Anna Comnena – Europe’s First Woman Historian

Anna Comnena, 12th century princess and writer

Anna Comnena, 12th century princess and writer

Anna Comnena was the first child of the Eastern Roman emperor, Alexios I Comnenus, born Dec. 1st, 1083 and named after Alexios’s mother, the determined Anna Dalassena. She was soon betrothed to Constantine Ducas, the son of a prior emperor, Michael VII Ducas. Young Constantine’s mother had been instrumental in helping Alexios gain the throne since Michael VII’s successor seemed likely to eliminate Constantine from his chance at ruling. Initially, the plan was for Constantine Ducas and Anna to succeed Alexios.

Anna was a bright and precocious girl with a deep interest in learning. She writes about how she pleaded with her parents to be taught more than just enough to read. Eventually, they gave in and she had tutors in subjects from medicine to history to mathematics.

Anna’s prized position as the betrothed of her father’s successor did not last. Her brother, John, was born in 1087, and a few years later Constantine Ducas died. The memory of her early years as the intended wife of the future emperor never left her, despite John becoming the obvious choice to succeed their father.

At the age of 14 she married Nikephoros Bryennios, a soldier loyal to her father about 20 years older than she was. Interestingly, an earlier Nikephoros Bryennios (probably the grandfather of Anna’s husband) rebelled against the Emperor Michael VI Stratioticous but was captured and blinded. Instead, Alexios’s uncle, Isaac Comnenus, took over the rebellion and became emperor in 1057. But back to Anna – she and Nikephoros were married for 40 years and had 4 children.

As an adult during her father’s reign Anna sponsored and supported a large hospital and orphanages. She and her mother, Irene, often travelled with Alexios on campaign to help treat his frequent bouts of gout.

Alexios died after ruling for 35 years in 1118. On his deathbed Alexios reputedly thrust his emperor’s ring into John’s hand, telling him to take the throne. Irene, on the other hand, supported Anna’s claim to the throne. Irene Ducaena was an unusual woman – the only medieval queen or empress I am aware of who wanted her daughter to succeed her husband rather than her son.

In any event, Anna’s efforts to gain the throne at her father’s death got nowhere, and an attempt a few months later was thwarted when her husband confessed the scheme to John. Anna and her mother were then confined to the Kecharitomene Monastery that Irene had founded.

Anna began writing her great history of her father’s reign, Alexiad, sometime after the deaths of her mother and husband. This hagiographic but elegant work recounts the major events of those 35 years, including the story of how he seized the throne, the arrival in Constantinople of the first Crusaders, and the sad recounting of Alexios’s death. The description of wars and battles, while interesting from a historical perspective, often pale in comparison to those more personal stories most historians cannot recount.

Anna Comnena lived a long life, surviving most of her 8 younger sibling, including Emperor John, whose reign was largely successful. She would even have been alive when Eleanor of Aquitaine visited Constantinople on the Second Crusade in 1146, but it is unlikely they ever met. Anna died at the Kecharitomene Monastery at the age of 70 in 1153.

You can read my short story imagining how Anna first began to write her history in my book, Tales of Byzantium.

I’ll close with the opening lines of her great work, words which can still seize our imagination (translated by E.R.A. Sewter):

“The stream of Time, irresistible, ever moving, carries off and bears away all things that come to birth and plunges them into utter darkness, both deeds of no account and deeds which are mighty and worthy of commemoration; as the playwright says, it ‘brings to light that which was unseen and shrouds from us that which was manifest’. Nevertheless, the science of History is a great bulwark against this stream of Time; in a way it checks this irresistible flood, it holds in a tight grasp whatever it can seize floating on the surface and will not allow it to slip away in the the depths of Oblivion.”

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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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