Women's History Month: Meet Anna Comnena, the First Female Historian

ByShu-Yen Wei

In honor of Women's History Month, we will profile women that have served as trailblazers, defying stereotypes and reshaping dated, typical understandings of femininity. First in the series is Anna Comnena, the world's first female historian.

Anna Comnena chronicled her father's reign as Byzantine Emperor from 1081 to 1118 in her only work, the Alexiad. She wrote the 15-book account in the style of heroic Greek epics, reflective of her classical education, while in exile for her attempts to murder her brother John II and thereby inherit the Byzantine throne. Contemporary historians have criticized the Alexiad for its partiality, specifically Anna's depiction of her father as the faultless hero and her lack of discussion on the subsequent rule of John II. While the Alexiad was distinct for its feminine perspective, it was also an anomaly for its classical influence and female authorship of military history. Anna Comnena's privilege as a royal had allowed for a breach of the separate spheres of education and influence long instituted between the genders.

Unlike many female historians who were published long after, Anna Comnena's work drew upon a formal education largely afforded to upper-class males, as was the custom for Byzantine royals. In the preface of the Alexiad, she discussed her desire to preserve her father's history and cited her own knowledge of the sciences, Greek literature, rhetorical skill and history as tools in the endeavor. She notifies the reader of her credentials by confidently stating, "I perused the works of Aristotle and the dialogues of Plato carefully, and enriched my mind by the 'quaternion' of learning." Throughout her writing, she used such philosophers and their ideas as reference points to move her plot lines forward, whether it was glorifying an ally so learned in rhetoric that opponents would be "reduced to silence and to despair" or admiring the skills of a highly esteemed astrologer.

Anna Comnena also breached the gender divide with her descriptions of weaponry and military strategy. She retold the circumstances and implementation of battle plans in great detail, including the communication among and between encampments. In Book V, she highlighted her father's innovation in placing his infantry in smaller; lighter wagons so that they may be moved easily in combat. In Book XV, she described a skirmish with the Turkish army in which the Byzantine army was "drawn up in phalanxes" and its "front wing was held by Prince [Michael], the right by Bryennius, the left by Gabras and the rear by Cecaumenus."

Despite such impressive knowledge, she clearly understood her own femininity from the outset, and attempted to justify her foray into such stereotypical male intellectual territory throughout the work. In the preface, she identified herself as "the daughter of two royal personages," and clarified that she was not "bragging" with the publication of her work, perhaps for fear that she may be discredited. She stated outright that her intention was not to show off her own "proficiency in letters," and pointed to the death of her husband Nicephorus Bryennios, the intended historian of the Alexiad, as a catalyst for her writing. She is also very forthright about her own vulnerabilities as a scholar. In Book V, she recalled expressing intimidation at the prospect of reading dense texts such as those of Maximus the Confessor and her mother's reassurance that she would eventually understand and appreciate these works.

The Alexiad, while subject to the personal biases of its author, stands as the first record of a female historical perspective. Anna Comnena's work is also worthy of recognition as an attempt to balance individual passions with publicly held ideas of gender separation and the constraints of archetypal definitions of femininity. Her royal stature afforded her an exception, but she may have made further inroads with her expressed purpose of detailing family history and occasional reminders of her deference. These personal interpretations contrast with historical accounts of her lofty ambitions of inheriting the throne and her cunning means of doing so. Ironically, Anna Comnena is remembered for her distinct position in spite of her stated intentions. Her work remains a primary source for the era, and her standing as the sole female historian of note would remain for centuries afterward.