The history of the Byzantine Empire is threaded with dynastic clashes and family feuds. The Byzantines do not hold the same familiar spot in the Western imagination as their Roman forbears, but the narrative history of their scandals and intrigues is easily as compelling as the episodes Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio recorded of Caesar, Caligula, and Nero. For a millennium, rivalries between and among Byzantine noble families propelled public life, with the kind of bloody factional maneuvering that makes the Tudors look like the Waltons in comparison.
Though political power was usually a male privilege in Byzantium, a striking feature of the Byzantine tales is the prominence of women as political players, whether they were power-grabbing populists, slick backroom schemers, or principled reformers. It started with Empress Theodora, sometimes described as a kind of sixth-century Eva Perón, who interceded in a wave of riots that shook Constantinople, put an end to the fighting, won the adoration of the public, and saved her husband’s throne. Irene, an empress from the late eighth century, ruled for several years with a mixture of silky court diplomacy and unflinching ruthlessness—to maintain her grip on power, she ordered that her chief rival, who also happened to be her son, be blinded.
The princess Anna Komnene was another of these influential women. To Edward Gibbon, who framed her reputation for modern audiences with his book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, she was a Lady Macbeth character who attempted to bump off her brother so she could rule the empire through her husband. The plot failed, and Anna was forced to flee to a monastery, where she spent the rest of her life stewing with resentment and thwarted ambition. Gibbon dismissed Anna as vain, vengeful, dissembling, and reckless, the embodiment of a particular type of unpleasant Byzantine woman. But to a generation of historians currently revisiting her reputation, Anna Komnene is not a lethal Machiavel but a sparkling litterateur, one of the great figures of her age who exhibited something that one might call distinctly, beguilingly Byzantine: a flair for disruptive innovation while, paradoxically, striving to keep centuries of tradition alive.
Confusingly, Byzantine Empire was a term first used decades after its fall, in the mid sixteenth century. It was adapted from Byzantium, an archaic name for its capital, Constantinople, and was used to describe the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which thrived for roughly a thousand years after the slow collapse of the western half in the fifth and sixth centuries. As such, the Byzantine people would have proudly considered themselves Roman, in culture, custom, and outlook. They were of Rome rather than from it, custodians of a mighty civilization that had elevated humanity to uncharted heights.
That sense of mission and superiority drove Anna Komnene all her life. She was the eldest child of the Emperor Alexios and the Empress Irene. She was born in the Great Palace of Constantinople, two years after Alexios had wrested power from the hapless Nikephoros III and begun the emergency surgery needed to save Byzantium from ruin. Alexios defeated military opponents and stabilized the economy, yet perhaps his greatest achievement was restoring dignity to the throne by framing his family as worthy successors of Constantine the Great, the fourth-century ruler after whom the Byzantine capital was named. In Anna’s family, continuity was next to godliness. As far as she was concerned, upholding the traditions of the past was both a privilege and a divine calling. Her earliest, happiest memories were of being hailed in public as part of the imperial line that had saved civilization.
Ultimately, her legacy would be defined by her relationship to her father, but it was three women who shaped the course of her life. The first was Maria of Alania, the mother of the boy to whom she was betrothed. Maria was a patron of artists and scholars; Anna described her as “a living work of art, an object of desire to lovers of beauty.” Though the death of Anna’s husband-to-be severed her relationship with Maria, the older woman’s example continued to exert itself during Anna’s teenage years. Unbeknown to her parents, Maria hired experts to tutor Anna in mathematics, medicine, and philosophy. Anna thrived in those subjects and excelled in debates with the greatest minds at court.
Anna was similarly influenced by her paternal grandmother, Anna Dalassene, who was a crucial figure in Alexios’s reign. She had played a pivotal role in the coup that placed her son on the throne, and she dictated the culture of the new court, turning the imperial palace into a haven of monastic culture. Piety, erudition, and self-discipline supplanted the licentiousness and frivolity that had supposedly prospered under the previous regime. So significant did she become to political life in Constantinople that when Alexios left the city, he entrusted supreme control to his mother.
