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Anna KomneneThe Life and Work of a Medieval Historian$

Leonora Neville

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780190498177

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190498177.001.0001

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Gathering Research without Leaving the House

Gathering Research without Leaving the House

(p.75) 5 Gathering Research without Leaving the House
Anna Komnene

Leonora Neville

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses Anna Komnene’s efforts to substantiate her research while maintaining her persona as a modest woman. It explores the conflict between the Greek ideal of historiography that history should be written on the basis of personal observation and interrogation of witnesses, and the ideal that women should be secluded and only talk to men who were close relatives. It suggests that Anna’s practice of quoting original documents was a means of effacing her authorship while demonstrating her access to archival information. Anna’s discussion of her research methods in book 14 is spliced with expressions of pathos, isolation, and mourning. These interjections are interpreted as gestures intended to make Anna seem like a cloistered, modest, piteous widow, and so to gain the audience’s sympathy, even as the discussion of methods presents her as writing on the basis of autopsy, questioning multiple witnesses, and actively researching.

Keywords:   Anna Komnene, Greek historiography, autopsy, document quotation, historical methods, Alexiad

Great historians of the ancient and medieval Greek world learned about events by being near the action. Whenever the historian could say, “I saw,” his account was considered more reliable. If he could not be present, he ought to find people who had been and interview them, making up for his lack of direct familiarity with extensive research. Readers could trust his interpretations of his research because—even if he had not been at that particular battle or debate—he had experience with similar situations, and so understood them.1 The good moral character of the historian convinced readers that he would not distort information, but rather provide an accurate appraisal of events.

So how was Anna supposed to convince her audience that her history was reliable, while simultaneously acting like a good woman who stayed at home and did not talk to men outside her family? Any claim Anna could make for traditional source gathering would involve her in potentially damaging participation in the public sphere or inappropriate conversations with men. If she did research, she would not have good moral character. Without good moral character, her audience could not be expected to trust her narrative, especially since her reliability was already challenged by her status as the daughter of her subject. She wrote under the constant suspicion of being a mere encomiast, which made it all the more important for her to substantiate the quality of the research. The accuracy of her research would uphold her history as reliable.

Anna needed to speak simultaneously with humility and authority when discussing her sources. She had to convince her audience that she had a robust and trustworthy basis of information underpinning her narrative, without which she could too easily be dismissed as her father’s flatterer. On the other hand, she needed to maintain her feminine modesty and defend her (p.76) moral reputation in light of undertaking the culturally transgressive activities involved in conducting research. This chapter explores Anna’s attempts to deal with this conflict, first through her quotation of documents, and then in her description of her methods in book 14, where we see her most explicit effort to substantiate her historical research, as well as some of her most extreme self-abasement.

Anna’s practice of document quotation may have been a way of modestly insisting on the accuracy of her material. While medieval Greek historians would commonly rework or copy passages from each other’s histories, without attribution, Anna also engaged in a different kind of explicit, attributed quotation of whole documents, complete with their framing. Anna quotes a chrysobull Alexios wrote giving authority to his mother, Anna Dalassene, a letter Alexios wrote to Henry IV of Germany, and the text of the Treaty of Devol following Bohemond’s defeat at the second battle of Dyrrachion in 1108.2 These sections of the Alexiad are presented as texts written by others that she is quoting, and indeed differ enough from her style that they have been accepted as copies of real texts and have received treatment as independent sources.3 Anna’s practice of telling the audience that she was quoting a text, and presenting it as having been written by someone else, was not common among her contemporary Byzantine historians.4

The quotation of documents removes Anna’s authorship from key moments in her history. Quotation can be a form of authorial self-effacement. Authors of hagiography can use quotation to shift the teaching of virtue from themselves onto their saintly subjects. By recording words attributed to another, they enact humility while engaging in moral instruction. Authority is ascribed, not to the author, but to the subject of the hagiography, whose words are quoted.5 Similarly, Anna displaced these sections of her story onto other authors. Anna’s quotations may be motivated by the desire to mitigate the potential arrogance of authorship. While she is quoting a text, Anna ceases to be the author and has no responsibility for the content of those texts.

Anna seems to quote documents at points where she had cause to write with particular authority. Especially in the cases of her grandmother’s imperial power and Alexios’s victory over Bohemond, Anna quoted documents when she may have wanted to be certain that her audience believed her. These were both situations where she may have reasonably thought that the audience would need extra convincing. The quotations of official documents function powerfully as an appeal to an external, unbiased authority.

