Anna Komnene, Historian and Princess of Byzantine Empire

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Anna Komnene, Historian and Princess of Byzantine Empire

Greek, Ancient: Άννα Κομνηνή, Historian and Princess of Byzantine Empire
Birthdate: (65)
Birthplace: Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
Death: 1148 (64)
a convent
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Alexios I, Eastern Roman Emperor and Irene Augusta Doukaina
Wife of Nicephorus Bryennios
Sister of (Maria) Komnene; John II the Good, Eastern Roman Emperor; Eudokia Komnene; Andronikos Komnenos; Isaac Komnenos and 3 others

Managed by: Kenneth Dean Fortie
Last Updated:

About Anna Komnene, Historian and Princess of Byzantine Empire

From Wikipedia

Anna Komnene, Latinized as Comnena (Greek: Άννα Κομνηνή, Anna Komnēnē; December 1, 1083–1153) was a Byzantine princess and scholar, daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos and Irene Doukaina. She wrote the Alexiad, an account of her father's reign, making her one of the first Western female historians.

Family and early life

Anna was born in the Porphyra Chamber (the purple chamber) of the imperial palace of Constantinople and was thus a porphyrogenita. She was the eldest of nine children. Her younger siblings were (in order of birth) Maria Komnene, John II Komnenos, Andronikos Komnenos, Isaac Komnenos, Eudokia Komnene, Theodora Komnene, Manuel Komnenos and Zoe Komnene.

Although, she was carefully trained in the study of history, mathematics, science, and Greek philosophy, Anna’s parents banned her from studying ancient poetry (whose glorification of lustful gods and unchaste women they deemed inappropriate and even dangerous for a young woman of her class to study). Despite her parents' attempts to restrict her, Anna furtively studied the forbidden poetry with one of the imperial court’s eunuchs. Thus, Anna received an extraordinary education that undoubtedly made her one of the most learned women of her time.

Betrothal and marriage

As was customary for nobility in the medieval times, Anna was betrothed at infancy. She was to marry Constantine Doukas, the son of Emperor Michael VII and Maria of Alania. Because at the time of the engagement Emperor Alexios I had no rightful male heirs to inherit the throne, young Constantine was proclaimed the co-emperor of the Byzantine Empire. However, in 1087 a blood heir, John II, was born, and Constantine had to forfeit his imperial claims. He died shortly thereafter.

In 1097, 14-year-old Anna Komnene married an accomplished young nobleman, the Caesar Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger. Nikephoros Bryennios was the son of an aristocratic family that had contested the throne before the accession of Alexios I. Nikephoros was also a renowned statesman, general, and historian. Anna claimed that the marriage was a political union rather than one of love. For the most part, however, it proved to be a successful union for forty years, and produced four children—Alexios Komnenos, John Doukas, Irene Doukaina, and Maria Bryennaina Komnene.

Claim to the throne

In 1087, Anna’s brother, John II Komnenos, was born. Several years after his birth, in 1092, John was designated emperor.[1] According to Niketas Choniates, Emperor Alexios, Anna’s father, “favored” John and declared him emperor. On the other hand, Anna’s mother, Irene Doukaina, according to Choniates “threw her full influence on the side of [Anna]” and “continually attempted” to persuade the emperor to designate Nikephoros Bryennios, Anna’s husband, as emperor.[2] Around 1112, Alexios fell sick with rheumatism and could not move. He therefore turned the civil government over to his wife, Irene Doukaina, who directed the administration to Anna’s husband, Nikephoros Bryennios.[3] As Emperor Alexios lay dying in his imperial bedchamber, John, according to Choniates, arrived and “secretly” took the emperor’s ring from his father during an embrace “as though in mourning.”[4] In 1118, Alexios I Komnenos died.[5] A clergy in Hagia Sophia acclaimed John emperor thereafter.[6] According to Dion C. Smythe, Anna “felt cheated” because she “should have inherited.”[7] Indeed, according to Anna Komnene in the Alexiad, at her birth she was presented with “a crown and imperial diadem.”[8] Anna’s “main aim” in the depiction of events in the Alexiad, according to Vlada Stankovíc, was to “stress her own right” to the throne and “precedence over her brother, John.”[9] In view of this belief, Ellen Quandahl and Susan C. Jarratt record that Anna was “almost certainly” involved in the murder plot against John at Alexius’s funeral.[10] Indeed, Anna, according to Barbara Hill, “attempted” to create military forces to depose John.[6] According to Choniates, Anna was “stimulated by ambition and revenge” to scheme for the murder of her brother.[10] Dion C. Smythe states the plots “came to nothing.”[1] Ellen Quandahl and Susan C. Jarratt, record that, a short time afterward, Anna and Bryennios “organized another conspiracy.”[10] However, according to Barbara Hill, Bryennios “refused” to overthrow Alexios, making Anna unable to continue with her plans.[6] With this refusal, Anna, according to Choniates, exclaimed “that nature had mistaken the two sexes and had endowed Bryennius [Bryennios] with the soul of a woman.” According to Ellen Quandahl and Susan C. Jarratt, Anna shows “a repetition of sexualized anger.”[10] Indeed, Dion C. Smythe asserts that Anna’s goals were “thwarted by the men in her life.”[11] Irene, however, according to Hill, had declined to participate in plans to revolt against an “established” emperor.[6]

