Few, if any, historians have been so high born as Anna Komnene, first daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexios I, who came into the world in the porphyry-lined room of the Palace of Boukoleon, overlooking the harbour of Constantinople and the Sea of Marmara, on December 1 1083.
Alexios had seized the imperial throne from his predecessor, and on his death in 1118 it is said that Komnene herself plotted to seize power from her brother John, the heir, and rule alongside her husband, the general Nikephoros Bryennios. It’s to an early 13th-century historian, Niketas Khoniates, that we owe Komnene’s words when her husband demurred from her scheme. “Nature had mistaken their sexes,” she said. “For he ought to have been the woman.”
Komnene was banished to the convent of Kecharitomene. There, she wrote the work for which she is best known, The Alexiad. It hasn’t always been highly regarded. Schiller, who translated it into German, criticised Komnene’s “bad style and false taste”. Gibbon damned her with faint praise. One remark alone, he granted, was “judicious and important”; but on the whole the work’s “elaborate affectation of rhetoric and science betrays… the vanity of a female author”.
However, the qualities which writers of a different era regarded as vices we are more likely to regard as virtues. To begin with, The Alexiad is a genre all of its own, pitched somewhere between history, hagiography, biography and epic. Its focus is solely on the reign of Komnene’s father, Alexios, and what we would now likely call his foreign policy challenges: the relentless assaults on his lands from the Normans, the Seljuk Turks, and nomadic tribes like the Pecheneg, as well as political and military complexities of the First Crusade and the western armies it brought to the empire’s dominions.
Komnene consistently refers to the Byzantines as Romans, but her cultural frame of reference is Greek, from the histories of Athens and Sparta to the allusions to Aristotle, Euripides and especially Homer which litter the text. Her learning was evidently a source of great pride to her and, together with her imperial lineage, the most important marker of her identity. However, the eulogist at her funeral who claimed her studies were conducted secretly, against the will of her parents – “she made dates with her beloved grammar,” he said, “just as young girls secretly gaze at their betrothed through some opening” – is almost certainly wrong.
Komnene’s grasp of military strategy and detailed accounts of battles and campaigns has led some historians to doubt her authorship, but there seems little doubt that she had access both to Byzantine military archives and first-hand witness accounts. Moreover, the work is shot through with her personal observations, which bring the text to startling life.
There are sharp portraits of key protaganists: Robert Guiscard, with “eyes that all but shot out sparks of fire” or his son Bohemond, of whom she writes “even his laugh sounded like a threat to others”.
There are intense, vivid details: Alexios mistaking an enemy soldier for a rival general at night because his armour was so bright it reflected the stars; a winter campaign in what is now north-west Turkey when the snow was so deep people struggled to open their doors against its weight.
Then there is the sense of Komnene herself, in a kind of internal exile for thirty years, apart from her husband, her family, the political and cultural life at court, her birthright – and “overwhelmed by… the sea of misfortunes [that] advances upon me, wave after wave”.
This piece first appeared in the December 2020 Months Past column in History Today.