Widely considered to be Europe’s first female historian, Anna Comnena (1083-1153) grew up a princess of the Byzantine Empire. She was a strong and wilful woman who acted in a way that caused her male contemporaries and subsequent historians to feel a mixture of horror and begrudging admiration. She was the eldest child of Alexius I Comnenus, Emperor of Byzantine, and is thought to have been her father’s favorite.
She was brought up in a family of strong women — her grandmother, Anna Dalassene, co-ruled with her son, Anna’s father, when he was away on campaign. Her mother, Eirene Doukaina, was incredibly well educated, and one of her main passions was philosophical and religious reading. Anna herself was given an impressive and well-rounded education which included literature, Greek, the sciences, and military affairs. But that was as far as it went – she was never intended to use this education to rule in her own right. Once her younger brother John was born, he automatically surpassed her in the line of succession, a fact which greatly frustrated her. Before John’s birth, Anna was betrothed to Constantine Doukas, who was made co-Emperor with her father, and the pair were intended to rule after Alexius. As soon as John was born, Constantine had to step back from his imperial claims, and he died shortly after.
At the age of 14, Anna married Nicephorus Bryennius. He was thought to be a good match for Anna. He was a bright and accomplished general who took part in the First Crusade; he was also a statesman. The couple had 4 children together. It seems Anna never really gave up on her imperial ambitions and it is believed she tried several times to persuade her father to name her husband as her successor, but despite his affection for his daughter, he would not go against convention.
When Alexius died, Anna’s brother, John, ascended the throne as John II Komnenos. Anna began to plot against her brother and conspired to replace him and rule alongside her husband. Nicephorus refused to be a part of the plot. While Anna claimed this was due to cowardice, it seems he was against overthrowing the legitimate monarch; additionally, he always enjoyed a good relationship with his brother-in-law. When Anna was discovered, her property was confiscated and she was forced to retire to a convent. This is where she completed her most famous achievement, writing the Alexiad, a 15 volume set about her father’s reign, looking at a number of aspects of his reign in detail, including the First Crusade. It was a considerable achievement and a reflection of her intelligence. While these books are a unique first-hand account of this period of Byzantine history, there is a clear bias toward her father, whom Anna clearly adored, and the chronology of events is poor.
If Anna had been born a man she would have inherited an Empire, and she evidently struggled with her gender preventing this. History is full of male rulers fighting their brothers because of jealousy, and despite being viewed differently by historians due to her gender, this is no different. Ultimately Anna refused to let her gender hold her back, and even though she didn’t succeed in becoming Emperor, she will always be remembered as Europe’s first female historian.