(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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."