[This paper was written for a seminar in medieval literature at WMU in Fall 2013]
When the emperor reached Philomelion after rescuing prisoners everywhere from the Turks, the return journey was made slowly, in a leisurely way and at an ant’s pace, so to speak, with the captives, women and children, and all the booty in the centre of the column. Many of the women were pregnant and many men were suffering from disease. When a woman was about to give birth, the emperor ordered a trumpet to sound and everyone halted; the whole army stopped at once wherever it happened to be. After hearing that a child had been born, he gave the general order to advance by another, and unusual, trumpet blast (451).
This episode in Anna Komnene’s Alexiad is meant to show both the power and the mercy of emperor Alexios I Komnenos, Anna Komnene’s father. In this show of power women have joined Alexios’s train, indicating that Alexios was so powerful as to submit the whole community to his will. Anna also uses the women to show how Alexios is merciful, since he exercises his power to accommodate those who are among the most vulnerable members of the community, the pregnant women. This act demonstrates Alexios’s respect for the role of motherhood. In studying representations of gender in Anna Komnene’s Alexiad, most attention has been given to the imperial women. Lynda Garland has demonstrated that three imperial women, Maria of Alana, Anna Dalassene and Eirene Doukaina, shaped the reign of Alexios and in Anna’s history they play a decisive role. Looking at the imperial women (Garland 186), Barbara Hill has argued that Anna Komnene is making an argument about the kind of power that women can wield in their familial roles, as wife or mother (Hill “A Vindication of the Rights of Women to Power” 52). However, less attention has been paid to the non-imperial women, such as the pregnant women mentioned above, and how their depiction contributes to the discussion of gender in the text.
Nikephoros Bryennios, Anna Komnene’s husband and fellow historian, also began to write a history of the reign of Alexios I Komnenos, though his is unfinished. Leonora Neville demonstrates that gender is just as important to Nikephoro’s text as it is to Anna’s, and argues that Nikephoros uses the Roman model of masculinity to critique Alexios’s rule (Neville 2). The main female character in Nikephoros’s brief history is also Anna Dalassene, though it includes the other imperial women of the court. However, Nikephoros also chooses to include non-imperial women to make his point about gender.
Comparing Anna and Nikephoros’s history, it is clear that they have differing opinions about gender roles. In both cases, the role that non-imperial women play mirrors the role of the imperial women in interesting ways. Anna and Nikephoros had different motives behind how they portray women in their texts, but in the case of the main characters they are the same women. However, for the non-imperial women each choice was very deliberately included to make a larger point in the text, and so is a useful lens through which to establish the gender roles both as they are perceived by the authors in Byzantine society, and as they are functioning in the texts. The non-imperial women in Nikephoros are mentioned in conversations about the masculinity of the men, just as the imperial women are. The non-imperial women in Anna Komnene mimic the imperial women’s importance in caring for family and community, in addition to being a reflection on the men in the text. In Anna’s text these women function as powerful entities in their own right, with the ability to sway, or as in the above example, delay an emperor whereas in Nikephoros’s text they are only subsumed into the descriptions of the virtues of men. Analysis of the role of the non-imperial women brings out how gender was intentionally used by each author and helps define further how the depictions of women in both texts relate to the depictions of men.
As the author of her father’s biography, Anna Komnene may be the most well-known Byzantine woman, as she is the only extant Byzantine woman writer of history (Hill Imperial Women in Byzantium 34). Traditionally her work has overshadowed the work of her husband’s, not only because it was written by a woman but because it was finished, because it was an eye witness account of events and because it contained details about the First Crusade. Neville points out that the two histories, Nikephoros’s and Anna’s, are companion pieces not just because of the relation between them, or because Anna mentions Nikephoros as a source for her work, but because these are the two highest ranking historians from Byzantium, when histories were already written by judges, courtiers and officials and other people with rank (Neville 29). Nikephoros’s history is also usurped by Anna’s history because the only manuscript containing the text is no longer extant. Nikephoros clearly wrote in his lifetime, between 1083 and 1137, but it is still unclear if he wrote when Alexios was alive or later. The manuscript was acquired by French legal scholar Jacques Cujaus, who died in 1590, who lent it to Pierre du Faur de Saint-Jorri, who was editing an edition of the Alexiad, and who died in 1600. The manuscript was subsequently lost (Neville 7). Scholars today work with a transcription of the manuscript from that period.
