Anna Comnena Essay - Critical Essays

Comnena, Anna


Anna Comnena 1083–C. 1153

Byzantine biographer and historian.

Considered the first female historian, Anna drew on her access to officially archived documents, reports of her father's generals, and her own personal knowledge and that of many contacts and government associates to produce the Alexiad, a fifteen-volume biography of her father, Emperor Alexius I Comnenus. The Alexiad is a major source of information on Byzantium and the First Cru sade, although Anna's stated purpose in writing the Alexiad was to ensure that the record of her father's achievements would endure. While Anna's enthusiasm for her subject and her extreme praise of her father have caused discomfort among historians, even those most negative towards Anna, such as Edward Gibbon in his classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, have grudgingly admitted that the Alexiad is an essential source—sometimes the only source—for much of the information about Alexius I and his dealings with the early Crusaders.

Biographical Information

Anna was born in Constantinople in 1083 to Alexius I and his wife Irene Ducas. Being the first-born child, Anna was immediately regarded and raised as the future empress and betrothed to Constantine Ducas, heir to the throne. Anna's life changed dramatically when her parents gave birth to their third child, a son, in 1087 or 1088. Her brother, John II, took over Constantine's place in the line of succession in 1092, thus becoming the target of Anna's lifelong hatred. Anna and Constantine's engagement was broken, but Anna's mother continually tried to change the Emperor's mind in favor of having her favorite daughter be his successor. Nevertheless, as a princess Anna received an education rarely available to females. She read the classics and the Bible and studied rhetoric, grammar, philosophy, history, geography, and medicine. Anna married the nobleman, soldier, and historian Nicephorus Bryennius in 1097. After Alexius died in 1118, John hastily had himself crowned. Within a year, Anna and her mother conspired to assassinate John and set Nicephorus up as ruler. Nicephorous refused to comply with his role in the plot; Anna was discovered and stripped of her property. The new emperor eventually relented on her punishment, restored Anna to her living quarters, and gave Nicephorus a position in the Court; Anna's career, however, was over. After Nicephorus's

death in 1137, Anna was forced to retire to the convent of Kecharitomene, which had been founded by Anna's mother. Anna spent the remainder of her life here and spent a number of years writing the Alexiad. The exact date of Anna's death is unknown, although circa 1153 is generally preferred by current historians, with some speculation that her death could have been as late as 1155.

Major Works

The only significant writing of Anna's is the Alexiad, a continuation of her husband's biography of Alexius which she commenced writing immediately upon entering the convent. Nicephorus's biography had covered the Emperor's life up to 1081; Anna began hers with 1069. Anna complained that she did not have the access she needed to properly write her work and spent decades in frustration. After the death of her hated brother in 1143, however, officials felt safe meeting with her again, and she used this access to compose the majority of the Alexiad, which she completed in 1148. In the Alexiad Anna was openly contemptuous of the Western Crusaders sent by the Pope to help defend Constantinople from raiding Turks. She considered the Crusaders nothing but insolent barbarians and did not want to include even their names lest they would contaminate her book. Yet it is the wealth of details about diverse particulars that makes the Alexiad so important. Anna describes daily life at court and domestic quarrels, quotes battle advice, describes weapons, and discusses exchanges between her father and the Western Crusaders. She is sometimes satirical, not averse to gossip, and adept at dramatizing Court meetings and scenes of battle alike. Anna rarely mentions her brother in the Alexiad but includes him in a statement complaining of the stupidity of the successors to her father. Anna's writing was heavily influenced by Michael Psellus, one of the eleventh century's greatest literary figures. Psellus wrote in an extreme classical style, not reflecting then-current Greek usage but instead seeking the purest Byzantine style possible. Anna's writing, like Psellus's in an Attic style, is burdened by an extreme and artificial syntax that is not always correctly maintained.

