Anna Comnena, Historian and Byzantine Princess

First Woman to Write a History

Hyperpyron of Alexios I Komnenos
Hyperpyron of Alexios I Komnenos, father of Anna Komnene. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Anna Comnena, a Byzantine princess, is the first woman known to write a history.  She was a political figure in her medieval world, attempting to influence the royal succession. She also wrote on medicine and ran a hospital, and is sometimes identified as a physician. Sources differ on her birthdate—either December 1 or 2 of 1083.  She died in 1153.

Ancestry

Her mother was Irene Ducas, and her father the Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, ruled 1081-1118. Anna Comnena was the eldest of her father's children, born in Constantinople just a few years after he won the throne as emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire by seizing it from Nicephorus III. Anna Comnena seems to have been a favorite of her father.

Betrothal

Anna Comnena was betrothed at a young age to Constantine Ducas, a cousin on her mother's side and a son of Michael VII, predecessor to Nicephorus III, and Maria Alania. She was then placed under the care of Maria Alania, mother of her fiance, as was a common practice. 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. Constantine died before the marriage could take place.

Education

As with some other medieval Byzantine royal women, Anna Comnena was educated well. She studied the classics, philosophy, and music, but she also studied science and mathematics. This included astronomy and medicine, topics on which she wrote later in her life.  As a member of royalty, 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 her reading about polytheism.

Marriage

In 1097, at age 14, Anna Comnena married Nicephorus Bryennius, who had some claim to the throne. Nicephorus was also an historian. Anna and her mother, the Empress Irene, plotted to have Anna's husband succeed Alexius in place of Anna's brother John, but this plot failed.  They had four children in their forty years of marriage.

Alexius appointed Anna as the head of a 10,000-bed hospital and orphanage in Constantinople. She taught medicine there and at other hospitals.  She developed expertise on gout, an illness from which her father suffered.

Death of Alexius I Comnenus

When her father was dying, Anna Comnena used her medical knowledge to choose among the possible treatments. He died, despite her efforts, in 1118, and her brother John became emperor.

Anna Comnena Plots Against Her Brother

Anna Comnena and her mother Irene plotted to overthrow her brother, and replace him with her husband, but her husband apparently refused to take part in the plot. The plot was discovered and thwarted, and Anna and her husband left the court, and Anna lost her estates.

When Anna Comnena's husband died in 1137, Anna Comnena and her mother were sent to a convent of Kecharitomene that Irene had founded.  

Anna Comnena's History and Writing: The Alexiad

While in the convent, Anna Comnena began to write a history of her father's life and reign which her husband had begun. The history, The Alexiad, was 15 volumes when completed and was written in Greek rather than Latin.

While The Alexiad was written to praise Alexius' accomplishments, Anna's place at court for most of the period covered meant that the details were unusually accurate for histories of the time period. She wrote of 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.

In The Alexiad Anna Comnena also wrote on medicine and astronomy, and demonstrates her considerable knowledge of science. She included references to the accomplishments of a number of women, including her grandmother, Anna Dalassena.

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

Irene died there in 1153.

The Alexiad was first translated into English in 1928 by Elizabeth Dawes.

Also known as: Anna Komnene, Anna Komnena, Anna of Byzantium