For instance, Anna faced challenges in writing about the political and administrative activities of her grandmother, Anna Dalassene. After seizing the throne in 1081, Alexios entrusted all of the administration of the empire to his mother while he served as a field general. Anna Dalassene remained in power until sometime in the early twelfth century.6 Given the political (p.77) situation at the beginning of Alexios’s reign, in which his hold on power was tenuous, his rivals many, and foreign enemies aggressive, it made a great deal of sense for him to leave the capital in the hands of a person he knew he could trust, his mother, while he devoted his time fully to military matters. The practical brilliance of this arrangement did not, however, make the political empowerment of a woman less problematic from the point of view of Byzantine conceptions of ideal gender roles. Dalassene’s administration was harshly criticized, and Alexios was seen as weak because of his deference to his mother.7

Anna had reason therefore to describe her grandmother’s power with great care. In presenting Anna Dalassene’s authority over the administration, Anna quotes verbatim Alexios’s chrysobull in which he gave his mother full control over domestic administration of the empire.8 By including a direct quotation of imperial document, Anna attributes the authorship explicitly to her father. The male emperor is the person who describes the extraordinary authority given to a woman, not the female author. Anna’s own descriptions of Anna Dalassene present her as humble, devoid of power lust, and practicing monastic simplicity.9 It is not Anna, but her father’s chrysobull that reveals the extent of Anna Dalassene’s administrative and political authority.

The unprecedented divestment of power from an adult male emperor to his mother was such an unexpected move that people in later years could easily doubt that it had really happened. Anna relieves herself of the task of convincing her audience that she is telling the truth by having Alexios’s chrysobull speak for her. The quotation of the document powerfully substantiates the validity of Anna’s narrative.

Alexios’s letter to Henry IV, in which he seeks to fortify an alliance against Robert Guiscard, reveals Alexios’s conciliatory and flattering attitude toward a Western ruler as well as his own need to ask for help. The letter describes the arrangement negotiated between Alexios and Henry’s envoys by which Alexios gives vast sums of money to Henry in return for his support. Alexios sent 144,000 pieces of gold and other precious gifts with the letter and promised another 216,000 after Henry had taken the oath. Alexios also suggested a possible marriage alliance through his nephew.10 Anna does not comment on the content of the letter at all, but presents it as one of several steps Alexios took to combat the dangers besetting the empire at the moment he took power. The letter is striking in its display of money as a tool of Byzantine diplomacy. Alexios seems to dictate terms to Henry, and the description of the payment fundamentally casts Henry as Alexios’s servant or mercenary. Anna may be holding up the letter as an example of how emperors ought to treat Western kings. On the other hand, if this arrangement was remembered as having been overly generous to Henry, without getting as much benefit as perhaps Alexios had hoped, quoting the text of the letter of absolved Anna of any need to critically describe her father’s behavior. She does not need to comment on (p.78) whether the treaty with Henry was a brilliant diplomatic move, or a tactical mistake, because readers are able to judge the matter for themselves.

The Treaty of Devol is quoted at another instance where Anna may have wished for her writing to be particularly strong. This treaty, which established the humiliation of Bohemond and the final victory of Alexios Komnenos over the Norman threat after the second battle of Dyrrachion in 1108, is a highpoint in the structure of Anna’s narrative. It is her response to Alexios’s great failure at the first battle of Dyrrachion in 1081. These two clashes are set up in her text as defining moments in Alexios’s reign: in the first he is brought to the brink of ruin, but in the second he is completely victorious. Anna elides the characters of Robert Guiscard and his son Bohemond so that they serve as a single grand nemesis to Alexios throughout the Alexiad.11 Alexios’s first loss against Robert is more than redeemed in his victory over Bohemond.

Anna’s direct quotation of the treaty strikingly establishes the depth of this victory. For this victory to have the rhetorical effect she desires in the overall structure of the Alexiad, Anna needs her readers to appreciate its implications in a forceful manner. Quoting the text of the treaty allows all of its details to be known without asking readers to trust Anna’s representation. The text of the treaty substantiates Alexios’s victory in a more authoritative way than any claim Anna could have made.

The quotation of documents from the imperial archives also proves that Anna had privileged access to information about her subject, and hence possessed one of the qualifications necessary to be a reliable historian. Anna’s presentation of these documents exhibits her ability to access sound information. Her inquiry is based on substantive material. This access to imperial documents makes a rich display of Anna’s position within the imperial court and, with it, her own power and authority. While the quotation of documents removes Anna’s agency as author, it thus simultaneously presents her narrative as authoritative. In a strong way, the presentation of primary sources substantiates Anna’s status as a good historian.

In addition to establishing her authority, Anna’s quotation of documents helps elicit trust in her portrayal while avoiding making aggrandizing claims. Since Anna claims no authorship over the contents and serves as a mere copyist, no glory is reflected on her by either her father’s victories or her grandmother’s power. The audience did not need to take Anna’s word for the extraordinary extent of Dalassene’s authority or Alexios’s victory because they could see the evidence for themselves.

Anna takes up the issue of her sources and research practices explicitly in a passage in book 14 that has long been considered her statement on methods.12 This discussion of methodology is not at the opening of the history, where it would be more expected, but near the end. It occurs after Anna has veered into an encomiastic summary of her father’s virtues that prompts her to turn (p.79) yet again to the problematic of impartiality and thence to a description of her sources for writing history. Anna reveals that she did in fact rely on the traditional historical methods of speaking with old veterans and collecting written narratives to gather information for her history. Yet she intersperses her descriptions of her sources and assertions that she has conducted research with overwrought outbursts of her feminized discourse of piteousness, claiming solitude and personal tragedy.