In a recent in depth study of the text through the lens of gender Leonora Neville has concluded that “[w]hen the text is read in light of classical Roman ideas of masculine virtue, new meanings emerge” (Neville 2). Reading the text for gender, Neville concludes that Nikephoros is critiquing Alexios showing how he does not live up to the standards of Roman masculine virtues, unlike characters such as John Doukas. Defining the role of women in the text, Neville concludes that, in addition to being used to contrast men:
Women in Nikephoros’s history are similarly portrayed as emotionally committed to the well-being of their families. The women appear to ‘follow the model of the Roman matrona’ in taking great concern for a good marriage and their children. Nikephoros brings women into his story of men’s deeds when their responses to the difficulties of their families add pathos to the story (Neville 109).
Neville’s analysis focuses on the imperial women in the text. Anna Dalassene, as a primary figure, and her involvement in Alexios’s decisions, casts Alexios into the role of ‘momma’s boy,’ some twentieth century American slang that Neville finds very appropriate (Neville 174). Neville makes it clear that neither Anna Komnene nor Nikephoros Bryennios had to place any emphasis on women. Both of our authors include women in prominent positions, exercising power, not only because it is true, but because they had a gender agenda.
Anna Komnene’s text has a surer provenance and a surer place in academic discourse. She wrote between 1143 and 1153, in the midst of the reign of Manuel and the second Crusade (Neville 182). Neville shows that Anna Komnene’s focus on Greek, and not Roman history, plays a role in Anna’s discourse on gender. To Anna, victory is victory no matter how it is won, and Alexios crying does not detract from his manliness, both of which counteract Roman ideals of masculinity (Neville 193). Consequently, the actions of imperial women such as Anna Dalassene or Eirene Doukaina are not fulfilling the same role in Anna’s text as they are in Nikephoros. Instead, Thalia Gouma-Peterson argues that Anna Komnene is showing how women as maternal models are exceptions to the weakness of women and fulfill an important role in the imperial court (Gouma-Peterson 110). Lynda Garland also sees all imperial women deriving their power through their connection to Alexios, but that nonetheless they are shown to wield power, no matter its source (Garland 119). Barbara Hill argues also that “[t]he only sphere in which the dominant ideology granted overt power to women was as mothers. All other roles involved the exercise of power of moral force, but women as actors were denied” (Hill Imperial Women in Byzantium 93). While women wield power in the domestic sphere, Hill shows how in the Komnenian court the public and private spheres were not necessarily separate, since familial ties were the basis for power (Hill Imperial Women in Byzantium 184). Therefore, as the title of her article “A Vindication of the Rights of Women to Power” suggests, Hill argues that the Alexiad is an argument about women’s rights to certain kinds of power in the court, and therefore this is the role the depiction of women is playing in the text. These theories are based on the role of imperial women in the narrative, but they can be applied to the non-imperial women in interesting ways. However, as will be seen, depictions of non-imperial women focus less on the maternal than the depictions of imperial women, which has interesting implications for the role of gender in this text.
The now infamous theories of J. Howard Johnston, arguing that the depictions of things such as battles must be attributed to Nikephoros and not Anna, show how the texts are similar, though the theories have been thoroughly refuted by scholars like Diether Reinsch, who shows that “Anna was not limited to the autoptic material available to her in Constantinople: according to her own irrefutable testimony, she accompanied her father on military campaigns (Reinsch 98). In addition, a study of the gender roles in each text indicate the elements of design of both authors, showing the deliberate choices that are made by each, despite the overlap of the textual materials. Anna Dalassene’s involvement in Alexios’s court was well known and could not be dismissed if the authors had decided to talk about gender in their texts. They both make this conscious decision. However, if the inclusion of imperial women is a conscious decision, then the inclusion of non-imperial women is an even more deliberate choice on the part of each author.
Nikephoros Bryennios non-imperial women
The non-imperial women included in each text are even more consciously included than the imperial women, on whom the above theories of Hill and Neville are based. Who is and who is not an imperial woman is actually more difficult to determine than it would seem. Eiene Doukaina and Maria Alana both had the title of basilissa, and Anna Dalassene never did, nor was she ever crowned Augusta, though she was given other imperial titles (Garland 2). However, for the purposes of this paper, imperial women are those women who ruled as regent, had the title or exercised power at the imperial level. Non-imperial women can include powerful women, but not those women whose husbands or sons ‘took the purple shoes.’
