Anna Komnene: The Struggles of a Female Historian in Medieval Times  

In his introduction to the latest English translation of the Alexiad, Byzantine scholar Peter Frankopan makes a powerful comment suggesting that both the historical source and its author may be considered ‘exceptional’. Indeed, the Alexiad is well-known in academic circles and beyond, not only because it is one of the few historical sources covering Alexios I Komnenos’ reign, during which the First Crusade took place, but also because it is the first piece of literature written by a woman in both the East and the West. Imperial Princess Anna Komnene was in many respects an extraordinary character who was acknowledged by her contemporaries for her intellectual capabilities and pursuits.  These interests, in combination with her composition of the Alexiad during the last years of her life, make her a historical figure worth studying in great detail. Most notably with regards to the numerous challenges she faced writing history as a woman, which was considered by all to be a masculine activity, and in terms of the nuances behind her motives for conducting historical research. 

Nevertheless, Anna is represented in many contemporary historical textbooks as a ‘power-hungry’ woman, who wrote her history out of anger and frustration following her failed coup d’état in 1118 CE which was meant to place her on the imperial throne instead of her younger brother, John. In addition, a thesis by Byzantine scholar J. Howard-Johnson has been circulating among academic circles suggesting that Anna is not even the real author of the Alexiad, but rather the text’s editor, with credits for its composition going to her husband, Nikephoros Bryennios, instead.  

This paper aims to challenge and revaluate these common interpretations of Anna, to bring her character as an intellectual to the surface, and consider her filial obligation more seriously, especially in terms of what it meant to be supportive of her own family. Furthermore, her lamentations and emotionalism will be closely examined in order to align them with her attempts to fulfil the rules of Byzantine historiography and those applied to women’s behaviour according to the social standards of the time and space she was living in.     

Anna’s Self-Awareness and Self-Representation 

This section will mainly focus on Anna’s own voice in order to disentangle what may have crossed her mind when writing history, encouraging her to make specific linguistic and rhetorical choices. 

From the Alexiad’s Prologue, Anna tries to convince her readers of her capabilities in historiography by presenting in detail the kind of education she has received, while appealing both to God and to her own determination for the knowledge she has acquired since a young age. Indeed, her intellectualism was recognised not only in court rhetoric, but also by Niketas Choniates, who, nevertheless, did not hesitate to write a highly unfavourable account of Anna’s behaviour after Alexios’ death, as will be examined later. 

Despite this recognition and admiration, Anna felt the need to justify her reasons for writing a history. More specifically, she expresses her fear that her account might be evaluated as a mere panegyric because the narrative’s main character is her father, while also noticing the clash of personalities she experiences as both a dispassionate historian and a devout daughter. Although she insists that her filial obligation was her motive behind writing the Alexiad, her ambitious project could still be perceived as an act of arrogance, contrary to contemporary perceptions of female modesty and total obedience to male authority. To counterbalance this, Anna makes sure to colour passages containing political commentaries with words of lamentation and mourning, which were a standard model of behaviour in which female speech was appropriate. By doing so, she aims to achieve a sympathetic emotional response from her readers, which will ultimately make her project more acceptable within the holistically patriarchal society she was living in. Arguably, the persona of a poor-old widow who vividly expresses her grief for the loss of her father, is more socially acceptable than that of an intelligent woman writing military and political history. In addition, her emotionalism indirectly proves her capability for controlling her passions; by consciously transgressing the rules of historiography when needed, she makes her audience realise that the rest of her narrative is objective and indifferent to personal sentiments and biases.  

Nevertheless, this representation of gendered behaviour raises further questions concerning the reliability of her sources of information and her objectivity. In response to such suspicions, Anna presents all her sources of reference, while also providing complete documents in their original format, such as imperial chrysobulls and peace treaties. In doing so, she removes her authorial voice from key moments in her history, allowing events to speak for themselves; documents are an unbiased authority, thus removing some weight from Anna’s shoulders in terms of the possible criticism she may have received concerning her biases and prejudices.       

Portrayal of Alexios and the First Crusade  

When it comes to the portrayal of Emperor Alexios (r. 1081-1118 CE), Anna once again tries to square the circle, to allow herself to fulfil the role of both loving daughter and dispassionate historian. To do so, she presents Alexios’ magnificence as a secular ruler and a military commander, while not shying away from his miscalculations and mistakes. Indeed, she insists that much more could be said about her father’s struggles if she were not in the disadvantageous position of being his daughter. In other words, she seems to suggest that writing about one’s own family is more challenging than writing about people with whom one has no sentimental attachments; the only way she may be able to justify her father’s deeds is by remaining modest about them, allowing only carefully calculated excitement for his victories. Her vivid lamentations when it comes to Alexios’ defeat and misfortunes allows greater freedom of glorifying his victories; once again, she takes advantage of the social conventions expected from her because of her gender, turning it to her benefit. 

