Anna Komnene: An Early Historian

⚠️TW: assault, death, murder

Let’s travel back in time for this article shall we? Today we explore a bit about the life of Anna Komnene. 📝

This byzantine princess was a well behaved and well educated young woman. In one of her teachers, Niketas Choniates, accounts is written that she “was ardently devoted to philosophy, the queen of all sciences, and was educated in every field.” But this princess is someone who is part of history due to the narrow account she wrote about her fathers reign and with this providing us with the Alexiad, a political account of medieval times. It is the only written byzantine account of what happened during that time. It might not be an objective account, but it tells us many things about the Byzantine Empire, its politics, and of course the life that Anna led. ✒️📖

Read more about this honourable princess, who plotted against her brother in later life, in the article below.

Anna Komnene | *01-12-1083 | † 1153 | Byzantine Empire | Author/Historian, Princess

Almost 900 years after the death of Anna Komnene, many of us still remember her most famous book: the Alexiad. Anna Komnene, commonly Latinized as Anna Comnena, was a Byzantine princess and author of the Alexiad, an account of the reign of her father, the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos. 

Anna was born on the 1st of December 1083 to Alexios I Komnenos and Irene Doukaina. Because she was born in the Porphyra Camber of the imperial palace in Constantinople, she was called a porphyrogenita, which underscored her imperial status. Anna noted this status in the Alexiad, stating that she was “born and bred in the purple”. Her father Alexios became the Byzantine Emperor in 1081. Her mother Irene was part of the imperial Doukai family. In the Alexiad, Anna emphasizes her affection for her parents in stating her relationship to Alexios and Irene. According to Anna’s description in the Alexiad, her mother asked her to wait to be born until her father returned from war. Obediently, Anna waited until her father came home.

At the beginning of the Alexiad, Anna Komnene wrote about her education, highlighting her experience with literature, Greek language, rhetoric and science. Niketas Choniates was the medieval scholar who educated Anna. Niketas wrote that Anna “was ardently devoted to philosophy, the queen of all sciences, and was educated in every field.” Despite Anna’s well-organized education, her parents did not approve of all literature, such as the Odyssey. Anna had to secretly read the Odyssey because her parents disapproved of its dealing with polytheism and other “dangerous exploits”, which were considered “dangerous” for men and “excessively insidious” for women. 

   Around 1112, Anna’s father Alexios fell ill. During his illness, a battle ensued between Anna and her eldest brother John in claiming the throne. According to Anna’s mother Irene, Anna’s husband was suitable as the new Byzantine emperor, but Alexios preferred John and felt that the throne should be transferred to him. During Alexios’ deathbed, John came by as a sign of mourning and took the emperor ring from his father during an embrace. Anna felt cheated by John. She should have inherited the emperor ring because she was entitled to it from birth. In her book The Alexiad, Anna emphasizes that she had the right to precedence over her brother. Because of Anna’s beliefs, it was almost certain that she was involved in an assassination plot against her brother “the established emperor” during her father’s funeral. The conspiracies ran out of steam, but it was clear that Anna was driven by ambition and revenge.

 Soon afterwards, Anna and her husband came up with new plans. These plans also fell through due to the inability of Anna’s husband to kill John. After canceling all assassination plots, Anna felt thwarted by the men in her life and even her mother refused to cooperate in the plans against the newly established emperor. The plans were discovered and Anna had to hand over her estates. After her husband died, she decided to enter the convent founded by her mother and stayed there until her death.

The Alexiad provides insight into the political relationships and wars between Alexios and the West. Anna wrote the book to praise her father and belittle his successors. From a written point of view, the neutrality of the book is compromised. Despite this, the book is still of value because of the Crusade accounts of the only Byzantine eyewitness accounts available.


Author: Liz Fluttert
Image: Anouk Stevens

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