they bear her seal… shall be accounted as coming from my sovereign hand.

Dalassene proceeded to establish a monastic routine in the imperial palace, which helped to impose greater order on the administration. She clearly played an important part in the transition to Komnenian rule, and was still active in 1095 when she ordered the blinding and exile of Nikephoros Diogenes, who had plotted against Alexios.

This powerful lady had raised at least eight children, whom she married most advantageously to create alliances with several other elite families. Although she had previously opposed the Doukas clan, Anna Dalassene could see that the union of her son Alexios with Irene Doukaina would consolidate the new Komnenos dynasty by an unmatched network of support. As Alexios I reorganized the administration, he created a series of new court titles, which he restricted to his family and members of this network – a major and lasting addition to the hierarchy. In her history, Anna Komnene documents the loyal service provided by men of humble birth, even foreigners who were also drawn into ruling circles. Although she does not detail his currency reforms, the new 20.5-carat gold coin which he issued is documented in a treatise on taxation, the Logarike. This includes reports by tax officials and Alexios’ responses, which reflect how taxation was calculated in the provinces in line with the new gold currency. And of course, she praises the emperor for maintaining orthodoxy, particularly in condemning the revival of the Bogomil heresy. Its leader Basil was burned at the stake.

In the field of foreign relations, Anna draws particular attention to the stability and order which her father imposed after a decade of civil war. Even before his accession in 1081, she emphasizes his negotiations with Venice. The chrysobull of privileges he granted to the Republic favoured its merchants over the Byzantines, but it reinforced Venetian naval assistance against the Normans. When the Turks were raiding Damalis on the Bosphoros, Anna records how her father forced them to retreat:

He ordered the men hurriedly conscripted to embark on small ships… with bows and shields only… to make their way secretly at night around the headlands off-shore and then… to leap from their ships and raid the Turks; they were then to re-embark and return to base at once… He warned them to instruct their rowers to make no noise with their oars.

Gradually the Turks withdrew and immediately Alexios instructed the troops to seize the villages and buildings:

The infantrymen were commanded to ride on horseback, use a lance and make cavalry excursions against the enemy… in broad daylight… So the hidden spark of Roman prestige began gradually to burst into flame… and the sultan was constrained to make the most urgent pleas for an armistice.

Playing off one Turkish leader against another, Alexios won back considerable territory, but was unable to prevent the fall of Ikonion in 1084, which became the capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum.

The capture of Jerusalem in 1087 by the Turks prompted Alexios to launch his appeal to Pope Urban II for Christians to unite against Muslim warriors (see chapter 24). This inaugurated a completely new policy in Byzantium, which brought western forces into the eastern Mediterranean. And in 1097, with the help of these crusaders, Alexios regained Nicaea from the Turks. Four years later, crusading forces assisted in the recapture of Ankara, and then Alexios proceeded to re-establish imperial control over the northern, western and southern coasts of Asia Minor. Although the arrival of ambitious western knights and merchants brought additional problems, Byzantium also benefited from them, and Anna can justifiably praise her father for consolidating stronger ties with western Christendom.

The Alexiad is full of thrilling descriptions of battles, debates and receptions, peppered with sketches of the different characters involved, including their mannerisms, clothing and philosophy. After one particularly galling defeat by the Pechenegs, for instance, she recounts how George Palaiologos survived the loss of his horse, wandering on foot for eleven days until he found shelter with a widow, whose sons had also escaped from the battle and who showed him a way back to his own supporters. During the invasion of Cyprus she claims that Rhapsomates, the usurper, was so inexperienced in military matters that he was seized with panic and vertigo whenever he mounted a horse. And she devotes considerable space to the ingenious deception by which the Norman leader, Bohemond, escaped from Antioch in 1104: spreading the story that he had died, he then lay in a coffin with a dead cock which smelled like a corpse and was transported by sea to Rome. ‘I wonder how on earth he endured such a siege on his nose,’ Anna muses, claiming that this was ‘an unprecedented and unique ruse… designed to bring about the downfall of the Roman Empire’. She was not aware that the same ploy had been used before by Normans, though Anna repeatedly denounces them as a crafty and treacherous people.

In the Alexiad, she expresses no doubt about the significance of her father’s role, and presents lengthy reasons for negotiations which failed, for defeats suffered at the hands of the Normans, Robert Guiscard and Bohemond, and excuses for imperial plans that went wrong. Other sections stress the emperor’s cunning in outwitting the Turks and the Scyths, and his skill in persuading them not to fight. Any slight hint of apology is overlaid by florid declarations of her father’s ‘supreme virtue’, ‘his marvellous qualities’, which he displayed equally in battles against external enemies and against heretics. She repeatedly alludes to the conflict between her desire to praise, which arises from her filial loyalty, and her duty to record history in a professional manner, in order to reassure the reader that she is a historian first and foremost.

Anna concludes that Alexios’ final triumph over the Bogomil heretics ends his ‘reign of surprising boldness and novelty’. She claims that ‘men who were alive then and who associated with him must still be amazed at what was accomplished in those days’. Here she identifies three features of her father’s reign: boldness, novelty and surprise, which contributed to his successful restoration of imperial power. She confirms that Byzantium always possessed the capacity for innovation. Of course, Alexios could not turn the clock back: the empire had been weakened by the crisis of the eleventh century. But Anna leaves us in no doubt that her father’s boldness, novelty and surprise were effective in renewing Byzantium as a world power.

