2021 - 2022 Medieval Volume 22

Anna Komnene and The Alexiad: How We Remember the Only Secular Woman Historian of the European Middle Ages

By Maisy Morris

Anna Komnene is remembered in history as the only secular woman historian of the European Middle Ages. Her work, The Alexiad, is a history of her father Alexios I Komneno’s reign as emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 1081-1118, and it is regarded a a highly important source, not only for its narrative of his life, but also for its richness of insight into Byzantine life.

Anna’s work is one of the few primary sources offering a Byzantine perspective on many significant moments in twelfth century history such as the Great Schism of 1054 and particularly, the First Crusade. Anna attempted to seize the imperial throne for herself and her husband after her father’s death, but having failed, Anna was banished from the kingdom and spent the rest of her life in the Kecharitomene Monastery. In confinement, there she wrote The Alexiad. Despite being Alexios’ heir, as a medieval woman she was unlikely to be his successor. The Alexiad solidified their names in history and allowed her father’s legacy to live forever and her legacy also. 

We know Anna and her life not through the lens of herself, but through the lens of what she reveals through her retelling of her father’s reign. Not uncommon for the treatment of historical women, when she is discussed by historians it is often as her usefulness as a historical source which is valued over her personality or her life. Despite this however, there is much we can learn about Anna from the ways in which she presents her father’s reign. Whilst on one hand, some historians have suggested that Anna’s authorship as a woman translates to calls for female empowerment, alternatively, some suggest that Anna’s position as a medieval woman must mean that her military history comes from another author. It is perhaps a shame that such modern ideas have plagued our understanding of The Alexiad.

Anna believed in the rights of women to write and contribute to the arts, and fought for her place as Alexius’ heir. We must of course remember that Anna was a member of the elite and is ultimately a product of a class system and patriarchal society; whether she believed in ‘girl power’, whether this would have applied to all women across socio-economic boundaries, and whether this had any weight behind her motivations to write The Alexiad remains open to debate. Whilst the term feminist is somewhat anachronistic to apply to the Byzantines, she certainly rebelled against the conventions of her time and is a remarkable woman of note in history.

For many events, Anna claims to have been present which is likely considering she was the emperor’s daughter, and just as this position makes her an unconventional woman in the empire, this level of access makes for an unconventional source. Whilst some historians have questioned the authorship, the level of details for her father’s life and personality, and her access to these events provide a great case that Anna is certainly the author. She was incredibly privileged due to her status meaning she was well educated and also had great access to prior historians, scholars, speeches, and even accounts from her father. What is most remarkable about The Alexiad is that Anna’s closeness to her source gives her an exceptional personal awareness and understanding which provides a more unique and intimate perspective than many histories are able.

Due to Anna’s beautiful writing, an almost Homeric style, and the Greek and biblical references throughout, The Alexiad has been described by some historians as an epic. Historians have since noted a glorifying tone from Anna towards her father, aligning biblical and classical narratives to his life and rule, comparing him to the likes of Hercules and Achilles. Arguably, Anna may have been writing a restorative work on her father and his legacy. As a well-educated woman, she would know the value of legacy in history, and may have desired the same for her father which is potentially why she wrote this, even fifty years after the events. The utility of Anna’s The Alexiad does not lie in whether it presents the absolute truth of Alexios’ reign, but rather provides an interesting perspective from a woman in a male dominated world.

The Alexiad should not only be remembered for its impressive contribution to history and narrative of the twelfth century Byzantine empire. It is an extraordinary piece of work by a secular woman historian; the fact that Anna was a woman writing history is remarkable alone, and paired with her incredible access to her source and interesting literary techniques, Anna Komnene is deserving of her place in history as not only an important historian and author, but as an impressive Byzantine woman.

Further reading:
The Alexiad, available online at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/AnnaComnena-Alexiad00.asp
Elizabeth Rolston, ‘The Imperial Character: Alexius I and Ideal Emperorship in Twelfth–Century Byzantium’, Parergon 35 (2018), pp. 17-34.
Neville, Leonora, ‘Lamentation, History, and Female Authorship in Anna Komnene’s Alexiad’, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 53 (2013) pp. 192–218.
Penelope Buckley, The Alexiad of Anna Komnene: Artistic Strategy in the Making of a Myth (Cambridge, 2014).
Peter Frankopan, “Perception and Projection of Prejudice: Anna Comnena, the Alexiad, and the First Crusade”. In S. Edgington and S Lambert (eds.). Gendering the Crusades (New York, 2002), pp. 59-76.