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Anna Komnene
Porphyrogenita of the Byzantine Empire
Personal details
Born (1083-12-01)December 1, 1083
Porphyra Chamber, Great Palace of Constantinople, Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
Died 1153 (aged 70)
Monastery of Kecharitomene, Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
Spouse(s) Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger

Anna Komnene, Latinized as Comnena (Greek: Άννα Κομνηνή, Anna Komnēnē; 1 December 1083 – 1153) was a Greek princess, scholar, physician, hospital administrator, and the daughter of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos of Byzantium and Irene Doukaina.[1] 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.[2]

Family and early life

Anna was born in the Porphyra Chamber (the purple chamber) of the imperial palace of Constantinople and was thus a porphyrogenita.[3] She notes her imperial heritage in the Alexiad by stating that she was “born and bred in the purple."[4] She was the eldest of seven children and her younger siblings were (in order of birth) Maria Komnene, John II Komnenos, Andronikos Komnenos, Isaac Komnenos, Eudokia Komnene, Theodora Komnene.[5] In the Alexiad Anna emphasizes her affection for her parents in stating her relation to Alexios and Irene.[6] Additionally, Anna demonstrates her close familial ties in describing the scene when her mother, Irene, was pregnant, waiting for two days to give birth so that Alexios could be there.[7] Historian Angeliki Laiou states that Anna presents this “as evidence of the obedience she showed her parents,” and as a demonstration of her familial affection.[8] 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.[9] The fact that Anna was raised by her future mother-in-law was a common custom.[10]


Anna writes at the beginning of the Alexiad about her education, highlighting her experience with literature, Greek language, rhetoric, and sciences.[4] Tutors trained her in subjects that included astronomy, medicine, history, military affairs, geography, and math.[11] 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."[12] Modern historian Carolyn L. Connor states that, “education is central to Anna’s self-definition.”[13] Anna’s conception of her education is shown in her testament, which credits her parents for allowing her to obtain an education.[14] 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.”[15]

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 rightful male heirs to inherit the throne, young Constantine was proclaimed the co-emperor of the Byzantine Empire. However, in 1087 a blood heir, John II, was born, 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 – ?)

Medical work

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.[11] 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.[16]

Claim to the throne

In 1087, Anna’s brother, John II Komnenos, was born. Several years after his birth, in 1092, John was designated emperor.[17] According to Niketas Choniates, Emperor Alexios, Anna’s father, “favored” John and declared him emperor. On the other hand, Anna’s mother, Irene Doukaina, according to Choniates “threw her full influence on the side of [Anna]” and “continually attempted” to persuade the emperor to designate Nikephoros Bryennios, Anna’s husband, as emperor.[18] Around 1112, Alexios fell sick with rheumatism and could not move. He therefore turned the civil government over to his wife, Irene Doukaina, who directed the administration to Anna’s husband, Nikephoros Bryennios.[19] As Emperor Alexios lay dying in his imperial bedchamber, John, according to Choniates, arrived and “secretly” took the emperor’s ring from his father during an embrace “as though in mourning.”[20] In 1118, Alexios I Komnenos died.[21] A clergy in Hagia Sophia acclaimed John emperor thereafter.[22] According to Dion C. Smythe, Anna “felt cheated” because she “should have inherited.”[23] Indeed, according to Anna Komnene in the Alexiad, at her birth she was presented with “a crown and imperial diadem.”[24] Anna’s “main aim” in the depiction of events in the Alexiad, according to Vlada Stankovíc, was to “stress her own right” to the throne and “precedence over her brother, John.”[25] In view of this belief, Ellen Quandahl and Susan C. Jarratt record that Anna was “almost certainly” involved in the murder plot against John at Alexius’s funeral.[26] Indeed, Anna, according to Barbara Hill, “attempted” to create military forces to depose John.[22] According to Choniates, Anna was “stimulated by ambition and revenge” to scheme for the murder of her brother.[26] Dion C. Smythe states the plots “came to nothing.”[17] Ellen Quandahl and Susan C. Jarratt, record that, a short time afterward, Anna and Bryennios “organized another conspiracy.”[26] However, according to Barbara Hill, Bryennios “refused” to overthrow John, making Anna unable to continue with her plans.[22] With this refusal, Anna, according to Choniates, exclaimed “that nature had mistaken the two sexes and had endowed Bryennius [Bryennios] with the soul of a woman.” According to Ellen Quandahl and Susan C. Jarratt, Anna shows “a repetition of sexualized anger.”[26] Indeed, Dion C. Smythe asserts that Anna’s goals were “thwarted by the men in her life.”[27] Irene, however, according to Hill, had declined to participate in plans to revolt against an “established” emperor.[22] Barbara 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.[22] In the end, after her husband’s death, Anna went to a convent of Kecharitomene, which was founded by her mother, where she remained until her death.[28]