Readers of the Alexiad should not forget that it was written by a woman. Although Byzantine women wrote letters, hymns, verses and saints’ lives, this is the only known full-length history. At this time, women writers in the West were very active: Hildegard of Bingen was writing medical treatises and accounts of her visions, Marie de France composed her Lais (Tales) and Christine de Pisan her City of Women. But their stories, visionary literature and troubadour songs were not on the same scale and they did not write equivalent secular histories. Indeed, the Alexiad is so ambitious that recently some historians have doubted that Anna actually wrote it. In particular, they have presumed that she could not have described the military action in such detail and must have used a dossier of notes compiled by her husband, Nikephoros Bryennios. He had been commissioned by Empress Irene to continue the history of Psellos from the reign of Romanos Diogenes (1068–71) to that of Alexios I Komnenos, but he only managed to complete four books, ending in 1079, leaving an unpolished account. Although Anna repeatedly refers to his History, she makes no direct reference to additional material collected by her husband which she might have used in writing her own work. And even when she cites Nikephoros’History, she rewrites the material in her own literary style, which is more developed than his. Since all historians, female or male, use the sources of others, Anna’s ability to draw on reports of events she did not witness herself, and allow the readers to judge their reliability or prejudice, does nothing to diminish her stature.

She does, of course, indicate how she learned about particular events, military strategy and battles. Like other historians, she follows established traditions of history-writing in Byzantium, where the classical models of Thucydides and Herodotos were closely studied. Whenever possible, historians used accounts of eyewitnesses, or stories circulating among soldiers who had experienced the campaigns, or reports written after the event. Anna follows this practice, as do all authors when they describe campaigns in which they did not participate. She names a Latin envoy, for instance, who had been sent by the Bishop of Bari to Robert Guiscard during his campaign against Dyrrachion, as her source for the account of a frightful storm which destroyed most of the Norman fleet. Since Anna and her mother accompanied Alexios on several of his campaigns, she also listened to her father’s accounts of what happened, to discussions between him and his military commanders, such as George Palaiologos, and to evidence from other participants. Her account is full of debates and conversations; she frequently quotes actual words as spoken, which she may indeed have witnessed in person.

She also drew on written sources, which included governmental records of alliances concluded and planned strategy, reports on which military tactics worked, which failed, and how the enemy responded. Individual acts of bravery or treachery and deaths in action were recorded. News from the battlefront was also announced on the Forum of Constantine in the capital, for example when Eustathios Kamytzes described his extraordinary escape from the Turkish campaign against Nicaea. While other – male – authors often had direct experience of warfare, Anna was well placed at the centre of Byzantine power to find out what happened. Naturally, she is always anxious to portray her father in a favourable light, even when his battle plans failed and he was forced to flee.

Another reason for emphasizing her father’s diplomatic skills may have arisen in 1147 when Manuel I Komnenos welcomed the leaders of the Second Crusade to Constantinople. Anna probably wanted to contrast her nephew’s pro-western sympathies with her father’s more careful and calculated reactions to the leaders of the First Crusade. The arrival of the massed forces of Latin knights and pilgrims in 1096 constituted a critical turning point in East–West relations, which had coloured all later negotiations between the Christians. Since Manuel was highly praised by court orators for his imperial bearing and military prowess, Anna may have felt it necessary to draw attention to Alexios’ achievements, which were in danger of being overlooked. Her history forms a counterweight to the political propaganda produced by court rhetoricians of the mid-twelfth century in favour of Manuel’s brilliance.

Manuel also supported strange new western habits, like jousting and the wearing of trousers, which were both introduced into Byzantium during the twelfth century. While court costume remained full-length tunics of different coloured silks, Byzantine military uniform continued the Roman style of shorter tunics worn with leg covers; neither admitted a use for trousers, which were considered a rather indecent novelty. Similarly, although the court elite had played polo since it was introduced from Persia in the fifth century, jousting was a relatively new sport. In the ninth century, there are references to displays of mounted combat between individuals in which a local Byzantine successfully unhorses a foreign challenger, but the western style of jousts was unknown. Both these inventions provoked the opposition of conservatives, so in connecting Manuel with them Anna may be expressing a personal disapproval of her nephew. She may also have considered his enthusiasm for western customs distasteful and even dangerous.

Anna was writing her history when the Turkish conquest of central Asia Minor became a more permanent reality. Ever since the Byzantine defeat at Mantzikert in 1071, various tribes had infiltrated the region, forcing the local population to flee westwards; whole villages, bishops and landowners sought new homes in the European provinces of the empire. This movement from East to West resulted in greater development of the Balkan and Greek provinces, which helped to compensate for the losses in Asia. But the empire’s inability to curb Turkish settlements, despite crusading help, was much clearer in the 1130s. Although Alexios I had stabilized the gold coinage in 1092, the empire’s wealth had declined. In the West, Venice, Pisa and Genoa were the main beneficiaries, while the Turks established their caravanserais across the conquered provinces of Asia Minor, linking it to their already distant homeland. Anna may have felt critical of Emperor Manuel’s close relations with western monarchs, which did nothing to regain the lost imperial territory.

Anna concludes her Alexiad in deep sadness brought on by her own sense of failure: she had been unable to persuade her husband, Nikephoros Bryennios, to make a bid for supreme power when Alexios I was dying. This helps to explain why she ends her history with tears, as she describes the accession of her brother and laments over her fate. Nonetheless, her Alexiad is exciting to read. It is a history of her father’s reign, a biography of her family and her own autobiography, for she often comments on her personal reaction to events, her thoughts and fears. And it is composed in the most classical form of Attic Greek, replete with obscure words and ancient proverbs. Anna’s style is very cultivated and rather difficult. Like the reign of her beloved father, Alexios I Komnenos, her history is bold, novel and surprising. No other medieval woman, East or West, had the vision, confidence and the capacity to realize an equally ambitious project.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!