Anna’s explanation of her methods is thus deliberately contradictory. Since the discussion of historical method is fundamentally aggrandizing and masculinizing, Anna splices it together with self-deprecating and feminizing statements. While the discussion of sources substantiates her claim to be a good historian, and fundamentally participates in male historical discourse, her mournful asides humble her and place her in the female role of piteous widow. Here we see Anna’s attempt to build an authorial persona that, on the one hand, was strong, impartial, intellectual, accurate, driven by research, trustworthy, and authoritative, and on the other, female, modest, devoted, and humble.

Anna is prompted to discuss her historical sources because she indulges in one of the most straightforwardly encomiastic descriptions of Alexios in her history. Anna explains how after a victory over the Turks, Constantinople was full of the news of his successes. She then claims that Alexios dealt with a greater number of difficulties and enemies than any previous Roman emperor. She describes how the empire during Alexios’s reign was attacked on all sides, and how, in contrast to previous emperors, he did not deal with one difficulty at a time, but rather was forced to deal continuously with multiple invasions and disasters.13 Anna makes the case that therefore Alexios should be considered the greatest Roman emperor ever.

This clear, exuberant praise for Alexios’s virtues and skills as a ruler raises the specter of partiality and the accusation that Anna was writing a panegyric rather than a history. Anna therefore turns from praise for her father to a discussion of her historical methods. She begins by addressing directly the charge that she flatters her father:

But perhaps someone coming to this point in the history would say that my tongue had been corrupted by nature in the composition. By the dangers of the emperor for the good of the Romans, by the contests and sufferings he endured for the Christians, I swear I do not favor my own father in the things I say and write! Rather when I see that he fell, I straightaway transgress the natural law and cling to the truth; holding him with love, but having greater love for truth. For when two things are dear to us, as some philosopher said, we should prefer truth more. Rather I speak and write following the events themselves, neither adding anything of my own nor plucking out events.14

(p.80) Anna acknowledges that by nature she ought to support her father and only speak about him favorably, and she proclaims her enduring love for him. Yet Anna willingly transgresses the “natural law,” according to which she would whitewash her father’s history, in order to follow Aristotle’s dictum and uphold the truth.15

While her willingness to subvert traditional female behavior of devotion to family is the key to substantiating her claim to impartiality, it creates an additional problem for her efforts to construct a positive female authorial persona. As we saw in chapter 3, devotion and affection to parents was a key moral virtue for women, and one that is central to her self-presentation in the preface to her will, and in several passages in the Alexiad. To counter the negative effects of the dispassionate, detached, unnaturally cold aspects of her authorial persona, Anna takes great pains to establish an additional authorial stance in which she is a deeply affectionate and devoted daughter.

Although Anna takes an oath here, swearing that she does not favor her father, she seems to recognize that this proclamation of her impartiality is insufficient to win the trust of her audience. Consequently, she then turns to a discussion of how she established the truth of her narrative. The discussion of her sources serves to substantiate the validity of her history and to fend off the accusation of authorial bias.

Anna begins the discussion of her sources by pointing out the relative proximity of the events she describes. Since she is writing nearly contemporary history, it is still possible to find people living who could witness to the events of Alexios’s reign:

And the refutation is at hand: because I do not take up writing about things that happened 10,000 years ago. Rather there are some people around today who both had known my father and tell me things about him; from them not a small part of the history here was contributed, one narrating and remembering one thing and another something else of what happened to each of them, with everyone concurring.16

This claim to have gathered information from living witnesses strongly authorizes Anna’s history. On a simple level it substantiates Anna’s claim to have good information. Since the interrogation of participants was a standard element of traditional historical methodology, it also serves to place her firmly in the Greek historiographical tradition.17

Anna next makes a claim for the direct experience that was the single most important way for historians to craft their authority. Historians have the greatest authority to narrate events in which they themselves have participated. Anna tries to give herself just this sort of authority when she claims to have accompanied her father and mother on their travels: “For the most part we were with and we accompanied our father and mother. For it was not our lot to be raised close to home, in the shade, with delicacy.”18 Anna here (p.81) reveals that she did not live a cloistered life in the palace, but traveled with her parents, on what presumably were military campaigns. This repeats an earlier fleeting assertion that she had accompanied her father on campaigns.19

This claim to have learned about Alexios’s activities from her own experience, and to have written history on the basis of personal observation is strongly authorizing. These two claims—that she talked to living witnesses, and that she left her home to go on campaign—are powerful in substantiating her ability to write history, but also transgressive for a woman. Both actions are fundamentally immodest and do not conform to the norms for appropriate behavior for upper-class medieval Greek women. Presumably, Anna did not stress her personal experience on campaign more strongly, because traveling outside the home was considered inappropriate behavior for a woman of her stature.

