Our woman hero of December is Anna Komnene! She was a Byzantine princess, scholar, physician, hospital administrator, and historian. She was the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos and his wife Irene Doukaina. She is best known for her attempt to usurp her brother, John II Komnenos, and for her work The Alexiad, an account of her father’s reign.
Anna Komnene was born on 1 December 1083 to Alexios I Komnenos and Irene Doukaina. Her father, Alexios I Komnenos, became emperor in 1081, after usurping the previous Byzantine Emperor, Nikephoros Botaneiates. Her mother, Irene Doukaina, was part of the imperial Doukai family.
Anna wrote at the beginning of the Alexiad about her education, highlighting her experience with literature, Greek language, rhetoric, and sciences. Tutors trained her in subjects that included astronomy, medicine, history, military affairs, geography, and mathematics. Anna was noted for her education by the medieval scholar, Niketas Choniates, who wrote that Anna “was ardently devoted to philosophy, the queen of all sciences, and was educated in every field.”
Anna proved to be capable not only on an intellectual level but also in practical matters. Her father placed her in charge of a large hospital and orphanage that he built for her to administer in Constantinople. The hospital was said to hold beds for 10,000 patients and orphans. Anna taught medicine at the hospital, as well as at other hospitals and orphanages. She was considered an expert on gout. Anna treated her father during his final illness.
In 1087, Anna’s brother, John, was born. Several years after his birth, in 1092, John was designated emperor. According to Niketas Choniates, Emperor Alexios “favored” John and declared him emperor while the Empress Irene “threw her full influence on [Anna’s] side” and “continually attempted” to persuade the emperor to designate Caesar Nikephoros Bryennios, Anna’s husband, in John’s place. Nikephoros Bryennios married Anna in roughly 1907. He was a member of the Bryennios family that had held the throne before the accession of Anna’s father, Alexios I. Nikephoros was a soldier and a historian.
Around 1112, Alexios fell sick with rheumatism and could not move. He therefore turned the civil government over to his wife, Irene; she in turn directed the administration to Bryennios. Choniates states that, as Emperor Alexios lay dying in his imperial bedchamber, John arrived and “secretly” took the emperor’s ring from his father during an embrace “as though in mourning.” In 1118, Alexios I Komnenos died. A cleric acclaimed John emperor in Hagia Sophia.
According to Smythe, Anna “felt cheated” because she “should have inherited.” Indeed, according to Anna Komnene in the Alexiad, at her birth she was presented with “a crown and imperial diadem.” In view of this belief, Jarratt et al. record that Anna was “almost certainly” involved in the murder plot against John at Alexios’s funeral. The plots were discovered and Anna forfeited her estates. After her husband’s death, she entered the convent of Kecharitomene, which had been founded by her mother.
In the seclusion of the monastery, Anna dedicated her time to studying philosophy and history. She held esteemed intellectual gatherings, including those dedicated to Aristotelian studies. Anna’s intellectual genius and breadth of knowledge is evident in her few works. Anna wrote the Alexiad in the mid-1140s or 1150s. In the Alexiad, Anna provided insight on political relations and wars between Alexios I and the West. She vividly described weaponry, tactics, and battles. It has been noted that she was writing about events that occurred when she was a child, so these are not eye-witness accounts. Despite her unabashed partiality, her account of the First Crusade is of great value to history because it is the only Byzantine eyewitness account available.
Anna remained in the convent of Kecharitomene until her death sometime in the 1150s; the exact date is unknown.
Anna Komnene inspired us that even in times of hardships, such as an exile, we can still produce the greatest writing of our time.
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