For instance, in this description of Anna Dalassene’s children there are several daughters who can be classified as non-imperial:
Le curopalate Jean … laissa huit enfants, comme le récit l’a déjà signale, cinq fils et trois filles, que leur mère éleva tous à la perfection et rendit dignes de leur famille. Deux des filles épousèrent, du vivant de leur père, des hommes nobles et fortunés, l’aînée Marie, Michel Taronite, la puînée Eudocie, Nicéphore Mélissènos, un homme intelligent et admirable, qui par son père remontait à la famille des Bourtzès. Quant à la dernière de toutes, Théodora, sa mère la maria, après la mort de son père, au fils de Diogène, Constantin, dont le père tenait alors le sceptre des Romains, un jeune homme noble et vaillant, mais dont le caractère n’était pas en tout point louable, comme la suite le montra (84-6).
[The curopalate John ... left eight children, as the story has already been reported, five sons and three daughters, and their mother brought all to perfection and made them worthy of their family. Two of the daughters married, in the lifetime of their father, noble and wealthy men, the elder Marie to Michael Taronite and the younger Eudocia to Nikephoros Melissenos, an intelligent and admirable man, who through his father rejoined the family Bourtzès. As to the last of all, Theodora, his mother married her after the death of her father to the son of Diogenes, Constantine, whose father then held the scepter of the Romans, a young noble and valiant man, but whose character was not commendable in every way, as the sequel showed (84-6).]
This example of non-imperial women is a comment on the male role in the household. For Nikephoros, the father’s importance in giving away his daughters in marriage is very clear. The two who were married in his lifetime married well. The one that Nikephoros explicitly states married after his involvement was married exclusively by her mother, and while this husband was the most powerful, he was apparently not as ‘commendable’ as the other two. Nikephoros uses these important women to establish the men’s role in the household and the danger of the absence of men in these decisions. This is true for all the non-imperial ‘important women’ in Nikephoros Bryennios’s text. They are mentioned to give context to the power of men. One of these marriage alliances is mentioned again later on, to indicate how women can link men together:
Pendant ce temps, Nicéphore Mélissènos, un homme de la noblesse, comme notre récit l’a indiqué plus haut, qui était par mariage allié aux Comnène – il avait en effet précédemment épousé leur sœur Eudocie – et qui résidait dans l’île de Cos, attira à lui des troupes et des notables turcs et fit le tour des villes d’Asie, après avoir chaussé les souliers de pourpre (300).
[Meanwhile, Nikephoros Melissenos, a nobleman, as our story noted above, who was allied by marriage to Komnenos - had in fact previously married their sister Eudocia - and who resided in the island of Kos , brought in troops and Turkish leaders and toured the cities of Asia, after having chased the purple shoes (300).]
This time the emphasis is not on the father’s ability to make alliances, but on the alliances that the marriage brings to her brother Alexios in his bid to become emperor.
Nikephoros discusses non-imperial mothers to show how men exercise their manly virtue. For instance, in discussing the upbringing of Manuel Doukas, Nikephoros writes:
Alors qu’il n’avait pas encore dépassé l’adolescence, il contraignit sa mère à le laisser partit en campagne avec son frère : il suivit ce dernier qui était à la tête des armées et montra sa valeur avant d’avoir atteint sa maturité, portant le bouclier, maniant la lance à la perfection, et son nom fut aussitôt dans toutes les bouches (86).
[When he was not yet past adolescence, he forced his mother to let him take the field with his brother: he followed the latter who was the head of the army and showed his value before reaching maturity with a shield, wielding the spear to perfection, and his name was soon on everyone's lips (86).]
This extract supports Neville’s claim that Alexios is criticized for being too reliant on his mother, since Manuel Doukas is here praised specifically for counteracting the wishes of his mother to go to war. The woman here is mentioned to give more credence to Nikephoros’s description of Manuel as possessing manly virtues.
Important women are depicted as extensions of the male household. When the one emperor Isaac Komnenos retires to a monastery the new emperor Constantine Doukas honours his predecessor: “[e]t ce n’est pas seulement lui qu’il honorait, mais encore toute sa famille, sa femme, sa fille, son frère et tous les siens” [and it is not just that he honored him, but his family, his wife, his daughter, his brother and all his household] (84). The women are included to extend the generosity of the reigning emperor by showing him honouring all that the old emperor once was. The old emperor has given up his rights to power by joining a monastery, which means any rights he had because of his family connections as well. As Hill points out, “the growing interest in family which this chapter has already noted cannot be overemphasized, nor its importance overstated,” so the fact that the (Hill Imperial Women in Byzantium 66) emperor still pays tribute to the family is indicative of his respect for his predecessor’s former power.
