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Byzantium Meets the Crusaders
by Anna Comnena

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
Return to the Syllabus || Review 11th century Byzantine politics


Anna Comnena (1083-1133) was the daughter of Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus. She was well-educated and ambitious, and after she became engaged to the son of a former emperor, she began to think that she might become an empress. That hope faded after her father produced a brother who became the heir to the imperial throne. But after Anna's first husband died and she married an aristocrat named Nicephorus Byrennius, it seemed for a time that she might get her wish to become empress after her husband was named caesar (second only to the emperor). But her brother John (ruled 1118-1143) inherited their father's throne upon his death, and exiled her to a monastery after she became involved in plots to assassinate him. While in exile, she wrote a history of her father's reign that was designed to praise him. This excerpt shows the Byzantine attitude towards the arrival of the First Crusade.




Anna Comnenus' disdain for the participants of the First Crusade is evident from the terms she used to describe them, such as "uncontrollable passion, erratic character, irresolution, greed for money." She also offered the Byzantine explanation for the cause of the Crusade, which differed greatly from that of the western Christians. As the daughter of an emperor with a good knowledge of the Byzantine government, her attitude is understandable.

The eastern Mediterranean, site of the
The eastern Mediterranean, site of the Crusades

Although the Byzantine imperial government was modeled after that of the Roman empire, during the time of Justinian (527-565), it became an absolute monarchy headed by an emperor who controlled a large bureaucracy. The bureaucracy was effective enough to regulate prices and wages, and to supervise both education and religion. Religion was essential to law and loyalty to the empire, but education was also critical because the bureaucracy needed competent people to function well. As a consequence, the Byzantine empire promoted education, not only for religious officials, but also for nobles. Education was accessbile to both men and women, and the Byzantine empire even produced women doctors and a few empresses. With such a bureaucracy, the Byzantine economy did well. Commerce grew and cities flourished, thanks in part to the empire's advantageous location on the trade routes between "East" and "West." Long distance trade in silk and spices generated profits for Byzantine middlemen, and with the taxes that produced, the government issued gold and silver coins whose value remained stable, making them desireable to traders in other regions as well.

The situation with agriculture was somewhat less rosy, since there was a struggle between peasants and landowners for the control of land. Until 1025, the government helped peasants to remain independent of their noble landlords, but in that year a new emperor, Constantine VIII, took over. He used his position to reward his friends, and that alienated many Byzantine nobles. As they began to assert their independence from the emperor in Constantinople, they increased their control over their peasants and undercut Byzantine trading monopolies (which paid imperial taxes) by making deals with traders from Genoa and Venice.

Officials of the Byzantine empire were also proud of their success at converting Slavic peoples from Asia to Christianity. In 988, a Russian leader named Vladimir converted to Byzantine Christianity, making Russia a cultural colony of Byzantium. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Russians considered themselves to be the heirs of the Byzantines. The Russian word for ruler is "tsar" which is derived from the Byzantine word for "caesar." The Russians also referred to Moscow as "the third Rome."


  1. How did the emperor know the Crusaders were coming?
  2. What caused the Crusade, according to Anna? Based on what you learned from the previous reading by "Anonymous," what did western Christians think caused the First Crusade?
  3. What do the words "Roman" and "Kelt," as used in this selection, tell us about Anna's understanding of history?
  4. If Moscow was "the third Rome," where was the second?
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