Nicephorus Bryennius and Anna Comnena: The "Roman" Xenophon and Thucydides of Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Constantinople

By John C. Rouman, Ph.D.

The Greek Institute
Cambridge, Massachusetts

An illuminated Gospel ca. 1128, now in the Vatican. Tempera and gold on vellum; 7-1/4 x 4-3/4 in. Images are of Emperor John II Komnenos and his son Alexios.
My dear friends and colleagues, I am at once both honored and humbled by your invitation to address you this evening. In addition to the quality of the contributions made by distinguished Hellenic scholars to the work of The Greek Institute, there is its basic raison d'être, namely, the furthering of our knowledge of Greek culture, as a continuing unity, not broken by the arbitrary demarcations of time which have since the Renaissance been imposed by western scholars upon the Greek language, Greek history, and Greek literature. Thus, in this noble campaign to vindicate the truth and reality of our rich heritage, I can consider myself no more than the lowest infantry recruit, one among many, holding a narrow line near the front. I am, consequently, honored, as I have said, to be singled out to give you a report on what my battle-line efforts have achieved.

Like the Transcendental poet John Donne, I also begin with my name, John Rouman, at once marking me as something of a contradiction. Throughout my long career of teaching, well over three decades, students found that I had the wrong name. How could John Rouman be the Greek teacher? He had to be the Latin teacher! But there it is and in this conundrum of freshman lies a deep insight into the interrelationship of Greece and Rome. My name is Rouman precisely because, throughout the long period of the Byzantine Middle Ages, the Greeks in Constantinople, Greece, and Anatolia regarded themselves as Romans. And so they were. To a certain extent they still are, for today in Constantinople, the Turkish authorities continue to refer to the Greeks living in the City as Romans. They were through the long Ottoman captivity called "Rum Millet."

But now let us begin ab ovo where we almost always begin, with the very ancient city of Troy, whose last decade of life gave epic focus to all Greek history, both political and literary. Troy was also viewed by Ennius, Vergil, and Augustus, the first Emperor, as Rome's own Mother City in Asia. Almost in the shadow of Aeneas' native Ida, the Emperor-Saint Constantine the Great founded his Second or New Rome. In fact, the ecclesiastical historian Socrates tells us that at first the Emperor Constantine had planned to found Constantinople on the very site of Troy and had already begun to build the City when he was warned in a dream by Christ Himself to found the capital rather on the site of Megarian Byzantium.

The history linking Greeks and Romans is very long. The Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who was a contemporary of the great Roman epic poet Vergil and the Emperor Augustus, regarded the Romans as Greeks and the Latin language as an extreme dialect of Greek.

The first movement was from East to West, with the Trojans of Aeneas, the Etruscans, and in the sixth century the colonists of Magna Graecia, especially the Corinthian founders of Sicilian Syracuse, the Athens of the West. By the end of the third century B.C., the movement had been reversed, with the Romans crushing Antigonid Macedonia and becoming the power of first rank as far as the banks of the Euphrates. As the Empire grew more cosmopolitan in the second century after Christ, emperors such as Hadrian spent more of the time and energies in the Greek East. With the revival of the Persian threat in the third century, the emperors, who were now almost exclusively of Illyrian-Pannonian stock, moved the center of Roman power to the East on an ever more permanent basis, culminating in 337 with the official consecration of Constantinople as New Rome.

Marble relief tondo from Constantinople. Size 35-3/8 in. Probably dates 12th century. Now in Dumbarton Oaks Collection in Washington, D.C. Image generally identified as John II Komnenos who ruled 1092-1118.
Almost immediately after the Consecration of Constantinople in 337, an event, by the way, still remembered in the calendar of the Orthodox Church, large numbers of the Roman nobility left Italy to take up residence in the new capital on the Bosporus. A last great wave of migration, however, from the Greek East to the Latin West swelled in the seventh century when the persecution of Orthodox Christians by their Iconoclast rulers drove many into exile in Sicily and Italy. This ended after the restoration of Orthodox Christianity and the veneration of icons in 843.

