Sunday, February 9, 2014

Anna Comnena - Byzantine Historian of the First Crusade

Anna Comnena (1083 - c.1048)
Anna Comnena was a Byzantinian Princess in the 11th century. She is considered the world's first female historian and a major source of information about the reign of her father, Alexius I. in the times of the crusades, . Of course this is rather unusual for the time being, that a princess writes about the life of her father, The Alexiad, and even more that this piece of writing should become one of the most valuable works in the collection of the Byzantine Historians.

Anna Comnena was the daughter of the Emperor Alexius I. (Comnenus) and his wife Irene, and was born on December 1, 1083, being the eldest of seven siblings. She notes her imperial heritage in the Alexiad by stating that she was “born and bred in the purple.", which also is a hint that she was born in the Porphyra Chamber (the purple chamber) of the imperial palace of Constantinople. Anna also notes in the Alexiad in her early childhood that she was raised by the former empress, Maria of Alania, who was the mother of Anna’s first fiancé, Constantine Doukas, which was common custon by these times to be raised by the future mother-in-law. According to her own account, she emphasizes on her experience with literature, Greek language, rhetoric, and sciences. She was trained in subjects that included astronomy, medicine, history, military affairs, geography, and mathematics. As was customary for nobility in the medieval times, Anna was betrothed already at infancy. In 1097, she married an accomplished young nobleman, the Caesar Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger, a renowned statesman, general, and historian that had contested the throne before the accession of Alexios I.

Anna was placed in charge of a large hospital and orphanage that her father built for her to administer in Constantinople. The hospital was said to hold beds for 10,000 patients and orphans. There, Anna taught medicine and was considered an expert on gout. In 1087, Anna’s brother, John II Komnenos, was born, who was designated emperor in 1092. Anna's husband, Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger had been working on an essay that he called "Material For History", which focused on the reign of Alexios I. But he was not able to finish his work, when he died in 1137. At the age of 55, Anna went to a convent of Kecharitomene, which was founded by her mother, and 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 from 1069 to his death in 1118 in Greek. The 15 volumes of the Alexiad is today the main source of Byzantine political history from the end of the 11th century to the beginning of the 12th century. In her writings Anna provided insight on political relations and wars between Alexios I and the West. She vividly described weaponry, tactics, and battles. Despite always being on the moral side of her father, her account of the First Crusade is of great value to history because it is the only Hellenic eyewitness account available. Anna Komnene's literary style is fashioned after the antique historians such as Thucydides, Polybius, and Xenophon. 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.

The exact date of Anna Komnene’s death is uncertain. The date of her death is unknown, but she was still at work on her history in 1148.

At yovisto you can learn more about Byzantine era in the lecture series of Yale Prof Paul Freedman on the Early middle ages. Here, he is focussing the 'Splendor of Byzantium'.

References and Further Reading:
  • Anna Comnena, The Alexiad, translated by Elizabeth A. Dawes in 1928
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