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 an 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 Hellenic 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 Alexius 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. 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. Consequently, it exhibits struggle for an Atticism characteristic of the period, whereby the resulting language is highly artificial. 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.[29]

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

Depictions in fiction and other media

Anna Komnene plays a secondary role in Sir Walter Scott’s 1832 novel Count Robert of Paris. Fictional accounts of her life are given in the 1928 novel Anna Comnena by Naomi Mitchison, and the 1999 novel for young people Anna of Byzantium by Tracy Barrett. She appears prominently in the first volume of the trilogy The Crusaders by a Polish novelist Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, written in 1935. A novel written in 2008 by the Albanian writer Ben Blushi called "Living on an island" also mentions her. The novel Аз, Анна Комнина (I, Anna Comnena) was written by Vera Mutafchieva, a Bulgarian writer and historian.[31] She is also a minor character in Nan Hawthorne's novel of the Crusade of 1101, Beloved Pilgrim (2011). Anna appears in Medieval 2: Total War video game campaigns as a Byzantine princess diplomat, under the name Anna Comnenus. In Julia Kristeva's 2006 murder mystery, Murder in Byzantium, Anna Komnene is the focus of the villain's scholarly and amorous fantasy of the past. The novel includes considerable detail on Anna Komnene's life, work, and historical context.



Primary Sources

  • Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Choniates (Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1984)
  • Anna Komnene, The Alexiad, translated by E.R.A. Sewter, ed. Peter Frankopan, (New York: Penguin, 2009)
  • Georgios Tornikes, 'An unpublished funeral oration on Anna Comnena', English translation by Robert Browning, in Aristotle Transformed: The Ancient Commentators and Their Influence, ed. R. Sorabji (New York: Cornell University Press, 1990)

Secondary Sources

  • Carolyn R. Connor, Women of Byzantium (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2004)
  • Lynda Garland & Stephen Rapp, “Maria ‘of Alania’: Woman & Empress Between Two Worlds,” Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience, ed. Lynda Garland, (New Hampshire: Ashgate, 2006)
  • Alexander Kazhdan, 'Komnene, Anna', in The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium ed. A. Kazhdan, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)
  • Angeliki Laiou, “Introduction: Why Anna Komnene?” Anna Komnene and Her Times, ed. Thalia Gouma-Peterson, (New York: Garland, 2000)
  • Diether R. Reinsch, “Women’s Literature in Byzantium?—The Case of Anna Komnene,” Anna Komnene and Her Times, ed. Thalia Gouma-Peterson, (New York: Garland, 2000)
  • Dion C. Smythe, “Middle Byzantine Family Values and Anna Komnene’s Alexiad,” Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience, ed. Lynda Garland, (New Hampshire: Ashgate, 2006)
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. "[[Wikisource:1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Anna Comnena|]]" Encyclopædia Britannica Cambridge University Press 
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Thomas Joseph Shahan (1913). "Anna Comnena". In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company. 

