Welcome back to our series celebrating Women’s History Month! Meet Anna Komnene – a Greek Byzantine princess AND the first female historian.
Women’s History Month: Meet Anna Komnene – first female historian
Anna Komnene, (1083-1153), known as the first female historian, was the first of seven children born to the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius I, and his wife, the Empress Irene (Doukaina) Komnene. The princess’s birth, in the Porphyra Chamber (purple room) of the palace in Constantinople, heralded her regal lineage and her entitlement to the very best that Byzantium education and her father’s empire could offer to a male or female heir- apparent.
As an infant, Princess Anna was betrothed to Constantine Doukas, the son of Emperor Michael VII and Empress Maria of Alania. At that time, Anna had no brothers, so Constantine was conferred the title, co-emperor of the Byzantine Empire. The princess’s ascension to her father’s thrown appeared to be forever
lost with the birth of her brother, John, several years later. Soon afterwards, Princess Anna had to endure the death of her fiancé. Anna’s hopes of laying claim to her father’s thrown were rekindled with her marriage to Nikephoros Bryennios, an aristocrat who had established a reputation as a general, historian, and statesman. The couple had four children during their forty-year marriage.
Princess Anna had the intellectual prowess to understand the most sophisticated political stratagems, the esoteric theories of philosophers, the complexities of mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. She was tutored in history, geography,
literature, the Classics, rhetoric, religion, and the Greek language. Her sharp intellect and obedient nature endeared her to both parents. Anna reveals her character in the preface of her book:
“At every age, from my birth until now, I carried out their wishes.”
Anna’s command of the practical together with her vast knowledge made her the logical appointee to oversee the orphanages and hospitals in Constantinople.
The first female historian — Greek Byzantine Princess Anna Komnene. COURTESY THEPOWELLS.COM
Fight for the throne
Anna never accepted her brother as the rightful ruler. Even though Alexius I had declared John his successor soon after birth, Empress Irene pleaded with her husband to appoint Anna’s husband as the designated emperor. According to an account by Niketas Choniates, John surreptitiously removed the Emperor’s ring during a feigned embrace of grief when Emperor Alexius I died in 1118. The empress and her princess conspired to murder Emperor John II, during the emperor’s funeral. Their foiled attempt sealed the fate of both women. In one account, Emperor John II banished his empress-mother immediately to the monastery that she founded, Kecharitomene, or Mother of God. Princess Anna was stripped of all her property, but she was permitted to live in the palace until her husband died. She then joined her mother, in exile, at the same monastery, where she remained until her death. Princess Anna held her husband accountable for the failed plot, because Nikephoros refused to have any role in the murder of John, whom he had befriended.
Princess Anna Komnene is credited for writing the first historical biography of her father’s dynasty. The work is a compilation of memories, facts, traditions, personal anecdotes, daily life in Byzantium, battles, and the only documentation of the First Crusade. Her book, The Alexiad of Anna Comnena, by Anna Komnene, is organized as 15 mini books, each with its own theme.
In the preface, Princess Anna states her purpose for writing the book — to preserve her father’s accomplishments and ensure his rightful place in history. The book has been translated into English by Elizabeth A. S. Dawes.
Books I through IX contain personal and factual accounts. Anna’s adulation for her father is apparent from the onset. She relied on the first-hand accounts of military generals to augment her own knowledge in documenting the wars with the Normans, Turks, Scythians, and Alexius’ battles against the pirate Tzachas and the Dalmatians. Book X outlines the preparations for the First Crusade. It is in Book XI where Anna explains her father’s request for help from Pope Urban II to defeat the Turks who were invading from the southern and eastern borders of his empire.
Books XII, XIII, XIV cover domestic conflicts, the second Norman invasion, the signing of the Treaty of Devol, the rise of Turkish forces, and ongoing problems with the Franks. The emperor develops health problems and the princess uses her knowledge of medicine to treat him. In Book XV, Emperor Alexius goes on his last expedition, makes peace with the Turks, and builds an orphanage before he succumbs to his illness.
Anna Komnene’s THE ALEXIAD. She’s not only the first female historian, but she’s also the first historian to chronicle the life and times in Byzantium.
Anna Komnene: first female historian
Not only is Anna Komnene known as the first female historian, but she is the first historian to have chronicled the life and times in Byzantium, Anna Komnene contributed historical facts that would otherwise not be known. Referring to The Alexiad of Anna Comnena Summary & Study Guide Description, (from BookRags. (c) 2017, BookRags, Inc.), the reader embarks on a factual account of the differences between the Roman Catholic Crusaders, (whom Anna describes as barbarians), and the civilized Greek Orthodox East. The Crusaders’ refusal to follow Alexius’ counsel in combatting the Turks undermined the Emperor’s military strategy, while their lust for the riches and wealth of the Byzantine Empire led to destruction and pillage.
Her historical account is the only such history written by a princess about her father. With her writings, the Byzantium princess Anna Komnene, preserved her own legacy… for eternity.
Anna Komnene’s Will by Stratis Papaioannou, 2011 books.google.com
“The Alexiad of Anna Comnena” Summary & Study Guide Description, books.google.com
“Anna Comnena, Byzantine Historian of the First Crusade (1083-1153)”, from Women in World History Curriculum by Lyn Reese