Anna was deeply apologetic when discussing her mother’s habit of accompanying Alexios while he went on campaign. Her treatment of this issue shows how immodest some of her contemporaries thought it was for Eirene to leave the palace.20 Anna excuses her mother’s behavior on the grounds that she needed to care for her husband as his health declined.21 She also insists that Eirene was overcome with modesty every time she needed to appear in public ceremony, far preferring to stay at home reading hagiography and practicing charity.22 By presenting her mother’s deeds as acts of devotion, Anna seems to offer excuses for behavior that some thought broke with the ideal seclusion of women. Anna’s attempts to explain, and even valorize, her mother’s behavior testify to the prevailing cultural stance that it was not appropriate for women to venture outside of their domestic sphere.

Given this prevailing attitude, Anna’s revelation that she herself left the palace to accompany her father and mother creates a serious problem for Anna’s self-presentation as a respectable woman, even as it helps her to solve the problem of historical authorization. Not surprisingly, Anna immediately backs away from her masculinizing, transgressive discourse and makes a play for the pity and indulgence of her audience. The moment after she utters the claim to write on the authority of personal observation and the interrogation of witnesses, she pivots to humble herself before her audience. To do this she turns again to the strategy of telling a tale of woe:

But from my swaddling clothes, I swear by God and his mother, I have received continual pains and afflictions and misfortunes, some from outside the home, and some from within. Those I have had from my body, I wish not to describe; let the people in the women’s chambers talk repeatedly about them. Those from outside, how many befell me not yet at my eighth year, and how many enemies the malice of men raised up against me, would need the Siren of Isocrates to tell, or the grandiloquence of Pindar, the rushing of Polemon, the Kaliope of Homer, the (p.82) lyre of Sappho, or some other power beyond these. For there is nothing terrible, either small or large, or near or far, that did not fall heavily immediately against me. Aye, the wave rose above undoubtedly, and from then until now and until where I write these words, the sea of sorrows has howled at me and still wave overtakes wave. But I forgot, swept away in my own troubles. Now then, coming to my senses I will swim again upstream, as it were, and I return to the first topic.23

Anna here, caught up in her troubles, makes a plea for her audience to pity her as one who has suffered great misfortunes. The intended effect of gaining sympathy and pity is designed, I believe, to mitigate the effrontery of Anna’s claim to write history from the standpoint of questioning witnesses and personal observation.

Anna declines to say what any of these misfortunes were. The matters of her body she leaves for people in the women’s quarters to gossip about. This could plausibly be an allusion to the deaths of at least three of her children, but Anna provides no hints to guide speculation. She is more expansive about how bad the problems from outside the home were, claiming that their description would be beyond the power of the greatest rhetoricians, but again she leaves the audience wondering what they were.

Scholars have connected Anna’s statement that she had suffered a disaster before her eighth birthday to Zonaras’s statement that her betrothed Constantine Doukas was deprived of his purple shoes and removed from the succession. The misfortune she mentions here is seen as the removal of her future husband from the line of succession, and Anna’s eighth birthday is used to date Constantine’s demotion.24 This is a reasonable supposition if one approaches the matter looking for a single event that could explain Anna’s self-presentation as suffering in this passage. Yet when Anna’s expressions of tragedy are seen as aiming to defuse accusations of self-aggrandizement, the connection with Constantine’s demotion seems far less likely.

Anna’s literal claim is that it would take superhuman rhetorical skill to describe how many misfortunes befell her, and how many enemies rose against her, even before her eighth year, starting when she was a baby. So finding one traumatic event that took place in her eighth year would not be sufficient to give her lament a specific literal interpretation. Rather it seems that Anna was referring to the close of a distinct phase of early childhood in Byzantine culture. The passage from early childhood to pre-adolescence, reckoned as taking place at age seven, was considered a major transition with educational and legal implications.25 Anna laments the torrent of troubles that befell her even while she was a young child, starting in the cradle and even before she left childhood, and continuing throughout her life.

Anna’s expression of personal tragedy has a clear and important rhetorical function in that it humbles Anna before her audience and attempts to elicit (p.83) pity. It is an effort to render her masculinizing claims to historical observation and interrogation of witnesses less obnoxious to her contemporaries. The rhetorical function, and indeed the rhetorical necessity, of her expression of tragedy is sufficient to explain why it is there. It is possible that Anna had Constantine’s demotion in mind when she wrote about the afflictions that constantly beset her life, but at no point in the Alexiad does she even allude to that event. Her claim was that she had experienced continual misfortunes from the time of her birth. If we are to look for a real event that Anna was thinking of in saying that she experienced troubles before her eighth year, are we also to look for real events that caused Anna trouble when she was in her swaddling clothes? Anna needed to present herself as having suffered horrible things regardless of whether she actually had a miserable childhood or not.

