Anna Comnena: Historian, and Chronicler of the First Crusade

“Whenever one assumes the role of historian, friendship and enmities have to be forgotten.”

Anna Komnene/Comnena (1083-1153) was a brilliant scholar. Her writing remains the most important source of information we have about the twelfth century Byzantine Empire and the First Crusade.

She was born in 1083 to Emperor Alexios I and his wife Irene Doukaina. When she was born it was assumed that she would inherit the throne, and she was given access to an amazing education in order to prepare her for this. She was trained in history, math, the sciences, and philosophy; she had been forbidden from studying ancient poetry, as her parents objected to their often sexual themes, but she studied it in secret with a court eunuch. As a result, Anna was one of the most brilliant and educated women of her time.

Because she was presumed to be the heir at the time of her birth, she was betrothed in her infancy to Constantine Doukas, the son of Emperor Michael VII—because the Komnene family had obtained the Byzantine throne under decidedly questionable circumstances, it is likely that this betrothal served to legitimize the family’s rule.

However, in 1087 a son named John was born to Alexios and Irene, and Alexios favored John for the throne over Anna. Soon afterwards, Constantine died, and Anna was instead married to a nobleman with claims to the throne called Nikephoros Byrennios at the age of 14. Byrennios was a respected politician and historian. The marriage lasted until Byrennios’ death 40 years later, and produced four children.

John’s birth and status was a major source of conflict between Anna’s parents; Irene supported Anna’s claim to the throne while Alexios supported John’s. When Alexios fell ill in 1112, it seems as though things were going to work out in Anna’s favor. Irene was put in charge of the government, and she put Byrennios in charge of administrative duties. It is probable that she put him in charge in order to pave the way for Anna’s assumption of power.

However, John decided to take matters concerning the throne into his own hands. The story goes that one day John visited his sick father. While embracing him, John removed the emperor’s ring from his father’s finger, and when Alexios died in 1118, John used the ring to back his bid for the throne. It worked, and John was crowned emperor in the same year as his father’s death.

As John was crowned and proclaimed the new emperor, Anna felt that she had been cheated out of the throne. She took part in several plots which aimed to murder or overthrow him, however, those plots came to nothing and she was forced into exile along with her mother.

Byrennios died in 1137. After his death Anna entered and spent the rest of her life in a convent founded by her mother. She was 55 at the time of her entrance.

Anna was not alone in the convent; she surrounded herself with some of the most brilliant minds of the time and was praised by many, including the Bishop of Ephesus, for her brilliance. Despite this, her writings show that she experienced loneliness and isolation, saying that, though she was hidden from view at the convent, many hated her, and that she in turn hated the isolated status that had been forced upon her.

It was in the isolation of the convent that Anna began her life’s work. Byrennios had begun to write a series of essays called Materials for a History–which focused on the reign of Alexios I. Before his death, and Anna picked up the writing where he left off. Eventually this chronicle of the reign of Alexios I and the history of the Comneni family grew into the 15 volume work we know today as The Alexiad.

Anna, understanding the importance of objectivity to the writing of history, attempted to remain objective in her writings on her father and mother. However, despite her best attempts, because of her fondness for her parents, and because many of the events she spoke of in the work occurred in her youth, it is perhaps more accurate to say that the The Alexiad is equal parts journalism, memoir, and history.

All of that aside, her account of the First Crusade in The Alexiad is the only Hellenic eyewitness account of that event available. And truly, her point of view is indispensable to our understanding of the First Crusade, and to our understanding of medieval Europe. In addition to its status as an invaluable historical resource, The Alexiad also gives us an extraordinary insight into the experience of elite women in the twelfth century Byzantine Empire.

Oh my. Can I really ask for any historical period? Let’s have the Renaissance then, if you wouldn’t mind?

The Renaissance is an interesting one. It fascinates me how people perceive the Renaissance as a literal rebirth of knowledge in Europe, when in reality, the pursuit of knowledge in Europe never really disappeared. The pursuit of knowledge in Western Europe–outside of the walls of monasteries and convents–ceased for six or seven centuries in the wake of the fall of Rome (as defined in my post on the subject). However, during what we commonly think of as the Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empire was going strong in Eastern Europe, and the Islamic Caliphate was approaching its golden age.

