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The Alexiad (original Greek title: Ἀλεξιάς, Alexias) is a medieval historical and biographical text written around the year 1148 by the Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene, daughter of Emperor Alexius I.

In the Alexiad, Komnene describes the political and military history of the Byzantine Empire during the reign of her father, the Byzantine emperor, which makes it a reference on the Byzantium of the High Middle Ages. The Alexiad documents the Byzantine Empire's interaction with the First Crusade (despite being written nearly fifty years after the crusade), and the text highlights the conflicting perceptions of the East and West in the early 12th century.

The text was written in a form of artificial Attic Greek, and shows the Byzantine perception of the Crusades.


The Alexiad is divided into fifteen books and a prologue, the scope of which is limited to the duration of Alexius' reign, which it is thus able to depict in full detail.[1] Komnene documents one of the most active periods in the High Middle Ages, especially in regards to political relations between the Byzantine Empire and western European powers. The Alexiad remains one of the few primary sources recording Byzantine reactions to both the Great Schism of 1054 and the First Crusade,[2] as well as documenting first-hand the decline of Byzantine cultural influence in both eastern and western Europe.[3]

According to Peter Frankopan, the content of the Alexiad falls into five main categories:

1. Attacks against the Byzantine empire by the Normans under their leader Robert Guiscard (Books 1–6)

Book 1
Book 1 talks about Alexius becoming general and Domestikos ton Scholon. It also talks about the Normans preparation for their invasion.
Book 2
Book 2 talks about the Komnenian revolt.
Book 3
Book 3 talks about Alexius as Emperor (1081), the internal problems with Doukas family, and the Normans crossing the Adriatic Sea.
Book 4
Book 4 talks about war against the Normans (1081–1082).
Book 5
Book 5 also talks about war against the Normans (1082–1083), and their first clash with the "heretics".
Book 6
Book 6 talks about the end of war against the Normans (1085), and the death of Robert Guiscard.

2. Byzantine relations with the Turks (Books 6–7, 9–10, and 14–15)

Book 6
Book 7
Book 7 talks about war against the Scythians (1087–1090).
Book 9
Book 9 talks about operations against Tzachas and the Dalmatians (1092–1094), and the conspiracy of Nicephorus Diogenes (1094).
Book 10
Book 10 talks about war against the Cumans, and the beginning of the First Crusade (1094–1097).
Book 14
Book 14 talks about Turks, Franks, Cumans and Manicheans (1108–1115).
Book 15
Book 15 talks about the last expeditions — The Bogomils — Death of Alexius (1116–1118).

3. Pecheneg incursions on the northern Byzantine frontier (Books 7–8)

Book 7
Book 8
Book 8 talks about the end of the Scythian war (1091), and plots against the Emperor.

4. The First Crusade, and Byzantine reactions to it (Books 10–11)

Book 10
Book 11
Book 11 also talks about the First Crusade (1097–1104).

5. Attacks on Byzantine frontiers by Robert Guiscard's son, Bohemond I of Antioch (Books 11–13)[2]

Book 11
Book 12 
Book 12 talks about domestic conflicts, and the Norman preparation for their second invasion (1105–1107).
Book 13 
Book 13 talks about Aaron's conspiracy, and the second Norman invasion (1107–1108).

Although Komnene explicitly states her intention to record true events, important issues of bias do exist. Throughout the Alexiad, emphasis on Alexius as a "specifically Christian emperor," morally, as well as politically laudable, is pervasive. Frankopan frequently compares Alexius' treatment in the text to the techniques of the hagiographical tradition, while contrasting it with the generally negative portrait or outright absence of his successors John II and Manuel I.[4] Komnene discusses the Latins, (Normans and "Franks"), considering them barbarians. This distaste extends to the Turks, along with the Armenians. The Alexiad also criticizes John II Komnenos for his accession to the throne (in place of Komnene herself) following Alexius' death. From a modern reader's point of view, the inconsistencies in the descriptions of military events and the Empire's misfortunes – partially due to these literary and especially Homeric influences – may seem exaggerated and stereotypical. Despite these issues, George Ostrogorsky nevertheless emphasizes the Alexiad's importance as a primary document.[5]