The third powerful female presence in Anna’s life was her mother, Irene. According to some sources, when Alexios died in 1118, Irene agreed with Anna that Anna’s husband, Byrennios, should be elevated to emperor ahead of John, Anna’s younger brother, who was the rightful heir. Supposedly, the precious Anna had hated John since the day he was born. His arrival into the world ended her ambitions of ruling through a noble husband, just as her wily grandmother had exerted her will through Alexios. The story goes that as Alexios lay on his deathbed, Anna conspired to kick her brother aside—only to discover that her husband lacked the mettle to take the opportunity. A furious Anna plotted against John for a further year until her scheming was uncovered. Bitter, humiliated, and in mortal danger, Anna was ultimately given no choice but to slink away to the dull obscurity of a monastery, removed from Constantinople and the racing pulse of the Roman civilization that was her life force. As one unsympathetic put it, “She was only thirty-six years old, and her life was over.”
There she wilted, so it’s said, unfulfilled and vengeful, for nearly two decades; only the death of her husband revived her. On his passing, Byrennios had left an unfinished account of how Alexios had risen to power and begun a new golden age, the regime’s official version of the past and present. Now fifty-five, Anna took on the project—and utterly transformed it from something competent and sober into a landmark work that has preserved her own beliefs in a way that none of her powerful male relatives managed.
The Alexiad, as it is now known, is a classic of Byzantine literature and arguably one of the most accomplished works of history written anywhere in the Middle Ages. It is, by the standards of the time, rigorously sourced and is rich with micro and macro descriptions of Byzantium. For some, Anna’s exquisite sketches of historical characters are a little too observant of their clothes, mannerisms, or habits of speech. Writing in 1906, the esteemed French historian Charles Diehl explained to his readers that Anna was “a passionate woman” and therefore was prone to be distracted from matters of consequence by her “liking for the decorative, for exterior magnificence.” Diehl is one of the great Byzantinists, but one is tempted to wonder whether he skimmed over the lengthy passages in which Anna analyzes political and military strategy. Ironically, other historians have concluded that Anna’s astute handling of those topics proves that she was not the book’s sole author; no woman, the sexist thinking goes, could have done that all by herself.
“The historian,” Anna writes early on, “must shirk neither remonstrance with his friends, nor praise of his enemies.” Balance and impartiality do not, however, leap from the pages. Anna gives full vent to many of her personal grievances, including against Pope Gregory VII, Muslims, and pretty much anybody living west of the Adriatic. Her father, on the other hand, is peerless. In keeping with the Komnenos family endeavor, the book’s objective is to commemorate Alexios as one of the great men of history, a hero part Constantine, part Odysseus who restored the empire to a state of antique perfection. Unlike Byrennios’s original sketch, Anna’s tome is elaborate in style and content, an epic fifteen-volume flourish of Attic Greek. On the surface, it’s an homage to a legendary leader of men. But Anna constantly reminds us that she was Alexios’s firstborn, the unspoken implication being that she has inherited more than a little of his genius. Despite her rhetorical protestations of humility, nobody who reads the Alexiad could think it was humble; Anna exhibits her learning and talent like a peacock splaying his feathers, and the work is all the better for it, turning what could otherwise have been dry hagiography into an engaging document of a crucial era.
While restricted in timeframe, the scope of the Alexiad is epic; the full life of the empire is touched upon. However, its primary use to historians is perhaps as a source for the Byzantine perspective on the First Crusade, which occurred between 1095 and 1099, in the middle of Alexios’s reign. Anna’s disdain for the Norman leaders of the Crusade—whose culture she feared was exerting too much influence on Byzantium—is fascinating and sometimes inadvertently hilarious. She has numerous snarky remarks about their habits and customs—everything from their heretical religious beliefs to the ugliness of their trousers—as well as frequent nods of appreciation to their boldness, brazen and vulgar though she found it. Bohemond of Taranto, for example, wins Anna’s horrified admiration for successfully escaping his enemies by playing dead in a coffin all the way from Antioch to Rome with a deceased chicken hidden on his person. The putrid stench convinced anyone brave enough to take a peek that Bohemond really was a rotting corpse. At times, her candid observations are compelling because they sound baffling to modern ears, such as a passage in which she writes that Bohemond’s nostrils gave “free passage for the high spirit which bubbled up from his heart.” Was this a waspish jibe about big Norman noses, or did twelfth-century Greeks consider wide nostrils to be an outward sign of inner masculine virtue? The strangeness and familiarity of the past are bound together in Anna’s riveting prose.
