Twelfth-century Greek Byzantine princess, historian, scholar–and conspirator?

Ioulia Kolovou studied Classics and History in Greece, Linguistics in Argentina, and received an MSc (Distinction) in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh. She has worked as a teacher and a literary translator, and was shortlisted for the international Conrad–Nabokov prize of the University of Malmoe in 2009. She is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Her PhD project is a historical novel on the encounter between Greek Byzantium and Western Europe in the First Crusade. An excerpt from her latest work is published in an anthology by the Glasgow Women’s Library (September 2015).


Who was Anna Komnene?

Most Western people outside the rather narrow circle of Byzantine or Crusades Studies would not be able to say, even if they somehow recognised the name. Yet this twelfth-century Greek Byzantine princess was arguably the first European female historian. A subject for history herself as the first-born child of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos and a power-player for the throne after his death, she was also the author of ‘the most famous of all the vast range of Byzantine texts,’ [1] The Alexiad. This fifteen-volume account of her father’s reign, including a book dedicated to the First Crusade, is a ‘lucid, readable, and interesting’ narrative, ‘a skilful feat of research and synthesis’, ‘a splendid history’ [2].

Anna was not a completely atypical, one-off phenomenon as a strong, intelligent, educated woman. Her grandmother, Anna Dalassene, was a matriarch who co-ruled the empire with her son Alexios for some time while he was away on military campaign. Anna’s mother, Empress Eirene Doukaina, enjoyed reading difficult philosophical/religious texts during dinner and praised them to her teenage daughter. Strong women beget strong women.

In her lifetime Anna was admired for her education, reviled as a conspirator, considered dangerous enough to be forcibly removed from active political life. In her posterity she is unreservedly or grudgingly admired as a historian and her work is regularly cited in scholarly texts, especially on the First Crusade. C. P. Cavafy immortalised her in his poetry. Contemporary literary theorist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva called her ‘the first female intellectual.’ [3] Anna has been fictionalised in historical novels and is the subject of many academic publications.

Why isn’t she more visible, more known in Western culture?

Possibly because for a number of influential men, gatekeepers of historical memory and of cultural values, Anna was a dangerous woman. Her intellectual powers, exceptional education, and strong confidence created ambivalent feelings in her contemporary men – much like a similarly endowed woman might cause many men to be uneasy if not hostile in our own, supposedly more enlightened times.

Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates, writing some fifty years after Anna’s death, relates how she and her mother conspired to bring down the legitimate Emperor John II Komnenos, Anna’s brother, and install Anna and her husband on the throne. Oscillating between admiration and disapproval, Niketas asserts that Anna ‘was ardently devoted to philosophy, the queen of all the sciences, and was educated in every field of learning’. [4]

Yet he has this snippet of gossip to offer his readers about her: when her alleged conspiracy against her brother failed due to her husband’s ‘frivolous behaviour’, Anna ‘distraught in her anger, and being a shrew by nature, felt justified in strongly contracting her vagina when Bryennios’s penis entered deep inside her, thus causing him great pain.’ [5] This unusual comment reveals a great deal about how Niketas (and those who circulated this rumour – whether true or invented it is of course impossible to know) viewed a tough, energetic, and ambitious woman: as a frightening shrew who would inflict pain on her sexual partner as punishment for his shortcomings, inverting the usual roles of the sexes, in which the man inflicts pain, the woman suffers silently.

Recently, scholars are questioning whether Anna really did conspire against her brother. However, Choniates’s testimony and negative views on Anna were gleefully adopted by later historians, who represented Anna as an ambitious, bitter, disappointed woman who lost a throne she should have never claimed in the first place. However, none were indifferent to her, for she was a fascinating character and her power was felt perhaps most where it was feared.

Sir Walter Scott is a very good example. His only novel set in Byzantium, Count Robert of Paris (1831), was inspired by an episode from The Alexiad, and the historian herself (the ‘fair authoress’ in Scott’s own condescending words) became a character in the novel. Scott was apparently smitten by Anna to the point that he considered naming the novel Anna Comnena, as he reveals in a letter to his publisher. But the way he treats Anna as a fictional character displays the same mixture of admiration and fear, exorcised with derision, which we saw in Niketas Choniates.

Scott used Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which he admired greatly, as a source in Count Robert. Gibbon’s notorious – and totally unfair and undeserved – dismissal of the Byzantine Empire is well-known and although debunked by later scholarship still informs the ideas of the wider public about Byzantium. In Gibbon’s work, Anna is condemned along with her whole cultural milieu, but she also receives that special treatment reserved for those women who dared trespass on the masculine field of authorship. According to Gibbon, in Anna’s writing ‘an elaborate affectation of rhetoric and science betrays, in every page, the vanity of a female author’. [6]

What Gibbon’s statement betrays, on the other hand, is his own casual misogyny. It is interesting to note that immediately after this disparaging statement, Gibbon admits that Anna’s opinions were perceptive and judicious. Yet – in his misogynistic overall assertion – by displaying her high education and knowledge in order to confirm her authority Anna is not simply doing what every scholar ever did (and still does), but she is being a vain female.