General Themes

The main theme of the Alexiad is the First Crusade, and religious conflict.[6] Komnene chronicles the different groups of people involved in the crusades, and refers to them as "Celts", "Latins", and "Normans".[6] Anna also talks about her father, Alexios Komnenos in great detail, and his conquests throughout his rule from 1081–1118.[7] She does this by presenting a "Byzantine view" of the Crusades.[8] Some historians have noticed Greek mythology influences in her work, as stated by Lenora Neville: "the characterization of Alexios as wily sea captain steering the empire through constant storms with guile and courage strongly recalls Odysseus." [8]

Writing Style

The Alexiad was originally written in Greek in around 1148, and first edited by Possinus in 1651.[9] In 1928 the text was translated to English in what is regarded as the closest version to the original text.[9]

Anna Komnene explicitly describes herself in the text and openly acknowledges her feelings and opinions for some events, which goes against the typical formatting of historiography.[10] She differed widely from Greek prose historians, and because of this the book was initially well received, but was subjected to criticism later on.[11] The Alexiad interests many historians because of the fact that Komnene wrote it in a different format to the norm of the time.[10] Anna Komnene is the only female Greek historiographer of her era, and historians are keen to believe that her style of writing owes much to her being a woman.[10] Despite including herself in the historiography and the other qualities that make her style vastly different from the typical historiography of the era, Anna Komnene's Alexiad has been seen as a "straightforward" history.[10]


Anna Komnene's writings are a major source of information on her father, Alexius I of the Byzantine Empire.[12] She was around the age of 55 when she began work on the Alexiad.[12] While she was alive, she held the crusaders that came to her fathers aid in contempt for their actions against the Empire after they looted various reconquests and failed to return to the Basileus' demesne many of the lands they promised to return to him. She regarded the crusaders, whom she refers to as Celts, Latins and Normans, as uneducated barbarians.[6][12] Despite this, Anna claims that she portrayed them in a neutral light. Some historians believe her work to be biased because of her feelings towards the Crusaders, and how highly she regarded her father.[13]

Gender and Authorship

Questions of Authorship

There has been much debate as to whether the Alexiad was in fact written by Anna Komnene herself, with one scholar saying that the text gives very few comments that would suggest the author's gender or any other aspect of their background, aside from a few explicit mentions.[14] This has led some scholars to argue that the Alexiad was not written by a woman at all, but by some other male author.[15] This belief, put forward by Howard-Johnston, focuses mainly on the military sections of the Alexiad, and suggests that Anna was merely working from her husband's field notes, thus Howard-Johnston renames it "Nicephoros's Alexiad."[16]

However, it is largely agreed that Anna Komnene was the author. Explicit mentions in the text of her engagement, her role as a wife, and the commentary on her female modesty that influences her writing make Komnene's authorship of the Alexiad "unmistakable", according to some.[17] She certainly could have written about military affairs, since she was able to accompany her father, the emperor, on military campaigns.[18] Many scholars believe that the great detail about her father's home life and military style, combined with her own personal experiences and mentions of femininity, providing a strong case for her authorship of the Alexiad.

Representations of Gender

In the Alexiad, Anna portrays gender and gender stereotypes in a unique way. Like her male counterparts, she characterizes women along the typical stereotypes, such as being "liable to tears and as cowardly in the face of danger."[19] Yet, despite this, women in the Alexiad never cry, with the exception of Alexios' funeral, during which grief is the appropriate cultural response.[20] Likewise, none of the female characters act in a cowardly way.[21] She points to her own gender in a similar way when mentioning her own tears while writing certain events. Immediately, however, she informs the reader that she will stop crying in order to properly return to her duty of history, an episode which she repeats twice in the narrative.[22] By so doing, she shows a desire to control aspects that are, for her culture, feminine.[23] Overall, however, Anna concerns herself primarily with intellect, which she attributes to both men and women, and allows for women to actively break out of societal gender roles in the Alexiad.[24] Her personal attitudes, along with the lack of comparable sources from female authors in that era, make the Alexiad considered by some a poor source to use when gauging how average women in Byzantium felt about the First Crusade.[25]

