Historical Figures

Anne Comnène, princess and historian

Last updated:2022-07-25

Daughter of the Emperor, Anne Comnenus (1083 – around 1153) was a Byzantine historian and writer, whose work is a major source on the political history of Byzantium.

The Byzantine Empire

Born on the 1 st or December 2, 1083, Anne Comnenus is the eldest of Empress Irene Doukas and Byzantine Emperor Alexios I st . After a military career, his father took power two years earlier, during a coup d'etat carried out in favor of the troubles and revolts shaking the Byzantine Empire. Married around eleven years old, Irène was only seventeen at the time of the birth of her first child.

Alexis I st reigns over an empire threatened on all sides, by the Normans in the Balkans, the Seljuk Turks and the Petchenegs in Asia. Troubles agitate Dalmatia, Cilicia in the south of Anatolia. In addition, the financial situation of the empire is bad. During his reign, Alexis I st initially worked to straighten out the finances of the empire through severe and unpopular, but effective measures, before repelling the Norman attack, then the Seljuk Turks and the Pechenegs. Gradually, he tries to rectify the situation.

Surrounded by powerful women

Barely born, Anne Comnène is engaged to Constantin Doukas. Cousin of Irene, from one of the oldest families in the empire, he is the son of Michael VII, emperor from 1071 to 1078, who had associated him with power. In order not to lose his alliance with the powerful Doukas family, Alexis I er proclaimed Constantin co-emperor and legitimate heir to the throne in 1083. Anne thus grows up in the idea that she will one day succeed her father, in her capacity as eldest but also through the marriage promised to her.

The girl is also surrounded by influential and intelligent women, who reinforce her claims to the throne. His grandmother, the mother of Alexis Anne Dalassene, thus exerted a great influence on the emperor. After having worked in vain for her husband to accede to the throne, she intrigued to place her son there. In her writings, Anne would say of her grandmother:"My grandmother was so shrewd in business and so skilful in running the state and putting everything in order in it, that she could not only run the empire of the Romans, but any other that exists under the sun. » .

Although more withdrawn, and the target of her mother-in-law's hostility, Irène Doukas is an intelligent and cultured woman, who runs a literary salon. She regularly accompanies her husband on military campaigns, and intervenes in state affairs. Finally, from the age of eight, Anne was educated by Marie d'Alanie, the mother of Constantin Doukas, for whom she had a lot of affection. Protector of the interests of her son, it was Marie who obtained his appointment as co-emperor. These women of influence who surround her reinforce the princess in her feeling of legitimacy to the throne.

Removed from the throne

Irène and Alexis give birth to a second girl, Marie, then to a boy, Jean. This birth upsets the place of Anne and Constantine in the succession to the throne; John was baptized in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and, four years later, named co-emperor and heir to the throne. Anne's fiancé loses his title, his mother Marie d'Alanie is forced to enter the convent. Constantin dies two years later, and Anne returns to live with her family.

Within her family, Anne benefits from an excellent education, as her parents wish. She studied science, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, medicine, but also music, poetry and ancient authors, including Aristotle, Plato and Homer. Later, his writings will reflect his scientific knowledge and his great culture.

Nicephore Bryenne

At fourteen, Anne Comnène was married to Nicéphore Bryenne, a general twenty years her senior for whom Alexis I st fell in love and who has just been elevated to the dignities of Caesar and panhypersebastos by the emperor. Despite the political reasons for the marriage and the age difference, the couple seem to have been united by genuine affection. In her writings, Anne would describe her husband in very flattering terms:“My legitimate husband was Caesar Nicephorus, (…) a man who far surpassed his contemporaries by his beauty, his superior intelligence and his precise speech. Watching or listening to it was a pure delight” . The couple will have four children, two daughters and two sons.

Like her daughter, Irene greatly appreciates Nicephore. She and Anne pressure Alexis to designate him as heir, but to no avail. In 1118, while the emperor was on his deathbed, Anne and Irene tried again to disinherit John, but Alexis gave his son the imperial ring. Even before his father's death, Jean had himself proclaimed emperor in front of a crowd of his supporters.

Failure does not discourage the two women. Anne sets up a plot to try to dethrone her brother, which her husband refuses to join. His attempt is foiled, and Anne and Irène are sent to the convent of Kécharitôménè, founded by the latter a few years earlier.

The Alexiad

At the convent, Irène devoted herself to charitable works. She died in 1127; Nicephore ten years later. Having undertaken to write a history of the reign of Alexis I st , he left an unfinished work which did not go beyond 1079. It was Anne Comnenus, aged fifty-four, who took up the pen to write a complete work on the reign and the actions of her father:'Alexiad .

This story, an epic poem in 15 books, is conceived as an epic. To the simple and conventional style of her husband, Anne opposes a more complex expression, cultured, punctuated with references, proverbs and quotations. Determined, beyond an account of the exploits of her father, to "write a lament of the events that had torn her heart" , she often adopts a personal style. Rereading her story, she says bitterly:"all [her] life was one long series of storms and revolutions. […] Yet the story of his misfortunes, if he could attract the sympathy of any animate and even inanimate being, did not change the course of things, nor did it encourage men to take up arms to defend his cause » .

The Alexiad is one of the main sources of information on the reign of Alexis I st and on the political history of the Byzantine Empire in the X th and XI th centuries. It is also interesting for the perspective and viewpoint it offers on the First Crusade.

Anne Comnenus died in 1153 or 1154, aged approximately 70.