Biography of Anna Comnena, the First Female Historian

Hyperpyron of Alexius I Comnenus

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Byzantine Princess Anna Comnena (Dec. 1 or 2, 1083–1153) was the first woman known to personally record historical events as a historian. She also was a political figure who attempted to influence royal succession in the Byzantine Empire. In addition to "The Alexiad," her 15-volume history on her father's reign and related events, she wrote on medicine and ran a hospital and is sometimes identified as a physician.

Fast Facts: Anna Comnena

  • Known For: First female historian
  • Also Known As: Anna Komnene, Anna Komnena, Anna of Byzantium
  • Born: Dec. 1 or 2, 1083 in Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
  • Parents: Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, Irene Ducas
  • Died: 1153 in Constantinople, Byzantine Empire
  • Published Work: The Alexiad
  • Spouse: Nicephorus Bryennius

Early Life and Education

Anna Comnena was born on Dec. 1 or 2, 1083, in Constantinople, which was then the capital city of the Byzantine Empire and later of the Latin and Ottoman empires and finally of Turkey. It has been called Istanbul since the early 20th century. Her mother was Irene Ducas and her father was the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, who ruled from 1081 to 1118. She was the eldest of her father's children, born in Constantinople just a few years after he took over the throne as emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire by seizing it from Nicephorus III. Anna seems to have been a favorite of her father.

She was betrothed at a young age to Constantine Ducas, a cousin on her mother's side and a son of Michael VII, the predecessor to Nicephorus III, and Maria Alania. She was then placed under Maria Alania's care, a common practice of the time. The young Constantine was named a co-emperor and was expected to be heir to Alexius I, who at that time had no sons. When Anna's brother John was born, Constantine no longer had a claim on the throne. He died before the marriage could take place.

As with some other medieval Byzantine royal women, Comnena was well-educated. She studied the classics, philosophy, music, science, and mathematics. Her studies included astronomy and medicine, topics about which she wrote later in her life. As a royal daughter, she also studied military strategy, history, and geography.

Although she credits her parents with being supportive of her education, her contemporary, Georgias Tornikes, said at her funeral that she'd had to study ancient poetry—including "The Odyssey"—surreptitiously, as her parents disapproved of her reading about polytheism.

Marriage

In 1097 at the age of 14, Comnena married Nicephorus Bryennius, who was also a historian. They had four children together in their 40 years of marriage.

Bryennius had some claim to the throne as a statesman and general, and Comnena joined her mother, the Empress Irene, in a vain attempt to persuade her father to disinherit her brother, John, and replace him in the line of succession with Bryennius.

Alexius appointed Comnena to head a 10,000-bed hospital and orphanage in Constantinople. She taught medicine there and at other hospitals and developed expertise on gout, an illness from which her father suffered. Later, when her father was dying, Comnena used her medical knowledge to choose from among the possible treatments for him. He died despite her efforts in 1118, and her brother John became emperor, John II Comnenus.

Succession Plots

After her brother was on the throne, Comnena and her mother plotted to overthrow him and to replace him with Anna's husband, but Bryennius apparently refused to take part in the plot. Their plans were discovered and thwarted, Anna and her husband had to leave the court, and Anna lost her estates.

When Comnena's husband died in 1137, she and her mother were sent to live in the convent of Kecharitomene, which Irene had founded. The convent was devoted to learning, and there, at age 55, Comnena began serious work on the book for which she will long be remembered.

'The Alexiad'

A historical account of her father's life and reign that her late husband had begun, "The Alexiad" totaled 15 volumes when it was completed and was written in Greek rather than in Latin, the spoken language of her place and time. In addition to recounting her father's accomplishments, the book became a valuable source to later historians as a pro-Byzantine account of the early Crusades.

While the book was written to praise Alexius' accomplishments, Anna's place at court for most of the period it covered made it more than that. She had been privy to details that were unusually accurate for histories of the time period. She wrote about the military, religious, and political aspects of history and was skeptical of the value of the Latin church's First Crusade, which occurred during her father's reign.

She also wrote of her isolation at the convent and of her disgust with her husband's unwillingness to carry through with the plot that would have put him on the throne, noting that perhaps their genders should have been reversed.

Legacy

In addition to recounting her father's reign, the book describes religious and intellectual activities within the empire and reflects the Byzantine concept of the imperial office. It also is a valuable account of the early Crusades, including character sketches of the First Crusade's leaders and of others with whom Anna had direct contact.

Comnena also wrote in "The Alexiad" about medicine and astronomy, demonstrating her considerable knowledge of science. She included references to the accomplishments of a number of women, including her influential grandmother Anna Dalassena.

"The Alexiad" was first translated into English in 1928 by another pioneering woman, Elizabeth Dawes, a British classical scholar and the first woman to receive a doctorate in literature from the University of London.

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