Princess of the Byzantine Empire Anna Comnina and Her Historical Book "Alexiada

Topics: Hagia Sophia

Anna Comnena, a Byzantine Empire Princess, wrote a historical book called The Alexiad about her father’s reign which lasted from about 1081 to 1118 CE. The Byzantine Empire lasted from about 395 to 1453 CE and spread throughout eastern and southern Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East. Byzantine society often placed women in subservient positions to men; however, Comnena received a high-quality education and served as an influential member of her father’s imperial court. Although unsuccessful, her conspiracy plot to overrule her brother and become the heir proved her courage and set a precedent for women desiring power in society.

She fought for her well-recollectededucation in complex subjects, and more importantly, she used the information she learned to her benefit. As the first text written by a female historian, The Alexiad offers a unique perspective on the Crusades and other events from her life in Constantinople. Comnena’s detailed descriptions of people, events, and amazingly well-recollected documents and correspondences provide a powerful history of her times.

Some scholars, though, claim her work shows a personal bias. Her writing not only reflects her knowledge and position in the government but also reveals her controversial views on women and marriage.

As an intellect and politician, Anna Comnena defied society’s expectations for women and embodied the feminist ideals of female empowerment and equality. Anna Comnena was born in the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, on December 2, 1083. She was the oldest daughter of Emperor Alexius I Comnenus and Irene Ducas. In 1088, her parents had her younger brother John II Comnenus who eventually became the heir instead of Anna.

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At the age of fourteen, she planned to marry Constantine Ducas, her cousin and potential heir to the throne, but he died a year later (Kuhlman). Comnena instead married Nicephorus Byrennius, the leader of the Byrennium Empire, in 1097 (McLoughlin). Anna lived through the Crusades (1095 – 1291 CE), a period of war and violence throughout Europe. She describes her childhood saying, “I have been conversant with dangers ever since my birth ‘in the purple,’ so to say; and fortune has certainly not been kind to me … for all the rest of my life has been one long series of storms and revolutions.’ (Comnena 4). While aware of the “fortune” she received from her royal status, she did not believe her position outweighed living in fear of death. Comnena’s father, Alexius, died in 1118 after many years of illness and multiple war wounds (Hughs 39). When Comnena’s brother became her father’s successor, Comnena plotted to kill and overthrow him, so she could rule instead. Her brother discovered the conspiracy and exiled Anna to a convent in 1137 (Ruud). While in the convent, Anna Comnena wrote The Alexiad and continued to educate herself until she died in roughly 1148 (Boucquey). Men often treated and depicted women in Byzantine society as inferior.

They expected women to work in the home like the socialization of a dutiful wife and mother (Power 42). If a woman wanted to receive an education, they had to join a nunnery or have a private tutor, and even then, the curriculum focused on religion and life skills (Power 76). Separate laws and restrictions limited Byzantine women’s socialization and gatherings for elite women could only occur at church (Rautman). Additionally, men often forced their wives and daughters to wear veils and modest clothing when they did leave the home (Connor 163). Expectations of the women came not only from men but also from the ideals of the church (Power 9). Spiritual figures such as the Virgin Mary and other female saints set the standard for celibate, modest, devoted women (Rautman). The Bible served as propaganda for the patriarchy because it depicts God, the ultimate being, as a man and women as his followers. Men also used the Bible to justify the restrictions they put on women. The Hagia Sophia, a large church built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, demonstrates the limitations of women through the display of two large mosaics adjacent to each other on one of the walls. (Stoakstad 235). The first mosaic shows John and Irene with Mary and Christ (See figure 1). The mosaic directly to the right of the first depicts Anna’s father Alexius (See figure 2). They leave Anna out of both of the mosaics which reveals Byzantine society valued sons more than daughters. The men have much grander writing around them, John’s saying, ‘John in Christ the God, a faithful king born in the purple, Autocrat of Romans, the Kommenos’’ and Alexius’s translating to “Alexios in Christ, faithful King of the Romans, the born in the purple” (Hagia Sophia Mosaics). In contrast, Irene says ‘Eirene, the most pious Augusta which shows her devoutness’ and Mary’s translates to ‘Mother of God’ (Hagia Sophia Mosaics).

