Anna Komnene

Anna Komnene
Porphyrogenita of the Byzantine Empire
Born 1 December 1083
Porphyra Chamber, Great Palace of Constantinople, Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
Died 1153 (age 70)
Monastery of Kecharitomene, Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
Spouse Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger
Issue Alexios Komnenos, Megas doux
John Doukas
Irene Doukaina
Maria Bryennaina Komnene
House House of Komnenos
Father Alexios I Komnenos
Mother Irene Doukaina

Anna Komnene (Greek: Ἄννα Κομνηνή, Ánna Komnēnḗ; 1 December 1083 – 1153), commonly Latinized as Anna Comnena,[1] was a Byzantine princess, scholar, physician, hospital administrator, and historian. She was the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I and his wife Irene Doukaina.[2] 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.[3]

Family and early life

Anna was born on 1 December 1083[1] in the Porphyra Chamber of the imperial palace of Constantinople and was thus a porphyrogenita.[4] She notes her imperial heritage in the Alexiad by stating that she was “born and bred in the purple."[5] She was the eldest of seven children; her younger siblings were (in order) Maria, John II, Andronikos, Isaac, Eudokia, and Theodora,[6] but she remained her father's favorite.[1] In the Alexiad, Anna emphasizes her affection for her parents in stating her relation to Alexios and Irene.[7] 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.[8] The fact that Anna was raised by her future mother-in-law was a common custom.[9]


Anna writes at the beginning of the Alexiad about her education, highlighting her experience with literature, Greek language, rhetoric, and sciences.[5] Tutors trained her in subjects that included astronomy, medicine, history, military affairs, geography, and mathematics. Anna was noted for her education by the medieval scholar, Niketas Choniates who wrote that Anna “was ardently devoted to philosophy, the queen of all sciences, and was educated in every field."[10][11] Anna’s conception of her education is shown in her testament, which credits her parents for allowing her to obtain an education.[12] This testament is in contrast to a funeral oration about Anna given by her contemporary, Georgios Tornikes. In his oration he says that she had to read ancient poetry, such as the Odyssey, in secret because her parents disapproved of its dealing with polytheism and other “dangerous exploits,” which were considered “dangerous” for men and “excessively insidious” for women. Tornikes goes on to say that Anna “braced the weakness of her soul” and studied the poetry “taking care not to be detected by her parents.”[13]

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 sons, young Constantine was proclaimed the co-emperor of the Byzantine Empire. Anna's brother John was born in 1087, 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:

  1. Alexios Komnenos, megas doux (c. 1102 – c. 1161/1167)
  2. John Doukas (c. 1103 – after 1173)
  3. Irene Doukaina (c. 1105 – ?)
  4. Maria Bryennaina Komnene (c. 1107 – ?)

Anna proved to be capable not only on an intellectual level but also in practical matters. Her father placed her in charge of a large hospital and orphanage that he built for her to administer in Constantinople. The hospital was said to hold beds for 10,000 patients and orphans. Anna taught medicine at the hospital, as well as at other hospitals and orphanages. She was considered an expert on gout. Anna treated her father during his final illness.[14]

Claim to the throne

In 1087, Anna’s brother, John, was born. Several years after his birth, in 1092, John was designated emperor.[15] According to Niketas Choniates, Emperor Alexios “favored” John and declared him emperor while the Empress Irene “threw her full influence on [Anna's] side” and “continually attempted” to persuade the emperor to designate Nikephoros Bryennios, Anna’s husband, in John's place.[16] Around 1112, Alexios fell sick with rheumatism and could not move. He therefore turned the civil government over to his wife, Irene; she in turn directed the administration to Bryennios.[17] Choniates states that, as Emperor Alexios lay dying in his imperial bedchamber, John arrived and “secretly” took the emperor’s ring from his father during an embrace “as though in mourning.”[18] Anna also worked in her husband's favor during her father's illness.[1] In 1118, Alexios I Komnenos died.[19] A cleric acclaimed John emperor in Hagia Sophia.[20]

