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Definition: Anna Comnena from Chambers Biographical Dictionary


Byzantine princess

The daughter of Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, she tried in vain to secure the imperial crown, and failed in her attempt to overthrow or poison her brother (1118). Disappointed and ashamed, she withdrew from the court, and sought solace in literature. On the death of her husband (1137), she wrote a life of her father, the Alexiad, which contains an account of the First Crusade.

Summary Article: COMNENA, ANNA (1083-post-1148)
from Women in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia

Anna Comnena, or Komnene, was one of the first women historians and a key literary figure of Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire as of 330, in which the primary language was Greek instead of Latin and whose religion, by Anna's time, was Greek Orthodox, centered at Constantinople, instead of Roman Catholicism. The eldest daughter of Emperor Alexius (original Greek: Alexios) I Comnenus (1048-1118) and Empress Irene (Eirene), Anna married Nicephorus Bryennius (Nikephoros Bryennios) and conspired with her mother to have him made emperor instead of her brother John II Comnenus (1088-1143), whom her father had declared as his successor. Unsuccessful in this attempt, and mercifully pardoned, Anna withdrew to a monastery and began to write an account, in Greek, of her father's life and achievements, the Alexiad (Alexias). Because she had received a broad education in both the classics and scriptural writings, she was able to make good use of her privileged access to the royal archives and life at court in composing her history, which renders it extremely valuable to modern historians of Byzantium.

Completed sometime after 1148, the Alexiad covers the period 1069-1118 in fifteen parts or books. As its title suggests, it is centered on her father and resembles an epic in certain ways, such as its adulatory tone, glorifying Alexius and his family. The work draws on an impressive array of models and sources. From among the ancient authors, Anna owes most to diverse major Greek historians Thucydides (460-400 B.C.E.), Polybius (Polybios, c.202-125 B.C.E) and the later Plutarch (Ploutarchos, c.46-120 C.E), but she tells us she knew the works of the fifth-century B.C.E Aristotle and Plato and makes numerous classical allusions. As for later sources, the Alexiad draws on the Chronographia (Chronography) of the Byzantine philosopher and theologian Michael Psellus (Psellos, c.1019-c.1078) and is a continuation of the history up to 1079 written by her husband, Bryennius. In many instances, Anna also writes from personal knowledge. For all of these reasons, she falls more within the humanist, rather than the Byzantine religious, tradition of historiographers. However, when she praises her father's persecution of the heretics and in other similar moments, she reflects Greek Orthodox animosity toward such groups as the Bogomils, and even toward the Western Church (Roman Catholic) and its Crusades, as potentially detrimental to the Byzantine Empire.

In portraying Alexius as the ideal Byzantine emperor, Anna therefore shows him to be godly, fatherly, and wary of the West. The Byzantines' first encounter with the Crusaders is described: it seems the former were not impressed. The narrative is laced with irony and sarcasm, and the author is vigorously self-assertive. Despite its somewhat defective chronology, the Alexiad is one of the best historical works of the Byzantine age and is the main source for our knowledge of this crucial period. As an example of the Alexiad 's later literary influence, the great Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott frequently refers to it in his romance, Count Robert of Paris (c.1800).

The Alexiad is also important from the linguistic point of view as it exhibits the significant gap developing between demotic (everyday usage) and literary Greek. Anna Comnena does not write in the contemporary language used by many other writers, but attempts a neo-Attic (more archaic, noble) style based on her knowledge of classical writers. This is moderately successful in the area of vocabulary (in spite of the numerous contemporary technical terms, foreign words, and colloquialisms), but less so in the realm of style and syntax. Among its modern incarnations, the Alexiad has been translated into Modern Greek, French, German, Swedish, and Russian, as well as English.

Primary Sources
  • Comnena, Anna. Alexias. Critical ed. by Diether R. Reinsch; Athanasios Kambylis. Corpus fontium historiae byzantinae, 40. 2 vols. de Gruyter Berlin and New York, 2001. [Bilingual ancient Greek-English scholarly edition].
  • Comnena, Anna. The Alexias of the Princess Anna Comnena. Translated by Dawes, Elizabeth A. S., Routledge & Kegan Paul London, 1928, 1967.
  • Comnena, Anna. The Alexiad of Anna Comnena. Translated by Sewter, Edgar R. A.. Penguin Harmondsworth, Middlesex, U.K., 1969, 1976.
  • Secondary Sources
  • Barrett, Tracy. Anna of Byzantium. Delacorte Press New York, 1999. [For younger readers, based on the Alexiad].
  • Buckler, Georgina. Anna Comnena, A Study. Oxford University Press/Humphrey Milford Oxford, 1929, 1968.
  • Dalven, Rae. Anna Comnena. Twayne World Authors. Twayne New York, 1972.
  • Gouma-Peterson, Thalia, ed. Anna Comnene and Her Times. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities. Garland Casebooks. Garland New York, 2000. [Collection of essays by important scholars].
  • David Larmour
    © 2004 by Katharina M. Wilson and Nadia Margolis

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