The result of this symbiosis was the development of Greco-Roman culture which represents the final and perpetual state of classical civilization as it is understood universally today. Contrary, however, to the common practice of divorcing pre- and post-Constantinian Roman history by styling the latter Byzantine, the Roman Empire, centered at Constantinople, while changing in significant ways, remained legally and consciously Roman until the murder of the last Constantine by the Turks in the middle of the fifteenth century. The title "Byzantine" was quite unheard-of during that millennium which was the glorious life span of New Rome. It was, rather, introduced for the first time by seventeenth-century contemporaries of the glorious French king Louis XIV as a purely chronological device to distinguish the Christian period of Roman history from its pagan antecedent. Once formulated, however, this artificial rupture became a historical commonplace and inspired Arnold Toynbee and his man Epigones (Επίγονοι) in their distorting and denigrating of the medieval history of the Greek-speaking Roman Empire.

Such great historians, on the other hand, as J.B. Bury, A. A. Vasiliev, and G. Ostrogorsky did much to se the records straight. The removal of the Roman power to Constantinople resulted in changes and itself was the result not only of political necessity but also of the slow, steady conversion of Greco-Roman civilization to Orthodox Christianity. The empire had been bilingual and thus, as the western provinces were quickly lost to barbarian invaders in the fifth century A.D., it is hardly surprising that what emerged in Constantinople was a Greek-speaking state. Charles Diehl describes it aptly, when he says that we are confronted with a society that was Greek in language and literature, Christian in theology and outlook, Roman in its politics, laws, and sovereign self-awareness.1

Now let us look more closely at this unique phenomenon of the linguistically Greek, theologically Christian, Roman Empire at the end of the eleventh and the beginning of the twelfth centuries, the reign of the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus from 1081 to 1118, as seen through the eyes of two contemporary historians of Alexius' own immediate dynasty, the Caesar Nicephorus Bryennius, Alexius' son-in-law, and Anna Comnena, the daughter of Alexius and the widow of Bryennius. The Augustan dimensions of the united Roman Empire, decisively restored by Saint Constantine in 324, were broken finally after the death of the Emperor-Saint Theodosius the Great in 395. The great lawgiver, Emperor-Saint Justinian, restored
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Italy, Africa, and Spain to the Roman Empire but his immediate successors lost most of this territory again to Germanic, Hunnish, and Slavic invaders. After the death in 641 of the Emperor Heraclius, who had finally and gloriously crushed the Neo-Persian Empire, the irresistible military flood of Islamic fanaticism cut Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Africa, Spain, and the large Mediterranean islands from Roman control. The energetic Isaurian emperors of the eighth century set the more or less fixed frontiers of the Roman Empire during its medieval period. Thus, it comprised Italy south of Rome, the lower Balkans, Greece, and Asia Minor. The great Macedonian emperors produced a flush of generals who, sitting on the imperial throne between 867 and 1025, proved to be military geniuses of first rank. Nicephorus II (963-969) retook Crete and Cyprus, restoring Roman naval power, while more dramatically advancing Roman arms to the conquest of Cilicia and the great city of Antioch. John I Tzimisces (969-976) advanced to the heart of the Caliphate of Bagdad, seizing Edessa and Nisibis in Mesopotamia as well as Damascus and Beirut in Syria, so that Islamic control of Jerusalem was now threatened by Roman arms. The greatest of Roman emperors of the High Middle Ages, Basil II Bulgaroctonus, "the Bulgar-slayer" (963-1025), confirmed these advances to the Empire's apogee in 1025. With the later Macedonian emperors, and especially the gentle and elderly empresses Zoe and Theodora, most of this glory melted into defeat and humiliation. In 1071, Bari, the lat Roman stronghold in Italy, fell to the Normans. The Seljuk Turks not only reclaimed Syria for Islam but also devastated Armenia and Asia Minor, the wealthy heartland of the medieval Roman Empire.

