Anna Comnena's Alexiad
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Anna Comnena

Anna Comnena was born a princess in 1083 AD, the oldest child of the Byzantine emperor Alexios. She was named for her grandmother, the powerful empress Anna, who ruled the Empire whenever Alexios was away fighting wars. This Anna raised her granddaughter, little Anna, with the hope that she would grow up to rule the Empire when her father died.

Anna was a smart and hardworking girl, and her father favored her over her six younger brothers and sisters. She had tutors for every subject: astronomy, math, medicine, philosophy, history, geography. Her parents disapproved of Homer, though, because he wrote about the old gods, and she had to read the Iliad and the Odyssey secretly.

When Anna was 14, she married Nikephoros, a man twenty years older than her, from another powerful Byzantine family. She hoped he would help her get power. As a young woman, she oversaw a hospital and orphanage in Constantinople, and taught medicine there. When her father Alexios died in 1118, Anna was thirty-five years old, and eager to rule, but John took power. Anna was furious. She and her husband apparently tried to kill her brother John at their father's funeral, and when that failed tried to raise an army to fight John. When all this failed, she quietly raised her four children, but she never stopped being angry.

After Nikephoros died in 1137, Anna, who was then 54 years old, retired like many older women to a convent and, like Heloise, found power there. Anna spent the rest of her life finishing a long, detailed history of her father's reign that her husband had started, imitating the style of Thucydides and Xenophon. Anna's main goal was to show that she, and not her brother, should have inherited power. But she also produced an accurate and insightful account of the Byzantine view of the First Crusade, and left us her insights on what makes a person a successful ruler. Anna seems to have died around 1150 AD, when she was about 67 years old.

Learn by doing: write a biography of your own father
More about Anna Comnena

Bibliography and further reading about Anna Comnena's Alexiad:

More medieval European literature
Medieval Islamic literature
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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