Textual History

Anna's work languished for centuries. In 1610 a manuscript was purchased by David Hoeschel, who later published it in eight volumes. This edition was translated into Latin by Pierre Poussines and Charles de Monthal and published in Paris in 1651. A. Reifferscheid's 1884 translation served as the basis for Elizabeth A. S. Dawes's 1928 translation, which was the first in English. E. R. A. Sewter made another translation, published in 1969, and included annotations, maps, appendixes, genealogical tables, and a bibliography, all of which were lacking in Dawes's work. Sewter states that his version was based on Bernard Leib's French translation.

Critical Reception

Critics have always taken offense at Anna's extreme praise of her father and his accomplishments. Supporters acknowledge that Anna always places her father's career in the best light but assert that there is some justification for this because Alexius did indeed far surpass preceding Emperors. Peter Charanis considers the Alexiad to contain "serious inaccuracies and omissions" in its account of the origins of the First Crusade, stating that Anna "was either badly informed or else she consciously suppressed essential information." Anna's supporters counter that there is no real evidence of dishonesty; that her sins are those of omission rather than commission; and that what she did not include was outside the scope of her work. Steven Runciman calls her "the greatest of women historians," although he says that she is "unreliable when she deals with events that occurred outside the boundaries of the Empire, where she allows her prejudices full rein, as in her account of Pope Gregory VII." Frequently criticized are the occasional inaccurate dates in the Alexiad and Anna's interpretation of certain events. Supporters point out that many of the events Anna described had occurred more than forty years in the past and that without her work much of what is known about the events she relates would be wholly unknown. J. M. Hussey calls the Alexiad "no bare narrative of facts, but the living drama of a life and death struggle for existence, an epic whose hero is the Emperor Alexius Comnenus."

Principal Works

The Alexiad. 15 vols, (biography) 1148

Principal English Translations

The Alexiad of the Princess Anna Comnena, Being the History of the Reign of Her Father, Alexius I, Emperor of the Romans, 1081-1118 A.D. [Elizabeth A. S. Dawes, trans.] 1928

The Alexiad of Anna Comnena [E. R. A. Sewter, trans.] 1969


William Miller (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: "A Byzantine Bluestocking: Anna Comnena," in The Quarterly Review, Vol. 233, No. 462, January, 1920, pp. 62-81.

[In the following excerpt, Miller provides an overview of Anna's life: her family history, her education, and her importance as historian and historical geographer.]

One of the differences between classical and modern literature is the rarity of female writers in the former and their frequency in the latter. While we have lady historians and poets in considerable numbers, while the fair sex has greatly distinguished itself in fiction, including that branch of it which is called modern journalism, ancient Greek letters contain the names of few...

(The entire section is 7215 words.)

Georgina Buckler (essay date 1929)

SOURCE: Anna Comnena: A Study, Oxford University Press, 1929, 558 p.

[In the following excerpt, Buckler summarizes the Alexiad, particularly with regard to Anna's personality and tendency towards self-pity and her access to sources. Buckler proclaims that Anna is an engaging writer.]

General Remarks

It is a well-accepted fact that Byzantine history has never, till within the last forty or fifty years, received at the hand of historians either adequate or just treatment. When Oman wrote his Byzantine Empire in 1892 for the Story of the Nations series, he thought it necessary to state that he was endeavouring 'to tell the...

(The entire section is 23811 words.)

F. J. Foakes Jackson (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: "Anna Comnena," in The Hibbert Journal, Vol. 33, No. 3. April, 1935, pp. 430-42.

[In the following essay, Jackson describes the cultural, political, and religious conditions of the Byzantine empire before and during Alexius's reign, summarizes the books of the Alexiad, and provides evidence that Anna strived for impartiality.]

Ladies who write history are not a phenomenon in our day, when the female sex has certainly achieved remarkable success in this field, notably in England. But almost as far down as the nineteenth century a woman as an historian was indeed a rara avis. When therefore a princess arose in the eleventh century to give the world...

(The entire section is 5064 words.)

A. A. Vasiliev (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Byzantium and the Crusades: Education, Learning, Literature, and Art," in History of the Byzantine Empire 324-1453, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1952, pp. 487-505.

[In the following excerpt, Vasiliev examines the strong literary background of the Comneni imperial family.]