After the outburst of personal lamentation that constructs Anna as an object of pity, she quickly returns to the topic at hand: her historical sources. The rapidity with which she moves from the discussion of sources to personal tragedy and back again, fuels the impression that her recitation of personal tragedies was an aside, a necessary declaration of piteousness in the midst of an authorizing and masculinizing discussion of historical sources:

Some (material) then, as was said, I have from myself, and other material from the fellow-soldiers of the emperor, learning frequently from them and from some messengers bringing news of the things that were happening in the wars to us, but more often I heard the emperor and George Palaiologos describing them in person.26

Here Anna reiterates her claim to have learned from personal observation and from witnesses, and reveals other sources of her information. The couriers she describes as bringing material about the wars presumably brought either oral or written messages to the palace. If they were written documents, Anna may still have had access to them as she wrote decades later. Anna further asserts that she heard stories directly from her father and her uncle, George Palaiologos.

To these sources of information that were contemporaneous with Alexios’s reign, Anna adds a second set of sources she gathered long after Alexios’s death. Anna emphasizes her own role in gathering this information:

In this way I collected much of my material, and best of all in the reign of the third emperor after my father, when all flattery and lies about his grandfather had faded away, everyone flattering the one sitting on the throne, no one exhibiting flattery toward the departed, the events were laid bare and told just as they had happened.27

The accent on Anna’s own role in collecting the information highlights the effort she put into getting the story right. Claims that the historian has gone to considerable trouble to collect accurate information are normal in the Greek (p.84) historiographical tradition.28 Anna’s emphasis that she conducted most of her research during the reign of Manuel (1143–1180) works to insulate her history from accusations of flattery and bias. Since she gathered information in the era when everyone was trying to flatter Manuel, and no longer cared about Alexios, she was able to get the pure, true story about her father’s reign.

Anna thus claims to have gotten information both through her personal observations and memories of conversations she experienced when her father was alive, and to have searched for information later, nearer the time of composition. This gathering of information implies active research on Anna’s part; and with it conversations with men who would have been able to provide it. The natural implication that Anna spent considerable time talking and interacting with men to whom she was not related prompts her to make counterclaims about her own isolation. At just the moment when the audience could be imagined as wondering how she conducted the interviews and interacted with men in gathering stories, Anna turns the audience’s attention back to her own piteousness and the isolation of her widowhood:

But I, lamenting bitterly my own misfortunes, mourning for all time three emperors, the father and autocrator, and my lady, mother and empress and, ah me!, my husband the Caesar, I stay secluded mostly and I am devoted to books and God, and not even will it be allowed for the more obscure among men and those of my father’s familiars to visit us so that we are not able to learn what they have heard from others.29

Here Anna makes strong claims for her own isolation and proper seclusion from the public sphere and worldly matters. Anna asserts that she stays secluded and devotes herself to books and God because of her mourning for her parents and her husband.

Anna’s statement that she mourns three emperors, namely her father, her mother, and her husband, has been given a political reading. Anna’s choices of whom to include in this list have been seen as an effort to exclude John from Alexios’s legacy.30 This reading interprets the purpose of the list as a statement of political succession. If Anna were naming the emperors who followed Alexios, then the inclusion of her mother and husband needs as much explanation as the exclusion of her brother. Rather the list serves to allow Anna to project a certain emotional state, and hence define who she is. Alexios, Eirene, and Nikephoros are chosen, of all the people Anna may have mourned, in part because her relationship with them defined her as daughter and wife. Her mourning of her parents and husband casts her in the praiseworthy women’s roles of devoted daughter and loving wife. In that it aligns her with expectations for good female behavior, this expression of devotion helps reassert Anna’s virtue and modesty. While her claims to active research pull (p.85) her out of the domestic sphere, her protestations of devotion to her primary role as daughter and wife shore up her self-construction as a virtuous woman.

Her second reason for isolation is that her father’s familiars, and “the more obscure men among men,” are not allowed to visit her. This claim that Anna lives a life of seclusion, even forced seclusion, contradicts the implication that her research involved her in conversations with strangers. Her self-presentation as a pious, mourning widow—who is not able to talk to even very obscure people—is logically inconsistent with her claims to have conducted research. Yet she is not making a logical argument so much as trying to use her own story of piteous isolation to drown out the thought that she was engaged in inappropriate conversations. While the identities of the hidden men are unclear, Anna next elaborates on her isolation from her father’s men:

For in thirty years, I swear on the soul of the blessed autocrator, I have not seen, I have not looked at, have not spoken with my father’s people, as on the one hand many have passed away, while on the other many have been confined by fear. For those in power condemned us to obscurity for these aberrations, but we are hated by the majority.31