At this moment there appeared to assume the purple a man of great military and diplomatic genius, Alexius I Comnenus who, during a reign of forty years, managed to reverse the devastating tide of retreat that had not relented since the death of Basil II in 1025. He was the leader of the party of the great landowners of Asia who had supported the highly successful Macedonian emperors. He managed to break the political power of the party of the bureaucracy of Constantinople. These powerful bureaucrats were scholarly men, antimilitaristic by nature, whose fear of the army and whose neglect of military spending (shades of the Clinton administration) contributed to the decline of Roman imperial prestige on every front. Thus, his antipathy toward the political dominance of the bureaucracy of the capital and his efforts to stabilize inflation might earn for Alexius I Comnenus the epithet of the "Ronald Reagan" of Constantinople.

Alexius restored Roman power in the Balkans and in 1095 took the offensive against the Turks in Asia Minor. Alexius was also an astute diplomat, whose efforts contributed no little part in stimulating the German and Frankish nobility to mount the First Crusade, which arrived in the East at about the middle of his reign. Alexius cleverly bound most of these heady and ambitious knights to his cause by oaths, and, as a result of their victories in Palestine, recovered for Roman power the provinces of Asia and the city of Antioch.

The first of our historians, Nicephorus Bryennius, wrote a history in four books2, which covers the nine years prior to the reign of his father-in-law, a time when his own grandfather had unsuccessfully contested for the throne with Michael VII and Nicephorus III. His aim in writing was to glorify the reign of Alexius and his Comnenian dynasty. Bryennius, who held the position of Caesar, or heri presumptive of Alexius I, had intended to write a full account of his reign. A

Mosaic of John II Komnenos currently in south gallery of Hagia Sophia, Constantinople. Dates to ca. 1122.
lthough death prevented him from accomplishing this design, he did succeed in composing a thorough dynastic chronicle, a primary source of the period and a detailed account of the every increasing threat of Turkish advances against the entrenched power of Constantinople. Simple and Xenophontic in style, Bryennius exhibits little, if any, of the literary polish and charm found in his wife's more creative history.

Anna Comnena's Alexiad3, like Livy's Ab Urbe Condita, has been styled an epic poem in prose. This work is probably the most important production of the Comnenian Renaissance, the fourth period of Byzantine literary history. As one would expect of an educated, dutiful, and devoted daughter, Anna glorifies the greatness of Alexius, calling him "the luminary of the universe."4 As was noted by Anna's biographer F. J. Foakes-Jackson,"almost as far down as the nineteenth century a woman as an historian was indeed a rara avis. When therefore a princess arose in one of the most momentous movements in human history she surely deserves the respectful attention of posterity."5

Taking up the tale where her husband left off, Anna presents the rise of her dynasty prior to the accession of her father. She carries the story to the death of her father in 1118. In her Preface she strikes the keynote of her work. Having been "born and nurtured in the purple," Anna states her wish to hand down to posterity the imperial records of her father's great deeds, "not meet to be delivered over to silence." Her Preface features quotations from Polybius, Sophocles, Euripides (two), Homer, as well as allusions to the Bible and mythology, and finally historical references, four in number. These classical authors, as well as the Greek lyric poets, the Athenian dramatists, the orators such as Isocrates and Demosthenes, the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, are found to have affected her style, revealing the thoroughness of her classical training. Most significant is her debt to Thucydides and, to a lesser extent, to Polybius. Anna without a doubt made a conscious effort to imitate the historian of the Peloponnesian War, whose masterpiece antedates hers by some sixteen centuries. She draws words from Thucydides as well as mannerisms of style. As a result, her work features an extremely archaic and school-bound Greek diametrically opposed to the popularly spoken language of her father's subjects and surely incomprehensible to all, save those as thoroughly educated as herself. Curiously enough, Anna does not explicitly acknowledge any debt to Thucydides. She nowhere quotes him or even cites his name. Her husband Bryennius had, by contrast, coupled Thucydides with Demosthenes as his ideal of high literary style. As I have said, however, Anna's likenesses to Thucydidean language and style are fundamental to her work.

