Anna Dalassene

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Anna Dalassene
Spouse(s) John Komnenos
Noble family Dalassenos
Father Alexios Charon
Mother Dalassene
Born ca. 1025/30
Died 1 November 1100 or 1102

Anna Dalassene (Greek: Ἄννα Δαλασσηνή, ca. 1025/30 – 1 November 1100 or 1102) was an important Byzantine noblewoman who played a significant role in the rise of the Komnenoi to power in the eleventh century. As Augusta, a title bestowed upon her rather than his empress-consort by her son, Alexios I Komnenos, she guided the empire during his many absences for long military campaigns against Turkish and other incursions into the Byzantine empire. As empress-mother, she exerted more influence and power than the empress-consort, Irene Doukaina, whom she hated because of past intrigues with the Doukas family.


Early life[edit]

Anna was the daughter of Alexios Charon, and a lady of the noble Dalassenos family. Her maternal grandfather was named Adrianos Dalassenos, evidently a son of the magistros and doux of Antioch, Theophylact Dalassenos.[1][2] Very little is known about her father, who was an obscure imperial official in Italy.[3] Her mother's family, the Dalassenoi, were a distinguished family of the Byzantine military aristocracy, beginning with Theophylact's brother Damian Dalassenos in the late 990s.[4][5]

The date of Anna's birth is unknown, but is placed around the years 1025/30.[2][6] Likewise the date of her marriage to John Komnenos is variously placed ca. 1040, ca. 1044/45, or between 1045 and 1050. The couple had eight children, five sons an three daughters.[2][7][8] Contrary to Byzantine court protocol and expectancies and similar to her predecessor, Eudokia Makrembolitissa, Anna was to be a new model of a powerful family matriarch.

In 1057, John's elder brother Isaac, at the head of a group of generals, rebelled against Michael VI and forced him off the throne. At the time of the revolt, John held the post of doux, but after his brother's victory, he was raised to the rank of kouropalates and appointed as domestikos ton scholon of the West.[9] Isaac's reign was cut short by his clash with the powerful Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Keroularios, who had been instrumental in securing Michael VI's abdication, and the powerful civil aristocracy of the capital. Keroularios and his supporters led the opposition against Isaac's stringent economizing policies, forcing him to resign on 22 November 1059, after which he withdrew to the Stoudios Monastery.[10] The crown then passed to Constantine X Doukas (r. 1059–67), although Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger, who married Anna's granddaughter Anna Komnene, asserts that it was first offered to John, who refused it, despite the pressure of Anna to accept.[8][11] According to the historian Konstantinos Varzos, however, this version is suspect, and may well be a post-fact attempt at legitimizing the eventual usurpation of the throne by Anna's son, Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081–1118).[12] At any rate, Anna remained implacably opposed to the Doukai thereafter, and married her daughters off to scions of the Empire's powerful aristocratic families to gain their support.[2][8]

Rivalry with the Doukai[edit]

As a result, because of these unsuccessful attempts to seize the imperial crown, she sustained a bitterness for the Doukas family and "lived for intrigue until she had succeeded in placing her son on the throne". After her husband's death in 1067, Anna was to rule her family as a matriarch, constantly maneuvering to advance her own family.

After the end of Constantine X Doukas's reign (1059–1067), she shrewdly supported Constantine's widow, Eudokia Makrembolitissa, and her new husband Romanos IV Diogenes (r. 1068–1071) against the rest of Eudokia's former in-laws, who disapproved of the marriage. Anna was to be one of the strongest supporters of the new emperor and encouraged her sons to serve in his military campaigns. Despite his very young age of fourteen, Anna's eldest son, Manuel, was appointed kouropalates and strategos autokrator (commander-in-chief). Although captured by the Turks, he was set free through the diplomacy of Chrysokoulos. Manuel however died of an ear infection in 1071 and after performing his funeral rites, Anna sent her third son, Alexios, to serve in his place. However, Anna's second son, Isaac, was already serving in the army and Romanos Diogenes did not recruit Alexios out of consideration for his mother.[13]