Gender and Style

Komnene's somewhat unusual style of writing history has been attributed to her gender. Her style is noteworthy in that it included both a history of her father's actions during the First Crusade, and her reactions to some of these events. Her opinions and commentary on particular events in an otherwise historical text have been assigned to her gender both positively and negatively.[26] This interpretation of her histories is known as a "gendered history",[27] meaning it is both the history of Alexos and of Komnene herself through her particular style, which is not seen in male authors. While the Roman historian Edward Gibbon saw this "gendered" narrative to betray "in every page the vanity of a female author",[28] with some scholars agreed with him,[29] other scholars claim that this style might be indicative of Komnene's mentor, Michael Psellos.[30] Some take this even further to suggest that Anna used Psellos' Chronographia as a model for her personal narration in her history and took his style even further, suggesting it was not her gender but her influences that led to her writing style.[31]

Anna is considered unique for her time in the intensity by which she integrates her own narrative and emotion,[32] and yet she does not mention all personal details, such as the fact that she had four children.[33] For some, this unusual combination of style and lack of personal, gendered information is reconciled by her lack of modern feminist ideals, without which she was not interested in questioning her societal place in her own narrative, even though her depictions of women do not fit in with male authors of the time.[34] Instead, her style can be understood from her belief system that intelligence and nobility cancel out gender in terms of importance, and so Komnene does not view her history as overstepping any necessary gender roles.[35]

Complete manuscripts and summaries

Below is the list of manuscripts containing some or all of the Alexiad.

Codex Coislinianus 311, in Fonds Coislin (Paris)
Codex Florentinus 70,2
Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1438
Codex Barberinianus 235 & 236
Codex Ottobonianus Graecus 131 & 137
Codex Apographum Gronovii
Codex Vaticanus Graecus 981 (prologue and summary)
Codex Monacensis Graecus 355 (prologue and summary)
Codex Parisinus Graecus 400 (prologue and summary)

Published editions


  1. Peter Frankopan, Introduction to the Alexiad, Trans. E. R. A. Sewter. Rev. ed. (London: Penguin Books, 2009), ix.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Frankopan, Introduction to the Alexiad, x–xi.
  3. Frankopan, Introduction to the Alexiad, xv.
  4. Frankopan, Introduction to the Alexiad, xxi–xxii.
  5. George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, Rev. ed. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1969), 351.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Brians, Paul. "Anna Comnena: The Alexiad".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Neville, Leonora. "Lamentation, History, and Female Authorship in Anna Komnene's Alexiad, 192".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 Neville, 192.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Halsall, Paul. "Medieval Sourcebook: Anna Comnena: The Alexiad".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Neville, 194.
  11. Neville, 193.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Barrett, Tracy. "Anna Comnena".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Brian, Paul. "Anna Comnena: The Alexiad".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Peter Frankopan, "Perception and Projections of Prejudice: Anna Comnena, the Alexiad and the First Crusade," in Gendering the Crusades, ed. Susan B. Edgington and Sarah Lambert (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 68.
  15. Frankopan, 69. For examples, see Howard-Johnston, 'Anna Komnene', 260–302.
  16. J. Howard-Johnston, "Anna Komnene and the Alexiad," in Alexios I Komnenos. Papers of the Second Belfast Byzantine International Colloquium, 14–16 April 1989 (Belfast, 1996), 289, 302.
  17. Diether R. Reinsch, "Women's Literature in Byzantium? – The Case of Anna Komnene," trans. Thomas Dunlap in Anna Komnene and Her Times, ed. Thalia Gouma-Peterson (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000), 96.
  18. Reinsch, 98.
  19. Barbara Hill, "A Vindication of the Rights of Women to Power by Anna Komnene," in Band 23 of Byzantinische Forschungen (Amsterdam: Verlag Adolf M. Hakkert, 1996), 45.
  20. Hill, 45-6.
  21. Hill, 46.
  22. Komnene Alexiad 4.8.1 and Prol. 4.2.
  23. Leonora Neville, "Lamentation, History, and Female Authorship in Anna Komnene's Alexiad," Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 53 (2013): 213.
  24. Carolyn L. Connor, Women of Byzantium, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 257.
  25. Frankopan, 68.
  26. Frankopan, 69.
  27. Gouma-Peterson, 32.
  28. Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (London, 1776–88, repr. 3 vols, London, 1994), 3: 69.
  29. R. Brown, The Normans, (London, 1984), 90 ; Shlosser, The Alexiad of Anna Comnena, 397-8.
  30. Connor, 253.
  31. Frankopan, 69–70.
  32. Reinsch, 95.
  33. Rinsch, 97.
  34. Hill, 51.
  35. Connor, 257.

External links