Anna Komnene, latinized as Comnena (Greek: Άννα Κομνηνή, Anna Komnēnē; December 1, 1083–1153) was a Byzantine princess and scholar, daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos and Irene Doukaina. She wrote the Alexiad, an account of her father's reign, making her one of the first Western female historians.
Anna was born in the Porphyra Chamber (the purple chamber) of the imperial palace of Constantinople and was thus a porphyrogenita. She was the eldest of nine children. Her younger siblings were (in order of birth) Maria Komnene, John II Komnenos, Andronikos Komnenos, Isaac Komnenos, Eudokia Komnene, Theodora Komnene, Manuel Komnenos and Zoe Komnene.
Although, she was carefully trained in the study of history, mathematics, science, and Greek philosophy, Anna’s parents banned her from studying ancient poetry (whose glorification of lustful gods and unchaste women they deemed inappropriate and even dangerous for a young woman of her class to study). Despite her parents' attempts to restrict her, Anna furtively studied the forbidden poetry with one of the imperial court’s eunuchs. Thus, Anna received an extraordinary education that undoubtedly made her one of the most educated women of her time.
As was customary for nobility in the medieval times, Anna was betrothed at infancy. She was to marry Constantine Doukas, the son of Emperor Michael VII and Maria of Alania. Because at the time of the engagement Emperor Alexios I had no rightful male heirs to inherit the throne, young Constantine was proclaimed the co-emperor of the Byzantine Empire. However, in 1087 a blood heir, John II, was born, and Constantine had to forfeit his imperial claims. He died shortly thereafter.
In 1097, 14-year-old Anna Komnene married an accomplished young nobleman, the Caesar Nikephoros Bryennios. Nikephoros Bryennios was the son of an aristocratic family that had contested the throne before the accession of Alexios I. Nikephoros was also a renowned statesman, general, and historian. Anna claimed that the marriage was a political union rather than one of love. For the most part, however, it proved to be a successful union for forty years, and produced four children—Alexios Komnenos, John Ducas, Eirene Doukaina, and Maria Bryennaina Komnene.
From childhood, Anna supposed that she would someday lead the Empire, a dream shattered by the birth of her brother. Yet, Anna's substantial hunger for power did not permit her to accept John's ascension to the throne. Anna deemed that she and her husband should assume the title of Emperors instead. Thus, the couple conspired with her mother, Irene Doukaina, to disinherit her younger brother John and give the crown to Anna's husband. At this time her father was weak and struggling against his last illness. However, they did not succeed, and in 1118 John II ascended to the throne.
Anna's attempts at usurping the imperial crown persisted, and in 1118 she plotted again to depose her brother and replace him with Nikephoros. However, the plan collapsed when in the last minute Nikephoros refused to collaborate. Enraged and disappointed with her husband's weakness, Anna said that "nature had mistaken their sexes, for he ought to have been the woman." The plot was discovered, and Anna had to forfeit her property and imperial family status and was forced into exile to the convent of the Kecharitōménē ("Full of Grace"), which her mother had founded. Anna's mother and her sister Eudokia fled with her too. Ironically, Nikephoros remained in the royal palace and became one of Emperor John's closest advisors.
In the seclusion of the monastery, Anna dedicated her time to studying philosophy and history. She held esteemed intellectual gatherings, including those dedicated to Aristotelian studies. Anna's intellectual genius and breadth of knowledge is evident in her few works. Among other things, she was conversant with philosophy, literature, grammar, theology, astronomy, and medicine. It can be assumed because of minor errors that she may have quoted Homer and the Bible from memory when writing her most celebrated work, the Alexiad. Her contemporaries, like the metropolitan Bishop of Ephesus, Georgios Tornikes, regarded Anna as a person who had reached "the highest summit of wisdom, both secular and divine."
Being a historian, Nikephoros Bryennios had been working on an essay that he called “Material For History,” which focused on the reign of Alexios I. He died in 1137 before finishing the work. At the age of 55, Anna took it upon herself to finish her husband's work, calling the completed work the Alexiad, the history of her father's life and reign (1081–1118) in Greek. Alexiad is today the main source of Byzantine political history of the end of the 11th century to the beginning of the 12th century.