According to Smythe, Anna “felt cheated” because she “should have inherited.”[21] Indeed, according to Anna Komnene in the Alexiad, at her birth she was presented with “a crown and imperial diadem.”[22] Anna’s “main aim” in the depiction of events in the Alexiad, according to Stankovich, was to “stress her own right” to the throne and “precedence over her brother, John.”[23]

In view of this belief, Jarratt et al. record that Anna was “almost certainly” involved in the murder plot against John at Alexios’s funeral.[24] Indeed, Anna, according to Hill, attempted to create military forces to depose John.[20] According to Choniates, Anna was “stimulated by ambition and revenge” to scheme for the murder of her brother.[24] Smythe states the plots “came to nothing.”[15] Jarratt et al., record that, a short time afterward, Anna and Bryennios “organized another conspiracy.”[24] However, according to Hill, Bryennios refused to overthrow John, making Anna unable to continue with her plans.[20] With this refusal, Anna, according to Choniates, exclaimed “that nature had mistaken their sexes, for he ought to have been the woman.”[1] According to Jarratt et al., Anna shows “a repetition of sexualized anger.”[24] Indeed, Smythe asserts that Anna’s goals were “thwarted by the men in her life.”[25] Irene, however, according to Hill, had declined to participate in plans to revolt against an “established” emperor.[20] 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.[20]

The plots were discovered and Anna forfeited her estates.[1] After her husband's death, she entered the convent of Kecharitomene, which had been founded by her mother. She remained there until her death.[26]


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. The Alexiad is today the main source of Byzantine political history from the end of the 11th century to the beginning of the 12th century. It totalled 15 volumes when complete.

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 Byzantine eyewitness account available. She had the opportunity to gather information 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; and her uncle, George Palaeologus, was present at Pelekanon in June 1097 when Alexios 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 might have posed to the safety of Constantinople. Anna also identified for the first time, the Vlachs from Balkans with Dacians, in Alexiad (Chapter XIV), describing their places around Haemus mountains: "...on either side of its slopes dwell many very wealthy tribes, the Dacians and the Thracians on the northern side, and on the southern, more Thracians and the Macedonians".

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.

Anna Komnene's literary style is fashioned after Thucydides, Polybius, and Xenophon.[27] Consequently, it exhibits struggle for an Atticism characteristic of the period, whereby the resulting language is highly artificial.[27] 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.[28]

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.[29] Thus, she loathed the isolated position in society that exile had forced upon her.

Depictions in fiction and other media



  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 EB (1878).
  2. Kazhdan 2005, “Komnene, Anna.”
  3. Laiou 2000, p. 6.
  4. Frankopan 2009, p. 536.
  5. 1 2 Komnene 2009, p. 3.
  6. Frankopan 2009, p. 479.
  7. Smythe 2006, p. 130.
  8. Komnene 2009, p. 80.
  9. Garland & Rapp 2006, p. 108.
  10. Choniates 1984, p. 8.
  11. Connor 2004, p. 255.
  12. Laiou 2000, p. 4; referenced from Kurtz, Ed. “Unedierte Texte aus der Zeit des Kaisers Johannes Komnenos.” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 16 (1907): 69–119.
  13. Browning 1990, p. 404-405.
  14. Windsor, Laura Lynn (2002). Women in Medicine: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 45. ISBN 978-1-57607-392-6.
  15. 1 2 Smythe 2006, p. 126.
  16. Choniates 1984, p. 5.
  17. Hill 2000, p. 46.
  18. Choniates 1984, p. 6.
  19. Smythe 2006, p. 127.
  20. 1 2 3 4 5 Hill 2000, p. 47.
  21. Smythe 1997, p. 241.
  22. Komnene 1969, p. 197.
  23. Stankovíc 2007, p. 174.
  24. 1 2 3 4 Jarratt 2008, p. 308.
  25. Smythe 2006, p. 125.
  26. Jarratt 2008, p. 305.
  27. 1 2 EB (1911).
  28. Catholic Encyclopedia
  29. Lubarsky, p. 3.
  30. (Retrieved August 2010)


Primary sources

Secondary sources

Further reading

External links

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