However, most interesting in the text is the collection of ‘theoretical’ or ‘metaphorical’ women who are mentioned specifically to cast aspersions on the manliness of the male characters. When Muhammad son of Ibrail, master of Persia etc., faces the Turks in battle, Nikephoros writes that “Mouhoumet, fort mécontent de la tournure des événements, fit aveugler à leur retour ses dix généraux et menaça les soldats qui avaient fui le danger de les exposer à la risée publique vêtus en femmes” [Mouhoumet, very unhappy with the turn of event, blinded his ten generals at their return and threatened the soldiers who had fled the danger with exposing them to public ridicule dressed up as women] (92). The worst insult to the soldiers is for them to be dressed up as women, emphasizing the importance of ‘manly’ virtue. Likewise, when discussing a war strategy, the enemy sultan … denigrates the fighting skills of Roman soldiers by comparing them to women: “[e]n passant, il l’entretint de la Médie, disant que c’était un pays fertile, mais possédé par des femmes, faisant ce rapport, le sultan envoya environ vingt mille hommes contre les Romains” [in passing he spoke of Media, saying it was a fertile country, but owned by women, and because of this report the Sultan sent about twenty thousand men against the Romans] (98). In this case the report which compared the soldiers to women ends disastrously for the sultan, but it is another instance when being called a woman is an insult. To be manly is specifically to do things differently from the way women do it:
En le voyant, il se prit à sourire et l’autre se demandait ce que cela signifiait; Alexis déclara que les hommes et surtout les soldats n’avaient pas l’habitude de se regarder dans un miroir : ‘C’est l’affaire des femmes et seulement des femmes préoccupées de plaire à leur époux. La parure de l’homme et du guerier, ce sont les armes, la simplicité et la dignité de la tenue.’ Ceux qui l’entendirent admirèrent la modestie et la sagesse du jeune homme (154).
On seeing this he began to smile and the other wondered what it meant; Alexis said that men and especially the soldiers did not have the habit of looking in the mirror: 'this is the preoccupation for women and only women, concerned to please their husbands. The adornment of a man and a warrior is weapons, simplicity and dignity of the outfit.' Those who heard admired the modesty and wisdom of the young man (154).
And, to be good men, you should be at least as good as women “je crois en effet pareil comportement indigne non seulement de Romains bien nés, mais même de femmes nobles et sages” [I believe indeed such behavior unworthy not only of well-born Romans, but even of noble and wise women] (158).
Nikephoros’s theoretical women are all introduced in the text to contrast the ideas of manliness and femininity. This supports Neville’s argument that gender is meant to play a major role in the text, and consequently is the basis for the critique of Alexios. But the women in the text are playing the role as bench markers that the men can compare their manliness to. They do play roles as wives and mothers, but this is only discussed in the text to show how women relate to the relationships among men. Nikephoros cannot disregard the role that wives and mothers play altogether, but by looking at the non-imperial women it is clear that Nikephoros used women in his text to highlight the manliness of his characters.
Anna Komnene’s non-imperial women
There is much less use of the feminine as a derogative in Anna Komnene’s text; remarkably less when you consider how much more text there is. This alone shows how gender is being explored differently in this text. There is one instance while fighting Masout’s forces where the emperor is said to have stated to the son of the Satrap Asan Katou : “I didn’t know that women, too, are now bearing arms against us” (449). Like Nikephoros, this is a definition of masculinity as militant, contrasting with feminity. But it is a fairly lonely reference in a text filled with other ways of describing women. Anna Komnene has more space to explore the roles that women play in the unfolding events. However, despite the more varying depictions of women’s roles, they are still rooted in the way they affect the men of the text.
Anna Komnene’s generalized women are less theoretical and more concrete. When Nikephoros is mentioning a group of women they are meant to represent an abstract femininity with which men can be contrasted. When Anna Komenene mentions a group of women they are not abstract, but a real part of the community she describes, and they are being mentioned to show the extent or pathos of a certain situation.
