Anna Comnena is considered the world’s first female historian and a major source of information about the reign of her father, Alexius I. Her works are full of details about daily life at court, the deeds of her family, and the exchanges between the Byzantines and western crusaders during the first crusades.
When Anna was a child both her mother and father made sure she received an excellent education. When young, she was given a crown and had expected that at her father’s death she would take his place as head of an empire which stretched from Italy to Armenia. But the birth of her brother dashed all her hopes.
Anna married an historian in 1097, and, with her mother’s encouragement, tried to seize the imperial throne for him. The attempt failed, and she was forced to retire from court life. After her husband’s death, she entered a monastery, one devoted to learning. Anna was 55 years old when she began serious work on Alexiad, a 15 volume history of her family, the Comneni.
In her works, Anna directed most of her contempt toward the crusaders from the West. Her father had sent the first envoys to the West, to Pope Urban I, asking for help in halting the Turkish raids which had left the southern and eastern borders of the Byzantine empire virtually defenseless. Urban II’s response was positive. But when the First Crusade arrived to defend the magnificent city of Constantinople, Alexius found that they did not want to take instructions and advice from him. To Anna, they appeared as uneducated barbarians, with manners far beneath those of the wealthy and cosmopolitan Byzantines. Worse, rather than enter Byzantium as saviors against the Muslim threat to Constantinople, they increasingly came as looters and destroyers. Many Normans and Franks, stirred by the sight of Byzantine brocades, jewels, and magnificent works in gold or enamel, began to follow leaders whose intention was to rule the eastern empire for themselves. Looting and raiding for supplies became the norm. The most horrific event occurred after Anna’s death, the 1204 sack of Constantinople. Fire swept through the noble city three times, destroying much of its arts and treasures, and soldiers and clerics alike drank, raped, killed and carted off furs, gold and silver.
Anna lived in an era when women chiefly were expected to remain secluded in their quarters (called gyneceum) attending solely to family matters. They covered their faces with veils in public and were not even allowed to appear in processions. Yet Anna offered high praise for the accomplishments of some women, including her influential grandmother, Anna Dalassena. In her work, Anna also reveals herself as a female who was given notable license to write what she thought.