The Doukai returned to power after the defeat of Romanos IV by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. Anna however retained her loyalty to Diogenes and was soon targeted by the new government (by her old enemy, the Caesar John Doukas, uncle of Michael VII) for it. She was put on trial after a letter she sent to Diogenes was intercepted by imperial spies. However, during the inquest the Komnenoi asserted that the documents were forged. Bryennios states that during her trial for treason at the royal palace, she produced an icon of Christ from under her outer robe and proclaimed her innocence and that "Christ, the Supreme Judge who knows the secrets of her heart was the judge between them and herself.[14] Her judges were allegedly "overawed by her dignity and severity", but were forced to convict her for treason in 1072 and banish her to a monastery on the island of Prinkipos, a favorite place of exile for women and their immediate family. Although she proclaimed her innocence, the fact that she secured a marriage for her daughter, Theodora, to Constantine, son of Romanos IV, makes it very likely that she was still intriguing to restore Romanos to the throne.[citation needed] Some of her seals bear the titles monache ("nun") as well as kouropalatissa so Anna either became a nun on the death of her husband or during this forced exile on the island.[15] A change of fortune soon came when she was recalled to Constantinople in 1073 following the loss of power of the Caesar over Michael VII and the ascendancy of Nikephoritzes.[16]

Role in the Komnenian revolt[edit]

Anna was to play prominent role in the coup d'état of 1081, along with the current empress, Maria of Alania. First married to Michael VII Doukas and secondly to Nikephoros III Botaneiates, she was preoccupied with the future of her son by Michael VII, Constantine Doukas. Nikephoros III intended to leave the throne to one of his close relatives, and this resulted in Maria's alliance with the Komnenoi. The real driving force behind this political alliance was Anna Dalassene.[17]

Already closely connected to the Komnenoi through her cousin Irene's marriage to Isaac Komnenos, the Komnenoi brothers were able to see the empress under the pretense of a friendly family visit. Furthermore, to aid the conspiracy Maria had adopted Alexios as her son, though she was only five years older than he.[18] Maria was persuaded to do so on the advice of her own "Alans" and her eunuchs, who had been instigated to do his by Isaac Komnenos. Knowing Anna's tight hold on her family, it must have been with her implicit approval that he was adopted.[citation needed] As a result, Alexios and Constantine, Maria's son, were now adoptive brothers and both Isaac and Alexios took an oath that they would safeguard his rights as emperor.[19] By secretly giving inside information to the Komnenoi, Maria was an invaluable ally.[20]

Just as on previous occasions, the betrothal of her granddaughter to a relative of Botaneiates' did not stop Anna's intrigues against the new regime. As stated in the Alexiad, when Isaac and Alexios left Constantinople in mid-February 1081 to raise an army against Botaneiates, Anna quickly and surreptitiously mobilized the remainder of the family and took refuge in the Hagia Sophia. From there she negotiated with the emperor for the safety of family members left in the capital, while protesting her sons' innocence of hostile actions.

Under the falsehood of making a vesperal visit to worship at the church, she deliberately excluded the grandson of Botaneiates and his loyal tutor, met with Alexios and Isaac and fled for the forum of Constantine. The tutor found them missing and eventually found them on the palace grounds but she was able to convince him that they would return to the palace shortly. Then to gain entrance to both the outer and inner sanctuary of the church the women pretended to the gatekeepers that they were pilgrims from Cappadocia who had spent all their funds and wanted to worship before starting their return trip. However, before they were to gain entry into the sanctuary, Straboromanos and royal guards caught up with them to summon them back to the palace. Anna then protested that the family was in fear for their lives, her sons were loyal subjects (Alexios and Isaac were discovered absent without leave), and had learned of a plot by enemies of the Komnenoi to have them both blinded and had, therefore, fled the capital so they may continue to be of loyal service to the emperor.[21][clarification needed]