Anna does employ a goodly number of what we must call old Latin words, words directly related to the imperial governmental and legal heritage of Rome.6 First, we find many titles and offices, the most common being Caesar (Και̃σαρ), which generally refers to her husband Bryennius, and Augusta (Αυγούστα), which is always applied to her mother, Empress Irene Ducas. While the titles nobilissimus and dux are primarily and almost exclusively used for officials of her father's empire, the designations reges,

Funerary Inscription on marble attributed to Isaac Komnenos, ca. 2nd half of 12th cent. Size is 37-3/8 x 39 in. Plaque now at Ecclesiastical Museum in Alexandroupolis, Greece.
principes, and comites refer to the Crusaders. It is significant that the ruler of Germany, who designated himself as Holy Roman Emperor, is called Rex Alamaniae, King of Germany, by Anna, who clearly thus reserves the Roman imperial title for the truly legitimate successors of Augustus and Saint Constantine, her father and his imperial predecessors in Constantinople. The title rex is also applied to the newly created kings of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. The title magister militum was used by Anna to refer to the governors of Naples. Other Latin words found in the Alexiad are palatium (Παλάτιον), officium (οφφίκιον), commercium (κομμέρκιον), roga (ρόγα), referring to salaries or largesses to the people, praetorium (πραιτώριον), referring to a ducal sat, signa (σίγνα), centrum (κέντρον), curator (κουράτωρ), castellium (καστέλλιον), excusatum (εξκουσάτον), a trade exemption, and turba (τύρβη), a word coined by Anna to designate a "tumult." Above all, the substantive Romani, (Ρωμαι̃οι), is used some 182 times, always referring to what we wrongly tend to call the Byzantines. The adjective Romanus, Ρωμαϊκός, appears some 110 times, once referring to bravery (ανδρεία), a standard (σημαία), a border (όρος), the people (δη̃μος), the empire (βασιλεία), the dynasty (δυναστεία), the country (χώρα), and the law (νόμος); twice to authority (εξουσία) and the scepter (σκη̃πτρον); three times to a squadron (σύνταγμα); four times to a boundary (όριον); five times to a battle array (παράταξις) and to regiments (τάγματα); six times to power (δύναμις); fifteen times to the phalanx (φάλαγξ); twenty-three times to the fleet (στόλος); and thirty-seven times to the army (στρατία and στράτευμα) of her father, Alexius I.

This information comes primarily from the 1976 Index of Anna Comnena by Paul Gautier. The purpose of my current scholarship is to complete my translation of Nicephorus Bryennius' important History with a Commentary and an Index. I do not make claim to be a historian or to be able to concentrate on the events per se of the reign of Alexius I. Rather, as a Hellenist with wide linguistic training and long experience in teaching classical works in all the varied dialects of ancient Greek, I hope to study the language of Nicephorus Bryennius, tracing it back in precise and specific instances to his ancient models. Although I began Latin late in my career, I have for more than thirty years taught Roman authors from every period of Latin literature, so that, consequently, I shall also be able to estimate the Latin Roman quality and quantity of the word employed by Bryennius in his history. Finally, also, since I am by blood and tradition a Greek, having learned the modern Hellenic language as a child from my mother, I can gauge also evolving tendencies in this medieval Greek text which echo into our own time.

The act of translation is both exhilarating and frustrating. Translation provides the opportunity for close and prolonged companionship with an author -- in this case Nicephorus Bryennius -- and that is cause indeed for exhilaration. Frustration results from the recognition that translation can never reproduce the original. For a decade I have been working on the first translation into English of the History of Nicephorus Bryennius, a work in four

Illustrated Manuscript on Homilies on the Life of the Virgin by James the Monk; Constantinople; ca 1125-50; tempera and gold on vellum; 13 x 9 in.; now in Vatican Library. James the Monk "served as the spiritual adviser and confidant of Irene Sebastokratorissa, sister-in-law of Emperior Manuel I Komnennos and one of the most active literary patrons of the twelfth century," according to Prof. Jeffrey Anderson of George Washington University (pp109-110, The Glory of Byzantium, edd Helen Evans and William Wixom, 1997).

I have completed a first draft, using the Greek text which August Meineke edited in the series Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, [25] (Bonnae, 1836). A new critical and definitive edition of the Greek text by Paul Gautier was published in 1975 which corrects certain errors found in the Bonn edition of 1836. As a result of Gautier's linguistic scholarship, I had to rework my translation almost entirely. Now I must add an introduction and notes to my translation to make this important account useful not only to specialists in Byzantine and Ottoman history, but to the general reader as well.