Barbara Hill, however, points out that Choniates, whom the above sources draw upon, wrote after 1204, and accordingly was “rather far removed” from “actual” events and that his “agenda” was to “look for the causes” of the toppling of Constantinople in 1204.[6]

In the end, after her husband’s death, Anna went to a convent of Kecharitomene, which was founded by her mother, where she remained until her death.[12]


  1. ^ a b Smythe 2006, p. 126.
  2. ^ Choniates 1984, p. 5.
  3. ^ Hill 2000, p. 46.
  4. ^ Choniates 1984, p. 6.
  5. ^ Smythe 2006, p. 127.
  6. ^ a b c d e Hill 2000, p. 47.
  7. ^ Smythe 1997, p. 241.
  8. ^ Komnene 1969, p. 197.
  9. ^ Stankovíc 2007, p. 174.
  10. ^ a b c d Jarratt 2008, p. 308.
  11. ^ Smythe 2006, p. 125.
  12. ^ Jarratt 2008, p. 305.


  • Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Choniates, (Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1984), 5-6.
  • Barbara Hill, “Actions speak louder than words: Anna Komnene’s attempted usurpation,” Anna Komnene and her times (2000): 46-47.
  • Susan C. Jarratt and Ellen Quandahl, ““To recall him…will be a subject of lamentation”: Anna Comnene as a rhetorical historiographer.” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric (2000): 305-308, accessed April 21, 2011.
  • Anna Komnene, The Alexiad, (New York: Penguin, 1969), 197.
  • Vlada Stankovíc, “Nikephoros Bryennios, Anna Komnene and Konstantios Doukas. A Story of Different Perspectives,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift (2007): 174.
  • Dion C. Smythe, “Middle Byzantine Family Values and Anna Komnene’s Alexiad,” Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience (2006): 125-127.
  • Dion C. Symthe, “Outsiders by taxis perceptions of non-conformity eleventh and twelfth-century literature,” Byzantinische Forschungen: Internationale Zeitschrift für Byzantinistik (1997): 241.


In the seclusion of the monastery, Anna dedicated her time to studying philosophy and history. She held esteemed intellectual gatherings, including those dedicated to Aristotelian studies. Anna's intellectual genius and breadth of knowledge is evident in her few works. Among other things, she was conversant with philosophy, literature, grammar, theology, astronomy, and medicine. It can be assumed because of minor errors that she may have quoted Homer and the Bible from memory when writing her most celebrated work, the Alexiad. Her contemporaries, like the metropolitan Bishop of Ephesus, Georgios Tornikes, regarded Anna as a person who had reached "the highest summit of wisdom, both secular and divine."

Being a historian, Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger had been working on an essay that he called “Material For History,” which focused on the reign of Alexios I. He died in 1137 before finishing the work. At the age of 55, Anna took it upon herself to finish her husband's work, calling the completed work the Alexiad, the history of her father's life and reign (1081–1118) in Greek. Alexiad is today the main source of Byzantine political history of the end of the 11th century to the beginning of the 12th century. In the Alexiad, Anna provided insight on political relations and wars between Alexios I and the West. She vividly described weaponry, tactics and battles. It has been noted that she was writing about events that occurred when she was a child, so these are not eye-witness accounts. Her neutrality is compromised by the fact that she was writing to praise her father and denigrate his successors. Despite her unabashed partiality, her account of the First Crusade is of great value to history because it is the only Hellenic eyewitness account available. She had the opportunity to glean events from key figures in the Byzantine elite. Her husband Nikephorus Bryennios had fought in the clash with crusade leader Godfrey of Bouillon outside Constantinople on Maundy Thursday 1097. Her uncle George Palaeologus was present at Pelekanon in June 1097 when Alexius I discussed future strategy with the crusaders. Thus the Alexiad allows the events of the First Crusade to be seen from the Byzantine elite's perspective. It conveys the alarm felt at the scale of the western European forces proceeding through the Empire, and the dangers they may have posed to the safety of Constantinople.