Whether in medieval Byzantium or the enlightened West, a ‘female author’, particularly one who does not write moral treatises, novels on domestic subjects, and religious or lyrical poetry, was an unsettling phenomenon, for she trespassed on male territory. Bluestockings (i.e. intellectual women) were often the object of mockery in Scott’s time. They were considered presumptuous and (yes, you guessed it) vain, or total failures as women who could not attract admirers in more conventional feminine ways. [7]

Scott, following on this path, casts Anna as a spoilt, wannabe bluestocking princess, whose self-importance is inflated by professional courtiers, an overindulgent mother, and a long-suffering father. Yet Scott unwillingly reveals how much he admires Anna as a historiographer, and how much he feels threatened by her power, in a telling episode early on in Count Robert.

In this episode the protagonist of the novel, Hereward, a young handsome Anglo-Saxon Varangian in Emperor Alexios’s personal guard, is introduced to Anna’s literary ‘salon’. There, Anna is reading extracts from her history to an admiring crowd of family and courtiers. The young hero enters the princess’s apartments wielding his battle-axe, which he refused to hand over at the entrance of the palace; as the folding doors yield to his entrance, we are compelled to think of sexual penetration and male domination. But as Anna reads her account of a battle in which Hereward’s brother was killed, Hereward begins to display strange behaviour:

He lost the rigid and constrained look of a soldier […] His colour began to come and go; his eyes to fill and to sparkle; his limbs to become more agitated than their owner seemed to assent to; and his whole appearance was changed into that of a listener, highly interested by the recitation which he hears, and insensible, or forgetful, of whatever else was passing before him … As the historian proceeded, Hereward became less able to conceal his agitation; and at the moment the Princess looked round, his feelings became so acute, that, forgetting where he was, he dropped his ponderous axe upon the floor, and, clasping his hands together, exclaimed, — “My unfortunate brother!”[8]

Hereward is so enthralled by Anna’s history that he behaves almost like a young heroine from a romantic story. This testament to the power of Anna’s historical narrative becomes complete when Hereward drops ‘his ponderous axe’: his masculinity is subjugated, and the gender roles are reversed. The female historian’s powerful narrative disarms and unmans the male warrior, reducing him to an emotional state and dominating him. She has the upper hand in this relationship; she plays the dominant part, the ‘masculine’ role. Scott very clearly senses the power of the female historiographer as danger, as a threat.

But the male novelist decides that this power must be resisted. As soon as Hereward leaves the palace, he ridicules Anna’s history as ‘the prolix chat of a lady, who has written about she knows not what’.[9] And when he is reprimanded by his officer for the overbold manner in which he was looking at the face of the princess throughout the encounter, his answer is charged with sexual entitlement:

“So be it, in the name of Heaven”, replied Hereward. “Handsome faces were made to look upon, and the eyes of young man to see with.”[10]

Anna is not the commanding historian any more, but a mere pretty face; her fearful intellectual abilities are put aside, the emphasis is on her physical charms. Hereward’s gaze on Anna’s face reduces her to an object existing only for his visual pleasure. The man who was overpowered by Anna’s narrative only hours ago, claims that he cannot ‘presume to form a judgement’ about her history, for he does not understand it, but he will grant that she is beautiful and ‘she sings like an angel’. Anna will not be seen on her own terms, as a serious historian who can bring facts to life with her vivid, powerful narrative, but only as a beautiful girl who talks nonsense.

This contradictory portrayal of Anna in Scott’s Count Robert reveals what is at stake in the case of Anna Komnene: in the field of gender relations, which are traditionally power relations of inequality and domination, the self-assured, authoritative female historiographer is dangerous because she is seen as reversing gender roles, challenging the position of authority and power traditionally reserved for male authors only. They, in their turn, feel threatened, emasculated and reduced to passivity by women like Anna Komnene. Although separated by more than six centuries, the Byzantine historian and the Scottish novelist equally felt the danger of Anna’s power and tried to resist it.


[1] Peter Frankopan, ‘Introduction’ in Anna Komnene, The Alexiad (Penguin Classics, 2009), p. ix.

[2] Warren Treadgold, The Middle Byzantine Historians (Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 373, 374, 385.

[3] Julia Kristeva, Murder in Byzantium, tr. C. Jon Delogu (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), p. 18.

[4] O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, tr. Harry J. Magoulias (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984), p.8

[5] Choniates, p. 8.

[6] Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. V (London, New York, and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1907), p. 263.

[7] See for example Ina Ferris, The Achievement of Literary Authority: Gender, History, and the Waverley Novels (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 52, 68-9, and Pam Perkins, Women Writers and the Edinburgh Enlightenment (Rodopi, 2010), Chapter 1 (tellingly entitled: ‘Excellent Women, and not too Blue’).

[8] Walter Scott, Count Robert of Paris, ed. J.H. Alexander (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), p. 56.

[9] Count Robert, p. 75.

[10] Count Robert, p. 76.