It is particularly in the prefaces of classical historians that we find the grand statements of their designs, ideals, and purposes. In this practice of penning stately prologues Anna and her husband Nicephorus Bryennius follow in the footsteps of Xenophon, Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, and Tacitus. Bryennius, in his elaborate dedication to the Empress Irene Ducas, seems to echo Livy when he writes: "And so . . . in your wisdom you have proposed to me the noblest task I could image by making me tell the achievements of Alexius the Great, who, after having received the Roman Empire in the hardest circumstances, brought it up again perfectly, carrying it to heights of glory."8 Bryennius goes on to refer to the great Roman republican hero Scipio Africanus Aemilianus, the paragon of Cicero's ideals in his Republic and De Amicitia, whose birthday, says Cicero, will always be recalled with joy as long as the Roman state will remain.9 Almost twelve centuries later, Nicephorus Bryennius does remember Scipio Aemilianus and compares his hero Alexius I to him. The seventeen-year-old Alexius in 1073 followed his older brother Isaac on a campaign in Cappadocia just as at the same age of seventeen and later Scipio, still known as Lucius Aemilius Paullus, fought in the great victory of his father Pydna in 168 B.C. over Perseus, the last king of Macedonia.10 Anna, likewise, compares her father Alexius to the two great Scipios, the elder Africanus and Aemilianus.11

Thus, by this rather detailed review of the reign of Alexius I, as portrayed by Bryennius and Anna, we see that in the view of the rulers and highest nobility of Constantinople, there is simply no contradiction in the fact that, despite their having almost no knowledge of the Latin language and the Latin classics, despite their being almost completely and exclusively immersed in Greek classical culture, despite their devotion to Orthodox Christianity, despite their being in opposition religiously to the Roman Pope and politically to the Latin-speaking Italian, Frankish, and Norman Crusaders -- despite all these things, they see themselves simply as Romans and see their empire as the same state that was led and rendered undyingly glorious by the valor and statecraft of the Scipios and the Caesars.

Thank you!


1. Baynes and Moss, p. 3.

2. Historiarum Libri Quattuor, C.F.H.B., IX, edited by Paul Gautier, Bruxelles, 1975.

3. Alexiade, 3 volumes, edited by Bernard Leib, Paris, 1937-1945.

4. Vasiliev, Vol. II, p. 489; Alexiade, XV, 11.

5. Vasiliev, Vol. II, p. 489; F. J. Foakes-Jackson, “Anna Comnena,” Hibbert Journal, XXXIII, 1934-35, p. 430.

6. Buckler, pp. 485-88.

7. Alexiade, Index, by Paul Gautier, Paris, 1976, pp. 109-110.

8. Bryennius, Preface, 10, pp. 69, 71.

9. De Amicitia, 14: “quem tamen esse natum et nos gaudemus et haec civitas dum erit laetabitur.”

10. Bryennius, II, 3, pp. 145, 147.

11. Alexiade, I, 1.


Baynes, N.H. and H. St. L. B. Moss. Byzantium: An Introduction to East Roman Civilization. Oxford: University Press, 1962.

Bryennius, Nicephorus. Commentarii. Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, [XXV]. Ed. By August Meineke. Bonnae: Impensis Ed. Weberi, 1836.

Bryennius, Nicephorus. Historiarum Libri Quattuor. Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae, IX. Ed. By Paul Gautier. Bruxelles: Byzantion, 1975.

Buckler, Georgina. Anna Comnena. Oxford: University Press, 1929.

Bury, J. B. History of the Later Roman Empire. 2 volumes. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1958.

Comnena, Anna. Alexiade. Volumes 1-3. Ed. By Bernard Leib. Collection Byzantine. Paris: Société d’ édition «Les Belles Letters», 1937-1945.

Comnena, Anna. Alexiade. Index. Volume 4. Ed. By Paul Gautier. Collection Byzantine. Paris: Société d’édition «Les Belles Lettres», 1976.

Ostrogorsky, G. History of the Byzantine State. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1969.

Vasiliev, A. A. History of the Roman Empire. 2 volumes. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1958.