Anna Comnena: Byzantine Princess, Crusades Chronicler

historical woman

I first became acquainted with this historical woman of the day because she was one of the only sources for describing a bunch of historical men. Isn’t that the way the historical cookie always crumbles?

Anna Comnena (1080 – c. 1153) was a Byzantine princess, the daughter of Emperor Alexius Comnenus I, and an eyewitness chronicler of the First Crusade and some of its most prominent Crusaders. In fact, it was her dad that invited those European macho men out East in the first place. It goes like this:

A SUPER SHORT SUMMARY OF THE FIRST CRUSADE Seljuk Turks were expanding out of Central Asia and into what we now know as the Middle East. The Byzantine Empire (Greek Orthodox, concentrated in modern day Turkey, capital Constantinople) started getting nervous. Though loathe to request help from Western Christendom (you know, Europe), who were Catholic, and probably kind of a pain about it, Alexius Comnenus finally felt like he had no other options. “Come over here and help us out, guys,” he said to the Pope. “We’re all Christian brothers and stuff.”

Pope Urban II got excited, because as usual the Church was having a lot of problems in Europe, and having one big CAUSE tends to make problems disappear (or at least go temporarily invisible). So he made this big speech in 1095 and announced that everyone should go on Crusade to the Holy Land. Your soul would get saved, yada yada yada.

So Crusaders poured out of what is now France, and Germany, and England, and Italy, and walked/rode horses all the way to what is now Turkey, and some of them killed a lot of innocent people on the way in what were probably fits of zealotry and testosterone, and then the leaders got to Constantinople by 1097 and (mostly) pledged loyalty to Alexius. They had cool names like Godfrey and Baldwin and Bohemond. Anna provides descriptions of all of them in her chronicle.

But they really wanted to do other things besides just save the Byzantines. Like what was in it for them? So they poured into Syria and Palestine and set up Crusader castles and some of them stayed for like a hundred years or more (their progeny, of course. Though I do like to picture like the Indiana Jones guy sitting around in a fortress in the mountains crumbling to dust). Oh and they also killed more people.

The end. (Until the Second Crusade.)

---

Anyway. Anna provides the only Byzantine-eye view to this whole saga, in a chronicle she wrote of her father’s reign, the Alexiad. In this she reminds me of Dmitri Nabokov or Christopher Tolkien—forever in their father’s literary shadow, translating his old stuff, writing down reminiscences, safeguarding his estate. Celebrity fathers, ya know?

But Anna was more than just a woman who wrote about men that historians care about, though this is probably why her memory has been kept alive so long. She was also accomplished and educated, serving as a physician in a hospital her father had built for her, specializing in, apparently, gout.

She also had designs on the throne. At the age of fourteen she married Nicephorus of Bryennium, and as her father approached death, she conspired with her mother Irene to have her husband named the next emperor instead of her good-for-nothing brother John. However, she was outmaneuvered, and on his deathbed Alexius blessed John as his successor.

Later, she was busted for conspiracy to commit regicide or its twelfth-century Byzantine equivalent, and spent the rest of her life in a convent. This is where she hunkered down and wrote the Alexiad. Which ended up not being a bad use of her time.

So as a woman of the medieval Byzantine court, she was able to carve out an occupation, some expertise, a decent education (although she was forbidden from reading classical poetry because it was indecent), and even came thisclose to becoming Empress, courtesy her own ambition and wile. We don’t know a ton about her, but what we know is pretty impressive.

Though why do these stories always have to end in a convent?