In the Alexiad, Anna provided insight on political relations and wars between Alexios I and the West. She vividly described weaponry, tactics and battles. It has been noted that she was writing about events that occurred when she was a child, so these are not eye-witness accounts. Her neutrality is compromised by the fact that she was writing to praise her father and denigrate his successors. Despite her unabashed partiality, her account of the First Crusade is of great value to history because it is the only Hellenic eyewitness account available. She had the opportunity to glean events from key figures in the Byzantine elite. Her husband Nikephorus Bryennios had fought in the clash with crusade leader Godfrey of Bouillon outside Constantinople on Maundy Thursday 1097. Her uncle George Palaeologus was present at Pelekanon in June 1097 when Alexius I discussed future strategy with the crusaders. Thus the Alexiad allows the events of the First Crusade to be seen from the Byzantine elite's perspective. It conveys the alarm felt at the scale of the western European forces proceeding through Byzantium, and the dangers they may have posed to the safety of Constantinople.
Special suspicion was reserved for crusading leader Bohemond of Taranto, a southern Italian Norman who, under the leadership of his father Robert Guiscard, had invaded Byzantine territory in the Balkans in 1081. Though she considers him a barbarian and makes him the villain of her piece for his enmity with her father and his subsequent possession of formerly Byzantine Antioch, there is more than a hint of infatuation for this 'habitual rogue'.
The book also contributes to understanding of the female mentality, mindset, and perception of the world during the Byzantine times.
Anna Komnene's literary style is fashioned after Thucydides, Polybius, and Xenophon. Consequently, it exhibits struggle for an Atticism characteristic of the period, whereby the resulting language is highly artificial. For the most part, the chronology of events in the Alexiad is sound, except for those that occurred after Anna’s exile to the monastery, when she no longer had access to the imperial archives. Nevertheless, her history meets the standards of her time (Catholic Encyclopedia).
The exact date of Anna Komnene’s death is uncertain. It is inferred from the Alexiad that she was still alive in 1148. Moreover, the Alexiad sheds light on Anna’s emotional turmoil. She wrote that no one could see her, yet many hated her (Lubarsky, pg 3). Thus, she loathed the isolated position in society that exile had forced upon her.
Fictional accounts of Anna Komnene’s life appear in the 1928 novel Anna Comnena by Naomi Mitchison and the 1999 novel for young people Anna of Byzantium by Tracy Barrett. A novel written in 2008 by Ben Blushi (Albanian writer) called "Living on an island" also mentions Anna Komnene. One of the best novels about Anna Komene "I, Anna Komene" is writen by Vera Mutafchieva, a Bulgarian writer and historian.
By the kaisar Nikephoros Bryennios, Anna Komnene had several children, including:
ANNA' 'COMNENA, daughter of the emperor Alexius I. Comnenus, the first woman historian, was born on the 1st of December 1083. She was her father's favourite and was carefully trained in the study of poetry, science and Greek philosophy. But, though learned and studious, she was intriguing and ambitious, and ready to go to any lengths to gratify her longing for power. Having married an accomplished young nobleman, Nicephorus Bryennius, she united with the empress Irene in a vain attempt to prevail upon her father during his last illness to disinherit his son and give the crown to her husband. Still undeterred, she entered into a conspiracy to depose her brother after his accession; and when her husband refused to join in the enterprise, she exclaimed that "nature had mistaken their sexes, for he ought to have been the woman." The plot being discovered, Anna forfeited her property and fortune, though, by the clemency of her brother, she escaped with her life. Shortly afterwards, she retired into a convent and employed her leisure in writing the Alexiad - a history, in Greek, of her father's life and reign (1081-1118), supplementing the historical work of her husband. It is rather a family panegyric than a scientific history, in which the affection of the daughter and the vanity of the author stand out prominently. Trifling acts of her father are described at length in exaggerated terms, while little notice is taken of important constitutional matters. A determined opponent of the Latin church and an enthusiastic admirer of the Byzantine empire, Anna Comnena regards the Crusades as a danger both political and religious. Her models are Thucydides, Polybius and Xenophon, and her style exhibits the striving after Atticism characteristic of the period, with the result that the language is highly artificial. Her chronology especially isdefective. Editions in Bonn Corpus Scriptorum Hist. Byz., by J. Schopen and A. Reifferscheid (1839-1878), with Du Cange's valuable commentary; and Teubner series, by A. Reifferscheid (1884). See also C. Krumbacher, Geschichte der byzantinischen Literatur (2nd ed. 1897); C. Neumann, Griechische Geschichtschreiber im 12 Jahrhunderte (1888); E. Oster, Anna Komnena (Rastatt, 1868-1871); Gibbon, Decline and Fall, ch. 48; Finlay, Hist. of Greece, iii. pp. 53, 128 (1877); P. Adam, Princesses byzantines (1893); Sir Walter Scott, Count Robert of Paris; L. du Sommerard, Anne Comnene. .. Agnes de France (1907); C. Diehl, Figures byzantines (1906).