Mysterious Anna, Empress of Rome

She was left out of most historical accounts and had the misfortune of ending up on the losing side twice over. But she was one of the few women in history (maybe even the only one) to be an Empress Consort twice. The historical traces of her are rare, and Wikipedia has her story mostly wrong in any language I am able to read. We talk of Princess Anna of Byzantium, Empress of Rome.

Vienne


In the East, Anna was born around 889 AD as a daughter of Emperor Leo VI The Wise of Byzantium and his later Empress Zoe Zautzina. The births of girls at the time were almost never recorded; even the year of birth has often to be deducted from contemporary or later sources. In Anna’s case, it is possible (but not proven) that the year of her birth might have been as early as 884, but polite and political Byzantine court historians moved it to 889 for marriage purposes.

Leo VI the Wise

They were not being polite to Anna. The real problem was that in 884, Leo was still married to Empress Theophanu Martiniakissa, while Zoe officially moved into the palace in 889. This still made Anna illegitimate as Zoe was married to Leo as late as 898. But at least it made her birth seem ‘almost’ legal by a live in concubine. Even though she was not born porphyrogenita, she would now be a valuable asset in a later marriage. Marriageable princesses were essential in Byzantine fiction of a unified Empire between Constantinople and Rome.

Basil I and Leo VI

In the West and after defeating Emperor Berengar I, King Louis of Lower Burgundy was crowned King of Italy in 900 and the court at Constantinople decided that Louis would be the next Roman Emperor. Descended from the Carolingian kings and adopted by Emperor Charles the Fat, he was a sure bet. Probably in 900, he was married to Anna of Byzantium. The exact date for the marriage is again not known, but the birth of their son Charles Constantine in 903 made the books. In 901, Louis was crowned emperor of Rome. In 902, he was handed a crushing defeat by Berengar and had to retreat to his kingdom under oath never to return to Italy. 

Leo VI and Constantine VII

Let me regress: The date of the marriage must be between 900 and 902 as Louis would have been of no interest to Byzantium before his victory or after his defeat; normally, the Byzantine court did not give any princesses in marriage below the age of 16 except in exceptional circumstances; even in exceptional circumstances, they would at least be 14 years old. 889 as a birth date for Anna is therefore unlikely.

Iron Crown of Lombardy

Louis made a second attempt to conquer Italy in 905; as the adopted son of Charles the Fat he was after all the rightful heir to the imperial crown of Rome. This turned out to be a bad decision. Again, he was defeated by Berengar I; worse, he was taken captive and blinded. He then was sent back to Lower Burgundy while Count Hugh of Arles took over the government of that kingdom in lieu of the blind king.

Berengar I

Of Anna’s time in Lower Burgundy almost nothing is known. Louis got married to Adelaide of Upper Burgundy in 914. Anna had just disappeared from the radar and was never mentioned again. There is no record of her death, no indication of a funeral or where she might be buried.

Boso and St Stephen

In Italy, Berengar I had become Margrave of Friuli in 874. He got married to Bertilla of Spoleto some time later probably in 880. In 887, Berengar had himself crowned King of Italy and in 915 as Emperor of Rome. His reign is sometimes cutely described as ‘troubled’. In fact, his grip on Italy was constantly threatened and often slipped from him in part or in toto. In 915, his wife Bertilla was poisoned.

Louis II

In unseemly haste, he married again. The name of his new wife was Anna of Byzantium. How had she got there? And was she the same as the wife of King Louis The Blind? Nobody knows for certain, but it is very possible that this was the case. The time slot is just too perfect to be ignored; and I personally do not believe in coincidence. There are two further theories as to that Anna; let’s look at those first.

Carolingian family tree

The wilder of the two theories wants to make this Anna a daughter of King Louis and Anna of Byzantium. This contradicts the writings of Anna’s contemporary Bishop Liutprand of Cremona who named her squarely as the daughter of Leo VI of Byzantium. Liutprand was a prat and a gossip, but he wouldn’t get that wrong. All this is to be mentioned quite apart from the possible age of the bride.

Arles

The second theory takes heed of Liutprand’s writing, and makes her a daughter of Leo VI, but not the same that had married Louis The Blind. This theory is probable but has a few huge stumbling blocks, too. The possibility that Leo would name two daughters Anna is minimal. As the parental connection would be the ‘surname’ of the child, such a move would be confusing even for contemporaries. Even if he did, she could not have been born before 900 or 901, when Louis and his Anna married and the name Anna became available again at the Byzantine court. That brings us back to the age problem. And an ageing and insecure Emperor Berengar did certainly not count as an emergency to marry off a barely 14 year old princess. And while we have some proof for the birth of the first Anna, the second one is never mentioned anywhere.

Arles

That leaves the intriguing possibility that the two didn't just share a name, but were the same person. There are several pointers in that direction. There is the timeline which is too close for comfort. 914, Anna disappeared from Lower Burgundy, 915 there is a hasty marriage after a poisoning in Italy. Byzantine princesses married to foreign rulers often acted a chief spies for the emperor. They gathered information and reported it back home. It is therefore possible that Anna was ordered from Lower Burgundy by the advisers of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus to be redeployed to Italy. And an insecure Emperor like Berengar would stop at nothing to get some help from a powerful ally.

Arles

Bishop Liutprand of Cremona gives no clue in his writings that Louis was married at all. His started writing in 915 and his whole work is a concerted diatribe against Louis. In his work, he called him a lecher, a degenerate, an incompetent, and an idiot. All this was completely unnecessary if it was aimed at legitimizing Berengar over Louis as Roman Emperor. A blinded man like Louis was incapable of ever reclaiming the crown again. The reason then could have been to legitimize Anna as the new Empress. There was hardly any other reason to cover ground that had been bereft of any importance ten years earlier.

Arles

Divorce as we know it was unknown at the time. All you could do was get an annulment from the Pope. Usually, if you brought along a big enough army to the discussion, this was granted. An annulment would make Anna’s children by Louis illegitimate and would explain why they were unable to secure the succession in Lower Burgundy. A further indication of that possibility can be found in the fact that they never tried to succeed their father.

Arles

Anna disappeared from history again in Italy. But in a constantly war-torn country the fate of a dowager Empress and wife to a hated Emperor could easily be forgotten.