The pursuit of ancient, Classical knowledge never died in those areas. That ancient knowledge, the science and the math and the philosophy and the medical teachings, lived on in those two civilizations, especially within the Islamic one. Here is a map of Europe, Northern Africa, and the Near East during the Medieval period to illustrate the general proximity of these three civilizations to each other:

So, it always seemed odd to me that we’d celebrate the re-birth of knowledge in Western Europe, but ignore its continued presence throughout Islamic civilization and the Byzantine Empire. It is very Western-centric.

Rome did not fall in 476 CE

The thing about the decline of a massive empire is that you cannot pinpoint the time at which it ceases to exist. You can pinpoint when it has ceased to exist, but determining when it fell is much more inexact endeavor.

The fall of the Roman Empire was a process which took place over the course of centuries.

First, we must remember that the Roman Empire was divided into an Eastern Empire and a Western Empire in the fourth century. The Byzantine Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire) endured into the fifteenth century until Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. So in discussing the fall of the Roman Empire, we must remember that we are only discussing the Western Roman Empire.

Here is a map showing the East/West division (please note that this map shows the height of the Empires; within the fifth century time-frame being discussed in this post, the West controlled a significantly smaller amount of territory than is pictured below):


By 476, the Western Roman Empire had, for all intents and purposes, already fallen. Yet at the same time, it would continue to live on for centuries.

What happened in that year was the deposition of the last traditional emperor of Rome, Romulus Augustus, by Flavius Odoacer (historians are unsure as to whether he was a Goth or a Hun). That’s all. And it was hardly a tumultuous event; the peoples the Romans referred to as “barbarians” had, in fact, been major political players in Rome for over 100 years prior to the date of the perceived fall. Many of those tribes were fully assimilated into Roman society, and it was often the case that they functioned as the true powers behind the imperial throne. We can only assume that Odoacer grew tired of the charade and decided to make it official.

By the fifth century, these tribes—the Vandals, the Huns, the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, the Lombards, the Franks—had assimilated to the Roman way of life and were exporting it to areas outside the bounds of the Empire. Western Roman culture outlived the Western Roman Empire as a result of these tribes.

For at least two centuries after the generally accepted time of the fall of the empire, the Roman culture lived on. However, by around time of Charlemagne (late eighth, early ninth century), most of the populace had come to view the cultural heritage of the Roman Empire with suspicion and disdain. Thus, we can probably say that the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist by the mid or late seventh century.

Aelia Eudoxia and Aelia Pulcheria: Power and Purity Politics

Pictured above from left to right are two of my favorite historical ladies: Aelia Eudoxia (d. 404) and Aelia Pulcheria (399-453).

Aelia Eudoxia was a late fourth century, early fifth century Byzantine empress. Her husband, the Emperor Arcadius, wasn’t much of an emperor, so she was the real power behind the throne. Her power, religious politics, overtly feminine presentation, and influence over the populace pissed off St. John Chrysostom (Archbishop of Constantinople and influential preacher) so much that he declared her to be the second Jezebel, making him the second Elijah.

Her daughter, Aelia Pulcheria, was even more amazing. Her brother, Theodosius II, was the emperor, but like her mother, it was Pulcheria who held the true power. At the age of 14, she took a vow of chastity and ordered her sisters to do the same. While this may have been done out of true religious sentiment,* it is far more likely that she did it to keep hold of her power; the vow ensured that she would never be forced to marry and lose her power to a man. This, of course, pissed off loads of ambitious nobles who were hoping to gain power by marrying into the imperial family.

In short, Pulcheria manipulated the patriarchal construct of appropriate female religious behavior in order to consolidate her power and keep it out of the hands of men. She used the patriarchy against them, and there was nothing they could really do or say about it because they were the ones who created that framework in the first place. Fucking brilliant.

*This vow of chastity was influenced by her devotion to the Theotokos, or the Virgin Mary. This particular form of worship is known as Mariology.