The same year it is thought that Anna finished the Alexiad, 1147, coincided neatly with the start of the Second Crusade. By this time, the emperor was Anna’s nephew Manuel, whose enthusiastic response to the crusaders differed from that of the skeptical Anna and Alexios. In the Alexiad, in praising the life and lamenting the death of her father, Anna also praises the golden age of his reign and laments its demise. Perhaps, too, it was a meditation on her own life. It had taken her around a decade to complete her magnum opus. By the time she was finished, her father, mother, and husband had all died. Reflecting on these losses, and her failed attempts to snatch the reins of power from her late brother, she ends with a strikingly melancholy note: “Like rivers flowing down from high mountains … the streams of adversity … united in one torrent flood my house. Let this be the end of my history, then, lest as I write of these sad events I become more embittered.”
It’s believed Anna died in 1153, at the age of sixty-five. A funeral oration written in her memory by Georgios Tornikes lavished praise upon her, recalling her charm, her beauty, and her soaring intellect. She was, he said, “a rival star” to Constantinople’s galaxy of brilliant men. In the context of the times, it’s hard to think of more extravagant praise. Future readers of her work would not always be so enamored with her.
Forty years after Anna’s death, Niketas Choniates, a scholar from Constantinople, wrote a history of Byzantium that begins where the Alexiad ends: the death of Alexios and the accession of John. In Choniates’s telling of that episode, Anna takes center stage by attempting to enact a coup. It’s unclear precisely where Choniates got his information, but his unsourced account formed the bedrock upon which rests the modern view of Anna as a cutthroat who used the Alexiad as a way of atoning for (or obscuring) past wrongdoing.
For a millennium, her reputation was fixed, boosted by Gibbon’s hostile take. But in the last few years, a number of researchers have offered radically different readings of Anna’s biography. In 2014, Penelope Buckley published the first full-length literary analysis of the Alexiad, arguing that Anna was a genre-crossing pioneer who exploited her masterful knowledge of literature to shape her father as the ultimate Byzantine hero. Two years later, Leonora Neville disputed Choniates’s characterization of Anna and his version of her involvement with the attempted usurpation. Absolve Anna of guilt for the supposed crimes against her family, Neville argues, and the Alexiad is not “something she did to pass the time after her life was over, sitting in a prison and stewing in hatred.” Instead, it’s a towering work of the twelfth century, one in which Anna had to execute rhetorical acrobatics, “performing” on the page the dual roles of woman and historian, which were mutually exclusive identities in Anna’s world. In fact, Neville suggests, this duality is the root of her dastardly reputation: Choniates would have regarded the very existence of the Alexiad as proof that its author was a woman of improper ambition, precisely the sort to shamelessly infringe on male authority.
It’s an intriguing and persuasive argument. Of course, as Neville readily accepts, it’s possible that both Annas coexisted. The gifted author could also have been an ambitious schemer, as elder members of her family had done in the recent past. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever have a definitive answer. Yet Neville’s thesis underlines the ingenuity of the Alexiad. With its Attic Greek, rhetorical archaisms, and veneration of the late emperor, it is tightly bound to the traditions of the past. Yet it’s also a radical breach of convention, probably the first and only work of history written by a woman in Greek before the twentieth century. It’s emblematically Byzantine in its insistence that the great traditions of antiquity are upheld in the unfolding of something strikingly novel. Yet Anna was unique. Hers was a rare medieval experience, captured in a way that was even more unlikely and surprising than the events of her remarkable life.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.