After the Romans under Alexios routed the Cumans Anna says that the emperor ordered that the Romans return the loot they had taken from the countryside. The people came to the camp and “[b]eating their breasts and raising their hands in supplication to heaven they prayed for the emperor’s prosperity; the loud cries of men and women alike might well have been heard on the moon itself” (272). The women in this context demonstrate that the whole community came to praise Alexios. To indicate that a whole community has been affected, Anna uses this rhetorical device often, mentioning that something affects both men and women: “[t]he upheaval that ensued as both men and women took to the road was unprecedented within living memory” (277). When the possibility of the Turks overrunning the people of Philemelion arose “[i]t was immediately announced that every man and woman should leave the place before their arrival, thus saving their own lives and as much of their possessions as they could carry” (313). In other words, the events will affect the whole community. It further says that “without delay the whole population, men and women alike” meaning the whole community “chose to follow the emperor” who benevolently lead them away from the danger (313). The battle against the Scythians saw the decimation of the community: “when the sun was just about to set and all had been smitten by the sword, and I include children and mothers in this number, and many also had been taken captive, the emperor ordered the recall to camp” (226). Although it seems like this is an indictment of her father’s actions, as the destruction of the whole community including women and children may be included to incite pathos, Anna Komnene is using this device to indicate the extent of the victory her father grants his followers: “[n]or was that all – such outcomes [victory] are not uncommon in minor clashes – but in this case a whole people, comprising myriads of men, women and children, was exterminated in one single day” (227).
The victory is meant to reflect well on her father’s abilities, but the fact that women are often mentioned in groups for pathetic reasons indicates that the above example of Scythian destruction is meant to be read with pity. For instance, in depicting Alexios’s treatment of the Manicheans the Alexiad says that “[t]he officer in charge of this duty left to drive the Manichaean women from their homes and held them in custody in the citadel” (156). It shows that the whole community was affected, and also that the situation was quite tragic. Anna impugns the Latins who arrive on Crusade by showing how they treat women and children: “nor was that all: the unreliability of these men and their faithless nature might well sweep them again and again … through love of money they were ready to sell their own wives and children for next to nothing” (300). Clearly women add a sense of pathos to the episode cited in the introduction, the rescuing of the prisoners around Philomelion. The text describes how Alexios gets such a long train composed of such diversity:
[t]he native inhabitants, Romans who were fleeing from barbarian vengeance, followed them of their own free will; there were women with newborn babies, even men and children, all seeking refuge with the emperor, as if he were some kind of sanctuary. The lines were now drawn up in the new formation, and having placed all the prisoners in the centre, as well as the women and children, he retraced his steps (443).
The text mentions groups of women here to indicate both the extent to which the community was dependent on the generosity of the emperor, which is especially evident in the care that he took to protect those perceived to be vulnerable, namely women and children.
These groups of women, anonymous since they have no names themselves though always named as part of a community, are most often deliberately included in the text to show either the power or the generosity of the emperor. In the case of the Cumans and the Manicheans, the situation is meant to have pathos because the harsh penalties have fallen on men as well as women, however they are situations in which the emperor is exercising his power. In other situations, particularly on more than one occasion around Philomelion the women are mentioned to show the generosity of the emperor towards that community. However, in all contexts, the mention of groups of women is meant to be a reflection that an event is taking place which affects a whole community. They are not, however, necessarily reflecting back on the virtues of the men in this context, unlike in Nikephoros’s text.
In the episode outside of Philemelion Anna Komnene says that she herself witnessed:
an old woman being assisted by a young girl, a blind person being led by the hand by another man who had his sight, a man without feet making use of the feet of others, a man who had no hands being aided by the hands of his friends, babies being nursed by foster-mothers and the paralysed being waited on by strong, healthy men. In fact, the number of people maintained there was doubled, for some were being cared for, while others looked after them (453).
The women here are clearly part of the community, and while the old woman adds pathos to the situation, it is not necessarily because of her gender but because of her age. In this example of the train of unfortunate souls who have latched on to the emperor, the only one who is being useful is the young girl. While she might be adding pathos to the situation because of her gender, she is also an example of non-imperial women being helpful. Anna Komnene has a lot to say about how her grandmother Anna Dalassene was helpful to her father in running the empire, and how her mother was helpful in catering to the needs of her husband, even if she was not popular because it meant she went on campaign. This is mirrored in descriptions of non-imperial women, since they are depicted, like the young girl, in useful roles.
