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.