The condemnation in the last line is usually taken as referring to Anna personally, but Anna switches suddenly here to masculine plural grammar, suggesting that the condemnation applies to Anna and an unspecified group of men. Anna’s prose is obscure here, and I see the ambiguity as motivated by a desire to claim greater isolation than she in fact experienced. Throughout the Alexiad Anna does not switch randomly from talking about herself as a feminine “I” to a masculine “we.” She uses a plural for herself as a guide to the historical narration, in phrases such as “we shall see,” or “let us return,” and a singular for her normal voice of self-expression. Only very rarely, in a large work, does she use masculine grammar for herself.32 In this passage her feminine singular voice mingles with the masculine plural “us.” People cannot visit “us,” “we are hated,” but “I lament,” “I mourn.” She is vaguely associating herself here with some other group that may include her companions in prayer, or the whole group of Alexios’s old supporters, or everyone out of favor at the current court. I see the emphasis falling on isolation from the halls of power, fitting with her argument that her history is unbiased because nobody cares about Alexios anymore.

This claim of isolation serves both Anna’s construction of herself as an object of pity and the substantiation of her sources’ purity. Since she has not been talking with her father’s close supporters, her information is not swayed by their loyalty for Alexios, nor can she be she deceived by their courtly rhetoric. Anna’s insistence on her isolation from Alexios’s supporters corroborates her next point: that her information came from simple soldiers and the eyewitness testimony of ordinary men.

(p.86) Anna’s claims to isolation are revealed as limited, if not entirely rhetorical fiction, by the following sentence in which she is back to talking with lots of male strangers for the sake of historical research. Unlike her father’s men, these men were simple and artless:

By God, by his transcendent mother and my mistress, that which I have collected for the history, I collected from some entirely unfitting and un-learned compositions and from some old men who served in the army at the time my father held the scepters of the Romans, who, having been assailed by misfortunes, then changed from worldly tumult to the peaceful state of monks. For the writings falling into my hands were simple and artless in expression and keeping to truth and they displayed no cleverness nor slurred rhetorical barbs.33

The lack of rhetorical skill among these soldiers, who had become monks, helps Anna substantiate that she got her information from reliable sources. By emphasizing the simplicity and artlessness of the texts she collected, Anna denies the influence of encomia, laudatory histories, and other high court rhetoric that would have presented Alexios’s actions in glowing terms. The oral testimony of the old men is declared to be similarly plain, and hence truthful. Anna emphasizes the simplicity of the sources she received in order to demonstrate that they were free of bias in the first place. That the men she spoke with were monks perhaps enhances the trustworthiness of their stories, and lessens the impropriety of Anna’s conversations with them.

Anna ends this discussion of her sources by summarizing how she ascertained the truth about Alexios’s deeds through a process of comparing and crosschecking the written and oral sources she collected, with what she had learned directly from her father and her uncles:

The detailed narrations of the old men were the same as the writings in word and meaning; and I judged the truth of the history from them, collecting and comparing the things I had learned myself with those things they told me, and the things they told me with what I had from frequently listening to my father and from my uncles on my mother and father’s side. From all these things the body of the truth was woven together.34

This final summary statement places Anna’s methodology firmly within the best practices of Greek historiography.35 She has gathered information both from her own experience, through discussions with men who had been on Alexios’s campaigns, and through the collection of other written accounts. She has avoided gathering the testimony of people who would be naturally biased, yet she draws on sources that are well placed to understand Alexios’s reign.36

(p.87) On the whole, Anna’s description of her sources and methodology makes a strong case for her authority as a historian, the validity of her history, and her ability to participate in the masculine tradition of Greek historiography. It is the very strength and audacity of these claims, I believe, that prompts Anna to play simultaneously the piteous, lonely widow. She certainly jumps back and forth between the roles of miserable widow and authorized historian with remarkable speed and agility. The main topic is clearly her various methods for gathering valid historical data. Her bursts of lamentation, self-pity, and claims of isolation unexpectedly disrupt that methodological discussion. Whenever the audience might be tempted to see Anna as intellectually arrogant, immodest in her behavior, or flouting traditional norms of womanly conduct, she pauses to abase herself before the audience by becoming a subject of pity, or to claim a more appropriate level of social seclusion. These interjections seem designed to shift the emotional effect of this discussion on Anna’s audience.

Within Anna’s text, this discussion serves to explain her sources and substantiate her ability to write an accurate, factual history. Yet this passage has been used as a key text for establishing Anna’s biography. The statement that she was isolated for thirty years and was condemned to this isolation by those in authority has been taken as evidence that John had sentenced her to an internal exile of monastic confinement following the failure of her attempt to seize imperial power in 1118. In fact, as we shall see in chapter 8, the whole story of Anna’s forced monastic retirement hinges on this statement. The claim of isolation however, falls between two statements about how she gathered her information, both of which imply contact with men. Anna’s ambiguous use of the masculine plural makes it difficult to see the condemnation as referring only to Anna.

