Irene of Athens

Controversial Byzantine Empress

Byzantine Empress regnant Irene of Athens
Byzantine Empress regnant Irene of Athens. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Known for: sole Byzantine emperor, 797 – 802; her rule gave the Pope the excuse to recognize Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor; convened the 7th Ecumenical Council (2nd Council of Nicaea), restoring icon veneration in the Byzantine Empire

Occupation: empress consort, regent and co-ruler with her son, ruler in her own right
Dates: lived about 752 – August 9, 803, ruled as co-regent 780 – 797, ruled in her own right 797 – October 31, 802
Also known as: Empress Irene, Eirene (Greek)

Background, Family:

  • from a noble Athenian family
  • uncle: Constantine Sarantapechos
  • husband: Emperor Leo IV the Khazar (January 25, 750 – September 8, 780);  married December 17, 769, son of Constantine V Copronymus who arranged the marriage and his first wife Irene of Khazaria.  Part of the Isaurian (Syrian) dynasty ruling the Eastern Roman Empire.
  • one child: Constantine VI (January 14, 771 – about 797 or before 805), emperor 780 - 797

Irene of Athens Biography:

Irene came from a noble family in Athens. She was born about 752. She was married by Constantine V, ruler of the Eastern Empire, to his son, the future Leo IV, in 769. Their son was born just a little over a year after the marriage.  Constantine V died in 775, and Leo IV, known as the Khazar for his maternal heritage, became the emperor, and Irene the empress consort.

The years of Leo’s rule were full of conflicts.  One was with his five younger half-brothers, who challenged him for the throne.

  Leo exiled his half-brothers.  The controversy over icons continued; his ancestor Leo III had outlawed them, but Irene came from the west and revered icons. Leo IV tried to reconcile the parties, appointing a patriarch of Constantinopole who was more aligned with the iconophiles (icon lovers) than the iconoclasts (literally, icon smashers).

  By 780, Leo had reversed his position and was again supportive of the iconoclasts. The Caliph Al-Mahdi invaded Leo’s lands several times, always defeated.  Leo died in September of 780 of a fever while fighting against the Caliph’s armies.  Some contemporaries and later scholars suspected Irene of poisoning her husband.

Regency

Constantine, son of Leo and Irene, was only nine years old at his father’s death, so Irene became his regent, along with a minister named Staurakios. That she was a woman, and an iconophile, offended many, and her late husband’s half-brothers again tried to take over the throne.  They were discovered; Irene had the brothers ordained into the priesthood and thus ineligible to succeed.

In 780, Irene arranged a marriage for her son with a daughter of the Frankish King Charlemagne, Rotrude.

In the clash over veneration of icons, a patriarch, Tarasius, was appointed in 784, on condition that veneration of images be reestablished.  To that end, a council was convened in 786, which ended up disbanded when it was disrupted by forces backed by Irene’s son Constantine.  Another meeting was assembled in Nicaea in 787.  The decision of the council was to end the banning of image veneration, while clarifying that the worship itself was to the Divine Being, not to the images.

  Both Irene and her son signed the document adopted by the Council which ended on October 23, 787.  This also brought the Eastern church back into unity with the church of Rome.

That same year, over Constantine’s objections, Irene ended the betrothal of her son to the daughter rof Charlemagne. The next year, the Byzantines were at war with the Franks; the Byzantines largely prevailed.

In 788, Irene held a bride show to select a bride for her son.  Of the thirteen possibilities, she selected Maria of Amnia, a granddaughter of Saint Philaretos and daughter of a wealthy Greek official.  The marriage took place in November.  Constantine and Maria had one or two daughters (sources disagree).

Emperor Constantine VI

A military revolt against Irene in 790 erupted when Irene would not hand over authority to her 16 year old son, Constantine.

  Constantine managed, with the support of the military, to take full power as emperor, though Irene retained the title of empress.  In 792, Irene’s title as empress was reconfirmed, and she also regained power as co-ruler with her son.  Constantine was not a successful emperor.  He was soon defeated in battle by the Bulgars and then by the Arabs, and his half-uncles again attempted to take control.   Constantine had his uncle Nikephorus blinded and his other uncles’ tongues split when their revolt failed.  He crushed an Armenian revolt with reported cruelty.

By 794, Constantine had a mistress, Theodote, and no male heirs by his wife, Maria.  He divorced Maria in January 795, exiling Maria and their daughters. Theodote had been one of his mother’s ladies-in-waiting. He married Theodote in September 795, though the Patriarch Tarasius objected and would not take part in the marriage though he came around to approving it.  This was, however, one more reason that Constantine lost support.

Empress 797 - 802

In 797, a conspiracy led by Irene to regain power for herself succeeded.  Constantine tried to flee but was captured and returned to Constantinople, where, on the orders of Irene, he was blinded by his eyes being gouged out.  That he died shortly after is assumed by some; in other accounts, he and Theodote retired to private life.  During Theodote’s life, their residence became a monastery.  Theodote and Constantine had two sons; one was born in 796 and died in May of 797. The other was born after his father was deposed, and apparently died young.

Irene now ruled in her own right.  Usually she signed documents as empress (basilissa) but in three instances signed as emperor (basileus).

The half-brothers attempted another uprising in 799, and the other brothers were at that time blinded. They apparently were the center of another plot to take over power in 812, but were again exiled.

Because the Byzantine empire was now ruled by a woman, who by law could not head the army or occupy the throne, Pope Leo III declared the throne vacant, and held a coronation in Rome for Charlemagne on Christmas Day in 800, naming him Emperor of the Romans.

 The Pope had aligned himself with Irene in her work to restore veneration of images, but he could not support a woman as ruler.

Irene apparently attempted to arrange a marriage between herself and Charlemagne, but the scheme failed when she lost power.

Deposed

Another victory by the Arabs reduced Irene’s support among the government leaders. In 803, the officials in government rebelled against Irene.  Technically, the throne was not hereditary, and the leaders of government had to elect the emperor. This time, she was replaced on the throne by Nikephoros, a finance minister. She accepted her fall from power, perhaps to save her life, and was exiled to Lesbos.  She died the following year.

Irene is sometimes recognized as a saint in the Greek or Eastern Orthodox Church, with a feast day of August 9.

A relative of Irene’s, Theophano of Athens, was married in 807 by Nikephoros to his son Staurakios.

Constantine’s first wife, Maria, became a nun after their divorce.  Their daughter Euphrosyne, also living at the nunnery, married Michael II in 823 against Maria’s wishes.  After her son Theophilus became emperor and married, she returned to religious life.

The Byzantines did not recognize Charlemagne as Emperor until 814, and never recognized him as Roman Emperor, a title they believed was reserved for their own ruler.