Depiction of Anna Komnene

Medieval Mold-Breaking Women: Anna Komnene

Princess Anna Komnene had a remarkable life and career. In 1083, she was born in the purple to Emperor Alexios I Komnenos and Empress Eirene Doukaina of Byzantium. The nature and circumstances of her birth made her an esteemed and prominent member of the royal family. She was raised in the Byzantine court and, by most accounts, gained a reputation for being a skilled orator and politician. Her marriage was unusual, as her parents’ original arrangement for her to marry the son of a former emperor never happened. Instead, she wedded Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger, the relative of a revolt leader Alexios had defeated in his youth. From others’ descriptions of the pair and Anna’s own writings about her husband, we can gather that the two genuinely felt affection for each other, something that was often absent in medieval marriages between nobility.

While such qualities are impressive, Anna’s education and scholarship are what make her unique among the women of her day. Unlike most, Anna was an avid student of history, science, law, philosophy, and politics. She insisted upon studying the works of classical writers, such as Aristotle, Plato, Polybius, and Homer. Her dedication to scholarship wasn’t limited simply to learning the texts, as she actively sought to analyze them and expand academic thought. She was the first scholar to initiate a commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which, as Dr. Peter Frankopan (Oxford University) has pointed out, became integral to medieval philosophical scholarship.

Depiction of Anna Komnene
A later artist’s depiction of Princess Anna Komnene

Anna also was the first European woman ever to write a historical account. A few decades after her father’s death in A.D./C.E. 1118, she composed The Alexiad, a detailed account of Alexios’ career as emperor. It was an ambitious feat, and the completed text spanned fifteen books.

Modern scholars have criticized the value of Anna’s work, claiming that she is entirely too biased in favor of her father. Ironically, the fact that scholars are still discussing the nearly nine-hundred-year-old document proves that it was a noteworthy text. Notwithstanding any familial bias in The Alexiad, Anna was the only twelfth-century historian to chronicle the entirety of the First Crusade from the Byzantine perspective. That alone makes her work valuable.

It’s possible that Anna also increased her political influence around the time of her father’s death. The medieval historians Niketas Khoniates and John Zonaras wrote that Anna tried to convince the dying Alexios to disinherit her brother John and place Nikephoros Bryennios and Anna herself on the throne instead. The truth in their histories has been questioned, however, as both were hostile to the Komnenoi. Yet if the accounts are true and to be believed, Anna failed despite a clever and spirited attempt.

At any rate, Anna Komnene was an exceptional medieval woman. As a scholar and politician, she pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be both a female and a royal in Byzantine society. She was dedicated to her work, and our continued study of her and her family is proof that her efforts were not in vain.

“Time, which flies irresistibly and perpetually, sweeps up and carries away with it everything that has seen the light of day and plunges it into utter darkness, whether deeds of no significance or those that are mighty and worthy of commemoration; as the playwright says, it brings to light that which had been obscure and shrouds from us what had been visible. 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 into the depths of oblivion.”

– Anna Komnene, The Alexiad (Prologue, Chapter 1)

 

This is the first part of a Women’s History Month series on famous medieval women.

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