Anna Comnena was born in 1083 CE in Constantinople (Istanbul) the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The eldest daughter of Alexios Comnena, the Byzantine Emperor and Irene Doukas, Anna was a Byzantine Princess by birth.
A coin from Alexios Comnena's reign 1081-1118 CE
As a royal woman Anna was well educated studying a range of subjects including astronomy and medicine. Interestingly for her time as a key member of the royal family she also studied military strategy, history and geography.
Anna was particularly well educated because after her birth it took her parents a long time to produce a male heir, and so, as the eldest child, the Empire would pass to her husband through her claim. She was betrothed to her cousin Constantine Doukas at a young age and Constantine was made Co-Emperor with Alexios and the heir to the throne when he died.
Shortly after this the Alexios and Irene did have a son, John, who disinherited Constantine and Anna. Constantine died before they could marry, so at the age of 14 Anna was married to Nicephorus Bryennius, an Historian and General with a vague claim to the throne. Anna and her mother tried to use this claim to argue that her bother John should be bypassed and the Crown go to Nicephorous instead.
As her father’s favourite child Anna seems to have been given a lot of power and some really important roles. She was appointed by Alexios to head a 10,000 bed hospital and orphanage where she taught medicine – specialising in treating gout which her father suffered from.
Anna’s life starts to get really interesting after her Father becomes sick. Anna uses her medical expertise to try and treat his illness, but it becomes apparent that he is dying. Eventually despite her best efforts he succumbs to his illness and her brother John II Comnena becomes Emperor.
After her bother is invested as Emperor Anna and her mother begin planning to overthrow John with the aim of replacing him with Nicephorous. Nicephorous supposedly refused to take part in the plot and their plans were discovered by John.
This lead to Anna and her husband being banished, and Anna losing her positions and estates. After Anna’s husband died in 1137 she and her mother were sent to live in a Convent devoted to learning. Aged 55 this is when Anna starts to write her 15-volume history ‘The Alexiad’.
‘The Alexiad’ is primarily a first-hand account of the reign of her father. Written in Greek, rather than her native Latin the history recounts her father’s accomplishments and is generally regarded as an invaluable pro-Byzantine account of the early Crusades. Although biased towards her father, Anna’s unique position at her father’s court over the time period it covers makes it more than just propaganda. ‘The Alexiad’ provides a picture of religious and intellectual activities throughout the Empire and sheds a lot of light on the inner workings of the Byzantine Empire in the 12 Century.
She also wrote about her isolation at the convent and of her disgust with her husband's unwillingness to carry through with the plot that would have put him on the throne, noting that perhaps their genders should have been reversed.
Anna demonstrates throughout ‘The Alexiad’ her considerable knowledge of medicine and astronomy and science. She also references the accomplishments of a number of women, including her Grandmother Anna Dalassena, who was the Regent for Aleixis during his many absences on military campaigns.
Interestingly "The Alexiad" was first translated into English in 1928 by another pioneering woman, Elizabeth Dawes, a British classical scholar and the first woman to receive a doctorate in literature from the University of London.
The Alexiad - Anna Comnena
Anna Komnene and the Alexiad: The Byzantine Princess and the First Crusade - Ioulia Kolovua