However, arguably the most interesting feature of her presentation of Alexios is his handling of the First Crusade. Alexios is presented as trying to make the most out of every unprecedented circumstance, something which causes Anna to adopt a defensive tone, amplified when she admits that her father’s overall position and attitude towards the crusading movement was rather ambiguous. In order to justify his actions, Anna focuses on how difficult the circumstances were for her father; his careful calculations may be seen in a more positive light as acts of caution and realism. Indeed, Anna blames the Latin Christians’ ‘untrustworthiness’ and ‘arrogance’ for Alexios’ questionable actions, something which not only distinguishes the Byzantine identity from that of the ‘others’, but also echoes late twelfth century Byzantine policies concerning the crusading movement. As a matter of fact, Anna seems to be implying that without Alexios’ cautious and modest policies, none of the Byzantine successes of the Second Crusade would have taken place.  

In any case, at this point one may conclude that, for the most part, Anna managed to keep her narrative in accordance with the rules of Byzantine historiography; however, questions still may be raised in relation to her feelings towards her family, especially after her fall from grace in 1118. By analysing the event of August 1118, as presented in the Alexiad, we aim to disentangle Anna’s ultimate goal in writing a history, how this was mistreated by her contemporaries, and her reputation ever since.     

Family ‘Dramas’ and Anna’s Reputation  

The events of August 1118 which correspond to the last book of the Alexiad, have, to a large extent, shaped the historical figure of Anna Komnene as a power-hungry woman, determined to ascend to the imperial throne after murdering her younger brother. Ironically, this persona has been heavily influenced by just one historical source, that of Niketas Choniates, which was written several decades after the events took place and aimed to give a historical argument for the Empire’s decay, especially after the disastrous events of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 – which proved particularly devastating for Constantinople.   

However, when shifting our attention to Anna’s own voice, we notice that she does not directly disapprove of her brother’s ascension to the imperial throne, as this would be a transgression from the rules of historiography. Instead, she emphasizes the intensity of her grief when her father died, as expected of any devout daughter, while insisting that she will finish her history, because if she were to continue, she would not manage to remain as dispassionate towards events as she had done up until now. By stating this, Anna does not necessarily attempt to emphasize her rocky relationship with her brother, but rather to reassure her readers that her account of Alexios’ reign is to be examined seriously, while she is to be recognised as a reliable and trustworthy historian.  

Nevertheless, this persona of Anna’s was not necessarily adopted to such an extent in order to erase Choniates’ characterization of her as an unnaturally ambitious woman, who had no sense of her position within society. Even in Tornikes’ funeral oration, Anna’s history is not discussed in length. Instead, it is mentioned merely as an act of devotion to her parents, always between passages that insist on her great modesty and piety. In other words, even within the context of commemoration, the fact that she wrote a history of her father’s reign could not be easily justified, making the oration rather defensive, while also trying not to become counterfactual to events. 

In short, Anna’s identity as a historian struggled to survive through the years and was damaged more severely when Choniates’ account of her character started circulating. It goes without saying that between a woman’s and a man’s account of events, it is the latter one which will permanently mark the historical narrative, especially since no other contemporary, except from Tornikes, stood up in defence of Anna and her work. 

Re-Evaluation and Conclusion  

Overall, this paper aimed to examine the historical figure of Anna Komnene from a less ‘fixed’ perspective, allowing her to speak for herself through her own text, rather than relying on material written decades later, or on our own modern-day presumptions, which may suppose that in order to write a history, which is an ambitious project in its own right, she must have aspired to ascend to the throne. This may not have been the case as she wrote her history to commemorate her father, while also presenting her intellectual capabilities in the most modest and discreet way possible. When her main hero finally passes away, she finds no reason to continue her history, given the possible mistreatment she received after 1118. These experiences cause her to want to remain silent, with the primary reason not being frustration, but rather awareness that she may be unable to remain dispassionate and objective if she were to continue writing.  

In short, Anna’s main goal was to convince her readers of her capabilities of writing history within an era in which historiography was becoming more personal and subjective. She applies all the techniques available to her to make sure she will be identified primarily as an intellectual, who also cares deeply about her family’s commemoration. Although further suggestions are welcomed on this topic, I do believe that in this light she ought to be interpreted and remembered in the course of history.     

Written by Dido Papikinou 


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