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Anna Comnena


About Anna Comnena:

Known for: First woman known to write a history
Occupation: Byzantine princess, political figure, medieval historian, medical writer
Dates: December 1 or 2 (sources differ), 1083 - 1148
Also known as: Anna Komnene, Anna Komnena, Anna of Byzantium


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 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.

Anna Comnena Biography:

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. But Constantine died before the marriage could take place.

Education of Anna Comnena:

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

Marriage of Anna Comnena:

In 1097, 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.

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 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.

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

Anna Comnena's History and Writing: The Alexiad:

There, 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.

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

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