Anna’s description of her isolation from her father’s old friends functions in her text to support her impartiality: she did not get her information from biased sources or courtiers, but from simple old monks. Further, the condemnation to obscurity separates Anna and her companions from the seat of power, and hence the major source of bias and flattery. By thus presenting herself as removed from power, Anna makes clear that she could be an impartial historian. Through this description she asserts that she did not get information from those who would flatter her father; they are all disregarded by those in power and disdained by the masses. Her claims of isolation also help efface the social transgression of her conversations with men to whom she was not related. As explained above, Anna’s point is that she lives a secluded life and is a proper, morally upstanding woman.

The humbling, feminizing, and isolating interjections Anna splices into her description of her historical methods cause internal inconsistencies, and do not always make much sense in themselves. The claim that she has constantly been beset by waves of misfortunes since her infancy can hardly receive a (p.88) rational, factual explanation. Anna’s statements about her degree of isolation are not consistent with her stated methodology for gathering sources. The coherence of these statements, however, seems to be less important than how they make Anna’s audience feel about her. Understanding how the various statements fit within the overarching rhetorical goals of Anna’s history can help us see why she made such extraordinary and contradictory statements. We do not need to look for real events in her life to explain them.

In Anna’s detailed discussion of her sources in book 14, and her choice to occasionally quote her source texts directly, we can see her responding to some of the challenges of female historical authorship identified in chapter 1. Anna was fully capable of examining written narratives and interviewing veterans to compare with her own experiences and memories in order to create a reliable historical narrative. Some of those activities, however, required her to step outside of the culturally expected seclusion of Greek aristocratic women in the domestic sphere. However real or illusory that seclusion was in Anna’s society, its maintenance was seen as an important aspect of a good woman’s behavior. While the reality of Anna’s life may have been that she accompanied her father on campaign, and interviewed retired soldiers about their experiences, she did not want to be seen as having exercised such a degree of license in her personal interactions. Anna thus weaves exclamations of piteousness and claims of modest seclusion into the description of her historical method. Yet the antagonisms inherent in these stances are not resolved because, while she may have wished her audience to think that she was truly cloistered, she simultaneously needed to assure the audience that she used proper historical method. The tragic self-presentation humbles her before her audience, while her claims to proper research methods authorize her history.


(1.) See page 2122.

(2.) Alexiad, 3.6.4–8, 3.10.3–8, 13.12.

(3.) Penelope Buckley thinks it probable that the text of the treaty of Devol in the Alexiad was actually written by Anna, but, so far, her view is exceptional. Penelope Buckley, The Alexiad of Anna Komnene: Artistic Strategy in the Making of a Myth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 243. Ralph-Johannes Lilie considers it a separate text because it differs from Anna’s style: Ralph-Johannes Lilie, “Reality and Invention: Reflections on Byzantine Historiography,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 68 (2014): 190–93. Some studies treat the quoted texts as independent texts. On the Treaty of Devol see: Ralph-Johannes Lilie, Byzantium and the Crusader States, 1096–1204 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 75–82; Paul Stephenson, Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900–1204 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 182–83. On Anna Dalassene see: Élisabeth Malamut, “Une femme politique d’exception à la fin du XIe siècle: Anne Dalassène,” in Femmes et pouvoirs des femmes à Byzance et en occident (VIe–XIe siècles), ed. Stéphane Lebecq et al. (Lille: Centre de Recherche sur l’Histoire de l’Europe du Nord-Ouest, 1999), 103–20; Ludwig Burgmann, “Lawyers and Legislators: Aspects of Law-Making in the Time of Alexios I,” in Alexios I Komnenos, ed. Dion Smythe and Margaret Mullett, Belfast Byzantine Texts and Translations 4.1 (Belfast: Belfast Byzantine Enterprises, 1996), 185–98. On the letter to Henry see: Jonathan Harris, Byzantium and the Crusades (London: Hambledon and London, 2003), 39.

(4.) Attributed quotation of documents was not unprecedented among classical historians, and was common in Church histories, but among histories of the tenth–twelfth centuries, Anna’s practice stands out. P. J. Rhodes, “Documents and the Greek Historian,” in A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography, ed. John Marincola (Malden: Blackwell, 2007), 56–66.

(5.) “In the course of the work’s sermons, [the author] Antony displaces his teaching into the mouth of [the saint] George. This ventriloquism models humility, since Antony does not claim the teaching of virtue as his own but attributes it to another.” Derek Krueger, Writing and Holiness: The Practice of Authorship in the Early Christian East (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 102, see also 94109.

(6.) Malamut, “Une femme politique d’exception à la fin du XIe siècle: Anne Dalassène”; Steven Runciman, “The End of Anna Dalassena,” Annuaire de l’institut de philologie et d’histoire orientales et slaves 9 (1949): 517–24.

(7.) Zonaras, 746. The idea that Alexios’s reliance on his mother made him a weak man was taken up into modern scholarly discourse as well. See Paul Lemerle, Cinq études sur le XIe siècle byzantin (Paris: Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1977), 298. This is disputed by Barbara Hill, “Alexios I Komnenos and the Imperial Women,” in Alexios I Komnenos, ed. Dion Smythe and Margaret Mullett, (Belfast: Belfast Byzantine Enterprises, 1996), 37–54.