Further reading

  • Ed. Kurtz, 'Unedierte Texte aus der Zeit des Kaisers Johannes Komnenos, in Byzantinische Zeitschrift 16 (1907): 69–119 (Greek text of Anna Comnene’s testament)
  • K. Varzos, Ē genealogia tōn Komnēnōn (Thessalonikē, 1984) ( information about Comneni family relations )
  • Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium: Annals of Niketas Choniates (Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1984), 5–6.
  • Barbara Hill, “Actions speak louder than words: Anna Komnene’s attempted usurpation,” in Anna Komnene and her times (2000): 46–47.
  • Ellen Quandahl and Susan C. Jarratt, “'To recall him…will be a subject of lamentation': Anna Comnene as rhetorical historiographer” in Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric (2008): 301–335. Retrieved 21 April 2011.
  • Anna Komnene, The Alexiad (London and New York: Penguin, 1969), 197.
  • Vlada Stankovíc, “Nikephoros Bryennios, Anna Komnene and Konstantios Doukas. A Story of Different Perspectives,” in Byzantinische Zeitschrift (2007): 174.
  • Dion C. Smythe, “Middle Byzantine Family Values and Anna Komnene’s Alexiad,” in Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience (2006): 125–127.
  • Dion C. Symthe, “Outsiders by taxis perceptions of non-conformity eleventh and twelfth-century literature,” in Byzantinische Forschungen: Internationale Zeitschrift für Byzantinistik (1997): 241.


  1. Kazhdan 2005, “Komnene, Anna.”
  2. Laiou 2000, p. 6.
  3. Frankopan 2009, p. 536.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Komnene 2009, p. 3.
  5. Frankopan 2009, p. 479.
  6. Smythe 2006, p. 130.
  7. Komnene 2009, p. 167-168.
  8. Laiou 2000, p. 3.
  9. Komnene 2009, p. 80.
  10. Garland & Rapp 2006, p. 108.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Howard, Sethanne (2007). Hidden Giants, 2nd Edition. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-4357-1652-0. 
  12. Choniates 1984, p. 8.
  13. Connor 2004, p. 255.
  14. Laiou 2000, p. 4; referenced from Kurtz, Ed. “Unedierte Texte aus der Zeit des Kaisers Johannes Komnenos.” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 16 (1907): 69–119.
  15. Browning 1990, p. 404-405.
  16. Windsor, Laura Lynn (2002). Women in Medicine: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 45. ISBN 978-1-57607-392-6. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 Smythe 2006, p. 126.
  18. Choniates 1984, p. 5.
  19. Hill 2000, p. 46.
  20. Choniates 1984, p. 6.
  21. Smythe 2006, p. 127.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 22.4 Hill 2000, p. 47.
  23. Smythe 1997, p. 241.
  24. Komnene 1969, p. 197.
  25. Stankovíc 2007, p. 174.
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 Jarratt 2008, p. 308.
  27. Smythe 2006, p. 125.
  28. Jarratt 2008, p. 305.
  29. Catholic Encyclopedia
  30. Lubarsky, p. 3.
  31. (Retrieved August 2010)

External links

  • Anna Comnena, The Alexiad, translated by Elizabeth A. Dawes in 1928
  • Anna Comnena, The Alexiad of Anna Comnena, edited and translated by E.R.A. Sewter. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. (This print version uses more idiomatic English, has more extensive notes, and mistakes).
  • Georgina Buckler, Anna Comnena: A Study, Oxford University Press, 1929. ISBN 0-19-821471-5
  • John France, "Anna Comnena, the Alexiad and the First Crusade", Reading Medieval Studies v.9 (1983)
  • Thalia Gouma-Peterson (ed.), Anna Komnene and her Times, New York: Garland, 2000. ISBN 0-8153-3851-1.
  • Jonathan Harris, Byzantium and the Crusades, London: Hambledon, 2003, pp. 53–73. ISBN 1-85285-298-4.
  • Levin, Carole, et al. Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000.
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Paul Stephenson, "Anna Comnena's Alexiad as a source for the Second Crusade?", Journal of Medieval History v. 29 (2003)
  • Female Heroes From The Time of the Crusades: Anna Comnena.1999. Women in World History. 12 Dec 2006. < [1]>.
  • K. Varzos, Ē genealogia tōn Komnēnōn, Thessalonikē, 1984.
  • Wikisource-logo.svg "Anna Comnena". New International Encyclopedia. 1905. 
  • Wikisource-logo.svg "Anna Comnena". The American Cyclopædia. 1879. 

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