Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Anna Comnena, Byzantine Princess and Historian

Anna Comnena (born 1 December 1083)


"Born and bred in the Purple"--porphyrogenita--is the way the Byzantine princess Anna Comnena describes herself in the preface of her fifteen-book history, The Alexiad.

The eldest child of Alexius I Comnenos, emperor of Byzantium, and the empress Irene Doukaina, Anna would also write not only that her birth had been greeted with "acclamations . . . gifts and honours" by the "leaders of the Senate and the army" but that her "parents honoured [her] too with a crown and imperial diadem." 

Although the imperial couple's third child, a son, would succeed his father as emperor, Anna did not relinquish her imperial ambitions without a fight--a long and hard fight.

She was extraordinarily well educated--or, as she puts it, she is "not without some acquaintance with literature." She "devoted the most earnest study" to Greek and to the study of rhetoric. She "read thoroughly the treatises of Aristotle and the dialogues of Plato" and "fortified [her] mind with the Quadrivium of sciences" (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music).

She was also capable and ambitious. But instead of succeeding her father as the basillisa, as she seems to have expected, when she was nine she witnessed her younger brother proclaimed as basileus. And then, when she was fourteen, she was married to Nicephorus Bryennius, a soldier and statesman.

But, with her mother's support, she persisted in her efforts to have her father recognize her as his successor. Their pressures were not successful, and when the emperor died in 1118, Anna's brother, John, was proclaimed emperor.

Anna Comnena was widely believed to be a part of a plot to murder John at Alexius's funeral, and she seems to have conspired, with her mother, in her brother's overthrow. Her husband, however, refused to support his wife's claims against the new emperor.

Contemporary chroniclers and more recent historians cast a great deal of shade on Anna--but it's hard, now, to sort out her exact role, if any, or to decide whether much of the vituperation is because of her sex. How dare she.

After her unsuccessful attempts to remove her brother from the throne, Anna Comnena forfeited her property and was removed from court. After her husband's death in 1137, she either retired, or was forced to retire, to the convent of Kecharitomene.

There, at the age of fifty-five, she began writing The Alexiad, an account of her father's reign, certainly, but also a vivid portrait of the history of the period, including an account of the First Crusade, not from the perspective of the self-glorifying Christian warriors from the west, but from the point of view of the Christians in the east.

Anna Comnena died about the year 1153--thankfully, she did not live to see the sack of Constantinople by those western Crusaders in 1204.

The Alexiad is available online at the Internet History Sourcebook--you can access it by clicking here. There is also a very affordable Penguin edition.

Update, December 2016: An excellent biography of Anna Comnena was published late in 2016, Leonora Neville's Anna Komnene: The Life and Work of a Medieval Historian. Here Neville addresses both Anna Comnena's efforts at self-representation as well as later historians' versions of her: 
[Neville] begins by asking why women did not write history in Anna's society, what cultural rules Anna broke by doing so, and how Anna tried to respond to those challenges in her writing. Many of the idiosyncrasies and surprises of Anna's Alexiad are driven by her efforts to be perceived as both a good historian and a good woman. These new interpretations of Anna's authorial persona then spark a thorough re-thinking of the standard story which defines Anna's life by the failure of her supposed political ambitions.

For an insightful review, you will want to read Barbara Newman's "Byzantine Laments" from the London Review of Books: click here.