The women’s writings state their names with a connection to the religion and do not mention them having any power. Mary, shown as a mother to Christ perpetuates the expectation of women as mothers. The mosaic displayed in a church continued the idea of women’s expectations stemming from the ideals of the church. While Byzantine men and religion often limited women and their freedoms, Anna Comnena found a way to overcome society’s expectations. Anna Comnena’s unusual level of education allowed her to defy the social norms of her period. Comnena had a private tutor whom her parents believed taught her religious studies (Dalven 75). However, Comnena secretly studied grammar, literature, philosophy, history, theology, rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, music, meteorology, and medicine (Ruud). Anna describes her education by saying, “I was not ignorant of letters, for I carried my study of Greek to the highest pitch and was also not unpracticed in rhetoric; I perused the works of Aristotle and the dialogues of Plato carefully and enriched my mind by the ‘quaternion’ of learning” (Comnena 1). Throughout The Alexiad, Comnena references various philosophers, and her impressive writing abilities showcase her education. However, she did not believe everything she learned, particularly, the philosophies that contradicted her Greek Orthodox Christian beliefs (Dalven 77). She developed expertise and gained the knowledge she would use later in her life to write her book and conspire against her brother. Because of her unusually thorough education, Anna unprecedently became proficient in medical treatments. Anna’s natural ability in medicine allowed her to have the opportunity to attend Constantinople’s medical school (Schlager). A woman having a role in a medical facility defied society’s idea of a woman’s job. Comnena used her skills to help heal her father’s and husband’s illnesses and injuries (Hughs 39). She noted while caring for her father, ‘If a body is sickly, the sickliness is often aggravated by external causes, but that occasionally, too, the causes of our illnesses spring up of themselves” (Comnena 26).

Not only does her writing highlight her impeccable observation skills, but it also reveals advanced knowledge on the topic. Byzantine women had never publicly practiced medicine before, so Anna’s medical prowess greatly shifted Byzantine cultural norms. As a skilled writer, doctor, scientist, and historian, Anna Comnena’s education allowed her to redefine a woman’s role in society. Anna Comnena also utilized her education and position in her father’s imperial court to gain political power, which challenged society’s expectations for women. Due to regulations on women, Anna could not technically become an emperor, so she strategically married Nicephorus Byrennius (Boucquey). Comnena knew Byrennius did not desire the power of the emperor, so she would truly have control (Ruud). Additionally, Anna knew Byrennium, where Nicephorus lived, had tensions with the Byzantines. So, their marriage lessened the strain between the rival nations (McLoughlin). When Alexius died, and John became the new emperor, Anna and Irene felt Anna deserved to inherit the throne. She and Irene conspired to murder John and make Nicephorus the new emperor (Kuhlman). Their carefully planned scheme went well until Nicephorus discovered it. He did not agree with their actions and revealed their plot to John (Kuhlman). Although her plan failed, Comnena’s ability and willingness to scheme demonstrates her cleverness and desire for power, both traits which challenged society’s norms. Comnena manipulated her role in her father’s court to her benefit. She read and memorized important documents with her access to the royal library (Schlager). Her astute observation skills allowed her to pick up on military techniques she overheard from her father’s conversations. She also paid attention to the war technology developing around her. She reveals her knowledge of the topic in her writing saying, “The arrows used with this bow are very short in length, but very thick, fitted in front with a very heavy iron tip” (Comnena 249). ComnenaComnena’s understanding of the weapons enabled her to help her father fight wars more effectively and efficiently. She held an uncommon position for a woman, assisting her father and aiding in Byzantine martial endeavors.

Her comprehension of military technology and techniques paired with her scheming abilities went against the traditional view of women. She believed she could have equivalent power and control as men which demonstrates her feminist perspective. Anna Comnena’s ideas about marriage greatly differed from her culture’s presumption of women. Comnena chose to marry Nicephorus Byrennius for political advantages, not for love or sexual desire (Dalven 80). She strived to please her father to get in his good graces, so he would name Byrennius, and therefore, her, the heir (Dalven 81). Her family expected her to marry and have children, which she did, but she had political intentions, not romantic ones (Power 42). When her brother exiled her, she decided to join the convent, instead of leaving the empire with Nicephorus. Comnena preferred living in a convent and receiving education over staying with her husband (Dalven 80). Scholar Henry Magoulias described her relationship with Nicephorus by saying, “Anna, disgusted with her husband’s frivolous behavior and distraught in her anger, and being a shrew by nature, felt justified in strongly contracting her vagina when Byrennius’ penis entered deep inside her, thus causing him great pain” (quoted in Quandahl). Comnena felt intense sexual frustration in her relationship with her husband; a rare emotion for women in her time to share. Her openness about her feelings toward men and the control she took in sexual encounters defied expectations. Anna felt empowered enough to inflict pain on her husband, so she did not have to participate in activities she did not desire. She did not want sexual relations with Nicephorus and even further, some scholars question her sexuality (Dalven 82). Between her disinterest in her husband and her sexual frustrations, some believe she could have been gay. Comnena’s lack of sexual desire for men and empowerment of women held to her feminist values and rivaled society’s standards. Anna Comnena’s view of other women and herself vastly contrasted with society’s outlook at the time. Comnena believed women should receive equal education to men writing, “I am grieved at the absolute neglect of general education and it makes me glow with anger because I spent so much time over the same things. And when I was released from that childish teaching and betook myself to the study of rhetoric and touched on philosophy and in between these sciences turned to the poets and historians” (Comnena 412-413).

