Celebrating the Women of Byzantium – Part III

Have you checked out our blog series sharing the stories of some of Byzantium’s most famous women? We invite you to check out Part I (covering the lives of Empresses Pulcheria and Theodora), Part II (covering Princess Theophano and Empress Irene), Part IV (Theodosia of Constantinople and the 9th century Empress Theodora), and Part V (Zoe and Theodora).

This week, we’re wrapping up the series by keeping it in the family with Byzantium’s most powerful matriarch and its imperial historian: Anna Dalassena and her granddaughter, Anna Comnena.

Anna Dalassena (1025-1108)

Emperor Alexius I is portrayed next to Empress Irene in the Hagia Sophia. This mosaic of him is often labeled as Anna Dalassena or Anna Comnena (neither of whom seem to have dedicated mosaics).

As the saying goes, “behind every great man there is a great woman.”  No idiom (no matter how trite) was so spot on as this one was to Emperor Alexius I.  If a good leader knows how to delegate, Alexius may have been one of the greatest leaders in Byzantium – under his successful reign, the empire was essentially run by his mother, Anna Dalassena.  Wise, intelligent, and prudent, Anna’s opinions were readily sought by her son; her policies were immediately enacted.  And Anna Dalassena wouldn’t have had it any other way.

But Anna had had her sights on the throne long before her son ascended.  When the Emperor Isaac Comnenus fell deathly ill, he abdicated the throne and wanted to hand it over to his brother, John.  To the chagrin of his wife, Anna Dalassena, John refused his brother’s offer.  And so, Constantine X Ducas ascended the throne in 1059.  Anna, however, did not take this well, to say the least. Determined, passionate, and ambitious for her eight children, she vowed that the Comnenian Dynasty would rule the empire once again.

Anna had been born into a powerful and politically influential family and married into a family even more formidable than her own.  After her husband died in 1067, Anna raised their eight children.  Each child was intelligent and well-rounded in their own right.  Anna saw to it that they lived lives as impressive and influential as their ancestors had and arranged marriages between her children and the most prominent families in Byzantium.

For all of her ambition, however, Anna Dalassena was not a cold, calculating person.  She was renowned for piety and charity.  According to encyclopedia.com, “Anna Dalassena enjoyed the company of priests and monks and longed to end her days in a convent. She was an aristocrat, a somber woman who spent her nights in prayer and her days in devotion to her children.”

Anna was also known for her shrewd intelligence and leadership.  Like Empress Irene before her, Anna Dalassena ruled the empire in conjunction with her son, Alexius I (who had taken the throne and bestowed the title of “Empress” on his mother. His title-less wife was sent to live in the lower palace).  Alexius revered his mother and respected her input and opinions.  He made almost no decisions without first consulting her.  While off on military obligations, Alexius left his mother in charge of the empire, giving her almost complete control.  “Without her intelligence and acumen,” wrote Alexius, “the monarchy would have been lost.”

As her granddaughter, Anna Comnena, also wrote: “My Grandmother had an exceptional grasp of public affairs, with a genius for organization and government; she was capable, in fact, of managing not only the Roman Empire, but every other Empire under the sun as well.”

And so Anna essentially led the empire until the age of 75, when she retired to the convent of Pantepoptes in Constantinople.  Her retirement was spent in reflective seclusion.  While the exact date and circumstances surrounding her death and retirement remain unclear, Anna Dalassena’s legacy as a strong, pious, and revered leader has been celebrated throughout history.

Anna Comnena (1083-1153)

Photo via mybyzantine.files.wordpress.com

In the life of Anna Comnena, the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.  The granndaughter of Anna Dalassena, Anna Comnena shared her grandmother’s intelligence, confidence, and eagerness to be heard.  Born into royalty, she received a first-rate education (arranged by her grandmother) and was expected to rule the empire after the death of her father (an expectation first  established when she was given a crown at a young age).  The birth of a baby brother, however, dashed any hopes Anna had of her imperial reign.  The availability of a male heir quashed Anna’s imperial claim of being first-born.

Much like her grandmother, Anna’s sights were on ruling the empire.  She did not let her brother’s ascension to the throne stop her from attempting to take back her birthright.  She had married a young historian and nobleman, Nicephorus Byrennius, and, in 1118, the two of them orchestrated an attempt to overthrow Anna’s brother, John II Comnenus, and seize the throne for themselves.  Their treasonous plot was discovered; Anna and Nicephorus were exiled from court.

After the death of her husband, Anna retired to a convent with her mother Irene (who, ever the barometer of maternal compassion, encouraged her daughter’s plot to overthrow her son).  It was during her time in the convent that Anna began work on her 15-volume family history, Alexiad. While is was understood that Byzantine noblewomen were to be educated, they were expected to be consumers of literature, not producers.  Anna, perhaps encouraged by memories of her historian husband, defied these societal norms and with Alexiad, became the first female historian.

Among the many histories recorded by Anna, including a rare account of the First Crusade from a Byzantine perspective, Alexiad praises the accomplishments of many Byzantine women, including the influential Anna Dalassena (Anna Comnena’s grandmother).    In her writings, “Anna… reveals herself as a female who was given notable license to write what she thought.”

From a modern standpoint, looking back at Byzantium’s influential women, it’s only fitting that we should end this blog series with the woman who first put it all down on paper: Anna Comnena. 

Main photo via Flickr: c1.staticflickr.com/7/6162/6158964300_1357b550c5_b.jpg
Anna Dalassena:
Anna Comnena:
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