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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Imperial Ambitions of Anna Komnene

Anna Komnene, author of the twelfth century masterpiece of history, the Alexiad, harbored imperial ambitions from her childhood. 

Born on 1 December 1083, she was the eldest of the seven children of Alexios I Komnenos and Irene Doukaina. Her younger siblings were Maria, John II, Andronikos, Isaac, Eudokia, and Theodora. Her father Alexios had seized the imperial throne of the Byzantine Empire on August 15, 1081, in a violent coup, during which his troops had sacked Constantinople. His reign was hardly stable and there were frequent attempts to overthrow him, but he managed to survive and ruled for nearly four decades, till he died on August 15, 1118.

Since John was the eldest son, he had been designated as the heir to the imperial throne by Alexios. But Anna wanted the throne to go to the man whom she had married in 1097, Nikephoros Bryennios, a descendent of the Bryennios family that had held the imperial throne before the accession of Alexios.

Anna began to dispute John’s right to succession while her father was alive. Queen Irene Doukaina too preferred to see Nikephoros on the throne. According to the accounts of that period, Irene "threw her full influence on [Anna's] side” and tried to coerce Alexios into nominating Nikephoros as the next emperor. But Alexios could not be moved. He continued to insist that John would be his successor.

At the funeral of Alexios, Anna and her mother tried to get John murdered. When this attempt failed, they made a second attempt to have him murdered. But the second attempt too failed, possibly because Nikephoros did not fully cooperate with the coup plotters. Anna was outraged by her husband’s weakness. She is reported to have exclaimed that “nature had mistaken their sexes, for he [her husband] ought to have been the woman.”

A cleric in Hagia Sophia, the patriarchate of Constantinople and a principal setting for Byzantine imperial ceremonies, proclaimed John II Komnenos as emperor. He would rule until 1143, when he died of natural causes.

Anna was only thirty-six years old when she plotted to get her brother murdered, but with the failure of her plot, her life was over. She was banished to the monastery of Kecharitomene, which was founded by her mother. She would live at the monastery for the rest of her life, consumed with pain, jealousy, and hatred. She outlived John by a few years. The exact date of her death is not recorded, but it is generally believed that she died in the 1150s.

The Alexiad was written during the period when Anna was imprisoned at the monastery. There is no mention of her failed coup attempts in the book, but her pain at her thwarted political ambitions is visible in some of the passages.

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