She refused to go with them and demanded that they allow her to pray to the Mother of God for protection. This request was granted and Anna then manifested her true theatrical and manipulative capabilities: "She was allowed to enter. As if she were weighed down with old age and worn out by grief, she walked slowly and when she approached the actual entrance to the sanctuary made two genuflections; on the third she sank to the floor and taking firm hold of the sacred doors, cried in a loud voice: "Unless my hands are cut off, I will not leave this holy place except on one condition: that I receive the emperor's cross as guarantee of safety".[22]

Nikephoros III Botaneiates was forced into a public vow that he would grant protection to the family. Straboromanos tried to give her his cross, but for Anna this was not sufficiently large enough so that all bystanders could witness the oath. She also demanded that the cross be personally sent by Botaneiates as a vow of his good faith. He obliged, sending a complete assurance for the family with his own cross. At the emperor's further insistence, and for their own protection they took refuge at the convent of Petrion, where eventually they were joined by Irene Doukaina's mother, Maria of Bulgaria.

Botaneiates allowed them to be treated as refugees rather than guests. They were allowed to have family members bring in their own food and were on good terms with the guards from whom they learned the latest news.[23] Anna was highly successful in three important aspects of the revolt: she bought time for her sons to steal imperial horses from the stables and escape the city, she distracted the emperor and gave her sons time to gather and arm their troops and she gave a false sense of security to Botaneiates that there was no real treasonous coup against him.

Rise to power[edit]

Isaac and Alexios Komnenos entered the capital victoriously on April 1, 1081. However, even this fortunate turn of events did not deter Anna from preventing the Doukas family from sharing the imperial coronation - she had never approved of the marriage of Alexios and Irene Doukaina, and the situation became acute now that the teenage Irene would become Augusta.[24] Although Alexios' candidature for the throne had been agreed upon by the Doukai and the Komnenoi at the army camp at Schiza, the elder Isaac still had supporters.

The fact that Alexios was crowned on April 4 while Irene was crowned a full week later is highly suspicious. It is likely that Anna and Maria of Alania had planned for Irene's departure and wanted to rule with Alexios as "both" mothers and wife. The latter was already an empress mother twice-over and far more experienced than the naive, teenaged, childless Irene who was yet to have any children. In her own account of this event, Anna Komnene asserts that the Komnenoi refused to drive Maria from the palace because of her many kindnesses and because "she was in a foreign country, without relatives, without friends, with nobody whatever of her own folk'.[25]

However, Irene was finally crowned by the patriarch Cosmas. Anna Dalassene however was allowed to choose the next patriarch, Eustratius Garidas as a compensation.[26]

Life during Alexios' reign[edit]

From the Komnenian seizure of power in 1081 until either her banishment or death, she was to play a very public role in administering the military and civil services of the empire. Her son Alexios was for many years under her influence. She was however constantly at odds with her daughter-in-law Irene and had, perhaps egregiously, assumed total responsibility for the upbringing and education of her granddaughter Anna Komnene.

Given the culture and traditions of medieval Greek Byzantium, it is unusual that Anna wielded such power over her son as well as the empire. Though he needed a reliable advisor, and essentially owed his mother for his accession to the throne because of her intrigues[27] to stay in a powerful position for fifteen years after his succession until he was in his mid-forties defies credulity. As middle age approached, Alexios was determined to rule in his own right. After the military campaigns of the 1080s, he was able to stay in the capital and became frustrated over of Anna's tight hold on the administration, however productive this seemed to be. This was suggested by the writer Zonaras who states that Anna was in power for so long that Alexios became frustrated by that he was emperor in name alone.[28] Anna, always one to sense the changing winds of fortune sensed his frustration, and decided to leave before she was forced out and retired to her private apartments attached to her monastic foundation of the Christ Pantepoptes. The germs of his discontent may have started as early as 1089 when in an imperial communication he complained of Anna's generosity to the monastery of Docheiariou.[29]