(8.) Alexiad, 3.6.4–8.

(9.) Marin Cerchez, “Religion in the Alexiad” (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin–Madison, 2014), 35–62.

(10.) On the Byzantine policy of using money to gain allies, including a discussion of this letter, see Harris, Byzantium and the Crusades, 33–51.

(11.) For a more nuanced analysis of their characterization and its function in the Alexiad, see Buckley, The Alexiad of Anna Komnene.

(12.) Athanasios Kambylis, “Zum Programm der byzantinischen Historikerin Anna Komnene,” in Dōrēma: Hans Diller zum 70. Geburtstag: Dauer und Überleben des antiken (p.201) Geistes, ed. Kōnstantinos Vourverēs and Aristoxenos D. Skiadas (Athens: Griechische Humanistische Gesellschaft, 1975), 133–46.

(13.) Alexiad, 14.7.1–2.

(14.) Alexiad, 14.7.3.

(15.) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1.1096.a16

(16.) Alexiad, 14.7.4.

(17.) John Marincola, Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 63–86.

(18.) Alexiad, 14.7.4.

(19.) Alexiad, 12.3.7.

(20.) See page 5355.

(21.) Alexiad, 12.3.3–8.

(22.) Alexiad, 12.3.2.

(23.) Alexiad, 14.7.4.

(24.) See, for example, M. Jeffreys et al., Prosopography of the Byzantine World (2011), s.v. Konstantinos 107531, http://db.pbw.kcl.ac.uk/pbw2011/entity/person/107531; Charles Diehl, Byzantine Empresses, trans. Harold Bell and Theresa de Kerpely (New York: Knopf, 1963) 184–85.

(25.) For both boys and girls at age seven, betrothal was legal, formal education began, and they could be liable for murder. Evelyne Patlagean, “L’enfant et son avenir dans la famille byzantine (IV–XIIe siècles),” in Structure sociale, famille, chrétienté à Byzance, IVe–XIe siècle (London: Variorum, 1981), 87; Cecily Hennessy, Images of Children in Byzantium (Farnham: Ashgate, 2008), 11–13; Eve Davies, “Age, Gender and Status: A Three-Dimensional Life Course Perspective of the Byzantine Family,” in Approaches to the Byzantine Family, ed. Leslie Brubaker and Shaun Tougher (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), 159; Anthony Kaldellis, Mothers and Sons, Fathers and Daughters: The Byzantine Family of Michael Psellos (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 60; Ugo Criscuolo, ed., Autobiografia: Encomio per la Madre: Michele Psello (Naples: M. D’Auria editore, 1989), 292–95; Günter Prinzing, “Observations on the Legal Status of Children and the Stages of Childhood in Byzantium,” in Becoming Byzantine: Children and Childhood in Byzantium, ed. Arietta Papaconstantinou and Alice-Mary Talbot (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2009), 25–28.

(26.) Alexiad, 14.7.5.

(27.) Alexiad, 14.7.5.

(29.) Alexiad, 14.7.6.

(30.) Paul Magdalino, “The Pen of the Aunt: Echoes of the Mid-Twelfth Century in the Alexiad,” in Anna Komnene and Her Times, ed. Thalia Gouma-Peterson (New York: Garland, 2000), 21.

(31.) Alexiad, 14.7.6.

(32.) The great preponderance of Anna’s references to herself are in the singular. With the assistance of William James Conlin and Kerry Lefebvre, I have counted seventy-five passages where Anna presents herself in the singular, and twelve where she uses the plural. Given the length of the text, it is possible that we missed something, but the general proportions would remain. Anna shifts to a plural voice when she acts as historical narrator, in phrases such as “let us digress” or “we have said enough about this.” Digressions: Alexiad, (p.202) 6.7.2, 6.7.6, 14.8.9; discussions of contents: 7.2.2, 7.2.6, 7.5.3, 10.10.4, 14.8.2, 15.8.7, 3.8.5, 1.10.2, 14.4.9, 1.12.4. An illustrative exception: 1.12.4. Anna’s plural narrator’s voice is usually not marked for gender: 1.12.4, 3.8.5, 6.7.2, 6.7.6, 7.2.2, 7.2.6, 7.5.3, (switch from singular to plural), 14.4.9, 15.8.7. Feminine plural: 1.10.2 (fem. pl. pronoun). She uses the masculine plural twice for the phrase “as we have been saying”:, A more significant exception is 3.2.5.

(33.) Alexiad, 14.7.7.

(34.) Alexiad, 14.7.7.

(36.) On Anna’s actual sources, see Peter Frankopan, “Turning Latin into Greek: Anna Komnene and the Gesta Roberti Wiscardi,” Journal of Medieval History 39, no. 1 (2013): 80–99.