The time of the Macedonian dynasty was marked by intense cultural activity in the field of learning, literature, education, and art. The activity of such men as Photius in the ninth century, Constantine Porphyrogenitus in the tenth, and Michael Psellus in the eleventh, with their cultural environment, as well as the revival of the High School of Constantinople, which was reformed in the...

(The entire section is 1966 words.)

R. Browning (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "An Unpublished Funeral Oration on Anna Comnena," in Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological, Vol. 188, No. 8, 1962, pp. 1-12.

[In the following excerpt, Browning examines a document from the middle of the twelfth century which lends insight into Anna's quest for a philosophical system.]

The Byzantinist has one advantage over the student of classical antiquity—unless the latter happens to be a papyrologist. With a little diligence and a minimum of good luck he can easily unearth unpublished texts and find himself producing an editio princeps. And however often one has turned over the leaves of a manuscript and laboriously read words which have...

(The entire section is 5554 words.)

E. R. A. Sewter (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: An Introduction to The Alexiad of Anna Comnena, translated by E. R. A. Sewter, Penguin Books Ltd., 1969, pp. 11-16.

[In the following excerpt, Sewter considers various critical evaluations of Anna, as well as Anna's strengths, defects, and self awareness.]

'The life of the Emperor Alexius has been delineated by a favourite daughter, who was inspired by a tender regard for his person and a laudable zeal to perpetuate his virtues. Conscious of the just suspicion of her readers, the Princess Anna Comnena repeatedly protests that besides her personal knowledge she had searched the discourse and writings of the most respectable veterans: that after an interval of...

(The entire section is 2174 words.)

John France (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "The Departure of Tatikios from the Crusader Army," in Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, Vol. 44, No. 110, November, 1971. pp. 134-47.

[In the following essay, France considers the departure of one of Alexius's military leaders and compares Anna's rendition with other accounts of the event.]

The departure of Tatikios, the imperial representative on the Crusade, from the Latin camp in early February 1098 is an event which has received curiously little attention from historians. The actual circumstances of the departure have not been fully explored, but more important, perhaps, Tatikios's role in Byzantine-crusader relations remains obscure....

(The entire section is 5842 words.)

Rae Dalven (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: In Anna Comnena. Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972, 186 p.

[In the following excerpt, Dalven discusses Anna's intellectual pursuits and education, the factions in her father's court, and evaluates her importance as an historian.]

Her Early Life at Court

For from childhood, from eight years upwards, I was brought up with the Queen, and as she conceived a warm affection for me she confided all her secrets to me. (Alexiad, III, 1, p. 72)

The queen referred to in the above quotation is Maria of Alania, mother of Constantine Ducas, Anna's seven-yearold royal cousin, to whom she was...

(The entire section is 16053 words.)

John France (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Anna Comena, the Alexiad and the First Crusade," in Reading Medieval Studies, Vol. 10, 1984, pp. 20-2.

[In the following excerpt, France contends that the Crusades were of interest to Anna only to the extent that they affected her father, and that Anna's biased accounts are of limited value.]

Anna Comnena, the Alexiad and the First Crusade1

By her own account Anna Comnena began to write the Alexiad shortly after the death of her husband, Nicephoros Bryennios, in 1137. He had begun a life of Alexius, known to us as the Hyle, but had taken it no further than the end of the reign of Nicephoros Botaniates in...

(The entire section is 8263 words.)

Further Reading

Baynes, Norman H., ed. Byzantium: An Introduction to East Roman Civilization. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948, 436 p.

Includes essays on Byzantine education, Byzantine literature, and the use of Greek during the Byzantine period.

Charanis, Peter. "Byzantium, the West and the Origin of the First Crusade." Byzantion XIX, No. 1 (1949): 17-36.

Examines the origin of the First Crusade and questions Anna's integrity as a reporter.

Hussey, J. M. "The Scholars of the Comnenian Period." In his Church & Learning in the Byzantine Empire 867-1185, pp. 102-116. New...

(The entire section is 163 words.)