Another anonymous little girl is able to offer assistance, this time to the emperor: when an assassin comes to the emperor’s tent he “caught sight of the little girl who was fanning the imperial couple and driving away mosquitoes; at once ‘a trembling seized on his limbs and a pale hue spread over his cheeks’, as the poet says” (247). She is not just a passive deterrent but an active force preventing plots from coming forth from the same source: “the maid soon went to the emperor and told him what had happened” (247). Alternatively, Alexios had another male family servant, Traulos, who worked for him while he was suppressing the Manicheans. When the Manicheans were imprisoned Traulos found out his four sisters, representatives of his family and his community, were deprived of their property and taken into custody. He tries to escape the emperor’s service but “[h]is wife had by now discovered his plan and seeing that he was about to run away, told the man who was at that time charged with supervision of the Manichaeans” (158). This is another example of how women can be specifically useful to the emperor, since she put her duties to the emperor ahead of her duties to her husband. Likewise, when the emperor was in dire straits, he found a woman who could offer him aid: “[f]or eleven days he wandered seeking a way to safety – no easy task – but finally met a soldier’s widow and found lodging with her for some time” (197).
Anna Komnene makes a case also for the involvement of women in religious work. The Alexiad shows Alexios and the imperial family interested in the affairs of the church. The imperial women are involved in women’s communities. Alexios is also interested in the role women can play in the church:
When you enter this church you would hear antiphonal choirs singing; following Solomon’s example, Alexios decreed that there should be male and female choristers in this church dedicated to the Apostle. The work of the deaconesses was also carefully organized. He devoted much thought to Iberian nuns who lived there; in former times it was their custom to beg from door to door whenever they visited Constantinople, but now, thanks to my father’s consideration, an enormous convent was built for them and they were provided with food and suitable clothing (454).
These women are portrayed as fulfilling a useful and important function, just as the anonymous women mentioned above. Even though the last example shows women being useful in a religious context, all of these women are useful because of their service to the emperor, including the nuns and deaconess and female choristers, because Anna portrays Alexios as interested in the affairs of the church, and his involvement with these female religious reflects well on him.
An interesting case, however, is that of Sigelgaita, the mother of Tancred who leads the defense of a fortress from attack. Anna Komnene did not have to include this episode in her text. Sigelgaita is a non-imperial woman who takes on this masculine role, not unlike Anna’s grandmother, though even more masculine since it is military strategy and not administration that Sigelgaita takes on. As Reinsch points out “there was something offensive about the fighting Sigelgaita, but at the same time Anna's words reveal that she did admire the martial valor of this woman, to whom she devotes this brief heroic narrative (Reinsch 95). In the reader’s understanding of the woman as a woman, it is important to see that Anna says “[t]he place was defended by a woman, the mother, so it was said, of Tancred, though whether she was a sister of the notorious Bohemond or not I cannot tell, for I do not really know if Tancred was related to him on his father’s or his mother’s side” (351). Anna is placing her in context with the men she is associated with. The event is described thus:
The highly intelligent and level-headed woman inside the walls had anticipated this when she had seen the ships arrive and had already sent a message to one of her sons asking for assistance quickly. The Roman fleet was full of confidence, as though the place had already fallen to them, and all the sailors had begun acclaiming the emperor. The woman, who was herself in grievous straits, ordered her own people to do likewise. At the same time she sent ambassadors to Kontostephanos acknowledging the authority of the emperor and promising to negotiate for peace; she would come to him and together they would discuss terms, so that full details might be passed on to the sovereign. She was contriving to keep Kontostephanos in suspense and playing for time, to give her son the chance to reach her. Then, as they say of the tragic actors, she could throw off the mask and start the fighting. … The combined acclamations of those within and without echoed all round the town, while this woman gladiator kept Kontostephanos’ plans up in the air with these cunning words and her lying promises (351).
Anna both condemns her and praises her. While she is condemned because she is doing all she can to counter the imperial forces, she is praised for her ability to handle the situation. While this is not necessarily a wholly positive depiction of a woman, it is an instance showing how high ranking women can be useful to high ranking men, especially when there are no appropriately ranked men around.
Another group of non-imperial women who are useful to the emperor are the important women, often not anonymous, who extend his sphere of influence through marriage alliances. Anna stresses the importance of relatives by marriage several times. Alexios calls a counsel and “[a]ll his relatives, by blood or marriage, were present – those, that is, who were really devoted to him – and all the family servants” (255). Another time he informs his closest confidantes of his decisions: “at the same time he informed his kinsmen by blood or marriage and all the nobles enrolled in the army that he was going out to do battle with the Scythians” (215). When he goes into battle “[o]n right and left were those to whom he was related by blood or marriage, and next to them selected warriors from the various contingents, all in heavy armour” (447). Close relatives by marriage are thought by the community to be an extension of the emperor: “[Gregory, doux of Trapezous] even sent off a long letter to the emperor in which he abused not only members of the Senate and prominent soldiers, but also close relatives and kinsmen by marriage of the emperor” (349). Anna Komnene argues that relatives by marriage form an important bond that is not easily broken.
