The Freelance History Writer is pleased to welcome back Powee Celdran with an article about an early Byzantine Empress.
Empress Irene of Athens is perhaps one of the most fascinating women in Byzantine if not, in all of medieval history, having a long and eventful story arc. She went from empress-consort to empress-regent, and finally to being the sole empress before being deposed after a reign of just five years (797-802). Hers is indeed an interesting story, about a highly controversial figure who would stop at nothing to gain power. She went as far as blinding her own son in order to take the Byzantine imperial throne for herself. She was known for restoring the veneration of icons, as well as for almost marrying the Frankish emperor Charlemagne, one of the greatest what-ifs in history.
In the 8th century, the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire was saved from near extinction when Emperor Leo III the Isaurian came to power in 717 and successfully defended the imperial capital Constantinople against a massive Arab siege. What followed this though was the divisive period of Iconoclasm or a general empire-wide ban on religious icons by the emperor Leo III in 730 as he believed that the Byzantines suffered all these setbacks due to their over-excessive practice of venerating icons, which he saw as sinful and therefore God had punished them for that. Leo III remained true to his beliefs against icons until his death in 741 while his son and successor Constantine V was even more fervent in his position against religious icons compared to his father’s.
True enough, the reigns of both Leo III (717-741) and Constantine V (741-775) saw the empire regain territory lost to enemies such as the Arabs and Bulgars whereas the empire as a whole began to stabilize, hence both emperors saw that their anti-icon policies were critical to saving the empire despite it being unpopular with many. It was during the reign of Constantine V when the future empress Irene Sarantapechaina was born in around 752 in Athens to a minor noble family.
Being from the western regions of the empire where icon veneration remained strong despite it banned, Irene was raised to be an Iconodule or believer of icons which was ironic because she ended up being chosen by the Iconoclast emperor Constantine V for his son and heir Leo. Little though is known about Irene’s early life- except that she was an orphan- until she was summoned to Constantinople in 769 to marry the imperial prince, Leo. It is also unclear why she was chosen to be the future emperor’s wife, though it could possibly be because of her exceptional beauty. Irene and Leo then married in 769 and in 771 they had their first and only child, a son named Constantine after his grandfather.
In 775, Constantine V died while campaigning against the Bulgars in the north and was thus succeeded by his son Leo IV who was known as “the Khazar” as his late mother was a Khazar princess. With Leo IV now emperor, and his wife Irene now empress-consort, she played a major role in advising her husband in his reign. This possibly explains why Leo IV’s policies against icons were more moderate compared to his father’s and grandfather’s. Leo IV, however, suffered from tuberculosis throughout his life, although this did not stop him from crushing the plot of his half-brothers who attempted to usurp power from him in 776 and from winning a decisive military victory over the armies of the Arab Abbasid Caliphate in Syria in 778. Due to his poor health, Leo IV died in 780 at the age of thirty and was succeeded by his 9-year-old son with Irene, Constantine VI.
Due to the new emperor Constantine VI being a minor, his mother ruled as empress-regent along with the eunuch minister Staurakios. Irene wasn’t entirely accepted, especially among the mostly Iconoclast army due to her pro-icon position and for being a woman as well. This then led to the late Leo IV’s half-brothers staging another coup to overthrow Irene and her regime, though their plot was discovered, and they were forced to be ordained as priests by Irene.
Following this, despite dealing with the threat of the Abbasids in the east and a military rebellion in Sicily which were both eventually subdued, Irene moved towards lifting the ban on religious icons and in 784, she appointed her secretary the Iconodule Tarasios as Patriarch of Constantinople. In 786, she convened a Church council in Constantinople which was unsuccessful as Iconoclast troops interrupted the council and disbanded it. However, in the following year 787 the council was summoned again, this time in Nicaea, successfully restored icon veneration. Irene and her son signed a document decreeing that icon veneration was not the same as worship. This council thus restored relations between the Church of Constantinople and the Church of Rome which was headed by the pope.
In the meantime, Irene’s regency had seen a number of successes such as the Byzantine reconquest of parts of Greece from Slavic tribes by her minister and general Staurakios. At the same time, Irene attempted to marry her son to Rotrude, the daughter of the Frankish king Charles- later known as Charlemagne- in order to build diplomatic ties between Byzantium and the Franks. This marriage never materialized and in 788, Constantine was forced to marry Maria of Amnia, a Byzantine noblewoman chosen by his mother chose and causing resentment between mother and son. By 790, Constantine VI came of age to rule alone, though his mother refused to give up the regency, and this led to increasing conflict between mother and son.
With support from the Iconoclast troops, Constantine VI seized the throne from his mother and began ruling in his own right, although Irene still retained the title of empress-regent. However, as emperor, Constantine VI proved to be incompetent as seen when he led the army to a humiliating defeat by the Bulgars at the Battle of Marcellae in 792 and later by the Arabs. These defeats led to Constantine losing support from most of the army who now backed his uncles- the same ones mentioned earlier. However Constantine retaliated and had one of his uncles, Nikephoros, blinded and cut out the tongues of the other uncles.
