Comnena, Anna was a Byzantine princess, the daughter of the emperor Alexius Comnenus, illustrious by her birth, and by the circumstances of her life, but more illustrious by her accomplishments, and by the important historical work which she transmitted to posterity. Whether her subject, her opportunities, her talents, her rank, her associations, or her disappointed ambition be considered, her quaint production is calculated to excite and to reward the liveliest interest. The time in which she lived and wrote, the memorable transactions which she witnessed and in which she often participated, the notable personages with whom she came in contact, the troubles, perils, and perplexities by which she was surrounded, the grand and startling events which she recorded, combine to give a peculiar fascination to her Memoirs. In a dark and dreary age, but one of varied and heroic adventure, in the desperate struggle of a great but declining empire, she related, for the instruction of other times, the strange vicissitudes of fortune — the hopes, the alarms, and the efforts of the wild period, when the East, the West, and the North, the exhausted culture of the old, and the rude chivalry of the new civilization were intermingled with the fierce fury of Tartar and Saracenic violence. That she lived in the days of the emperor Henry IV, the countess Matilda, Godfrey de Bouillon, and Kilidje Arslan, is evidence of the eventful character of the time. That she beheld the passage of the first crusaders, and was, in all probability, acquainted with Peter the Hermit, Bohemond, Tancred, and the other leaders, gives assurance of the highest interest in her reminiscences. That she was brought up in the Byzantine court, familiar with its, delusive splendors, its secrets, its vices, its intrigues, and its hazards; that she was herself designated for the imperial crown, may not attest the accuracy or the profundity of her narrative, but certainly confer upon it a breathing charm and a personal reality which may atone for grievous defects. The inflation of her language, the affectations of her learning, the extravagance of her statements, the moral distempers which warp her judgment, may detract seriously from the trustworthiness of her record, and have been amply and too exclusively presented. Serious as are these drawbacks, they do not prevent her biography of her father from being the most attractive in the long list of the Byzantine historians, and also the most instructive.
1. Life. — Anna Comnena was the eldest child of the emperor Alexius Comnenus, by his second wife, the empress Irene Ducoensa. She was born at Constantinople, on Sunday, December 1, 1083, the day of her father's return from his repulse of Bohemond at Iarissa. She was Porphyrogenita — born in the Purple Palace and, a few days after her birth, was proclaimed caesarissa and heiress of the empire, and was betrothed to the boy Constantine, son of the former emperor, Michael Ducas, and the nominal colleague of her father on the imperial throne. She was at once recognized as the image of her father (Alexiad, 6:8). By this betrothal the Comnenian dynasty assumed some pretensions to be the restoration of the sovereign house of Ducas. The young prince was retained, with his mother, in honorable confinement, and soon died, but not before Durazzo, as is often stated. Anna had three brothers and three sisters. Among the former was Ugly John Kalo-Joannes, about four years younger than herself, who succeeded their father on the throne, and was never forgiven for this intrusion. Her uncles, her aunts, and her cousins, her brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law; nephews and nieces, outrun convenient enumeration. Arethey not commemorated by Du Cange, in his serviceable Familiae Byzantine? "Her mother, Irene, was the grandniece of the emperor, Constantine Ducas, and her father was the nephew of Isaac, the first emperor of the line of the Comneni." She was thus of imperial blood on both sides. The time of her death has not been determined. As she began her history after the death of her husband, wrote under the reign of her nephew, Manuel, and was still writing after thirty years of surveillance, she may be presumed to have lived to a very advanced age. She grew up in the court in close attendance on her mother, and in more intimate and kindly association with her parents than is usual in sovereign households. In her father's frequent absences on military expeditions, she was more a companion of her mother than a child in the family. On more peaceful removals from Constantinople the empress and the caesarissa accompanied the emperor. This affectionate intimacy developed from very early years the inquisitive spirit, the mental powers, and the political aptitudes of the young girl, and afforded her the best opportunities for a present and minute knowledge of the prominent persons and important occurrences of the times. The drama proceeded immediately before her eyes. She was unquestionably precocious. She was provided with the best instructors and with the best means of instruction. She had great zeal for learning, quick apprehension, and high capacity. She became a prodigy of erudition in the estimation of her contemporaries, and not merely within the circle of the court. It is certainly a mistake to regard the end of the 11th and the