This is one means that the Alexiad uses to cast further aspersion on characters like Robert Guiscard, who do not properly honour marriage ties: “we have mentioned before that Michael, for some inexplicable reason, had agreed to unite his own son Constantine in marriage with Robert’s daughter (her name was Helena)” (34-5). In this context the women are links between men, as they are in Materials for History. Helena’s name is an afterthought. And yet, it is through the women that these links are formed, and so they are of great use to the emperor and an important part of their familial groups.
The text demonstrates the complexity of these alliances in the lengths the emperor goes to to form an alliance with Gabras, who will become important to Alexios’s campaigns. Isaac Komnenos, the emperor’s brother, promises his daughter to Gabras’s son Gregory. However, Isaaac Komnenos second wife is too closely related, so the marriage is called off. Alexios holds Gregory until he can find another suitable match:
He wished to keep him in Constantinople, for two reasons: first, he could hold him as a hostage; and, secondly, he might win Gabras’ friendship. Thus, if Gabras did harbor some evil design, he might frustrate it. He intended to marry Gregory to one of my sisters. These were the reasons why the boy’s departure was delayed (233).
With such considerations, it is not surprising that the alliances do not always work out. For instance, the sultan Toutouses, wishing to form an alliance with the emperor sends a son for a marriage alliance with one of Alexios’s daughters. This is rejected, since it is not advantageous to Alexios (170-1). Sometimes the women are named and sometimes they are not, though it is more likely when they are related to Anna directly. Anna describes a marriage alliance right in the middle of her description of battle, because Alexios has gained the loyalty of many of his generals this way: “Nikephoros – who afterwards became my brother-in-law when he married my younger sister the Porphyrogennetos Maria – seized a long spear, wheeled round and met his Scythian pursuer face-to-face” (268).
The non-imperial women are shown, just as in Nikephoros’s history, in relation to men, but in Anna Komnene they are not reflecting the virtues of the men, but are useful to the men in their own right. There is a lot of similarity in terms of marriage alliances, though there is less of a stress on how important it is that men make the alliances, as in the importance of Alexios’s father making the decisions about who his daughters will marry instead of his mother, and just that women are useful in alliances made by men, in that Alexios needed alliances so he disposed of those female relatives he had in his familial unit. The women in Anna Komnene are more representative of the community, and less used as rhetorical devices for talking about masculinity. In the depictions of imperial women in the Alexiad, their role as mothers and widows and wives has been emphasized. While Anna Komnene does choose to include many non-imperial women in her text, it is interesting that important mothers and nurturing wives have largely been left out. Tancred’s mother is the only obvious mother, and while she could be understood to be exercising her influence in her capacity as a good mother, that conclusion is problematic because of how conflicted Anna seems to be about Sigelgaita’s character. The roles of powerful mother and caring wife are left solely for empresses. However, the text does focus on women’s role as helpers of men in general, and as helpers of Alexios specifically and on all women’s importance to the family dynamic.
Anna Komnene is herself, technically a non-imperial woman in the Alexiad – one who does not appear in Nikephoros’s Materials for History. She was one of the porphorygennitoi and grew up in the palace, but her attempt to take the throne was famously thwarted. She is exceptional, in that she is the only woman noted for both medical knowledge and writing a history: “[o]n the orders of the empress I was present myself at this conference, in order to act as arbiter; I heard the doctors’ arguments and I personally supported the views of Kallikles; however, the view of the majority proved decisive” (464-5). However, she does not fall outside the roles that she sets for her women in the text as evidenced by the non-imperial women. Her main concern may be construed as both community and family in her role as historian and her usefulness to her father, the emperor, was felt at his death bed.
As Hill points out, “Anna’s motive [for writing her history] is a vexed question among Byzantinists” (Hill Imperial Women in Byzantium 189). There are many variables that have taken scholars in many different directions. Hill looks to the omissions and deliberate choices that Anna Komnene makes in the text to give us more definitive clues. The role that gender plays in Anna’s text may reflect Anna’s objective in writing it. While Eirene and Anna Dalassene are portrayed as powerful and important mothers, Gouma Peterson argues that “it is no accident that while creating in her narrative ‘a mirror in which to read herself shaped in the measure of her desire,’ that is, as a daughter and granddaughter in relation to maternal images of two ideal women, she does not place herself within the maternal category” (Gouma-Peterson 114). Anna does not have a claim to power in the same way her mother or grandmother do, but can still depict herself as a member of the imperial family and still show how non-imperial women, like herself can be useful to the emperor. Such an interpretation, while still speculative, is supported by the evidence of the non-imperial women in the text. It is not just Anna, but all the other non-imperial women, with the exception of problematic Sigelgaita, who show their value in roles other than motherhood.