Special suspicion was reserved for crusading leader Bohemond of Taranto, a southern Italian Norman who, under the leadership of his father Robert Guiscard, had invaded Byzantine territory in the Balkans in 1081. Though she considers him a barbarian and makes him the villain of her piece for his enmity with her father and his subsequent possession of formerly Byzantine Antioch, there is more than a hint of infatuation for this 'habitual rogue'.

The book also contributes to understanding of the female mentality, mindset, and perception of the world during the Byzantine times.

Anna Komnene's literary style is fashioned after Thucydides, Polybius, and Xenophon. Consequently, it exhibits struggle for an Atticism characteristic of the period, whereby the resulting language is highly artificial. For the most part, the chronology of events in the Alexiad is sound, except for those that occurred after Anna’s exile to the monastery, when she no longer had access to the imperial archives. Nevertheless, her history meets the standards of her time (Catholic Encyclopedia).

The exact date of Anna Komnene’s death is uncertain. It is inferred from the Alexiad that she was still alive in 1148. Moreover, the Alexiad sheds light on Anna’s emotional turmoil. She wrote that no one could see her, yet many hated her (Lubarsky, pg 3). Thus, she loathed the isolated position in society that exile had forced upon her.

Depictions in fiction and other media

Fictional accounts of Anna Komnene’s life appear in the 1928 novel Anna Comnena by Naomi Mitchison and the 1999 novel for young people Anna of Byzantium by Tracy Barrett. A novel written in 2008 by the Albanian writer Ben Blushi called "Living on an island" also mentions her. The novel Аз, Анна Комнина (I, Anna Comnena) was written by Vera Mutafchieva, a Bulgarian writer and historian.[1]


By the Caesar Nikephoros Bryennios, Anna Komnene had several children, including:

  • Alexios Komnenos, megas doux, c. 1102–c. 1161/1167
  • John Doukas, c. 1103–after 1173
  • Irene Doukaina, c. 1105–?
  • Maria Bryennaina Komnene, c. 1107–?


  1. ^ a b Smythe 2006, p. 126.
  2. ^ Choniates 1984, p. 5.
  3. ^ Hill 2000, p. 46.
  4. ^ Choniates 1984, p. 6.
  5. ^ Smythe 2006, p. 127.
  6. ^ a b c d e Hill 2000, p. 47.
  7. ^ Smythe 1997, p. 241.
  8. ^ Komnene 1969, p. 197.
  9. ^ Stankovíc 2007, p. 174.
  10. ^ a b c d Jarratt 2008, p. 308.
  11. ^ Smythe 2006, p. 125.
  12. ^ Jarratt 2008, p. 305.

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Anna Comnena

  • Anna Comnena, The Alexiad, translated by Elizabeth A. Dawes in 1928
  • Anna Comnena, The Alexiad of Anna Comnena, edited and translated by E.R.A. Sewter. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. (This print version uses more idiomatic English, has more extensive notes, and mistakes).
  • Georgina Buckler, Anna Comnena: A Study, Oxford University Press, 1929. ISBN 0-19-821471-5
  • John France, "Anna Comnena, the Alexiad and the First Crusade", Reading Medieval Studies v.9 (1983)
  • Thalia Gouma-Peterson (ed.), Anna Komnene and her Times, New York: Garland, 2000. ISBN 0-8153-3851-1.
  • Jonathan Harris, Byzantium and the Crusades, London: Hambledon, 2003, pp. 53–73. ISBN 1-85285-298-4.
  • Levin, Carole, et al. Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000.
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Paul Stephenson, "Anna Comnena's Alexiad as a source for the Second Crusade?", Journal of Medieval History v. 29 (2003)
  • "Anna Comnena" in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
  • Female Heroes From The Time of the Crusades: Anna Comnena.1999. Women in World History. 12 Dec. 2006. < [1]>.
  • K. Varzos, Ē genealogia tōn Komnēnōn, Thessalonikē, 1984.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (Eleventh ed.). Cambridge University Press. Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). "Anna Comnena". Encyclopædia Britannica (Eleventh ed.). Cambridge University Press.