beginning of the 12th century as an uncultivated period. The name of the empress Eudocia Macrembolissa; the abilities of Michael Psellus, and,of John Italus, the precursor and Byzantine counterpart of Abelard; the number, rank, and enthusiasm of their disciples; the historical productions of the highest dignitaries of the state, disprove any such hasty conclusions. The Ducases, and particularly the emperor Michael and his brothers, were noted for their literary zeal (Alexiad, 5:8). Tastes may be corrupt, pursuits mistaken, modes of thought distorted, but these aberrations do not preclude diligence of culture. Rhetoric and logic and philosophy, the inflated style of zealots for Attic polish, the arid and tangled ingenuity of the schoolmen, the sophistry of the new Platonists or new Pythagoreans, and of later unnamed sects, were the objects of admiration; but these objects were seriously prosecuted. The imperial Anna was among the most eager and successful of such students. She boasts of having mastered both the Aristotelian and the Platonic philosophy. She expresses decided opinions upon the merits and demerits of John the Italian. She displays in her writings an ample if indiscriminate acquaintance with the classics of ancient Greece. Such studies, however, furnished only the skeleton and vesture of her inquiries. Their substance was very different. The actual range of solid information exhibited in the work of her later life, the patient industry with which she sought, and the quick judgment with which she estimated the most important matters of daily concern, may be recognized under all the extravagant finery with which they were disguised. Her acquaintance with the scholars of the day, her court life, her intercourse with her parents, her familiarity with the statesmen and chief actors of the bustling period in which she lived, furnished her with constant and valued opportunities for the most abundant knowledge, and for the quickest appreciation of what transpired around her. Nor were the habitual dangers by which she was encompassed and which threatened the station and the lives of herself, her family and her multitudinous relations, without influence in sharpening all her faculties and enlarging her range of reflection. It is necessary to reason back from the characteristics of her subsequent life, and of her Memoirs, to her original predispositions. Grapes are not gathered from a bramble bush.
With remarkable aptitudes, with favoring appliances, with exciting and invigorating experiences, Anna grew up to womanhood, and, if the testimony of herself may be accepted, crowned her intellectual accomplishments with rare beauty and feminine grace. The Comneni were long eminent for talent, and were even more distinguished for their personal appearance. Anna partook of both kinds of endowment. There is every reason to conclude that she was entitled to be regarded as singularly handsome. Such charms as she possessed may have been masculine, like her mind and temperament. This may be an entirely erroneous inference. The illuminated miniaturet of the celebrated countess Matilda, her contemporary, which adorns the coeval MS. of Donizo, represents a small figure with almost infantile features. Whatever may have been the style of Anna's beauty, in this remarkable historian were united the highest rank, fortune, family, energy, decision, personal appearance, intellect, and learning-a marvellous combination in a princess of the Byzantine empire.
As the young Ducas had disappointed Anna's matrimonial expectations by an early death, her father; for some unascertained reason, bestowed her hand upon Nicephorus Bryennius, the eldest son (Zonar. 18, 22; Du Cage says grandson) of that Bryennius who had pretended to the empire, but had been defeated, captured, and blinded by Alexius. He was probably much older than herself. She expressed a most devoted attachment to his memory in her lonely and desolate widowhood, though she had not restrained the bitterness of her tongue during their married life (Nicet. Chon. 1:3). Of the course and character of their wedded career we have no information beyond the widow's indistinct regrets. Her husband was a man of education and ability. He was much employed in the incessant military transactions of the times. His death was attributed to poison, administered by direction of his wife's able but unscrupulous nephew, Andronicus. His literary culture is shown by the very interesting history of the Comneni, which was interrupted by his death, and which furnished the example and the stimulus for its continuation by his learned relict (Alexiad, Praef. 3). He brought his Memoirs down only to the accession of Alexius. His bereaved spouse records for us the whole reign of her father.
Anna Comnena was married, probably about the time of Peter the Hermit's passage through Constantinople, on his return from the Holy Land and its desecrated sanctities. It was about two years after her marriage that the turbulent, rapacious, arrogant hosts of the Crusaders swarmed round Constantinople, plundering and devastating the famished provinces through which they pursued their lingering and disorderly way. The years that followed were filled with multifarious adventures, with diversified hazards, with wars, with conspiracies, and with romantic tales of heroic achievements and selfish audacity.
