Anna Comnena

Anna Comnena
(Anna Komnena)
(1083–ca. 1155)
   Anna Comnena was the daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexis I Comnenus, and is often considered the world’s first female historian. She is best known as the author of the Alexiad, a 15-book history of her father’s reign that is a major source for details about daily life in the Byzantine court, and for the Byzantine reactions to the Latin armies of the First Crusade.
   Anna was the oldest child of Alexis and his empress, Irene Doukas. Alexis, whose claim to the throne was tenuous, made Anna his heir and betrothed her to Constantine Doukas (whose father and grandfather had both been emperors). But when Anna’s brother John was born in 1087, the emperor changed his mind. In 1082 he disinherited Anna in favor of her brother. Anna turned to her studies and received a superior education in Greek literature, philosophy, history, theology, rhetoric, mathematics, and even medicine.When her husband Constantine died in 1097, she was remarried to another scholar, historian, and military leader, Nikephoros Bryennios, whose father had been a pretender to the throne.
   Upon her father’s death in 1118, Anna conspired with her mother to seize the throne from her brother John. But when her husband Bryennios refused to take part, the plot was discovered. The new emperor was lenient and spared his sister’s life, but confiscated her property.Anna, disappointed in her husband, reportedly cursed God for making her a woman. She had four surviving children and apparently lived with Bryennios until his death in 1137, after which she was confined to the convent Kecharitomene, which her mother Irene had founded.Here, she consoled herself with writing her Alexiad, which traced the history of her father’s rise to power, beginning in 1069, and the story of his reign (1081–1118). She is known to have still been writing the history in 1148, but certainly died before 1156, when a funeral oration was given in memory of her.
   Anna’s goals in writing the history were, first, to continue her husband’s composition, “Historical Materials,” that ended in 1079, and second, to ensure that her father’s accomplishments were not forgotten. She was able to rely to some extent on her own experiences and observations, but sought out other written sources and witnesses. Because of her family connections she had access to diplomatic correspondence and sometimes she quotes imperial decrees in full in the text of her history. The Alexiad is valued for its attention to detail and use of the best available sources, as well as for its contemporary account of the Byzantine attitude toward the greedy,“barbarous” Frankish crusaders. The text is also admired for its use of lively anecdotes, its detailed picture of Byzantine life, and its portrayal of characters, particularly of women. Anna’s own strong personality constantly comes through in her text, especially her intelligence, her family pride, her religious orthodoxy, and her hatred of the crusaders. Sometimes she appears as a character in her own text, traveling with her father or nursing him as he lies dying. But the hero of the text is clearly her father, who comes across as a near-epic figure, fighting to save his empire from crises fomented by disloyalty inside the empire and pressure from the outside. Alexis is called the 13th apostle and the luminary of the universe. Anna’s language—a classical Attic Greek rather than the colloquial language of Byzantium—recalls her infatuation with Homer, and reinforces the epic quality of her text. But ultimately Anna’s learning and access to detailed information make her text invaluable to scholars and entertaining to readers of all kinds.
   ■ Buckler, Georgiana Grenfell. Anna Comnena: A Study. 1929. Reprint, London: Oxford University Press, 1968.
   ■ Dalven, Rae. Anna Comnena. New York: Twayne, 1972.
   ■ Sewter, E.R.A., trans. The Alexiad of Anna Comnena. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1969.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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