^ (accessed August 2010)


Anna Comnena,

Byzantine Historian of the First Crusade (1083-1153)

excerpted from ©1996-2011

Anna Comnena is considered the world's first female historian and a major source of information about the reign of her father, Alexius I. Her works are full of details about daily life at court, the deeds of her family, and the exchanges between the Byzantines and western crusaders during the first crusades.

When Anna was a child both her mother and father made sure she received an excellent education. When young, she was given a crown and had expected that at her father's death she would take his place as head of an empire which stretched from Italy to Armenia. But the birth of her brother dashed all her hopes.

Anna married an historian in 1097, and, with her mother's encouragement, tried to seize the imperial throne for him. The attempt failed, and she was forced to retire from court life. After her husband's death, she entered a monastery, one devoted to learning. Anna was 55 years old when she began serious work on Alexiad, a 15 volume history of her family, the Comneni.

In her works, Anna directed most of her contempt toward the crusaders from the West. Her father had sent the first envoys to the West, to Pope Urban I, asking for help in halting the Turkish raids which had left the southern and eastern borders of the Byzantine empire virtually defenseless. Urban II's response was positive. But when the First Crusade arrived to defend the magnificent city of Constantinople, Alexius found that they did not want to take instructions and advice from him. To Anna, they appeared as uneducated barbarians, with manners far beneath those of the wealthy and cosmopolitan Byzantines. Worse, rather than enter Byzantium as saviors against the Muslim threat to Constantinople, they increasingly came as looters and destroyers. Many Normans and Franks, stirred by the sight of Byzantine brocades, jewels, and magnificent works in gold or enamel, began to follow leaders whose intention was to rule the eastern empire for themselves. Looting and raiding for supplies became the norm. The most horrific event occurred after Anna's death, the 1204 sack of Constantinople. Fire swept through the noble city three times, destroying much of its arts and treasures, and soldiers and clerics alike drank, raped, killed and carted off furs, gold and silver.

Anna lived in an era when women chiefly were expected to remain secluded in their quarters (called gyneceum) attending solely to family matters. They covered their faces with veils in public and were not even allowed to appear in processions. Yet Anna offered high praise for the accomplishments of some women, including her influential grandmother, Anna Dalassena. In her work, Anna also reveals herself as a female who was given notable license to write what she thought.


For the complete text of her book "The Alexiad" translated into English, please click here:

Anna Komnene was is one of the most important historians of the her father's reign and the First Crusade.

, Latinized as Comnena (Greek: Άννα Κομνηνή, Anna Komnēnē; 1 December 1083 – 1153) was a Greek princess, scholar, physician, hospital administrator, and the daughter of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos of Byzantium and Irene Doukaina.[1] She wrote the Alexiad, an account of her father’s reign, which is unique in that it was written by a princess about her father.[2 Anna was born in the Porphyra Chamber (the purple chamber) of the imperial palace of Constantinople and was thus a porphyrogenita.[3] She notes her imperial heritage in the Alexiad by stating that she was “born and bred in the purple."[4] She was the eldest of seven children and her younger siblings were (in order of birth) Maria Komnene, John II Komnenos, Andronikos Komnenos, Isaac Komnenos, Eudokia Komnene, Theodora Komnene.[5]

In the Alexiad Anna emphasizes her affection for her parents in stating her relation to Alexios and Irene.[6] Additionally, Anna demonstrates her close familial ties in describing the scene when her mother, Irene, was pregnant, waiting for two days to give birth so that Alexios could be there.[7] Historian Angeliki Laiou states that Anna presents this “as evidence of the obedience she showed her parents,” and as a demonstration of her familial affection.[8] Anna notes in the Alexiad in her early childhood that she was raised by the former empress, Maria of Alania, who was the mother of Anna’s first fiancé, Constantine Doukas.[9] The fact that Anna was raised by her future mother-in-law was a common custom.[10]

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Anna Komnene, Historian and Princess of Byzantine Empire's Timeline

December 1, 1083
Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
Age 64
a convent