Following this, Constantine crushed an Armenian revolt with such brutality that with the cruelty shown both towards his uncles and towards this rebellion, it created a movement to restore Irene to power. Irene thus returned as regent, but the rivalry with her son was still unresolved. This rivalry worsened when Constantine divorced his wife Maria in 795 and married his mistress Theodote, which then led to Constantine losing the support of the patriarch Tarasios and many others who were loyal to Irene.
The conflict between Constantine VI and his mother culminated in 797 wherein Irene hatched a conspiracy to take the throne for herself. Irene successfully arrested her son and brought him to the imperial palace where he was blinded and never heard from again. Some accounts say he may have lived a private life until his death 805 while other accounts say the blinding was so brutal, he died from his wounds.
From 797, Irene was sole empress ruling in her own right. When signing documents, she used the title Basilissa meaning “empress” in Greek, except for in three instances wherein she used Basileus meaning “emperor”. Irene’s ruling style was not entirely effective and competent, as seen with her policy of relaxing taxes by exempting certain groups from it and at times giving away money to the people of Constantinople, possibly to compensate for the despicable act of blinding her son. Her reign also saw a growing rivalry between her two eunuch advisors, Staurakios and Aetios, which almost resulted in a civil war. Staurakios, in 800, attempted to usurp the throne from Irene by raising an army only to fail as he died from an illness before launching his rebellion.
In the meantime, the fact that the Byzantine Empire was ruled by a woman was not acceptable or seen as legitimate in the west, especially to the pope, Leo III. With a woman sitting on the Eastern Roman throne, the pope declared it vacant and therefore decided to crown the King of the Franks Charlemagne (Charles the Great) on Christmas Day of 800 as the “Emperor of the Romans”. In Byzantium, the fact that Charlemagne was crowned as “Roman emperor” was seen as shocking. For centuries since the Fall of the Western Roman Empire in the late 5th century, the Byzantine Empire was considered the only Roman Empire. From 800 onwards, there were now two Roman Empires.
Irene viewed the coronation of Charlemagne as an opportunity to unite both empires by proposing to marry him. Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire was a more massive one compared to Byzantium as it covered most of Western Europe. Both rulers could marry each other too since both happened to be widowed at this point. However, this said marriage between Irene and Charlemagne never happened as according to the historian Theophanes the Confessor, the scheme was frustrated by Irene’s eunuch minister Aetios.
Irene’s reign did not last long as in 802, just five years after coming to power as sole empress, she was deposed in a plot hatched by the Byzantine aristocracy. This was possibly because many of the aristocrats could not accept Irene as their ruler for being a woman but also because they were not happy with her taxation policies and paying a heavy tribute to the Arabs. They were possibly outraged by her proposal to marry Charlemagne who many Byzantines saw as a barbarian. Therefore, if he married Irene, then Byzantium would be practically ruled by a barbarian.
In October of 802, the plot of these aristocrats succeeded when Irene was removed from power without putting up a resistance as she perhaps wanted to save her own life. Irene was replaced by her finance minister Nikephoros, who these aristocrats chose to be the new Byzantine emperor while Irene was exiled first to the Princes’ Islands outside the Byzantine capital Constantinople and later to the island of Lesbos in the Aegean where she died a year later (803).
No matter how controversial Irene may have been as someone who would stop at nothing to secure power for herself, she still has the legacy of being the first sole female ruler of the Byzantine Empire and for restoring the veneration of religious icons. The period of Iconoclasm or destruction of icons would resurface for a brief period beginning in 814 under the Byzantine emperor Leo V until it was finally put to an end once and for all in 843, ironically by another woman, Theodora, who like Irene, was also empress-regent for her young son, emperor Michael III. Despite the blinding of her son, Irene, due to the role she played in the restoration of religious icons, is recognized as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church wherein her feast day is on August 9.
About the Author
Powee Celdran is a content creator and artist who specializes in Byzantine history, which is the empire with which he is most fascinated. He has been doing blogs about the history of the Byzantine Empire since 2019 and now runs a Facebook page and Instagram account dedicated to sharing knowledge on the history of the Byzantine Empire. He recently illustrated a deck of playing cards depicting various Byzantine figures. The cards are available at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum Shop and the Ayala Museum Shop. Currently, he is producing the Byzantine themed board game “Battle for Byzantium” with an 11th century setting which is to be released this year.
Further Reading: “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire” by Judith Herrin, “The Emperors of Byzantium” by Kevin Lygo, ThoughtCo.com: “Irene of Athens” (https://www.thoughtco.com/irene-of-athens-p2-3529666), The History of Byzantium Podcast (https://thehistoryofbyzantium.com/)