She resented not having the opportunity to learn complex subjects as a little girl and felt deprived of knowledge. Byzantine women did not receive any education, and Comnena wanted her culture to make a change. Her description of her grandmother demonstrates her controversial perception of women. She writes, “For my grandmother was so clever in business and so skillful in guiding a State, and setting it in order… She was very keen in noting what should be done and clever in carrying it out to a sure end. And not only was she so remarkable intellectually, but her powers of speech too, corresponded to her intellect, for she was a most convincing orator’ (Comnena 85). She recounts her grandmother’s incredible intellect, cleverness, and speaking skills as opposed to looks, her husband, or her children. Anna depicts her grandmother as a powerful, smart woman because she thinks highly of all women and believes they can have more of a role than just a housewife. Additionally, she explains her writing techniques saying she makes intellectual observations and references “As the young man [Homer] does in the Odyssey (for I am not inferior to him)” (Comnena 113). Anna views herself as equal to a high-achieving man in a society that saw her as beneath all men. Comnena defined herself as a woman and other women in powerful ways and equivalent to men which opposed Byzantine non-feminist views. The techniques Anna Comnena used to write The Alexiad further challenged the role of a woman in Byzantine society. While in the convent, Comnena further educated herself and wrote her historical book (Dalven 149). By publishing her book, she showcased her knowledge for the entire world to see. She emulated a classic Greek style of writing which demonstrates her in-depth studies of classic Greek literature (Boucquey).

She strived to gather information from credible sources saying, “I shall not allow even the most insignificant of men to approach me unless they arsocializationsocialization men from whom I can learn of things which they happen to have heard of from others’ (Comnena 382). Anna demonstrates her opinion on the value of a man’s word; she only wants to hear from men for her benefit, and surface-levels surface-level surface-level does not have any interest in surface-level surface-level thoughts. Throughout her fifteen-book historical narrative, she recountrecounts her difficulties and emotions (Kuhlman, Foakes). Some scholars say these moments, as well as the depiction of her father as an epic hero, puts her historical credibility into question. While describing her writing, Comnena says, “In my desire to make my history free from suspicion, I often treat my father’s doings in a cursory way, neither amplifying them nor investing them with the sentiment” the  (Comnena 113). Comnena conscientiously tried to not show bias in her work, specifically when describing her father. In addition, some believe the reasoning behind Comnena’s discredit stems from her gender (Kolovou). The Alexiad tells an important and often untold side of the Crusades. Although it may show some bias, the unique perspective it provides remains to have historical value. Because of their various defeats and eventual decline, it became less common to hear the Byzantine’s view on the Crusades, but it provides a look into the pain and devastation the people must have felt (Foakes, Kolovou). Men have suppressed Comnena’s work for many years because a woman playing such an important role in history threatens them (Kolovou).

Anna Comnena writing The Alexiad displayed her education and historical significance which defied expectations for women. Anna Comnena’s education, writing, power, and views challenged Byzantine society norms. She fought to learn complex subjects and used her knowledge advantageously. Comnena’s cleverness and scheming in her conspiracy against her brother highlighted her abilities. She had access to the imperial library and quoted important documents in The Alexiad. Comnena’s writing techniques highlighted her education and defied society’s expectations of a submissive, complacent woman. She had a controversial outlook on women and marriage because she did not see women as subservient housewives; she saw them as smart and powerful. Feminism today focuses on equality between men and women as well as female empowerment. Comnena fought for and supported these values throughout her life, revealing her revolutionary ideals. Anna Comnena had feminist views and defied expectations put on women which she could share through her writing.

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Princess of the Byzantine Empire Anna Comnina and Her Historical Book "Alexiada. (2022, May 14). Retrieved from

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