The troubled career and the difficult reign of Alexius Comnenus at length drew to a close. His waning life and his days of suffering were curiously watched by the wife of his bosom and the daughter of his heart. His sick- bed was besieged by them, and his palace guarded by their orders, in order to determine the succession according to their wishes. John, the heir and successor, was excluded from his father's presence. Conspiracy was active within and without the city, to secure the imperial crown for Anna and her husband. It is unfortunate that the MS. of the closing chapters of Anna's work is so mutilated as to leave the account of the death-bed scenes unintelligible. The other authorities assert that the sinking emperor was importuned by wife and daughter to declare the latter heiress to the throne. He died without gratifying this desire; and his affectionate wife addressed words of savage contumely to his departing spirit.
Though the desires of the empress and the princess were thus frustrated, the hopes which had been so long entertained, and the aims so long: contemplated, were not renounced. The palace was held under guard. Ugly John, the son and brother, was neither informed of the death, nor invited to thei presence of the dead emperor. The partisans of the faction; were prepared for the seizure of the throne. Their retainers were assembled, military support was organized, and Nicephorus Bryennius was urged to prompt action, and to make himself master of the city and empire. A masculine energy and daring were exhibited by the empress and caesarissa; which would have been notable in a conquering usurper — Dux faenina facti.
The calm resolution and promptitude of John Comnenus, and the irresolution or conscientiousness of Nicephorus Bryennius, defeated these bold, and well-matured schemes. Bryennius refused to perform the part assigned to him — whether unwilling to uphold disloyal practices, or warned by the failure and fate of his father or grandfather, or by mingled motives. His wife ascribed his reluctance or delay to faintness of heart, and expressed her scorn in terms of contempt stronger and coarser than the language of Lady Macbeth.
John secured the throne without serious commotion. His mother and sister were pardoned and put under slight and honorable restraint. Nicephorus Bryennius seems to have been unharmed and uncensured. Even the princely fortunes and the wide domains of his rivals were left untouched by the successful emperor. The representations of his follower, his friend; and his able minister, the Turk, John Axuch, who had been captured by the Crusaders at Nice, dissuaded him from his first purpose of confiscating the possessions of the near relatives who had conspired against him.
Anna was soured for life by her defeat, and poured her long lamentations throughout her history (especially Alexiad, 14:7). The long-deferred hope, the design nursed in silent anxiety during weary years, were altogether frustrated. The unsisterly dislike of the sovereign was intensified. The wrong that had been prevented seemed an injury received. After the death of her husband, and probably under the reign of her nephew, Manuel, Anna appears to have been compelled to retire, or to seek refuge in a nunnery. There she fanned the ancient flames, cherished the old passions, and relieved her anguish by mingling angry regrets with all her reminiscences.
"In seas of flame her plunging soul is drown'd, While altars blaze, and angels tremble round."
The date of Anna Comnena's death is wholly unknown. Nothing is recorded of her after the decease of her husband, except what is contained in the venomous moanings of her work and in some very brief notices. One son survived her, Alexius, who took his grandfather's family name, Comnenus (Nicet. Chon. 2:7), and was captured in the Capitanata by the Normans, against whom he commanded. Her memory has been more effectually preserved by the memorial of her father, which she is supposed to have completed about thirty years after his death. It is only stated by her that she was writing at that time (Alexiad, 14:7).
2. The Alexiad. — The fame of Anna Comnena has been perpetuated by a single literary monument. This is beyond question the most entertaining and instructive of the Byzantine histories, after those of Procopius and Agathias. Nevertheless, the work has been too little esteemed. It has been oftener cited with a sneer than read with fairness and intelligence. Much of the depreciation and neglect must be ascribed to her own extravagant rhetoric, and to unmeasured admiration of her father, equally in. his failures and in his achievements. More may, undoubtedly, be attributed to the contempt with which Gibbon has spoken of the history and its author. The supercilious censure of the great historian has repressed curiosity, and prevented considerate judgement, while it has often discouraged examination. It is forgotten that this Alexiad is a sort of prose epic, according to the false taste of the age, as the Philippeid of Gulielmus Brito, and the Gesta Friderici of Gunther Tigurinus, were verse histories of their respective heroes. Yet, whatever censures may be justly passed upon the work, our acquaintance with a most eventful period would be both meagre and distorted without the aid of Anna's discredited labors. A clearer and juster apprehension of some of the most surprising and complex changes in the current of human affairs than has yet been attained may be expected from a cooler, kindlier, and more dispassionate study of her remarkable contribution to the varying story of the Byzantine empire.
