Female Badasses in History: Anna Komnene (1083 – presumably 1153)

by spaceinvaderjoe

Anna Komnene did not fight in any wars or kick ass physically (not for lack of trying though). She did, however, kick ass scientifically so to speak. Komnene, born a Byzanthine princess, is the first known female historian in world history. She wrote a 15-volume magnus opum, the Alexiad, that until this day is one of the best sources for this particular era of Byzantine history and the only Hellenic source portraying the First Crusade (1096–1099).

Anna Komnene was born in 1083 as the first child of Emperor Alexios I Komnene of Byzantium. The circumstances of her birth are noteworthy for she was born in the Porphyra Chamber (or purple chamber) of the Emperor’s palace in Constantinople. Being born in the Porphyra Chamber was a special privilege even among the children of the Emperor and if one was born like Anna you were bestowed a special title denoting your higher standing. Also, being born in the purple chamber was seen as a sign for an outstanding future, something very true for Anna.

During her childhood Anna was educated in reading and writing like it was custom for princesses, the same custom on the other hand dictated though that she was only allowed to read books deemed appropriate for women which pretty much excluded every historic account, every philosophic book and all the Greek classics for they were deemed to violent and sexually graphic for women. Legend has it, however, that Anna refused to comply with this rule and routinely snuck in the Emperor’s library to read all night. This can be somewhat substantiated from her later works as well as from her testament in which she explicitly thanks her parents for letting her have such an extensive education.

In 1097 Anna was married to Byzantine noblemen, knight and historian Nicephorus Bryennius. Originally her father had her bestowed to a different nobleman expecting her to be heir to the throne but with the birth of her brother John in 1087 the arrangement as well as Anna’s hopes for becoming empress of the world largest empire of the time fell through. Her father favored John as his successor but her mother threw all her influence behind her and this created a constant conflict that even outlasted their father’s death in 1118. Shortly before John had secretly been brought into his father’s bedchamber and took his imperial ring. Anna, of course, felt cheated and tried to plot to bring her brother down. All of her plans remained fruitless though and she became socially ostracized in Constantinople. After the death of her husband in 1137 Anna was forced by her brother to join the convent of Kecharitomene founded by her mother where she would remain for the rest of her life.

In the monastery she took up the study of philosophy and history and held esteemed conversation circles often discussing the works of Aristotle et. al. She put her evident knowledge and sharp mind to good use when she took it upon her to finish a book started by her late husband that was designed to be an account of the recent period of Byzantine history. Intended to be one book by her dead husband, Anna expanded upon the idea and wrote the Alexiad, the 15 volume account of her father’s reign. In it she provides an account of, among other things, the First Crusade that is unrivaled in his extensiveness. Meticulously Anna describes not only contemporary weaponry, battle formations and strategies but also the political process in Byzantine at the time. Her father had originally requested help against Turk nomads at his border but the Pope took the opportunity to declare the First Crusade. Through Anna’s account we know today that this was a move not welcomed by Alexios. Also, the crusading knights were also not a very welcome sight in Byzantine. Anna describes them looting, pillaging and being the drunk, bumbling, illiterate idiots that they were. Another outstanding part of Anna’s account is the role she gives her mother and grandmother in describing their influence on the politics of the time. Mentioning women and even giving an account of their contributions is something almost unheard of in historical accounts preceding Anna Komnene’s and even in subsequent accounts it remains a seldom sight.

Anna’s outstanding knowledge and education is also something very apparent in the Alexiad. She routinely discusses philosophy, history, science, astronomy and language quoting almost every part of the contemporary canon, from Homer to the Bible.

Anna Komnene finished the Alexiad in 1148, the same year she wrote her testament, which is the last historic account we have of her. Presumably she died in 1153 due to unknown reasons.

Anna Komnene is not only the first known female historian, she is also an outstanding one that certainly belongs in the same league of classic historians such as Herodot or Cicero. Only recently has the scientific community began to not only use her research for the writing of historiography but to also research her and the more we know about her the more an outstanding example of knowledge, early historical professionalism and education she becomes.