The role of women in Nikephoros’s text may also give us a clue as to the goal of his text. The analysis of the non-imperial women supports Neville’s analysis of the use of imperial women in the text. Neville argues that “given the lionization of his own grandfather and the distaste expressed for Alexios Komnenos in the history he wrote later in life, it appears clear… that Nikephoros had wanted to become emperor” (Neville 179). However, he wanted to conform to Roman rules of masculinity and wouldn’t take the lead in the coup that Anna Komnene and her mother Eirene Doukaina organized at the end of Alexios’s life. Instead John Komnenos, Anna’s brother, ascended to the imperial throne. While again this is speculation, especially since it is unclear when in Nikephoros’s lifetime the text was written, the depiction of women in Nikephoros’s text supports the conclusion that, as Neville says, “he would not agree with Anna that ‘victory always means the same thing’” (Neville 191-2). Nikephoros would not take the throne at any cost, but defends his actions as following the codes of manly virtue, while harbouring some bitterness against Alexios Komnenos for his frustrated ambition.
The role of women in the Alexiad has been important because “presentation of women in the Alexiad has been the basis of arguments both for women’s oppression in Byzantium and their relative freedom and importance” (Hill “A Vindication of the Rights of Women to Power” 45). Neville shows that the role of women in Materials for History is important because gender is key to understanding Nikephoros’s criticisms. Both Nikephoros and Anna use information from other sources, but it is possible to see intentional choices made in the depictions of women in the text. The non-imperial women elucidate for the reader the roles played by the imperial women in the rest of the text. For Nikephoros women act in a framework that reflects on men and men’s choices. For Anna, women possess a power that incorporates both the public and private spheres, a.k.a. they play major roles in the well-being of family and community. The example of the poor women from Philomelion is a perfect example of women as helpers, as amplifiers of pathos, and tools used by Anna Komnene to reflect Alexios’s power and mercy, as well as relating more to Anna’s depiction of imperial women than most of her depictions of non-imperial women by showing deference to the ideas of motherhood. How the women relate to men is an important theme in both texts, a common denominator to both Anna Komnene and Nikephoros Bryennios. Nikephoros wants to use it to bring down men and Anna to bring up women. The non-imperial women characters throughout both texts are included for specific purposes, the end result of which is to give the reader a key through which the roles of each gender in both texts can be understood.
Bryennius, Nicephorus. Nicéphore Bryennios histoire: introduction, texte, traduction et notes. Trans. Paul Gautier. Bruxelles: Byzantion, 1975. Print.
Garland, Linda. Byzantine Empresses. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.
Gouma-Peterson, Thalia. "Gender and Power: Passages to the Maternal in Anna Komnene's The Alexiad." Anna Komnene and her Times. Ed. Thalia Gouma-Peterson. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000. 107-124. Print.
Hill, Barbara. "A vindication of the rights of women to power by Anna Komnene." Byzantinische Forschungen 23 (1996): 45-53. Print.
—. Imperial Women in Byzantium: 1025-1204. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 1999. Print.
—. "The ideal imperial Komnenian woman." Byzantinische Forschungen 23 (1996): 7-18. Print.
Komnene, Anna. The Alexiad. Trans. E.R.A. Sewter. New York: Penguin Books, 2009. Print.
Neville, Leonora. Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Print.
Reinsch, Deither. "Women's Literature in Byzantium? The Case of Anna Komnene." Anna Komnene and Her Times. Ed. Thalia Gouma-Peterson. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000. 83-105. Print.
Smythe, Dion C. "Middle Byzantine Family Values and Anna Komnene's Alexiad." Byzantine Women. Ed. Linda Garland. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2006. 125-140. Print.
Stuttgart, B.G. Teubner. "Nikephoros Bryennios, Anna Komnene and Konstantios Doukas: A story about different perspectives." Nyzantinische Zeitchrift 100.1 (2007): 169-175. Print.
 The texts are read in translation. Nikephoros Bryennios Materials for History is not yet translated into English, so is referenced here in French, in an attempt not to stray too far from the original, with English translation from the author.
 Or women who ruled in their own right, which happened more than once in Byzantine history, though not in either the histories of Anna or Nikephoros.