The interruption of the history of the Comneni, by the death of Nicephorus Bryennius, induced his disconsolate widow, in her enforced seclusion, to take up the broken thread of the narrative, and to continue it to her father's decease. She had her own abundant recollections of incidents and scenes at which she had been present, of counsels and projects of which she had been cognizant, of conspiracies in which her own fate had been involved. She was familiar with the secrets of the palace, with her husband's labors, with the materials he had gathered, and with the notes which he had prepared. Not content with these sources of knowledge, she diligently pursued, in every quarter, information regarding past events; sought out those who had participated in the grave transactions of the times, or possessed the most thorough acquaintance with them. The zeal for the fulness of historical truth is asserted by herself, but it is also attested by the abundance, the variety, and the minuteness of the knowledge displayed throughout her work. The statements may often be prejudiced, the sentiments affected, the exaggerations frequent, the expression turgid, the rhetorical decorations inappropriate and excessive — but these were the defects of the age. They do not destroy the high qualifications which they conceal by their gaudy splendor. Making due allowance for the grave blemishes which have too much engrossed the attention of critics, the substance that remains is of the highest interest and of the greatest value. The undue depreciations of Anna's Gesta has had a very injurious effect on the estimation of that memorable age, when the seeds of growth and the tares of decay were so widely scattered. It has certainly occasioned such a discoloration of the pictures of the crusades as has led to erroneous conceptions of their origin and conduct. Yet Anna, who has been so injudiciously slighted, was their earliest historian, witnessed their passage, was cognizant of their inception and progress, and was personally acquainted with the chiefs of the first, and, probably, with the sovereigns of the second crusade. Much discernment and more than ordinary skill may be required to detect the true lineaments of the personages and the scenes, under the glaring pigments and prodigal daubing of the pictures; but they may be detected, and their detection will reward the labor: expended upon the task. But the first crusade constitutes only a small, though a very prominent, part of the narrative. The career of the emperor Alexius forms the subject of the Alexiad; and in his troubled and constantly imperilled reign there occurred many other greater dangers, and more arduous problems for statesmanship. It is only necessary to mention some of these to show the multitudinous topics of interest recorded by Anna: the war with Robert Guiscard, and the later war with Bohemond; the wars with the Turks, Romans, Hungarians, Slavonians; the revolts and the conspiracies; the heresies of John Italus, of the Paulicians, and of the Bogomilians; the reconstitution of the army, by which a precedent was furnished for the Ottoman Janizaries; the military stratagems and devices; the ambitious schemes of Norman auxiliaries; the reorganization of the state; the debasement of the coinage; the restoration of the finances; the provision for the poor, the great orphan asylum and the poorhouse; the plagues and famines and physical disturbances; the ceremonies, the occupations, and the amusements of the court. These and numerous other subjects, exhibiting the civil and social aspects of the fainting and beleaguered empire, receive their fullest exposition in the Alexiad of Anna Comnena. Later chroniclers contented themselves with copying and abridging her relations, and did credit to themselves and justice to their original by repeating her praises. It belonged to a later age to see only the blemishes, and to remain totally blind to the merits of her work.
3. Literature. — Anna Comnena, Alexias (ed. Bonn. 1839-76); Du Cange, Familiae Augustae Byzantinae, apud. Script. Rer. Byz. volume 21. (Venet. 1729); Bayle, Dict. Hist. Crit., tit. Anna Comnena; Fussli, Dissertatio de Annae Alexiade (Tigur, 1766); Wilken, Rer. a Comn. Gestar. l. 4. (Heidelb. 1811); Nikolai, Gesch. des Byzant. Lit., apud. Ersch u. Gruber. Enkyklopadie; Calliades, Anna Comnena (Constantin. 1879); Krug, Chronologie des. Byzantiner. (G.F.H.)