Sources are conflicted concerning the year of Anna's retirement and death. Anna Komnene is strangely silent about her disappearance from court and this may suggest that her grandmother may have been involved in something questionable [30]—perhaps a heretical sect such as the Bogomils. However, we know that she was wielding her power when the First Crusade passed through the city in late 1096 or early 1097, perhaps retiring after their departure [31] Since we are not sure of the date and reason of retirement, Zonaras records that she resided 'imperially with honor' at her foundation for several years, dying in extreme old age just over a year before her son, Isaac. Most ironically, she died on the day forecast by an Athenian astrologer for Alexios himself [32] She died on a 1 November, either in 1100 or in 1102.[2]

Under the Komenian dynasty, women continued to not only retain their roles set by previous empresses but made great strides in founding monasteries, patronizing churchmen, theologians and literary figures and being more assertive in imperial administration: most prominent in such roles were Anna Dalassene and her contemporary, Maria of Alania.


Anna Dalassena is memorialized in Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party.[33]



  1. ^ Cheynet & Vannier 1986, pp. 77, 84, 95.
  2. ^ a b c d e ODB, "Dalassene, Anna" (C. M. Brand), p. 578.
  3. ^ PmbZ, Alexios Charon (#20250).
  4. ^ Cheynet & Vannier 1986, pp. 75ff..
  5. ^ ODB, "Dalassenos" (A. Kazhdan), p. 578.
  6. ^ Cheynet & Vannier 1986, pp. 77, 95.
  7. ^ Varzos 1984, pp. 51, 52.
  8. ^ a b c Cheynet & Vannier 1986, p. 95.
  9. ^ Varzos 1984, pp. 41–42, 49.
  10. ^ ODB, "Isaac I Komnenos" (C. M. Brand, A. Cutler), pp. 1011–1012.
  11. ^ Varzos 1984, pp. 49–50.
  12. ^ Varzos 1984, pp. 49–50, esp. note 5.
  13. ^ Alexiad 1.1.1, 2.1.1 (Leib1.9,63; Bryennius 1.12 (Gauther 103-5); Scylitzes Continuatus, "Chronographia" 139; Zonaras, "Epitome" 18.12 (3.694-5)
  14. ^ Bryennius 1.22 (Gauthier 129-31)
  15. ^ Cheynet & Vannier, "Etudes prosopographiques", 97; Zacos & Vegler, "Byzantine Lead Seals", 1.3, 2695
  16. ^ Bryennius 2.1
  17. ^ Alexiad, 2.2.1-2
  18. ^ Alexiad, 2,2,2-3, 3.1.2, cf. 3.2.6
  19. ^ Alexiad 2,1,4-6, 2.3.2-3,2.3.4; cf, Bryennius 4.2, who dates the adoption to early in the reign of Botaneiates
  20. ^ Alexiad, 2.3.4,2.4.5
  21. ^ Alexiad,2.5.5
  22. ^ Alexiad, 2.5.6
  23. ^ Alexiad 2.5.7-9
  24. ^ Bryennius 3.6, Alexiad 3.2.1,3
  25. ^ Alexiad 3.1.2
  26. ^ Alexiad 2.6.2, 3.2.7, 3.4.4
  27. ^ S. Runciman, 'The End of Anna Dalassena,' "Annuaire de l' Institut de Philologie et d'Histoire Orientales et Slaves" 9 (1949, 517-524, where Runciman states that Alexios acquired power 'through the unflagging determination and the sedulous intrigues of his mother'
  28. ^ Zonaras 18.24
  29. ^ Alexiad 3.6.2
  30. ^ Alexiad 6.7.5
  31. ^ Guibert de Nogent 39; RHC Occ4, 132-3
  32. ^ Alexiad, 6.7.5, Zonaras 18.24
  33. ^ "Anna Dalassena Comnena". The Dinner Party: Heritage Floor. Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved 4 June 2012. 
  34. ^ Varzos 1984, pp. 61–64.
  35. ^ Varzos 1984, pp. 64–67.
  36. ^ Varzos 1984, pp. 64–79.
  37. ^ Varzos 1984, pp. 80–84.
  38. ^ Varzos 1984, pp. 85–86.
  39. ^ Varzos 1984, pp. 87–114.
  40. ^ Varzos 1984, pp. 114–117.
  41. ^ Varzos 1984, pp. 118–120.


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